Saturday, January 5, 2008

China diary Dec-Jan

Happy New Year to any readers. And thanks to Eddie ( for his photos in my previous posts. I should be able to insert my own from now on. Click on the pictures for more detail.

See Eddie's blog for a more complete description of the family and environs.

We spent five days at Ni Zi village and the following is my diary of events.

Friday 28 December

We left at 6.50, managing to catch the first bus for Xintang, and arrived in the fast time of 1 ½ hours. On the motorway the bus passed a wedding procession of several cars – notable for their decoration of parcel bows in various configurations, while the bridal car was much more elaborately decorated with a tulle confection on the bonnet.

We walked to the village, stopping only to buy a few presents for the family at Tian He Dept Store, and for Eddie to take photos.

Su Poy Yum (afterwards known as Hum) helped us book into the local hotel, which is of a reasonable standard, and most comfortable. Eddie had hoped to pay Y60 a night, but we had to take our room for Y80. I thought that was reasonable anyway, since it amounted to about NZ$16 for a double room and bath. It was great not having to share a bathroom and not have to wash in cold water, and we also appreciated the luxury of having space to spread out without worrying anyone else, and the large towels! The bed was very hard, in true Chinese style, but comfortable.

It was a beautifully fine day with the temperature in the 20s, so I only needed a T-shirt, though others were more wrapped up. We visited Yuk Tim, Hum's father. had lunch at Hum’s, then took a ferry across the river to Cha Gaau where Eddie’s cousin, Lei Yung, lives. We mooched around her part of the village, talking to locals (one old lady thought I was a boy – not sure why) for a while, ate some bananas Yung gave us, then walked back to the ferry landing. One of the motor bike taxi drivers recognised Eddie, which pleased him.

We walked back to Ni Zi, refreshed ourselves, and joined Hum and family for dinner. Mosquitoes were out in force, despite the cooler weather, although we didn't seem to get bitten, except by the ones in our hotel room. After dinner, Yuk Tim, Hum, and his brother Kei all came back with us to inspect our room.

Kei had asked Eddie if we had hot water in the bathroom, to which he replied "there had better be." To make sure, Kei went in to test the shower (rather than the basin taps), leaving water and dirty footprints everywhere. I had quite a clean-up to do after the men had gone for a walk and had to sacrifice a hand towel to the cause. I don’t really like wet bathrooms, much preferring a shower stall to control the water.

We had a good sleep, in spite of the mozzies and my aches and pains, which resulted from the long walk.

Saturday 29 December

We were booked for yum cha with some members of the family, so were out by 7, walking to a local restaurant. It was a pleasant occasion, but I find the smoking in restaurants hard to take – one’s clothes take on the smell and need a lot of airing.

After breakfast, Hum took us to Zeng Cheng for an outing – he had offered us a trip to Guangzhou or Zeng Cheng and Eddie thought he should see the city which is the capital of his ancestral county. We set off by bus, for a long ride north west of Xintang. The weather was quite chilly and we were pleased to have our woollies, scarves and hats with us.

We walked along the river bank, looking at the ‘old bridge’ the Japanese crossed when they moved down from the North. The river was lined with old, derelict boats,
home to poor, old people who had no other accommodation. They could reach the bank through cobbled-together, rickety rafts, or in small boats. Along the promenade, older people were sitting and chatting or playing chess or cards, in spite of the chill wind.

We wandered through the town to a large shopping plaza, in the grounds of which was a special grove of ancient lichi trees (well, one ancient one, anyway – the others just keep the tradition alive). Apparently the fruit is astoundingly expensive, but the owners sell to each other, to avoid money changing hands.

A further walk took us to another side of the river, where there are 2 pagodas on opposite banks, like a pair of chopsticks to pincer the enemy. This area contained a pretty park and some very impressive apartment buildings. We walked to the nearest pagoda, climbing the hill it surmounted and inspecting trees, plants and altars on the way.

Eddie and Hum attempted to climb it, but gave up when the stairs narrowed and steepened. I decided not to bother and stayed below to mind Eddie’s bag and take some photos.

On the way down, Hum souvenired a hefty length of bamboo – not sure why, but he must have thought it would be useful as he carried all the way home.

Unfortunately, when he went to pay for our fare on the return bus, Eddie discovered his money purse had disappeared, which was a shock for both of us. He coped well, but it was an sad end to the trip.

Off the bus and on the way back to Ni Zi, we stopped for lunch at a clay pot restaurant. They had sold out of fish so we had ‘tin gai’ (field chicken or frogs) instead. I didn’t translate that mentally until I was half way through mine, but it was tasty although there were lots of small bones to be coped with.

Hum had to leave us to get back by ourselves as he had something urgent come up. We walked through the fields, slowly, with Eddie taking many photos. There are many tenant farmers living in shacks by the fields they rent (Y1000 per year for a mu (1 Mu=666.6667 square meters)). Electricity is jury-rigged to the lucky ones, and water can be pumped from wells. Others cook burning what they can scavenge for fuel.

It’s not an easy life, but must be worth it for so many to come from afar.
Most of the farmers, or jeans workers for that matter, don’t speak Cantonese.

After cleaning up at the hotel, we spent a bit of time with Hum in his plot of land, admiring his building (a little house that he will let out when he has finished it and found access to water and power), and his dam, and mango trees.

After dinner, we spent some time on Hum’s computer, checking our mail and trying to download Google Earth, then went for supper with his sister Fong, and Kei and his son. Fong took me on her scooter, which was unnerving in the cold and dark, with neither of us wearing a helmet. I still find it very difficult to internalise driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. It’s not so bad in a bus or on a highway, but it’s really strange when I’m in the front passenger seat of a car.

Although it was late, the restaurant was still serving dim sum, so we had a few more things to eat on top of our dinner. The trip home was even colder than the previous one, and we were relieved to have a warm shower and get into bed.

Sunday 30 December

We did a lot of washing before meeting Hum for breakfast at 7.30. We took a walk through the market, which is reasonably extensive. There is a full range of vegetables, fish and meat. Among the meat for sale, I noticed fatty pork (about 2 inches of fat on some of the cuts in the traditional way), a dog (I’m sure I saw paws), and goats, the heads still with their horns.

We had a quieter day generally today, with eating, walking around and visiting the highlights.

In the later afternoon we went for a walk around the parts of the village we hadn’t yet seen. Changes are dramatic from this time last year, with a new road taking traffic from the old, and more buildings put up, while others have been demolished.

We had dinner at Yuk Tim's,which was a major effort invovling all the family and a great deal of cooking. There was meat and fish in plenty, cooked by the eldest daughter's husband, set out on several tables. The adults sat on saw-horse-like benches inside and the children were outside near the entrance. Afterwards, we were taken to visit his brother ’s daughter's grand house at Phoenix City, some way out of Xintang (she is a jeans queen and not short of cash). The area is a gated community of houses and gardens rather than apartments, and each is very large and splendid, though obviously from new money in their showiness. The fish pond in the garden must take some upkeep and is obviously the husband’s hobby. They have some fruit trees in the garden which will take some years to become established, and I was amused to see vegetables drying on the garden swing.

The couple have 3 daughters who kept us amused practising their English, while we ate peanuts and mandarins and drank tea. We were driven home by 9.30.

Monday 31 December

After breakfast at 7 at Hum’s, we left to cross the highway 107 bridge to get to Zhongtong. Eddie’s plan was to visit his Hong Kong cousin’s lawyer cousin and then walk to Cha Gaau to see the lawyer’s mother.

Although a fine morning it was bitterly cold with a biting wind. We crossed the bridge amongst the traffic without incident (though walking on an espressway isn’t my idea of fun), and walked to the lawyer's house through dusty road works and ankle-turning rubble. They family didn't get up till 10, so we waited for a while, chatting with the man across the road. Once they were up and dressed, we were invited to drink tea with him & his daughter, while his wife went to collect the other daughter from school.

We sat in the garden at his tea desk and took tea till after 12, drinking 2 kinds of very expensive tea, which were brewed with full ritual in a small purple clay teapot (rinsed, filled and refilled with water many times) and served in tiny cups. We had Ti Kuan Yin, which was very fragrant and not at all strong and bitter. Next we had Pu Erh tea which had been packed in an inside-out pomelo skin which had been cut and then sewn together and dried. The skin was still fragrant, but I think the scent was somewhat lost in the tea. He said the package was 10 years old.

He next denuded his blossom trees for flowers which he used to flavour the next pots of tea.

After 12 we went for lunch with the family at a local restaurant, then drank more tea till 3.30. It’s very easy to while away time chatting and brewing tea, and sipping more and more little cups, particularly when the sun is shining and the garden is pleasant.

Finally, we started to walk the long way home in order to visit his mother, but got lost so we retraced our route and re-crossed highway 107 bridge. I found it easier in the afternoon as I think there was less traffic.

After a stop in the hotel, we went for a walk to see where Uncle Mok Au’s burial place is – Hum met us and took us through a road construction site, and across weedy ground where we collected a healthy crop of grass seeds that had to be picked off later. He showed us how to eat sugar cane and we spent quite a bit of time chewing and spitting. However, politely, one should chew the fibres into a wad and spit them out into one’s hand before discarding them rather than just spitting them out. It’s hard to do genteelly, and I have difficulty peeling the nodes of the cane with my teeth. The rest I can manage.

After dinner, Yuk Tim took us to visit his #3 son's wife, who gave us tea & fruit. We were tired and made excuses to leave early, but went back to Hum’s for a computer session, looking at, which is like Google Earth and can be quite absorbing and time-consuming to play with. It was very cold again, but there was no hot water in our bathroom so we had to go to bed without a warm shower.

Tuesday 1 January

Unlike in
New Zealand, the night was quiet – I don’t recall hearing any revellers or fireworks at midnight. The celebrations are reserved for Chinese New Year which will have its share of fire crackers and excitement.

We joined Hum for a breakfast of congee, with deep fried devils, in the market – unfortunately sitting next to the local drunk, who got more abusive and noisy as the firewater in his glass took effect. We were pleased when he finally went, but it rather spoilt the occasion.

Hum’s aunt invited us to her house for morning tea and again we were treated to a tea ceremony. It’s something that was unpractised until quite recently, and indicates rising prosperity among the new middle classes, who can now afford the tea things and the tea.

Hum’s sisters had organised an excursion to the country, so we set off in two cars with Bing, Fong, Jing, Hum, Fong’s two children and the respective husbands. We stopped at Shapu to get Jing and were plied with pickled walnuts while we waited. We then had a long drive to the mountains past Zeng Cheng, stopping at a lookout, then continuing on a narrow looping road (reminiscent of the wilder parts of NZ) to a village for lunch and buying provisions. We passed small villages on the side of steep hills, surrounded by lichi orchards, and other crops. The comment was made that the air was very healthy, and it was a pleasure to see that there are parts of China where there is little pollution.

The village we stopped at is set along a stream, which was most picturesque, and seemed to specialise in selling dried vegetables, honey, dried meat and strings of dried small birds, some of which the party purchased.

For lunch, we sat in a pavilion beside the stream and ate ham, snow peas, three kinds of green vegetables, whelks, chicken, soup, and a very tasty rice. I commented that I supposed it might have dried birds in it, and Eddie said it had. He said it wasn’t much different from eating chicken, which is true, and they certainly added savour to the dish. There wasn’t a grain left at the end of the meal, unlike the whelks, which weren’t so popular. We drank special tea provided by one of the husbands along with a small drop of cognac to toast the new year.

After some of the party had annoyed a fish in the local river by trying to catch it, we set off on the return journey, stopping at a mountain stream to collect water in large containers. Next was a quick stop at Bing's husband's village for more ritually served tea, before we continued on for a quick stop at a park to see a thousand year old vine, propped up on concrete pillars and draped over a trellis.

At Shapu we stopped to deliver Jing and her goods – even there we were offered boiled eggs. Eddie said that this family’s life revolves around eating. Unfortunately, while he was negotiating a narrow street behind Bing’s shop, Fong's husband damaged their new Camry by scraping a bit of metal projecting from a nearby truck. They took the mishap philosophically – Fong said the two cars kissed. Rather a rough kiss, sadly.

For the evening we had dinner booked with Hum’s aunt & uncle's families – there were about 20 in all in the party. It was an elaborate meal with soup, prawns in cheese, duck, fish poached, fish casseroled, choy sum, a guts dish which was rather tough, and casseroled chicken. We couldn’t manage rice, but finished with mandarins & two kinds of man tou. We drank tea and Chinese red wine, which I found a little thin, but drinkable.

I expected an early night but after walking home, we spent some time with Hum on his computer, trying to trace our route on Google Earth, so we didn’t get to bed till after 10.

Wednesday 2 January

We met Hum for breakfast at a stall near Xintang, having rather tasty rice rolls. We took a walk round the markets and the old town, which used to be a main market for the area – some of the old merchants’ houses still exist. I was intrigued by an art deco house which stood out among its more traditional neighbours. We continued along the river bank past the Cha Gaau ferry pier and walked back to Ni Zi through the fields.

After a visit to Yuk Tim, where we picked up his family photos to scan so the family can have a copy and the records preserved (some prints are very degraded and all very dusty), we checked out of the hotel, had lunch with Hum. One day, he asked Eddie what was the English for "sik fan" or the invitation to eat, and Eddie told him "Eat" - so he took great delight in ordering me to "Eat!" whenever we sat for a meal. I found it really amusing but thought Eddie should have at least put in a "please" for politeness' sake.

We left to catch #9 bus and walked from the Tian He store to New Good View hotel where we caught the express bus to Shen Zhen at 1.45. I noticed yet another bridal car in the car park, this time decorated with real roses and greenery, wilting in the sun (see photo above).

We were home by 5, back where the traffic is quieter and more predictable and (mostly) stops at pedestrian crossings.

No comments: