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.
“Gooooood moooooorning Jinan!!!” It was a blistering hot day of thirty degrees and S and I were in fine spirits. Life on the Chinese road was turning out to be great fun and the city of Jinan had defied all expectations. In fact, after a bit of online research, I discovered just how spectacularly wrong all the Jinan haters had been. Known throughout China as The Spring City, our plan for the day was to seek out a few of its urban parks; renowned for their beauty and home to over seventy artesian springs.
Embarking on a walking route to the first park, we stopped for a late breakfast at a roadside bakery, ordering peanut cookies and sponge cake washed down with passable coffee. Tackling our little banquet at a street side table, it seemed there was no escape from Jinan’s construction, the busy road nearby partly blocked by a giant cement mixer and several banks of grey bricks. I was scooping up the last crumbs when a passing mother and daughter paused to greet us. “Hello!” laughed the little girl, mummy pushing her forward with an encouraging smile. They were both gorgeous, with styled hair, elegant dresses and dangling accessories. Sadly though, further communication proved futile, so I simply took their photograph, which they gladly posed for, a pile of bricks in the background providing an amusing contrast to their permeating prettiness.
I’m not sure what I’d expected exactly, but when we arrived at Five Dragon Pool Park the sheer scale of the place left me stunned! It was an impeccably landscaped garden complex with stone pathways running through lush green lawns, with fulsome weeping trees aplenty and meticulous flowerbeds bursting with colour.
The place was packed and many of the locals appeared more interested in us than anything the park had to offer. The staring came thick and fast from all sides, some people shamelessly open-mouthed in their curiosity. I supposed they’d never seen a Leighton before! Dominating proceedings at the park’s centre was a massive dense-green pool, apparently the city’s deepest circulating artesian spring. Sitting down by the water’s edge on a platform of scattered rocks, we sat watching people lunch at the old pavilion on the other side. I’d completely zoned out when a young Chinese couple shoved their child in front of me, growling at the poor little guy with uncompromising instructions. “Hello, how are you?” he mumbled robotically, barely audible, standing to attention like a little toy soldier. I had just started to respond but he was already gone, scampering off to a place of safety behind his father’s legs.
On our way to the next park we stumbled across Guandi Temple, a tiny little building guarded by the statue of a fearsome-looking bearded warrior. Popping inside for a quick look, the place was highly atmospheric, a singular, dimly lit chamber with flickering candles and burning incense. There were two elderly Chinese men on their knees praying to a cluttered shrine of Buddhas and fruit bowls, while in a dark corner an ancient fortune-teller sat coughing in between mouthfuls of tea. It was another reflective moment and further proof of Jinan’s hidden delights.
The afternoon heat was positively stifling by the time we reached Baofu Spring Park. Buying our umpteenth bottle of water from the drinks stand at the entrance, we grabbed our tickets and ducked inside, hoping to rest in some much-needed shade. What we got though was even better; a collection of bubbling springs that we could actually dip our feet into. And the water was ice-cold and revitalising to the touch! Although not as beautiful as Five Dragon Pool Park, this was clearly the fun spot, with scores of kids splashing around and chasing each other through the fountains. Again the park was teeming with people and terribly noisy, while once more we found ourselves the subject of much interest. “Have you even seen another westerner?” asked S as we lounged spring-side, our feet submerged in the light green water, a fat goldfish swimming past my toes. “Nope!” I conceded as a group of curious kids stole glances at us from behind a fountain, “great isn’t it?”
On our way back to the hotel that evening we passed through the immense Guancheng Square, where families picnicked and teenagers performed daredevil tricks in an enclosed skating rank. There was so much people watching to do it was hard to know where to begin and I felt a sudden surge of adrenalin. I mean we’d really come to China! We were actually here in this crazy city most people had never even heard of, just two dots among the swarming masses. I knew that tomorrow would bring a great contrast, that our return to the village would be a much more intimate affair, the ultimate rural escape. Lost in my thoughts, I smiled to myself as a baseball-capped teen skidded to a halt right in front of us, flipping his skateboard into his hand with a nonchalant flick of his foot.
Our return to Zhujiayu the next day got off to a great start! Jumping off the bus, this time we arrived to beaming sunshine and an open ticket office, no sign whatsoever of the villainous archway witches. Paying at the booth, we took a leisurely stroll up the village path, following the instructions the Dutch couple had given us. We’d met Maarten and Brigitte on the first leg of the bus over. “Oh, we were just in Zhujiayu! We stayed at the new guesthouse… it opened like a few weeks ago!” Run by a hospitable middle-aged widow, they’d spoken so highly of her we decided to check the place out for ourselves. And it wasn’t long before we found it, set among a handful of buildings just a few yards from the village shop.
The owner was delighted to meet us and quickly showed us to our lodgings, a spacious first floor room overlooking a courtyard with potted plants and a fish-inhabited pond. There wasn’t much in the way of decoration, just a grand old double bed and brand new cellophane-wrapped aircon unit, the recently finished stone floor bare and cool under our feet. Flashing a calculator at us, the lady offered a nightly rate of sixty Yuan (6 Euros), which seemed so reasonable we didn’t bother to negotiate.
The Dutchies had warned us about the lack of facilities; no western toilet or shower to speak of, but we were determined to embrace it all as part of Zhujiayu’s rustic charm. Sitting on the balcony enjoying the faint breeze, our host brought us some tea as we peered out over the panorama of rooftop terraces, the pavilion we’d climbed a few days earlier partly visible through the treetops. It was so idyllic and perfectly silent we ended up staying there for hours, S reading a novel while I napped.
Sometime later the woman brought us a hearty lunch of tofu and runner beans. We hadn’t been consulted, so I could only surmise that when it came to meals she adopted a get-what-you’re-given policy. Luckily, the food was delicious and by the time we’d finished there was not so much as a surviving scrap.
It was late afternoon when a sudden burst of activity shook us from our lazing. Craning our heads over the balcony, we watched in amusement as a team of Chinese workhands invaded the courtyard with half a dozen giant boxes. There was a maelstrom of noisy ni haos as the owner exchanged introductions with them; and then they were immediately unpacking everything and getting to work. Sipping my tea, I could see they were assembling some kind of unit, a shiny, futuristic looking thing that wouldn’t have looked out of place on The Starship Enterprise. “What the hell is it?” I muttered, but S just shrugged, returning to her book. It took me a while to realize that it was a little solar power station! It took the men about an hour to build and install on the kitchen roof. When they were done, the owner treated them all to tea and apples and I felt as if I’d just witnessed a key moment in Zhujiayu history.
Nightfall hit the village rapidly, like someone had literally flicked a switch. We took our dinner down in the courtyard, our host bringing us giant vegetable omelets, a round of spring rolls and two bottles of Tsingtao. As we ate, a young Chinese couple checked in, taking a room a few doors down from us. The girl, a law student from Zhongshan, spoke a little English and chatted with us for a bit. “You are first foreigner I speak with!” she laughed as her serious-looking boyfriend furrowed his brow in bemusement. It turned out that doing nothing all day was tiring work, so soon after we turned in for the night, watching an episode of Deadwood on my laptop in our air-conditioned piece of Zhujiayu heaven.
What had been a sound night’s sleep came to an abrupt end when we were awoken by the vociferous call of the house rooster. “Wake up mother******!” My god could that thing make some noise. “Oh no, I need the toilet” grumbled S and after a short period of denial she shuffled off towards the twin holes down in the courtyard. Breakfast was a huge disappointment. My stomach was practically begging for coffee and a pastry, but instead it was another pot of tea and a plate of pork dumplings, which we halfheartedly picked at before giving up. Afterwards it was time for laundry, a fun process that involved a stainless steel bowl and a scoop of guesthouse detergent. S undertook the actual washing, with me wringing everything out and hanging them up on the banisters by the side of the pond. “Be careful that shirt doesn’t…” she began but it was too late. “Oops!” I grinned as it dropped into the green water below. “Might wanna wash that one again!”
Concluding we’d spent about as much time in the guesthouse as we could handle, S and I eagerly headed out for the village walk we’d been denied on our first visit. Veering off the main path, we wandered into a curious maze of winding dirt tracks; the ever-present stone wall serving as our navigator. Here and there we paused to admire the modest brick homes, most of which were in a state of disrepair, if not altogether derelict.
After a while we came across an old man sat atop a section of the wall. Staring off into the distance contentedly, a cigarette clutched in his bony hand, he turned to greet us with a warm smile and gargled something incomprehensible. I gave him a friendly wave as we passed and found myself speculating on how many hours of his life he’d spent sitting on that wall.
I was more than a little startled when, quite suddenly, we found ourselves face to face with none other than Chairman Mao! The giant mural, erected in 1966, was much faded after decades of hard rains and burning hot summers. And yet, somewhat eerily, his smile beamed bright through the blotchiness. “It’s creepy” said S, quickly moving on. But I found myself fixated with it and unable to move, staring right through the thing like Cameron at the Art Institute in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
On our way back home we stopped in to say hello to the lady who’d rescued us from the rain during our last outing. She seemed both happy and surprised, inviting us back into her courtyard for another pot of tea. Sitting just across from us as we drank, she busied away with a tub of wriggling scorpions balanced on her lap. From what I could gather she was cleaning them in preparation for what was surely imminent death.
Returning to our own courtyard, our amiable host was sitting drinking tea with a female friend. They were gossiping in hushed tones and nibbling from a bowl of fried grasshoppers. Her friend got all excited when she saw us and insisted that we try a grasshopper. S was having absolutely none of it, but I found myself more than a little curious. So I followed their demonstration of removing the wings and popping one into my mouth. It tasted like an overcooked crisp, very crunchy and predominantly tasteless, though not entirely unpleasant. I declined their offer of another.
The following morning’s entertainment was the arrival of yet more workmen with boxes. This time they constructed a shower unit, which was installed next to the toilet holes and then connected to the solar station. It seemed like the lady’s village Empire was really coming together! But then came the bad news that the shower wouldn’t be operational until after we’d left! Taking pity on us, the owner walked S and I to a nearby neighbour’s house, where we were able to shower. The bathroom was inexpressibly filthy, but we were still grateful to have some kind of wash.
In the afternoon we revisited the hillside pavilion, taking in some amazing views from its top balcony. Spotting a narrow track that ran through the rolling countryside below, we descended our lofty perch and embarked on a country trek. It was a sublime afternoon of sunshine, wild flowers and butterflies, while in the distance a wiry farmer herded goats down a hill. When we finally got back to the guesthouse I was starving and made short work of the egg-tomato-noodle concoction the lady brought us.
“100 Yuan?” exclaimed S as I returned to the room with a self-satisfied smile, “Yup!” We’d had five meals, endless pots of tea; god knows how many beers, a bunch of soft drinks, a dollop of laundry detergent, a shower at the neighbor’s house and a fried grasshopper. And yet our final bill had come to the equivalent of ten Euros. Throwing in a tip, we packed up our stuff, bade Mrs. Guesthouse farewell and headed off to the bus stop beyond the witchless archway.
Zhujiayu had been a fantastic experience, the perfect place to unwind, take stock and recharge our batteries for the next leg. And we’d be needing all that energy for the challenge ahead, because next on the agenda was the small matter of Tài Shān, one of the five great mountains of China.