You may or may not have heard that China is experiencing its hottest summer since records began. The cities of east coast are especially influenced by this, a lot of people have been reported dead in Shanghai and the news report always includes advice on how to keep cool.
Xi’an has been just as hot. We even hit 40 degrees officially the other day, which is a big deal as this marks the line where outside labourers may stop working. It’s been 40 degrees for a few days, I believe, but not officially. There are shopping malls that need to be built and roads that need to be fixed, so China cannot afford to have 40 degrees officially.
Amongst all this heat I somehow managed to get a very bad cold. The air conditioning in our office is actually quite cold. I lost my voice almost completely two weeks ago, which made teaching interesting. The students were so nice to me – they brought me coffee and chocolates and were very quiet in the class.
I have my voice back now, but cough like an old man. My yoga teacher gave me some pang da hai, which apparently translates as ‘sterculia’ into English. These are little nuts, which expand and turn into seaweed-like floating objects once put into hot water. These are used in China to cure voice loss and cold. It tastes very nice, almost like tea, but looks horrible.
We also went to see a Chinese doctor today. I wanted to get some more cupping as my back really feels better from the last time I had it done. David wanted a massage. Once we got out of the doctor’s house we both had had scraping and cupping and some more Chinese medicinal tea. Scraping was not as painful as last time for me and the cupping was fine. However, I stupidly told him that I have a cold and a cough, so he scraped my throat, chest and arms as well. Arms are meant to be connected with throat somehow, so scraping on arms will help my throat get better. I now look like a victim of abuse. The doctor asked me to drink tea made of this:
I have no idea what it is and I have forgotten the Chinese for it. It tastes very sweet and a little bit like rice. Do any of you know what it is?
David had quite an experience this time. While giving him a massage the doctor detected some problem areas, so he decided that David also needed both scraping and cupping. He had his whole back done and it turned a deep purple. It felt agonising (sounded it, too) according to David. Here are some videos of him getting scraped and cupped, just to let you experience his experience better.
The doctor told us to come back for round 2 next Wednesday and we agreed. Why? It felt rude to say no. I do think it works, though. I will let you know how it went.
Besides, he is a really nice man. He remembered us from last time, which is not difficult I suppose as we are the only Estonian-Zimbabwean couple in Xi’an as far as I am aware. The room where he receives people has three massage beds in it, all separated by a curtain, and his own little room is at the back of the room behind another curtain. His bedroom measures about 2metres x 1 metre and consists of a bed and a cooker. His sink is in the middle of the room, by the second massage bed and his living room is a little area as you walk in through the door, which also doubles as his reception. The area where he lives is not far from us, but is extremely different from the upmarket area we live in. Houses there are quite tattered and old; a lot of people live in minuscule dwellings such as little containers or makeshift houses built wherever they could find space. Space is extremely precious in China.
But these areas have so much more character, they are friendly, dirty and charming all at once.
Han Zhong (汉中)
We visited the home town of one of my colleagues, Catherine, for a weekend. It’s a little town about 4 hours’ bus ride to the South of Xi’an, just by the Sichuan border. The road took us up to Qinling Mountains, through tens of tunnels and picturesque scenery. It must have been one of the most beautiful journeys of my life.
We arrived in Han Zhong and at 11am and were taken to a hotel run by Catherine’s mum, where we could stay for free.
We were treated to nice lunch and met Catherine’s mum, whose first question to us was: ‘Do you want some wine?’ You can predict the answer. We enjoyed a lovely 600 kuai (£60) bottle of Bordeaux – our second bottle of wine since we’ve been in China. Wine is a luxury good here and big taxes are levied on it, so we can never afford a good bottle. There is the Great Wall wine made in China, but that doesn’t really count as wine.
Anyway, we had a good chat with Catherine’s mum using our Chinese and Catherine’s English. We found out that her mum’s generation is very loyal to everything Chinese from electronics to food, however her mum curiously had an iPhone, drove an American car and enjoys French wine. It must just be a difference in thinking between generations and the level to which they are willing to open up their minds. We found out that Catherine comes from quite a wealthy and influential family in Han Zhong. As I said, her mum runs a hotel and a furniture shop and her dad works for the government. One of his jobs is to arrest people who want to make complaints about the government. Interestingly, a government entity is provided specifically for complaint making, but they don’t seem to receive many complaints. It’s crazy how many counteractive organisations this government has.
Not a lot happens in Han Zhong. They have a factory that makes black boxes for planes and a secret factory that makes guns. The city itself is not hugely beautiful, but it is surrounded by mountains on all sides and has lots of charming little villages, where the pace of life is very slow. There are groups of men and women playing mahjong, cleaning corn and setting it out to dry at their front door; lots of marketplaces with pieces of meat hanging from hooks and villagers using their fans to scare off the flies; shops selling everything from farm equipment to lacy bras. It’s amazing how colourful and disorganised these places are. Catherine’s mum took us to some museums and national parks all through villages, rice paddies and corn fields. Han Zhong does not see many foreigners, so once again we were famous.
We were planning to go hiking in the mountains, but unfortunately they were flooded, so we have a good reason to return. Instead we looked around in the park at the bottom of the mountains, which was laden with fake old style village houses, statues of Mao, Stalin and Gengis Khan and other figures from different dynasties. There is always a strange mix of things to be seen in these places.
Catherine’s uncle took us out to eat fish at night. We were stunned by the hospitality and generosity of everyone. We hardly paid for anything the whole weekend. While having dinner, her uncle asked us what we thought of the Chinese economy. He found our opinions very different from what he usually hears (China the superpower, factory of the world, increasing wealth etc.) and regarded them with recognition. He agreed that in order to keep up the growth China will need to change a lot of its policies. Catherine had an especially strong opinion on the media propaganda and censorship and thought the government should start easing on their grip on the media before young people like her get too angry. I found out that every day at 7pm everyone in China has to watch the news if they want to watch TV. Every single TV channel will play the news and there is simply nothing else you can watch at that time. The news will first talk about wonderful things that have been achieved on that day in China and then move on to reports from rest of the world (if they are positive towards China). Sometimes it feels strange to live in a country where things like these are a reality.
We went to a restaurant/outdoor pursuit centre to ride some horses, but when we got there there was not a sign of a horse, so we drove ATVs instead. After this we went for a walk by the river to collect some stones for Catherine’s grandma’s pet turtle. We returned to the inferno that is Xi’an that same evening.
Tomorrow’s plan for David is work and for me going rafting in the Qinling mountains. I will tell you about that next time. Everything else is pretty much the same. Pieman, my friend from Bath, is coming to visit us next week, so I am really looking forward to seeing him after about 3 years and then we are going to Gansu province to see the vast grasslands and stay with an Amdo Tibetan family.
And finally, guess where we found these pictures: