Sunday, January 13, 2008

Another trip to China

Wednesday 9 January

Tuesday was spent at home, getting the CDs ready for the Su family, taking a walk to our bank in Sheung Shui to discuss finances and packing ready for the trip.

We left at 6.40 am on Wednesday morning in grey haze, and were through Immigration and Customs by 7.10 which left plenty of time for catching the 7.30 bus. It made good time and arrived in Xintang in 1.5 hours. We intended to catch a #9 bus to Ni Zi, but after waiting for over 10 minutes without a sign of a bus, decided to walk, and rather enjoyed it, as our bags weren't too heavy and the day got brighter and warmer as the sun rose. It certainly didn't feel like winter.

We greeted Hum, who was reading the paper, and then went to visit his parents, who were entertaining visitors (a man with a long straggly white beard) . We were required to do the performing monkey act while Yuk Tim gave his version of who we were. Unfortunately the CD we made for him that was supposed to show the photos on a TV didn't work in his ancient player, so he will have to look at the pictures on a computer instead. We handed him his originals neatly packed into a box - which he proceeded to unpack and stack back on a shelf, so they will be covered in dust again pretty quickly.

Hum cooked us lunch, then we set off for the other side of Cha Gaau village to see if we could find lawyer Chan's mother, who lives nearby. We walked to the ferry, and on the other side of the river, took a #3 bus to the edge of the village, saving a long walk and a lot of time.

The village is expanding rapidly with many new buildings being erected. There is a lot of money in China at the moment and many people are having grand new living quarters erected on what was once productive land. We were wandering along wondering where to find Mrs Chan when all of a sudden we were greeted like long-lost cousins - someone whom Eddie met at ChungYeung last year (who is a sort of cousin) recognised him and invited us back to his place for tea.

We interrupted his wife's lunch and were plied with bananas (a special kind), peanut and yellow bean sticky rice dumplings cooked in banana leaves that she had made herself, and about 2.5 feet of sugar cane (peeled).

Mr Chan took us for a tour of the village and showed us the garden where the special bananas were grown. Although not too untidy, there was still a heap of rubbish in places, especially on the stream margins. Walking through China is like walking on the edge of a rubbish tip - there is huge scope for a major improvement in hygiene and cleanliness generally.

He showed us his grand new house that will be finished in May - it's 3 stories high and about 2 to 3 times the size of his present house. We also looked into an embroidery factory where several people were minding machines embroidering jeans pockets with coloured thread. The factory also makes beaded designs. This may be Mr Chan's factory, as Hum said his business card indicated he owned such a factory.

After the walk and a trip to the new toilets (where about half a dozen mozzies did some damage on me) we went back to the house to sit and be sociable, while Eddie went for a walk to keep himself awake. Our host dropped off to sleep over his paper and I watched children's TV till Eddie came back to say that he had nearly found lawyer Chan's mother's house about about 200m away, much closer than the miles away Mr Chan had indicated. Eddie thought there must be some family problem that he wasn't permitted just to walk around and meet her.

We had a magnificent dinner - Mrs Chan is an excellent cook - and enjoyed soup with tong how (a type of chrysanthemum), fish on dried winter melon, chicken, tiny whelks (a lot of sucking for not much reward, I think), choy sum and ko yuk (a type of casserole of pork layered with a starchy vegetable such as taro. Eddie's mother used to make it with beetroot and omelette. It's one of my favourites).

After dinner, Mr Chan took us home in his work van - a nervewracking ride in the dark with me in the front, blinded by the lights coming toward us on the highway and cyclists with no tail lights , and Eddie clinging on in the back, perched on a child's chair. It was a relief to get back to Ni Zi and report in to Hum, who was looking at the CD of the photos. We spent some time with him checking them out, and looking at Google Earth before going back to our smelly room for bed. The night was disturbed, with late arrivals (12 - 2 am) yelling to each other and banging doors before they settled down. [uncouth nouveaux riches with no manners]

Thursday 10 January

Despite the broken sleep, we were up early, and in fact, had to wait for the family to get up. Lan (Orchid), Hum's wife, works on jeans and was up till 2 am getting an urgent order out. This seems to be a frequent occurrence. She works really long hours, as do others, as we always see people at work as we arrive each morning. (NB to the fashion conscious: white jeans will be in this season, along with heavy beading and other embroidery.)

After breakfast, we set off to walk to Gualing along the route of the #11 bus. Eddie wanted to do it just to say he had, and we thought it might be interesting to see the scenery close up. We went through the market and past the local supermarket where the owner had parked his Camry right by the checkouts. I knew people kept their motorbikes and scooters inside, but hadn't seen a car stored this way before.

It took us something over an hour at a slow pace, and we found much of the road easy going because of the repaving. Part of it is still under construction, but it's not as rough, or as dusty and full of deep potholes as it was last year. On one section there were many sheets of plywood stacked up or laid on the pavement to dry. We found a cemetery and took pictures, and took a wrong turn on a road we thought went to Gualing. Instead it lead to Wu Shek, another village we'd not heard of before. We took a few photos before retracing the route and finding the correct one.

Gualing has changed a little since last year, but the development is not as rapid as at Ni Zi. It does not have the bustling or exciting atmosphere of some of the other more industrial villages in the area. During the day, most of the people around are older or mothers with very young children, so it feels a bit like a sleepy hollow.

Gum Yung and his wife saw us as we walked down the main street, but didn't look especially pleased to see us. We greeted them briefly then went to the toilet (the new toilet is a little lest primitive than the old, as one straddles a slit in concrete over the pond, rather than sitting on and clinging precariously to a bit of 4x2 timber - but the fish are still curious). We called in at aunt's house while we were on our own, but there was nothing new to see. There were not many people around, but a few recognised Eddie and chatted to him.

We rejoined Gum Yung and family in a new sitting out area and talked for a while. They gave us some water and suggested we have lunch together, but I wasn't feeling comfortable with them and preferred to leave without obligation on either side. So we gave them some biscuits, and set off for Sha Tou across the fields, and continued on to Shapu under the railway to find some lunch.

Hum's sister Jing (Crystal) has a hardware shop in Shapu and we thought we could find it, but although we walked the main street in both directions more than once, we couldn't see it. The road was being dug up for repaving and was in a very dusty and rough state. (When we asked Hum later where the shop was he showed us on Google Earth that we hadn't gone far enough - the road didn't peter out as we thought.)

We stopped for won tun soup at a handy restaurant, walked the road again, then decided to catch a bus back to Ni Zi. The bus stop had moved because of the road reconstruction, but luckily Eddie saw the buses across the road, and we rode back to the corner of Highway 107. It was a bumpy ride to begin with, but not as bad as last year when the bus suspension was sorely tested by the deep holes and ruts in the road.

We were hot and dusty, and went back to the hotel to unload and clean up. Hum proposed a trip to Guangzhou on Friday, so after agreeing we asked at the desk if we could stay another night in the room. The surly attendant was not willing to compromise, so we decided to ask the next person once the shift was changed. We had dinner at Hum's (eating crabs and vegetables), played on the computer. then sat with some of the family on the wall outside Aunty's place chatting and star-gazing. The night was clear and quite warm for winter.

Friday 11 January Trip to Guangzhou

We had another disturbed night with late arrivals, but dropped off to sleep again. Eddie woke me at 10 to 7, luckily, as Hum rang a few minutes later to say he would meet us soon. I was washed and dressed in record time, and we waited only a couple of minutes before he appeared. We caught a #9 bus to the Tian He Dept store in Xintang, then walked to the Fortune Hotel on Highway 107 to get a bus to Guangzhou. We were lucky as one was nearly ready to leave. It cost Y8 to get to our destination at TienHe from where we got another local bus (813) to get to the university campus where Hum's second daughter (Gi/Elaine) is a student.

She had just woken up when we arrived, so we waited for her and a friend to get ready before setting off for the day. Each small room in the dormitory houses 6 girls - they each have a bed above a desk, with a small bookshelf, wardrobe and a chair occupying the space. A small shower, toilet and sink area is attached, all festooned with laundry. The girls seem happy enough together - Eddie and I wondered what would happen if one didn't get on with others, but couldn't really ask.

We crossed the road and had a quick breakfast of rice rolls (which may have been lai cheong as they had no filling), walked through the university campus admiring the gardens. The university was founded by Yuan Shikai's wife (I think) and has 20,000 students, most of whom live in. The library was in the process of being renovated, and I asked if they spent much time there, but they said the collection was old, outdated and insufficient. The usual story!

We went past and through the most expensive building in Guangzhou (according to the girls) to reach the banks of the Pearl River where we waited for a bus. This took us through the morning traffic to Yuexiu Park, the largest public park in the city. It's so extensive that we didn't have time to explore everything, but we enjoyed walking around watching people sing opera, dance, exercise, or play various sports, as is usual in Chinese parks. There is always a lot of life around, even on a weekday.

Hum had brought along the camera we gave him, although he was unsure how to use it - the girls immediately gained control and had a happy time snapping everything that took their fancy - including themselves in many poses. They enjoyed playing with a statuary group of 4 peasant rebels, copying their stances, and pretending to kiss them.

Not far away, a group of older ballet dancers were performing for themselves and an audience of 2 sitting on steps above them. They did a complicated dance that must have taken hours of rehearsal.

Eventually, we reached the famous statue of the Five Rams (actually at least one is a female) built in 1959 from 130 pieces of marble, and now on the must-see tourist beat since they relate to the legend of the origin of Guangzhou. We joined the groups of photo-takers and had ours done in various configurations.

By this time, we were really ready for lunch, so we stopped at a local cafe serving meals in polystyrene boxes (not really my first choice of a place to eat, but we had to tag along). The food was disappointing as the soup was cold, the meal dry but spicy and the rice too much for the sung. However, as Eddie always says "it filled a hole" and we had to have something to eat.

We took another bus (#105) to Shamian Island, which displays many Western influences, including a chapel, as it was a concession area to traders in the 19th century. There are many bronze statues throughout the park area, but we didn't have time to photograph them all. Our walk took us out of the park, back along the waterfront, which we continued to follow till we reached the bridge to cross for the university. On the way, the girls were going to buy some mandarins from a hawker, but discovered him cheating the weight (perhaps because he saw me - apparently they always cheat foreigners), so they dumped their selection back into his basket.

We had dinner at a restaurant near the dormitory ( a more successful meal than the previous two) - a type of 'economy rice' as they call it in Malaysia, where you pay for a certain number of dishes and have rice with them. We had 3 choices plus rice and soup for about Y10 each. I enjoyed mine, but the bowl of rice was enormous. It is impossible to go low-carb and eat Chinese-style in China!

After dinner, we went back to the dormitory so Hum could collect some things of Elaine's to take back home. She has virtually finished her studies in financial management, and after work experience will graduate in June. Then we took the #813 bus back to Tianhe to get our bus back to Xintang. We just missed getting on one at the stop, and were told by the conductor that there were to be no more buses that night. (Not sure why.)

Luckily, a few minutes later, another bus did come along, and it was a free for all as we struggled to get on. The last time I was in such a crush to get on a bus was many years ago in Malaysia. I was determined not to be left behind and, with my dander up and a measure of panic, managed to elbow someone out of the way as I went up the steps. As Eddie said it was 'bite, kick, scratch and every man for himself.' We got seats, but some unfortunates had to stand for the whole journey.

Rather than take a bus to Ni Zi, we walked and had to brave the "battle of the boom boxes" along the main road - every store had its speakers turned to maximum bass and loudness, while barkers vied to outshout each other. It seemed to me to be counter-productive, as all one could hear was a wall of noise.

We were back about 8 - spent some time on Google Earth and looked at the photos, then went back to our hotel and bed.

Saturday 12 January

Again we breakfasted at Hum's, having tasty congee and crullers and roast goose heads, which were tasty, but not very meaty. I made a reasonable fist of mine, but find it impossible to leave as little a pile of waste as Hum does. Yuk Tim took us to visit his youngest son's wife and their son (who are both very nice, though the young boy, who is only 5, is quite shy). We had a cup of tea there, then went back to the hotel to check out.

Hum cooked us lunch of steamed prawns, choy sum and little shellfish called hing - cockles? Finally we said a warm goodbye to him, waved to Lan who was working with her group in a jeans sewing room, and got the #9 bus for Xintang. We were on our way to Shen Zhen at 1.15, and were home by 4 after a most enjoyable few days.


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