This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The fortunes of my wife's family have mirrored China's ups and downs over the past forty years. They suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution, but now they are quietly prospering in the 'more open China'. Mr Fu is the chief engineer in a Guilin factory, and will retire next year. He is a small, stubborn-looking man with grey hair and a sarcastic sense of humour. Mrs Fu is a retired teacher who retains the kind-but-strict demeanour of her classroom days. She is a big woman by Chinese standards, hut has the suppleness of someone who practises tai chi every morning. In the usual Chinese way she still goes by her maiden name, Chen.


The Fus have five daughters and two sons- Mrs Fu's first husband was a PLA officer during the liberation years, and later became a school administrator. During the Cultural Revolution he was labelled a 'rightist' and put in prison, where he died in 1970. Mrs Fu was then left to bring up five children on her own. Shortly afterwards, while working in a factory in Liuzhou she met the present Mr Fu, who had also lost his wife. The factory authorities refused Mr Fu permission to marry a woman with such a 'black' background, and sacked him when he did.

The Fus returned to Guilin, taking Mr Fu's two children with them. Mrs Fu does not like to talk about the past. She cries every time she talks about what happened during the Cultural Revolution. But their story is not exceptional in China: almost every family will have a similar story of separation, 'class struggle' and punishment.

There were five Fu sisters, all beautiful. First sister was nearly forty, and worked in a hotel out of town. During the Cultural Revolution she was a Red Guard and became a fanatical follower or Mao. Afterwards, when Mao worship was deemed a mistake, she felt confused and deceived. and turned to Christianity for solace. Second sister was in her mid-thirties and-worked as a tour organiser for a Guilin hotel. She was married to Xiao Qing, a computer technician who ran a chain of amusement arcades, and they had a six-year-old son. Fu Bo.

They lived in a modern apartment in the centre of Guilin. and thus it was with Second Sister that I lodged with when visiting Guilin. Second sister had a serene, confident smile, and it was hard to believe she had been sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, to labour in the fields, an experience that made all her hair fall out (- it has since grown back).

Older brother was the fatty of the family. In his thirties, he worked for the tax department and had a baby daughter. Third sister, Mei, was glamorous and well-dressed. She had trained as an architect and now worked for the local government housing department. She was married to Ha Tong, another architect who now helps Xiao Qing with his business. When she was at school. Third sister became proficient in 'wu shu' the original form of kung fu.

Fourth sister was Mr Fu's daughter from his first marriage. She worked in a Guilin hotel, but didn't get on well with the mother's side of the family, and was seldom seen around the house.

Youngest brother, Fu Liang, was twenty. He used to be a bit of a hoodlum when he first left school, hanging around with gangs and getting into fights. Now he was a sharp young operator for Xiao Qing's growing business.

On my second day in Guilin 1 went to stay at Second Sister's place: an apartment on the top floor of a high-rise ('tofu block') near the railway station. Second Sister and Xiao Qing were well-off by Chinese standards, with a well-furnished apartment they had bought themselves. From the outside, the high-rise building with its big number painted on the side, looked as grim as any residential block in a communist country: the surroundings were drab, muddy and littered with piles of rubble as if the building were still unfinished. But inside, the apartments were pleasantly cosy.


The apartment, like most in China, was locked up like a secure prison. The open balconies and stairwells were protected by welded iron cages, and the solid door was reinforced with a sliding metal frame and two heavy locks. When I arrived, the door was opened for me by the family servant, and after removing my shoes, I was welcomed in the usual Chinese way: no hugs or touching, just smiles and; 'Have you eaten yet?' The men of the family were all away on business in Guangzhou, and only Second Sister was at home, with mother helping to look after Fu Bo.

The live-in servant was helping to tidy up. She was a country girl from near Yangshuo, who lived and ate as part of the family but never joined in conversations. Second Sister was lucky to have such a nice apartment with all the latest gadgets: video, colour TV, CD player, phone, and an automatic boiled water flask to top up our endless glasses of tea.

The kitchen was a simple tiled room with a sink and a couple of gas rings. There was little food in the larder, everything being bought fresh each day. The bathroom (squat type of course) had a hot water hose for a shower (the Chinese shower at night, before going to bed, never in the morning).

The bedrooms had hard beds with silk covers and balconies with washing hung out to dry. They had a good view of the river and the overcast centre of Guiiin - and all the sounds of Chinese collective living floated up from below: caged birds singing, doors slamming. Canto-pop and traditional Chinese music mixed together, and someone shouting up for keys to be thrown down. And throughout the daytime there was the echo of children's shrieks from the primary school opposite.

Once I had settled down with a glass of steaming green tea, everyone wanted the latest news of Youngest Sister in New Zealand. 'Has she got her driving licence yet?, asked Second Sister. 'Is she going to start her own business?', her mother asked. 'How is her bad back, has she been 10 see a doctor?' asked Third Sister.


We sat around as the servant prepared lunch, catching up with news of the family and comparing life in New Zealand and China. Mr Fu turned up, having caught the factory bus into town. His factory, like many in China, was a self-contained unit that provided most of the basic services for its workers: accommodation, shops, restaurants, clinics and even a cinema. The only problem, as Mr Fu told me, was it was losing money hand over fist, and the government was no longer prepared to prop-up old, unprofitable state enterprises like his.

'Business is not good', he said. 'Nobody wants our products any more. The quality is not high and we cannot compete with the foreign joint ventures in Guangdong. We need some foreign investment to keep us going.' He used the word 'touzi' (investment) I was to hear so much of in China. 'I'm glad I'm retiring next year, to get away from it all', he said. 'How will you survive after you retire? Where will you live?', I asked. 'We'll stay on at the factory, and I will have my pension. I'm looking forward to retirement; I'll be able to do a bit of travelling, look after the grandchildren...'

'What about you, Mrs Fu, are you enjoying retirement?' I asked. 'Oh yes, I'm always busy. There's plenty to do around the house and coming over here to look after Fu Bo. And next year when I've got more free time Fm going to start my own business, selling Guilin noodles in Guangzhou.'

For the Chinese, business was life. I thought. I tried to explain that my parents, in their retirement, enjoyed gardening, going ;>n coach holidays to Scotland and tracing the family tree, but Mr and Mrs Fu didn't seem to understand. Then. when I mentioned that my parents were helping my brother and sister to set up their own homes, they nodded encouragingly.

'And what about you? Don't your parents worry about you?', they asked. 'A bit, but they know I can look after myself.' The Fus shook their heads in admonishment, but said nothing. When I explained my plans to go walking and cycling in Yunnan province, none of them could see the point.

'Why don't you go to Jiuzhaiguu. That has beautiful scenery', said Second Sister. Yes, I knew, I had been there. The streams were choked with plastic bottles and the paths worn bare by the thousands of visitors each day.

'I want to go somewhere where no other westerners have been', I said . 'You should be careful on the roads, especially on a bicycle,' said Mr Fu. 'There are all kinds of had people about these days and the roads in the country areas are not sate. You shouldn't go on your own.' But it couldn't be that bad, I thought.

After a simple lunch of 'jiaozi' (dumplings), I walked to the post office to phone home. I trudged through the muddy streets in the rain and felt miserable because of the bad chest cold I had picked up. This happened every time I came to China; and seemed to be an endemic condition, judging by the number of greenies underfoot.

Making an overseas phone call wasn't easy. It meant queuing for 20 minutes, paying a 200rmb deposit and then being cut off five minutes into my call. 'Your time's up,' said the clerk, tapping on the glass of the booth. That was £20 in English money.

On the way back, I stopped off at one of the flash hotels to pick up a China Daily newspaper: the only source of news in English within China. Reading the flimsy pages in the "Orient Express' coffee bar, I found a story about pirated copies of luxury Beijing Jeeps. The culprits could not be traced. How could you not track down a car factory producing bogus Jeeps, I wondered?

The main headline in the paper read: "China Paves the Way for Smooth Transition in Hong Kong'. Reading further. I discovered that this meant China would abolish any democratically-elected bodies after 1997.

Back at the apartment, the Fu family had no sooner finished tidying up from lunch than they were starting to prepare dinner. Mrs Fu went out to buy some vegetables from the nearby street market, so I was left alone with Fu Bo, playing with his Gamehoy. At six years old, he was a typical 'Little Emperor', the spoiled product of the one-child family policy. His grandparents doted on him and his parents seldom raised their voices against his tempestuous behaviour. I never saw him smacked or manhandled by anyone.

When it was time for dinner, the servant tried to take the Gameboy away from him. 'Come on, wash your hands,' she said. 'No!' he snapped, bossily. Ten minutes later, after a 'yes-you-will/no-I-won't' verbal contest, Fu Bo stormed off in a tantrum, slamming the bedroom door behind him. Everybody smiled. His mother tapped on the door and spoke softly to Fu Bo, trying to wheedle him out. But he wouldn't come. If it was my kid, I thought, he wouldn't get off so easily.

Eventually, Fu Bo slunk out and shamelessly resumed his electronic game. His mother pestered him half-heartedly to join the table, but he ignored her until he had proved his point, then came over to eat his rice This was my seventh visit to the Fu family and I had got used to the food by now. In the early days, I couldn't eat it: the meat was all bone and gristle, the vegetables sour and peppery and the watery soups had globules of yellow fat floating in them. But now I liked it. One of the first things I had learned was when the Chinese said 'Eat slowly' they meant it. I had made the mistake of wolfing down my food, only to end up feeling full and stupid after 10 minutes as the rest of the family.

I continued to pick away at the food for the next half hour. Mrs Fu would urge me to eat more: 'You're so thin!', to which I would protest weakly that I really was full, and wasn't just being polite. I also learned it was bad manners to eat quietly. The loud sucking and burping noises were all signs that they were enjoying the meal, and the Chinese siurped their hot soup, rather than blow it, to cool it.

After my first, awkward visit, the Fu's took pity on me and concentrated on the dishes they knew I liked: simple fried pork or chicken with green peppers. The more exotic pickles and fat dishes they saved for themselves. My guidebook said Guilin food was basically Cantonese, but it didn't resemble anything I had ever come across in Hong Kong or British Chinese restaurants. A typical dinner would consist of five or six dishes placed in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves to. Usually there would be a pork chop and cabbage soup to whet the palate before the first bowl of rice.

Then there would be plates of boiled green vegetables (qingcai'), snails in soy sauce, fried peanuts, ginger, fatty sausages like German bratwurst, stir-fried chicken with chillies, sweet chestnuts and more soup to finish with. Breakfast would invariably be a bowl of steamed rice topped with a few pieces of ginger. Occasionally I would be given flat rice noodles in soup.

Seeing that I didn't quite thrive on these (They once caught me going into a bakery soon after breakfast), Second Sister started to provide what she thought was a western breakfast: two fried eggs and a piece of sickly-sweet white bread. This was a refreshing change the first morning it appeared, but when it became the staple breakfast I began to plot another sneak visit to the bakery.

Fortunately, they also discovered that I liked Rice Krispies. Their home-made version was served in a thin brown vegetable soup, to be slurped and shovelled down with chopsticks. My other treat was a piping hot glass of re-constituted milk powder.

On my second day in Guilin, I woke to the sound of a wonky brass band playing. Across the road at the junior school, the pupils were lined up in identical green track suits, saluting with clenched fists as the red flag was raised over the schoolyard. Over breakfast, I told Second Sister I wanted to fly to Kunming and Xisuanhanna as soon as possible. Normally it would he two or three days to get a flight, but Second Sister had contacts. 'Don't worry. I know someone who works for the airline', she said.

And sure enough, later the same day she presented me with air tickets valid for the following day. It was useful 10 have connections in China The rest of the day we spent visiting Mr Fu's factory, out in the countryside, among the karst peaks and paddy fields. On the way, the taxi driver cheated us, dropping us off at the outskirts of town, knowing that he wouldn't get a return fare from an obscure factory in the countryside. Second Sister swore at him cooly as we piled into another taxi.

The Fu's apartment at the factory was more modest than their daughter's city apartment. It had bare tile floors, a simple trestle table and a flimsy wooden door (there was nothing worth stealing). Out hack they kept a few chickens and rabbits in cages. Mrs Fu came out of the kitchen to greet us, holding up a cellophane-wrapped basket tied with a pink gift ribbon. 'Michael! I've bought a special treat for your lunch. Guess what?' 'No idea', I said. 'Dog meat! Very expensive, almost 35rmb!', she said. It tasted tangy, a tough dark meat with a slightly rank flavour, I ate just enough to be polite.

After lunch, Mr Fu gave me the seat of honour and bowl of steamed peanuts, and we settled down to watch TV. There was a drama on about air force doctors trying to save the life of a lovesick waif who had lost the will to live. The programme was full of melodramatic slow-motion shots of surgeons putting on their masks, and doctors bursting through doors. After her operation, the young women was carried piggyback by the doctors back to her ward, a drip still in her arm. Then she escaped and was eventually tracked down huddling in a snowy car park after a tearful woman DJ had broadcast her sad story to the masses.

The other channel was showing the usual re-run of a film about the great battles of the liberation. Mr Fu must have been feeling bored too. He started asking me about house prices in Britain, and didn't hat an eyelid when I told him the average price of a London house. The going rate for a 100 square metre apartment in Guilin was 200,000 rmb (£20,000), he said. But Guangzhou was much more expensive.

Chinese people could now buy their own houses, he said, but there were restrictions on their re-sale: basically, they could only be passed on to other family members or people in the same work unit.

On my last day in Guilin before I was due to fly out to Kunmimg, Mrs Fu took me out shopping for a few last-minute essentials. The Chinese are said to have respect for the elderly, but I didn't notice much of this in the way the crowds elbowed her in the department store, nor in the rude, offhand manner of the cashiers. I also made the mistake of complaining about my chesty cough.

As soon as we got home, Mrs Fu was spooning traditional Chinese remedies down my throat. There were three separate concoctions: one thick syrup containing snake bile and shellfish extract, another malty liquid made from orange peel, and a sticky liqueur from Hong Kong. And there was more: Mrs Fu was soon on the phone to Third Sister, Mei, who arrived shortly afterwards with a fistful of different coloured capsules. They forced all these medications onto me as I packed my bags.


There was a last-minute dinner before I went out to the airport: the Chinese would rather miss their flight than their food. An hour before the plane was due to take off, Mrs Fu was still in the kitchen with a sizzling wok, and scolding the servant: 'Add some more soy sauce, the flavour's not right yet!' Half way through the meal they took note of my anxious clock-watching and suddenly jumped up, to rush me to the airport bus.

As I boarded and said my farewells, Third Sister pressed a package on me. 'Just one more thing, Michael. This is some traditional walnut medicine for your cold. Don't forget to take it, will you?', she said. And with that, I was off to Kunming.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.