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The China Adventures Of Arielle Gabriel

Hunan Province

Digimarc & Arielle Gabriel

Day One
Hunan never receives bad press, it's only problem is that I believe it to be slightly under-ranked as a tourist destination.
Why?  It does not really have one super-famous site such as The Great Wall or The Terra Cotta Warriors.  Its landscape sounds unjustly monotonous in descriptions: acres and seas of rice paddies, tilled patiently by China-hatted farmers.
Still I really loved my visit there, though I was soon rescued from my bland and comfy hotel in Yie Yang, an historic city, and whisked to gracious hospitality staying in real Hunan farmhouses.  And I have an open-ended invitation to return there whenever I want, write tourist articles and take more photographs.
Apart from rice paddies, the province has enduring historical significance as the birthplace of Chairman Mao, the most famous twentieth century political leader produced by China.   Hosted by a generous student of mine, a high-technology wizard with peasantry roots, I spent my time taking buses, taxis, and even walking by foot through rice fields to visit four branches of his jumbo family.  Therefore the only city I made it to was Yie Yang.
The First Day October 1
After sorrowfulness and trauma, some sudden joy.
Mr G (who has given me permission to write about his wonderful family and himself, since I have nothing but good to say about them, and their beauteous province) is with me when I register my shock at the crowded waiting rooms on National Day.
I thought the crowds would have clear by now, I say stupidly.  The crowds in China never stop at holiday times!   I have little money upon me, and my other papers are well hidden, as the crowds are close, I do find a place to huddle and drink from my water bottle as G runs about finding the right exit.
We are in Guanzhou, the transit hub for South China.  I alugh and cruse both at once, as we try to enter our train compartment.  I thought teachers and older people were respected I say, as teen-agers and just about everyonhe shoves into the train, leaving the polite to fall into the gap. 
G has a mischievous sense of humour, and lies, We may not get our seats because the crowd is pushing ahead of us.  I respond by shoving everyone else aside and pulling G onto the train - The thought of not getting a comfortable bed is horrifying!!!
Turns out he is lying, as he laughs, surprised by my spurt of animal aggression.  I then pummel him playfully, as he is used to the difficulties of the fairer sex.  He dutifully supports a widowed mother, a widowed aunt, a divorced sister, a widowed sister, a teen sister, a brother at university, and a brother in search of employment.
Though we jokingly refer to G as A Chinese Playboy, a Chinese Playboy may carry massive responsibilities, more onerous than a Western Playboy, with his sports cars and one girlfriend.
We settle into our train, and it turns out there are folks from our hometown in China, so we begin talking about work, as per usual, English language lessons and high-technology, etc.  Business cards are exchanged all around.  And then the food sharing begins.
G has brought some flat green fruits or vegetables that resemble food from another planet, they look like flying saucers with small nubs attached to them.  I stare with animated wonder at the Guangdong landscape as the sunlight recedes, especially fond of villages so small and ancient that they are probably not even on any map, the houses and the stores and barns and sheds seem all fixed together, like a toytown of Ancient China, except real people live there, breathing fresh air, not worrying about the latest fashions as they have more serious concerns.
I would like to photograph the rustic charm these places, I think, not even knowing I am on my way to villages even more pretty, where I will also live and move inside real Chinese farmhouses, given lavish meals with food from the family gardens and village fishpond.
Strangely G does not feel like going to the dining car, though I do.  I amble down a few cars through the crowds and give up, amusing a cluster of Red Guards seated by the windows at the end of one car.  They wave, and I wave back: Canadian Tourist.
My moment of grace as a traveller comes when the lights dim, it is around eleven, we pull into a station and I spot a vendor flogging ice cold bottles of local beer.  I wave a bill out of the window, a sure attention-getter anywhere, and she rushes up smiling slightly at a woman ordering beer.
I'm Canadian, I say to no one in particular, an utterance all Canadians will understand except reform alcos and religious fanatics.   We do like our daily cold beer!!!
A little farther up the route we slow again for another larger town.  The sky explodes with white Catherine Wheels, followed by crimson and golden dandelions - it's all the celebrations for October 1, China's National Day.
My quiet and sheltered seat, sipping a cold beer, is something none of the other spectators could buy, crushed out there in the nocturnal crowds.
Look, look, I call, to a sleeping G, who turns out not to be sleeping; even on the train; his ears are plugged with an ESL tape!  Isn't it beautiful!
The train rolls beneath us, and I turn my head to catch every last second of fireworks, the landscape quickly darkens into small cliffs and mountains, and
the night comes upon too soon.

Day Two
We arrive in Yie Yang, the city known for its famous lake, one of the largest in China.  We have a small friendly debate, as G wants us to stay in a luxury hotel, and I do not want to be indebted to a man I think of a brother.
I actually take a low-budget hotel out of the guide, less than $20 Canadian for a clean room.   Amazingly I have selected a large and spotless hotel right beside the lake.
The architecture is nondescript as Paul Theroux claims; many Chinese cities have been overly influenced by The Russian Years.
The cab quickly reaches the hotel.  I look at the lake, and it is so huge you cannot see to the other shore, and as a Canadian, raised in spectacular landscapes, I try to be fair.  
Why is it great?  Because there is a powerful feeling of nature, and not of people: always rare in China Tourism.  It is just a plain and tranquil sweep of limitless lake, nothing much, and that is just fine.
The Hunan People move at a slightly slower pace, and are generally friendly and helpful, though the linguistic barrier is there.  A smile and a drawing of what you want will get you all the help you need.  The hotel as several floors, and a lobby that sells combs, tissue, beer, ginseng wine, snack food, shampoo.
There is sort of a bath tub in my room, and I call to the floor attendant girl to utilize a tub while I have the opportunity. I wash out my train t-shirt and shorts, and sally forth into the mellow autumnal weather,  so happy to be on a holiday, however brief.
Arriving in the lobby, I find G frantically calling up old family friends to escort us around the town; he arrives at the number of the sister of a college friend, and the woman turns up shortly after to show us around.
Why not ask her to come with us to your mom's, I ask in The Chinese Way of doing things; I know it is okay to ask like this here.  The incessant conviviality, the more-the-merrier attitude of the Chinese.  I also demostrate that I am not jealous, and that I think the woman could use a pleasant expenses-paid holiday too!!!
She is a good tour host to me. 
First, we go to see the fortress or is a temple, it appears to be both: acompund of ancient buildings, on the lake, just down the street.  here is one of China's most famous poems, enshrined under glass, and occupying a large wall.  I buy several copies of black tissue paper as gifts in the gift shop.
There is an art gallery and a music concert room as well, where we listen to the famous bell-chiming music that this place is reknowned for. 
One of the women musicians looks at me as though I am a creature from outer space, just fallen into her life, from some non-Chinese planet.  Hey, music is international, that's why we come to hear you with utmost respects.
Because we have napped and bathed, it is later afternoon by the time we have our first real meal.  I am actually becoming so Chinesey I regret my choice of restaurant from a culinary perspective, since it is a minority cuisine of some type.
I am as surprised by the restaurant owners and staff, as the musician was susprised by me.  The men have beards and high bridged noses, and they all have non-Chinese eyes.  Did they fall from space too?   G says they are from the northwest of China, a border peoples.
Middle Eastern or Spanish, I say, and the meal starts off well with a flat bread fried in oil.  But all our food is served to each of us, on just one plate, a meaty stew with tomatoes, green peppers, and broad white noodles.  I pick the bits of meat out, and dare not to complain since the place was my very own idea.  there is just no enough variety of food, as at a Chinese dinner.
Still it is well worth to see people who look so Western chattering away in Chinese, an optical illusion.  The wife looks Chinese from behind, small and narrow, with a long black braid, then turns around, with her large brown eyes she could be in a Greek taverna.
I smile gratefully at her.  She smiles back.  I'm a giraffe, she's a zebra, we are rarities in The Asian Zoo.  I can read the feeling in a Caucasian eye better, though sometimes I even doubt that.   Just as the Chinese understand their own signals so much more quickly.
We have fun.
We find out why the pretty woman is still single, since she used to have a boyfriend; he was a runaround so they broke up,   She has ideals,  She is hoping for love.  I like her.
Then we walk over a bridge heading towards the American cafe because they both want an ice-cream cone.   I am still regretting not having a Proper Chinese Meal, which shows you how a foreign culture comes to finluence you, when you live long enough in it.
(Furthermore, if someone isn't toiling over a hot stove 3-4 hours a day, making a hot cooked lunch and dinner, each with a minimum of 5 to 6 fresh new entrees, it it is not The Chinese Way.)
G gets out the video camera and we mug the same expressions for a few moments.  Even as I write, I find I miss this moment in time, and want to return to it, except that it will not be the same, it never is.
We continue with our ice cream to music concerts held at a park, we sit by a fountain, yet most of all, I like the walk back, through alleys with many vendors selling balloons of cartoon characters, cotton candy, tofu on wooden sticks.   We buy iced tea and talk about nothing in particular, we are friends ambling along. 
We return to the hotel and pledge to meet our guide early in the lobby for the bus ride to the first village on our itinerary, where the mother of G lives with her large brood of children.

Day Three
Artistic creation and its solitariness, like romance itself, is always interrupted by others in China: mostly helpful and friendly interventions.
As I wrote this morning, lying in bed upstairs - one of the daughters of the house has even given me her own bedroom, that incredible domestic generosity of the Mainland Chinese which is a great boon for those of us who go more deeply into daily life - trying to evoke the rural ambience of roosters crowing first thing this morning, crickets chirping the last thing last night - a young woman in a white mini-dress and two girls about ten and twelve entered the room to get me out of bed.
They actually gently seized my letters home to Canada, and surprised me by attempting to read what I had written to learn English the better.
I stirred out of bed, realizing that the Chinese simply want to be included in on things, and unlike my own people who can be sometimes lacking utterly in curiosity, this alertness is a marked trait of Chinese character.
I showed them all my folk-art paper cuttings bought at the art shop the previous day, and also my black parchment poster from the Bell Tower citing the famous poem.  We has a laugh as the woman realized I held the lettering upside-down!!!   I too know enough Chinese to recognize the Female Toilet Sign: the Female Sign has a curvy hole at the centre of it.  And the Male Sign looks as though it is walking away!!!
As we looked at the colourful paper-cuts, which are theatrical masks, I had the insight that even when acting, the Chinese wear a mask to cover their faces from recognition.  Our own actors, who appear to be more vulnerable, are acting that vulnerability from an artificial interior that does not need the use of a mask.
The girls had been sent to awaken faster.  We left quickly to visit my third village home, the daughter of the helpful aunt, her husband and adorable young girls.
At lunch one of the girls even offered herself for me to adopt, somewhat jokingly, I presume, though I would not mind her coming for a long visit.
Though others from Canada might view these peasants as poor, I do not think they are so poor in a tragic way.  Even their houses have extra space, rooms that hold baskets and farming implements from the past, rooms they do not use.
I am fascinated by their homes.
The prices my friend tells me has helped to pay for his relatives homes - this seems costly, considering the lack of plumbing.
Yet I am a visual artist, and I think the abodes are handsome.  The outdoor staircases, sturdy and white with broad steps.  The second floor terraces, the baroque metalwork on the gates and the windows. 
The rooms are huge with twelve foot ceilings not practical for the winters that bring light snowfalls.  The general mood is happy, bright, airy, spacious, and with vegetable gardens, creeks, a fishpond at the centre of the village.
There is nothing dark, depressing, or lifeless: the qualities we associate with poverty in our Western urban centres.  The young Chinese who seek the educational and vocational opportunties of big cities; well, this story is hardly partial to the their people.  I too wanted to go to the big city when I was seventeen.
The food at our lunch was the largest assortment of dishes I have seen so far in a private home: all hail the Returning Son who has made good in the big city.  Due to the team work of the mother and the aunt, I had expected as much.
G told me his mom and aunt were deeply touched by my comment that I was happy to be in the Real China, referring to the beauty of the Hunan Landscape, after my busy days in Taipei and Hong Kong.
I looked at the furniture as we ate, a large bed with blue netting draped over it, a bamboo settee to seat four or five adults, a carved wood dining table.
As to the food, there were five plates of fresh green vegetables, three mammoth bowls of soup dishes, two dishes of pink unknown items I suspected of being meat: one shaped like rinds, the other crispy slabs of cerise.
G advised me the pink was the famed Hunan spicing, too hot even for him.  The women delighted me by following my bad example in continuing to beer drink, we were all in a wonderful mood,
Though by the standards of the sophisticated and the glamourous, we were out in the middle of nowhere, in our hearts it was the centre of a daily domestic life lived mostly fully and graciously.
We were somewhere, and it was grand, and it was a little off-the-way village in hospitable Hunan.
After lunch, I amuse my hosts and hostesses by clambering through the storage sheds studying all their farming tools and wicker baskets.  I could return here and spend a serious amount of time looking at these antiquated objects: I see myself wearing big mittens and gumboots, a down jacket.
After a nap, we have to go out again to visit another round of relatives.
We walk to the main road and hail a blue wagon, five adults clamber in and two kids.
The country road has a coating of rice on it, left so that cars can run over it!!!  The rice paddies all look different if you are a fan of the colour green.
Fuelled by beer, I expressed my true thoughts at lunch, and the Chinese seemed to appear interested in what I said: that we too had left the countryside for our big skyscraper cities in the West 50 - 75 years ago, yet now many of us missed the fresh air and quietitude of rural life.
(And hey!  My Irish Canadian grandmother drew water from the well, lighted with kerosene lamps, had no indoor plumbing, a party-line telephone, and drove a rowboat instead of an auto.)
The first home we visit is so National Geographic, I wonder why they cannot hire me, as I have true friends with real homes.   G tells me it would be okay since he knows how much I respect his family.
The central room in the house stops my heart.  The central door is so wide you can drive a car through it.  Behind us there is thick foliage overhanging a river.  Hens are clucking, relatives rush to greet us.
In the middle of the living room, there ia a pile of rice four feet high, baby chicks run under our feet as we move carefully to the dining table.
A huge charbroiled fish, a chicken stew, the salted eggs again, green vegetables always, and even more eggs, a scrambled dish added on for me as a vegetarian.
I sip politely a gourmet tea, full of seeds and leaves and twigs, and at the bottom mysterious pink slices.  Can they be meat?   this is where the Surprise Element of Chinese culture delights me. 
 I get to the bottom of the drink and examine the little scraps - Yes, it is meat!   Did the cook just decide to do this, to be imaginative, or is this an established Hunan treat?  I am not the only one fascinated by my snack: all of my own students back in the big city later begin a lively debate on the meat tea.
A huge red-bordered poster of   Chairman Mao   hangs far above us at the end of the room, and also posters of Marx, lenin, and other socialists line the side wall.  they are frayed, and old, and very dear to these farmers.
We sit facing the water, and I heard children over the river, crying, hello, hello, in honour of my visit.
An warm and animated discussion follows as we relax after lunch; the topic is the details of  patriarchal responsibilities to younger relatives.   I am unable to understand, and leave to amble along the line taking photos of children playing.
No nap for us, we have to go off to see even more family.  We hail a bus to another village, and I refuse to continue walking, so we women sit in a cafe, while the men find a school playground in which to play basketball, a favourite past-time.
More and more people come to look at me, until the cafe is ringed with dozens of villagers.  I bob up and take photos of them turning the lookers into the looked upon.  They are good sports.
This is a relaxing day in the country?  Always so many people.  Next stop in this village is the Internet cafe, closed with a large curtain rather than a door.  A school owner approaches us, and tells me I am always welcome to teach at his school.
As I type a few emails, I feel the twelve or fifteen kids and young adults gathering behind me!!!  G and my new woman friend add Chinese hellos onto my letters, using Chinese lettering.
An exquisite walk over rice paddies, right through the centre of the fields on a special muddy path, to the last home of the day.  My legs feel wobbly at the knees, and I keep saying, How much further?  How much further? 
We have an unusual dinner, a snack of four or five eggs each, served in bowls of sugary hot water.   It is the fourth time since breakfast I have had eggs, and I am worried I will be ill.  I try to sneak some of my food to G but he is not discreet, and I give up.
The house is less decorated with rice and socialist posters than the one before, yet it is too is a handsome sturdy place, the more so when you consider the rows of Hunan pines framing it on all sides, the river in front where an old man is fishing in a timeless picture.
This auntie seems like the offbeat one in the family as she thrusts a live chicken into the cab that G finally calls to drive us all home;  thank God he has money and we don't have to walk any more.
I scream at the sight of the screeching, flailing birds.  screaming like this from women is not considered good form in Chinese culture, actually, it is not considered any type of form at all, since women are not allowed to show any weakness, either emotional or physical in this culture.
The China Doll myth was never created by either Chinese men nor by Chinese women, and it is indolence of thought on the part of Western thinkers, that causes our focus upon them to so blurred.
Strength is what is required here, and strength admired.
G actually points the bird at me, laughing like a circus clown, its claws extended in panic.   Finally we arrive safely home, and soon to bed, though the mom has worried we have not had enough to eat!!!
She has prepared a snakc supper for us, noodles, cabbage, and yet again, eggs which are fried!!!
As we eat, a card game continues, the boyfriend of the sister of G, some neighbours, I get up and study the cards with great interest - they are slim, narrow cards that I have never seen anywhere in this world.  The numbers and letters are different.  
I toddle up the stairs, happy to be sleeping, after one of the richest travel days of my entire life: every minute of every hour was special.

Lamma Island * Lantau Island * Cheung Chau Island
Hong Kong * Mui Wo * Peng Chau Island
Tung Chung * Shenzhen * Nanning * Hunan Province
Bobcaygeon * Pointe Claire * Montreal
Peterborough * Lake Sturgeon * Ontario
Vancouver * Richmond * British Columbia

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