Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wo is me

Mandarin is allegedly a wonderfully simple language to learn. The grammar is very straightforward, verbs require no conjugation and it is pronounced as it Pinyin (the romanized form of Mandarin). Aha, that's the catch. There are thousands of Chinese characters, but apparently you only need to know a few thousand to read a newspaper. I don't think we'll be putting that to the test. Instead I'll be thumbing through our phrasebook trying to find an essential word or two to get by. Apart from useful phrases like "How much is it?" and "I think it's the medication I'm on" there are others that we are unlikely to use such as "Do you know a dentist who's good with children?" or those that we may only need the once, such as "Is this the bus to Huangzhou?" (unless, of course, we go to Huangzhou twice.) Gayle is persevering with her tried and tested technique of speaking English and miming. Frustratingly for me, with my thumb stuck in my phrasebook, she can be very successful.

We venture forth from the safe haven of Yangshuo and to one of those beautiful Chinese locations given the typically poetical name of Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces. Catching the buses is made easier when you have your destination written in characters, but everyone seems helpful, and there's quite a few women working the buses. As everyone knows, women are much more responsible than men or rather, much less stupid. Sometimes we walk into a hotel and the man looks at us like we came from another planet. A mixture of anxiety and fear crosses his face. Can't even comprehend that we might want a room for the night. The woman meanwhile responds with a couple of clarifying questions, a smile and shows us a room. Chromosomes, eh?

The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces are a couple of very pretty areas where there are um, lots of rice terraces. It's a classic scene and there are several traditional villages where you can stay and wander to viewpoints along traditional stone paths (built for the traditional tourists, but in keeping with the place) to take photos and admire the wonder of it all. The viewpoints have evocative names like "Seven Stars and The Moon", "Nine Dragons, Five Tigers" or the Zeppelin-esque "Stairway to Paradise". There are a few tourists around but plenty more hotels than punters. They remind us of the trekking lodges in Nepal. After a couple of nights in one area we trek across to the other. We are accompanied by a guide who leads us without asking along a quiet path, traversing the hillsides and climbing the ridges, just below the trees and just above the rice terraces. If we dawdle, our guide hurries back to look for us and if we stop for a break to admire the views, he whines. Now, as everyone who knows me knows, I don't like dogs. But this one is friendly and quiet and sticks close to us without getting under our feet. He looks very happy to be out and about. Small wonder, really, as they eat dogs in these parts. The night before, a Canadian recounted to us how two villagers picked up a dog in front of him and tried to kill it. They couldn't. In the end they put it in a gunney sack and smashed it with an iron bar. Later they were seen burning off the fur with a blowtorch. He appreciated that the killing was not a random act of violence - they were just sorting out their tea - but the method was a little upsetting. Our guide meanwhile runs ahead of us and leads us to a village that sees few tourists. It's tucked away in a small valley and the wooden houses look old and warped compared to the new tidy wooden lodges we've seen. There are few other tourists walking the path, and no Chinese. Eventually we reach Ping'an our destination. Before we enter the village we climb up to a viewpoint. Whilst we chat to an American, an old lady who is selling drinks catches our guide dog and ties him up with wire. The dog wails. I try and release him, but the old dear has a grip like a vice on my wrist and pulls me away. She even bears her ragged teeth in rage. It's futile. I can't look after this dog - I don't want to. But I have no doubt he'll end up in a gunney sack like the other one.

Ping'An sees a few more tourists than the other villages, and it's particularly busy because of the 1st October holidays. Sixty years ago Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China. Lots and lots of people are on holiday for a week or more and the hotels are responding accordingly. Our room costs 60 yuan for the night, but we have to change hotel for the next night because the price is rising to 220 yuan. At the weekend it will be 400 yuan. I wonder how much the word 'communism' is aired these days in China. We find another room in a simple little place that has no other guests. No TV + no air-con = no punters. We like the family who run it and we're invited to sit down with them to watch some of the celebrations from Beijing in the evening. Lots of singing and dancing and folk costumes and fireworks and extras forming huge colourful patterns for those great aerial shots. The Chinese can do spectaculars. Shots of the stony-faced Central Committee, in dark suits watching from their balcony. It goes on for hours. We go to bed.

In the morning we walk away from the village and the hotels advertising folk remedies and foot massages (one, the Li Qing Hotel, even offers blood-letting services) and the Chinese tourists who are huffing and puffing their way to a viewpoint. Half an hour away is another village, virtually untouched by the outside interest. Another world almost. In the fields the harvesting has begun. Farmers are cutting the rice and laying it out to dry on the edge of each paddy field. Once it's dried for a few days they then thresh it into a wooden box in the field and cart off the rice grains. These are then spread out on plastic sheets to dry for a few more days. The grains are then winnowed, leaving the grains free of their husks, and put out to dry again. It's a labour intensive process that we are to witness again and again in the coming days.

One evening we walk into a noodle joint and I start stammering out "Wo....wo.....wo..." (I would like two bowls of rice noodles.) Gayle meanwhile has pointed into the pan of steaming broth and the pile of noodles on the side, given the two fingers to the cook and sat down to wait. "Wo xiang liang wan mifen!" I finally spit out as the said noodles are delivered to us. Mandarin sometimes sounds like a series of tongue-twisters that are best attempted when drunk...........

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