Tuesday, 18 November 2014

bucolic bliss

Sometimes when you're wild camping you just have to make do with what you can find at the end of the day.  We've had a few bumpy pitches lately, but nothing to keep us awake.  Today we find a perfect grassy spot, on a hill, out in the open but with cover from trees and bushes.  And it's not yet dark.  We've had to push through a small plantation of trees, but the hunch has paid off.  Down below a farmer is spraying his field with what kind of chemical?  A water buffalo bellows in a rice paddy.  Firecrackers explode in a village.  We are in a lovely valley west of Yixian town to visit the village of Nanping.  Gayle has had a look around this afternoon and I will tomorrow morning.  We're not so comfortable leaving the bikes alone - although I'm sure they'd be okay - and the real reason is that we want to use the same ticket.  Once again we've had another warm sunny day - perfect for sight-seeing.

Nanping's main claim to fame is that Zhang Yimou's Judou was filmed here, as well as scenes from Ang Lee's hit Crouching Tiger Hidden Ticket Inspector.  It's not such a big drawcard as the nearby UNESCO sights but is fascinating nonetheless.  The village is packed solid with high-walled courtyard houses, all in familiar grey stone, with ornate entrances including some lovely detailed latticework.  These villages are about a 1000 years old while the houses date from the Ming period.  And here they are still lived in by an aged population.  Not many young folk, like a lot of villages.  In one house are panels of coloured glass that came from Germany over 300 years ago, such was the measure of wealth then.  It's in sharp contrast to the poor simple homes these have now become.  No longer the homes of wealthy merchants, just sad damp draughty refuges for a forgotten population.  On my way out of the village a ticket man challenges me - he has guessed I'm using Gayle's ticket.  Ashamed, I quickly get on the bike and ride off.

Later on we are sat having our lunch in Yixian town in a tiny restaurant.  A woman wearing a facemask walks by and stops to look at us.  Our bikes are leaning against the window.  She walks on and then returns a bit later and thrusts a 50 yuan note down on our table.  It's £5.  We say thank you but no thank you and try and give the money back but she won't have it and walks away quickly.  We are speechless.

Down the road is Xidi, the other UNESCO-listed village and Gayle pays a visit while I sit in the coach park and watch the tourists pile in and pile out again.  The numbers are daunting.  As in Hong Cun, there are students everywhere painting with watercolours.  It must be part of the national curriculum judging by the numbers of artists we've seen wandering around and perched on tiny folding stools with a pot of water and a pad of paper.  Gayle remarks that the village looks much poorer than Hong Cun and we wonder how the £10 entrance money is spent.  They must rake it in, judging by the numbers this afternoon.  Nearby mountain Huangshan gets 15 million visitors a year - it's the most popular in China -and it costs £23 to visit.  Tourism is booming.  We wonder if the high prices are a way to keep visitor numbers down.  The tourists are predominantly Chinese.  On these few days we only see about six other laowai.

traditional life goes on in Xidi

Camping again in some nearby woods - the sun is setting around 5.30pm so we have long nights in the tent nowadays.  We've taken to eating instant noodles at night, quick and easy, because we can find really good cheap food during the day.  The meals are cooked fresh, the rice keeps on coming and there's always plenty of green tea to wash it all down with - ideal for us.  China isn't renowned for its environmental policies.  Since SARS and bird flu epidemics many of the nation's cheap restaurants have reverted to using disposable chopsticks - about 40 billion are produced annually.  We have seen the cut bamboo stacked on the side of the roads.  It looks like a cottage industry.  There is one thing they are very good at recycling and that's vegetable oil.   It is apparently dredged out of sewers and drains to be reprocessed and sold back to restaurants.  It's estimated about 10% of the oil used is sourced in this way - it sure adds a little je ne sais quoi to those tasty stir-fries we enjoy.

We find another back-country road that will take us to Huangshan City.  Originally called Tunxi, the town has been renamed presumably to help those 15 million visitors find their way to the entry point for trips to the big mountain itself.  Confusingly there was already another town called Huangshan on the other side of the mountain.  It seems the Chinese are good at replicating.  Along the way we pass picture-perfect scenes of rural life.  Farmhouses wedged in-between fields.  Villages with old men playing cards while the women run the shops and restaurants and do the laundry and mind the kids and keep house.  Mao famously once said that women hold up half the sky - but that only takes one hand. With the other they're doing plenty of other stuff.  The one place you won't see many women is in the upper echelons of the Party, although this may change one day as more and more young women join the Party to progress their careers.  Anhui province, a predominantly rural one, also has one of the worst boy:girl birth ratios.  In a 2009 study the ratio was 138:100 for children up to 4 years old.  The one-child policy applied to Han Chinese has been relaxed a little to change this imbalance - if your first child is a girl then you are allowed a second child.

Out in the fields there are plenty of people out harvesting chrysanthemums.  The countryside is full of these vivid yellow flowers and it looks like the time to gather them in - trucks are being filled with giant bags of them.  This area is famed for the variety used to make a tea which supposedly has many medicinal benefits.

some like it hot

When we reach Huangshan/Tunxi we take a room in one of the youth hostels. The room is a little bit more than a cheap hotel but it's much more peaceful and there're comfy communal areas.  Plus there's always staff who speak English.  We arrive on a Sunday and our plan is to renew our visa here on the Monday.  I thought our visas would expire on Tuesday but when I re-count the days they actually expire on Sunday.  Ooops.  
WANTED for ticket evasion

We wonder what they'll say when we enter the local Public Security Bureau office, but the senior officer (he has no uniform, speaks excellent English) who we talk to doesn't check the days.  The process is straightforward - we just need to write a rough itinerary for another 30 days and they want to take our photo.  To my dismay I really look my age on the photo.  We are told to return to collect on Friday - 4 days later.  That would mean 4 days of the new visa spent waiting for it.  We protest and they agree to us collecting the next day.  With great relief we do so and find they have given us 31 days extra by mistake.  Can't complain.  Now, how do we get to Xiamen?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

old china

Our green road from Jingxian is very green and very quiet.  On our map we should be riding the S322 but the old stone kilometre markers say X091. Are we lost?  After a few days on busyish roads we suddenly find ourselves on a back country road and it's wonderful.  Most of the traffic is locals on scooters or those three-wheeled whatchamacallits.  We are winding our way on a tree-lined road through lush farmland.  The villages are small and the houses huddle together densely-packed.  Every inch of the land looks like it has been touched by humans for centuries.  For a start, the valleys are sculpted into layered tiers, some indiscernibly shallow, for irrigation.  The fields are divided between rice and green vegetables.  The woods are pine and bamboo.  We hide in a copse of trees to camp and are just putting the tent up in the gloaming when a poorly-dressed old man comes past on the pathway out of the hills.  He comes over and we greet him and ask if it's okay to camp.  He asks something - is the ground flat enough/dry enough?.  "Hao" we say. Fine.  And he continues on his way home.

someone is actually driving this three-wheeler although neither of us actually saw him
at last

baozi, baozi, baozi!
Having experienced a little too much of new China i.e. rapidly urbanising, we now find ourselves thoroughly immersed in old China i.e. traditional rural, and it is heavenly.  The roads are so quiet you can hear birds.  In every village people, mostly old, are busy at something.  Weeding, hoeing, gathering, washing.  Pak choi is hung up to dry along with the laundry, which is done in the water channels that run everywhere.  We come across road sweepers in the middle of nowhere collecting litter and dead leaves.  The road gets hillier as we ride from hidden valley to hidden valley.  Luckily, there's always a restaurant when we're getting hungry.  Mid-morning baozi (pronounced bowser), the steamed buns with different fillings, make great elevenses. 

In one village I am led into a restaurant kitchen and invited to partake in soup full of giblets and gizzards and goodness knows what else.  Instead I choose other ingredients, including eggs, and then check the price.  The price seems a little high but the chef points out that these eggs are from the garden.  If we want a lower price we can have the shop-bought eggs.  "Okay, okay, okay" I agree.  An old fella who has been ghosting us in the kitchen then goes back outside to report the whole conversation with a small crowd of locals who have gathered round.  When he gets to "okay, okay, okay" everyone bursts out laughing.  Life is slow in the village.

some of the 40 billion disposable bamboo chopsticks produced every year

The landscape has changed our mood.  We had begun to question our choice of route through China, trying to visit places we haven't seen before but running into that over-populated and industrial China which we want to avoid.  In fact, the route has not been too bad but the cloudy skies and damp weather have hardly cheered us.  Now the misty looking weather fits the scenery. 

Huge tracts of bamboo forest cover the hillsides, and we glimpse mountains at the end of the valleys.  Villages of white houses sit prettily surrounded by their crops.  This is the China we've been looking for.  There's one big pass we have to climb, close to Huangshan, which gives us some good exercise.  At the top we cross what must have been a rain-shadow because we emerge into a misty drizzle.  As we put on our waterproofs a truck stops and a boy leans out to hand us an umbrella.  It's a nice gesture, but we decline.  The descent is long and winding and steep.  The last thing we want is an umbrella, whatever Nicholas Crane thinks.

In a few villages we come across colourful murals painted outside the school.
so far, so good

mmm, not so good
downright trippy
The houses are predominantly new but often built with the old-style sweeping roof covered in grey tiles, so they retain some charm.  And then we come to some villages that still have the old, old houses.  This is what we have come to see.  This area of China was called Huizhou and in Ming times the local clans became wealthy merchants.  As a result, they built fabulous large old houses and in some villages these can still be found in great number.  Some of them are UNESCO-listed and have become tourist sights, while others have escaped the attentions of the local mass-tourist industry.

We arrive at a cluster around Hong Cun at sunset, rush-hour.  The empty road is suddenly filled with scooters.  We know that down the road will be a clutch of hotels and restaurants built to service the tourists, but just down this side road is a river with a little grassy bank that probably floods in heavy rain, and oh, it looks so inviting.  We pitch the tent.  The next morning we set off to explore.  Because of the tourist interest there is a charge to enter the villages.  In China this is a real curse to the budget traveller because nothing is cheap.  It's £10 to enter Hong Cun.  We set off down a little riverside path that leads us to the edge of the village.  We can see the bridge from the main road, and down on the riverbank are women washing the hotel laundry.  We wade across to their amusement and then sneak into the village.  
Except we haven't, because there is another river, much bigger, and there's no way across.  So we circuit the village looking for alternative entrances.  Every path has a ticketman. Clearly we are not the first to think about not paying.  While we decide what to do, we check out some of the smaller surrounding villages that turn out to have some of the old Ming- and Qing-era houses too.  The sun is finally out, after six cloudy days and everything is flooded in Glorious Technicolour. We come across the Nikon Camera Club - groups of enthusiasts who carry huge Nikons and shoot everything that comes between the cross-hairs. In the afternoon, Gayle buys a ticket and has a look around while I mind the bikes.  The village is very pretty, with many ancestral halls, built to worship and venerate family ancestors and built ostentatiously to demonstrate one's wealth.  The houses are built defensively with high walls, and few windows, with fabulous decorated doorways.  Light enters the house via the inner courtyard.  We camp that night in nearby woods and the next day I reuse Gayle's ticket to have a look around.