As I arrived at the town of Songzhou – the home of a village of 2,000 practising artists – I wondered to myself, “what if I go one stop further?”. And so I did. And then I did again. And then I kept on going. Until eventually I found myself out in the countryside. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to take in some of those familiar non-urban smells that I’ve spent more than half my life with (though obviously not recently).
As I travelled on the bus through small villages there were particular images which remain with me: the massive amounts of corn on the roadside drying, the backyard recycling depots full of plastic bottles, and the seemingly “third world” living conditions of some of the housing. I travelled for as long as I felt comfortable until eventually I got up and off at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. I felt reasonably comfortable there would eventually be a return bus, since there was a handful of people waiting on the roadside.
I must have been a rather odd site to have appeared from nowhere. Amongst those standing was an older bloke – maybe in his 50s – who was obviously a bit of a joker. He was walking around chatting to everyone and then came over to me for a bit of a chat. Through sign language he asked me why I had my pull-over wrapped in a knot around my kneck, suggested I put it on properly, and then we all laughed. We chatted for a while – he in Chinese, I in English – and made “the best of friends”. We sat next to each other on the bus. I was really pleased I’d gone that “one stop further”.
As I arrived back in Songzhu, with every intention of going to the artists village I wandered around for a while looking at the people and into the shop windows.
It was then I saw something which really upset me: a number of people in extreme stages of disability who were begging. It was the kind of image you most commonly associate with parts of India you might have seen on film or television. Suddenly going to an artists village seemed a little trivial, and so I wandered around a little further – trying to regain my thoughts – before heading back to Beijing proper.
We also had a bite to eat there. And then back home.