Liuzhou Laowai

Random thoughts on life in Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

All Our Yesterdays

Well, some of my yesterdays actually.

A few days ago, it was International Women’s Day (March 8th). This is taken much more seriously here than in the UK, where I’d bet few people even know about it. It means more to me than you might assume given that I ain’t no woman.

On March 8th 1997, I travelled westwards from Changsha, capital of Hunan province, to the remote outpost of Huaihua, where I spent the next two years. Although I had been in China for a while, this was my first train experience. All 12 hours of it. Up till then, I’d flown. In fact I arrived in Changsha by plane from Xi’an.

I was in the hard sleeper section of the train and noticed something most peculiar. Quite disturbing in a way. I went for a long walk up and down the train seeking confirmation of my suspicions.

Yes, I seemed to be the only male on the train. I tried to intellectualise this phenomenon.

“Clearly, in China, only women use trains.”

Only later, did it fall into place. Many Changsha companies and government bureaux had block-booked acres of the train in order to send their women workers to Zhangjiajie (张家界) * for some Women’s Day relaxation. I was damned lucky to have managed a ticket at all.

Huaihua was, to be honest, a bit of a dump. Still is. Undeveloped, poor and backward. But the surrounding area was astonishing. Beautiful ancient towns and astonishing scenery. Squeezed up beside the border with Guizhou, it was ethnic minority territory. Almost everyone I knew was non-Han. Miao or Tujia people mostly.

My stomping ground 1997-1999

My stomping ground 1997-1999

Today, Fenghuang is a train wreck of a tourist trap. A classic example of how to take a place of ancient culture and interest and turn it into a gaudy, over-priced disaster zone. Back then, it was empty and beautiful. Today, it makes Disneyland look real.

Other places have survived.

Yuanling is home to one of the best bacons in the world, but is also a sleepy, lazy town with crumbling temples and better preserved houseboats. River town.

Yuanling Temple

Yuanling Temple, Hunan

Houseboat (and Shopboat)  - Yuanling, Hunan

Houseboat (and Shopboat) – Yuanling, Hunan

I was, they told me, the first foreigner ever to visit Mayang, where literally the whole town came out to welcome gawp at me. Jishou was a regular hangout – lots of tiny bars, long before bars became fashionable in China, and even a tiny Chairman Mao Temple. There were also insane moments in Loudi, playing “pooh sticks” and singing Monkees’ songs. Don’t ask.

The food was stunningly good, too. Hunan food remains my favourite. It was a wrench to leave Hunan in 1999, but I had my reasons. It was time to go. I headed south to Liuzhou for a year. All those years ago.

This sudden outbreak of nostalgia was triggered by a small gift which an old friend from Hunan sent to me and which I received yesterday. Hunan tea. Specifically, Anhua Black Tea (安化黑茶). This is grown and processed in the area shown in pink on the map above.

The tea is fermented then smoked with pine. Of course, this being China, it is reputed to have all sorts of health benefits. I just call it a nice cup of tea.

“Anhua Dark Tea”

Totally coincidentally, I also received this t-shirt yesterday as a gift from a Guangxi friend.


Now, I am old enough to have actually seen the Beatles. One of the more terrifying experiences of my life. To be sent a Beatles t-shirt by a beautiful Chinese person who wasn’t born until 15 years after they broke up is weird, but moving.

When I came to China, no one had heard of them. Today, I know a couple of Chinese Beatlemaniacs. Which I like.  Remember, when the rest of the world was going crazy over four young, talented, attractive English boys playing the music they loved, China was going crazy over some old, fat, megalomaniac murderer full of hate.

I know which was healthier.

* Zhangjiajie: The most beautiful place on earth. Well, of those I have seen, which isn’t a few.

. This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 at 2:33 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “All Our Yesterdays”

  1. Carl Johnson Says:

    When I first began to correspond with Feng Lian, in my complete ignorance of all things China, I was amazed to find she had never heard of the Beatles!
    After all, my Chinese friend in Bangkok, who has spent all her life in BKK, is an Elvis Nut! And insist upon singing for me the complete long play version of ‘Love Me Tender’ or ‘Hound Dog’ every time I talk to her!
    But it makes sense to me now that growing up during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ she probably had other things to think about.

  2. Matt Says:

    In the world of gaudy tourist traps, which is worse, Yangshuo or Fenghuang?

  3. Liuzhou Laowai Says:

    It is difficult to compare. The natures of their traps are very different, but I’m going for Yangshuo. It never had any redeeming features. Fenghuang did.

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