A couple of weeks ago I went with V down to Hubei to “register”. It’s a bit like getting married, except the wedding itself won’t be for a few years, so best think of it as an engagement.
Things didn’t start too well, they never do when you have to leave from Beijing West Station. Within a couple of minutes of arriving my phone had gone, presumed pickpocketed. We boarded the train at 9pm, along with V’s friend Kitty and her daughter. It wasn’t a bad ride down, but I didn’t get much sleep, and when we arrived in Wuhan the following morning I wasn’t exactly feeling ready to face the world. Wuhan didn’t seem to happy to meet me either. The first person I met was a guard who wouldn’t let me out of the station until I’d shown her my (lost, later found being used as a bookmark) ticket. It took an hour of arguing and sneaking around before we found another, unguarded exit. The next person we met was a taxi driver who tried to rip us off. By the time we saw Kitty off, spirits were understandably a little low.
After breakfast we stood in the freezing drizzle and tried to hail taxis for ten minutes. About five were hailed, stopped and were grabbed by luggage-free bystanders as we tried to get in, before finally we found one to take us to the registrations office. There we were informed politely that there was a stamp missing in V’s household register, and we needed to go to Ezhou (30km away) to get it sorted out, and also that the office was closing at 4.30pm and wouldn’t re-open for two days.
Fortunately at that moment everything started going very well indeed. The bus to Ezhou was just outside, the police station was easily found and unexpectedly helpful and the unregistered shared taxi back to Wuhan full of friendly, interesting people who thought our story was hilarious. We got back at 4pm, with just enough time free to pay our fee (about ten quid) and have our official photo taken. It’s not a terrible photo, but I still look about as tired as I was.
The officer had somehow gone from being a jobsworth bastard to our new best friend in our few hours away. He even stayed late at work to take photos for us.
We hung out in Wuhan for the night, staying with Kitty’s brother. We didn’t meet any more assholes. And the local breakfast was superb. We still got the next bus out, though. One day there was enough.
Our next stop was in Wuxue, another of V’s hometowns. This one was a lot smaller and friendlier, though. We arrived in the middle of a big meal at a local restaurant, where I had to get up and toast everyone at least once. It’s a good job I seem to have developed some resistance to rice wine.
Wuxue is very nice, but resembles a small-town-sized building site.
We spent our day there walking around in the sun, checking out the famous sites of V’s childhood.
The town is on the banks of the Yangtzee, but doesn’t offer any particularly good views. It’s a port of sorts, but a small one, dominated by a polluting medicine factory.
The main thing of note are the huge flood defenses, which strangely enough have houses on both sides of them.
From the top you get a pretty good view.
When she was seven or eight V’s headmaster decided that all the children at her school should run all the way along the flood wall every morning. V repeatedly refused to run and walked instead – “Why should I run? I didn’t have any breakfast! It’s stupid!” Here she is in front of her primary school, telling this story.
“Be a civilized citizen, build a civilized city.”
We were staying with Kitty’s parents, above their dental surgery. This is their new dalmatian, Xiaomi – “Mistress” – who was bought to breed with their other, huge dalmatian Diendien – “Spot”.
We went out for one last walk in the late afternoon, this time with Kitty.
The next morning we hung out in a cafe with her and her daughter while we waited for our bus. The tea here is actually more like mushroom soup.
…and so off to Huangmei, V’s 4th hometown. It’s even smaller than Wuxue. It was pretty hot by the time we got there, so we ate some sugar cane and hung out under an old pagoda.
Huangmei isn’t bad, but it really seemed like I was the first foreigner ever to visit. Some people stopped in their tracks, astonished to see me. It was a bit strange, but they were all nice really. Also, there was a river full of grass. You don’t get one of those everywhere.
The final stop on our journey was Jiujiang. It was the evening when we got there. V hasn’t liked the place since she went there aged 8 or so and went to the most disgusting toilet she’s seen in her life (this is really saying something in small-town rural China). We found it again, entirely unchanged. No, I didn’t take a photo.
While there was still a little light we went down to the lake. There were hundreds of little bats swooping around us, none of which are visible in these pictures.
Then it started to rain.
There was a string of outdoor restaurants nearby, so we had some fish bladders and water snails. V loved them, I wasn’t so keen.
And that was that, except it wasn’t. Our train left at half-past-midnight, and the understandable mistake we’d made was to buy a ticket for Saturday, instead of Sunday. The replacement wasn’t too expensive though, and no use crying over spilt milk and all that.
Lots of things went wrong, but it was a great trip anyway. The first of many, we hope. And it may be a good sign that when we got back to Beijing my phone was waiting for me, having been retrieved, with great difficulty by a colleague. But that’s another story.