Bright and early at six in the morning, we began our journey west. The first quest was to travel beyond the Fourth Ring Road by 7am to avoid traffic fines (a policy implemented by the government to ease congestion in the inner city). We headed southwest toward Baoding 保定, and after driving for nearly an hour, we exited Beijing City. We made a stop at a roadside cafeteria for breakfast. At 15 yuan per head, you can fill your metal compartmented tray from a selection of pickled vegetables, eggs, millet soup, fried rice, and various kinds of steamed buns (mantou 饅頭).
We made a stop for lunch at a rest stop in Qingxu 清徐. The canteen, which can accommodate around 200 people, was crowded with travelers and thick with smoke. The grubby interior, the incessant loud chatters, and the sight of men with exposed bellies were not exactly conducive to appetite but they are a stark illustration of the fervent adherance to food and communal dining in Chinese culture. What made me more appreciative of the pleasures of Chinese food was the assortment of Shaanxi specialities we picked up at various eateries along the way – there was lushaobing 爐燒餅 which is a crispy pastry shaped like a croissant, roujiamo 肉夾饃, which looks like a burger with savory meat or veg filling sandwiched between two flat steamed buns, wantuo 碗坨, a kind of shaved noodles made of buckwheat, and liangpi 凉皮, cold rice noodles.
As we travelled from Hebei to Shanxi, forested valleys gave way to fortified loess terraces on either side of the highway. For the purpose of soil preservation, farming is restricted to certain areas only. The scenery visible from the highway was rather banal until we reached the border between Shanxi and Shaanxi at Jundu 軍渡 where we crossed the Yellow River. Overloaded with sediments from the loess plateau to the north, the Yellow River is known in history for its ability to both nurture and destroy. We met another landmark of Chinese history at Jingbian 靖邊 where the highway turns northwest and runs along remains of the Great Wall. This led us to our pit stop for day one, Dingbian 定邊, a small town near the border between Shaanxi and Ningxia with an economy based primarily on mining.
Clockwise from top left: the Yellow River, roujiamo, wantuo, breakfast buffet, and the Great Wall.