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The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Street badminton Jinan China

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“Oh wow!” cried S, as the door swung open to our suite. The first thing we saw was the king-size bed, a vessel of a thing set between a pair of elegant side tables. Dropping onto the mattress with a wide smile, I sank into a pile of pillows and cushions. There was a basket on one of the tables overflowing with shampoo, creams and gels. Directly opposite the bed was a flat screen TV, set atop a wide chest of dark wood. Elsewhere, the marble bathroom boasted a sizeable shower and bath, two fluffy towels hanging invitingly from a pair of sparkling hooks.

“Not bad…” I said, fishing a hairdryer out of a drawer. “How much was this place again?”

Our nightly rate at The Green Tree Inn worked out at an almost laughable fifteen Euros a night. Having slummed it somewhat in both Beijing and Tianjin, we’d decided to treat ourselves for our stay in Jinan. Looking back, the hotel was hardly palatial. But at the time, it felt as if we’d just booked ourselves into The Park Hyatt. 

The Green Tree Inn Jinan Shandong province China

The Green Tree Inn, Jinan.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

I knew little about Jinan, other than it was the capital of Shandong Province and home to just under five million people. From what I’d read online, it was a city foreign travellers did not hold in high regard. “Don’t bother!” came the recurring online advice. “Ugly city” stated one, “industrial eyesore!” claimed another. Right enough, the only reason we’d come to Jinan was to use it as a base from which to visit the isolated, ancient stone village of Zhujiayu.

In fact, from our entire cross-country itinerary, nothing had captured our imagination quite as much as the prospect of Zhujiayu. Located eighty kilometres from Jinan, we’d been left spellbound by descriptions of a time machine locale with crumbling walls, clicking grasshoppers, a hillside temple and just two hundred residents. To say we were very excited would be an understatement.

The City and the Village Part I a short story from China.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Despite our generally low expectations and overriding sense of apathy, we nevertheless resolved to give Jinan a fair crack of the whip. Hence we wasted no time that first day, heading straight out into the noisy, traffic-infested metropolis. 

Visit Jinan China.

Jinan, China.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Almost instantly we found ourselves swallowed up on a main road with teeming pedestrians and noisy construction grids. As we would quickly learn, the sound of drilling and cement mixing was never far away in Jinan. Consequently, we found ourselves changing up our walking route in order to get away from it. Here and there, the pavement petered out altogether, forcing us into the road alongside honking vehicles. “FFS!” I cried, as a gargantuan truck roared by, a tornado of dust enveloping us in its wake.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Eventually, we came across a calmer, residential street packed with shops and restaurants. We’d just stopped to consult our map when a trendy young Chinese woman approached us with a “Hi, can I help you guys?” She had a blue and white handbag slung over her shoulder and wore a grey T-shirt with the slogan: Watch my eyes because.

“Ohhhh, I love England!” she grinned. 

“I studied in Sheffield for a year, the accent there is crazy! Do you know Richard Hawley? We stood chatting for a bit, before she pointed us in the direction of a nearby network of market streets. “Say hi to Richard!” she laughed as we parted. “See you again sometime… maybe on Coles Corner! Ha ha”. 

Local girl Jinan Shandong province China

“Do you know Richard Hawley?”

At the market we soon fell prey to a dizzying array of tantalising aromas. There were food stalls everywhere and the place was bustling, so much so we hardly knew where to look. Our first stop took in some mini chicken kebabs, cooked up right in front of us on a charcoal grill. Moreover, we stopped by another stall for a plate of Chinese dumplings (jiaozi) dipped in vinegar. Everything was delicious and impossibly cheap.

The City and the Village Part I a short story from China.

A sublime plate of tangy, Jinan style Chinese dumplings.

As we tackled the dumplings, I noticed a loved-up Chinese couple sat across from us, a few tables away. They were staring into each other’s eyes, their hands interlocked, a cluster of piping hot dishes set between them. “Aw!” sighed S, as the guy leaned over to give his sweetheart a kiss. He then proceeded to whisper sweet nothings into her ear, while she giggled. Then, he caught a chunk of fried eggplant between his chopsticks and fed it to her. It was an admittedly mesmerising scene.

The City and the Village Part I a short story from China.

Until, quite suddenly, the man began snorting. A long, chest-rattling, coffee-machine cacophony of unpleasantness. And then… boom… he spat his offensive load right onto the ground to the side of their feet. His darling didn’t even blink! As if nothing had happened, they returned to their state of unencumbered romance. We, on the other hand, were done with our dumplings. It was time to move on.

The City and the Village Part I a short story from China.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

The afternoon light had begun to fade by the time we left the market. Soon after, we arrived at a giant park, where Jinan’s pretty young things go to walk their Shi Tzus and Chihuahuas. In a shaded corner, under some towering trees, we stopped to watch a group of old ladies slow-dancing to the funereal tones of traditional music blaring out of an old CD Player. Exiting the park onto a quiet side street, we approached a middle-aged couple playing badminton outside an immense apartment block. The absence of an actual net in no way dampening the fun.

“Ni hao!” cried the wife, jogging over to us.

Her arm outstretched, racket extended, she invited me to play her husband, who looked on hopefully, tapping his racket against the side of his trainers. It was only then that I noticed he was wearing a retro England football shirt! We played for about twenty minutes, while S and Mrs. Badminton provided encouragement from the steps of their home. It was a priceless experience, the lady squealing excitedly during our more competitive rallies.

The man took it all very seriously, punching the air whenever he won a point. That said, he was also magnanimous enough to applaud me on the occasions I got the better of him. Exchanging goodbyes, I remember feeling so happy that we’d taken the time to explore Jinan. That we hadn’t bypassed it like everyone had advised.

Street badminton Jinan China

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Following a fantastic night’s rest at The Green Tree Inn, we grabbed a couple of coffees and headed out to Jinan’s grimy bus station. On arrival, there was much confusion as to which vehicle we needed for the trip to Zhujiayu. Furthermore, my woeful attempts at pronouncing our destination (“Jew-zia-ooh”) only added to the chaos. In the end, we were ushered onto a precarious hunk of scrap metal, where we took our seats among a handful of locals.

As we pulled out of the station, I crossed my fingers that the bus would make it there in one piece. The first part of the drive lasted about forty minutes, coming to an end at the remote and depressing Mingshui Bus Station. From there we changed buses and it was a further forty minutes onto the village itself. For the most part, the drive was not a picturesque one. However, as we closed in on the village, the industrial landscape finally gave way to deep green fields and muddy country lanes.


The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

By the time we’d been dropped off at the edge of Zhujiayu, it was raining and the sky had broken into a sheet of impenetrable grey. A short distance ahead, a crumbling stone archway marked the entrance to the village.

From under the arch, I picked out a rapid explosion of activity. Closing in, I saw three old ladies jump up, eagerly awaiting our arrival. One of them had a bunch of umbrellas cradled in her bony arms. As we entered the archway, Umbrella Woman literally attackedpushing her goods into my chest and shrieking indecipherable pronouncements into my face.

Entrance Zhujiayu Village Shandong province China

The archway women, preparing for attack.

Meanwhile, the other two women tackled S. Each of them shaking a booklet of faded old tickets at her, wailing over each other in high-pitched tones. Bùyào!” (don’t want!) she stated firmly, spinning on her heels. “There’s a ticket office over there,” I called. 

“But it’s closed! I don’t think they’re gonna let us in without paying something”.

The rain was getting heavier now, the ground beyond the archway already starting to flood. The three women were making so much damn noise I knew we had to end this quickly. For the sake of my sanity if nothing else. So I paid one of them a small fee for two of her grubby tickets.

She seemed pleased with this. But then a fight broke out between her and the other ticket lady, who was furious at having been left out of the deal. She was now demanding half the spoils, their argument rapidly spiralling out of control. Luckily for us, Umbrella Witch stepped in to try and break it up and we took the opportunity to escape.

Zhujiayu Village Shandong Province China.

Zhujiayu Village, China.

We followed a single stone path into the village, the rain beating down on us. With no umbrellas and zero cover, we were soon soaking wet. The further we went, the worse it got. Traipsing through puddles and tiptoeing across several troughs of thick, evil mud wasn’t much fun. On the horizon, barely visible through the treetops, stood the rippling peaks of some faraway hills. On a sunny day it would have surely been beautiful. But this was not that day… not by a long shot.

“I need to stop… just for a few seconds!” puffed S.

Finding shelter under a tree, we paused, hands on hips, gazing at the path ahead winding ever upwards. “Look!” she cried, grabbing me by the arm. I spun around to see a woman plodding towards us, two bags of vegetables clutched in one hand, an umbrella held aloft in the other. She smiled as she came, a kind smile that I immediately had a good feeling about. Stopping before us, she asked me something in Chinese. Clocking our bemused reactions, she simply laughed and jabbed her hand into her mouth.

“Yes!!!” I cried happily, “Yes, food! Thank you! Xièxiè!

Zhujiayu Village China.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Shooting us another one of her smiles, she set off, motioning for us to follow. Occasionally looking back to check that we were ok, the woman led us up the path until it levelled out. Here, we followed a wider road alongside a decaying brick wall. Finally, a collection of stone houses came into view, each one accessible via a large, wooden door. 

She led us through one of the doors, under some hanging lanterns and into a sizeable courtyard where an old lady sat peeling onions. The courtyard was partially covered, thus we could sit down for a bit while she disappeared to prepare a pot of green tea. I immediately realised that this wasn’t a restaurant or a guesthouse, but simply the woman’s home. The old lady, I supposed, was her mother.

Zhujiayu Village China.

‘Somewhere’ in Zhujiayu. July 2009.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

Feeling reinvigorated by the tea, we accepted an invitation to tour the kitchen. It was really run down and, in all honesty, not the cleanest of spaces. There were shelves and shelves of fruit and vegetables, stored in various coloured baskets. A couple of skinned chickens dangled from rusty hooks on the ceiling, while a portable stove sat hooked up to one of the damp walls.

Our host urged us to simply point at what we wanted. So that’s what we did, trying to choose things that looked reasonably fresh. Thankfully, she also kept some meat in a small fridge, so we opted for some chicken too. With no idea what exactly she was going to do with this random mishmash of ingredients, we simply waited in an adjoining dining room while the two women prepared our meals. 

Kitchen Zhujiayu China.

Chicken, anyone?

Oh how I wish I’d grabbed a photo of that glorious Zhujiayu feast. First came a bowl of wok-fried green beans and chopped garlic, served in a pool of melted butter. The chicken arrived in a mountainous pile of thighs, breasts and feet. All doused in a sweet and spicy ginger sauce. There were also side bowls of white rice and fried mushrooms. For dessert, she treated us to a plate of pumpkin wedges dipped in sugar.

I simply couldn’t believe it when she told us the bill amounted to a negligent 50RMB! I can’t remember how much we gave her, but it definitely included a healthy tip. Our meal had taken longer than we’d anticipated. As a result, we only had an hour and a half until the last bus back to Jinan. Bidding our hosts a hasty goodbye, we trotted back out into the rain and hurried off to Kuixing Pavilion, Zhujiayu’s hilltop shrine.

Home restaurant Zhujiayu shandong province china

Our gracious Zhujiayu hosts.

The City and the Village Part I, a short story from China.

At the pavilion, a custodian was on hand to greet us. She was obviously surprised to see two foreigners rock up, excitably leading us up a wooden staircase to the pavilion bell. There, we carried out the time-honoured tradition of ringing the bell. Pulling back the heavy wooden log and thrusting it forward with gusto.

The custodian laughed and clapped as its victorious clanging echoed out, a sound that reverberated across the village. When we were done, she presented us with a bowl of so-called magic water. Following her instructions, we both rubbed the sides of the bowl with our hands, a custom which is said to give a blessing for life.

Kuixing Pavilion Zhujiayu Shandong province China

Injecting myself with good fortune at Kuixing Pavilion.

“I think we have to come back here!”

I panted, as we jogged back to the bus stop. “You know, see the place on a clear day, maybe even stay a few days. Thus we decided to book an extra night in Jinan and spend another day in the city before returning to Zhujiayu. “The bus is already there!” cried S. So we picked up the pace, jogging through the stone archway towards our ride home. Umbrella Bitch glowering at us both as we passed. 

‘The City and the Village Part I’ is the third part of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Mary Phillips

    While reading this I laughed outloud in two places. The scene you described which ended with the man spitting on the floor of the restaurant and the picture of the toilet. These experiences we also had in China!

    November 13, 2016 - 1:18 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Love how you depict the funny moments on your trip; I was smiling from some of them! The dumpling-couple scene was a good one, and I liked how you nicknamed the woman “Umbrella Witch.” It’s truly the people you encounter on your travels that make the trips so memorable, and I can’t wait to see what else you have in store for us!

    August 13, 2020 - 1:09 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Rebecca! The Zhujiayu experience was one of my favourites from that first year. I just wish I had better photos.

      August 13, 2020 - 9:14 am Reply

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