The Good, The Bad and The Willies of Qikou

Imagine you are asleep — almost. You’ve been trying to sleep for more than an hour, but it’s really cold and the “bed” you are on literally feels like a wooden board. Because it is. Finally you doze off, but only for an instant, because you are suddenly snapped back into a comatose consciousness by the shrieking noise coming from your wife:

“It’s crawling on my leg!”

Your eyes dart to where she ripped off the sheets to reveal a black fluttering roach with hair legs. Instinctively you backhand the bugger into the concrete wall and end its nasty existence. This all happens within the space of a few foggy seconds, but those seconds end up costing you a few hours of sleep. You wake up in the morning, phased. Welcome to Qikou.

The Bad

Getting there was tough, to put it nicely. Leaving from Pingyao, we took a 2.5 hour-long bus to Lishi. Upon exiting the station, we were bombarded with taxi drivers who refused to quit. We made rounds and rounds on city buses that never got us to the right destination. We took a cab to the “west bus station” only to be dumped at the corner of a three-way intersection.

There we were confronted with the fact that we may have to give up any thoughts of mountainous caves and instead spend the night on the floor at the train station.

But then appeared the Lishi Angel, as we later named her. She paid our city bus fare and accompanied us to the pick up point of the last mini bus to Qikou of the day. We had just enough time to buy some bananas and peanuts — our only meal — and communicate to her our gratitude with a hug.

We were relieved to be on that bus, but not for long. We boarded when all the seats were filled. We sat in the front on the engine trap with our backs facing the driver. This meant we were at the feet of every other passenger and their luggage, whatever that may be. That didn’t stop the driver from picking up more passengers on the way.

Now after eight months of traveling in China, we were well acquainted with tight situations. But this one makes it in the top 5. I’ll never forget the two men who sat in front of us, smoking and staring. The best was when we were told to duck below the windows so the cop cars wouldn’t see us at the toll gates. I felt like a criminal obeying my coyote. Crammed, I got used to the occasional child or bag of supplies that wound up in my lap. It was miserable, but doable.

The Good

Despite the anxiety that accompanied the journey, the destination itself was sublime. A pleasant, about-an-hour-long hike from Qikou lies the village of Lijiashan. The main event, this remote, cave-speckled city was a site to see like no other. Tucked into the hillside set back from the Yellow River, we spent 20 minutes just looking down from the top of the small town’s entrance. According to our guidebook, the 550-year-old village once housed more than 600 families, though today only holds around 40. Tiers of caves hung right above each other, with trails marking the familiar paths of the locals.

Lijiashan, Shanxi

We made our way through the village, with an occasional child here or there following us and playfully shouting their English. “Panda!” “American!” “Beautiful!”

We stumbled upon an abandoned school house, with half-taught lessons still on the chalkboards.

Lijiashan, Shanxi
We wondered how — and why — people chose to live like this, so far away from civilization. The answer wasn’t too hard to recognize. Peace. Family. Community. Nature.

I’d say that’s good enough.

The Willies

You didn’t think I’d forget about this guy, did you?

Lijiashan, Shanxi

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