I looked down at the delicate glass candle holder* wrapped carefully in newspaper and wondered why it was causing the woman behind the Post Office counter to scream and gesticulate quite so wildly. I’d given her the note that I’d had translated into Chinese saying, ‘Please post to England.’ What could the problem be?
I soon realised that she wasn’t allowed to send newspaper out of the country and I watched in bewilderment as she roughly unwrapped the gift, shoved it in an oversized box and began to seal it. Quickly, I drew a series of comic-strip style pictures to explain that if she tried to send it to England in this way, it would arrive smashed. I mimed wrapping it in something, “Yes! Yes!” she replied.
There was an awkward silence as I raised my eyebrows hopefully. She called a colleague. Her colleague called a colleague. There was much scratching of heads and rubbing of chins, until colleague 2 made a high pitched noise and left the room. She returned shortly with a toilet roll. I was shocked: never before had I seen toilet roll in China. Not to be outdone, colleague 3 disappeared, returning like the cat who’d got the cream, with a large sheet of polystyrene. The Chinese invented paper in the 2nd century BC, but appear to have been left frightfully behind in the modern world of packaging. Without further ado they wrapped the delicate glass in toilet roll and placed it in the box, we then all stood around breaking up the sheet of polystyrene to fill in any gaps. They were all so kind and obviously pleased with their idea, that even if I could speak Chinese, I would never have ruined the moment by mentioning the invention of polystyrene chips many years ago…
Eventually, I left the Post Office and began the 30 minute walk back to the lovely Wada hostel in Guilin, which we had returned to the night before (by raft) after 3 days in Xingping. No sooner had I stepped foot on the pavement than a man in a long coat walked directly into my line of vision, looked me straight in the eye and opened his coat to reveal he was completely naked underneath. I was the victim of a flasher. I quickly adopted the deadpan bored face I save for attention seeking children at school: eyes glazed, eyelids half shut, lips pouted, a slight flare to the nostrils – some of you may know it… Then, in the way only a highly trained ex-drama student can, I nonchalantly stifled a yawn. I didn’t turn to look, but I am pretty sure that significantly rained on his parade.
Walking back along the streets of Guilin, I began thinking about something I love: sarcasm. Most people really are very good at it in England, but since the start of our trip Katie and I realised we have to use it with extreme caution: lots of people just don’t get it. A few examples: In Hong Kong, I horrified one girl when I said, “Oh, I’ve forgotten my towel, I’ll have to use Katie’s new cardigan.” While in Beijing, we walked past a man singing (wailing) horrendously. “Wow,” I remarked, “what an exceptionally talented fellow.” The reply: “In my country, people would consider this a very unpleasant sound.” Sigh.
You can imagine my delight, therefore, when I walked into the Wada to find Eran, from Israel, a man highly trained in the art of sarcasm. It would prove to be a laugh a minute evening. Along with one of the best groups of people that Katie and I have met since starting the trip (Richard and Marcus from England, Marlon from Holland, Gerard from Ireland and the brilliant Wada girls from China) we drank beer, Chinese shots (Eran described these as tasting like an old tyre), sang on the karaoke and listened to the Chinese fiddle. Katie helped prepare some of the drinks and was urging lots of people to sing!
Eran, Katie and I chatted about Israel. I instantly impressed him with my geographical knowledge of the area (this sentence is steeped in sarcasm). It appears after a childhood of hearing about donkeys riding into Jerusalem, wise men on camels, the washing of dusty feet and sandals, that we might be imagining Israel slightly differently to how it is in reality…
“So, is Israel quite dusty?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Can you speak Hebrew?”
“No, no I can’t speak Hebrew… (rolls eyes) Of course, I speak Hebrew! Look, this is your name in Hebrew (writes). And this is your name in Arabic (writes).”
“Do you ever wear a turban?”
“Only when riding my camel.”
“YOU HAVE A CAMEL?!”
“NO! I do not have a camel and I do not wear a turban. I am an Israeli, not ALADDIN.”
He was one of the funniest people I have ever met and I am so glad our paths crossed. Apparently he’d been trained as a world-class haggler in the army (maybe… with the benefit of hindsight, this might have been sarcasm too). So the next day, before getting the train to Kunming, we went to the electrical market to buy a battery pack for my ipad.
The woman typed 150 into her calculator to indicate the price. Eran looked at her liked she’d just killed his cat. He looked at the battery pack. Back to her. Raised an eyebrow at me. Tried the pack on his phone for a third time to check it worked whilst whispering to me to put my purse away and to stop looking so damn enthusiastic. “Now we walk away,” he instructed. Off we went around the store AGAIN. Finally, we returned to the battery pack. More long, lingering looks. Until someone grabbed the calculator punched in some numbers, a gasp, the other snatched it back, hit the clear button, more punching of numbers, now a curse: the calculator manhandled from one to the other, buttons thumped passionately. I watched on like Kim Sears at Wimbledon until finally a price was agreed.
“I could have got it for less,” said Eran as we walked away, “But I liked them, they work hard.”
At 3:30pm we said goodbye to Eran. Katie and I set off to catch the bus to the train station. The ever punctual pair that we are, were (unbelievably) running slightly late: the train was due at 3:45pm. After a spot of sprinting with all our bags, we were safely on board.
Nineteen hours later, we arrived in the beautiful, but slightly chilly, Kunming. A fantastic smog-free place filled with nice bars and cafés, there’s a real french influence and loads of delicious foods.
We explored the bird and flower market and walked around the city. That evening, over several glasses of wine in a restaurant called Salvador’s, we befriended some university students who kindly agreed to take us along to their Mandarin lecture the next day. University life brought back some very happy memories. After the lecture we went out for a student meal of lotus root and tofu stir fry.
We were going to catch the bus straight from Kunming to Laos, but because we really like it here we’ve changed our plans: we are not ready to leave China yet. We love Yúnnán province! For the next week or so, we will visit Lìjiāng, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Dàlï. We will then return to Kunming for a few nights before catching the 30 hour bus out of China and into Laos.
Next stop: Tiger Leaping Gorge.
* Gift has been slightly changed so as not to ruin the surprise for the lucky person…