There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Shilin to Xingyi: Part 2 of China's Far Southwest

In the morning, we set off for Xingyi, three hours away and just across the border into Guizhou Province. Here we would part with Wang and Mr Ma and pick up a new guide and driver for the next part of the journey. As we left, the clouds parted, the sun shone and the temperature started to pick itself up from the floor.

This post is about a journey from Shilin in Yunnan Province to Xingyi in Guizhou
Setting off along another empty motorway, Wang started giving us dire warnings about the state of the roads in Guizhou, a province he regarded as at least ‘backward’ and quite possibly ‘primitive’. The three lanes of the excellent Yunnanese road were labelled – in English and Chinese – ‘Overtaking Lane’, ‘Main Carriageway’ and ‘Non-motor Vehicle Lane’. This third lane was well populated by ox-carts. The Chinese economic miracle is something of an urban event and oxen, clearly, still played an important part in the agriculture of relatively advanced, civilized Yunnan.

Mr Ma drove us past pointy Karst mountains, and terraced fields. Tobacco, the main crop, had just been harvested and the leaves could be seen drying on balconies. The small fields contained rice, which was just being cut, maize and many other vegetables we could not recognise.

Stooks of rice straw after harvesting, Yunnan Province
We entered Guizhou about 11 o’clock. Although the motorway did indeed end, we continued on a well-surfaced two-lane road.  Visiting China so often involves being whisked from one urban centre to another, and we were pleased to find ourselves in deep countryside winding through a series of agricultural villages. We overtook a string of packhorses hauling newly felled logs up to a village depot.

Ten kilometres short of Xingyi we joined a traffic jam caused by a village market. We left the car and walked down the street. While the traffic hooted and snarled in the centre of the road, the edge was lined with stalls of all kinds. There were fruit and vegetable stalls, baskets of live chickens...

Chicken in a basket, Village market near Xingyi, Guizhou
... and a trestle table laden with pieces of pig.

' a testle table laden with pieces of pig'
Village market near Xingyi, Guizhou
There were wads of tobacco like ginger wool and the strange local water pipes used to smoke it,... 

Smoking a water pipe, village market near Xingyi clothes and wooden ploughs and there were things we didn’t recognise or know the use for.

Ploughs on sale, village market near XIngyi
In urban China the time has long passed when foreigners were routinely stared at, but in this village Europeans features were still a novelty. One old man with a thin wispy beard stood in front of me, staring stony-faced. Realizing I was probably staring back I said, ‘Hello, ni hao, nice to meet you’ and stuck out my hand. He blinked and then his stare slowly turned into a beaming smile. He was a wizened old man, his Mao jacket hanging loosely on his thin frame, but the hand that shook mine was large and roughened by a lifetime’s hard work. I smiled back, not something my face does naturally, and wished him well. Unfortunately I had unwittingly ruined Lynne’s photograph by stepping in front of her subject, but I think it was worth it.

Tiguan were available at several stalls. They resemble turnips, except for apparently having a root at each end, but are actually a fruit that, like the peanut, grows underground. They are easily peeled with your fingers and although it is disconcerting to bite into something that looks like a raw root vegetable, they are sweet and juicy. They have a texture somewhere between water chestnut and apple and a flavour between apple and melon. The Chinese call them ‘underground watermelon’. I know of no English name; typing ‘tiguan’ into Google leads only to the Volkswagen Tiguan, which is not, I think, the same thing at all.

A cart full of Tiguan, Village market neat Xingyi, Guizhou
Xingyi is a strange shaped town, penned into a series of valleys between the karst hills. Entering through the industrial quarter it looked grim, but after a tunnel took us into the next valley, we found ourselves in a pleasanter if still down at heal central area. After much asking of directions, we eventually drove out to a posh recent extension on the town’s eastern edge.

Spice stall, village market near Xingyi, Guizhou
We had been looking, we discovered, for a particular eatery rather than a hotel, though when we found it, it seemed a small unexceptional family restaurant. We sat at a table, which had just been wiped with the usual filthy cloth and were handed a vacuum-packed plate, bowl and cup. It has become fashionable in the last year or two to take the crockery from the dishwasher – human or mechanical – and vacuum pack sets for each individual diner. It looks hygienic, maybe it is.

Wang took us into the kitchen and we chose some smoked beef, chicken, mushrooms and broad beans. It takes a remarkably small time to turn simple ingredients into dishes that are complex and full of flavour. When the food turned up, a huge bowl of soup and a dish of minced beef had been added to the order. Buying lunches was Wang’s responsibility and he felt the need to compensate for yesterday’s very moderate fare. ‘Never eat in hotels’ he said, ‘unless you have to.’ We knew how high the general standard of cooking in China is, but Wang wanted to prove a point, and we were delighted to let him.

With six dishes on the table, not to mention rice, Lynne, Mr Ma and I were full long before all the food had gone, but for some time after we had downed chopsticks Wang kept on picking a morsel from here and a bite from there as though he had not eaten for weeks. The driver thought it was as funny as we did but Wang just laughed along with us and kept picking away. He may have been slight, but he had a mighty appetite.
Well fed, we checked in to the nearby Haiyu Hotle (sic). The automatic doors had ‘Welcome’ etched on them, and less explicably ‘Feeling Sea Treasure’.

Our Guizhou guide, a rotund and eager young man, introduced himself as Dylan. ‘I was late for class the day English names were handed out, and it was the only one left.’ he explained. We never quite got the hang of his real name, so Dylan he remained.

We said goodbye to Wang, whose name was easier to cope with, and Mr Ma (Mister Horse) our cheerful and friendly driver and, a freshen up and a rest later, set out with Dylan to see Xingyi.

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