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

Chapter 11: TEMPLES AND SNAKES

The next day, Oliver took off early for Guilin, an eight-hour bus ride away. I decided to hang around for a day to see the Western Temple and the snake factory. Over breakfast of steamed bread huns I wrote a letter to Linda; 'China is changing so quickly!' I wrote. 'All the men carry beepers, all the women wear make-up now. And the food is fantastic.'

Then I went to the post office and realised China still had a long way to catch up in some areas. They may have put satellites into space, but the Chinese still can't or won't, put glue on the back of their stamps. Instead, at the post office you have to take your stamp and envelope to a tub of colourless goo paste that looks like mashed potato. Here you apply a few lumps ofguo with a chopstick and try smear the stamp Hat onto the envelope. No matter how hard you try, the corners of the stamp always curl up, stubbornly unstuck. Then you have to find the letterbox, which, confusingly, are painted the same green as rubbish bins.

Wuzhou

Back in the dim foyer of the hotel 1 leaned on the reception desk and waited for Cherry, who was to lake us up to the temple. I tried to read the Chinese text of her 'Good Service Award' hung on the wall. Underneath an unrecognisable black and white photo of her with a piled-up, lacquered hairstyle, the citation gave Cherry fulsome praise for her 'extraordinary efforts at welcoming guests' and her 'Lei Feng' spirit. (Lei Feng was the model worker who always put country and comrades before himself, and was held up hy the Party as a good example to all Chinese workers. He died trying ID salvage a telegraph pole from a swollen river.)

Cherry walked in with a rather un-Lei Feng-like swagger, and I wondered if that citation took into account her money-changing and other dodgy activities. She laughed off my doubts and we set off up through the steep narrow streets, towards the Western Buddhist temple. Cherry seemed to know everyone on the way: a policeman tinkering under his car bonnet, some old men selling stamps and Mao badges in the town square, and the young lad taking his dog for a walk.

Wuzhou

As we climbed higher, through a park, we left behind the hubbub of the town and edged along a narrow path beside small houses clinging to the hillside. The temple was perched on the top of the hill with a southward view over town and river. It was as pleasant as I remembered: yellow walls, red pillars, a green tiled roof, and a complement of grey-cloaked nuns who looked just like their Lantau Island counterparts. We stayed for lunch, which was a delicious series of vegetarian dishes served up by the serene-faced nuns: mushrooms and silvery noodles and exquisite green vegetables, all washed down with pots of Chinese tea. The nuns had a gentle, quirky spirit that contrasted greatly with the wheeling and dealing spivvyness down in the town.

Cherry then asked for our help: could we think of a suitable English name for her new pupil who was learning English? His Chinese name was Yee Han. Easy, we said, call him lan. 'But that doesn't begin with a Y', said Cherry. The name had to begin with a Y. We were stumped. Yasmin? Yolanda? Yehudi? Eventually we settled on Johanne, without telling Cherry it began with a J. She seemed happy.

'How about you try some snake for dinner tonight?' she asked. When we agreed, she led us hack down the hill to the animal market in a side street, looking for a snake. There were all kinds of live species on display: hawks and owls, puppies and kittens, rabbits, small deer, musk rats and leathery armadillos. We stared at the animals in their baskets while a crowd of Chinese gathered round and stared at us. Meanwhile, Cherry was bargaining to buy a snake to take to the restaurant, but the price of 35rmb proved too much. Never mind, we -said, we'll go to the snake factory instead.

Wuzhou was famous for its snake depository- where snakes were accumulated from the surrounding hills and processed into health tonics such as the popular 'Three Snake Wine'. An old Chinese story tells of a cripple who made a remarkable recovery after he drank from a pitcher of wine into which a snake bad fallen. The belief in the health-restoring properties of snake ingredients has persisted, and the Chinese have widespread uses for items such as snake bile extract in home remedies. It was at the snake factory that I got my first taste of China's double-pricing system. Admission was 2.5rmb for locals, lOrmb for foreigners. The official explanation for this two-tier pricing system, which applies to parks, museums, railway and airline tickets and hotels, is that these ventures are government subsidised for Chinese citizens. The reality is simply a case of charging what the market can stand. I felt a twinge of indignation as I coughed up my 'foreign guest' price, and wondered how a Chinese tourist would react if he turned up at Big Ben in London to be told; 'Sony ^ir. £1.50 for British, £5 for foreigners,'

Wuzhou

For our l10mb we were shown a badly-edited video of a rabbit being eaten alive by a snake. Then we were invited to buy souvenir snake products: shoes and handbags, snake wine and a range of medicines. Most Chinese museums and exhibitions were to prove the same: dedicated to business rather than enlightenment. Just when I was beginning to think it was all a bit of a swizz, we were led out lu a vvni Jiou,su full of crates of snakes. An anonymous-looking woman, wearing the sleevelets so popular among Chinese service workers, lined us up in front of some wire baskets labelled with the names of various deadly snakes: Banded Kraits, Vipers, Pythons and Boas. Gloveless, and armed only with a metal rod, she proceeded to lift out a hissing example of each snake, pinching them by the peck to expose their fangs as she gave a running commentary in a bored monotone.

Cherry gave an intermittent translation: 'This is ihe many-banded krait. il is the most potion (sic) snake in Chm;i. Good for digestion and skin problem-s.' Her grand finale was an eight-fool lung boa Constrictor, which we were encouraged to wrap around our necks. The snake felt cold and dry, like a car seat, and had well-worn hard spots on the back of its head from being handled too much. That night, we made Cherry lose face. We asked her to take us to a good restaurant, but she took us to a dull, expensive place, presumably to get a kickback from the owner. The exterior of the restaurant was gaudy pink and green neon, hut inside it was empty.

Wuzhou

We were ushered up a back staircase into a private room with bare walls and no windows It was like a cell. Apparently these places were popular among Chinese, perhaps because they lived cheek by jowl 24 hours a day, but we westerners wanted a more earthy Chinese eating experience. We sat around the table looking glum, too meek to express our disappointment, until Roy, A Canadian-Chinese who had just joined us, jumped up and protested.

'Fuck this, man. 1 don't like eating where I can't see what they're cooking. I'm going to eat out on the street.' And with that, he made for the door. The rest of us hummed and hawed, not wanting to embarrass Cherry, but in the end we were glad to troop back out into the bustle of the street. Round the corner we found just what we wanted: a few stools and tables set up on the pavement next to a roaring wok stove and a platter of uncooked meat and vegetables.

We let Roy choose. He was hardly Chinese at all: a real estate salesman from Vancouver who spoke barely a word of Cantonese, let alone Mandarin. As the night wore on and the number of empty Tsingtao bottles on the table multiplied, he got really worked up about the Quebec issue. I goaded him on, not out of support for French Canadians, but just to see what Canadians felt passionate about.

'The rest of Canada has been propping up Quebec for too long, man,' he moaned. 'So why don't you let them become independent?', I asked. 'No way! They're not entitled to split up the country! They should learn to be good Canadians,' he said. Eventually he got so annoyed I thought he was going to hit me- it was after midnight when we walked back to the hotel, and the street stalls were still trading.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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