Firstly, I am not near Sichuan province and haven't been affected by the earthquake! None of the PT volunteers are there at the minute. Secondly, I have not caught the latest strain of the bird flu virus which has broken out in the South East of China and there's no reported cases in our province. Although there have been in our neighbouring provinces… Seriously though we're all fine!
Last Friday I caught a morning bus to Fuzhou where I planned to meet Beth and Cat. The three of us went for a long weekend in Wuyuan which is supposedly 'the most beautiful village in China'! Rob decided to stay home because he preferred to play in a big football match this weekend and he wanted to save money. I made it to Fuzhou with plenty of time to kill so went for a wander resulting in blistered feet because of the sandals I was wearing. On the upside I learnt how to ask for plasters in Chinese! I also bought some new, cheap trainer socks then went and had egg, tomato and rice for lunch. I met the girls in the bus station where we had a nice catch up then got the 5 hour bus to Wuyuan. We found our hostel was on the river bank and it was very nice albeit without the character of other hostels we've been to, probably because its pretty much just been set up. A further downside was the lack of social area - people just had to gather around a couple of tables in the open entrance which got a bit chilly. We got egg fried rice with a cucumber side dish for tea and ate under some gazebos on a roadside. The egg fried rice included fish which was a delicious change! About half way through the meal the wind picked up and heavy rain appeared. We watched some people struggled with an open sided tent that wanted its freedom and our guy did some DIY tent fixing and strengthening with rusty metal bars around us. The rain disappeared as quickly as it came though leaving us with a humid but dry walk back. Oh the tropical South! We then went and got acquainted with our beds which had exceptionally thin and hard mattresses but we're well used to this by now. A soft English mattress is going to be bliss!
The next morning we met downstairs at 09:30 and made our way to the bus station where we hopped on a bus to Li Keng - one of the many famous villages for which Wuyuan is famous for. The village itself truly was picteresque. Very traditional with old white walled buildings hugging each side of a small river which wound its way through the village. There were lots of walkways at regular intervals which were literally just planks and often entered directly into the front doors of the houses on the other side. The main street was very narrow and was obviously the main tourist thoroughfare because on both sides were numerous stalls all selling the exact same thing and tourists pushing both ways through the village. But take a side street and straight away the crowds were left behind and you actually saw the village inhabitants going about their day to day lives. We saw nothing more exciting than a woman washing clothes in the river and an ancient old woman eating a bowl of rice. But the Dutch couple we met went on Sunday and watched a woman drown a rat in a cage. We took lots of photos with Beth's camera and we even haggled the price of a boat trip down to Y40 to ride on a friendly man's bamboo raft down the river.
We made it back by early afternoon where I promptly went and spent the rest of the afternoon in bed because I had a really bad stomach ache (not bird flu!). At one point I half woke up to see a tall white man so I said a bleary hello and rolled over. When I next woke up I wasn't sure if it actually happened but I met the guy later which settled that. The next time I woke up I was confronted by a very friendly Chinese man who thrust a bulging carrier bag of pretty much every Chinese pill imaginable in my under-the-weather face. It was a lovely offer but I didn't fancy taking my chances with foreign pills from a random guy. I headed downstairs where I met the white guy and his partner and soon we were joined by the girls. The Dutch couple were really friendly and were travelling around Asia for 6 months, they were spending 23 days in China because of visa troubles and didn't speak a word of Chinese. So they were extremely grateful for all our help and we became a willing information desk for them! They'd stuck to the main tourist hubs so far so we were very surprised to find them in Wuyuan. This place is very beautiful but very off the usual beaten track for most tourists and we weren't expecting to find any foreigners at all. We chatted for a while, the three of us got some food and then showers and early nights ready to make a full day of it the next day.
We'd spotted some beautiful photos of the surrounding area near the bus station and the one that caught our eye was some caves in the North of the county which was part of a cluster of other things that we could clump together and make the most of the day. Of course we were bombarded by motorbikes and other drivers offering their services for extortionate prices but a friendly woman pulled us into her office and tried to explain the bus times to us. We managed to work out the buses with her help and headed to our first destination - Lingyan cave. We had 3 hours to explore until the next bus left and we made our way up a lot of steep steps to the first cave. Beautiful, but nothing compared until the bigger ones. We headed back down, got giant bowls of egg fried rice each and went to the Hangxu grotto where we joined part of a tour going through the caves. The route we took was 2.1 km of winding tunnels, cavernous caves, dripping stalactites and impressive rock formations. All were lit up by multicoloured lights and China being China there were no barriers to stop you wandering off the path and climbing stuff if you so wished… We didn't really want to be part of a tour but the lights only came on when tours went through so that forced our hand. We kept to ourselves and took lots of photos and got stared at by the other tour members. A little girl kept staring at me and edging closer and when I was going down some stairs on my own she plucked up the courage to say hello. I talked to her and immediately became her new cave best friend! She was 10 years old, lived here and was a friend of the tour guide so she attached herself to the three foreign people. She kept tugging on my t-shirt and telling me to go in Chinese and she tried to tell me stuff about the caves. And she was whispering with the tour girl how to say 'you are beautiful' so I helped her so she could tell Beth and Cat they were beautiful! Anyway she was adorable and she sat next to me in the boat trip through the final part of the caves to the exit. The tour girl (only 16) wanted photos with us and I got one with them and then we walked back to the bus which had half an hour before it left. The two girls followed us onto the bus and sat with us until it was leaving and they had to run off. The little one tried on my hat and Cat's sunglasses.
The caves were awesome and after this we got the bus to Baizhu temple. It says temple on the map and at the place it says ancestral house but either way it was literally just a couple of very big, very old, wooden rooms. We got lucky when we left because I talked to some girls on the way out who said we could join their hired minibus to save waiting half an hour for the next bus and while we were waiting for them the driver of the minibus approached us and asked us himself. He dropped us at Rainbow Bridge. We were unsure exactly where it was for a time and almost believed that a concrete walkway was China's idea of an attraction. But we found it in the end, walked across it, took photos and walked back across the stepping stones in the river next to it. Then we walked back to the town to catch the last bus which our Chinese friends had told us was at 17:00. I asked just to make sure though but probably chose the wrong people to ask - the motorbike riders. They all insisted there was no bus and we'd have to take their motorbikes instead. So I asked a woman who said it was at 5 but after a few words from the motorbike guys she changed her tune and tried to backtrack saying it had already been and we had to go with them. We felt very smug getting on the far cheaper bus that turned up a couple of minutes later. We finished off the day by taking the Dutch couple out for tea and we also introduced them to baijiu which they hadn't tasted. I like think we completed their Chinese experience with that! We talked in the hostel foyer for a long time with a couple of beers before parting for showers and bed and an early start.
I had to do the same journey in reverse today which meant dragging myself out of bed at 5 because, of course, the only bus back to Fuzhou is at 7. I did the last of my packing in the dark and crept downstairs only to find… nothing. No staff, no lights, no open doors. Now this is a problem because I really couldn't afford to miss this bus. I tried every door to no avail and snuck into the restaurant that's open plan and connected to the hostel only to find more locked doors. I walked around the entire ground floor and then went up to the balcony and couldn't find any way out. I resigned myself to breaking out. I walked around the balcony, found the best spot to climb down and from a distance worked out the handholds. I reckoned I could do it and it wasn't that high up… I threw my hat down and then climbed over the rail to test my weight then decided it'd be easier without the big rucksack. I contemplated throwing it down as well but I didn't want to break anything in it. Fortunately, I spotted the little ventilation shafts at the base of the kitchen wall so I went back downstairs and shoved my bag through there. Since I was already there I thought I'd see if I would fit as well and after squirming on the filthy floor for a while I made it through. I left my room key on the doorstep (the thought of them working out where a guest went in the night amuses me) and climbed the bamboo fence. Fortunately, they hadn't taken my passport or a deposit otherwise I'd have had to wait for someone.
Breaking out of somewhere in the early hours is a new one for me but I was on my way again. With my paddy field hat perched on my head I made it to the bus station only to find my bus was actually at 07:40 so I probably could have waited until reception was open anyway. Ah well, I had an adventure. I got a bowl of rice porridge and three meat baozis and waited. 5 minutes before I was about to go the girls and the Dutch couple turned up so I said another quick goodbye and then got on the Fuzhou bus. I got on with an old Chinese man with Chinese music blaring from rubbish speakers round his neck. Lots of Chinese people have these and they're one of the worst inventions ever. They don't even play good Chinese music just somebody wailing while strangling a cat. I positioned myself at the back of the bus and watched the rest of the passengers board. They consisted of one other tiny old man. It would appear Fuzhou isn't a popular destination today. Before the bus had made it to the gate the driver stopped and came to tell me I needed to move to the middle seats. He said the combined weight of my bag and me were far too heavy and were unbalancing his bus. His parting shot in Chinese, he didn't know any English, was 'foreigner too big' with a big smile. I smiled back but I was slightly offended. So now I was one seat away from the music man who then decided to chain smoke, I retreated tortoise like into my hoody with my iPod. After a while he did switch his music off although I think it just ran out of battery; he kept tapping it and muttering. I enjoyed almost quiet for thirty seconds before a rubbish TV appeared at the front of the bus to display a variety show with the sound thundering out from the speakers around the bus. Why they didn't spend their money on air conditioning, better seats or improved suspension I don't know. I went into tortoise mode again…
5 hours later we trundled into Fuzhou where I was looking forward to a sit down meal and the loo. Then I found out my bus home was in 13 minutes so instead I ran to the loo (basically just a concrete indoor trench), got stared at by a squatting man who kept moaning then ran back to buy some snacks from the shop. Despite being a bit put off lunch I knew I'd be hungry on the bus still. The Yihuang bus started off alright, most buses do. You get yourself a window seat and a couple of seats for you and your bag and get comfy. But of course going to the bus station is far too much hassle for some people who just jump on the bus as it creaks its way out of town. Within ten minutes it was full with people standing in the aisle and now I was crammed into an aisle seat holding my bag up and very uncomfortable. There was a very cute toddler behind me though who kept poking his head between the seats and sticking his tongue out at me! I gave him my hat and played with him for a bit and then everyone wanted to talk to me so I made conversation for a while then settled down to make the best of the journey. Then the man in front took it one step further. He asked all the same bloody questions but we had to shout at each other because his window was open and it was windy. Then he decided to be my best friend and made the man next to me swap seats. I repeated everything I'd just said but it was more frustrating because I had to say everything two or three times. Everyone else understood my Chinese fine but he was so keen to say his very limited English vocab that he didn't want to listen. Eventually I got back to my iPod but he still kept shaking me to ask another stupid question. The final one was 'can give listen?' while inserting the earpiece he'd just pulled from my ear into his. I said I had a headache (not entirely untrue, he'd been shouting in my ear for ages) and I wanted sleep then pulled my hat back over my face. I've been back home for an hour now so the memory is still very fresh. But Wuyuan was lovely and I'm really glad I went!