Saturday, 14 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 12. Changsha - Home Of Duck Blood In Chilli Sauce, Tall Basketball Players And Possibly Castrated Opera Singers

The downside of forbidding a load of sixth formers to leave their compartments became apparent as the train pulled into Changsha at 6am. The excesses of Tsingtao beer and Mao Tai presented itself in a bleery eyed, scruffy, unshaven gang with hangovers who literally fell out of the train onto the platform. Actually that was not strictly true. Most of the group were fine. It was just the Good Time Boys and the Irresponsibles who let the side down. The local guides who were there to meet us were surprised to see one member of the group walk straight past them and chundered onto the tracks, in the gap where the carriages linked up.

They took one look at us and hurriedly rushed us to our hotel, the Hunan Hotel, which was at the time the most luxurous hotels in Changsha. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was the only place for tourists to stay. Its Soviet style of architecture did not promise of good things within. But looks can be deceptive and the interior was quite ok with spacious rooms overlooking Martyr's Park.

Even the attempt at a Western breakfast was refreshingly different to the other places we had been where the scrambled eggs had varied in their quality of rubberness. Here the fried eggs were good, the cucumbers were fresh, the bread tasted of stilton cheese and everything was cooked with hot chilis, Hunan style.

I took to Changsha with ease. It was a more temperate climate than the humid South and though lacking the beautiful mountains, the wide tree lined streets and river made the city a friendly place.  

Naturally we were given the full tourist tour. The porcelain factory which produced 70,000 items of china each day. The Hunan Provincial Museum with its 2000 year old mummified lady, who they could tell had died suddenly while eating sunflower seeds, as the seeds were found in her stomach. Everywhere we went, we ate like Kings, with steam coming out of our ears with the liberal use of big fat red chilis in all dishes. It is slightly different from Szechuan cooking, even hotter and better presented. The steamed fish heads with chilis, stir fried duck blood and Changsha stinky do-fu were indescribably good, as was the Dong'an chicken and Orange beef. As before I stuck closely to the Moanersandgroaners and cleaned up the food they picked at. My slim physique was beginning to alter.

Every foreign tourist was given the three line whip to visit Mao Zedong's birthplace at Shaoshan, about 130 kms outside Changsha in gently rolling countryside. We all soon tired of the propagandatorial tour, yet we were in the minority. There were many Chinese weeping, praying, kneeling and lighting of incense sticks. It is easy to put a Western slant on the great leader and say he was an evil man who killed millions in such stupid ventures as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But to the Chinese Mao is God. For all his faults, his legacy is a unified China and a country not under the occupation of the Japanese. To the Chinese population that was Churchillian.

The evening was a treat with a visti to the Changsha Opera Company's production of Yan Zhi (Buying Rouge). It was a story about a pretty young girl who is left in charge of her family's cosmetic shop though her mind was more on men. A man comes into the shop and falls in love. As they are going behind the counter for some ... a travelling salesman comes in and forestalls the passionate moment. The man bribes him to go away, threatens to hang himself with a girdle he finds behind the counter but succeeds. The girl starts to lead the man through the door at the back of the shop for a second attempt at some ..., but the travelling salesman returns and in the farce the young man plants a kiss on the lips of the salesman, by mistake instead of the girl.
It's simple, really.

We all went determined to hate Chinese Opera and thought of ways of killing the three to four hours of forthcoming torture we were going to be subjugated to. But it was not like that. It was mesmerising - the music, the unusual singing, some of which sounded as if it was sung by modern day eunachs, the set, the costumes, the romance, the theatre ... just the whole thing.

At half-time we were all looking forward to the second half. Toad however was not. In fact he got up and told us we were leaving. We refused and sat down in our seats. Toad went red and vented his spleen on the guide, shouting and shaking his fist. The large audience fell silent and all eyes were on Toad.

Nevertheless we won. We decided to fix Toad, who had no option but to sit down too.

We made it so that he had to sit between the two guides. It was something I had had to do at a particularly dull local opera several nights before. We all started to doze. The guides sat bolt upright. As I began drifting off, I felt a sharp pain as an elbow was embedded into my ribs and a voice whispered in my ear:

'The magpie has killed the dragon.'

I nodded as enthusiastically before nodding off again. A minute later a second elbow crashed into my side:

'The monkey has married the magical golden flower.'

This went on during the whole performance. I sat bolt upright too through the last third of the show. We all looked over at Toad fifteen minutes into the second part. He was sitting straight as a lamppost. We grinned with satisfaction to thinkthat he must have been going through the same procedure.  At the end, he looked irritated and drained. I will never know for certain if he suspected us, but by his short but polite response to us, I think he did.

Our final day in Changsha was different again. We were taken to a Gymnasium and spent the morning letting off steam and playing every kind of sport with the local students. Gymnastics, Table Tennis, Weight Lifting, Badminton, Basketball, Volleyball and Athletics. We were hammered 5-2 by the local football team. I even met a Changsha basketball player who was taller than me. I have never met any Chinese since who was as tall.

Our guides had organised this. It was not on the tour itinerary. Two nights before a group of us had squared up to the guides several nights ago, told them we were fed up with the propaganda and were going to go home unless we saw the real China. They had looked horrified and were speechless:

'One minute please,' said one guide tugging at the other's shirt. 'We have conference.'

They went off into a corner and were in deep discussion for what seemed like an age. When they returned, they smiled and one said;

'OK. No problem.'

From that moment everything changed. The atmosphere lightened. The guides started opening up and by the end of the trip we became great friends. They were strange to most areas as they came from Peking. They studied at Beijing University which was a hotbed of reactionism to the Communists. They opened up. Took us to areas which were illegal for foreigners to visit, met unusual people and sampled proper food.

It was in the evening that we arrived at the bottom of the steps of the same Trident we had flown to Kweilin in. Sure enough the stewardess at the plane door looked familiar. Inside our tourist only cabin was the other battleaxe who had not wanted us to see the economy class. She was already guarding the door. She already had her arms folded. She was about to speak but I beat her to it:

'I don't want to see.'

She smiled. As we began our two hour flight, though I could not see what was behind me, I thought I could hear the anxious sounds of some animal or other.

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