Back on the bus.
The mountains grow rockier, the air thicker.
Sheep, fat with wool, graze in the stubble of the field; lumps of moving white above the striped ground, like big pillows strewn across a bedspread.
We cross a long bridge over a mostly dry riverbed, what water there is is frozen.
The houses sit with their own courtyards and small, walled fields.
More space per family than the factory towns.
More pines now, keeping a dusky green on the otherwise brown hills, specked with white in the shadows.
Another bridge; the mosaic pattern of rice fields below, separated by earthen walls.
On the hillside, the anti-erosion devices take on the appearance of art, a row of arches with upward-facing chevrons stacked inside.
Terraces circle some of the hills, light and dark spirals rising up.
The now gets thicker again.
Row after row of stacked arches hold back the earth, looking like fallen aqueducts or the introduction scene of the Muppet show...
We pass over another bridge, stretching 1690 meters long, curving over the valley, fields and river.
More hills, fewer villages, small communities spot the valleys, separated by the mountains around.
We have gone some 1754 km along the ShenDan highway so far. It is .
Corn storage buildings made of brick, ventilated by rows of vertical bricks, every other one missing, or “plus” patterns of holes in the bricks.
The thick haze lies low, obscuring the base of the distant mountains towering over the town.
We pass the Fengchen exit, the bus slows as we climb the hill.
Bare-faced mountains look down on us, ringing the valley, the pale granite stern, solid, powering through the haze to reach the blue sky.
The stalks of corn piled in the field imitate the mountains around, like children flexing their muscles.
Behind me the man shouts to be heard on his cell phone.
On the TV some comedy show where the main characters have been replaced with animated drawings, the dialogue sounding as if it was recorded live, the drawings added later.
We are now 200 km down the ShenDan highway.
A bridge is collapsed over the river following the road, one pier stands crumbled in the middle, the remnants of the end of the bridge juts out over the river, fenced, covered, turned into a scenic picnic spot.
Sheep graze in the frozen-over river bed, a man on a bench watches over.
Rather than stacked in a bin, one house hangs the corn over the porch as a garland, a necklace of golden ears draped gently along the front of the house.
A magpie flies along the road, the only bird around.
We pass the 215 km marker, we are nearing the city, even the villages have a row of retail shops now.
There is new construction here, large, pale, neat buildings, gray, clean windows.
Through the toll gate, heading to towards the city.
Past a parking lot with a strange assortment of life-size animal statues, including an elephant and a crane with wings outspread.
Only the middle lane is clear, the left and right covered in patchy ice.
A horse pulls a cart loaded with two 55 gallon drums up the hill in the opposite direction, the driver in a faded heavy trench coat and big fur hat, wrinkled face browned with age.
Yet even here the Volkswagen dealership shines brightly.
Chinese signs with Korean underneath begin to appear along the roadside.
I am told
A large monument overlooking the town from a hill, a square tower with a Chinese top, four groups of red statuary soldiers around it; the volunteers for the Korean War.