16.05.2008 - 19.05.2008
Our most fervent admirerer is still Happy, who, as it turns out, is also quite a rebel. Before coming to WECL she ran away from home and went to live with a relative after dropping out of high school. Her Uncle, who has more money than the rest of the family, offered to pay her tuition, but she can't afford to live in the dorms and instead lives in a tiny room in a poor section of town about a mile away.
She was thrilled to be coming with us to visit some ancient round house villages, Hakka, in southern Fujien province. She has to cut class for a day, as our weekend starts on Friday. This is a big deal because Bob, the head teacher, will be angry if he find out that she is cutting class because of us. Of course, from our point of view, she will learn a lot more English from two days of conversation than in a class of 17 people.
The round houses in southwestern Fujien Province, were three or four hours by bus from Xiamen. The Hakka, or guest people, a nomadic group from north China, settled in this area as early as 1300. The most famous Hakka is none other then Deng Xiaoping.
The enormous houses are impressive structures, some 250-300 feet around, and are made of a combination of wood, sticky rice, brown sugar, soil and lime. They are said to be bullet proof and earthquake proof with walls more than 5 feet thick. More like forts then houses, the center is open, and the small rooms circle the outside with space for several hundred people on three different levels. The roof is made of slate shingles.
At one point the US government thought they were missile silos, which is apparently what they look like from the air. We saw several that were 500 years old, but there are many different houses, some built as recently as the l960's, and some of them are square.
Mostly there are old people and very young children living here, a fraction of the numbers that were here just 10 or 20 years ago. As in the rural villages near Yangshuo, the young and able bodied have all left for the cities where they can make a living.
Happy, on the other hand, was not impressed with the houses after we were dropped off in the small, rural village surrounded by lush mountains. "They look just like the buildings where I live," she said. Her town is a poor rural area about 10 hours from Xiamen. "They all look the same," she said. I guess if it looks like home, it's nothing special.
Many of the houses are obviously in a state of disrepair and if the government doesn't step in, it is obvious that a number will collapse in the next several years. "The government doesn't care," Happy continued. "They just want to tear them down and put up new ones," and indeed, not far away and sometimes right next to these grand houses, there were relatively new, and to my eyes, exceeding ugly brick houses, covered with the ubiquitous stained white tile that you can see all over the "new China." We tried to point out to her that this was part of the culture of old China, and if all of the houses disappeared it would be a big loss. I'm not sure she bought it, being all of 15 years old, the past doesn't have a lot of meaning. Unfortunately she's probably right about the government. They don't seem to understand the concept of renovation, and unless they can figure out a way to turn it into a tourist attraction that will make money, they don't seem to care.Unesco is considering it as a World Heritage Site and this might make the government take notice. If this happens, the Chinese hordes will descend and pony up millions of yuan to view the "scenic sites," but by then the few remaining locals will no doubt be bought out, probably happily, and the houses left standing will be turned into museums.
After an hour or so at Gao Bei, we found some motorcyclists to drive us a few miles up the road to the local,fan dian, or restaurant, where we had a mediocre lunch. We then started to walk the 5K to Hu Keng, passing a number of other earth houses en route. Luckily after 20 minutes or so we were able to flag down a small minibus which took us to the ramshackle town of a few thousand people. We had our choice of two "three star" hotels, and after Happy negotiated a discount at one, we settled into our room. We noticed a couple of washcloths, but no towels and so we went down with Happy to ask for some. "They say there are towels in the room." "Oh," we said,'' we saw some tiny ones, but that's all." "That's what we use all over china," she said. "They don't have any bigger ones." "Ah," we said, knowingly, and to ourselves, just like the tiny plates and bowls that everyone uses even in the fancy restaurants.
We then hired a different minibus to take us up to a more remote village, further up in the hills. From where the driver dropped us off, we were able to hike a bit into the mountains, and we could look down onto the houses below and across the terraced rice fields into the valley.
" A waterfall," Sunny exclaimed. "I love waterfalls." We hiked along the narrow terraces, which reminded us of so many we saw in [Peru, until it started to rain and made the path muddy and slippery. A bit reluctantly, we turned back, and then wandered around the village, taking pictures of the old people and children still living there. One couple in particular seemed to get a kick out of posing for photos, but were quite disappointed when Happy had to explain to them that even though we could show them the picture, we could not give them a copy.
Hurrying back to our impatient driver, it started to rain heavily as he negotiated the deeply rutted and narrow road back to town.
We rested an hour or two and then, getting hungry, we donned raincoats and went out in search of a restaurant. Shockingly, the town seemed to have none. Was this really China? Everywhere else we had been had dozens of them. Finally, after wandering around forever in the rain, we discovered a one table place near the center of town. The food was awful, and Happy, got into a shouting match with the cook, after he heavily salted our food when we specifically said no salt. What really got him upset, was when Happy started shouting at him in English. "I'm a university graduate," he said, "don't talk to me this way." None of us believed that, and finally we had to usher Happy out of there. "I'm so angry," she said. "He put salt in food and he say did not."
Glad to get back to our room, the hotel clerk managed to find a deck of cards for us and we taught Happy how to play rummy. This seemed to take her mind off of the cook and a good time was had by all. The next morning it was still raining hard, disrupting our plans to walk to a few nearby villages. We went in search of breakfast which consisted of some fruit and crackers that managed to be both sweet and salty at the same time. Returning to our room, we played a few more rounds of rummy until it was time to leave. Surprisingly, it cost more to go back then it did on the way in. Maybe the bus company knew that people would pay more to leave once they saw the town had no place to eat. Not only that, the bus took a different route which took an extra hour and a half. So we had to pay more for a slower ride. But, as one of the other teachers said, when we got back, "You don't expect anything to be logical here, do you?" Of course, our progress was also slowed by a few landslides caused by the heavy rain. Despite the fact that it was a new road, the government had neglected to stabilize the hills along the sides of it.