After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“Oh wow!” cried S as the door swung open to our bedroom. The first thing we saw was the king-size bed; a vessel of a thing set between a pair of elegant side tables. Dropping onto the mattress with a wide smile, I sank into the row of pillows and cushions, bouncing slightly on its soft springiness. There was a basket on one of the tables overflowing with shampoo, creams and gels, while someone had even been kind enough to include a packet of condoms. Now this, it seemed, was a hotel with great sexpectations! Directly opposite the bed sat a flat screen TV perched atop a wide chest of dark wood, while the marble bathroom boasted a sizeable shower, two fluffy towels hanging invitingly from a pair of sparkling hooks. “Not bad…” said S, fishing a hairdryer out of a drawer, “how much was this again?”
Our nightly rate at The Green Tree Inn worked out at an almost laughable fifteen Euros a night. Having slummed it for a few days at the charmless Tianjin City Youth Hostel, we’d decided to treat ourselves during our stay in Jinan. S and I knew little about the city, other than it was the capital of Shandong province and home to just under five million people. And from what I’d read, travellers did not hold the place in high regard. “Don’t bother!” came the recurring online advice. “Ugly city” said one; “industrial eyesore!” claimed another. Indeed the only reason we’d come here at all was for a daytrip to Zhujiayu, an ancient stonewall village some eighty kilometres away. From all the places on our itinerary, nothing had captured my imagination as much as the prospect of Zhujiayu, a time machine location of crumbling walls, a hillside temple and just three hundred residents.
Nevertheless, we resolved to give Jinan a chance. So we headed out for what was left of the day into a noisy metropolis of heavy traffic, teeming pedestrians and intermittent construction. In fact, the sound of drilling and cement mixing was never far away and there were times where it forced us off the pavement and into the road alongside zooming, honking vehicles. “Jesus!” bemoaned S as a gargantuan lorry roared by, a tornado of dust enveloping us in its wake.
Arriving in an altogether calmer residential area packed with shops and restaurants, we’d just stopped to consult our map when a trendy young Chinese woman approached us with a “Hi, can I help you guys?” A blue and white handbag slung over her shoulder, she wore a grey T-shirt with the slogan: “Watch my eyes because”. “Oh, I love England!” she grinned, “I studied in Sheffield for a year, the accent there is crazy! Do you know Richard Hawley?” We stood chatting for a bit and she pointed us towards Daguan Gardens, a nearby grid of market streets. “Say hi to Richard!” she laughed as we parted, “see you again sometime… on Coles Corner!”
We hadn’t really been hungry, but the tantalising array of aromas on offer quickly reeled us in as we checked out the vast selection of food stalls at Daguan Gardens. Our first stop took in some mini chicken kebabs, cooked up right in front of us on a charcoal grill. A few stalls down we went for a plate of herb-filled Chinese dumplings (jiaozi) dipped in vinegar. Everything was delicious and impossibly cheap. Just across from us sat a handsome Chinese couple staring into each other’s eyes; their hands interlocked, a cluster of piping hot dishes set between them. “Aw!” sighed S as the guy leaned over to give his sweetheart a kiss, whispering sweet nothings into her ear. We watched as they giggled together, he capturing a chunk of fried eggplant with his chopsticks and gently feeding it to her. It was admittedly mesmerising until suddenly, out of nowhere, the man began snorting, a long, chest-rattling coffee-machine-brewing cacophony of unpleasantness. And then came the money shot, as he spat out the offending contents onto the floor at the foot of their table. His darling didn’t even blink (!) and… as if nothing had happened… they returned to their state of unencumbered romance.
By the time we left the market the afternoon light was fading and yet the streets were still buzzing. There were young women marching around with Shi Tzus and Chihuahuas, a group of old ladies slow-dancing to the funereal tones of traditional music blaring out of an old CD Player. Turning onto a quiet side street, we spied a middle-aged couple playing badminton outside an immense apartment block, the absence of a net in no way dampening their fun. “Ni hao!” cried the wife excitedly, jogging over to us. Her arm outstretched, racket extended, she invited me to play her husband, who was looking on hopefully, tapping his racket against the side of his trainers. It was only then that I noticed he was wearing an old England football shirt. We played for a solid twenty minutes, S and Mrs Badminton providing encouragement from the steps of the building. It was a priceless experience, the lady squealing during the more competitive rallies, my opponent punching the air when he won a point, but also magnanimous enough to applaud me when I got the better of him. Exchanging goodbyes, I felt so happy we’d taken the time to explore Jinan; that we hadn’t bypassed it like everyone had advised.
Making our way home, we came across an elderly couple offering shoulder massages for 10 Yuan. I took my place in their dilapidated straw chair as the husband, a bony old man with soft, inquisitive eyes, mercilessly set to work on me. In fact, it was hard not to cry out in pain as he dug his fingers deep between my bones, ruthlessly working my muscles. But then, just as I was about to ask him to stop, it began to feel good! Closing my eyes, I allowed the monophonic buzz of city commotion to drain into the background, becoming so relaxed I almost fell asleep.
After a fantastic night’s rest at The Green Tree Inn, we grabbed a couple of coffees and headed out to Jinan’s grimy outskirts for the bus to Zhujiayu. On arrival there was much confusion as to which vehicle we needed, not helped by my woeful attempts at pronouncing our destination (“Jew-zia-ooh”). In the end we boarded a precarious hunk of scrap metal and took our seats among a handful of locals, crossing our fingers that the bus would make it. Happily it did, though the journey was barely an hour as we had to change buses at the remote, hugely depressing Mingshui Station. From there it was a further forty minutes, the industrial landscape giving way to deep green fields and muddy country lanes.
By the time we got dropped off at the edge of Zhujiayu, the sky had broken into a sheet of impenetrable grey and it was spitting. Walking towards the village entrance, a crumbling stone archway, I picked out a rapid explosion of activity from within. There were three old ladies eagerly anticipating our arrival, one of them clutching an armful of umbrellas. When we reached them umbrella woman attacked, pushing her goods into my chest and clucking into my face like a deranged chicken. Meanwhile the other two tackled S, waving a wad of faded old tickets at her as they shouted over each other in high-pitched tones. “Bùyào!” (Don’t want!) I stated firmly, spinning on my heels as Umbrella Creature continued her assault. “There’s a ticket office over there,” called S as her two assailants continued to flap at her, “but it’s closed… I don’t think they’re gonna let us in without paying something”.
The rain was getting heavier now and the ground beyond the archway starting to get muddy. The three women were making so much damn noise I knew we had to end this quickly, for the sake of our sanity if nothing else. So I paid one of the ticket ladies a nominal fee for two of her stubs. She seemed pleased, but then a fight broke out between her and the other ticket lady, who was furious at having been left out of the sale. She was now demanding half the spoils and the argument quickly spiralled out of control as they chased each other around in circles, poking and shouting all the while. Luckily for us, The Umbrella Witch stepped in to try and break it up, so we took the opportunity to slink away and leave them to it.
Following a lone path into the village, the rain was coming down hard now and we were soon soaking wet. Traipsing through puddles and tiptoeing across several troughs of thick, evil mud, I wondered where all the buildings were, with nothing but condensed trees, bushes and wild flowers in sight. On the horizon, barely visible through the treetops, stood the rippling peaks of some nearby hills. On a sunny day it would have surely been beautiful, but this was not that day… not by a long shot. “I need to stop… just for a few seconds!” puffed S. “Sure!” I replied, hands on hips, gazing up at the path ahead, which continued to wind ever upward. “Look!” she cried, pulling me by the arm. I spun around to see a woman plodding towards us, two bags of vegetables clutched in one hand, an umbrella held aloft in the other. She smiled as she came, a kind smile that I immediately had a good feeling about. Stopping before us, she said something in Chinese, looked at our bemused faces, laughed and then jabbed her hand towards her mouth. “Yes!!!” I cried happily, “Yes, food! Thank you! Xièxiè!”
Smiling that kind smile again, she moved on ahead, motioning for us to follow. Occasionally looking back to check that we were ok, the woman led us up the path until it levelled out, running alongside a decaying brick wall. Finally, a collection of stone houses came into view and she ushered us towards one of them. Reaching a large wooden doorway, we followed her up the steps and through the archway under the lanterns, saying a quick hello to the old lady sat in a chair peeling onions. Coming out into a sizeable courtyard, the woman showed us into an adjoining dining room and invited us to sit at the long, dramatic table, the kind you see in paintings of mediaeval feasts. She smiled again and disappeared, returning a short time later with a pot of Oolong tea. It was great to be out of the rain and the tea went down a treat, S and I whispering conspiratorially about what kind of meal she was going to make. Ten minutes later she was back again to take us to a side kitchen where bags of bulging vegetables sat on rows of wonky shelves. A couple of skinned chickens dangled from rusty ceiling hooks and there were portable stoves hooked up to the damp wall, plugged into the most suspect looking electrical sockets I’d ever seen.
Conducting an intimate tour of her ingredients, the lady urged us to simply point at what we wanted. So we did, opting for a bit of this, some of that, a dash of this! When we were done the old woman arrived with the onions, her sleeves rolled up, beaming at us through a row of rotting teeth. While we waited, I cheekily decided to explore the place, discovering all kinds of rooms that ran off the courtyard. In one, some fat chickens pecked away in wire cages while a rooster, seemingly indignant at my intrusion, cock-a-doodle-dooed at me with full force. In another, there was a huge, musty sofa set before China’s oldest living television set; its thick screen caked in dust. And then there was the toilet, two oblong-shaped holes dug into the stone floor. Right there and then, in that quiet moment of solitude, I despatched a prayer to the lord above that nature wouldn’t call until we got back to Jinan.
The subsequent onslaught of dishes was a sight to behold! There was a bowl of wok-fried green beans served on a sheet of melted butter and sliced cloves of garlic. The chicken dish came in a mountainous pile, thighs, breasts and feet dripping in a sweet and spicy ginger sauce. There were side bowls of white rice too, while for dessert we were treated to a plate of pumpkin wedges dipped in sugar. When it was all over S and I were a hot mess, full and contented; but a little revolted too at the mound of bones we’d left in our wake. I was relieved when the lady came to take them away, even more so when she presented us with the bill, a negligent 50-Yuan!
Our meal had taken longer than we’d anticipated, so much so that we realised there was only an hour and a half until the last bus back to the city! Bidding our gracious hosts a hasty goodbye, S and I trotted back out into the rain and hurried towards Kuixing Pavilion, Zhujiayu’s hilltop shrine. On arrival we met the custodian; a damp shivering woman wrapped up in a thick, tent-like coat. Obviously surprised to see us, she led the way up the wooden steps to the pavilion bell. There, we carried out the time-honoured tradition of ringing it, pulling back the dense wooden log that hung from a nearby beam and thrusting it forward with gusto. The woman laughed and clapped as its victorious clanging echoed out; a sound that could surely be heard by everyone across the village. Presenting us with a bowl of so-called magic water, the custodian instructed me to rub its sides with both hands, a custom which is said to give a blessing for life.
“I think we have to come back!” panted S as we jogged back for the bus, “See it on a clear day”. “We could stay here for a while,” I suggested, “book an extra night in Jinan too, do some more exploring”. And thus it was decided as we moved quickly through the stone archway, Umbrella Bitch glowering at us as we went.