In 1989, our Chinese artist friend, Weimin, was a student. Following the upheaval of the student protests, he requested to be sent to a remote part of the country to continue his studies. He was sent to Shanbei, a region in the north of Shaanxi province, where he stayed in a traditional ‘cave dwelling’ village called Ni he gou (which means ‘muddy river ditch!) in Jia county and painted village life there. He made great friends and since then has tried to return regularly. He invited us to join him on one of his trips, but we were unable to go at the time. A couple of years ago, the eldest son of the family he stays with fell sick and was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. The family could not raise all the money needed for the transplant on their own, so Weimin sold some of his artwork and sent word around his friends in order to raise funds to assist them. We contributed a small amount to the cause. Happily, Jiangwei was able to have the operation he needed and is now in good health. When we were planning our trip to China, Luke talked to Weimin about our route. Through him we were able to organise staying with Jiangwei’s family. We were excited about the opportunity to stay somewhere completely different and live closely with the local people, but we had no idea just how humbling and moving the experience would be.
We approached the little congregation of people waiting for us at the station and greeted them with ‘ni hao!’- smiling, shaking hands and embracing. Thankfully, they, like us, had downloaded translation tools on their phones, so much of our conversations were accomplished in this manner. Jiangwei introduced himself and his two brothers. Liangliang was the youngest at around 22, and we spent much of our time with him over the following days. The middle brother, Yanjiang, had got married a few days previously and was there with his wife, Wangming. Our first night was to be spent in Yulin, so that they could show us some of the sights nearby, and so Jiangwei drove us to our hotel. It was far more upmarket than we had grown used to! A huge double bed, lovely ensuite bathroom and even a chaise longue! We were exceedingly grateful to have such luxury after a night on the sleeper train, and it was surprisingly good value.
We had a super feast for lunch at a restaurant with Jiangwei and Liangliang, where they introduced some regional specialities. After lunch, we set off to visit a section of the Great Wall, Zhen Bei Tai, a bulky sandcastle-like fort close to Yulin. In English, its name means ‘Pacify-the-North Tower’. It was very different to the section we had visited in October at Mutianyu, having been built in a different dynasty. The snaking wall itself was not discernible to our eyes, and the brick was a completely different colour, reflecting the different materials available in the locality. Some refer to this tower as the heart of the dragon – if you imagine the Great Wall as a huge dragon, the head being at the Shanhaiguan Pass in the eastern province of Hebei and the tail at the Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu province in the west, then the strategic importance and size of Zhen Bei Tai earns it the title of the dragon’s heart. It was built in the Ming Dynasty in 1607 and is the biggest city terrace on the wall. During this time, there was a large horse trading market at Yulin, and the tower served as an observation post to help keep order between the Han and nomadic people. We walked along the ramparts, enjoying the 360° views of the landscape that was approaching desert to the north and was wooded to the south. We started to get to know Jiangwei and Liangliang a little better in spite of the language barrier, and found that we all shared a bit of a silly sense of humour. We were pleased to see that Jiangwei was looking fit as a fiddle; he was cheerful, confident and gently teasing of his little brother, who was sweet-natured, a little quieter and very smiley.
The children in the family all live in Yulin, as the job prospects are better in the city. After visiting the tower, we went to the Yanjiang’s apartment for tea and red dates, before heading out to a local mutton noodle restaurant. All three brothers and Wangming were there, so we made quite a merry party. They all ate so quickly that we were left well behind! Our chopstick skills didn’t hamper us quite so much as our inability to slurp – the noodles were so hot we couldn’t keep up without scalding our lips! Because of this, it looked a bit like we didn’t like the food, but it was tasty and by the time we’d had the obligatory second helping, we were fit to burst.
After dinner, they took us to the supermarket to get provisions for our stay in the village. We were a bit confused as to the purpose of the trip and what exactly we should be buying. We thought perhaps we should get vegetables with which to cook a meal, and after collecting some fruit I went to pick up an innocent looking brown onion. At this point, Wangming waved her arms in astonishment, signalled that we shouldn’t bite into it and urgently started to type into her phone, which translated: ‘it is an onion’ and ‘of the onion family’. It is true that there are plenty of vegetables in China that are quite alien to us, but this wasn’t one of them! Jiangwei told us his father would be cooking our meals and we were only to get snacks and extras that we would be unable to get in the village. Little did we realise that over the ensuing days we would be fed so well that the mere thought of eating anything additional would be enough to make our stomachs groan defeat. After having selected some items we thought might be appropriate, we made our way back to the hotel.