They do keep on treating us extraordinarily well.
On Sunday Jane, who you may recall is our Foreign Affairs Officer, had offered to take the three of us - me, Mike and Erika, out to the Yellow River for a day in the country. Her official duties are just to make sure that we have no bureaucratic problems and she has no obligation to do this sort of thing, it's just the kind of person she is.
I'd envisioned a bus ride out somewhere, with the four of us going to look at the river and the three of us agreeing that it was very pretty and a nice place for a walk. The reality was somewhat more elaborate.
We met near the supermarket at 8:30 and found that Jane was accompanied by her son, Richard, who is proabably somewhere in his twenties and speaks very good English. We strolled down towards the bus station where we met several other people, all apparently coming with us. There was the English teacher, Aaron and his daughter who is in one of my classes. There were two of here friends from Erika's school. There was Mister Zhou, the computer guy who had set up my internet access. And his wife. And their infant son. So, all together, we had a party of twelve.
We weren't, apparently, going by bus. Instead they negotiated for taxis.
One of the peculiarities of listening to people speak Chinese is that it's very hard to tell if they are having a friendly conversation or an intimate conversation or an angry exchange of words. The negotions that went on were, to my ear at least, spirited to say the least, but ended with us in three taxis.
I was with Aaron and his daughter and passed the time discussing the intricacies of Chinese Chess versus Internationa Chess. Given that I am an indifferent player of the latter and have played exactly one game of the former, it was a conversation based on vague theoretical generalities rather than actual knowledge.
After about twenty minutes he announced that we were approaching the new bridge that has recently been completed. It was, he said, very beautiful. Well it was certainly a bridge - one end resting on one side of the river and the other end on the other side - and it was certainly new - they were still building sections of the approach road. As for beautiful... well aesthetics are, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. It was flat, grey and constructed entirely from reinforced concrete. It did the job but it didn't look all that beautiful to me.
We stopped on the bridge and took some photographs of the river and of the end of an island in the river.
The island is important. Don't forget about it.
Over the bridge we drove through a grim and grey small town, perhaps fifty assorted buildings, and then turned onto a lesser road. This took us into agricultural territory, though here and there were villages of a dozen houses or clusters of ramshackle farm buildings. After a couple of minutes the road improved and above it red lanterns were hung for perhaps half a mile. We turned in through a gate and found ourselves at a reasonably sized orchard - though vineyard might be an equally appropriate word. The three main crops on offer were grapes, plums and pears. It was clearly a show farm for visitors. Several buildings had been fitted out as rooms for hire and there was a large outdoor eating area.
We looked around the operation, tasted the fruit - the pears were especially good: crisp, white and juicy - and took photographs. Away in a corner of the orchard there was a row of adult sized exercise equipment. You see this all over the place in the cities. It looks like kids' playground equipment but in grown up sizes and there are about half a dozen different types. In the city I'm too embarrassed by the crowd I'd attract to play, but here we all had a go and great fun it was too.
When we had had sufficient exercise we went down to the river. The walk was a bit muddy and there was quite a lot of rubbish but down by the river was grassy and pleasant. At this point it runs through a flood plain and there were high walls on our side but the opposite side had no protection. A flood would wipe out all the crops on that bank in minutes.
We strolled back, pausing only to take a picture of a snake sunbathing on the steps, and found that lunch was served. And it was another typical Chinese lunch. DIsha after delicious dish - rice noodles, steamed fish, fried pork, a thick chicken and vegetable soup, potato noodles, fried potatoes. It just kept on coming.
When we were all full it would, normally in China, be time for a nap. Today it was time for a post-prandial route march.
It began easily enough with a walk down to the ferry. Ten minutes ambling. We passed a school and it crossed my mind that I wouldn't have wanted to be working stuck out here. The ferry was a flat bottomed boat powered by a tractor engine and it took us across. I assumed that the taxis waiting were for us but I was wrong.
We were, led by Aaron, about to go to find the island.
He set off confidently along the road. Some of the confidence vanished as we reached a junction. More vanished when, twenty yards down our chosen route he realised it was wrong and led us back and down the other direction. It dead-ended at a swamp. There was a bridge a little further down but a large metal fence blocked it from the far bank. There was a pipeline that could at a pinch have been tightrope-walked (though the international sign told us it would be breaking the law.) We followed a scrubby path along the edge of the marsh to a road.
Ah, I thought, a road!
It was not to be. Twenty feet along it we went back onto another scrubby path that we hoped was on the other side of the marsh. It wasn't. It led through a rubbish dump right into the middle of the marsh. We stopped, bewildered.
Fortunately a local came by and after a brief chat with Jane showed us a safe stepping stone path onto the opposite side where we found another road. And ignored another road, plunging into a path through a corn field. The same happened at the next road but then we came to the river and there was the island, joined to the bank by a pontoon bridge of oil drums, planks and steel cables. We crossed.
By now there wasn't a lot of time left to explore. Erika in particular needed to get back to Baiyin for five, having accepted a dinner invitation. We had some time though. There is a lot of building going on on the island where several new Buddhist temples are under construction. Only one is close to completion. We went and looked at it and it was an odd combination of modern grey concrete with typical traditional Buddhist design. It was clearly a working temple and we were invites in to look around. It was interesting to see that Buddhism is now, apparently, being actively encouraged in China. It wasn't the case when I first came here more than twenty years ago.
We spent a few minutes down on the stony beach then headed back to the bridge and the main road where pre-booked taxis were waiting to take us back to Baiyin.
It had been an excellent day out, even if it had been rather different to the way I had imagined it.
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