The next morning we had another massive breakfast, but decided that despite our taut bellies, we really had better make a start on the snacks we had bought from the supermarket as well, so we forced down some tinned pears and some milk. We had brought out the chocolate the night before and were amused by the reception it got. The uncle had never had chocolate before in his life, and nibbled at it cautiously. He clearly didn’t want to offend and managed to finish it, but it was evident it was a bit of a chore! Wu took his piece and surreptitiously left it on the side, untouched. To be fair, it wasn’t very nice chocolate, but the cultural difference did make us laugh.
After breakfast, Liangliang set up three stools in the back of the little motortrike truck and Luke and I hunkered down on the seats with Wu. It was bitingly cold, and whilst we must have looked quite funny sitting on stools in the back of the trike, it would have been much chillier to sit on the floor. We wiggled our toes and jogged our knees all the way to our destination. After a trip up some winding and bumpy tracks, we arrived at a lovely, ramshackle old Buddhist temple tucked away in the hills. It was a weatherworn place of peeling paint and aging stonework and was completely deserted save for a dirty white cat with one blue and one green eye and a stooped, crinkle-faced monk who hobbled around the buildings leaning on a cane and carrying a wicker basket. We asked if we could take a photo and afterwards, feeling like it was a bit of an imposition, I remembered I had a pocketful of peanuts and put a few into his basket. I smiled inanely, then cringed away, feeling that awkward embarrassment that ensues when you have been trying to make a kind gesture and it falls a little flat, seeming somewhat patronising or just a bit odd. As the monk shuffled off, we continued our exploration. Wu went to light some incense at one of the shrines whilst Liangliang and I did a little impromptu dance on the neglected opera stage. At the back of the temple, looking out over the hillside, was a pavilion with a marble table engraved with a Chinese chess board and surrounded by four stools. It would have been a wonderful place to while away a few hours if it hadn’t been so cold!
We headed back for lunch, another meal of gargantuan proportions where we were encouraged to eat more than we thought physically possible! Most days in my life I go through a phase where I feel hungry and think perhaps I should eat something. I never once got to this stage in Ni he gou – we were far too well fed for that! Hunger was always anticipated a good few hours before it was due to arrive. Liangliang took me and Luke out for another trike adventure, this time heading out along the main road, where the sandy canyon towered above us and the threat of rock falls was ever present. Some of the rocks were lined with huge cracks, others had smooth edges and even holes where wind and water had carved them into whimsical shapes. We passed a place where a large tributary joined the Yellow River and watched as chunks of ice jostled their way downstream. After a while, we stopped at the side of the road. There were some steps leading down to the riverbank, but aside from that, it seemed no different from the other stretches we had passed. As we clambered down the steps, we saw a small stone tower for burning incense and a sandstone overhang to our right from which an old bell hung. There, huddled into a cave underneath the road, was an extraordinary little Buddhist shrine. Inside the cavern, there were three Buddhas. They all had new heads, which looked a little incongruous on their aging shoulders, as the original heads had been stolen. We spent the next hour meandering along the river’s edge, playing a game of hit the iceberg, trying to land stones on the ice as it floated past and Liangliang showed us a couple of old, rusting boats beached at intervals along the shoreline. The sun was sinking lower in the sky and with it what little heat it had brought to the day, so when we reached a wide sandy beach, Liangliang had the bright idea of starting a fire. We collected bamboo, driftwood and tangled weeds. Setting it alight was very easy as everything was so dry. Once it had burnt down and we were a little warmer, we headed homewards.
That evening after the meal, we had more visitors; the village head and another of Wu’s friends. The maotai and beer were brought out once more, as was my flute and our sketchbooks. The village head was a little more serious and reserved than the friend, as was befitting of his station, but he had a voracious appetite for the gwadzerr! We showed them some of the panoramic pictures we had taken on our trip out that day – it was relatively easy to take good photos as the skies were so clear and the scenery so striking. After the bracing fresh air, good food and alcohol, my eyes began to flicker after an hour or so, despite my efforts to stay awake, and they kindly volunteered to leave so we could go to bed.
In the morning, Wu and his friends took us into the village to take photos of the community centre. It used to be a school as well, but there are so few young people here nowadays that it has closed down. He was keen that we document the building with panoramic pictures of the inside. Afterwards, we paid a visit on another friend, whose wife gave us tea, which I managed to pour all over myself, and delicious steamed dumplings.
Liangliang took us out for another long hike before lunch, this time heading in the opposite direction around the cliff. It was clear he was really enjoying showing us the scenery of his childhood – he told us he hadn’t been there for a couple of years, so it was a little like a trip down memory lane for him. The crumbling path wound steeply from the village up the rock face and as we climbed, we could clearly make out the layers of ancient sediment that made up the landscape. Two thirds of the way up, there was a beautiful stone bridge spanning a dry riverbed. When the rains come and the streams swell, it must be a dangerous place with all the loose stones about. The path is quite treacherous at the best of times and must be very difficult to traverse when laden with bags of dates or firewood. Glancing up above the bridge at an overhang of sandstone, we could see what looked like a huge, stern face in profile, gazing out over the village far below. Liangliang told us that this natural carving was thought of as the village guardian, and it was easy to see why. Traversing the clifftop, we watched with envious admiration as a hare nimbly covered the ground before us in a few graceful strides, pinging at angles off rocks and making us feel like lumbering giants. We rested for a while at the top and looking back at the way we had come labouring up the path, we spied a bleating waterfall of sheep and goats flowing effortlessly down a sheer drop. After soaking up the view, we gingerly picked our way back along the track into the valley and I kept my footing all the way, until, just as we were nearing the first cave dwelling and we had waved at the ladies stood outside, I slipped as if on a banana skin and landed flat on my back. I sprang up quickly, as one is apt to after an embarrassing fall and strode onwards, pretending nothing had happened. As we neared the ladies, they came over to greet us. One was Liangliang’s grandmother and she hugged him warmly, evidently extremely pleased to see him and ushered us inside her home. I had been admiring the pile of firewood beside the path – the smaller sticks had been stacked in such a way as to create a brilliant little shelter for the logs. Things like this bring out the hunter gatherer in me and make me want to run off into the woods and build dens. I gallantly resisted this urge and we went to have tea and dates with his grandma, who was very beautiful and happy to meet us, before heading back into the centre. Passing through the village, people crowded round and we said hello to those we had met before and took a few group photos together.
After a hearty lunch, we spent a relaxing afternoon wandering the village, sketching goats and taking photographs. That evening, we were just finishing our meal, when the uncle arrived once more. He had already had his dinner and it was funny seeing the tables turned and Wu pestering him to eat more food, whilst he flapped his arms in protest! It was lovely to see him again before we left, he is such a jolly man. The next morning we had to get up very early to set off for Yulin once more, so we made sure we had an early night.
We rose at 6am to hustle and bustle as we all got ourselves ready for the onward journey. We packed up our backpacks and Wu gave us each a large carrier bag full of red dates each. Around 4kg in total! It was so kind and it was very important to him that we took them as they were his own dates and a regional delicacy. Somehow we managed to fit them into our rucksacks! We tried to leave the supermarket snacks behind for Wu to finish, but he was having none of it, and insisted we take it all with us. The four of us, laden with baggage, crept out into the dark village and made our way towards the waiting bus. The driver was, Mr Chao, a man we had met on one of our first nights in the village. At first we were the only passengers, but as the bus trundled its way along steep winding roads into remote villages we picked up more and more people with their packages, boxes and sacks of goods. One man had a massive stack of eggs, which for a short while was perched next to us on top of a parcel. We were relieved to be absolved of any responsibility for breakages when he moved it onto his lap. As the sky gradually began to lighten, we stopped at a small town and Wu got out and bought us each a date bread roll as a snack.
A couple of hours later and we pulled into the bus station at Yulin. We were collected by another brother in law and taken to their apartment where his wife and Liangliang cooked us brunch. Jiangwei arrived just before we ate; we were so pleased to see him again. He had bought me a Chinese bamboo flute! I was touched by the gesture. It is very beautiful and I have since learnt it has a poem etched into the neck. When I first tried to play it, I made an awful sound! Then Wu got some sellotape and taped over one of the holes near the top. After this it played fine – I have seen a few flutes since and they all have this hole covered with tape or clingfilm. I am not sure what the purpose of it is! Shortly after, Yanjiang arrived and we all sat down to our last meal together. It was a lovely end to a wonderful few days. We had felt so privileged to be welcomed into the heart of such a warm, generous family and were extremely sad to be leaving.
We made our goodbyes to the two eldest brothers and the rest of us squeezed into the car and set off for the coach station. We bought our tickets for Yinchuan, our next destination, and stowed our bags on the coach. Liangliang insisted we sit in the front as I think he wanted us to be near the driver, but we soon realised there was no leg room and moved further back. The coach pulled away and we strained to see our friends to wave goodbye. Unfortunately, they were looking for us in the wrong window and by the time they spotted us it was a little too late. I think this mix up broke a little emotional dam for us both and we found ourselves with leaking eyes. We vowed to stay in touch and hope that we will be able to return one day.