We went horseback riding the other day. Catherine's been wanting to go since we got here, and finally the right day came. We met the people at a spot in town and they drove us a couple of hours south, out into the country, and onto the CCTV grounds, where we saw large lanes, quiet buildings spread among the trees, and warehouses with props and carpenters and paint.
We then got to the horses. Are these horses used in CCTV productions? We've noticed that our roommates watch tons of TV, ninety percent of which is historical drama, with ancient Chinese warriors and emperors and nobles falling in and out of love and striding and riding around gorgeous landscapes when not in lavish palaces.
The horses were lined up near a low brick house, one room deep and five or six rooms wide, done in traditional manner with a pitched roof. Very old, very humble according to modern American standards. The room we used for putting on our gear was obviously a bedroom/living room/office: no insulation, no air conditioning, just like what you find in the hutongs. And yet this doesn't seem like poverty at all to most people in the world. We put leg guards on over our jeans, and each wore a hat. Mine was an Aussie-style cowboy hat, Catherine's was an equestrian-style bicycle helmet.
We clopped out from the CCTV grounds, and set out into China. The sky was grey and rainy. Throughout our five-hour trek, it sprinkled gently; we were eventually pretty wet, but didn't mind at all. It was just perfect. The only thing that I hated about it was our wise decision to leave the camera behind. How I wish we'd had it! We saw landscape after landscape that was lush and gorgeous, and unlike the urban China we've been inhabiting for several months.
For hours we trotted and walked. My horse was incredibly, horribly bouncy, and my saddle was far too small — I'm only now getting over it — all making for a frustrating ride. We never galloped. Actually, my horse did gallop precisely once. Actually half a single stride. It wasn't even a gallop; it was just a gal.
Much of the time, we could have been in the year 208 rather than 2008. Yes, the shepherd was listening to radio news; yes, there were power lines cutting through the landscape now and then. But there were huge stretches of time and space in which there wasn't a single indication from our surroundings that we were in the present day rather than a hundred or two hundred or five hundred or a thousand or two thousand or five thousand years ago. Orchards with crops between the rows of trees, a wide marshy river feeding more crops, the occasional brick hamlet, a stream of smoke in the distance, the wet rich smell of grass and dirt and manure and leaf, freshly-shorn sheep picking at a hillside, workers far away in the fields, pulling up this and kneeling over that, with the signature cone-shaped hat of the Chinese peasant — it was transporting. It was life in balance, heavens and earth and man all living and bringing forth fruit.
I suppose that, looking around, had you been there, you might have seen Nature. But I saw Civilization. Every single thing the eye fell on was shaped by man. Pass by the forests on your horse, and you suddenly notice something: the way the trees zizz against each other forms the optical effect known as comb-filtering. You know it, the way that screen doors — or combs — create patterns when moving against each other. It's undeniably mechanistic, humanmade. Then you notice that the trees are all the same height and width, and that they are planted at regular intervals; occasionally if you look left-and-back a little, they resolve into perfect diagonals, acres and acres of rank and file forest. Sometimes, as I mentioned, there are crops planted between the ranks.
Spiders have certainly adapted to this gridded life. Several times, cutting through the matrix of trees, we would have to swerve into another row to avoid webs they'd strung across the precise distances. Once, we had to stop, baffled by the presence of a web between almost every possible tree in our path, each with a deadly yellow-and-black-legged guard. No doubt we would have spelled out several nonsense words if the thing had been a giant Boggle board. Come to think of it, Catherine did say "EAGUAGAAHO!"
, though in context it made perfect sense.
If the woods were Civilization, the hills were too. With thick, neat woods on my left, I looked right to the marshy river and its banks and brakes (our namesake!), as we bounced along a hilltop trail, and realized that the very dimensions of the river answered the needs of the various crops and properties along the way. And, of course, we were traveling not on a hill but on a levee: every inch of this land has been nurtured and harnessed, bent toward the needs of man for millennia.
I brain-gasped. I had come to see the place around me not as wilderness but as an accomplishment. An achievement, more nuanced and complex and vast than Rem Koolhaas's monstrous new CCTV building, that Darth Vadery Twisted Door that dominates downtown Beijing.
It rained and rained. We rode and rode. We stopped and (unwisely) accepted some fresh-picked peanuts from a farmer. We saw each other in unfamiliar context and exchanged loving looks. Finally, we dismounted, bone-tired, skin-sore, and napped through the drive back home.
Then we slept for twenty hours.