Week 6 (&7): Xiliang, Zhenyuan, Guiyang, Changsha, Shaoshan & Guangzhou

All good things come to an end, and my last week in China for 2012 proved that the good things just keep coming. This week was about travel and making it back to Hong Kong in time for my flight. It meant a lot of goodbye’s and a lot of ground to cover, but naturally contributed to another memorable week in China.

06/08/2012

Myself, Dina and William had agreed to climb the mountain on the other side of the town this morning. Firstly, this was because it would lead us off the tourist trail, and secondly because the village chief lives at the highest point.

However, William, my 13-year-old roommate, is not an early riser. I am also aware that Dina does not like to be unnaturally woken from her sleep. For this reason, having given them time to wake up, I decided to venture out alone.

I took my bag from yesterday, which happened to contain 5 different umbrellas but no camera (not that I knew until it was too late).

I managed to find the gap in the main street which led me away from the growing hustle in the village. I then began to climb the steps further from the view of everyone. After 5 minutes walking it was clear that I had entered non-tourist territory, but the local people didn’t seem to mind too much. I carried on walking up the steep walkways and admired people working on their own unique crafts outside or stared at the pigs and chickens. I got a little lost in the moment. I kept climbing until I could climb no more. At this point I entered the old dancing square. I believe this has since moved to a lower level so performances can be admired by tourists. This saddened me a little but I can understand why it was required.

I looked at and enjoyed the surrounding paddy fields and took in the fresher air. I walked up to many houses and assumed one must be the chiefs. I was put off from entering any of them because it was early and trespassing is rude.

A combination of meeting the top of the mountain and a barrage of calls from people asking for their umbrellas meant I began my descent. As I was walking down a narrow path a horse carrying 2 pouches of grass came up the other way. The horse was clearly in an unforgiving mood as it impolitely nudged me out-of-the-way and into a stone wall. Still, this was not my territory. I carried on walking as if I was unfazed by the moody horse.

Once I reached the bottom I planned to go back to the home to deliver the umbrellas and collect my camera but I found Dina sitting alone outside a cafe as I did. Naturally I joined her and together with William and Sherry we ate some traditional Miao breakfast noodles. My stomach wasn’t quite capable of taking it all despite its flavoursome taste.

It was not really a wise decision to eat breakfast since we soon headed off to lunch at a local house. They had laid on a spread ready for us to arrive. Dougie was more interested in taking pictures with the Miao girls, and encouraged me to join him. We are not allowed to touch any part of a Miao girl so there are several pictures of me standing awkwardly as I didn’t know where to put my hands.

Following the hearty meal we got on the bus to the town of Zhenyuan. Immediately Sherry pointed out its similarity to Fenghuang. I couldn’t argue with her as it is very similar. My first impressions of Zhenyuan told me that its beauty had yet to be exploited by tourists, like Fenghuang, but that part of Fenghuang’s beauty is in the atmosphere the tourists bring. I guess that aside from the architecture they aren’t too similar.

After dinner (yes eating again) we instructed to join a tour of the old houses in the city. Dina decided to climb a nearby mountain with an old wall. I was tempted to join her but I also felt that she probably wanted some time alone to speak some Chinese. it must be hard to speak a second language all day. So her and William went separate. Once again it appeared that Dina made a wise decision. Myself and the girls decided that Dina is always right in these situations.

Naturally we ended up dressed in Miao costumes by the river side, much like I had ended up doing in Fenghuang last year. This time it was a very enjoyable experience since the girls were there with me and together we all looked ridiculous.

I joined Beth, Dina, Sherry and William to put flowers in the river and make a wish. The wish remains a secret.

I finished the night with Cat, Bethan and Juliette where we drank beer with the locals and ate crickets.

07/08/2012

The next day featured a lot of walking, which I always enjoy.

We were required to meet early at the foot of the hotel. Myself and William made sure we stocked up on food for the day, in the knowledge that we weren’t going to have much access to food on our walk…wherever our walk may be.

Once we had all congregated we walked towards the bus and took a 10 minute bus journey to the start point of our walk. Despite going to bed quite late Juliette and Cat seemed in as high spirits as the rest of us. We were all taking some rather strange photographs and also took time to enjoy the magnificent Guizhou landscape. We were still not really sure where we were heading, but everyone (nearly everyone) was enjoying the walk. I think Cat enjoyed it most as she was asked some very personal questions from Vicky, the type of questions that Cat loves to answer.

After about an hour of walking Dina revealed that the walk was about to begin. Their were definitely some groans at this news (mainly from the teenagers that were tagging along). I had a desperate need for the toilet, so I went.

From this point onwards the walk was great. We talked closely to a river and had the opportunity to cross it and spent some time cleaning our feet and socialising in the river. I must admit that I was really enjoying walking with a group of people, even if Dougie is on a different planet.

After walking about an hour Angry Lady pointed out that 2 of the girls were not following. After numerous attempts to call them we were not able to find them. This panicked the unpanicable Dina a little and we took off back to the start to find them. Myself and Dina walked all the way to the start of the walk whilst the others continued at a slower pace. It was there that we found the two teenagers, Amber and New, sulking and complaining about being tired. Amber then approached me and said ‘are you angry?’ to which my automatic response was ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’….I never thought I’d say such a cliché to a Chinese teenager. Still, I was disappointed as these girls had disregarded everyone else and walked alone along a walk that could have endangered them. However, after we convinced them to walk back t join the others, I got to convince Amber about her lust for John (another boy with us). She managed to use my friendship with Dina as ammunition for her counter-attack…all in good humour.

Eventually we caught up with the rest of the group at the destination, where Dougie was excited by lunch, and John ate everything. What was most impressive about our destination was the pristine lake/spring. The water was turquoise and looked very inviting. No swimming today though.

As we began to trek our way back the rain began to lash down. This definitely sped up the slow-coaches and got us back in no time, if not a little wet.

We met up for dinner that evening, after waving goodbye to Sherry, but I had the unfortunate experience of thinking I was going to die after chewing a rather strong chilli. I don’t think anyone had much sympathy for me though.

It eventually turned into a great evening though as all of us, teenagers included, ended up sharing street food at a river side bar and drinking beer. Dougie and Dina put in a good rendition of my favourite Cantonese song, by Beyond. William, my little sidekick, had a whole beer to himself and eventually lost control of his pubescent limbs. The drunk William is one of the many highlights of this trip (rightly or wrongly). However, Cat and Juliette murdering Hey Jude is not. We ended the night after a failed attempt at finding a KTV. It also gave us a chance to catch up on the days Olympic events. However, my eyes became too heavy for badminton.

08/08/2012

Despite nursing his first hangover William joined myself and Dina on a shopping trip in Zhenyuan. The aim was to buy souvenirs and gifts for everyone as today was the day we would say goodbye to the majority of the group. However, our limited time meant the souvenirs were quite impulsive.

We all then gathered for our coach trip back to Guiyang, where the girls are due to fly from. Myself and William snuck away to get some noodles, which delayed the coach a little but I think it cured the young man’s head a little.

Nothing really of note happened during the trip back to Guiyang, except eating more noodles with Dougie and co.

However, when we eventually did arrive back in Guiyang the gang began to disperse. Firstly Dougie got a bus to his home (where he claims multicoloured mini Zebras live in trees….a claim that sums the man up). Then we all jumped in taxis and headed for the train station to say good bye to all other chinese people, aside from Dina.

After successfully buying my own onward train ticket under the watchful eye of Juliette and Cat we headed back to the hostel. My third spell at said hostel on this trip. Here we decided to chill out watching the Olympics since the girls had an early flight to Shanghai.Cat collapsed in the communal area after her daily beer and was helped to bed by Juliette. This left myself and Dina to make sure all the photos were on USB sticks. Once that was done it was time for bed and to wake up Usain Bolt’s biggest fan, Bethan, so she could go downstairs to watch his 200m heat.

09/08/2012

I woke early to the sound of frantic packing and preparation amongst the girls. Today was the day that they were to leave me. My family was about to be taken away.

All of the girls had prepared a memory booklet for me containing some lovely heartfelt messages from all of them. It was a nice touch.

Dina asked me to accompany them to the airport to help with their luggage.I was quite happy about this as it meant delaying the goodbye a little more. In truth they didn’t really need me.

Still, we arrived at the airport just in time as their check-in desk was about to close. It was then that I had to say another goodbye. Goodbye’s have become a fixture of the last few days, but these are the people that I have become most close to over the last few weeks. For this reason it was quite a difficult goodbye, particularly as they are remaining together. Still, we will have lots of opportunities to see each other again in England. Even Dina plans to visit England soon.

The team…plus some children

Despite saying goodbye to ‘my girls’I was not back alone. I must admit that I still enjoy my own company when travelling. However, I was in the airport at 7:30am with no idea about how to get back to the hostel (I hadn’t brought my notepad with me). Instead I fashioned a way of getting to the train station and got a public bus from there. It was a longer route but I had the rest of the day to rest and recuperate before my train to Changsha. In fact, I bought some hot milk and went back to bed until I had to leave the room at 11:30.

Once again I was not able to get a sleeper train over night, so once again I mixed it with the masses. Once again I was the train’s major attraction. Only this time I was distracted by The Hunger Games. People were fascinated by the romanised print in my book. It was a long and uncomfortable night on the train resulting in a tired young man when I arrived in Changsha.

10/09/2012

Despite not sleeping on the previous night I decided to freshen up and explore before I had access to my dorm.

I purchased a map and set out on a rather aimless walk towards a local attraction, The Martyrs Park. After 20 minutes of walking in the furnace-like humidity of Changsha I arrived at the park. As soon as I walked through the entrance I was greeted by a feeling of deja-vu. I felt like a recognised the place. And then I realised….I had been there before.

As I walked around it brought back memories of my first visit to Changsha with Sally and Claire in 2010. It was so strange to think I had been in this random place before.

This experience inspired me to contact Sally, who I knew now lived in Changsha. She text back to inform me that she would like to meet me in the evening. This meant that I had the rest of the day to enjoy Changsha by myself.

On my way back to the hostel I walked into a hairdressers where I had a 10 minutes haircut and head massage. Despite the hasty hairdresser I believed the haircut to be the best I’ve had in China.

Naturally, as she always was in Guangzhou, Sally was late for our meeting in the evening. This was partly due to the torrential rain (which soaked me). In fact, the umbrella I bought before I left for China has proven to be a fantastic acquisition time and time again.

Sally eventually turned up with her friend, Anna. I was quite happy when Sally, who I met in my first couple of days in China, recognised an improvement in my understanding of Mandarin chinese. I could see her become cautious about what she said to Anna even though I still didn’t understand much of what she was saying.

We went for a nice meal together. I was a little worried as I had promised Sally that I would treat her to dinner tonight, but the restaurant they chose wasn’t quite the street food I was expecting. I was quite happy to pay for all 3 meals as it wasn’t that expensive, but Sally and Anna refused to let me play, as is typical of Chinese hosts.

After dinner they walked with me back to my hostel. I am always surprised when Chinese people tell me that they don’t know about the numerous hostels in China offering beds very cheaply. Anyway, Sally really wants to use hostels now.

Whilst we were there Anna and Sally told me that they had not visited Shaoshan before (after seeing that it was my plan for tomorrow) so asked if they could join me. Naturally it would be nice to spend the day travelling with them. Anna then phoned a lady who said we could join her trip. I had planned to get the public bus as it gives me more freedom than a normal Chinese tour and works out cheaper but I trusted Anna and guessed that their company would compensate for a structured day in a tour group.

My final act of the day was to talk to Claire having found out about my presence in China from Sally. Claire’s life has changed a lot since I was last in China. She has since met a man, married him and is now 7 months pregnant with his baby. This is a lot to happen in a year, but she will be a great mother. Gong xi gong xi.

11/09/2012

After getting an early night in a room with 3 rather smelly old men I woke up in time to meet Sally and Anna for our trip to Shaoshan.

Shaoshan is the hometown of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao). It is a very significant place in China’s history and arguably the birthplace of Chinese Communism, and thus Mordern Day China. As a result, today was my very own Communist Pilgrimage to Mao Zedongs childhood home.

We obtained the back seat of the coach and once again I was the only foreigner. In fact, I didn’t see another foreigner all day and actually felt like a bigger attraction in Shaoshan that Chairman Mao himself (I understand that is a big statement).

We visited many buildings of Mao Zedongs associates and got a history lesson based on the Communist Revolution. It is a topic that I struggle to grasp in English, so listening to it in Chinese meant almost all of it went over my head.

At around lunch time we went to a random restaurant in Shaoshan and were joined by an elderly couple who clearly adore Mao Zedong. Together we ordered Mao Zedong’s favourite foods and ate them with delight. It was so surreal to be sitting close to the home of one of the most influential people ever to exist and eating his favourite foods with some of his most avid supporters. This is something only a handful of foreigners must have experienced. I felt, I feel, so lucky to have experienced this.

Our next stop was to attend a hall commemorating the life and struggles of Mao. At the end of the hall I was given a gold card and positioned it between my hands as I paid my respect by bowing three times in front of a giant image of Mao Zedong. I was not making any political statement, but instead adhering to the custom here. I was then taken through a door and asked to pay £3 to have my card engraved. It was then that I realised that the communist principles of Mao Zedong were not necessarily being followed right under his nose. I was fascinated by this, but Sally didn’t know why.

We then had a short walk to Mao Zedong’s childhood home. On our way Sally decided that we should walk through a garden full of flowers that I didn’t recognise. It was soon clear that the mischievous streak that I saw in her in Guangzhou has not left her. She crawled through the high plants until she found a ripe plant. At this point she broke it and brought it back to us to eat. There were numerous stands selling these plants and she was quick to tell me that she saved ourselves 10rmb by stealing it. We ate the flower with 3 people who were impressed with her bravery, and who happened to be from Foshan (my old stomping ground).

We eventually did reach the house, but first had to join and hour-long queue. It was clear that the heat in the queue were making people slightly restless. As we tried to queue in a civilised manner, many people were pushing their way forward and squashing anyone weak enough to be pushed into the person in front. I kept thinking about Chairman Mao, and his Maoist princibles (which I am not going to pretend to fully understand), and the irony of the behaviour of these people right outside his house. An eye-opening Communist Pilgrimage.

As it turned out, we only got to spend 2 minutes inside his house anyway. However, the whole experience of the day made it worthwhile and unforgettable.

On the way back we stopped off at a warehouse where we were all locked in a room and given a demonstration by a woman who showed us how a flannel works and what silk knickers look like. She then asked us all to buy them or visit the supermarket. I have been on tours before and these irrelevant sup-visits are common place. Never in Britain would we accept being taken somewhere we don’t want to go to buy things we don’t want to buy. But the Chinese love a demo! I looked around to see if everyone was humoring the girl by looking interested…but they genuinely were. Many of them bought backscratchers at hugely inflated prices….there are some aspects of Chinese culture I will never grasp.

After arriving back I left Sally and Anna to take the bus as I had another engagement to meet Sherry. Thankfully, I didn’t have to walk far in this vast city to meet her.

Myself and Sherry went to a traditional Hunan restaurant for dinner and a catch up. We were waiting for the arrival of Dina from Shanghai as she had been called back by her boss back to Changsha. I was quite glad about this as it meant that I would get to see her again before going back to England.

However, Dina called to say that she had gone to the wrong airport in Shanghai for her flight and consequently missed it. This was so out of character as she is usually so careful about everything. I think she felt quite frustrated about it. Instead I told her that I would stay around tomorrow to meet her before I leave Changsha. Myself and Sherry walked around central Changsha and discussed the summer camp. It worked out that I was able to get the bus back to the hostel in time to watch the Olympic football final with 4 new chinese friends, whom remain nameless to me.

12/09/2012

My original plan was to wake up at sunrise and make my way by bus to the train station in order to get to Guangzhou in time to see one or two friends (most likely Zoey or Benny). However, since Dina was now arriving at 12pm I decided to have a lie in, and this turned out to be something my body was craving.

At 10am I checked out of the hostel and made my way to the first of 2 public buses. There is nothing more satisfying that reaching a location by bus and saving myself £3. It took over an hour, but I eventually arrived at the fast train station.

I thought, given the regularity and speed of the trains to Guangzhou, that I would walk onto any train. However, the demand for the high-speed trains seems to be as high as all over China. As a result I was only able to get a train at 5pm, giving me 5 hours in the train station.

Dina arrived not long after I did and together we got some lunch. It was good that she was there as we were able to catch up and talk about her time in Shanghai for all 5 hours. This meant that I did not feel like I was waiting at all.

As my train approached I needed to go to the gate. Dina came with me and left her bag on her seat. I asked her why she left her bag and she told me that she trusted people not to take it. This reminded me of what I told James last year when I left my bag somewhere or exposed my wallet. Perhaps neither me or Dina have not had any misfortune to have things stolen yet. When we do we will probably think twice before trusting people. Byebye Dina!

The high-speed train covered 700km in about 2.5 hours and meant I arrived in Guangzhou in no time. I had arranged to meet with Tony this evening so went by metro to his house. I spotted him through a restaurant window and he had already prepared a cold beer for my arrival. We had a little to eat and then walked back to his house. After a brief catch up and being reunited with his new wife, Debby, he allowed me to stay the night. I am fortunate to have many friends in Guangzhou.

13/09/2012

Today became a long and busy day.

I woke up at 5:30am to shower and get out for an early bus to the east of Guangzhou where I had arranged to meet Emily for breakfast before she started work. Emily had been a good friend to me during my second spell in China. She had since ‘broken her ass’ when someone tried to mug her and pushed her over and has spent the last 3 months in bed. She is also not allowed out after 8pm because her parents are worried she will ‘break her ass’ again. She is 24 years old.

Anyway, it was nice to see her, although she seemed a little unhappy. However, we weren’t able to talk for long as she had work to go to.

I then intended to visit Wonderland. Since Wonderland is on the very west of Guangzhou it took about an hour on a packed rush hour bus and another 10 minutes on the metro before getting a final 20 minute bus. When I arrived it turned out Zoey was in Hong Kong and the school was shut for repairs. I convinced the security guard of the estate to let me in to the housing estate. In which I saw many of the children that I taught 2 years ago, they have grown so much in that time.

Knowing some of the families here meant I was able to meet with one mother (who I will refer to as Kerry). She took me into Foshan by car (a car she had only driven 5 times in 5 years…making for a terrifically terrifying journey). Here we stopped for some noodles before I got a bus the rest of the way to my old home. It was nice to meet someone familiar from Wonderland.

At my old home again I met with Danny, who had already bought both of our tickets to Shenzhen. I had enough time to change and pack the items that I had left at hers during my travel before we left together for out coach to Hong Kong.

We had some great discussions about developments in her family and personal life over the last few months. Her and Momo have different ideas about Momo’s future, which has put a rift in their relationship. It is hard to believe considering how close and similar they were last year.

Still, when the coach stopped in Shenzhen where we parted since I had to cross the border but Danny had met her destination. I hope that it is not the last time I have met my Chinese mother.

After a bit of an error in getting off the coach on the wrong side of Hong Kong I made hard work of getting to the airport, but I got there eventually. There was no rush anyway as my flight was at 8am and I was trying to adjust my body clock by staying awake all night. My eyes gave in around 4am and I laid out my blanket on the airport floor and got a small sleep. When I woke about 6am I was getting some strange looks as at this time the airport was busy and some of the chairs were free to sleep on. I freshen up and checked in.

14/09/2012

There is very little to report about a plane journey back to England, except for a stop over in Beijing aiprort, so I won’t go into detail.

Instead this signified the end of my latest travel. I have been able to reflect on the travel and really appreciate how incredibly good it has been. Starting with a break in the Philippines was an experience in more ways that one. I have had the opportunity to see some of my favourite people, and meet people who have become favourites. I have travelled alone, and learned to love travelling with others. I have gained more experience in and endlessly surprising country and been able to re-experience the things I had began to take for granted by the freshness of the other English girls. Most of all I have had over 6 weeks where date and time didn’t matter and I was just able to enjoy myself. For these reasons my love affair with China continues…

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