I had perhaps the coolest, most amazing 24 hours, that I have ever experienced in China! Really! I arrived in Xinhua on Tuesday, May 22nd, two days later than originally planned.
I’ve wanted to go to Xinhua for about 15 years. A couple of times I had actually had plans to go to Xinhua but, alas, the best laid plans of mice and men. It never happened. What’s in Xinhua? And where in the world is Xinhua? That last question even my Chinese friends don’t know. I tell them that is where I am going and they have no idea. I tell them it’s in western Hunan province and they still have a puzzled look on their face. Then I tell them it’s near Laodi. A few raised eyebrows appear, but still most have no idea. And even more, they don’t understand what in the world I would want to do in Xinhua? I explain that is where the world famous Yangtai Fan is located and I want to see them. Why Xinhua? The shear photographic opportunity it offered a picture taker like me! Then I have to explain Yangtai Fan - Rice Terraces. Here is what is said about this world beauty from one of my Internet sources:
The Ziquejie Rice Terraces, some of which date back more than 2,000 years, were built along the mountains in southern China by ancestors of the Miao and Yao ethnic groups. They not only help increase the output of rice in hilly areas but also showcase the seamless marriage of southern rice-growing customs and local fishing and hunting cultures. This site was one of four rice terrace sites newly designated as GIAHS, making China the country with the biggest number of GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems) sites, with 15 total.
The two best and most famous of these GIAHS sites is in Guilin, and this one in Xinhua.
I took an afternoon train from Hengyang and traveled to Xinhua. Where someone was supposed to pick me up and make sure I saw what I came for. I had not ever met this person… and was told that he didn’t speak ANY English, but he would know who I am and would help me.
His name is Xu Bin and he was the answer to a prayer. He was sent by Liu Piangliang, or better known to me as Leo. At Harding University Leo is one of my Host Family sons. Every year I work with a steering committee to help integrate the new Chinese students into our university culture. One of the ways we do this is to have a Host Family, where each of the Chinese students are paired with an American family to become sort of a home away from home. Leo is my Host family son. He is smart, loving, kind, and very courteous. If I ever wanted a real Chinese son, I would take him in a heartbeat. Donna and I have had several social events that we included Leo and our other two Chinese sons Crescent and Michael.
Last year Leo was supposed to meet me in Xinhua and take me to the Rice Terraces, but the logistics didn’t work well and the trip was cancelled. This year we started planning early and we were all set to take a trip together to his Hometown of Loudi and then onto the Xinhua Rice Terraces when he realized that he would have to stay in Guangzhou to prepare for his graduate school exams.
“Mei Wenti,” (no problem) I said. I didn’t know how, but I WAS going to the Rice terraces! I was too close, I had the time, the money and the desire. But, I WAS going to the Rice terraces! I didn’t really want to go on my own, but I was willing to do just that! But, I WAS going to the Rice terraces! Leo said, “No. you can’t really do this by yourself. I will make some arrangements for you.” He insisted that I let him help me. “My parents will host you.” I didn’t understand but I listened intently as he continued. Xinhua is my hometown. I moved to Guangzhou several years ago with my parents but I still have relatives in Xinhua. My uncle and his friend will meet you at the train stations. My Uncle, Xu Bin has a friend who is a tour guide to the Rice Terraces. They will take you to the mountains where the Rice Terraces are located.
Leo’s Smiling uncle was waiting for me. I had sent him a photo of me, but I was the only white guy with a traveling hat (my Tilly hat) that was coming through the turn styles, and he knew it was me. We soon discovered that our communications skills were going to be tested but I was glad to walk to his car, meet his girlfriend, and load up for a 20-minute drive to the hotel that he had reserved for me. We tried in vain to talk… we laughed a lot! I finally resorted to my GT, (Google Translate) app. Xu Bin’s girlfriend seemed to better understand a little of what I was saying but still we didn’t know what we were each saying and then we would just laugh. I finally sent her a message through my GT app that just said, “This should be fun!” She agreed with a big smile and a vigorous nodding of her head.
Xu Bin and his girlfriend drove me to the hotel, and as is the Chinese custom, went to my room with me to check to make sure things were as they were supposed to be and that I didn’t have any other needs that they could help me with. We used Google translate to communicate that he would take me to breakfast at 7:30 n the morning and that we needed to head to the mountain terraces by 8:00 in the morning in order for us to do all that we wanted to do! I fell into my bed feeling very blessed that God had given me good friends and Guanxi! Here I was, with two people, both of whom I had only met 30 minutes ago, on the other side of the world, and I was resting before I had one of my big, BIG, bucket list check-offs of my life!
I was up early the next morning. I wanted to step outside the hotel, onto the streets, and walk around a bit before Xu Bin arrived to take me to breakfast and on to the Terraces. Xinhua, was not a city that had anything to be written about. It was an old city, dirty and dusty in many ways. The residents were up and around buzzing to get off to their daily routines. As is usually my routine when I get up and walk in a city in China when I am travelling by myself, I estimated how long I could be gone, set out walking one direction, walking straight without making turns, then about halfway through my allotted time I would simply turn around and walk back, assuring that I would not get lost.
I arrived back at my hotel just a few minutes before Xu Bin arrived. He took me to breakfast right there in the hotel restaurant. It was typical Chinese restaurant. Very little if any meat or protein, lots of vegetables… but they did have Baozi, one of my favorite Chinese breakfast foods. Baozi is a steamed bread usually with some sort of vegetable or meat center. I was hoping for meat. Yep, there it was, a sausage ball right in the middle! I ate more than I needed, but I didn’t know what lunch plans were, I also suspected that I had a lot of climbing and hiking to do so I wanted a good breakfast. Xu Bin packed up a couple more Baozi in a plastic bag, and away we went.
This morning Xu Bin had a google Translate app and he used it to ask me if I had brought a jacket, because it could get cool and windy up in the mountains where we were going? Bringing a jacket to the normally hot and humid China was the last thing I thought about packing when I was preparing for my trip… so “No”, I said, “I didn’t have a jacket, but that I would be fine.” We stopped just a few minutes from the hotel and Xu motioned for me to wait and he would be right back. When he did return he had one of his jackets for me to borrow. Later, I was so thankful for that jacket because it was a lot cooler in the higher elevations for which were now driving. A few minutes later, I was startled when at a traffic stop there was a young man that just opened the back door and hopped in. No words were spoken, and I was very apprehensive! Then Xu handed him the two extra Baozi, for which he devoured quickly, and introduced me to my Xinhua Rice Terraces tour guide! I think his name is Yang Ling, but I never did hear his name again, at least that I picked up in my limited Chinese language skills.
It was about (or seemed like) a two-hour drive though several “suburbs” of Xinhua that seemed to go up and on forever. At some point, when we arrived at the foothills of the mountains, Xu pulled over and he and the Yang Ling traded places, and the guide drove the rest of the day.
Finally, we started elevating upwards into the mountains and it seemed like we were driving to heaven! There they were! In all their splendor! One of the most photographed areas in the world.
Not long after we got into some very scenic areas the driver would occasionally drive and just point for me to get out with my camera. I would look around and see the most scenic images I had ever seen in my life. He knew just want I would want to photograph. I was forever looking out the window and sometimes simply said in a low tone…. “Oooh look at that!” When Yang Ling heard that, even though he didn’t understand English, he would pull over quickly and get out with me to show me some angles and some shots he thought I should take. We stopped as often as I wanted. And again, we used the Google translate app a lot! I took a ton of photos. There were several stops along the way that were apparently a very frequented location for photos because there were food stands and other touristy venues set up. There were several other photographers but I was the only Caucasian on the side of the mountain.
As I stood there at what seemed like the top of the world, I realized what an opportunity that I had before me. I was feeling very near to God by being in an area that had little knowledge of God and yet it was so evident around us… me, and the residents of this nation and this particular region. The views were breath-taking and the story behind the Rice Terraces screamed of human toil, and God’s provision of labor for sustenance. These terraces had been cut out of the mountain side for centuries by families and ancestors to help grow a crop that ordinarily would be impossible because of the terrain. It was as beautiful of a sight as I had ever seen, and I felt blessed to be there. I took a moment and as the din of the wind, and the other people murmuring around me seemed to fade into slow motion, to simply realize the creation that God had made for me to see at that very moment. There really aren't words to describe my experience at that moment.
Near noon time, Leo’s uncle, Xu Bin, tried to say that we were going to one of his friend’s house for lunch. He lives in a small mountain village nearby. “Is that OK,” he asked? “YES!” I said, I love that kind of environment. I would rather go to a home of a Chinese (or anybody’s) friend than the nicest restaurant in the biggest city in China. I wanted the human experience of simply sitting around a common man’s family table and sharing a home cooked meal. Is there a better world wide recognized sign of friendship and honor? No, not to me there isn’t.
We returned to the car, and drove a few more miles into a small town. Then we drove a bit outside of town and turned down a dirt road and over a cement bridge that I thought was too small for the vehicle were driving. Soon, there appeared on the horizon a village that at first looked somewhat new. But behind the newer buildings, sometimes even attached to the newer buildings, were some very old wooden residences. That’s where I wanted to go, I thought to myself. I want to meet the people that live in those old homes.
Soon I saw a man that appeared to be maybe 40 years old waving us into a place to park in front of his very old home. It was Xu’s friend, for whom had invited us to lunch at his house. I got out of the car and was greeted warmly by Wu Xianbin. Mr. Wu lived there with his wife, his son and his parents. At east I think that it was his parents. It could very well have been his wife’s parents, I never really understood, but it was an older generation living with them, as is the Chinese custom. All of them were smiling and friendly and spoke NO English!
I entered their house by stepping over the doorway threshold (which has Chinese logistics that are very specific), and on to a dirt floor. The room seemed to be some sort of storage room. As I started to look around, I was quickly ushered to the adjoining room, again stepping over a threshold. This room was small and apparently was some sort of living room but also was their dining room. In the corner of the room was a square dining room table covered with a waterproof tablecloth that was nailed or tacked the top with some small nails. It reminded me of the kind of table cloths we had when I was a young boy visiting my grandparent’s house. Around the table were not chairs but a four two-seated benches, one on each side of the table. I was invited to sit down at the table. Tea was poured and snacks consisting of sun-flower seeds and shelled peanuts were offered as well as some cut fruit of dragon fruit. I was very familiar with dragon fruit. I like everything that being offered. I hesitated to start eating until the host insisted that I start. When I did the rest of them reached for their selected pre-meal appetizers.
As I sat down their very cute little boy who was about 3-4 years old kept staring at me. I’m not sure he had ever had a Caucasian American in his home before. I love all children and always try to talk to them as much as they will talk to me. I had to work hard at this boy to warm up to me. I resorted to trying to find something that he would like to hear, so I said, “Ni zhidao wo shi Mei Gua Yeye, shen ma?” Which means, “Did you know that I am an American Grandfather?” His mother and grandmother knew what I was telling him and they repeated in some form, He’s a grandfather from America! I never heard the boy’s name. I asked him several times but he was too shy to say. But, upon hearing from me and his momma and nainai, that I was a yeye he did smile at me and then I knew we were going to be buds! Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about this boy was that most of the time I was there, while we were not eating, he was sitting in the corner playing video games on his cell phone!
Wu, and my two new friends, were talking about who knows what and I just looked around and tried to pick up a few words every now and then. Soon Wu got up, left the room and came back with a small box. When he opened the box and unwrapped the contents he was showing us his old coin and foreign currency collection. I knew it was old because it did not have any pictures of Mao Zedong on them. That made them pre-1950 or so. He also had some foreign currency. I’m not sure what conversation preceded the display of the collection, but I did notice that he did not have any American currency in his collection. I pulled out my wallet and handed him an American one-dollar bill. I told him it was a gift for his collection. Wu was delighted. He even called his wife in from the kitchen to show her!
I could hear and smell lunch be prepared in the next room, so I got up and peeked in the kitchen. I tried to ask (in Chinese) if it was OK if I came in and watched them prepare lunch. Of course they said, Yes. The kitchen consisted of a semi-circle, cement block fire pit with four large holes which were filled with woks for which they were using to prepare lunch. The father, Wu came in to help his wife with some cooking. She was down on the floor behind the fire pit adding wood and stoking the flames. The grandfather (the Yeye) was handing her wood to add to the fires. Wu started stirring the food in the woks and adding flavorings and seasons before moving on to another dish. All total they had about six different dishes planned for the noon meal, two different kinds of green vegetables, a pork/bacon kind of dish, roasted peanuts, and a couple of more that I cannot name, in addition to the ever present fan (rice) at every meal. As we sat down to eat, the entire family gathered, Wu, his wife, his parents and his son, along with the three of us visitors. It was hot, fresh and Hao Che, (delicious).
After lunch I wandered outside their house to look around the village they were a part of. It had three or four old buildings and three or four newer buildings. Next door was a woman that had a duck in a large pan and she was de-feathering it by hand. I have seen this done with a machine in Stuttgart, Arkansas, many years ago, on my one and only duck hunting excursion. What she was doing was going to take her a long, long time to accomplish compared to what I had seen done in a matter of minutes. I took several photos, and the family seemed very willing to let me. In fact, they wanted to get their photo made with me as well.
After everyone seemed to be content and cleaned up after lunch we made talk like it was time to go. I soon found out that the family wanted to go with me to show me some of the unique sites that they thought I might have missed. We all loaded into one car and off we went. The Yeye and NaiNai stayed home. Several more stops were made and lots of photos ensued and soon it was time to start heading home. We were going to take the family home but they just wanted us to drop them off at the village commerce center. We did so and headed back to the town of Xinhua. As we waived bye to them I asked myself, “What was the better part of this day? The Photos that I have wanted for 15 years or so, or the meal with this wonderful family in a remote and small mountain village on what was for me the other side of the world?” Either way it was an amazing experience and one for which I will never forget!
As we headed back down the mountain I started planning in my head what my next stop would be. I needed to take a train the next day to Guangzhou. I had a dinner appointment with Michael Fu and his parents on Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. I texted a message to Xu Bin of my need to get a train ticket. Xu Bin and I had figured out that WeChat has a built in translator, so I would send him a message in English and he would translate it to Chinese in WeChat and answer me back in Chinese for which I would then translate to English. We were sitting in the same car together messaging back and forth. Ain’t technology grand?
Xu thought it best for us to go by the train station and acquire the tickets for the next day to Guangzhou before we went out to dinner and back to the hotel for the night. We went by the train station to get a ticket but the only train to Guangzhou was for 6:00 p.m. each night, and tonight’s train was sold out. NO, I couldn’t leave tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. to Guangzhou, I had an apt. in Guangzhou at 6:30 p.m.
I had to think quickly. My problem solving skills were once again being tested. I thought, If the only time the train leaves for Guangzhou was 6:00 p.m. tomorrow then I would have to go somewhere else to pick up a train to Guangzhou. I knew that Changsha was the largest city in the Hunan province so why not take the train to Changsha and then transfer to a train to Guangzhou. But, If I did that I would have to leave tonight… like in about an hour! My bags were still back at my hotel and tonight’s room had already been paid for. This was getting complicated. But Xu assured me that if I wanted to leave in an hour he would make it happen, go back to get my bags, cancel tonight’s room and get me back to the train station to catch the train to Changsha! Then he asked, “but where will you stay in Changsha tonight?”
I called Erica in Changsha at the Gold Source Hotel – talk about Guanxi! I had stayed at the Gold source every year that I have been coming to China except last year. I always had the same desk worker to check me in and the second year she told me that she remembered me from the year before. We then traded names and WeChat and numbers and have stayed in contact every year. So I called Erica on her cell phone number and told her I needed a room for tonight and that I would be there in about three hours!?!? Could she make that happen? She was at home and was no longer working at the desk, but was instead the marketing director at the hotel. She made a call and got me their best room in the Hotel and assured me that I would have a comfortable stay at her Hotel. I asked Erica if she did this for all of her customers? And she said, “No, just for my American friend.” “Wait,” I said, “Am I your only American friend?” “Yes, she said laughing!”
I bought a train ticket to Changsha, taxied to the hotel, and had an amazing room. Pretty soon there was a knock at my door. Erica thought that I would be hungry so she ordered some food for me, compliments of her and the Hotel. It was some fruit and bean soup as a gift from Erica… I had a great sleep, a great breakfast and on to Guangzhou the next morning! Erica is one of the best customer service reps I’ve ever had!
What an amazing day!
Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.