After leaving Shanghai, a nine-hour bullet train (that’s nine hours at 200 km/hour – have I mentioned that China’s a big place?) took us to Nanjing: the small area of Fujian province, not the former capital city. The only difference in the names is in the pronunciation, so it’s very difficult to find any information about the rural area online!
A very disturbing minibus ride (overtaking at 60mph around a corner and uphill) took us up to the tea-growing hills of Fujian-Tulou. The best tea and coffee in China is grown here, and the hillsides are covered in bushes. The drinks in England don’t compare: they’re made using the dregs of what is left after the best crop’s been taken. Our guide, Servet, referred to it as “dust”.
Another thing that Fujian is famous for is roundhouses; large three-to-four floor buildings, which hold an entire extended Chinese family; the biggest can house more than 500 people. They are formed of a outer ring of rooms and a wide open space in the middle, which is used as a gathering place; a location for an inner ring of rooms; or even a farming spot in the bigger examples. There are more than 20,000 roundhouses across Fujian, and we stayed in one on our first night.
Although very beautiful, the roundhouse was also extremely rural – and the spiders in this place are absolutely massive. The group collectively elected to abandon the two downstairs showers, after finding arachnids that looked more like something you’d expect to find on the head of a balding man, who hasn’t yet given up the losing battle against hair loss, than in a sink.
On our second night, Nick and I discovered the offspring of Shelob and Usain Bolt in our room, and we turned the place upside down in an attempt to catch it. The shoes we were waving weren’t effective: we needed an elven blade – or, failing that, a flamethrower.
We visited several other roundhouses in Fujian over the next several days, including the second-oldest in the region, which is 700 years old. Here we tasted six different types of locally-grown tea: green (much tastier than the weak tea bags we get), ‘red’ (what we would call black), orange (for its colour; it was actually very smokey), ginseng, a flowery type and burdock tea, which supposedly has anti-ageing properties.
On the second day we went cycling, visiting several villages. At one of these we climbed a steep hill for stunning views over the village, local temple and surrounding countryside. It helped that the weather was the best that we’d had all trip, despite a typhoon warning for later that day.
After cycling we went to a natural lagoon, with deep blue water and rocks to lounge on in the sun. All the lads and one of the girls (well done Nat!) climbed the waterfall feeding the lagoon to dive in. The pool was very deep: none of us could reach the bottom, even when cannonballing. Although the water wasn’t hot, it was much warmer than the pool in Moganshan; we were all shaking when we climbed out of that one.
The typhoon, which came in from Taiwan, hit Fujian the next day. We spent most of it in a coffee shop (excellent coffee – smoother and creamier than anything in the UK), and had to change our plans for the evening as all of the trains in the province were cancelled. We were meant to be catching a sleeper train to Macau, but with nothing running we had to cut the island from our trip entirely. This meant more time in Hong Kong (with a bullet train to Shenzen the next day), so we didn’t complain too hard. The Dragon Trip looked after us well, putting on another night of accommodation, a dinner in Hong Kong and refunding some money.
Our last night together was spent drinking on the roof of the hostel, telling each other stupid lies and crazy truths; also known as playing “I’ve Never”. Can you guess which of us used to be a sex toy tester; who has given their partner a golden shower; and which guy has had a strap-on used on him? If you guessed ‘Nick’ for all three…well, that would be telling.
There were some tears, and multiple manly high fives, as we waved goodbye to Nick and Ella, who left for the airport at 2:30am. Over the coming days, the rest of us will filter out of Hong Kong to our next destinations, from Fiji to Thailand. As for me, I’m sitting and waiting for Max to arrive as I type; together we will travel to the world’s most connected country and geek Mecca: South Korea.
So, what did I learn from China? First, that it is a stunning place, with massive variations in landscape, culture and cuisine (consider the Sichuan hotpot to be like chips and gravy in the UK: only eaten by a select group of people with funny accents, who the rest of the country look at with bemused tolerance). Second, that white people are a constant source of fascination for just about everybody. Third, that ‘hygiene’ has a completely different meaning, and doesn’t prevent the chef from smoking while he’s preparing food. Fourth, that you shouldn’t visit if you have a fear of phlegm; and fifth, that none of the last three points matter if you have a group of brilliant, hilarious friends to face them with.