On to the next stage of my Wenshan 'birthday' travels. Jianshui and the phone call to my student, June. Not as easy as it sounds when June's not at home, I'm phoning from a public phone in a little shop and trying to make myself understood by some person, who turned out to be a lodger, who isn't expecting a call from some weird foreign person. After muttering un-intelligibly for a while, I rang off. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I explained to the shop assistant, sort of, what the problem was and she rang the house again, telling the person who I was, where I was staying and what I wanted. Thinking I wouldn't be meeting up with June after all I went off to visit Wen Miao, a large Confucian temple in Jianshui, which was an attractive place as you can see in the photos.
When I came back to the hotel it turned out that June had got the message about where I was staying, hot-footed to the hotel and left a message for me to phone her when I got back, on her boyfriend's mobile. No problem this time and we, plus her boyfriend, went exploring Jianshui together then out for a meal with her parents and brother (one of several 'brothers' but some of those were cousins). Again I tried my Chinese and, though I can say some things, it's woefully inadequate. The Chinese here aren't used to speaking to foreigners and slowing down, using simple words is and seem unaware that you're trying your level best with this impossible language, which they don't speak with each other. Anyway, we managed, had a friendly meal, somehow, and the next day I accompanied June and her boyfriend to Puxiong, her hometown, via Swallow Cave, with her parents following on later.
Swallow Cave's most interesting attraction for me was that the local Yi people climb to get the swifts' nests after migration. This they do by climbing the rocks un-aided by ropes, up treacherous-looking rocks to a great height. We watched a demonstration of this to many 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the Chinese tourist groups. The cave was one of the biggest in China and my students appreciated the visit, having seen nothing like this before. The aim afterwards was to get the local bus to Puxiong. June said there were three a day, around 7am, 12 midday and 5pm. It was 12.3opm. A long wait, maybe. We sat at a road-side place close by to eat the local speciality, roast tofu. You all sit round a table, on low stools, with a tray of tofu and potatoes being roasted in front of you. I wondered how the woman knew how much you'd eaten until June pointed out that the vendor put a corn kernel on a jar lid each time one of your group took a piece of tofu or potato. She had a separate lid for each group and each piece of corn /tofu was one and a half 'jiao' (1 yuan = 10 jiao). Great system. She didn't miss one. We also had a noodle dish which was cold, intentionally, and surprisingly tasty. The boyfriend was then sent on watch for the bus while we were given a bench to sit on to wait. It came, fortunately, after around twenty minutes but they had been prepared to wait patiently for hours, until 5pm if need be. We got going only to stop regularly for vendors selling hard-boiled eggs and nuts, passengers getting on and off, haggling about prices and chatting but eventually got there an hour or so later.
June's house was a bit of a shock. The students, I know, generally come from very poor farming families but this looked by far the poorest I'd seen. There were two broken and very shabby sofas, the walls hadn't been painted in many years, the furniture was delapidated, what there was of it and the loo .... June took me to it. To get to loo, the hole in the ground, you had to get past the, buffalo, fortunately docile, in the same shed. The bedroom smelled musty and I must admit I , guiltily,wasn't looking forward to sleeping there and felt ashamed to feel that as my welcome by the family was so good. The house was inhabited by four families, let out to the other three families to raise money, so random people kept wandering through, including an old man in 'Tibetan' hat, smoking the enormous water pipes very popular here.
June showed me around her village and we first visited the Middle School she'd attended to meet some of the English teachers. She was surprised that her old English teacher didn't speak to me in English. I wasn't. His oral English was probably shockingly poor and he was ashamed, not wanting to lose face in front of the genuine foreigner. Most of the students live at the school as many come from hometowns a six hour walk away, no buses, so they only go home at weekends. We spoke to some briefly but I wasn't invited to a class for reasons as before, I suspect. There were 'helpful' signs in Chinglish posted around the corridors there's a photo of one of them on the site. Though poor, students' families have to pay for the schooling, textbooks and exercise books, all of which have to be bought from the official supplier, the school, where they receive the official stamp and none can be sold or passed on to someone else the next year. Seems like a crazy system to me when the families are so very poor. This is where June sees her future. Going back to your hometown is accepted by my students and seems also to be what they really want to do. To pay back their parents for their sacrifices and to improve conditions in their well-loved villages is hugely important to them. Staff at the Middle School don't have an easy life either. Hours are very long, with staff mainly living on site in basic accommodation. Pay in village schools is poor too.
We also visited June's Primary School where I nearly caused a riot when I asked if I could take a photo. The enthusiastic crowd in the playground went through the teacher's hoops of 'Hello', 'Nice to meet you', 'Where are you from' and nearly killed each other trying to get into the picture. Luckily it was home-time and we were followed down the street by 'hello'-ing kids till we reached the safety of home.
Back in June's house I was to relax, on the broken settee, while June and her boyfriend made a meal. Offers to help were politely refused and, two hours later, I sat down to a meal of rice, various kinds of tofu, an unknown bit of animal, the pig's blood dish, loads of local vegatables and a vegetable soup. Amazing. Wood was used as fuel here, as it was in all the houses locally. In the kitchen were the usual brothers, cousins, aunts etc. June's best friend, not a student, arrived and it turned out that we were staying at her house as much of June's had been let out to lodgers. When we arrived I'm afraid I felt relief. Though by now it was raining and going to the open-plan loo was a damp experience, I was happy not to have to face the buffalo and the dark, dank bedroom.
The next day, after a huge breakfast of rice, tofu .... at June's house, I was escorted to my bus by Mum, Dad, June , June's friend and June's boyfriend who, unbeknown to me, paid my bus fare to the driver, June's 'brother'. I'd been welcomed into that family, given amazing hospitality and feel humbled by the experience.
So I was now on my way back to Jianshui where I visited the Jia family house and garden, some pics of it on the site, before moving on to my third lap, Yuanyang, known for its exquisite terraced agricultural landscape. I got my ticket with no problem. Only one bus station, hurrah. The bus took us over bendy roads with the driver on his mobile phone, smoking and spitting, but not generally all at once so we were all right. The exhaust sounded as though it was about to fall off too but I arrived with no hitch and found my base for the next couple of days in Yuanyang. More about it in the next postcard.