Magnus Pole and I decided to stay up late and watch the Scotland Wales game. It proved to be an unwise decision. Yes, Scotland were several shades of crap, but every cloud has a silver lining, or in this case a tartan one. I’d heard rumours that deep in the bowels of Shanghai there existed a Scottish pub. Scavenging about we eventually found it just in time for kick off. We were pretty sure it was the correct place as the curtains were tartan and it was called the Tam O’ Shanter. However, the doors were locked. Banging on the glass, Magnus took control manfully only to be scared witless by a fat Scottish man yelling out the now slightly ajar door. “Who the hell do you think you are, banging on my bloody door?” He enquired politely. “We’re here to watch the Scotland game!” We growled back in our thickest twang. “Aye, not with those beers in your hands you bloody jakeys, now piss off!” We’d forgotten we had purchased some road sodas for the journey to the pub. Convincing the landlord that we’d dispose of the beers correctly and behave appropriately once within the premises took some doing, but eventually we were in. While watching the game the landlord told us various stories, usually with a racist or sexist punch line. We then spent the rest of the time swearing at the TV. Scotland lost and we went home in a drunken huff. Ah, home sweet home, how I miss you!
We spent Chinese New Year (which changes every year as it’s based on a lunar cycle, which sounds like a heavy duty washer setting) in one of the round houses I mentioned earlier. These round houses, we were to learn, were known as toulous by the the locals. And these locals, we were to learn, were known as the Hakka people. Now apart from having beautiful women, the Hakka people seemed largely very hospitable and a bit more relaxed than the rest of China. Their toulous were pretty incredible. The one we stayed in was about four storeys high with dozens of wooden rooms facing inwards on to a huge circular courtyard. The outside wall was made of packed mud, which sounds pretty basic, and it is, but some of these things have survived 800 years of attacks (by bandits, rival families and angry pandas), tropical storms and even major earthquakes. So there. To sleep in, however, they’re bloody cold.
Before hitting the hay (well in this case bed) we wandered to the nearby village to see what the locals were doing to celebrate their New Years Eve. Kids were setting off cheap fireworks everywhere. This seemed to be about it. Then a bloke invited us in to his house for some New Years dinner. His entire family joined us, including his insane 90 year old granny, who managed to digest the food despite having no teeth. We struggled to digest the food because it was awful. The local speciality here is beef balls. The trick though, is they taste nothing like beef and more like balls. Not that I know what balls taste like, but I think that now I have a rough idea. Trying to hide my gag reflex I did brighten up when the rice wine was produced, a family made variety that actually tasted great. But suddenly, as quick as it had started, it was over, with all the men becoming very drunk very quickly (seriously they need about two beers to get hammered), they left us at the table to go and play with fireworks. So we bid farewell to the 90 year-old snail women and headed off ourselves. On the way back to the ranch, one of the family approached us unsteadily. In mumbled chinese he tried to charge us 100 RMB each for the meal. This left a sour taste in our mouths (which admittedly tasted better than the balls). We ended up haggling with this drunk chancer and paid him half. Still, not really the spirit of New Year is it? Upon return to the toulou, we found everyone setting off explosives. It genuinely looked like a war. During the day there were ‘no smoking’ signs in the toulou as their insides are almost entirely made of wood. But here, grown men were laying hundreds of metres of bangers in giant fuse type arrangements and setting them off at both ends. I felt like a Guy Fawkes dummy. At about 9pm everyone looked bored though. It suddenly dawned on us all that this is essentially all they had to do for the whole night. Don’t get me wrong, fireworks are awesome and I almost blew my groin off by lighting one at the wrong end (an 8 year old kid had to help me) but they have a weeks holiday. For that? It was basically bonfire night in a round house. But there’s no cool fire, the council aren’t putting on a show so kids set off 20p death-trap bangers and the locals try to rip you off. I’d take the Stonehaven Fireballs any day!
I write this hunched over my laptop as my stomach feels like a wasp nest in a gale. Not sure I can blame the food I’ve been eating as it’s been exactly the same as my flatmate, for we’ve been travelling together the past week down south in Fujian. Not sure why we chose Fujian but it worked out well (just) and I’ve returned to wintry Shanghai with a healthy sun-kissed glow (road cone red).
It was a mixed bag of a week; we met the nicest people (some young guys invited us to their lunch in an ancient roundhouse) and the rudest people (a taxi driver tried to punch me after we refused to pay him his extortionate prices, the police and about thirty locals had to intervene). We climbed incredible mountains and got stuck in miserable arse-end of nowhere towns. But most of all, it was the ridiculous situations that dossing around China can get you in, that will stick in the memory.
We found ourselves in the scruffy town of Yong Ding, which we decided as a good a place as any to use as a base to go and see some round houses. Now the first thing about Yong Ding that struck home was how beautiful the women were. In amongst unpaved streets and smoke-bellowing food stands, gorgeous rural goddesses traipsed before us. It was like something out of a Greek myth. Attempting to buy a bus ticket to the nearest village with little/no success, I commented that wouldn’t it be nice if one the lovely local ladies came to our aid. Enter stage left, Sarah (at least that was her English name), an English teacher from Xiamen (pretty city on the coast) who within minutes had our tickets booked and then proceeded to organize us a driver for some further excursions to the more remote round houses. She even haggled and got us a fine bargain! Upon return to Yong Ding I phoned Sarah to see if there was anywhere worth going to eat. One hour later we were playing with fireworks with her and her husband (gutted) and then whisked off for some KTV with her extended family. It turns out her family were heavily imbued in the tobacco trade. Her father-in-law is the CEO of one of the biggest cigarette companies in China. He introduced himself as Scotland. Rolling my eyes at this lame attempt to make me feel at home, I was reassured that actually his real name was Scotland. Scotland turned out to be an absolute legend. He had laid out about 50 cans of beer for the evening’s singing, was forcing his brand of fags in everyone mouths and not before long we were dueting on ‘Country Roads’ while he introduced me to his nephew – “The Kung Fu master.” Said nephew then proved his strength by tearing cans in half and then proved his control by throwing vicious punches within inches of his unperturbed auntie. Scotland has an office in Shanghai and has promised to take me and my flatmate out for a drive in one of his sports cars when he heads north. I cannot wait.