Last night on the mountain. I am at Xinlong Observatory (or “Xinlong observing station” as it’s called in English around here), about two hundred kilometres to the north east of Beijing. I have been here for over a week now, teaching at a school of observational astronomy. The fact that there are around thirty or forty students here with myself and the other tutors, as well as an internet connection (no matter how slow or unreliable it is) makes one forget the remoteness of the location. But remote it is. Xinlong is the site of numerous small telescopes, as well as one much larger telescope constructed recently, LAMOST, an ambitious instrument designed to carry out large spectroscopic surveys of the nearby Universe. The nearest city to here, half an hour down the mountain, is Xinlong itself, a small village only ten years ago but now bursting with the concrete shells of immense half-completed sky-scrapers, full of brightly lit broad avenues (which is of course bad for the observatory).
My daily routine here this past week has consisted of getting up, pulling back the curtains and gazing out over the valley, a beautiful forested valley — and filling up my Bialetti “moka electrika” (the same one that I took on the train to Tibet in 2007) with water and Illy coffee. That way, once I come out of the shower, there is strong coffee ready. Each morning I scrutinise the contents of the coffee tin, but I am reasonably sure I have enough to last to me until I return to France on Wednesday morning. Lunch and Dinner are at the unusually early (for me) and highly precise times of 12:00 and 18:00. We arrive at the canteen to find small metal trays full of several different kinds of meat and vegetables, usually quite good but — arrive at 12.05 and it’s cold. One thing we have remarked is that windows and doors are left open everywhere, and there is no heating — and it’s almost winter. Warm clothing essential. Everyone eats rapidly, in less than half an hour, and it is always the French who are the last to leave. In between those times — helping the students, or trying to get some work done in my office.
My week here was interrupted by a trip given by one of our gracious hosts to the eastern Qing tombs, which lie perhaps fifty or so kilometres from here, but the trip was longer than this distance would suggest. We took a shortcut through the mountain, back roads which were in very bad condition– in some places nothing more than dirt tracks. The journey started well enough, a new paved road, but soon after that the going became progressively slower. Throughout the countryside there are many small mines, coal amongst other ores, and the constant passage of heavy lorries has destroyed the surfaces. On the way we passed through countless small villages. Around here it is rural and remote, and agricultural, and the roads were often laid out with crops left to dry in sun — posing a considerable hazard for the unwary driver. We passed many people shelling corn, the empty husks filling the streets. A thought flitted through my mind, I thought about passing within inches of people who live very different lives from mine, but then Ireland too has countryside and agriculture. The difference here is of course that everything is still heavily labour intensive and the industrial revolution is only just reaching the countryside.
The eastern Qing tombs themselves rest in the shadow of the misty green mountains, red temple roofs lie against a background of thickly forested hills. The grounds of the many tombs are enormous — one cannot simply walk from one to the next, a car is essential. One arrives along a long, broad avenue lined with many stone animals — this was the route that the funeral processions would make. Each tomb lies in a mouldy, underground cavern. The facades of many of the buildings — some of which are more than three hundred years old — were somewhat the worse for the passage of time. Out here in the depths of the countryside, hundreds of miles from Beijing, time has been allowed to take its course, and nothing has been restored, no new coats of paint had been given. Remember too that just on the other side of the mountains, once was the outer darkness, the invaders: the line of the Wall once snaked unbroken across those mountains over there.
The day of our visit was not just any day — it was in fact one hundred years to the day that the emperor was deposed and modern-day china began its slow and painful birth. But on the day of our visit, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. We noticed no western tourists other than ourselves — these eastern tombs are much further away from Beijing than the western ones, which, I understand from my guidebook, are usually on the circuit of tour-buses visiting the great wall. In any case, the emperors, although deposed, their palaces and tombs do not seem to have suffered too much from revolution revolution: living in France, where there is a long tradition of purifying fire, one expects perhaps otherwise.
Tomorrow: a descent from the mountain, and a return to the capital — and on the way, at last, a visit to the great wall, to one of the more remote, less travelled sections.