China Adventures – Pre-coronavirus

Now that term was over, I had a week to prepare the flat for Lauren to come and visit. Ever since I found out that I was moving to China to take this job, Lauren said she was going to come out and visit me, and we would have a grand Chinese adventure.

Finally, she was able to afford to come out, and we were able to plan it with the idea that I would fly back to Shenzhen at the end of the trip, at the same time that she would fly home. But that’s the end of the story. The beginning was procrastinating cleaning the flat until the day she arrived. And I also managed not to pack for the trip away either, because I can’t work unless I have a deadline, and the deadline for packing was still a couple of days away.

Lauren was arriving at a stupid late time on Friday, because time zones mostly, and an incredibly stressful for her layover in Chengdu (see this link for my adventures there with my parents) and I had arrived at the airport before her flight even landed, due to the fact that if I’d tried to arrive later, the metro would have stopped running and I’d’ve been stranded somewhere in Shenzhen and it would have been quite difficult and more expensive to get to the airport.

After picking Lauren up, it was time to get back and get ready for bed, as she was tired from long distance travel, and I was tired because it was past my bedtime. It didn’t stop me from nattering Lauren’s ear off in the Didi on the way back, and she was game enough to make it seem like she was listening, even if she was nodding off a little bit.

The next two days were days of chilling. we got our nails done; I took Lauren to Brew, my favourite pub in all of Shenzhen, because of a) the light show, and b) it was Western food. And while Lauren was in China to experience some parts of the Chinese culture, including the Chinese New Year, and probably Chinese food, she also wanted to see what I did and where I would go and what it was like in my part of the country. While I don’t get my nails done regularly, I thought it would be nice to have pretty nails for our adventure. On Sunday, we went for a walk in the local park and we got a massage. I let Lauren go first, and I took the second lady that became available. And boy, am I glad I did. It was the most painful massage I’ve ever experienced, and the way the lady was acting, it was quite possible that my back was an entire mass of knots and that there wasn’t any unknotted muscle left. She pressed very hard and had very pointy elbows. Lauren had expressed concern about the massage because of her back and it not being what it used to be, despite operations, and if her lay were to press too hard, she would have to speak up. Luckily, she didn’t have my masseuse. And luckily, I don’t have back problems.

At some point during this time, Lauren asked me what I knew about the coronavirus. I said I hadn’t heard of it. It was barely in the news at this point in the UK, and it wasn’t even a thing in China at all. But she was a little worried about it, and because we were going to Beijing, which is known for its poor air quality, I took my mask along. It was a good job I did, too.

After a weekend of ‘splorin’ my hometown (so to speak), it was time for the adventure to begin for real. We flew from Shenzhen to Huangshan and the Yellow Mountains.

Because we were flying for a few hours, we landed late-ish at night and were taken to a hotel close to the airport, to begin the adventure proper, proper the next day, which also happened to be my birthday. Lauren had been a gem, and had carried various gifts’n’bits from my parents and relatives over, rather than try to rely on the Chinese postal service (my mother had sent a parcel at the beginning of December and it arrived on New Year’s Eve) and she also brought balloons and bunting to decorate the hotel room with. Birthdays are a very big thing for her, and I appreciate that (even if I didn’t seem to because I was overtired at the time).

First order of the day was a little gift from the hotel to say “Happy Birthday.” It was a nail care set, of which I’m very appreciative, because my nails are always pretty bad when I haven’t got large acrylic and paint on them. Our hotel for that night was also upgraded to the best one in the area of the Yellow Mountains that we were staying in, paid for by the company we were travelling with, as a gift for my birthday as well, which was very nice.

Second order of the day was Xidi village, which is a very old village, where the residents still live according to their traditions, and in a traditional way. Lauren got squicked out by the killing of a chicken, and all the corpses of chickens and fish being dried out around the village, but honestly, watching it, there wasn’t much if anything to see. Luckily for Lauren we arrived a couple of days after the ceremonial pig-slaughtering, but there was still blood on the floor where it hadn’t been washed away by the weather yet.

However, they did still have Wi-Fi at the local shop and café type place, because everywhere needs Wi-Fi, right?

The residents were all getting ready for the Chinese New Year, which meant cleaning their houses, although a few were practising their very specific crafts and selling them. A young teenage was very confused when we asked to see his feet, but that was because he was using a traditional warming method, which looks like an old wooden bath with a raised seat. The person sits on the seat and in the basin below they put hot coals and a grate and rest their slippered feet there to keep them toasty. It was very warm and I was tempted to try and join him, because, as Lauren had laughed at me a couple of days earlier, I was finding 20°C in Shenzhen chilly, and the weather in Xidi was hovering closer to 5°C. I was cold.

We also saw where the women still do their clothes washing in the stream that runs through the village, as shown by the bottle of clothes soap affixed to the wall next to the very precarious steps that lead down to the stream. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough on the ball to get a photo of that, but we did see other villagers drying their crops for future use, and making the most of the sun, as it was a nice day and the rest of the week was forecast to be rubbish.

We were ushered out of the village quickly and to our surprise the driver came to pick us up. We had hoped for a bit of time to wander around and maybe pick up a souvenir there, but we hadn’t explained this to Jerry, our guide, and so we didn’t and were instead whisked to the Bamboo Forest and Mukeng Village, which happened to be a very exciting place, where the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was filmed. At least, the scene where they zipwire across a bamboo forest was. I don’t know. I have yet to see the film, but I am planning on seeing it at some point now. Since I’ve been to the live set. Mukeng Village was similar to Xidi, except it was half way up a mountain and more difficult to get to, and they produced tea. I saw my first tea plant, and honestly, it looks like a little box hedge. And that day was the day they were washing their bedding. Which held a lot more fur than in the hotel. It was interesting and it seemed like a nice simple life that they had there.

Once we were done here, it was time to venture into the Yellow Mountains proper, and go to our hotel. It was mid-afternoon, which we thought was a little early, but Jerry reminded us about the hot springs and we got excited.

The hot springs were what they said on the tin, and we were lucky that they were open, because the week before Lauren flew out, we had been told that they were closed because there was no water in them, since there was a drought in the area and there hadn’t been enough rain to fill them up. It had rained since, but not all the pools were full, so they weren’t at full capacity yet. We decided to try the “Ore” pool first, which we thought looked somewhat low on water, but by this point we were up a mountain at four-thirty or so in the afternoon and only wearing swimming costumes. If it was warm, we would lie in it just to warm up.

It was full of little balls of clay. We stepped in it and shrieked a little when we sank up to our knees, much to the amusement of the family that were already sitting there. I, being me, manged to get the little balls in my unmentionable areas, forgot about it, and caused a potential slipping hazard when I went to the toilet later and they all spilled out of my swimming costume (except for the five or six that somehow managed to make their way into the lignin of my costume). We got our revenge though as we got to laugh at the next hot springs goers that came along.

There was also a Lemongrass Pool, yellow and smelling of lemongrass, a Rose Pool, with rose petals, a mixed flower pool that was a toasty 41°C (all the others were around 37°C) and too hot for Lauren, a Chrysanthemum Pool, a Red Wine pool (not drinkable I’m afraid), a Ginseng Pool, and a Milk Pool, where we channelled our Inner Cleopatra’s and then got talking to some very curious Chinese children. With their broken English and my broken Chinese, we were able to have a limited conversation but I really like it when we can make those sorts of connections.

After two hours of sampling all the pools, save for one, we were very pruney and rather hungry, so it was time to head back to the hotel and dry up. Lauren, because she is a star, had brought a cheeky bottle of prosecco with her and we had that before dinner. It was just as well; dinner was a little disappointing. There weren’t many options; just the hotel we were at, and maybe another hotel across the valley and further away than we wanted to travel, so it was the hotel restaurant we went to. Then when we got there, the waitress didn’t like that we ordered a load of dishes and said we were only allowed to order four. So, we did, and then I burned all the nerve endings in my mouth because of how spicy it was. However, the fried rice was delicious and we gorged on that along with the bottle of red wine we’d bought for dinner, so much so that we took the wine with us back to the room to finish while lying on our beds and rejoicing in their softness. After all it had been a long day.

The next day we were up early as well, because we had to go up a mountain to look at some amazing views. We had been under the impression that we were walking up the mountain, which would take three hours, but when we got there, Jerry bought us tickets for the gondola. So that’s the way that we went. Even going up the hill in the gondola was pretty incredible and I got excited by the small amounts of snow that I saw while on the way up. At the top of the mountain, as soon as I could scrape enough snow together for a micro-ball, it was thrown at Lauren.

The views were absolutely stunning and genuinely the photos do not do the mountains justice. It turned out just as well that we went up in the gondola rather than climbing the mountain as after only a couple of hours of being up the mountains, the clouds came down and we could barely see ten feet in front of us. We retreated for a tactical hot chocolate and Jerry advised us that we would be unlikely to see any more that day, and in his experience, it would start raining quite heavily in short order. So we beat a hasty retreat back to the gondola, and realised that we were happy not to have eaten at the hotel where we’d had the hot chocolate, because we saw all the porters carrying everything up on their shoulders. They were aged and the packs looked very heavy and Jerry told us that they were paid a pittance, but they’d rather work than fade into old age, and they were still trying to support their families. It looked a horrible gruelling job and they had very little chance to rest. Apparently, the pay was based on the number of loads they carried, so they just had to keep trudging up the mountain.

Because the day had been cut somewhat short, Jerry offered to set us up at the hot springs again and we sprang at the chance. This time, I took my phone with me into the pools in a waterproof casing, and it was a good idea, because we also decided to try the fish pool. They had those fish that eat your feet but you could sit in the pool and have them eat all our dead skin.

By the gods, they tickeled. And we had a lot of dead skin to eat with us. It was akin to torture having to stay very still so as not to scare the fish away so that they could do their jobs, but also the urge to twitch the tickle away was incredibly strong. We also sampled the other pools again as we had to make sure they were just as good as the day before, then returned to the hotel for another evening of slightly disappointing food. I decided to take some of it away with me, as there was no way I could finish it and Lauren was a little underfed, because the noodles that were supposed to be for both of us contained meat.

The fish had done their job though; our feet were silky smooth, and our legs felt smoother too, even though neither of us had shaved. It was great.

Day 3 of the adventure proper was a travel day; it was time to head to Beijing. This was the day we found out about the coronavirus from Jerry. This was the first time it was mentioned to us beyond what Lauren had told me. But it wasn’t concern at all. It was just that there was this virus that people were getting. There was no suggestion of any sorts of precautions being taken on the train when we got it, even though we were the province over from Hubei.

But first, we had requested that we have a chance to go souvenir shopping, because we hadn’t had a chance yet. Jerry took us to his friend’s tea shop where we had the tea ceremony and sampled the tea so that we could buy some for our families, even if I couldn’t deliver it home for a while. Luckily it would be good for a couple of years because I asked and checked. I was appreciative that we had gone to this place, because the lady’s family owned the tea farm where she got the tea and it was a thirty-minute drive from the shop to the farm. The shop was in the old part of town, which also included a famous bamboo carving shop, where Lauren and I got some lovely bookmarks. And we saw an ancient pharmacy that was around five hundered-ish years old. And we were finally taken to a famous artist’s shop and no joke, the artist looked like he had stepped out of a Chinese film set a hundred years ago. He looked great and I was awed by the quality of the paintings in the shop.

Once we’d finished there, we had a bit of free time to explore the old town before we had to go to the train station. There I found out that my suitcase was broken – one of the wheels came off, and that the oily noodles I’d saved from the night before had leaked all over the bottom of my hand luggage bag. Luckily, they hadn’t soaked into much. The worst casualty was my face mask, that I wanted to wear in Beijing if the air pollution was really bad. The bag and the mask stank of oil. I was able to use a plastic bag to protect the rest of my stuff from the oily bottom, so that I could tend to it once we got to the hotel after a six-hour train journey

The journey itself passed well enough and we were met at Beijing train station by Tracy, our new guide. It was too late in the day for us to eat even, since the restaurants were shutting early due to the Chinese New Year, so we had instant noodles in the hotel room, after a quick drink at the bar, so that we could have an early night for our first big day in the capital of the People’s Republic of China.

The next day, we met Tracy for an exploration of the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, but the first thing that she did was give us face masks, because of the coronavirus. She wasn’t too worried about this, but the company wanted her to be better safe than sorry and we agreed. So we wore them, and instantly disliked them. Let me ask, do you know what the smell of your stale breath is like? It’s not nice. And it’s something that both of us got used to very quickly. The worst part is when you take the mask off for pictures, then have to put it back on again, because after a time you go nose blind to the smell, but taking if off re-sensitises you.

The Temple of Heaven was a beautiful temple, and very old. It was a sacrificial temple, where the emperors of the Qing and Ming dynasties would come annually for their prayers for good harvests. It is one of the oldest buildings built in the column style that it was, and it is all entirely symbolic. There are 12 columns for the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. It is also unique in that while made entirely of wood, no nails were used at all in the construction of it. It is typical of China, in that it was not in very good condition and got meticulously restored in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where it played a somewhat important part.

Once we were done there, we headed for Tiananmen Square to see Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and also the Square itself, but it was all closed off, as there were government buildings there as well, and the governments was in session, having lots of important meetings.

The Forbidden City and Summer Palace were just as awe-inspiring and a second film was added to my “To Watch” list; The Last Emperor.

This was where Tracy left us, but we wanted to see the temples and pagodas on the man-made hill behind the city, made because it was good feng shui to have the river (also man-made) in front and the hill behind. The views from there showed off nigh-on the entire city, and although the day was very clear, you could see the famed pollution, lying as a layer of brown before tapering into the blue of the sky

After this it was time to head back for lunch, as we were to see the Kung-Fu show that night, and we hadn’t eaten since lunch. We were so hungry by the time we got there, we attacked the sunflower seed provided to us by the restaurant, and to our great surprise, we really liked them. I introduced Lauren to the joys of fried pancakes, and she was given the largest fish I have ever seen as her meal, and my duck nearly didn’t come. When it did, it came with precisely half its head, just the same as the rest of the duck was sliced in half. However, it was a most delicious duck.

I nearly didn’t make it into the Kung Fu show. Due to the efficacy of my hat at keeping my head warm, it was a little over the accepted temperature allowed into the theatre, but a couple of minutes de-hatted and I was good to go, even if we did have to spend the entirety of the show marinating in our own stale breath smell. It was an incredible show, and the few pictures I dared to take did not do it justice, so I gave up and just enjoyed the experience instead, especially their fantastic feats of acrobatics and fighting – which, to be fair was most of it. I was surprised that the majority of the speaking in the show was in English rather than Chinese, but of course, it was for the tourists so it made sense and did enhance the show as such.

The next day was truly an early start as it was a long way to the Beijing Wall, and we wanted to beat the crowds. And so, we did. We were also told that the Forbidden Palace had shut and so we had been lucky to have gone the day before.

The Wall is awe-inspiring in a way that words cannot capture. We were there on a beautifully clear day, and could see the Wall for as far in either direction as the mountains would allow, including a watch tower on the sleeping man’s chin.

To get down from the wall, we could have taken the cable car back, but there was a faster and more fun option; tobogganing. While the signs said not to stop, it was unavoidable as unfortunately, we were caught behind a slow person who kept holding up the line of people behind them. But it was still fun when we did manage to get up to speed. On the way back from the wall, we had our first bit of coronavirus related bad news. The Terracotta Army in Xi’an was shut and so we wouldn’t be able to go and see it. We were also told that the Wall had stopped letting people on at midday that day, but because we had arrived at ten, we’d been okay.

We also stopped at a small rural town, to see the marketplace and see a little bit of more common China. We saw a lady selling bagsful of sunflower seeds, and on mentioning to Tracy that we’d discovered them and liked them the day before, she bought us about a kilogram of salted sunflower seeds and 500g of plain ones. I still have some plain ones left. Yes, a month later. There were a lot of sunflower seeds.

For the rest of the afternoon, Tracy had arranged for us to have a massage each, which ended up with the both of us having our feet bathed in “medicine” by the masked masseuse. It looked like tea. It could well have been tea. It was interesting to say the least and the massage itself was much gentler than those in Shenzhen.

After the massage we headed out for food, but because tonight was the night of the New Year and the big New Year show was on, everywhere shut very early. The only place that was still open by the time we stirred ourselves after the massage was McDonald’s. but we had the evening of TV and once again some spectacular feats of gymnastics and other abilities by Chinese people in the show. We also had sunflower seeds and cards and it was a very good night, even if the food was subpar.


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