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. 

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