A week after hearing about Fangkou at the wedding at Yangcun, we turned off the county road not far north of Hengling and drove only a few hundred metres into a secluded valley to find a magical little village. It was an unexpectedly misty, cold day, which made the spring blossoms even more enchanting.

Liu Xiuying, 83.

We met Liu Xiuying at the entrance to the village. She was taking her regular stroll after lunch. Liu was born in Hengling. She married a villager from Fangkou when she was 18 and has lived there ever since.
In the early 1940s, Japanese troops set up camp at Dacun near Yangcun, about 20 kilometres from Fangkou.
“They ran amok at this village, pillaging and burning the houses,” Liu said. “The villagers had to escape from their houses and run to the caves in the hills. The elderly supported themselves with tree branches and the parents carried their babies in baskets on their backs. We spent our lives building those homes and they destroyed them in one day.”
Liu had six children and has been a farmer all her life. She worked in the fields last year, but this year, she started having trouble with her legs and her children told her to stop working. She asked us to walk slowly so she could keep up.
We decided to follow Liu Xuiying’s directions to the Great Wall, but it wasn’t easy in the heavy fog that made the scene look like something out of a dream.
As we started out we met 52-year-old Song Xiu’e, who was returning from the fields.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To the Great Wall.”
“It’s dangerous on a day like this,” she said. “Be careful. If you get up there you won’t be able to see more than a metre in front of you. Three Japanese hikers died a few years ago climbing the Wall around here."

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We didn’t reach the Wall. We kept losing the path, getting lost in the apricot woods and misty rain. We realised Song Xiu'e was right. The higher we climbed the more dangerous it would become. Still, I’ll always remember the fallen apricot petals lying in small furrows in the fields.
When we were talking to Song Xiu’e, I noticed a big pine tree near us.
“That tree is more than 600 years old,” she said. “Our ancestor Song Rui is buried under it. When he first came to this place, he loved the mountains here and decided to settle down. That’s when he planted this pine tree.
"Every year for centuries, villagers have come here to worship our ancestors at Qingming. If you come during the festival, you’ll find many offerings under the tree.”
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These men were putting new roof tiles on a house. We stopped in front of them and one man invited me to get up there and give him a hand shovelling the mud cement mixed. I pointed pathetically to my camera and motioned that I had to walk up to the Wall.
One of the men asked Zoe where I was from as I heard her say “Aodaliya”. In an instant, another voice from the roof said something which made everyone laugh.
I turned to Zoe. “He said: ‘Have you found the plane yet?’”
At the time Australia was running the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Bu shi. Bu shi. Bu keyi.” (“No. No. It’s impossible.”) I said.

A room in Song Xiu'e's guesthouse

Song Xiu'e under a traditional roof in a large hall at her guesthouse.

We went to Fangkou again the following week. We had arranged to interview an 89-year-old former soldier. At the entrance to the village I saw the same people sitting in the same place as last week. In Fangkou, time seems to stand still.
When Song Xiu’e was 18, she was urged by the village production team (the basic accounting and farm work unit in the people’s commune system) to take bricks from the Great Wall to build bridges and houses.
“The leaders said the bricks from the Wall were solid and regular and therefore good for building,” Song said. “It was heartbreaking to see the Great Wall in ruins, and even more heartbreaking to look back to a period when people were so short of materials - and common sense.
Song Xiu’e also runs a guesthouse at the gate of the village, but few tourists come to stay. Last month, though, a group of college students came to shoot a microfilm in Fangkou because, they said, the village is old and poor enough to be a good setting for an ancient drama.
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Song Juya, 82, and Cui Jinyuan, 61

Song Juya, 82, and Cui Jinyuan, 61

“I haven’t mentioned this for many years," said Song Juya, 82, a farmer. "When my second brother was 17, he enlisted to fight against the Japanese. He never came back. I still miss him.
“The Japanese troops came and burned the village three times. When they came, my parents took me up to the mountains. I was very scared. And I remember being forced later on to deliver wood to the Japanese troops in Dacun to build their watchtower. But I was only a boy. I can’t remember all those bad things.”

Song Juya and Wang Ruilan, 76

Yang Youhou, 52, was not born in Fangkou, but everybody likes him because he looks like Buddha, and is regarded as a person who can bring them good luck.
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Song Jushui

Song Jushui, 89, is a farmer and former soldier, who fought in three important wars in modern Chinese history.
Born into a peasant family, Song volunteered to join the army when he was 18 in 1943. According to the class system in rural areas, a farming family was considered more respectable than a landlord’s family. The class labels attached to each Chinese person strongly influenced their opportunities in life during several decades of the last century.
Song Jushui first served as the bodyguard for an officer during the war against the Japanese. They fought battles around Zhenbiancheng and Hengling and across to northwest Changping.
“We knew the difficult terrain in this area, so we put up a good challenge even though we were outnumbered,” he said.

Song Jushui, his wife and daughter after the civil war

Then in the civil war from 1946 to 1949, Song Jushui’s cleverness and shrewdness saw him serve as a scout in the Communist Party’s Eighth Route Army. The Kuomintang knew what he was doing and tried to arrest and kill him.
“They took my wife hostage. She was 21. But my wife was very brave and smart. She escaped through a window. She was also a Party member, which was rare for a woman in those days.”
The old soldier glowed with joy when he talked about his wife.
A year after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he went to North Korea to fight in the Korean War.
Song Jushui’s son, Song Botao, 57

Song Jushui’s son, Song Botao, 57

“I was in an artillery team,” he said. “We used mules to carry anti-tank guns. In 1952, when I went to North Korea for the second time, our supplies and equipment were better. We had vehicles to carry the anti-tank guns. We wore fur coats, leather shoes and hats. But the food was still awful. All we had to eat were turnips, carrots and corn.
“The Korean War was the most difficult. They had advanced weapons and equipment and we were fighting against troops from 16 countries. We won because we had better strategies and more determination.”
After the victory, Song Jushui received a medal of the highest honour from North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. After he returned from Korea he studied military affairs because nobody knew whether there would be another war. They had to be prepared.
There never was another war. Peace has reigned until now. He loves peace, although his heroic deeds have been gradually forgotten by the world.
The 89-year-old’s mind is still sharp and his eyes bright. He can still speak some Korean. The war hero is still proud of his service for his country. His medals shine as if they were brand new. He has worked in the cornfields since he returned from the battlefields, but he feels constant dull pain from his war wounds.
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The Great Wall at the northern edge of Fangkou