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Monday, February 14, 2011

Peasantly Surprised! (in China)

 Nice day for a walk... on the river (Chaoyang City, north-east China)

Well, I managed to make it back from northern China in one piece, and now I am safely at home in Hong Kong. I spent 12 days in the mainland, first flying into Beijing, then traveling onto Chaoyang city, about a six hour bus journey north-west of Beijing in Liaoning Province. This post doesn’t have too much to do with the future, but I thought readers might like to know a thing or two about my adventures. There are 3 short videos at the end.

After spending the first night in Beijing, I hopped on a bus for the 6 hour trip to Chaoyang City. Chaoyang is a small and nondescript city, and looks much like so many other cities in China. Of course “small is all relative in China – Chaoyang has 8 million people). If you have been to China you will know what I mean about the sameness. There is a kind of dull greyness about most cities. Still, I enjoy visiting Chaoyang. The lifestyle is relatively slow. The people you pass on the street are not friendly, but nor are they unfriendly either. They do tend to stare at me though, and mostly comment about my height. “Liang mi!” they often whisper (“two metres”). Actually, I about 5cm shorter than that, but who am I to deflate their sense of wonder?

I have never seen another foreigner in the city.

On the second night it was the first of many fireworks day/nights. The constant bang bang bang was enough to test the Buddha’s nerves. I actually wore ear plugs whenever I went out onto the street, as the explosions were often so loud as evoke a state of constant startling. In the second video, below, you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was spending an afternoon visiting my wife's ancestral village. This is where she was born some 35 years ago. I had never been there, so it was a fascinating experience. We drove out from the city for about two hours, and as we got closer to the village, we made our way along bumpy old dirt roads. As we approached the village there were huge piles of coal stocked up perhaps 50 metres into the sky.

The village itself was a collection of a few dozen brick houses scattered about narrow dirt roads and paths. Eventually we made our way to my wife's uncle’s humble abode, which looked just like all the other nondescript little buildings in the village. There was a concrete wall surround the house and  small yard. Several species of domestic animals were tamely resting in pens or standing freely about - pigs, geese, sheep, chickens etc. It was freezing - quite literally (about minus 5 degrees Celsius at midday), so I felt a little sorry for the poor critters.

Not quite a sorry as I felt for the ones we ate for lunch, though. 

Inside the house it was as humble as you'd expect for the domain of self-described peasants; warmer than outside, but not by much. There were two basic squarish rooms with brick walls. The "bed" was actually in the large “central room”, which also served as a kitchen. Well, it was more like a raised wooden slab to one side of the room. This is where everyone slept, on blankets.

I was greeted by one of my wife's young cousins, a tall lass whom I knew from previous visits.

"You are so tall now!" I commented in Chinese (they spoke no English, of course). "How old are you now?"

"I'm eighteen!” she said, flashing a shy smile. "Piao liang ma?" she battered her eyelids ("Am I pretty?")

I said yes, and thankfully I didn't have to lie. One of the great things about Chinese girls of that age is that they are so innocent. In some ways it's as if you are talking to a child. If I said the same thing back in Australia to a teenage girl, I would probably be arrested for pedophilia.

The house was actually quite crowded, with about twenty people there that day, including many relatives. Everyone was happy and busy making food or just chatting. The kids (and some bigger kids) were letting fireworks off right outside the front door. And they were loud!

I was soon seated at a small table, conveniently located right beside several crates of Chinese beer. I asked how much a crate of beer cost, and was told it was 36 Yuan – about one Yuan per bottle! (that’s about 15 cents American). That beverage was soon poured into cups, and I managed to drink a glass or two myself (actually, I like Chinese beer - very light and low in alcohol, so you can never really get drunk). My male colleagues brought out a bottle of baijiu - Chinese rice wine. I can assure you that that stuff is not so gentle - like drinking the contests of a car battery, and just as potent. I declined.

Not long after the aforementioned animals were wheeled out. Sadly for them, they constituted the contents of the Chinese dishes placed before us. I'm mostly vegetarian, but eat a bit of meat on special occasions. This was one of those. 

We stayed for several hours and it was a very pleasant day indeed. My relatives certainly treated me with great hospitality, and I would love to return there one day.

But before I leave you, here a few very short videos I took on my journey. Sadly, I didn't take the camera to my wife's village, so I have no images of that.

This one is the river in Chaoyang City. You can see people "rowing" those little sleds around.

This video is taken from the window of my sister in law's apartment, 9 floors up. You can actually see her in the reflection at the end of the video. 

Finally, this is Beijing's new #3 airport, on the day of my departure. As you can see, I was lucky to make it out! 

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