Whispers from the city in the valley of dreams

There are few visitors in the early days of June, as summer has yet to settle fully upon the valleys. Mornings are misty, and the jagged peaks wear cloud crowns. Deep, green waters appear still and lifeless until the sun breaks through; then there are shafts of light that play across the wooded shoreline and a zig-zag of reflected peaks and troughs from the surrounding mountains.

We rent bikes from the shuttered, concrete guesthouse and cycle lazily through emerald green fields. The tree-clad rocks rise above us in towering stacks – rings of teeth set in a river basin whose waters encircle the village. Buffalo stare us down as we negotiate narrow clay walkways and drainage channels. Children wave, their parents bent double in the fields. As the day wears on, and the heat rises, dust kicks up from the tyres and coats our cottons shirts.

Jagged peaks in towering stacks

Back in the village, at dusk, with the bikes stacked against the guesthouse wall, we drink cooler-chilled beer and watch the sun set behind the rock peaks. The owners bring us dishes cooked in an open-air kitchen, and light mosquito coils around our feet. We sleep under nets and feel the night breeze as it whispers through the slats of the shutters.

On the day we want to leave, we stand by the side of the road in a dusty lay-by and wait for the bus back to the city. There’s only one a day and, after the minutes and then the hours have slowly ticked by, the guest house owners eventually come to retrieve us.

“No bus today”, they say, and shrug. We eat again by kerosene light and sleep again under the rippling mosquito nets.

There’s no bus the next day either, or the one after that.

“Trouble in the city”, the owners say, when we ask. “Sometimes there’s trouble and the bus doesn’t come. No problem. Stay here”.

“Trouble?, we say. “What kind of trouble?”

“We don’t know. Always something. But here’s always very safe. No problem. You stay longer, that’s all”.

Always safe, no problem

We stay another day, and then the bus arrives, as scheduled. We pile our backpacks on, the driver smiles and gestures towards the back seats. The bus winds down dusty roads, leaving the jagged peaks behind, and joins the tarmac highway which leads to the city. Bicycles swarm across intersections and turn as one, like a giant tide, at road junctions. Hawkers sell snacks and juice from hand-pushed carts. Smiling faces beam from billboards. Workers eat lunch on plastic stools at roadside tables.

The bus stops at the teeming railway station, where – with gestures and smiles – we buy a ticket home. It’s hot on the train, but the windows open and the others passengers make room for us to sit. Food is passed through the windows at various stops en route, and there’s hot water available for drinks in the corridor. The train clicks and clacks, and the drowsy hours pass until finally we pull into the main station.

That night, back in the house, there are pictures on TV of young people crying in the streets and bodies under torn sheets. Reporters in anonymous studios in other countries talk of gunshots, smoke and fleeing crowds, as a line of tanks moves across the gaping expanse of Tiananmen Square.


4 June, 1989

In 1989, I was living in Hong Kong, researching material for the ‘Rough Guide to Hong Kong and Macau’.

We left for a two-week trip to China towards the end of May and travelled overland to Yangshuo to see the famed karst mountains and river scenery. We were there on the night of 4 June, 1989, and only found out what the ‘trouble’ was on our return to Hong Kong.

The Chinese authorities still deny the facts about what happened, and ban even vague references to the security crackdown and massacre in which hundreds – probably thousands – of protestors were killed.

I wanted to write this today, on 4 June 2019.


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Image: Yangshuo by David Waddington, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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