Thursday, 17 July 2014

Stranger than fiction

I was recently tagged on Facebook to post a photograph every day for five days so I looked out ones taken when I was in China in 2011. When I came back from my trip I wrote some articles but had no success in having them published (clearly I should stick to fiction). But I will tell you here about the strangest evening I have ever spent because I couldn’t have made it up. 

You will be, my daughter kindly informed me, the oldest westerner to visit Ningxian. 
She went there, to the south-east corner of Gansu Province, China, in August 2010 to teach English for a year and the following April my sister and I found ourselves on a country bus driving through China’s driest province to the dusty little town my daughter called home. She and her fellow gap-year teacher lived on the school campus – the object of much friendly curiosity as the only two westerners most of the town had ever seen.
Now there were two more.
Within minutes of our arriving, pupils jumped up and down to look through the window and some came in to see us close up. Fortunately, no words of ye ancient western wisdom seemed to be required from the oldest one or her sister – all we had to do was pose for what turned out to be the first of (very) many photo sessions.

During the next six days we were privileged to be asked out by generous and genuine people to restaurants, and to private homes, to sample the region’s delicious noodle-based and surprisingly spicy food. 

But one invitation appeared to have its own agenda.
We met our hostess (an English teacher who spoke very little English), and her husband who ‘works for the government’, outside the school gate at 5.30 but it wasn’t until 9 o' clock that we sat down to eat in a hot-pot restaurant, the only kind that stays open that late. (Hot-pot is a kind of individual fondue arrangement where tofu and raw meat and vegetables are dropped to cook in a pot of boiling soup.) For three and half hours we had to sing for our supper.
First of all, we were startled to be ushered into a large, newly built, empty hotel belonging, as it turned out, to friends of our hosts, escorted upstairs to a bedroom and photographed  – perhaps, we later speculated, to appear in promotional material as their international clientele …
We – the party now including the hoteliers – were then driven about ten miles away ‘to see a valley where there are beautiful flowers’. On the way we passed dozens of cave dwellings, some definitely still occupied (I saw a line of washing high on the hillside) but our hostess denied this and was keen to show us ‘the new countryside’ and the houses recently built for the farmers. 

When we stopped to look at the ‘beautiful flowers’ carloads of more of their friends arrived to check out the westerners, add them to their photograph albums, and follow them as they drove on.
Our next stop was a primary school where, at seven o’ clock in a smoky staffroom, teachers were marking homework. 

We were invited to have a look round in the company of one of the teachers, a cigarette tucked behind his ear.  The school was built in the 1950s and not much changed. A board on the wall had Chinese writing with an English (?) translation underneath: 

All the teachers trooped outside to be photographed in the playground with us and our entourage plus three children who had appeared from nowhere. As we departed, waving royally, my sister, a primary-school head in rural Scotland, tried and failed to imagine a similar scene back home.
Finally (in the dark) we had to inspect a poly-tunnel which apparently was very eco-friendly.

 We were conducted around it by a smiley man to whom, like all the other followers we acquired that evening, we were never actually introduced. 

He turned up at the hot-pot restaurant (above, left) and as a finale to the night was revealed to be, not the gardener of the poly-tunnel as we’d vaguely assumed, but ‘he runs TV station’. Another line-up. Another camera. Would we appear on Chinese TV? When I looked in the mirror back in the hotel and saw the havoc wrought by leaning over the steamy, spicy hot-pot I could only hope not.

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