A popular weekend destination for Beijingers this time of year is the farmlands north of the city. These valleys are full of cherry trees and fruit picking in the fresh air away from the capital makes a pleasant change.
Pausing for drinks in one cherry picking area it was obvious from the number of white faces that the Lonely Planet lists this as A Good Thing. Long term travellers with dirty feet and excitable exchange students with shiny new bicycles jostled for seats in the single small hostel listed in the travel bible, whilst all the Chinese spread out to the more spacious and better appointed selection of accommodation to either side.
We drove beyond that along a small round into the mountains. The slopes surrounding Miaoshang Village are well suited to growing nuts and we stopped at a homestay run by a family of pecan farmers. Welcomed like old friends despite being the first laowai to stay there we were immediately given glasses of scalding green tea and shown to our room.
The homestay lodgings were very basic, but had electricity, a hot water tank and good supply of spiders. Like those in Cuandixia, the bed was designed for cold weather. Essentially a box made of bricks, hot coals could be slotted underneath to keep the occupants warm. This is probably great during the bitter winters, but in mid-summer and without the coals it’s just a bed made of bricks – a fact not hidden by the half inch thick mattress.
With a couple of hours to wait for friends to arrive we just walked round the farm, followed by the geese. The chickens pecked about happily (for now) and the fish in the pond meandered lazily in the hot sun. It is definitely a pleasant change from the hectic pace and pollution of the city.
Eventually the others arrived and after a chat over drinks we got on with the important business: the cooking. Normally the homestay owners would cook, but we had a team of enthusiastic cooks who gave me a master class in barbequing mutton kebabs with just a little cumin and chilli for flavouring. After tasting one unseasoned and realising how good the unadulterated meat was we left a few plain for variety.
Other people had brought homemade ZongZi (as it was Dragon Boat Festival day), as well as noodle and pork dishes and a selection of delicious salads and green veg.
One of the many things I enjoy about eating in China is the lack of hygiene concerns. In theory all eating from shared bowls with chopsticks is an easy way to transfer germs to everyone at the table. Here a bunch of people I’m meeting for the first time have no issue with sharing food with an obvious outsider and we just get on with enjoying it.
Between a National Geographic tour guide, the auto editor of the Chinese equivalent of ‘Which?’ magazine and an amazing wildlife photographer the conversation twisted and turned entertainingly. The only odd moment came in the middle of a conversation in Chinese when a random elderly lady shuffled into the courtyard, pointed at me and said in English ‘foreigner’, then went on her way.
The others started playing Chinese poker. I’ve tried to learn a few times but it seems to have insanely flexible house rules, most of which arise as soon as I think I might be doing well. If I get a Flush – someone beats it with the (hastily invented) Dragon Flush.
Leaving them to it, I sat and played with the dogs whilst watching the moon rise behind the surrounding mountains.
Breakfast was a little odd, and not one I’d like to tackle with a hangover. Fermented tofu spread on fresh bread, with pickled radishes; salted goose eggs and corn congee. I’m still undecided whether I liked the tofu dish. The red sauce was delicious but offset by the pungent, almost fishy, tofu within.
Energised by breakfast it was time to catch and kill a chicken. I wanted to try hypnotising it like I learnt in Uzbekistan. You hold its head down and draw a line in front of it – the chicken freezes, it’s heartbeat slows until it goes catatonic and feels no pain – but the little old lady farmer had no time for silliness so pushed me aside and just dispatched it whilst its family looked on.
They carried on watching whilst she efficiently plucked it and emptied it’s innards onto the dirt, which they pecked at despondently. The birds were still laying, so the carcass had two eggs inside, which isn’t something you’d get at the local supermarket.
A short walk into the village overexcited the local children, so one family invited us into their tiny home. The four of them appeared to sleep in one bed, but it was the jars of honey lining the walls that really caught my attention. After a short negotiation over the price, we walked back to the homestay laden with five jars of wild honey.
A room for the night, two excellent meals, 10 eggs and the free-range chicken that laid them came to £16.
On the way back through Beijing, we stopped for lunch cooked by a visiting doctor from Chengdu. She’d been there during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people and left 11 million without homes. Just that week her hospital had released the last patient from intensive care.
Three years later the sadness was still there but the darkly humorous stories were also emerging. A senior government official quickly evacuated his office building, and then chose to remain behind, hiding under a desk on the third floor. When the shaking stopped, he emerged to find he was now on the ground floor – the first and second floor had crumbled but the ten stories above remained upright, saving his life. Another involved a patient who was under anaesthetic when it the earthquake struck and was surprised to wake up in the hospital car park.
Chinese word I learnt of the day is Huanyíng, which is simply Welcome (to my home)
English word I learnt of the day is Xenial: Hospitable, especially to visiting strangers or foreigners.