Wall Angels, Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province

Putting together our final episode of Wall Angels was a fun but sad experience. Fun, because we got to relive those times, and sad because we know there won’t be any more Wall Angels for us for a while.

If we thought Shanxi and Shaanxi were difficult to walk through, with their endless canyons and windy, snowy weather, well, that was nothing compared to Hebei and Beijing. Both were incredibly difficult. Steep, mountainous country, vertical wall, cliffs, thorns and impenetrable bushes. Our daily kilometre limit dropped from 30kms to 10kms, sometimes down to 5kms, and our finish date moved further and further away. We didn’t have the time to sit around and meet people, we had to keep moving and we had to at least try to reach our daily goal.

Inevitably we met fewer people. That’s not to say that our personal encounters dropped, because on the contrary, with farmers out in the field with the coming of spring, we spoke to a lot more people as the days went on. But it is to say that we didn’t have the time to form as many relationships as we had previously. We had to make a decision to keep moving. If we didn’t, we might never have reached the end.

The Gold Miners

One of our most common questions is what do we do about food and water. How do we get it, how much do we have to carry. Well, to answer those questions we can give you the example of our first set of Wall Angels for Hebei province.

We were walking in a particularly remote area of the province, canyons and hills slowing us down to an incredibly slow pace and the winds of April battering us about. So diversions to get water for the night weren’t really a fun thing to do, especially when they added on a few kilometres of walking to what was already a long day. But when the source of water appears before you … well, you take it, graciously of course.

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The Gold Miners were living in a shack just down the hill from the Great Wall. About 10 of them slept on hard single beds in the one room, canvas covering the roof, doors and windows and sheltering them from the wind and cold. They lived there for months at a time with nothing much but a book each, a few large drums of water for washing and drinking, and a small kitchen that could make rice and noodles. Obviously the water came from elsewhere, probably driven up in a truck from a town down in the valley.

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We needed at least six litres of water to take with us, which they gave without hesitation. They gave us some tea to drink and to warm us up, then invited us to stay for food. We declined, needing to keep moving before the winds picked up again, which they did as soon as we stepped out the door. The older man watched us go, staying outside in the wind to wave goodbye to us as we walked up the hill and out of view.

The Great Wall Society, Yan Dao Jun and Dong Yaohui

The China Great Wall Society is the leading Chinese organisation working on Great Wall conservation. We got in contact with the Society last year before we set off on our endless journey and were fortunate enough to meet the Secretary-General Dong Yaohui and the society’s editor, Yan Daojun.

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Mr Dong leading us to the sea

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Mr Yan outside Laolongtou

Mr Dong, a leading expert on the wall and one often sought out by the media for comment, was one of the first men to walk the entire length of the Great Wall. He has published numerous books and articles on the wall and works tirelessly for its preservation. But despite his incredibly busy schedule, he has still managed to make time for us on two very important occasions – our send-off in Jiayuguan, and our finish in Shanhaiguan.

Neither of these would have been as large occasions as they were if it weren’t for the amazing organisational skills of Mr Yan Daojun, who, with three days’ notice, arranged a trip to Shanhaiguan and for local media and government officials to be waiting for us at the end. His contacts are endless, his enthusiasm and energy boundless, and the help and support that he has given us were invaluable for our trip.

Mr Li Hong and family

We have often included drivers in our list of Wall Angels before. That’s because, when we have to base ourselves in a town when faced with obstacles like a broken foot and the like, drivers become invaluable in transporting us to and from the wall. But Mr Li wasn’t just a driver, he was also a friend, an organiser and, on terribly short notice, a great photographer.

We met Mr Li in the town of Qinhuangdao. The heat had forced us to base ourselves there because it just wasn’t possible for us to carry our fully laden backpacks up and over the Hebei mountains in addition to the eight or so litres of water that we would each need every day. With heat in the high 30s, humidity a lot higher, and ne’er a flat spot of walking in sight, one litre of water would be sweated out in about 10 minutes.

So we found Mr Li and commenced what was to become an invaluable working relationship and an even more special friendship. Not sure if he was really ready for the 6:30am starts and the 8pm finishes, but he never complained. And we’re not sure if he was ready for the exploration we had to do, the drives through small villages looking for the wall and the negotiating with the locals that was involved, but he took it all in his stride.

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Mr Li, Sabrina and Mrs Huang

When Emma’s parents arrived Mr Li took on the role of tour guide, taking care of them while we were sweating our way up the mountains and calling us on our mobile phone when he needed someone to translate at the restaurant (“Do your parents want rice or noodles?”). When the day finally came to reach the end, he brought his wife, Mrs Huang, and daughter, Sabrina, along who were both wonderful in helping to set up the stage for the finishing function. And at Laolongtou, when we were speechifying and raising our arms in the air and generally running around out of control, Mr Li took control of our cameras and made sure we had good photos of the occasion – he took most of the photos in our final post, above.

Like all good connected Chinese men, he has a QQ number (internet video phone), and pretty soon so will we. That means we’ll be able to stay in contact over the internet and send each other photos. Who knows, maybe Sabrina will even visit us in Sydney. In a very short time, he became a good and trusted friend, and he will be sorely missed.

Wall Angels, Shanxi Province

Our Wall Angels for Shanxi are a mixed bunch. Because we spent so much time on the wall and Brendan’s foot has pretty much recovered, we only have one driver; the other two are people we encountered along the way during times of hiking. These Wall Angels are selected because they made our day special, but they are by no means the only friendly encounters we had – on the whole our experience of people in Shanxi was extremely positive.

We were further away from towns and more independent of drivers in Shanxi than we had been while Brendan was rehabbing, but we still relied on people for water. Though we could go days without walking through a village with a shop and often boiled snow for water, we also relied on farmers and shepherds at times when there wasn’t any snow. This might explain why our experiences of people was so positive – small villages are always a lot more pleasant than roads or large towns.

The Jing Chang of Shiqigou, Inner Mongolia

Before we started this trip, we had been warned time and again to avoid the police. So many times, in fact, that whenever we see a police car coming our way we automatically lower our eyes and try to make our backpacks blend into the scenery. Well, that’s not going to happen, but as it turns out our fears seem to have been unfounded – the police really haven’t given us much trouble. Boring, I know, but that’s how it is.

When we met the Jing Chang (police) of Shiqigou, we had been out on the wall for a week or so and had been melting a lot of snow for water; as a result, we were almost out of fuel for our stove. We still had a few days of traveling ahead of us, so when the wall crossed a highway bordering Shanxi and Inner Mongolia we thought we should try to pick up some fuel. According to the locals, the closest petrol station was down the road about six kilometres. But don’t worry, they said, there’s a bus at 2 o’clock.

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Your friendly neighbourhood police

While walking 3600 kilometres might seem a bizarre thing to do, we do draw the line at a 12-kilometre detour just to get petrol. And waiting three hours for the once-a-day bus isn’t usually on our schedule. So with sunken shoulders we dejectedly made our way back to the wall, the thought of cold dinners and no hot cup of tea at the end of a long day of hiking weighing us down.

When we walked past the police check-point on the highway we had a thought. In the past the police have given us rides, let’s see if they’ll do it again today, even if it is to buy petrol in a little throwable container. When Brendan explained to them that we have a small stove and need petrol to boil water, it didn’t take long for the youngest police officer to usher him into the officers’ van and speed off for town, leaving me sipping tea with the remaining one. After the quick round-trip we thanked them profusely, but they waved us away, saying in Chinese: “We’re the police, we’re here to help.”

Guo Yung

When you’re called up late at night and asked to pick up two hikers from a small village you’ve never heard of that is two hours’ drive away, and you agree, you qualify for Wall Angel status. That is how Mr Guo made it on to this list.

We had met him on a previous visit to Datong and employed him as our driver while we were sightseeing and for our return trip from Datong back to the wall. We had reached the end of a hiking week (most Wall Angel stories start this way, don’t they?) and thought we would be ending up in a township town. These towns are usually large enough to have a few snack shops and a simple place to stay. This town did have a few snack shops, but as for places to stay – well, unless we were willing to share the kang with an old man and his TB cough, there weren’t any other options.

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Guo Yung dropping us off at the wall

So at 7 pm we called Mr Guo and asked if he had the time to drive from Datong to pick us up and take us back for a nice day off. He didn’t know where the town was, but he had the time. It took him two hours and a few stops to ask for directions, but at 9 pm he found us eating dumplings in a little mahjong room and hastily pushed us into his car. Definitely Wall Angel status.

Cheng Yu Tie

We never expected Easter Sunday to be much of a holiday here in China. Until we met Mr Cheng. While most of you were pigging out on chocolate Easter eggs and hot cross buns, Mr Cheng was busy doing something every bit as important – turning 74.

We had spent the morning hauling our bags up a 1500-foot climb, following the wall as it jumped over the mountain range from one river valley to another. Easter, like birthdays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day, was just another hiking day, except for the visions of our families and friends back home having picnics that occasionally popped into our heads and made us homesick.

But when we descended into the next river valley (not the last one, we were upset to see) we needed to stock up on water, so we sought out the nearest shop, which also happened to be the site of Mr Cheng’s birthday party. There were 20 family members, two tables of food, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, us. We tried to beg off joining in such a special occasion, but not taking no for an answer, his daughter sat us down at one of the tables, pushed chopsticks into our hands and told us to eat.

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Grandpa Cheng is the one wearing the birthday hat

We spent the next hour making our way through home-style vegetables, sticky rice buns, noodles and fish – and that’s not even including Mr Cheng’s huge birthday cake with a singing candle flower in the middle. The cake wasn’t completely consumed like it is at most Western parties (flour cakes seem to be a pretty new thing around here), but the icing, like at most parties, was put to good use. What’s a 74-year-old’s birthday party without a cake fight?

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Grandson Cheng Sheng can cake-fight and text at the same time

Wall Angels, Shaanxi Province

In the first two provinces we traveled through, Gansu and Ningxia, our experiences with people were overwhelmingly positive. There were the inevitable problems of traveling in China – cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, being overcharged, being stared at. But these weren’t as common as we’d expected, and the friendliness and generosity of the people we met far outweighed any minor hassles.

Things changed in Shaanxi. In central Shaanxi, where we spent most of January and early February, this was mostly due to poverty. There, the areas that we walked through were much different from what we’d encountered in the irrigation country of Gansu and Ningxia. People were not dressed as well, they were considerably shorter and less healthy, and they looked less happy. They rarely invited us into their homes, and understandably so – people had nothing to spare. On several occasions we were turned away from homes when looking for water – not because they didn’t have water, but because they seemed afraid of us. While we couldn’t possibly blame people who had nothing for being reluctant to take us in, as precious and petty as it may seem to say so, inevitably this affected our mood.

In the northern Shaanxi coal country things got a bit nastier. Though the people were better off than in central Shaanxi, they were also less than kind to us with some regularity. For example, normally people call us wai guo ren, meaning simply “foreigners,” or even wai guo pengyoumen, meaning “foreign friends.” In northern Shaanxi, for the first time in the trip, we were routinely called laowai, a term whose meaning ranges from a neutral though not especially polite term for foreigners, to a derogatory slur. When it’s shouted in your face from five feet away – Laowai! Laowai!!! Hey, LAOWAI!!!! – it’s not tough to figure out which meaning is intended.

In Shaanxi our Wall Angels were more important to us than ever, not just because of what they gave us directly, which was plenty, but also because they sustained us through the most difficult part of our trip (things have been much more positive in recent weeks). When it seemed that everyone was either afraid of us or unfriendly, they reminded us that the large majority of our encounters with people, even in Shaanxi, have been happy ones. When we were becoming suspicious and short-tempered, our Wall Angels replenished our emotional reserves.

Gong Zhi Yang

Mr Gong was one of the few people who approached us in the poor and remote hill country southeast of Anbian, and for Brendan’s sake, he came along at just the right moment. At that time, we were still doing short days and short weeks to rehab the foot, and we had come to the end of the distance we’d allotted for that section.

The problem was, we were miles short of the town where we’d hoped to have a rest day. The hills were getting steeper, and the canyons deeper. To top it all off, Emma was starting to whine.

When we saw a paved road in the distance, the first for days, we thought we had it made – paved roads usually mean buses, and buses mean towns and guesthouses. But those hopes soon faded – after watching the road for two hours as we descended the mountain, we saw all of two cars. The only thing we could think of to do when we made it to the village was argue.

Enter Mr Gong. He strolled out of his courtyard with a huge smile on his face, whether it was from watching us squabble or just friendliness we’ll never know. When we asked if we could catch a bus from this village, he said no, but not to worry, his son was a driver. Next thing we knew we were sitting in his cave dwelling, sipping tea, and chatting with Mr Gong, his daughter-in-law and son, who eventually took us to the next town.

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Mr Gong and family

It turns out that, like many trail angels in the States (see Wall Angels, Gansu Province for an explanation), Mr Jia had a history of helping hikers. Some years before he had hosted another wall walker, a New Zealander, who almost certainly was Nathan Gray.

It’s funny to think that there must be a whole team of people in villages across China who see, at least once or twice a year, a backpack-laden hiker stumble into their courtyard looking for water or a ride. The wonderful thing is that these people rarely hesitate in offering one or the other. In the case of Mr Gong, he offered both.

Liu Wan Yuan

A few weeks after Mr Gong rescued us, we found ourselves in a similar fix – at the end of a hiking week, further away from town than we wanted, low on food and out of water.

We spotted a small shack that looked like a temporary worker’s house near a road next to the wall and decided to ask for water, just enough so we could then think and decide how to get in to Yulin given we were still far from the highway.

It’s not uncommon that stopping in for water turns into an hour-long process that involves many cups of tea. But stopping in for water at Mr Liu’s took more than an hour, mostly because we could actually understand each other and were enjoying having a conversation with someone other than ourselves. We had been having a really hard time deciphering the Shaanxi dialect with people we met, but talking with Mr Liu was just like talking with someone from Beijing.

It turned out that he was a notary by training (he still carried his books in his hut) but was currently working on the oil line that was going in around Yulin.

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Liu Wan Yuan

There was something very kind about him – maybe it was because he too was living away from his family, in a small hut barely big enough for one person. He saw to our transport, knew quite a bit about the wall, and kept on pressing food and tea into our hands.

When we returned a few days later to resume hiking, we stopped in and gave him a present. He was embarrassed but when we told him it was for his wife he accepted. On showing us to the wall, he took us to the beacon tower nearest to his hut and took Brendan up to show him the view. Apparently it had been a favourite sunrise spot for foreign photographers and he thought we would like it.

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Surveying the desert with Mr Liu

He Xiao Hu

In Shaanxi we were so often quoted exorbitant prices for cab rides there wasn’t even any point in haggling. When you’re quoted a price three times the going rate for locals, the cabbie’s not trying for a good price, he’s trying to rip you off. Anyway, it may take a while, but there’s always someone who will take you for a fair price. And who’s almost certain to be better company.

He Xiao Hu was that guy. After a break day in Shenmu we needed to get back to the wall, only 20 kms away. The first taxi driver said it would cost 100 yuan, so we politely closed the door and walked away. Mr He pulled over and, with a huge smile, said it would cost 1 yuan a kilometre. Now that’s what we like to hear.

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He Xiao Hu

With not much wall around Shenmu, we had to do a lot of walking on roads. This meant finding a good driver was paramount. He Xiao Hu was good – fun, smiley and safe. And he was on a mission to teach his three-year-old boy English and learn a bit himself. So, whenever we were in the car, he plugged in a children’s tape, which gave very simple lessons in English greetings, names for animals, family members and so forth, The lessons were set to catchy little children’s tunes and used the tried-and-true Chinese instructional method of endless repetition – “Zaoshang hao, good morning, good morning, good morning; Xiao zhu yi yang Pig, pig pig.” If the songs stick in his three-year-old’s mind like they did in ours, the boy will be fluent in no time.

Wall Angels, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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).

Wang Fang

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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

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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.

Wall Angels, Gansu Province

On long-distance walking trails in the US, people who help out hikers are known as “trail angels.” A trail angel might be someone who gives you food, a ride, a place to stay or just a bit of encouragement.

Trail angels always seem to show up just when hikers need them most, and they can be the difference between hikers quitting at a tough moment or pushing on. A few years ago on the John Muir Trail in California, we had given up and were heading out of the mountains after spending a morning trying to make our way over a 3500-meter pass through a blanket of fresh, wet snow, when a Dutch couple in their 60s gave us a Three Musketeers chocolate bar.

That little bit of fuel and a few kind words were enough to get us to turn around and accompany the couple over the pass (well, that and we weren’t going to let a couple of hikers old enough to be our parents show us up).

Here in China we get help on a daily, often an hourly basis. It’s hard to sit down at a corner shop without being offered a cup of tea or a plate of watermelon. People are constantly giving us directions – they’re completely wrong about three-quarters of the time, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.

Wall Angel No. 1 was the wonderful Mr Hou, replenishing us after a rough day in the hot Gobi Desert (see Mr Hou). Since then, Wall Angels have crossed our paths for a matter of minutes or for a whole night. Below are just a few of the people who gave us a boost when we really needed it.

Lily and her family

One evening we had collapsed by the side of a road, watching thick, grey clouds brewing up a thunderstorm in the distance and wondering where we were going to camp. As the first drops started to fall, an elderly married couple trudged out of the corn fields with spades over one shoulder and grass for their goats over another. In rapid-fire, Gansu-afflicted Chinese (of which we understood very little) they asked (in the Chinese way of asking, which is more like ordering) if we would like to stay at their house for the night. It was only up the road and they had room enough for us.

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Fan Li Ling and Mrs Fan

The main room of the courtyard house was small, a brick bed (called a kang) running the length of one wall, a table, TV and cabinet making up the other half. The elderly couple had three grandsons and they all seemed to sleep in the same room.

They gave us bread to nibble on and tea to drink, topped up regularly by one of the ultra-polite grandsons. Just as the conversation started to run dry, a pretty 20-year-old girl called Lily came in. Her English was flawless. She lived across the road and seemed to be related, ie. she called all three boys her brothers but a different boy entirely was her actual brother.

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Mrs Fan, Lily and Emma

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Brendan (what’s up with the cap?), Lily’s brother and Fan Li Ling

After the women of the house had made everyone a bowl of noodles (we got two bowls, despite our protestations) which were eaten on laps, Lily asked if we would like to sleep at her house. We were given a room to ourselves while Lily’s younger sister served us a plate of watermelon and her younger brother brought us a tub of warm water to wash our feet.

After that we were invited to her parents’ living room to “meet the people of the village.” She wasn’t joking. Crammed in one small room were about 50 adults and 20 kids, all talking at once, asking us questions, laughing at us and laughing at images of themselves on our digital cameras.

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Friends of the family

Gao Jia and her family

We came across Gao Jia in the town of Tumen, where we arrived one evening by bus in order to spend a night at a hotel. The town’s hotel consisted of three rooms above a row of shops. Word quickly got around that some wai guo ren (foreigners) were in town.

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Gao Jia (left of Emma) and family

When we slipped out of our room to find a restaurant, 17-year-old Gao Jia came running up to us, saying her grandmother had cooked us dinner and we were to come over right away. Gao Jia’s English was also extremely good and she wanted to become a teacher. She lined up her three younger siblings and made them introduce themselves to us. Stuck around the main room of the house were bits of paper with English words on them: “mirror,” “television,” “door.” Her first task as budding teacher was to educate her siblings in English.

We sat down with her father and grandfather and ate dinner while Gao Jia, her mother and grandmother served the food. Gao Jia eventually sat with us and acted as translator. We talked about Australia, their life in rural China, and what we had seen on our trip.

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Gao Jia; her father, Gao Lan Shan; her grandfather, Guo Sheng Tang; and Brendan

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Emma, Gao Lan Shan and Guo Sheng Tang

The meal was bigger and better than anything we would have ordered in a restaurant, and Brendan washed his down with some hard liquor pressed on him by the men of the family. Fortunately, the drinking session wasn’t a test of manliness and ended after only a few cups.

We were asked back for breakfast at 6:30am the next morning. Apparently, grandma had got up much earlier to cook for us. We gave them a gift before we left and took a round of family photos. Gao Jia and her father drove us back to where we had left the wall the day before and waved us off as we headed on our way.

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Gao Jia and Gao Lan Shan

Old Man with Watermelons

And we’re not talking manboobs. We mean real watermelons, the sweet, crunchy, juicy kind. Summer in Northern China is hot, so watermelons become a staple part of the diet.

To cut a long story short, we had reached the Yellow River and found its banks too steep to walk over. (We’ve probably already mentioned this, but Chinese maps don’t show trivial things like mountain ranges and canyons.) This meant we had to retrace our steps for, oh, only about 18kms. We had taken lots of water, but not enough for half a day’s detour.

The following day we could see the town we were aiming for but were struggling to get there through all the canyons that kept appearing over every rise. The temperature was rising, we had no water, and Emma, big wuss that she is, was starting to complain. We decided to leave our packs where we were and head for town with nothing more than some money and our empty water bags.

When we got to the nearest road we hitched a ride to a shop, only the shop wasn’t a shop, it was an old guy’s house. It looked like he lived there with his wife and son, who was walking around on a drip. Emma didn’t really care that it wasn’t a shop, so she sat down outside their front door. The old man took pity on her and brought her some tea, half a watermelon and a spoon. Guess what Emma’s new favourite fruit is?