There were only six people, four old ones and two slightly younger bachelors, left in the tiny, isolated village of Dayingpan. When our car entered the village, we nearly doubled the population. The village sits on a sort of plateau, way up next to the Great Wall.
Feng Yuxiu and Song Wanying, both 66, had two dogs, neither of which had a name. One was chained up, the other was a white pup who was very excited by our arrival.
During the Great Famine, the villagers ate corn cobs and elm leaves, which they usually fed to their pigs. None of the villagers starved to death in those terrible years.
Feng and Song did not receive a pension from the government. They had three sons and three grandchildren, but none of them had enough money to help support the old couple.
It was very dry up on the mountain and there were no wells in the village, so they collected rainwater in a basic water cellar dug into the ground.
Since the villagers’ only source of income is farming, one of the bachelors began to charge each car going up the narrow winding road to the village 10 yuan in the name of forest fire prevention. But after May, when the trees and grass began to grow after the long winter, there was no longer any valid reason for the charge. So the bachelor’s only extra income apart from his plot of land disappeared.
Several years ago, a new village was built in the valley below so that the younger men could find wives. Most people moved down there, but this couple and a few others stayed up on the plateau. The local government put up a new building there which will be a tourist information office as the village attracts visitors because of its lofty location right near the Great Wall. A foreigner and a Chinese man from Beijing rent houses there but in 20 years Dayingpan may be a lookout for tourists and a rest stop for hikers rather than a living village.
One day, after finding the road up to Dayingpan closed for work, Liu and I drove a few kilometres north, through the gap in the Great Wall towards the huge valley below.
The road was steep and winding, and Liu was nervous. We didn’t go far before we reached a spot with a stunning view down into the valley. Below us we saw the tiny figure of a man collecting dead branches for kindling. Then I saw an even smaller figure way off in the distance. I watched him as he eventually joined the man below. It was so quiet we could hear them chatting. They lit up cigarettes and sat down either side of a narrow track.
Then an old man came down the road pulling his donkey, which was laden with kindling. He waved to us and headed down into the valley, passed the other two and kept going all the way down. Eventually he crossed from right to left along a path at the foot of a hill. He and the donkey were tiny but easy to follow. They were the only things moving in that huge panorama.