Travelling means putting one’s life in the hands of a driver and the only way to see the countryside of Yangshou is by tuk-tuk, which is basically a motorbike with a big heavy box on the back containing two bench seats. Thanks to a motorbike aficionado in my travel group I learned the machine was a 250 cylinder in “really good nick”. Unlike a conventional motorbike it has a reverse and the driver steers it rather than moves from side to side. Four tuk-tuks were hired to take the group on a tour of the countryside and my newfound friend, Carol, saved me a seat in the first, having chosen that one because she’d seen the driver clean the seats.
The young, round faced driver took one look at me and either said, ‘Holy shit my tuk-tuk is never gonna manage this elephant!” or ‘Wow, what a woman!’
I’d prefer the latter, but I have no way of knowing. Nevertheless he was a smiley, chatty little fellow once I got him talking.
‘My name is Amelia,’ I said, pointing to my upper chest. ‘What’s your name?’ I pointed at his upper chest. (How pointing to the chest encourages appellation is beyond me, but it worked.)
‘H-wang,” he replied and bowed slightly.
‘Nice to meet you, H-wang.’
‘Nice to meet you too.”
Carol emulated my efforts, on a par with an ambassador for the United Nations and others followed suit. Pleased with our introductions I gave him a high five. He laughed, then we were off.
The motorbike aficionado reminded me that an old Land Rover he once had was more comfortable and in a way he was right. Even when the road was relatively flat the tuk-tuk shook us up a bit. There was a load of road works around the city to make way for industry and the main roads were dusty and filled with potholes, comparable with several roads I know in Ireland. It was marginally better when we found ourselves pootling along a dry, but muddy laneway, one could hardly call a road. (Nor for that matter a laneway!) To my initial horror and Carol’s amusement, there were several occasions when I thought we’d end up in the water filled ditch running along side. My fellow passengers and I just laughed the whole thing off. One could do little else and, to his credit, H-wang was a competent driver.
We stopped several times for our guide to explain what was being grown in the countryside, which was numerous shades of green. I saw people bent double in rice paddies, wearing familiar triangular hats on their small heads and a woman carrying what I could call a loy – an instrument for digging narrow trenches with which to plant crops – over her shoulder.
There were banana trees, runner beans galore, courgettes, aubergines water chestnuts and peanuts covering the land, all carefully laid out and tenderly managed. It was breath taking, the limestone karsts reigning supreme over the rural landscape.
We were fortunate to be invited into the house of a local farming family. The house was a brick structure – one high storey with three rooms, then a smaller barn-like structure to the rear. The three-room area was dark, but cool, filled with what I would call antiques – a manual threshing machine, a spinning wheel, various spades and the loy-like implement. I was assured these were not for decoration, but were still used. Seemingly the people are very self-sufficient, making their own food and their own cloth. Although there was electricity, a TV being testament to that, very little has changed for hundreds of years. The crops are planted by hand and I saw no evidence of them not being picked by hand. The life of a farmer has to be exceedingly tough, but routine.
I was told that due to the shift of people moving to the city, farmers are given subsidies but, except for cars and mopeds, there are few signs of material wealth in the houses. The building to the rear was the kitchen containing a basic fire oven over which the farmer’s wife cooked the family meal in a large wok. There were smaller saucepans on the floor and a pressure cooker. Above the stove was a red piece of paper on which was written a blessing.
To the right of the room were two black coffins – yes – two black coffins. One of my fellow travellers was appalled and expressed his horror with the words: ‘How morbid.’ It transpired the coffins had been bought to ensure the elderly farmer and his wife would be buried correctly. Sadly, some parents do not trust their children. The black, wooden boxes are unlined, but the deceased would be laid in a quilt before being buried. Only a piece of red paper adorned on the coffin, on which was written a prayer.
According to the guide the local market sold cat, the local people still eating such, as well as snails, because they were once so poor. Dog is no longer eaten and cat less and less so. The farmer’s house had a cat flap, but there was no sign of a moggy. A bird, (possibly a Mina bird but I am not sure, not being a fan of the avian species), sat on a perch in a cage in the courtyard where a creel was hanging, although I’m not sure where people went fishing. A map of the world decorated the sitting room and I pointed out to H-wang where I lived – or tried to – Ireland wasn’t even on the map! A picture of the soon-to-be president and his wife and other photos were also on the wall. The bedrooms were very sparse, a mosquito net draped over a 3ft double bed, the largest piece of furniture in the house. There were chairs, benches and stools on which to sit, the male member of the family choosing to crouch like a large frog by the doorway on a low footstool, his knees almost reaching his chin.
The wife showed us how to make soya milk from the bean using a grinding stone attached to a long handle. She invited several of us to try it, one of the more savvy of our group stating, as if he’d done it all his life, ‘You have to get into a rhythm.” He was right. Despite knowing the scientific principles, it’s bloody hard work pushing and pulling the handle to make the grindstone turn! I’d argue the amount of soya milk made would not provide sufficient energy to operate the machine.
Finally we were driven to a local cemetery where we saw how the coffins are buried. They are not put into the ground but into a hillside. The smaller side of the coffin, decorated with the prayer, remains visible and is surrounded by verdant green grass. The area was extremely serene, except for annoying tourists remarking on the silence!
Of course my fellow travellers, living in the towns and suburbs of England, would be unused to the deafening quiet, whereas I, living in the back of beyond under a mountain in the west of Ireland, am completely used to tranquillity and the hush of nature.
It was an honour and a privilege to have been given a glimpse into life in rural China and I extend my thanks to H-wang, the farmer and his wife, and my tour guide for one of the best days in this beautiful country.