rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-03-25 15:29

Unwelcome among the unwelcome

On the afternoon of the 23rd, we left Ossie in bed, sick as a dog (after nearly three months in China, it's probably about time he got sick) and headed out to Yongding, five hours by bus inland from Xiamen. It's a town small enough to not have any taxis, which is something of a rarity in China - though it does have several thousand motocabs - 125cc motorbikes modified to have three wheels and a covered cab on the back. It's a nice enough place, with a hill and a river and some mines and a lot of rain - in fact, all Fujian province seems to do is rain, all the time.

On the ferry from Gulang Yu we met Nancy Chen; Taiwanese-American, thirties, bossy, talks a lot, speaks fluent mandarin and probably hokkien as well since she lived in Taiwan, has traveled a lot in China, is going to Vietnam soon also. She recognised us from the PSB office, and she confirmed that there IS in fact a Vietnamese Consulate in Guangzhou, and that getting a Vietnamese visa in Nanning is a pain and takes a long time and is expensive. Good news; it looks as if we'll be going to Guangzhou after all.

The bus to Yongding, while slow and crazy in the wet weather and poor roads, was uneventful, and by chance we found probably the best accomodation we've come across in China so far - the Dong Fu Hotel; a minute's walk from the bus terminal, a double room with a real live double bed (in China, 'double' means 'two single beds in the same room'; if you want a double bed you need to ask for a 'husband and wife room' or a 'deluxe room' or some similar bullshit, which typically entails an additional 100 or 200 kuai), everything's clean and works, the staff speak no English but are terribly helpful, etc. The husband and wife room cost us 128 kuai per night. We spent a whole day (the 24th) juust arsing about the place - walking around, getting quizzed on our origins and thoughts of China by schoolgirls, walking around a virtually abandoned supermarket, eating at a chinese rip-off of KFC called S&A, that sort of thing.

First thing in the morning of the 24th we had gotten a phone call from a bloke called Mr Lin, who seemed very nice and reasonable, but he called too early and we told him to piss off. He's the owner of Fuyu Lou, one of the nearby toulou, the Hakka Earth Buildings which we'd come here to see. The Hakka are one of China's celebrated minorities. The precise origin of the Hakka is little known, but the word means 'guest', but with a connotation of unwelcomeness. Large numbers of them fled south from Henan province starting in the 5th century. They've settled more or less everywhere south of Henan, including Hong Kong, and have largely kept their culture and language intact by keeping themselves shut away from the outside world. The design of toulou is introspective - the outer walls are solid; high, thick and impregnable, and on the inside of the donut (if you like) are several storeys of dwellings, and in the centre, common areas. Some of the bigger buildings have two or more concentric circles, including firebreaks and lockable internal doors to protect against attack. The Hakka were a persecuted people, and family solidarity preserved them.

That night, Mr Lin called back, and we talked turkey about having him as a guide around the Hakka settlements. He's skinny, 30-something, wears a shabby business jacket and cargo pants, and his business card says 'Economic Teacher'. Mr Lin wanted 100 kuai per person per day, which is reasonable, and his own Earth Building is a hotel, for which he wanted 50 kuai per room per night. All very cheap indeed, and I figured the catch would lie in kickbacks from overpriced restaurants, curio sellers, and so on. Nevertheless, hiring a driver is the only way to get around the settlements, so we agreed. I need to state for the record here that I fucking hate organised tours; I despise being hemmed in and shepherded by other people who are inevitably more bossy and noisier and more stupid than I am, and I hate having to go to places at prearranged times and leave them at other arbitrary times, and I absolutely will not put up with being told where and where not to go. I am the wrong person for tours. My ideal tour is one person, or maybe two if the other person is Deb. So you could say that the whole affair was doomed from the start.

He picked us up at 0800 in a trademark Chinese vehicle called a microbus - it's about the size of a Mitsubishi Mirage, except it has a 1.1 litre engine and seating for eight people. In it already were two noisy blokes and a noisy woman from Hong Kong. People like this are why I hate tours. Add the two of us, plus our packs, and the suspension in that vehicle was hurting. It got even better when his sister hopped in at a petrol station along the way. The rain showed no sign of stopping, and the roads got worse as we carried on to his place. It's a big, square (archetypal toulou are circular) farmhousey building, with four central courtyards, five main living spaces (corners and centre) and three floors of sleeping rooms. It's a lovely, homely place; quiet and in a very rural backwater with a (swollen, on account of the rain) river alongside.

On to the first actual destination - bloody miles away. The three Hong Kongers were swapped for three other Hong Kongers - middle-aged women this time, one actually from Hong Kong, the other two of whom lived in France. It's very odd hearing people chop between French and Cantonese and Mandarin and occasionally English. They were every bit as noisy at the other three Hong Kongers, but less obnoxious.

At our first stop we got our first dose of the old Chinese 'oh-didn't-I-tell-you-that-so-sorry' - 50 kuai per person to enter the village. I questioned Mr Lin forcefully about it, and why he hadn't told us, and he apologised and told me the rest of the entrance fees; another for 50 kuai and one for 30 kuai. So that's how he makes bank - by collecting a cut from the villages for each tourist he brings, having not made them aware of the charge in the first place. When we'd organised this, I'd gone over every detail of the cost (suspecting a scam), and even asked him if there were any other charges. Not that there was anything we could have done about it - we were now a couple of hours on backroads out in the middle of nowhere, and anyone with a vehicle in the area would be in on it; so we bit the bullet and paid up. At this point we also managed to meet up with another tour of about a dozen men in their thirties, from - you guessed it - Hong Kong, with cheap suits and expensive cameras and a penchant for shouting the cantonese equivalent of 'hoo-ah' or 'pighting' whenever one of them took a group photo of the rest. Roughly every five minutes. Mercifully, they were heading out as we were heading in.

This first village (Chuxi) was about 500 families, and we were clearly intruding on their lives. The place is build around one of the oldest toulou, built in the early 15th century, and was spread up a hillside. It reminded me of Jerusalem, up the Whanganui River - but Jerusalem doesn't charge US$5 of anyone who comes by for a look around. The main building, the bloody old one, is now a sort-of museum for tourists - though not just of Hakka culture, but all sorts of strange stuff, from general Chinese history to a US$1,000,000 note (yes, a one million dollar note) and bizarre exhibits on such topics as opium smoking, tobacco cultivation and manufacture, and prostitution - including another possible candidate for 'world's strangest sex gear' - a saddle with a huge wooden phallus set into it, presumably for the rider's pleasure. I spent most of my time outside - the rooms of the museum were poorly or unlit, and the content was generally low-grade stuff the like of which you can see in any museum anywhere. Outside was interesting - water buffalo tied in an archway, old ladies herding chickens and playing with their grandkids in the rain, kids playing basketball and haggling with their great auntie who ran the hole-in-the-wall lolly shop, ancient men smoking ancient pipes. The Hakka made their money in tobacco, and one geezer who must have been in his nineties showed me photos of him (he claimed it was him) in his twenties, smoking an old pipe made from a hollowed-out branch. He had a whole series, one photo per decade, of him puffing away on his old pipe, and a bit later as we were leaving, I spied him sitting in a doorway smoking that same pipe, shiny with age. Bizarrely, he also handed me a bunch of business cards - artists from New York, lawyers from Los Angeles, architects from Switzerland, businessmen from Tokyo. I didn't have a businesscard to give him. He didn't speak - most people, when they try to communicate with you, natter away in their own language just to make themselves feel better, but this guy didn't day a word. Mr Lin said that the really old people don't speak Mandarin - they only speak Hakka, so that may have been it. Then again, he may have had most of his throat removed from eight decades of smoking.

After lunch we went to #2 - Zhongchuan. Hu Bao Villa is here, the ancestral temple and memorial home of Hu Xiao, former member of the Politburo and - I'm not sure I believe this - inventer of Tiger Balm. It's also the memorial home of someone else immortalised repeatedly in bronze, 1882-1954, but since the whole thing is in Chinese, I can't tell you who.

The village itself is built on sheer cobbled walls containing a small river - all the rivers in this area are flooded due to heavy rain. It's very old, and very picturesque in a dilapidated and destitute sort of way. The general way of life around here hasn't changed in about a century, and I don't mean that in a good way. Communism has not helped these people, and capitalism through tourism ain't helping them either. Here again we were duped - we were charged 30 kuai each, but the only thing which the entrance fee actually buys is entry to a mini-museum of the grotesque. There are siamese piglets here - one conjoined head with one central eye, eight legs; pickled in a jar. And conjoined dogs - joined at the shoulder, both able to survive at least a while - nobody could tell me how long, but they were definitely not puppies any more. A two-headed snake; two albino snakes, one very small; one four metres long - both still alive. The pickled body of a one-of-a-kind fish, three metres long and white, prehistoric-looking, caught off the coast of Taiwan and a stuffed rabbit with antlers like a deer - Bunneh would have been very confused. The sad bit is that most of the critters are still alive, but are kept in the most miserable conditions - abovementioned four-metre snake in a tank two metres by one metre by half a metre high; a 120-year-old tortoise in a tank about half that size. I'd guess 25 of that 30 kuai per visitor is being siphoned off into other things - like paying for the village boss' hookers and booze.

One more stop for photos in picturesque Jinan valley, at the confluence of two rivers, then back to Fuyu Lou. Dinner was basic, rustic and overpriced, and just before bed (things happen in threes), we were again asked for 50 kuai each for the fourth stop, tickets for which Mr Lin had kindly given us earlier. But we didn't go there. By this time Mr Lin and the Hong Kong French Connection had buggered off, and we were dealing with his father, whose English amounts to 'herro', 'cheers' and 'sankyu'. On the horn to Mr Lin, who by this time was very drunk, and lapsed constantly into hokkien; the gist of my argument being "We didn't go there." He put on one of his girlfriends, who's French (though not the HKFC), but spoke perfect English and Mandarin. She explained that the fourth ticket is for Hongkeng, the village in which Fuyu Lou is situated, and since we're in Hongkeng, we have to pay. My argument changed to "We didn't get to see or do anything since we arrived at dusk, and we're leaving first thing in the morning.", and after some gentle persuasion on my part, they finally agreed to not make us pay the final 100 kuai.

The guestbooks of this place are filled with glowing recommendations and gushing thanks from people as far afield as New Zealand and Norway. (Probably the majority are French. This place sees a HELL of a lot of French people.) One of the recurrent themes is how welcome people felt, as if they'd been invited into the family home. We saw none of that. Mr Lin was friendly and spoke reasonable english while closing the deal, but once the trip was on he didn't want to know us, and left immediately upon dropping us back at Fuyu. His mother was the same - cooked dinner and served it to us in a separate room, then disappeared. The father was somewhat different - tried to chat a bit with us, and gave Deb a pouch of Hakky Baccy, drove us to the bus in the morning, and so on. Basically, he was the only one who treated us like people who were welcome, rather than sources of cash who'd be better if we just gave over the money and buggered off. I suppose that's the problem with turning your home into a tourist attraction - so many folks coming through see you as tourist attractions, not as people, and it's normal to reciprocate. It offends me because I explicitly don't see them or treat them in that way.

[L], 2006-03-25 Hongkeng, Peoples' Republic of China