Private fireworks over the town square in Shenmu
When we were planning our trip to China, over a year ago, we thought it would be great to start things off by coming for Chinese New Year. We had visions of huge fireworks shows over the Forbidden City, happy crowds eating mooncakes in Tiananmen Square and dragon dances in the streets.
What we found instead were empty streets and shuttered shops. When we headed to Tiananmen just before midnight, there was a small crowd with a high proportion of Westerners milling around the Gate of Heavenly Peace, shivering and looking bored. After some small, uninteresting fireworks displays, the evening fizzled out and we went back to the hotel to bed.
That’s not to say that Chinese New Year is a dud – it’s just that, unbeknownst to us at the time, the biggest holiday of the year in China is a more private affair. While public festivities similar to New Year’s Eve in Sydney or the Fourth of July in America can be found, most Chinese spend their New Year at one of tens of millions of smaller, family-oriented celebrations.
Decorations on an old house near Daheta
Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (or in a very few years, on the third); this year it was February 18. The holiday lasts for 15 days, until the full moon, and culminates in the Festival of the Lanterns, where red lanterns bearing words of good fortune are lit up outside the home or around the town. The whole period is a time for family reunions, huge meals, and like the American Christmas, absolute chaos in the country’s transportation network. According to China Daily, over 2 billion trips are made by plane, train, car and bus in what is the largest annual human migration on earth (see “50m Chinese on move as holiday winds down”).
There are 12 animals in the Chinese New Year cycle which also rotates around five earthly elements, making up a whole cycle of 60 years. This year is the Year of the Golden Pig and is an especially auspicious year for giving birth. Apparently there was a marriage rush on last year in preparation, and according to China Daily, baby and medical authorities in the cities are fearing an overload on their services (“China embraces ‘piglets’ boom”).
The pig is the last animal in the 12-animal cycle, thereby signalling ultimate success
There are scores of traditions, taboos and symbols associated with Chinese New Year, and they are reflected in holiday decorations. The week before New Year’s, town markets are filled with lanterns, banners, posters and trinkets proclaiming good health, wealth, fortune and happiness. New clothes are bought for the new year, and during spring cleaning old demons are literally and figuratively swept away from the home. The town square is decorated with lights and lanterns, and images of the zodiac animal (in this year, the pig) are hung up on shop windows.
We thought about buying a lantern for our tent but couldn’t find one small enough
These large banners are hung alongside doors and windows
Last year we arrived right on New Year’s Eve, so we didn’t see the leadup to Spring Festival or the shopping frenzy that occurs while people buy food and decorations. Being out here in the country we’ve been able to see where all these decorations go – everywhere. Spring couplets, called chun lian, are hung on either side and above the front door of the home, on truck fenders and car windshields, on the pig and donkey pens. All over villages, the colour red leaps out from around the windows or doors, scaring away evil spirits and inviting in good fortune.
A typical doorway display
The small banner reads “Fat pig, lots of meat”
The village grindstone
But why settle for just the colour red to scare away evil spirits when you’ve got firecrackers? The story goes that at the end of the old year, villages would be terrorized by a monster who ate people and animals. Firecrackers were the only thing that this monster was afraid of, so at midnight on New Year’s Eve, firecrackers would be set off to scare away the monster until the next year. Huge packets of fireworks and firecrackers are sold in the week leading up to Spring Festival and a few weeks after. Needless to say, boys and young men are probably the main customers and set them off at all times of the day and night.
The merchants in Yulin’s marketplace don’t seem to appreciate the importance of demon-scaring
A not-so-small arsenal
Of course, not all of the customers are young men
Thank goodness for gaiters and Gore-Tex boots, because spring is on its way! I never thought I’d say this, but the other day, when my feet went straight through the ice and into the water of the small stream we were crossing, I was actually pleased. Pleased that the water-proofing on my boots worked as advertised, and pleased that the biting cold of winter was coming to an end.
When we first started this trip back in June, we were anxious to finish before the arrival of winter (see “Winter Cometh”) and before the temperatures plummeted to minus 20. Never did we think that we’d still be hiking through Christmas, and never did we think that we’d still be hiking well past it.
But here we are, halfway through February, and the daytime temperatures are already hitting a balmy 14 degrees (some of the time). It’s strange to think that less than a month ago, daytime highs were around zero. Now, we can feel the sun building up strength, the sky is getting bluer, and the temperatures are rapidly rising.
One thing that we both love about walking is being able to observe even the tiniest hint of a new season. The pretty blossoms in the photos above are actually quite small, but we have been watching them emerge over the past couple of days with some excitement. They are the first signs of spring that we have seen and they are the first splashes of colour in this otherwise monochome desert landscape.
When we grow up, we want to write Chinese advertising/marketing copy like the following, taken verbatim from a RuChun rose tea package. After reading this, how could you resist a Valentine’s Day cuppa?
Rose other calling card rose, red rose, rose. The rose is the plant for the rose family wild rose. Is used as medicine by the colored flowering fern, center medicine named rose. The colored flowering fern contains the volatile oil, live oak and so on. Nature wet, taste sweet and tiny bitter has dispels symptoms such as bloating the solution to be strongly fragrant, with the blood, stops pain, regulates menstruation and so on the function, mainly treats the hepatogastric to be mad the pain, the food little vomits wickedly, menstruation does not move, falls throws oneself the grief and so on sickness, often drinks the rose flower-scented green tea to the bodily beneficial health.
When we returned to Ningxia in November to resume our hike, we were a fair bit less self-sufficient than before. At first we weren’t able to carry our backpacks, so we needed drivers to ferry us to and from the wall every day. We stayed in hotels instead of camping, and we ate in restaurants rather than boiling up a quick dinner. So we found ourselves in need of assistance almost every day.
Luckily, Ningxia was home to a whole host of wall angels (people who help us along our way; for an explanation, see Wall Angels, Gansu Province). Starting on our very first day back.
Dong Jia Xing
Dong Jia Xing and her cab
While we were still in the first phases of rehab, we based ourselves from towns and hired drivers to take us out to the wall and pick us up at the end of the day. This process was more complicated than it sounds – it involved finding drivers who 1) didn’t smoke incessantly (very difficult) 2) were patient and could cope with finding our destination as we went along (ditto) 3) wouldn’t yell at us (not as easy as you’d think) and 4) drove safely (by Chinese standards). As those of you who have taken Chinese taxis know, setting such stringent requirements leaves a pretty narrow field. So how did we go about finding our drivers? Sexist as it may be, we looked for the women.
In Dong Jia Xing’s case, we didn’t have to look hard. She appeared right in front of us, well-dressed and smiling kindly, seconds after we hopped off the our bus back to Zhongwei, where we had stopped our hike in August. On our way into town, Mrs Dong recommended a nice hotel for us, so we kept her mobile number and called her again the next day when we needed a lift to our starting point.
That first day was a bit trying, for her at least. When we’d finished for the day, we called her and told her we were on the highway about two kilometres east of Yingshuiqiao. About 30 minutes later, she called back and said she couldn’t find us, so we handed the phone to some guys on the roadside and had them explain our location. About 20 minutes later, we got another call, and again we handed the phone off to a local for an explanation. When she showed up five minutes later, laughing and in great spirits after spending an hour driving around who knows where, we knew we had our woman.
She Tia Jian and She Tia Hong
The brothers She
Sometimes it’s not the actual helpful deed that makes a person a wall angel, but when they do it.
On our second day back, we were walking between the Desert Research Station at Shapatou and the town of Zhongwei. There was only a brief section of actual wall to walk along, so when it disappeared into the desert we hopped onto the train tracks. We could see a little workers booth up ahead and men wearing the trademark blue and gold rail uniform walking around.
When we reached them it was obvious they were excited to see us and wanted to talk. She Tie Jian and She Tie Hong were brothers and had a third brother who lived in Sydney, so the conversation quickly moved to money and how much we spent on phone calls to Australia (they knew a great deal on a phone card; we were paying way too much). When we said we had to keep going, after about 20 minutes of chatting, they forced a bag of delicious local apples on to us and filled Emma’s camera bag with nuts.
Now, this sort of thing happens all the time, and while we always appreciate it, this post would get a bit long if we wrote about every person who pressed an apple into our hands. But the railway guys were different. On our second day back, we were feeling a bit angst-ridden. We more than a little unsure of Brendan’s foot, we didn’t know whether returning to finish was the right thing to do, we didn’t know if we wanted to spend basically another half-year doing this at just around the time we’d originally expected to finish and get back to our normal lives.
Not that the She brothers were able to answer those questions or anything, but the apples sure were good.
Wei Jing with her brother, Wei Peng, and Emma
Not sure if it’s because Brendan is a Westerner or the fact that he still looks about fifteen, but excited, bouncy schoolgirls are a dime a dozen when he’s around. It’s not strange to see one grabbing his arm and jumping up and down with excitement.
Wei Jing’s family owned the restaurant next to our hotel in Zhongwei. When she would see us walk past she would race out and excitedly invite us in, where we were fed huge plates of dumplings, given cups of goji leaf tea, and looked over her English books. Due to the school schedule many students have here, we had to arrange to meet her a few times at 9:30 pm when she got out of class (after having started at 7:15 am, with a break in the afternoon). ‘Course, with a tight schedule like that, the teachers can’t always squeeze in all the necessary lessons in the hours available to them, so sometimes class ran past 9:30. Still, Wei Jing would come hurtling into the restaurant a few minutes late, completely out of breath, having run all the way from school to meet us.
Mr Zhu with his wife and Brendan
Zhu didn’t meet each one of our ideal standards for a driver, as he smoked, but he had one outstanding ability that continues to boggle our minds to this day – in a country where few people have a solid grasp on the whereabouts of any place not in their daily routine, and where taxi drivers have a more tenuous grasp than most, Zhu knew just about every inch of every little road, down to the rockiest track, between the villages along the Yellow River and the Helan Shan Great Wall.
It’s hard to convey just how lucky we were to find Mr Zhu. The places we needed to go were not really places at all, just points on a map – for example, our first destination, Kouzimen, consisted of a few crumbling adobe foundations at the mouth of a canyon. While most taxi drivers wouldn’t have been able to find Kouzimen for a thousand dollars, Zhu didn’t bat an eye.
He was also a great guy. For some reason that we never found out, Mr Zhu knew a lot about the wall and where to find it. He had an interest in what we were doing, an interest in the wildlife we saw, and an interest in the historical towns we went to. Finding these remote sections of wall actually felt like something he also wanted to do.
On our last day with him, he and his wife asked us if we could get a photo taken with them. We were imagining standing outside his shop while his daughter used our camera. Not so. Just down the road was a small photo studio with a backdrop of a tropical scene. In the photo above there are two cameras going at once, so people are looking in different directions; fortunately, the ones the professional photographer took for Zhu, with all four of us in the frame, turned out nicely.
The staff at the Ji Long Hotel
In front of the hotel with Emma
Back in November, we happened to mention to one of the workers at the Ji Long Hotel in Qingtongxia that we were staying in the expensive suite for the night ($50 AUD) because it was Emma’s birthday and we felt like a treat. Comments like this usually get glossed over, but not at this hotel. When we came back from a day of hiking, the manager and a handful of staff all turned up at our room with a beautiful bunch of real flowers (hard to find at this time of year and probably quite expensive) and presented them to Emma for her birthday.
(Here we should mention that Brendan had also snuck out and had a cake made for the birthday girl).
With Wang Fang with her mother after dinner at the Wang home
Here’s a curious phenomenon: whenever we stepped out of our hotel in Yinchuan, not looking for a taxi, about four would stop for us. Whenever we stepped out of our hotel looking for a taxi, none would stop for us. Guess it’s not that curious, just annoying.
So we asked the doorman of our hotel if he could help us find a driver. We were going to be based in Yinchuan for a long time, so having a good driver was crucial.
We were so pleased when he called Ms Wang. She fitted all the above-mentioned criteria, played good music in the car and even had a wry sense of humour that we sometimes understood. She chased after antelope with us, drove through huge wind farms and waited hours for us as we walked the long remote stretches.
Ms Wang wasn’t the fastest driver; in fact, we suspected she had never driven on a dirt road when she maintained a speed of about 15 km/hr on our first day. But as she gained experience she also gained confidence. And in China, driving too carefully is hardly the greatest fault you can find in a cab driver.
Sheng Jiang and the staff at Shui Luo Bo
The staff of Shui Luo Bo and Sheng Jiang, who is the man in the black shirt, second row, laughing as usual
Despite its Buddhist traditions, China is not exactly what you’d call vegetarian heaven, especially provincial China. In a country where genuine famine is within living memory, and malnutrition is a contemporary reality in the poorest areas, foregoing meat is bewildering to most people.
Neither of us is vegetarian, but we both like a good vegetarian meal, so when we found out about this restaurant online, we thought we’d like to check it out. We were a little disappointed when the waitress pointed out their special “pork sausages” that seemed to actually be pork. But when the “chicken” wasn’t quite like chicken, we asked what we were eating. Our helpful waitress pointed at the dishes and said “Bu zhen de” (not real), then brought over a little informational sheet with cartoon drawings of lambs and cows saying “Thank you for not eating me.” It was only then that we realised, the pork wasn’t pork, the chicken wasn’t chicken, and we were eating strange combinations of tofu and vegetables that not only tasted like meat, but had something approaching the texture of meat.
So what makes Sheng Jiang and the staff at his restaurant Wall Angels? Well, good customer service is hard to find out here in the provinces. When we realised that Mr Sheng was both a great manager and a great boss to his staff, we knew we had found someone who could qualify for a Wall Angel. Plus, one night we had a great meal, a fun conversation (about soccer, but Mr Sheng made it fun), and then he treated us to the whole meal for free. Expect to see him in Sydney soon; we had to counter with an offer to stay quite a few times.
Emma rambling along the Helan Shan
Well, we finally made it through Ningxia a few weeks ago, which means it’s time once again for some ramblings. (For those of you new to the blog, or if you just can’t remember WAAAY back to Gansu: When we reach the end of each province/autonomous region, we do a little post filled with odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else.)
Is it possible to ramble underwater?
The trip through Ningxia was a ramble in the truest sense of the word. To protect Brendan’s foot from re-injury, we limited our daily distance to 15-20 kilometres maximum, and we frequently took days off as well. It took us nearly two months (34 days of actual walking) to cover Ningxia’s 515 kilometres.
But cover it we did, rambling over mountains and across the plains, through snow and sunshine, past piggeries and mangers.
Sunset along the Helan Shan
The monochrome wall
Sparrows scattering across a sunny winter sky
The brown mound of dirt behind this piggery is the Great Wall of China
Every kilometre or two along the arc between Zhongwei and Yinchuan, we would come across an interesting, and usually old, temple. We don’t know why this area was so rich in temples – one Beijing friend speculated that somehow this bit of China might have been spared the rampant vandalism of religious sites that accompanied the Cultural Revolution.
The bell at Long guan temple near Zhongwei
A small roadside temple near Shikong
The thing that will always stick with us about Ningxia actually has a lot more to do with the time of year than the place – it was freezing. When we returned to hiking on November 11, there were still leaves on the trees and we enjoyed two weeks of Indian summer, but on November 24 it turned cold and snowed, and we didn’t have a warm day again in Ningxia.
Emma blowing even more smoke than usual
Apart from the obvious changes in comfort level and routine that we’ve already written about, winter also brought about a change in our social schedule – we didn’t have much of one. In summer people were out and about from sunup to sundown, and they’d often rush up to greet us and ask questions. In winter, people tend to stay inside, probably flipping through the fifty-odd channels even the most remote villages somehow get; and when we do meet them, they’re often more subdued.
There are exceptions, of course.
Actually, it was lunch hour – but why worry about such fine distinctions when there’s rope to be skipped?
These two have put away such childish things