fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Friday, September 29, 2006

14th Sept - Tun Xi to Zhuang Ping to Long Yan to Yong Ding

Zhuang Ping was the closest this train was going to take us to Yong Ding. We got off at 2.32pm and found ourselves in a tiny town you didn’t want to spend too much time in. But we didn’t want to take the night train and reach Yong Ding past midnight so we bought tickets for the 6am train the next day only to find a public bus all ready to leave for Long Yan where there were many buses to Yong Ding. So impulsive we were to get to Yong Ding that we lost a bit of common sense. We hopped onto the bus and left for Long Yan, forfeiting the 38 yuan tickets we had bought minutes before. In more lucid times, we would have checked for alternative transportation and even if we had already bought the tickets we could have gotten a refund and then catch the next bus. Never good to be in a hurry.

The bus to Long Yan was screening ‘A Better Tomorrow 2’ which features Chow Yun Fatt, Leslie Cheung and plenty of dead bodies in black suits. I must say that most of the bus-movies belong to the 80s and early 90s era. Given the level of piracy here it is surprising that I am not watching The Banquet. I guess it is more a case of popularity versus piracy.

The Long Yan experience was short and funny. After buying our tickets to Long Ding, I went to the loo which was cleaner than the average bus toilets in China. On the door of the cubicle for the disabled was a sign saying ‘For Deformed People’. This would make some nice ending to some future English lesson that I may give so I whipped out my camera (yes even to the toilet its with me) and took a photograph. This amused the toilet auntie gang who were playing with someone’s baby.

‘Why are you taking the toilet when we are here? You don’t take photos of people?’ one of them asked without a trace of sarcasm.

‘No, I find this sign very interesting’

‘Why?’

What followed was an embarrassing attempt to explain what ‘deformed’ meant in with my limited Chinese vocabulary*. Eventually, they got the message and took the toilet lady job one level up by asking me to write down ‘Disabled’ on a piece of paper so that their manage could do something about it. I left them and heard mutterings about ‘you(3) wen(2) hua(4) de(4) ren(2) zhen(1) de(4) bu(4) tong(2)’ or how ‘cultured people are really different’. I am certainly not one of those cultured blokes but these cheery toilet aunties certainly have a good work attitude.

*There are about 50,000 different Chinese characters. The average Chinese person knows about 4-5000. I think my figure would be somewhere between 300 and 350.

The ride to Yong Ding was supposed to take just over an hour but due to China’s enthusiasm in improving the infrastructure, we were delayed by more than an hour. There were policemen at the bottle-neck, I guess to direct traffic and thumb down impatient drivers.

Before we even got off the bus, three female touts closed in around the door and started babbling something we couldn’t understand a shred off. It’s quite a funny experience as they oblivious to our confused and amused state continued their ramble until we asked if they could speak Mandarin. They were motorcycle-taxi riders and wanted to know where we were going. We weren’t going very far, just across the road to a cheap-looking place. The nice auntie told us the price, brought us up four floors to a large room big enough for four and waited downstairs as we unpacked and washed up. We came down happy and ready for a good dinner, showed her our passports and were told firmly that we had to find some place else. She was not licensed to take in foreigners. This was our first accommodation rejection in China. Obviously the authorities in these parts do have an authority.

‘It’s just one night. Can? We will be gone in the morning’, I tried.

‘No…last time I was fined 100 yuan. Two travellers like you. One Chinese girl but how would I know her boyfriend was a Jap? Blah Blah Blah Blah….’

‘Ok, no problem, we are going. Thank you. Can we leave our things here while we go find a place?’

‘Sure. Try the one just around the corner.’

We took her suggestion with Dong Fu Guesthouse which was worth its one-star rating and checked ourselves into a posh single room big enough for two. The only problem was that our private toilet was at the other end of the corridor. Not a problem since all the rooms in between had attached toilets. At 60 yuan, it was only 10 more than auntie’s next door.

Dinner was a beef soup which I enjoyed but Karen didn’t, reason being the beef slices coated with a gooey gelatine which turned out to be part of the cow’s tummy. Half-way through our dinner, a waiteress took our bowls from us, threw in a spoonful of some very MSGish powder and returned with an apology ‘Bu hao yi si, mei you wei dao’ or ‘paiseh, it was tasteless’. It turned out that one customer complained and she-who-was-full-of-initiative realised that the cook had forgotten the magic powder. The thing was that we told the cook not to leave out the MSG for our serving.


15th Sept - Yong Ding to Tu Lou (Hakka Earth Houses)

The mini-bus completed its ‘hei che’ transformation 5 metres out the station. With total disregard for the bloke who ‘inspected’ the bus before departure just standing by the automated gates. Four or five planks have been placed across the tiny aisle to form make-shift seats for new passengers with hardier butts and the driver had another five or six pairs of eyes to help him watch the road. I don’t think our new friends get much of a discount for their discomfort.

Ten minutes out of Yong Ding found us 50 years back in time amidst idyllic farmland dotted by kilns firing bricks and the round solid fuel for the traditional stoves. Entering the rural areas is always exciting. It’s not just the sights. The country crowd tend to smoke a bit more, talk a little louder and smell a little. We, especially Karen seem to attract folks who (in our humble opinion) are desperately in need of a good scrubbing. In their humble opinion, all is smelling as the countryside should. So we adapt by breathing a little shallower and pushing the windows as wide as they can go.

One hour later we were in another van headed for Zheng Cheng, one of the many ‘tu lou’ or earthen villages in the region. The driver offered to smuggle us in for 30 yuan, shaving 20 yuan off the entrance fee. Karen flatly refused his offer even before I could weight the risks and cost savings. Another elderly tourist who was with us also rejected his ploy on similar grounds. To reduce the risk factor, Mr Beat-the-System proposed infiltration via a goods lorry which disgusted our friend even more. In the end, the three of us paid him a 10 yuan token just to get us to the entrance.

The three of use decided to split the 20 yuan guide fee and in 1 hour the whole group got on well enough to have a big lunch together in one of the earthern houses.

Our guide was enthusiastic enough to get us enthusiastic about these collection of Hakka earthern houses and she made all the difference in the day’s experience. Fresh out of university, she realised that the regular office job wasn’t for her and strange people who dumped their jobs to unravel the world were usually better company than computers. So being a guide back in her native region offered her an ideal lifestyle solution especially when she encounters friendly tourists like us. The big old man had Chinese roots but spent 20 years of his life in Japan. It must be tough over there as he looked 65 instead of 56!

With four storeys of rooms, kitchens, stores and granaries built around a central courtyard, the first of the Hakka roundhouses resembled a castle. Following the I-Ching, each level was divided into 8 segments each containing 6 rooms. In total, the roundhouse had more than 200 rooms housing roughly 40 families! The roundhouse is still inhabited but mostly by old farming folks who sell souvenirs as a sideline. The young have left for the cities to find the regular jobs our guide was avoiding. These silver-haired men and women who were slowly drying grain, working the fields, doing the household chores, looking after the grandchildren or lounging in the shade added much colour and character to this village.

In the past the central courtyard was used for meetings and performances when guests like Yuan Shi Kai dropped by. These guests would be seated depending on their status. VIPs got the circle seats on the second floor, IPs made do with the stalls and the general Ps huddled on the ground floor landing of this mini-amphitheatre. A roundhouse this size took the families 5 years to construct. The communal style of living then continues today as the residents still help each other keep the clothes and look after the young. Because the Chinese are fussy eaters, cooking is still done at an individual level.

The round houses at 500 years are the more recent buildings in this village. The very first buildings were square or octagonal. All had thick walls, only one main door, no windows on the first and second level and no cooking vents to make things a little more challenging for the invaders.

On the first floor was the cooking and living area, the second, the granary and the third and fourth, the bedrooms. Wooden poles, pebbles and orange earth are compacted and piled onto of a stone foundation that formed the round base of the tu lou. The eaves of the roof extend well over the wall to keep erosion to a minimum. As a result, the walls after all these years feel rock solid.

In one square tu lou, a cascade of rooftops from the highest floor to the entrance gave the false impressive impression that the rear of the tu lou was higher than the front. We were awed. You felt that you were suddenly entering an ancient temple. Wells were dug on both sides of the courtyard and the resultant Chinese tea is supposedly superior than those made with tap water. Of course I couldn't tell the difference. One old lady in the courtyard babbled something in Hakka which we (including the guide) couldn't understand.

We should have packed our stuff and spent the night in the tu lou. A couple of tu lous had been converted into hotels and there was one 300 year old guesthouse with a 40 yuan double. But the lass at our Yong Ding hotel told us that it would be costly and we believed her. The owner of the guest house took our lunch orders and promised decent portions instead of a discount.

This guy had a hand in funding the local primary school so we skipped the haggling. It was the only school in town and deathly quiet because the kids had all gone home for lunch. No such thing as a school canteen since the kids would not be able to afford eating out. Some farmers were drying grain on the basketball court when we arrived. It was easy to identify the dreary original building since there were only four blocks. The teachers were enjoying their meal in the courtyard. They looked more like farmers but they must be doing a good job since the kids here walked to school smiling. Half an hour later, the school was what a school should be alive with lively noise.

Crossing the river, we come to the smallest tu lou in Zheng Cheng. Our guide explained that it was the result of someone’s dream. This one only had sixteen rooms surrounding a dank depressing courtyard. All the youths and young adults should come back and fill the gap and empty rooms.

Lunch was as good as promised. The ‘blood vegetables’ were excellent – dark green leaves that leaked a reddish liquid when cooked. So was the duck, chicken soup, fried river fish, and ‘mei cai kou rou’ which our dear elderly friend liked. Friendly conversations flowed and we secured a place to stay in Yokohama before saying goodbye to him and the guide. They had to leave early while we wanted to do a little more exploring.

One of the round tu lou had lost a third of its walls. Still we went to the entrance and asked permission from a group of old ladies to enter its unkempt grounds. Here we met a young girl who told us that a dynamite accident blew up the wall and killed quite a few residents many years ago. This girl, probably in her early twenties and now looking after her baby, came to live in the village after marriage. She says that with so many willing helpers, it is a breeze looking after the baby in the tu lou. She singles out an old woman and says, ‘the old folks here are all very healthy. Look at her, she’s 70 and her hair is all black. Look at the rooms, those with locked doors means that the family have moved out.’ She goes on to explain how hard it is to get her mother-in-law to use a gas stove. Once the baby is old enough, she will return to Guang Zhou to find work. Her hubby is in Cambodia working in a jeans factory. She came from a farming family so she could adapt quickly to the tu lou way of life. The folks here usually gather at the entrance for their meals and count the dynamite accident as a blessing since now more light enters the inner courtyard. We say goodbye and leave before the mozzies suck the last bloody litre out of us.

The bus back to Yong Ding was packed with teenage school students. Karen described them as ‘so secondary schoolish’ which generally meant rowdy, love-hate relationship with the opposite sex, body odour and an image modelled after jay chou, basketball clothing and cigarettes. The boys lit up, took very few puffs and snuffed out after some girls berated them. They weren’t really bad (most of their dads smoked), just really young.

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