Tuesday, 25 November 2014

mountain voodoo

It's quite possible that Wuyuan County in the north-east of Jiangxi province has some of the prettiest landscapes we'll ever see in China.  Our ride south from Huangshan City has brought us into another area full of old and well-looked after villages that look good through a camera lense - especially a one-foot long one as sported by the Nikon Camera Club - they are everywhere.  Well, not everywhere, okay, I'm exaggerating.  The joy of cycling is turning up in places that have not yet been branded by the Chinese as a 4 or 5 A tourist attraction.  Hey look! AAAAA!  Stop the bus!
And it helps if you have marked on your map a little connecting back country road based on what you think you can see on Google Maps only to find you have wandered down a dead-end lane somewhere in the hills.  Then you really are getting off the beaten track.

But actually, the beaten track is quite okay - with new tarmac and a steady supply of villages that can provide shops and restaurants as and when you need it.  Feeling peckish?  Oh look, here's a village.  The temperatures have risen and we feel like we've entered another climate zone having crossed a pass to enter the province of Jiangxi.  It seems like we're now in satsuma country, judging by the roadside open truck sales.  The villages we've come to see are not as wonderful as the UNESCO-protected ones in Anhui, but they are of the same style and era, with newer buildings popping up everywhere.  The clumsy touch of restoration/renovation/reconstruction that sometimes gives China's old villages a Disneyland look.  Authentic village or theme park?  Well, a bit of both normally.  If you wander away from the main street with its tourist shops and stalls you discover that normal rural daily life continues: bamboo and tree-felling, weeding of vegetable plots, washing laundry in the stream.

We find various camping pitches along the way.  Gayle's favourite is an Andy McNabb affair, which requires a commando-crawl up a terraced hillside through heavy growth to reach a bright little terrace over-looking the road.  Perfectly hidden and feeling relaxed we set to our dinner and getting comfy in bed when a strong lightbeam sweeps the overgrown land below us.  Who could it be searching in the dark in this lonely place? Forestry Police looking for careless campers?  Or just a farmer searching for his ornery buffalo? We don't know - they turn around before reaching us.  Another day, after a long ride through the mountains we pass through three villages with tourist facilities (i.e. hotels) before realising it is getting too dark to see anything and there's nowhere to camp except for that unused plot of land surrounded by vegetable plots.  In the morning we'll be plain to see, but in the dark every passerby on an electric scooter is oblivious.

Our ride takes us past one of China's least-visited mountains - should I say holy mountains?  There seems to be a top six that attract huge numbers of tourists and have had temples and monasteries built on them as places of meditation and prayer for centuries.  San Qing Shan has been an inspiration for Taoist monks and is now a UNESCO heritage site remarkable for a large number of hoodoos.  Yep, voodoo hoodoo.  We are wondering what we will come across as we cycle up and around the mountain, but apart from a few weird spindly rock shapes and a burgeoning tourist scene with cable cars and massive luxury hotel complexes, there ain't no sorcery or witchcraft that we can find.  The only fright we get is the entrance price.  Fifteen quid!

it turns out the hoodoo are the spindly rocks

The cyling has been a little harder than we've become accustomed to, but it should stand us in good stead for the ride south through Fujian.  There's not much of China that's flat in these parts. Coming down out of the mountains we reach a reservoir and then have to climb again as the road skirts around the steep slopes.  And then suddenly we pop out onto a plain, a wide valley, with big towns and dirty dusty roads with heavy traffic.  We opt for a main road to Shangrao and pass through the obligatory road-surfacing stretch where gravel has been dumped across the side of the road that isn't being worked on.  We emerge from the clouds of dust and find the road getting better - with much less traffic than expected.  After hurtling along for a couple of hours we cruise into Shangrao and start looking for a hotel.  To our dismay, the town seems to have undergone a couple of the Chinese City Makeovers.  So we have big avenues with grand buildings and only four- or five-star hotels which give way to a grimier city centre with an eighties' era white-tiled and blue-tinted glass look.  Behind these buildings are the old communist appartment blocks that look crumbly and grim, but these are well-tucked away behind the main shopping facades.  It's like peeling away an onion when you walk around, finding layers and layers like this.  It's rush-hour, traffic snarl-
ups outside schools, and no sign of anything but business hotels with business prices.  After trying a couple of these we come across one with nice helpful staff who have never had foreigners stay before. We agree to take their cheapest room - 100 yuan is about £10 - which is small but fine for us.  The bed is rock hard but then they often are.   After a bit of faffing around getting our visas copied and entry dates recorded we try to pay but the young manager/owner is having none of it.  He points to the bikes and gives us the thumbs up.  A free night in a smart little hotel - a fantastic kind offer we can only accept.

now this is a cheeky wild camp - on a hotel doorstep
There's something overwhelming about a big city after riding through the countryside for a few days, but the shock and awe soon wears off and we are happy to have a mooch about looking for food.  We find a cheap buffet canteen place with extremely odd looking but tasty food served on metal trays.  Foolishly, one of the dishes I opt for is the black-eyed peas - try eating them with stainless steel chopsticks.........

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. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

new china

Rolling through the outskirts of Nanjing we pass industrial plant after industrial plant.  There're no smoking chimneys or belching pipes - it's all nice tidy light stuff with gated entrances and landscaped surrounds.  The traffic isn't heavy either, but it is steady.  The sun soon disappears behind the now familiar white/grey cloud that seems to blanket all of urban China producing a dull flat light that makes everything seem a little dreary.  And it is in parts.  The land is flat and we're motoring along a two-lane highway, beyond the airport, out into southern Anhui, stopping only for another great lunch at a roadside restaurant where the woman patiently works out what we want to eat before getting the chef to crank up the burners.  In the late afternoon we come across water.  Lots of it.  Everywhere.  Rivers. Canals. Rice paddies. Ditches.  The road narrows as we run along a dyke from village to village.  The light is fading as are our hopes of finding any dry land to camp on.  In the dark we clamber about some rice paddies looking for a flat dry spot.  A lot of the harvest has been cut but is still lying in the fields waiting to be gathered.  Finally we settle for some dead land just off the road, but with some cover on both sides.  The trucks and tractors and three-wheeled vans continue to rumble past as we get to sleep.  It rains all night.  In the grey morning we let the tent dry out enough to pack it away.  In the mornings we don't care who sees us camping.

it's not that wet

The rain stops and starts all day and we splash our way southwards through villages big and small, all with trademark main street 3-storey housing blocks.  These are standard across the country with a ground floor that can be a shop, a store room, a workshop and upstairs the home.  Unfortunately it gives so many places a generic look - like an English high street full of all the same chain stores.  The street scenes are always busy with people, clutter lying around everywhere, cars, scooters and those three-wheeled thingummies.  As we pull into a town in the late afternoon we opt to find a hotel where we can dry out the tent and all our clothes.  There seems an oversupply of hotels in China - most look empty in these ordinary towns.  We find one easily and settle in happily.  In the morning as we ride out of town we see that someone has plans for the place - there are about twenty tower blocks being constructed on the outskirts.  The new wide boulevards are already finished, complete with signs to.....nowhere.  There's a lot of empty land around too.  
The horn-beeping has started to get to me.  I had blanked it out until I read our friend Chris' brilliant blog about cycling in the west of China.  It seems that every driver has to beep their horn at anything that moves.  Or anything that doesn't move.  If you are beeped at, then you beep back.  The reason for this is obvious when you cycle here - absolutely no-one has any road sense.  Pedestrians all seem to have a death wish.  Vehicles pull onto a road without looking.  Gert explained the rules to us - if you are in front, by any tiny
 distance, then any manouvre is permitted and if anyone hits you it is their fault.  And it doesn't matter if you are joining a road from the side.  The worst are the bus and truck air horns.  Some sadistic pleasure must be got from giving a quick blast in a cyclist's ear just as they pass by.  One day we pass a series of driving instructor's cars, all along the same stretch of road.  There are two students in each car. One is driving.  The other is urging them on to beep their horn.  And beeps mean points and points mean.....well, nothing I suppose.  China is so corrupt though, I should imagine it's quite easy to pass your test here.  You're driving along a little road when the test inspector slaps his hand on the dashboard.  Emergency stop? No, just hand over an envelope stuffed with cash......

hey, great idea!

ahh, now I remember
Riding towards Xuancheng we stop for lunch in a little village.  There's a frisson of excitement amongst the punters sat round a table when they realise two laowai have just pulled up on bicycles.  Laowai is the word we hear sometimes when we walk down the street - it translates roughly as Old Big Nose but means 'foreigner' and isn't derogatory.  At least I hope it isn't.  The restaurant only has two tables and one of them is taken by grandma whose watching a gameshow on TV.  The punters have finished eating and move into the room next door for some post-prandial mahjong.  

We have a great lunch, stuff ourselves with rice and plates of I can't remember what and drink a gallon of green tea.  The mother, who did the cooking, comes out to see we're okay.  Her daughters appear and one of them has a smart phone and a smattering of English.  She's a teacher in the city.  Photos are taken.  Pops appears.  We are invited to play mah jong.  And when we come to pay the bill, the mother refuses.  Her daughter translates: she is happy to feed us.
a gaming culture?

We are now in Anhui province which has a population of about 60 million.  It's one of the poorest provinces, principally because most of it is given over to farming, rather than industry.  When we approach Xuancheng we get a surprise: tower blocks and cranes as far as the eye can see.  The city is expanding, taking over the surrounding farmland.  We only want to skirt the city but our road takes us towards the centre until we can finally extricate ourselves and get on our little green road again.  Green?  That's the colour of the secondary roads on our map. But this road is brown, with the mud from construction work.  Half the road is newly-asphalted while the other half is bedrock and mud.  We pull off to the edge of a tea plantation to camp.


Next morning we ride through the mud for a while.  Gayle's bike has developed an irregular clacking sound, which sounds like her back wheel hub.  Or is it the bottom bracket?  When we can, we slip onto the unfinished and closed-off sections of road that are flat to escape the trucks and traffic on the filthier stretches.  The day is miserably overcast again.  Everything has the washed-out colour of a classical Chinese watercolour, but the scene is more  L.S.Lowry when we pass yet another construction site. 

the Mansion of the Gods
but not yet
It's hard to comprehend who will live in the new appartment complexes that are being thrown up everywhere.  Even if there is a steady drift from rural to urban living, who could afford it?  House prices are apparently increasing in China as demand outstrips supply.  At the same time there is a steady growth in the middle class.  Car ownership is growing but thankfully hasn't made the traffic unbearable yet.  Most people seem to make do with an electric scooter or, if they're a farmer, one of those three-wheeled thingummies.

When we reach Jingxian even Gayle is wondering about the awful sound from her bike.  We either need to stop for the day so that I can strip down the wheel and/or find a bike shop. After asking in a restaurant, we are directed to a Giant bike shop which turns out to be quite small.  I ask the man in the shop if he has a new bottom bracket for Gayle's bike, but he has hardly any spare parts.  It seems to be normal here.  However, he checks it over and thinks it's okay.  So then we look at the hub on the back wheel.  There's a little wobble on the axle so he strips the hub down and we take a look at the bearings.  On one side they are completely worn down.  I ask if he can replace them but he doesn't have any.  Another man is sent out to get some.  He returns with bearings that are smaller.  Our man starts to put them in, but I protest.  Luckily, there's a spare wheel in the shop and they remove the bearings from that to use.  It's taken a little over an hour and meanwhile Gayle has been cleaning up the bikes and chatting with the man's wife.  She tells Gayle that they have both been cycle-touring in China and her husband had toured in Qinghai, in the west.  They don't look the type.  But what is the type?  How much for the service? Nothing, the man indicates with a smile and outstretched hands.  In the end we buy a new saddle to replace Gayle's "handmade in Italy" one - it had literally started to fall apart from poor construction.  Well, what do you expect from cheap Italian crap? The new saddle looks much better and is, er, an Italian brand, made in China.

no more clacking
We roll out of town silently towards Huangshan - Yellow Mountain - in search of another Green Road....

Thursday, 6 November 2014

on the rails

We have found sleeper berths on a train to Nanjing, much to our relief.  The train is 'slow' so the tickets are not too expensive.  Our bikes have gone on ahead of us.  We dropped them off in the consignment building a few days earlier to send them on their way.  It's slightly disconcerting handing them over, but the staff look efficient and the process is painless.  What does cause us pain is lugging our stuff to the station on the metro.  We don't have far to walk but by the time we arrive our shoulders and hands are in agony.  How can we have so much stuff?  Train journeys in China are all part of the fun of being in a massively over-crowded country.  Everything is organised to process thousands of people.  The security searches at the entrance are pretty meaningless - knives are not allowed, but we have three stashed away in our panniers.  There is an armed police presence outside the station - a new phenomenon.  It's all down to the attacks at Urumqi and Kunming stations this year.  Once inside we find our waiting hall and then join the crush when our train is called.  It feels slightly chaotic and could get nasty but everyone knows the procedure and shuffles patiently through two gates before rushing onwards to the platform to find their carriage.  We find our berths and stow all our luggage before anyone else can stop us.  Luckily the other passengers who share our section are travelling light.  Sensible people.  It's nearly midnight when the train rolls out of the capital - we are already asleep.

It's nice to have a lie-in.  Once you get up you have to join in the seat shuffle game as people take it in turns to eat and get hot water for tea.  We, like almost everyone else, have pot noodles.  By early afternoon we have arrived and pile off onto the platform.  Now, somewhere, we have to find our bikes.  At the consignment desk they shake their heads.  "Mei you."  No. Don't have.  There isn't any.  I hate these two words in China.  Someone points at a telephone number on my receipt.  It's my turn to shake my head.  "Mei you." No. Don't have.  Happily one of the staff speaks enough English to explain that our bikes are in Nanjing but not at this station.  I look bemused.  I had to show my train ticket when I consigned the bikes - they knew which station we were arriving at.  A phone call is made on our behalf and we are told to wait - the bikes will be brought to the station.  Relief.

Riding through Nanjing on a sunny Sunday afternoon we get a sense of a green leafy city full of trees.  These bring shade to the pavements and hide some of the more ugly buildings that crowd in close to the road.  There are plenty of shiny new buildings, but also a fair number of older shabby ones in the downtown area.  The city is clean.  Like every city in China.  Like almost everywhere.  The Chinese throw all their litter in the street but there's an army of road sweepers to clean up after them.  It looks like a work-fare scheme to keep older people in work.  

We spend a night in a hostel near the university.  The neighbourhood is quiet in the evening when we go to search for food.  We find a little place serving noodles in a tasty broth - we later learn that it's duck's blood soup.  On our walk back we come across a bookshop - the 'Librairie Avant-Garde'.  It's in the basement of a big office tower.  It looks like a simple little place when we walk in but the shop turns a corner, up a ramp, and into a huge cavernous, low-ceilinged place.  There are yellow lines and arrows painted on the concrete floor.  It's an underground car-park.  It's about 9pm and the place is busy with shoppers and an awful lot of people sat around reading in comfy chairs.  Who'd have thought?  The state bookstores you find in every city are miserably drab and utilitarian places that look more like stationery shops.  This is a cave full of treasure in comparison.

The next day we head over to Beppie and Gert's house.   They have kindly accepted our couch-surfing request.  South Africans living on a new estate with their two children, Aletta and (not so) Little Gert, they have been here for seven years.  Gert works for Continental, in another city an hour and a half away by car.  Beppie admits they are living in a bubble here - they are perhaps weary and leery of Chinese food ("we don't eat pork or chicken" - presumably because they know how the meat is produced here) and their favourite restaurant is Pakistani.  Mind you, they delight in telling us about a local hot-pot restaurant too.  Aletta and Little Gert are both very sociable and chatty.  While Little Gert is at the International British school, Aletta has started studying Chinese at one of the local universities.  "There are seventy-two in Nanjing!" Gert tells us, still astonished himself at the number.
They're a lovely family and we enjoy family dinners with them in the evening followed by a stroll around the estate.  The houses are quite grand and the grounds are landscaped really well.  It feels like living in a big overgrown park and the amount of plantlife is overwhelming, even in such a green city as this.  Sleek black cars swish past us on our promenade one evening and Beppie makes a reference to party members.  Now in China when someone says "party" they're not talking about bringing a six-pack or a bottle of plonk and grooving away until the small hours in someone's lounge.  Here the Party means Power.  Bigwigs.  It's another world.

another fabulous dinner with Gert, Beppie, Aletta and Little Gert

Nanjing has been China's capital on several occasions and has suffered for it.  It is infamous for the massacre carried out by Japanese troops in 1937 when they invaded from Shanghai and drove the Kuomintang into retreat.  There's a memorial hall for the estimated 300,000 victims, soldiers who were captured and summarily executed, and civilians who were raped, assaulted and robbed before being killed.  I don't think Japan has ever apologised for this crime, although some generals were tried after the war for their war crimes.  The memorial hall is too much for Gayle.  I am interested because on TV here they still show dramas set during this period when the Kuomintang and the Communists ostensibly took a break from fighting each other to try and defeat the Japanese.  On these shows the Communist guys are all rugged good-looking types, the Kuomintang are the baddies, but with some redeeming features whilst the Japanese are undoubtedly the baddest of the bad.  In these times, with tensions in the South China Sea rising, the narrative looks rather alarming.  The memorial exhibition is disturbing and moving, but it's hard to take in all the information as there are busloads of tourists pushing through with me.  There's a little feature on the westerners who stayed and set up a neutral 'safety zone' in the city, all to no avail.  There's no mention of why Chiang Kai-shek ran off to Chongqing with half his army instead of standing and fighting. Like the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I emerge feeling numb and uncomprehending about the nature of humanity.  At the exit is a plea in Chinese which declares all war abhorrent and exorts the people to respond responsibly, whilst declaring that the government shall continue to work peacefully to reunify the motherland.  If I was from Mongolia or Taiwan I'd probably shudder.

In a previous episode of China's varied and torrid history is the Taiping Rebellion which began in the south of China in the 1850s.  The origin was a man who gained a cult-following believing he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  They made Nanjing their capital and took control of a large area of the country, demanding social reforms and shared ownership of property.  The Qing dunasty was in decline at this point and got support from the British and French to suppress the rebellion after 14 years of fighting.  The conflict and the ensuing mass executions led to a death toll in the millions - a scale hard to imagine before the First World War. 

After all this grim history we are in need of relief and find it in the Nanjing Museum, which has just been renovated and houses an incredible collection of artefacts.  We haven't been in a good museum probably since Athens, and some of the exhibits are wonderful.  Our favourite might be the two great suits made of jade pieces and stitched together with gold thread - burial suits for wealthy lords from the Han dynasty. Although I am torn with the discovery that jazz began in China during the Song dynasty from the unearthing of the oldest known atonal vibraphone.

saying Goodbye with Aletta

We have had a great time with Beppie and her family.  We are interested to understand what life as ex-pats might be like here and it is clearly not straightforward.  The family have had to make many sacrifices leaving their home in South Africa.  It's a great opportunity for us to talk about life here and our journey and Gert tells us that they are used to Couch Surfers arriving here, talking non-stop and enjoying Beppie's great home-cooking.  So maybe we don't feel too bad after all for stuffing our faces every evening and chattering on.  Sadly, it's time for us to move on and say goodbye to our lovely host family.  We have felt so relaxed with them and it feels hard to leave such good people.