Sunday, August 8, 2010

Day 14. Hong Cun and the Emerald Pools

Everything hurts... Legs, arms, knee, ankle, bones, skin. I didn’t realize it, but I must have been making faces going down all those damned steps, so even my ears hurt! Speaking of steps, I dreamt that an infinite number of coolies had been building steps all night, and that I will have to go down them for the rest of my stay in China.

The truth is that we woke in our friendly hotel, looking forward to a new day. The manager of the hotel is an older Chinese American fellow, educated in California, who a few years ago came to China to venture into the hospitality business. He is, of course, perfectly bilingual, and was of great help setting us to a delicious dinner last night, a traditional Chinese breakfast this morning, and a tour of a historic Ming dynasty village.

A traditional Chinese breakfast consists of tea with milk (with sugar added for Western palates), rice gruel (plain, with sugar, or with spicy pickled bamboo shoots), a hard boiled egg, and steamed bread rolls. We put the spicy bamboo in our rice gruel, and Luke credits it with a wonderful laxative effect that a half hour later completely cleared his digestive tract.

For our tour of the Ming village of Hong Cun our genial host had retained the services of a very professional lady, who drove us in her brand new car. Enter scary driver number three. Like our driver in Yangshuo, this young woman was very professional and serious about her driving, but she followed the “rules of the road” to the "T", which involved squeezing her car into incoming traffic, much honking, and passing in blind curves. Now, we all know that passing in a blind curve is very dangerous, so if need be, you want to do it fast and with lots of power. In the Chinese mind this could lead to an ugly accident (as opposed to a not so ugly accident), so in an uphill they pass in the blind curve at a crawling pace, and in fourth gear, with the car shuddering. At least you have lots of time to pray during the whole ordeal.

I have the theory that here driving is learnt by looking at old movies, where James Bond speeds down a mountain road in San Marino. On the downhill they like to imitate the style, but they are not quite sure why one cuts curves. So they speed up to the curve, cut into the opposite lane well before they come to the curve (and therefore are unable to see if anyone is coming their way), and then screech their way through the inside of the curve. This time there is no time for prayers, so I had to rely on the “medallita de San Cristobal” that my Mom gave me for this trip.

The last scary moment came when we were barreling at great speed through a small village, and I saw a woman holding a child getting ready to cross the road ahead of us. The woman looked up when she heard the horn, and I could read in her eyes her belief that she could beat the car in the crossing (remember that the concept of taking turns to pass is unknown here in China). She braced for the run, and I applied the brakes on my side, but our driver just clenched her teeth and accelerated even more. She was going to beat this woman and her child to the crossing or else. Well, she knew more about the Chinese psyche than I did, because indeed we beat the mother and child with about 10 cm to spare. Piece of cake!

It was with some relief that we arrived to the village of Hong Cun. The village was established 500 years ago, when an oak and a gingko were planted on a knoll overlooking what was probably an ox bow lake. Since then every marriage in the village has circled the oak three times to assure happiness and prosperity, and every funeral has circled the gingko three times to assure peaceful eternal rest. I had never seen a gingko tree this old, and was kind of startled to learn that they grow to form sober trees.

The village has been continuously occupied since Ming times, and the old part of town is a real time machine to older times. The residents welcome tourists and the money they bring, so one is allowed to peek into their houses and look without pressure over the handcrafts they offer for sale. It is nice to be able to shop without pressure, so Luke and I bought a couple of souvenirs and tasted a couple of the local breads. One in particular is prepared on a spinning hot plate (like a potter’s wheel), where thin strands of colored batter are intermingled to form a giant crisp crepe. The crepe is folded into a flat “burrito” while it is still hot, and becomes very crisp and brittle as it cools. Very yummy and entertaining.

After the Hong Cun village our driver suggested visiting the Emerald Pools, so off we go again, at high speed, to new adventures. The Emerald Pools are formed along one of the rivers that come down from Huang Shan, on a stretch where the river gets out of the intrusive rocks and cuts through the gneisses and greenstones that form the country rock. They are indeed limpid pools with an emerald green color, strung like beads along the river canyon. Oh God, not the steps again. This is what that army of coolies was doing last night! But to be a real tourist you have to suffer, so I limped my way up and down the river, oooing and ahhhing, like a good tourist should. As an added incentive we learned that it was here where many of the flying scenes of Crouching Tiger – Hidden Dragon were filmed.

Our excellent driver delivered us to the bus that in due time would bring us back to Tunxi. Once we got there, however, we had some distance to go to get to the hostel. We could have taken a taxi, but what would be the fun of that? Instead we took a bicycle rickshaw and comfortably sat in the little cab as the daredevil lady driver braved the traffic to bring us safe and sound to the doorstep of our hostel.

I had laundry to do and memories to put down in writing, so I stayed at the hostel for the next two hours, but Luke had excess energy to burn so he rented a bike and went for the grand tour of Tunxi. Later we went out to dinner and had a clay pot of noodles, and barbecued squid, chicken wing, mushrooms, and beef. We topped it all with a nice piece of pastry bought at the “panaderia” (yes, they have “panaderias” just like in Mexico), and after an evening stroll headed for our beds for a well deserved sleep.

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