Pits and troughs with the Chinese learning seems to have been the theme for the last couple of weeks. I decided recently to make a more concerted effort to study hard to make a bit of progress with this wretched language before I leave China in the not-too-distant future. Theoretically, I have two lessons a week but that rarely happens due to Yolanda's constant last- minute meetings (real, not excuses) so I'm trying to take more opportunities to practise 'for real'. For example, on a trip to a supermarket, an assistant wanders through with a delicious-smelling tray of something looking like a cross between herby bread and pancake. Plucking up courage, I went to the counter where it was being sold and asked, pointing, 'What's that?' in my perfect Mandarin! She looked alarmed, backed away and said 'Ting bu dong' (Don't understand) and went away looking somewhat panicked still at these strange words from a 'lao wai'. (Foreigner - a frequent greeting in the street).Great start but very typical. Many people here just assume they won't understand a foreigner and will not. Not to be deterred, I asked the male assistant for a small amount of it, whatever it was, paid my 2 yuan and left them looking nervous. The stuff was as tasty as it looked and I decided to go back a few days later to try some of the other things they sold. This time I got broad smiles. Obviously I wasn't too bad after all. They remembered what I'd bought last time ,made as if to sell me more of the same but I pointed to something else, asked what it was and was immediately told 'yang yu' (potato) . No problem!
I've been practising with my students too when they've been cooking here or when we're shopping at the market. They've been great at speaking slowly to me and I've been really pleased that they've understood me and I've mostly understood them at that speed. We've had some reasonable conversations but, when speaking to each other, it remains impossible. Most of the time they speak in a local language, not Mandarin, and have to remind each other to speak 'putonghua' for me.
Anyway, my language was enough to get me to Ba Mei this weekend. It's a beautiful location, only accessible by water and is on the 'tourist trail' but no other 'lao wais' in sight. To get there I first had to get the bus from Wenshan to Guangnan. I'd said the word Guangnan to Jenni, our Waiban, the day before and it seemed, from the number of times I had to repeat it in the correct tones, that I couldn't pronounce even that properly so I don't think she fancied my chances of getting there. But maybe she under-estimated the British bulldog spirit! I bought my ticket to Guangnan with no problem at all.....once I was in the right queue. I asked at the enquiry desk and she pointed round the corner. Heading round the corner I asked a girl in the queue if it was the right queue for buying a ticket to Guangnan. She APPEARED to say yes, at least she watched me wait there for the next thirty minutes or so while the queue moved very little. The people near me waited with extreme patience while others seemed to jump in to ask questions of the desk-assistant over their heads. One man, in a crash helmet, was in spitting-distance(woops, wrong idiom for China!) of the front of the queuq for the whole time, getting no nearer. From time to time someone in uniform, of which there are many, would move the queue so it didn't totally block the pavement where vendors would attempt to get through with their baskets on poles.. There was the usual smoking and spitting until finally one of the uniforms looked at the 'lao wai' (me) and asked me something. I spat out (woops! wrong idiom again!)something about wanting to go to Guangnan. He was one of the 'don't understand' sort, as were the amused audience of fellow-queuers, so I was the butt of some laughs for the next few moments, during which my own sense of humour was sadly lacking. I was then escorted to the front of the right queue where I bought the ticket straight away, with no misunderstandings.
The bus journey took me through some beautiful mountainous scenery and about four hours later we arrived in Guangnan for the next stage, the bus to Ba Mei, my destination. I'd been told, by students, where the bus stop was and. on reading the sign (yes, reading) saw that it was the right one. I always make sure I write down the place names of places I want to go in Chinese characters, so, if all else fails .... What I didn't know was how frequent the buses were and my attempt to find out was not successful. Not a 'ting bu dong' this time, but an incomprehensible answe . Luckily, though, a bus came along within about twenty minutes. On arrival, I asked the driver if there were any hotels, was told in lovely slow 'putonghua' that there weren't but that the man waiting by the stop would find me a room. My students had told me it was likely I'd stay in a farmer's house as they didn't think there was a hotel, so off I went with him and we 'chatted' in slow putonghua. It's usual to be asked where you're from, how old you are etc so it was OK and we reached the tourist site of Ba Mei where I paid the 40 yuan entry fee. Cheap for China's tourist spots- maybe because not too many 'lao wais' go there. It was spectacular. First he took me in in a punt through a long, very dark cave into a place seemingly lost in time and then on to his house, where I was to stay and eat for twenty yuan. I met wife, kids, granny, grandad and various other family members/friends and was given a very strong cup of tea with a flask of hot water. We arranged eating -time for 7pm and I went off to explore. The photos tell the story of daily life revolving around the river with the locals washing themselves and their clothes there, fetching water for their homes and their crops, boating in and out..... The kids were happy and boisterous, playing out in a manner almost forgotten back home, with nothing more than a stick and a few stones - to throw at each other contentedly. Being curious about me, they were keen to see themselves on camera and posed in fighting style, laughing over themselves. At dusk, life around the river was still going on, the kids were still playing, the buffalo were being brought back from the fields and I went 'home' for dinner which we ate together, by candle-light, in a power-cut. I managed to say a few things but was content just to be amongst such hospitality, being offered some of the grandad's beer in a bowl, talking about me having two sons too, making the baby smile..... It was tremendous.
In the morning, unfortunately, I felt ill. Maybe my stomach didn't cope with that river water so I decided to head back that day to Wenshan. After refusing my dish of breakfast noodles, hoping I was not causing offence, then paying my 20 kuai, I headed to the river for the boat-ride through the second cave then on to the horse and cart ride. I had to hang on to my stomach here! Finally was the boat ride out of Ba Mei, through another long and dark cave. Wonderful! If you visit me here, I'll take you.
So,I was out of Ba Mei but the adventure continued. I'd been warned by students, that the entrance and exit were in different places and it wasn't clear to me how to get back to the road. I asked a woman of the 'ting bu dong' type, (those who decide they don't understand you even before you speak) but, when I pointied to Guangnan in Chinese characterson my map and saying 'bus' in Chinese, she looked happier and pointed. I was accompanied on the path to the road by a local, keen to make conversation. He was probably disappointed but he did get me to the road and the bus did come. I managed the journeys, not feeling too brilliant,and went almost straight to bed when I got back to Wenshan. It had been a brilliant couple of days.