We had a wonderful night’s sleep in our swanky room and had a Chinese breakfast in the hotel restaurant before meeting the family again. The other guests stared at us curiously during breakfast – I think they do not see many westerners in this region. At 9am, Jiangwei, Liangliang and their mother, Zhen Fenlan arrived to take us to the village. We piled into the car and set off on the 2 hour drive to Ni he gou. Zhen clasped my hand tightly and beamed at me. She was a lovely lady and very warm-hearted and whilst we couldn’t really talk to one another, we did our best to communicate with grinning and waving of hands.
As the road started to wend its way through craggy hills, we left the city well behind us and we nervously glanced at the cliff face with its precariously perched boulders which loomed to our left. Now and then Jiangwei had to swerve to avoid rocks that had fallen onto the road and not yet been cleared. The road began to follow the Yellow River which was nearly fully iced over in places. Across the waters lay the province of Shanxi – we were in Shaanxi, of course! Dotted about in the distance we could make out small buildings cut into cliff faces, with their entrances all angled to make the most of the sun. It was a beautiful, yet desolate place, with the grand sweep of the frozen river, the azure blue of the sky and the yellow, arid crags.
We were excited to find out what the houses would be like – all I knew was that they were termed ‘cave dwellings’. Soon we swung left off the road and onto a bumpy track. The car was parked on a wide driveway at the entrance to the village, which seemed to act as a congregation point for the villagers and we began to unload our things. Needless to say, we attracted a lot of attention! People crowded round and stared, some seemed a little suspicious, but most were simply curious and laughed in a friendly way when we said, ‘ni hao!’ The village has an aging population as the young people tend to leave for the towns to find work, so there were many elderly men and women with beautiful weather-worn faces. One old man had no teeth, but grinned in such a happy way you couldn’t help beaming back at him. There was a red date (jujube) plantation at the front, with many old, venerated trees, a conventional white-washed brick building which used to be a school and community centre, and then a brick wall ran alongside a path which separated the nearest homes from the orchard. Those closest had two yards full of woolly goats calmly munching on hay and as we walked up the path, we saw a recently slaughtered goat to our right being butchered on benches set up in a clearing. The men stopped their work and gave us a cheery wave as we passed. The date harvest had just taken place, so the trees were bare, with their black, straggling branches reaching to the sky and only the occasional stubborn, wrinkled date left clinging on. The lower part of the trunks were painted white to deter burrowing insects, but also to reflect sunlight and thus protect the trees from dangerous fluctuations in temperature during cold weather.
We rounded a corner and climbed up a short path to a large wooden gate in a tall wall which led into a sunny courtyard. To our left was a sheltered area where tools were kept and to our right were three wide arched wooden doorways. The top half of each door was latticed, and the lattice covered with paper to allow light through whilst providing some insulation. Only two of the rooms were in use and the one we were to sleep in was the central one. Jiangwei’s parents had kindly given us their room for the duration of our stay. The architecture was of the same style to the buildings we had seen from the car, and although this row was not cut directly into the cliff face, a little distance behind the courtyard a bluff of sandy coloured rock rose up. Each room consisted of a living area at the front with chairs, a table, cupboards and a sideboard for storage, whilst at the back of the room was a raised area, the kang bed, which took up about a third of the living space. Along the right hand wall, between the bed and the sitting area, was the stove. We had encountered kang before in Pingyao, but this was our first experience of a fully functioning one. It was a chilly -12°C in the morning and at night, and the kang stove bed was to be our only source of heat. Hot smoke from the coal fire is channelled from the stove to heat a huge block of masonry underneath the platform. It is a great way to conserve the heat from cooking and once hot enough, the warmth is retained throughout the night without the need to keep the fire burning. It was pretty cold inside the room and we all tended to wrap up in our outdoor clothes to eat meals, but once on the kang, we soon found ourselves toasty and warm and on occasion it would get uncomfortably hot at night. Now and then the fumes from the coal fire would be quite strong smelling, but in general it was a pleasant and cosy set up. There was no running water, but there was a large canister in the courtyard which was filled with water from the village well and there were two drop toilets situated at opposite ends of the property, just outside the courtyard walls. Some people might find the idea of drop toilets quite horrible, but there is generally less paddling involved than in some of the squat flush toilets you get in public places, so I much prefer them!
At the house, we met Jiangwei’s father for the first time. Both Luke and I always feel somewhat emotional talking about Wu Liangsheng. He was such a lovely, kind man, full of fun and evidently much liked by all in the village. He had a short, wiry frame and a broad, infectious grin and laughed a lot. He spoke no English and we only had about four words of Chinese, but we got by pretty well with gestures and pointing. He farms dates and used to live with his wife in the village, but now she has to spend a lot of time in working in the city and so isn’t at home as often. Over the next few days, he looked after us so well, cooking delicious meals three times a day, ensuring the kang stove kept us warm and that we had water to wash with, and plying us with strong maotai liquor in the evenings! We were very much guests there, which meant we weren’t allowed to help with anything! This was something we both found a bit awkward at first, but once we realised that it was the norm, we relaxed a bit and tried to make sure we were worthy of the hospitality.
Once we were settled in, we were joined by another relative, a brother in law, and drove to an amazing Tao temple complex, called Baiyun temple. Baiyun means ‘white cloud’ and was so named because of the cloud that swirled around it when it was built, being at such high altitude. It was constructed in 1605 during the late Ming dynasty, and was the largest of its kind in northwest China. We were quite off the beaten track as far as tourism goes, so I count ourselves lucky to have seen this architectural gem. There were many beautiful buildings, all with handsomely carved wooden eaves, colourful paintwork and pretty stone sculptures. Worn stone steps led up into the complex and paths wove around the buildings in a charmingly disorganised way, so that at each turning came a new surprise, including fantastic views over the Yellow River. At the base of the steep steps that led to the main temple building, a man was sharpening his axe. We passed him and climbed to the top, walking under a white archway. In front of the temple was a gorgeous round stone disc, carved with the animals of the Chinese zodiac and their patron saints. It was a wonderful visit, made all the more special as we felt we were part of a rare family day out, and everyone was in high spirits. Just before we left, Zhen bought a bag of some strange roots for us to munch on. They looked a little like fat dried up yellow caterpillars, but tasted really nice!
After Baiyun temple, we stopped at a nearby scenic spot. We walked along a narrow path to reach a pavilion perched on a piece of land that jutted out precipitously as the ground fell away towards a river valley. In the distance, a small town nestled at the confluence of the Yellow River and one of its tributaries. We then drove to the village where the brother in law lived and said goodbye to Zhen, who had to return to Yulin.
They knew we were interested in art, and took us to the home of an elderly lady who made traditional Chinese papercuts. Her family were clearly very proud of her talent, although I think she would rather not have had the attention! We crowded into her small studio, marvelling at her intricate work as she snipped away with her tiny scissors, revealing elaborate scenes of people, animals and plants. The paper was coloured on one side and once finished, would be mounted on a white background. As she sat hunched over her desk, peering through her glasses to make out the pencil lines, we really wished we could speak Mandarin so we could find out more about her craft. She looked to be in her 80s, and had evidently been doing papercuts most of her life. She must have created some masterpieces in her past and it was inspiring to see her still at work and still producing wonderful pictures. Her hands were gnarled and Luke noticed one of her fingers was bent right back; we wondered if this could have been from arthritis. Her children rolled out several enormously long completed works for us to admire; they were exceptionally beautiful and had we been on a shorter trip we would have considered buying one.
A short walk away from her home, we came upon another viewpoint. A wall held us back from an abrupt drop down to the river bed and in the distance we could see an incredible little temple built precariously on a tall stack of sandstone that was linked to the mainland by a narrow bridge. It was so extraordinary that we had to stop and sketch the scene.
Afterwards, we continued on to the brother in law’s apartment for dinner, which was more European in style and very different from the cave dwellings in Ni he gou. There we were introduced to more relatives, including an uncle, a sister, and two children (a boy of 10 and a girl of 3 or 4) – but here we got rather confused about the relationships! Dinner was a wonderful selection of home cooked dishes we could pick at with our chopsticks, and as usual, we were encouraged to eat and eat, so that we were fit to burst by the end! The boy was a keen artist himself and they showed us some of the paintings he had done in traditional Chinese art style; landscapes in black ink with a brush on white paper. They really were very good for his age, and he very kindly gave us one of them. Perhaps one day he will be a famous artist and his early works will be worth a fortune! Luke drew his portrait as a gift for the family. The little girl was very sweet; quite serious when posing for sketches and with a beautiful Cupid’s bow pout. She sometimes forgot herself and lapsed into giggly smiles, but very quickly mastered her solemnity once more as if she posed like this all the time. During the meal, the maotai was brought out, as well as several beers. Luke in particular was encouraged to drink more and more, and downing shots seemed to be the done thing, so he felt quite tipsy by the time we left!
Back at our room, the fire was stoked and we tucked ourselves up in our beds on the kang, feeling blissfully happy, very drowsy from the alcohol and with heads spinning from our whirlwind of a day. We wore several layers of clothing that first night, thinking we would get cold, but found it stiflingly hot once the kang warmed up!
The next day, we huddled around the little table in our room with Jiangwei, Liangliang and Wu and had a warming breakfast of porridge-like bean soup with steamed bread rolls. We wrapped up warm and headed out with the brothers for a wintry walk around the village and surrounding area. It was a clear, cloudless day and the sun was out, but being early in the morning it was bitterly cold and when we weren’t walking our toes began to feel painfully chilly. It was very strange to be in sub-zero temperatures and yet see no sign of snow or frost on the ground. The area gets very little precipitation, and is very close to the desert. Indeed, a photo of the place would suggest swelteringly hot weather, as the sun was bright in the sky and much of the ground was sandy. It is easy to forget that deserts are not all about heat! We passed more cave dwellings scattered around the village, including those where Jiangwei and his brothers grew up and several that were empty as so many people had moved to urban areas. As we headed back for lunch (still rather full from breakfast!), we were able to walk across the small river that bordered the village as it was completely frozen over.
On our return, Wu had some warm sweet potatoes ready for us, and we ate them and watched as he prepared the noodles for lunch. He had a large bowl to which he gradually added water and flour to make the dough, kneading it swiftly into a smooth, elastic ball. He left it to rest for a while and then took out a lengthy rolling pin and skilfully rolled it out until it was a couple of millimetres thick, before slicing it into strips, which he floured and coiled up. Water was added to the enormous wok that sat over the stove and Wu pulled and pushed at the handle to pump the bellows that were built into the fireplace to help bring it to the boil. When it began to bubble, I helped him tear the coiled noodles into 2cm long pieces and we tossed them in to cook. The noodles were then added to a delicious stew, which we seasoned to our own taste with some dried flower heads, flaked chilli and spring onion. The flowers were tiny and brown and looked a little like crispy spiders. They grew in the local area and had a warm, toasted flavour. I would have loved to know their English name to see if we could buy them in Britain.
After lunch, Jiangwei left to go back to Yulin. We were sorry to see him go, but knew we would see him again before we left and we were certain to be well looked after by Wu and Liangliang. It was warmer walking weather by this point, so the four of us headed out again, this time high up onto the sandstone cliffs that towered around the little village. From the top, there were magnificent views over the Yellow River basin. Vast swathes of the river were frozen and chunks of ice were being carried downstream. Even at this altitude there were date groves planted in terraces in the dry soil; they must be extraordinarily hardy plants to cope with such an extreme climate. Most areas are accessible by motorbike or motorised tricycle and Liangliang told us the harvest can now be brought down in the vehicles. However, in the past, people would have had to hike down the steep and crumbly paths with huge bundles of dates on their backs. It would have been a laborious task. In fact, many people still do transport their goods in this way; we saw men and women with large stacks of sticks strapped to their backs making their way back to the village, so perhaps not everyone has access to a bike. We passed more abandoned cave dwellings, including the house Wu grew up in, which had been damaged by fire. It is sad but understandable that people are moving away, as life here must be so tough. However, despite the hardships, I imagine there is an awful lot of fun to be had here as a child. Liangliang showed us places where he used to play; the possibilities for imaginative games would be endless here. They also showed us the graves of their ancestors, and the situation commanding sweeping vistas across the valley is probably the most stunning setting for a cemetery I have ever seen. At the top of the cliff face opposite, Liangliang pointed out a couple of eagle nests and a little further along, we came across a memorial pavilion for those who had died fighting for the Communist cause against the Kuomintang. It is amazing to think how far-reaching the political situation was; even in remote villages people lost their lives. The peasant uprisings played a big role in the Communist movement, but I do wonder how much their lives actually changed. I would love to know what sort of a transition Ni he gou has made over the last century.
On our way back down, we stopped at another cave dwelling to visit some of their friends, a very smiley and welcoming older couple. There were chickens pecking around in the yard, and inside it was brightly decorated and made quite homely with tapestries and colourful blankets. We had a lovely time and the atmosphere was warm and friendly, despite our limited ability to communicate. They laughed at us only being able to say four words and pressed us to eat more and more of the dates and peanuts which they had grown themselves. The man showed us how to split the shells neatly in half so we could pick out the peanuts. Just as we were leaving, he picked up handfuls of them and filled our coat pockets! I was pleased as they were really good!
That evening, we had company for dinner. Wu’s brother came over and between them they cooked a veritable feast using the stoves in both caves. Whilst we were tucking in, they spent some time teaching us the Chinese way to use chopsticks. Luke was a good student, but I couldn’t get to grips with it! My made up way seems to work fine in most situations, so why change? We also learnt a few words for the after dinner snacks. We pronounced them pretty well, but by the next day had forgotten all but ‘gwadzerr’ (pronounce the last syllable with a West country burr), which means seeds. Liangliang was especially skillful at eating gwadzerr and he taught us how to split them to get the seeds out. Even with this expert tuition, our piles of seed husks barely rose above the table, yet his was like a small hill. After dinner, the driver of the local bus service to Yulin also joined us. He was good fun and we had a merry time drinking beer and maotai and invented a game called ‘pass the song’, where we took it in turns to sing a song for the others. Luke and I sang a Scottish song called Mary Mac, which went down well. Wu and his brother had great voices, but their songs were all quite short and seemed to end with cheers and downing of drinks! Liangliang sang soulful, heartfelt ballads. I also played a few tunes on the flute and the one that they liked the best was the Queen’s Lancashire regimental march (L’attaque/The Red Rose); ‘tis a catchy tune! Once the brother and driver had left, we were joined by a second brother. He was quieter and seemed a bit shy, but was constantly smiling, and we both really warmed to him. After a wonderful evening, we collapsed onto our cosy kang, exhausted, but looking forward to what the next day would bring.