Arthur’s Chinese wife Yan comes from Anhui province, which is the next province south from Jiangsu, the province in which Nanjing sits. She was currently staying with her parents in the mountains at a place called Beizhongzhen. So with Arthur, I boarded a coach for the eight-hour trip and then the four-hour minibus drive into the mountains. China is big and distances are huge.
The idea of eight hours on a Chinese coach was quite daunting. My main worry was being forced to use the squat toilets en-route at the way stations. I am not a fan of the squat toilet going out of my way not to use them. I had pretty much trained my body to do its business in the morning before I leave the comfort of my apartments western style toilet. Western style toilets are few and far between and I am one hundred per cent certain they will not have them in the village or anywhere else we were going to in the next few days.
As it was holiday time there was the constant background of fireworks exploding to ward off evil dragons. They were going off at six a.m. continuing on and off through out the day we travelled. Our luck remained with us. Dragons did not waylay us as we caught the eight thirty a.m. coach to a city called Taihu where we would get the taxi onwards to the mountains.
The coach left from Nanjing Nan, or Nanjing South Railway Station, which is the largest station in Asia, and the worlds second largest railway station. The coach was full, every seat taken. We set off on time but soon the driver was pulling over. We stopped so that the driver could take on more ‘cash’ passengers who sat on little plastic stools in the aisle – this was the driver’s bonus. It wasn’t long before we had left the city behind. We crossed the mighty Yangtze River and were soon travelling through the countryside.
It was a thrill to be out of the city for the first time seeing the ‘real’ China. I stared out of the window to see the first rice paddies, some with water buffalo or yaks wading about with the obligatory white bird on their shoulders. Peasants with conical straw hats were working the fields by hand, their huts and homes were clearly old and dilapidated by our standards. This was in stark contrast with the areas we passed being used as economic development areas where huge expansions of modern buildings necessitated the destruction of the traditional local communities. Huge skyscraper flats, and massive factories covered acres of land mostly standing empty awaiting tenants, workers and entrepreneurs. There seems to be a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality.
We arrived in Taihu in the early afternoon. The bus had stopped on the outskirts somewhere to let someone off. Some Chinese guy jumped on the bus shouting - all eyes turned to us. He came up the aisle still shouting. It turned out he was our taxi driver, organised by Arthur’s wife. So we had to jump up hustling our arses off the bus, and into the awaiting minibus.
The minibus was a sort of a Honda/Suzuki Chinese knock off that had seen some hard miles on the mountain roads. We weren’t sure about it hoping for something a bit more roadworthy, but we kicked the tyres a bit and were soon speeding through the city streets. It turned out we were not the only passengers in the small minibus. More people were picked up so there was three of us in the back, three in the middle (plus a babe in arms) and three in the front, including the driver, two girls shared the front seat. It was a bit of a squash.
The drive into the mountains was spectacular. The two lane road snakes up and up and up, past paddy fields, precipitous drops, lakes, spectacular views, chickens crossing the road, rice drying outside buildings, river valleys, tobacco drying on lines, cotton fields, people sitting and watching, peasants working their small fields, vegetables growing on the verges, every inch of land is being used to grow, the hillsides are covered in ancient terraces, climbing the slopes like huge giant staircases.
Amongst the ancient farm buildings, new build is going on apace, they are building new houses. Arthur tells us that you don’t need planning permission here in the outback you just find somewhere to build and build what you want. The state owns the land but the people are free to build on it, there are no planning or building regulations to comply with. Many of the houses look pretty nice so money must be being earned somewhere. Arthur reckoned that to build a house would cost something like two hundred thousand yuan, which was about twenty thousand pounds. The downside of this Wild West building was that if the Government requires the land back they come and bulldoze you off it.
The ride up the twisty mountain track seemed to be interminable. We had to make one or two pee stops but mainly it was because most of us were succumbing to motion sickness as we twisted and turned ever upwards. Soon enough, with aching butts from all that jolting and sitting on the well-worn springs of the minibus, we arrived at Beizhongzhen. The family welcomed us handsomely. Yan was there; she introduced us to her dad who she said was a town leader. Their home was a storefront with rooms above. He sells motorcycles on the side and was also pig farmer.
There was a big commotion at having foreigners in town, all the kids came running to stare at us, from a safe distance, just in case we bite. The neighbours came looking and within minutes we were shaking hands with someone who spoke quite good English. He introduced his three mates that had turned up. We had been in the village for no more than about five minutes. Although this guy called them his ‘mates’ they were all in police uniform. It was all a bit suspicious but we shook hands anyway and smiled, we said ‘Ni Hao’(Hello), they said ‘Papers.’ Fortunately, we knew that when travelling we needed to have our passports with us so we showed the cops our papers. They smiled; nodding as they leafed through them, probably the first time they had ever seen a foreign passport, and really not knowing what they were looking for. They disappeared, apparently satisfied.
Drinks were served; food was put on the table. We were watched by the townspeople like living exhibits in a museum. Living in China is quite a public affair. Most of the houses have large double doors that are left open so one can see right into the living spaces. These are usually spartan and utilitarian spaces, a table, chairs, a settee, a TV and not much more. Even in the mountains there is no AC and no heating, when it gets cold one just puts on more clothing - the doors stay open.
The children got lollipops, and the ‘policeman’ for that is what he was, tried to get us all drunk on baijiu, the Chinese vodka type of drink which is not far off pure diesel. Fortunately mine got ‘accidentally’ spilt. Twenty years ago this guy would have been the town informer for the Party. When I asked Arthur who the hell he was, as he was eating with us, he didn’t know, but we all knew he was a cop.
The hotel was just down the road. All my prayers to Saint Thomas of Crapper were answered; the rooms had western style toilets. It was a new build so it was actually very nice, considering we were up in the mountains, four hours from the nearest small city. The setting was spectacular; all around us green mountains soared into the blue sky as the sunshine sparkled prettily off the river. It was as idyllic a scene as ever one would want.
The next morning we were provided with a car to take us further up into the mountains to visit a temple, up and up we went further into the mountains and then even further up on dirt roads.
When we eventually got there, the place took my breath away. It was simply fantastic. The views over the valley were spectacular. The modest temple was quite beautiful in its simplicity. We paid our respects to the golden Buddha, meeting with a monk who told us that we were only the second foreigners ever to visit the temple.
We stayed there a long time enjoying the peace and serenity. I have to say I found it a hugely emotional experience. The temple, the location, the views affected me immensely. I got a bit emotional a few times. It was one of the best places I have ever been in all my travels. It was like the mythical Shangri La - mystical, set in a harmonious valley, gently guided from a temple such as this. I would have loved to have stayed there longer, or to live closer to the place, so that I could visit it on a regular basis – maybe I should have stayed and taken the vows?
Too soon we had to leave, as the next stop on our trip was a visit with Yan’s aunty who lived in the house where Yan was bought up. We travelled onwards, up and down more hills, more dirt roads, and more mighty views.
Yan’s aunty was a wizened woman of interminable age. She was about four foot tall still working her field when we got there. She seemed to be unfazed at this group of foreigners coming to meet her. She gave us all a big gap toothed smile. Her single storey home was built on a terrace tucked into the mountainside and seemed like it had been there forever.
This was the real China. This was not like where I lived. Nanjing is no more than a strange bubble that bears no relation to what China is really like. When we sit outside the Blue Marlin we could be in any city in the world drinking Carlsberg beer and eating French fries. Here, in the real China, you have to work to stay alive. The house has no heating, no running water, no inside toilet and a basic kitchen.
She welcomed us into her home - just four rooms under a tiled roof. The walls were un-plastered they had once been white a long, long, time ago. There was no ceiling, just the blackened joists holding the tiles on the roof. A single light bulb hung low over a wooden rough wooden table in the centre of the main room, two country style bench seats neatly placed either side.
At the back of the room stood a long wooden sideboard, the four doors and drawer fronts beautifully painted in bright colours. I would imagine it was the sort of thing one would see in a posh trendy antique shop in Knightsbridge, London with a large price tag dangling off it.
In Aunties bedroom there was a short four-poster bed, again beautifully painted in the country style. A couple of wooden chairs stood against the white washed wall. The kitchen, if one could call it that, was no more than two tiled working surfaces and a wood-fired range for the wok. The other room was clearly unused but still had the rather dilapidated, but still nicely decorated four-poster bed, where Yan’s parents once slept. The bursting straw mattress witness to the hard life these people lived.
Yan took great pleasure in sitting at the table, showing us the view she had as she ate her breakfast before school, of the conical mountain in the far distance. We never knew Yan’s aunties name.
We were up early the next day to catch the minibus back down the mountain. This time we had insisted that we had a minibus to ourselves as the trip up was a bit of a squash. The trip downhill was pretty uneventful, but there was still lots to see in terms of the views across the valleys and as we went through the small towns and villages that were just waking up. People were eating their breakfasts outside their houses, brushing their teeth, washing their hair, trudging off to work with tools over their shoulders. The street butchers had new cuts of meat on their counters, Arthur told us that if we were earlier we would have seen them slaughtering the pigs in the gutter ready for the days fresh supply.
Outside many of the houses, shops and buildings, golden coloured rice was laid out drying on the concrete slabs. We also saw soya and cotton drying in the hot October sun. We passed a chopstick factory with wigwams of one metre long sticks drying outside. Other houses were festooned with drying tobacco - it was clearly harvest time in the mountains. On the mountain roads rice fronds were laid in the road for passing vehicles to thresh.
All too soon the road levelled out. We boarded a coach soon to be speeding back to the big city and the 21stcentury lives we enjoyed. I slept most of the way back. How quickly we become inured to the sights that once astonished us. And back in the mountains, life carried on as before.