Crystal’s Village

Here is the second installment of my journal entries. Make sure to check out the corresponding album on my picture site to see what everything looked like.

I just woke up from my first night on the hard sleeper car on the train. It was such a treat; I could barely stop smiling. It was so comfortable; I didn’t have to push through people to go to the bathroom or get hot water for my noodles. Getting there required a bit of persuasion though.

We decided to try to catch the train to Guilin from Luohe, but there were only standing tickets for the next three days. There was no bus to get us there either. Grace wanted to go back to Zhenghou to see if we could catch a train or a bus to Guilin from there. I pushed her to buy the standing ticket for the eight teen hour ride and promised her that if we could upgrade to the hard sleeper, we would. I just wanted to keep moving in the right direction even at the expense of comfort. If we had went to Zhengzhou there was no assurance that we could get to Guilin that day and waiting in Zhengzhou for a seat would have been extremely boring.

Grace reluctantly agreed to buy the standing ticket. Crystal helped us buy some stools as insurance and sent us with a note to explain that we wanted to upgrade our tickets.

We sat in the train station waiting for our train, and a couple of minutes before the train was supposed to arrive, a train station attendant came out and told everyone waiting for the train something. Everyone lined up and started walking away from the waiting area; we had no clue what was said, so we just followed the line.

The line went out of the train station and toward another entrance. The attendant that lead the line waited at the entrance and collected ten yuan from everyone walking in. Completely clueless about what was happening, I told the attendant that I wanted to buy a ticket for the hard sleeper. She was confused, understandably given what was actually happening, but she did let us in for free. We were lead into the first-class waiting room, and after chatting with some other attendants, I found out that our train had been delayed thirty minutes. While waiting, we got to watch the end of the Nuggets-Cavs game on the biggest TV I’ve seen in China.

When our train arrived, we handed our note to someone working on the train; I said we wanted harder sleeper tickets, and we were whisked away to the sleeper car. We upgraded our tickets with no problems.

I’m really glad that everything worked out on the first occasion because if it hadn’t, Grace’s trust in my asking to take small risks would have lessened for the rest of the trip. As it is , I have this as evidence that everything will turn out fine.

We arrived in Zhengzhou on Thursday morning at 7:30. We took some time to freshen up and eat some breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s. With the help of Crystal’s directions, we were on a bus bound for the seat of his county, Wuyang, by nine o’clock.

Before we even got off the bus in Wuyang, we spotted Crystal. He took us to the beauty salon that his three older sisters run. We sat our bags down and went to lunch with two of them.

After lunch, we took a minibus to the village where Crystal grew up, Zhanggudong, His parents still live there, and we went to their house right away. All the houses in the village had high concrete or brick walls around them. There was a little, open concrete area before the house where Crystal’s family kept chickens, a goat, and some vegetables. They also had a well, clotheslines running criss-cross from the walls with two dead chickens hanging there, and a tiny brown dog named Bao Bao. The entire house and roof was made from concrete. There were stairs leading to the flat roof running along the side of their house. In addition to his parents being there, his grandmother came from a couple houses down to greet us.

We spent the afternoon strolling through the village. The trees were bare and gray, but the fields encircling the village were green with sprouting wheat. People popped out of their houses to look at us as we walked by. Crystal met everyone by asking if they had eaten yet. I asked him why he greeted everyone this way, and he told me it is a polite greeting. Dried corn stalks were plied everywhere; they burned them instead of wood to keep warm since the trees in the area are sparse.

We wandered past a small stream and then a larger river that had slowly cut through the plain. As the sun set, the view embodied the romanticized image of village life. Green fields, trees, and the setting sun were reflected off the tranquil stream. Crystal pointed to a mountain in the distance and said that the cave inside the mountain was a beautiful palace. There he became blood-brothers with one of the monks.

Crystal told us stories about what he called the best time in his life, his childhood. He showed us the places where he swam in the summers and killed frogs with blow guns to enjoy as a snack.

He also showed us how the village had changed since he left. He said that along the river there were large trees that he played in with his friends, but now the river was devoid of trees. They were cut down so someone could dredge sand from the river and sell it.

We learned a little more about Crystal’s life along that walk. He went to elementary school in a nearby village until age twelve. For middle and high school, he went to public boarding schools in Wuyang, so at twelve, he was out of the house and essentially living on his own. He said he was happy to leave his home for school. One time, he told me a story about being robbed at knife point while he stayed at school over the weekend in high school; the story never quite made sense to me until he told me that he went to boarding school. Apparently, this boarding school system is pretty common for villages in China.

We returned to his parents home for dinner. It was pretty rough for Grace and I. There was a mushroom and pepper dish, carrots that tasted like baijiu, mushroom soup, and big, fluffy rolls. Neither Grace nor I are fond of mushrooms at all, and the preparation of these rendered them very chewy. I enjoyed the broth of the soup and ate whatever they insisted I eat, but I didn’t make it half way through my soup. Grace could only stomach the bread. We felt bad because most people in the village were standing outside with bowls of rice porridge, so it was obvious that this was a special meal. I told Grace to eat a couple times through my teeth, but neither of us could do justice to the meal.

The weather had been very pleasant, especially compared to Harbin, but when the sun went down, it became frigid. I wasn’t prepared with my Harbin clothing, so I was frozen. I was far colder there, thousands of miles south of Harbin. Grace had more clothes than I, so she wasn’t bad off. Before we could go to bed, we had to wash our feet; I wasn’t too happy about taking my shoes and socks off. I didn’t pay attention to the sleeping arrangements for Crystal and his parents that night, but Grace and I were put in a bed that was simply wooden crates pushed together with a comforter on top. I left on all of my clothes and crawled under the blankets, and when Grace got under the covers, I tried my best to steal all her heat.

The next morning, we woke up late by the village’s standards. Breakfast was ready within minutes. We had Chinese breakfast burritos. There were standard flour tortillas with egg, green pepper, and dried, roasted duck. The left over mushrooms and carrots were brought back out, but they didn’t make it into our first burritos. When they fixed my second burrito for me, it included the undesirable dishes, but I enjoyed breakfast anyway.

We went over to Crystal’s grandmother’s house after breakfast. Her house had brick walls, and the interior was wall papered with newspapers; The roof was made from woven sticks. In her courtyard area, crops were growing. She was glad to see us and pulled out her one frame of pictures to show us. It was a collage of dirt and water damaged pictures of her family. Sifting through the pictures, we got the story of part of their family tree.

Crystal’s great-grandfather was a member of Shang Kaishek’s army. There were five officers from their village in the army including Crystal’s great-grandfather. After the Communists took over, the other four officers and their families fled to Taiwan; Crystal’s great grandfather decided to stay in mainland China. He thought what he did was right and that the new government would respect his decision to stay. Communist troops came to the village and executed him. Supposedly, the other four families are very in Taiwan now. Crystal’s great-grandmother died giving birth to his grandfather, but his great-grandfather remarried. His grandfather’s stepmother also died young. His grandparents had three children: Crystal’s father and his two aunts. His grandfather died when Crystal was four. He only remembers crying at his funeral.

I asked Crystal if older people in the village didn’t like Chairman Mao because people in the village fought for the Nationalists. He said that some of them didn’t. I asked what Crystal thought of Chairman Mao. He told me that Mao was the right person to lead the war but wasn’t the right person to run the country, and the country would have been better off without the Cultural Revolution. I said that I couldn’t understand Chinese people’s admiration for Mao considering what happened during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. I commented that the type of government Mao fought against is how the Chinese government is run today. Crystal said that many injustices happen because there is no separation of the government, courts, and police. I asked why he chose to join the Communist Party since he had these criticisms of the government. He said joining the Party would be good for his future.

It was still very cold that morning, and sitting in the cold, shaded house didn’t help things. Crystal offered to show us his elementary school, and we were eager to get moving and get our blood flowing. His grandmother asked for us to stay and offered to start a fire, but we declined.

On the way over to the next village to see Crystal’s elementary school, some people had started a fire with corn stalks in the middle of the road. During the winter, there is no work to be done in the fields, so people just hang out and chat. Goats were grazing and standing on top of the dirt mound tombs in the fields. I ran around trying to pet the goats for a little while, but found out that they weren’t like the one’s in the petting zoo. They evaded me, and we continued on to the next village.

Along the way, Crystal said that mice would tear up the roots and eat the crops, so they want to get rid of them. When he and his friends were younger, they would catch mice and put beans in their butt to kill them. This would make them go crazy and kill all the other mice. Then the bean would grow and kill the mouse. Furthermore, he claimed that the mice holes in the field were very nice homes and complete with a bedroom, living room, and kitchen.

The next village over look almost exactly the same as Crystal’s. We just strolled right into school and had a look around. Class was still in session, and we peaked in to the detriment of classroom productivity. The school was built like a small motel. The two stories of classrooms opened to outdoor hallways. Crystal said that when he was in school, kids from different villages would fight each other. During school they would climb the trees in the courtyard of the school and read books. The teacher would slice watermelon and throw it to them in the tree.

A student popped out of one of the upstairs classrooms to ring the bell, and all the classes filed into the courtyard. Grace and I were surrounded by little eyes that had almost certainly never seen a white person before. I tried to chat with some of them, but they were too shy for that. A circle formed around me, and brave students dashed across through the circle as close as they could to me without being in danger of being eaten by the giant, white monster. I played along and lunged into the circle; smiling and screaming students scattered in a way that was not unlike chasing the goats. I captured one of the littlest ones and threw him over my shoulder. After a good spinning, he was released. The bell rang again, and the students filed back into their classes.

We returned to Crystal’s home for lunch. The two dead chickens that were hanging on the clothesline when we arrived had made their way into a stew with chopped carrots and what Crystal called white carrots. No part of the chicken was spared, so the stew was complete with bones, organs, two heads, and four feet. It was a test to guess what part of the chicken you were eating. It was a good stew and was my favorite meal that we had in the village.

We packed up our bags and started making our way back to town. Walking along to the bus stop, people peeked out of their houses to get one last look at us. Crystal decided that it would be better for us to take a motor tricycles into town rather than wait for the bus.

When we returned to town, we had discovered it was a market day. The city was swollen with people and stands selling everything from food and clothing to appliances and mopeds. We put our bags back into the beauty salon, and set out into town in search of train or bus tickets to Guilin for the next day.

One the way to the office that sold train tickets, we observed a curious event. A man was sitting on the back of a pickup truck and speaking on a microphone over the two large speakers that were behind him. In front of him, there were a few unopened boxes stacked on top of each other. People were crowded all around the truck holding up bills in their hands in denominations all the way to one hundred. After working the crowd, he opened the boxes and revealed the mystery product, shampoo. He began exchanging the shampoo for one hundred yuan bills that were raised in the air. More people came up and gave him money. This shampoo didn’t look very special. It was average in size and plainly packaged in a dull orange bottle. There wasn’t even English on the bottles. I asked Crystal what he was saying to get the people to buy the shampoo, but he couldn’t explain.

A trip to the train office revealed that there were no seat on the train from Luohe to Guilin the next day. The following trip to the bus station informed us that there was no direct route from Wuyang to Guilin. When we got back to the beauty salon, a customer there told us that there was a bus from Luohe to Guilin and called someone to confirm it.

Grace was offered a free facial from one of Crystal’s sisters. I later found out that this treatment consisted of putting different lotions on her face and getting her head and shoulders rubbed and beaten. In the meantime, Crystal said that since there were not enough places for us to sleep, the had gotten us a hotel room. I objected to them paying for it, but they refused to take my money. Crystal and I moved our bags over to the hotel, and Grace’s facial was finished when we returned. We went out to dinner and went to bed.

In the morning, we took baths at a bath house near our hotel. Afterwards, we hopped on a bus to Luohe to seek onward transportation.

  • Frank

    Hi. My name is Frank and I am living in the apartment you used to live in at HIT. We spoke once on the phone. I stumbled onto your blog when using the computer here. Nice read…I’m using it to get an idea about the students here and life in Harbin. You mentioned you played on a soccer team here. Who would I contact about playing with them? I played on my high school team. I’m out of practice, but you mentioned that it isn’t ultra competitive. If you could let me know who to talk to about this I would appreciate it. Thanks.