For a Finn, summer is simply not complete without a trip to the countryside. So I pack my bags to head out to – and out of – the country. My trip consists of a 7 hour and 40 minute flight to Xian, the symbolic terminus of the Silk Road, followed by a 60-kilometre drive to the rural village of Zhangbai.
Sitting in a car driven by Han Zhou, a cousin of my friend Miao, holding the traditional Finnish present of a bag of coffee, I watch with curiosity as the urban landscape turns into quieter and smaller streets. An hour later, the crowds of the city have been replaced by occasional passers-by and the majority of the buildings are greenhouses. We are in the country.
We pull over in front of Miao’s home. Most of the houses have been recently rebuilt. They’re white, with flat roofs. Diagonally across the street, I spot a Catholic church. There are dogs everywhere. It’s very quiet. An aeroplane soaring across the sky reminds me that we are still in the modern day.
I step inside the house through the large doors. I extend my hand: “Ni hao, I am Helena.” Nice to meet you.” They shake my hand with a smile. Their smile soon turns to shy laughter and their eyes search out Miao for help. Fortunately, Miao is on hand to act as an interpreter and explain things. Not just for the family, but also for me.
The father, Xiau, takes a seat in his armchair. The mother, Yan, goes in the kitchen. I am invited to sit on the sofa to enjoy a glass of tea. Every once in a while, people walk in through the big front doors. They sit down, talk for a few minutes and then leave. People come and go and it’s no big deal. Quick visits to fellow villagers’ homes is a local custom. I can’t even remember who I have been introduced to and who I haven’t. Not that it matters, as it seems that introductions are not really customary here.
The clock on the wall announces the hours as they pass. Mealtime arrives. We sit at the coffee table to enjoy local food. The ingredients include tomatoes, corn and cucumber grown on their own land, as well as homemade noodles. The humble kitchen is a far cry from TV’s MasterChef, but the food that comes out of it could easily grace any television show. An interesting detail is that everyone peels a clove of garlic for themselves and takes an occasional bite out of it. As I relish the varied flavours of the dishes, I am reminded that perfect cooking does not require perfect equipment.
After the meal, I understand the purpose of the house’s unusually large doorway as Miao’s husband Tuomas brings an electric scooter into the living room. It’s time to go for a ride. The small stools we sat on during the meal are lifted onto the scooter’s trailer for me and Miao. Tuomas hits the throttle and brrrrrmmmmm! We race out of the living room and into the street outside, holding on to our stools for dear life.
We pass greenhouses made of clay and plastic. We stop to take a look inside the school Miao went to. We admire the old walls made of handmade bricks. Finally, we end up at a collection of stones. We aren’t really sure about the purpose of this place that I’m told has recently appeared at the edge of the village. We park the scooter to take a closer look. There are literally tons of old millstones around. There are a few other villagers around, as well as a handful of builders. We are joined by a man with a set of keys jangling in his hand. He is the manager here and is naturally curious about who these long-nosed visitors accompanying Miao are. And no, the place is not a stone park, but rather an exhibit about the history of agriculture. The manager gives us a quick tour.
When we return to the parking lot, there is a man sitting on our scooter, smoking a cigarette. “Good afternoon,” I say. The man says nothing. He just moves away. Let’s keep it simple, I think to myself. Obviously things are a bit different here.
On the way back we stop near a field with a group of people all in one spot. Neatly lined up parallel to the rows of vegetables in the field, there are six women doing an evening workout. They dance to music blaring from a radio. There’s no personal trainer or a room lined with mirrors. They are just doing it on their own, for their own enjoyment.
We ride back to Miao’s house and enjoy a refreshing beer. That’s a decision I later come to regret in the dark hours of the early morning. I was assigned to sleep in Miao’s uncle’s house. Tuomas gives me a torch and the uncle hands me two keys, one for the house and one for my room. I accept both with careless gratitude, but when the beer wakes me up at night, I hug the torch like it’s my best friend in the world. I creep out of the room. I stare at the massive bolt and lock on the door that leads out of the house. I give it a couple of tentative pulls. It makes a creaky sound that pierces the silence of the night. I decide I can hold on until morning and creep back into the bedroom. I roll around for a while and realise that certain physical limitations cannot be overcome. I creep back into the living room and notice that the door to the house is ajar. I peek out and almost bump into the uncle. We exchange glances; “Oh, you’re going out? I’m coming in!” The brick wall in front of the hole in the ground that serves as the toilet is only 10 metres away. Two dogs nearby have met for a midnight tryst. I pretend to be invisible. I keep the beam of the torch directed down to just illuminate a couple of steps at a time. I don’t want to attract attention, nor do I want to pay any attention to anything. I am on a single-minded mission. The brick wall appears in the light cast by my torch. Then I see the hole in the ground. I’ve made it! Heart fluttering, I make it back to my room.
In the morning, I wake up to the sound of loudspeakers outside. Vendors are riding by on scooters selling toilet paper, melons and various other goods. Sometimes they also buy things from the houses they pass, or exchange grapes for tomatoes.
The previous night, we had agreed that I would return to Miao’s house once I wake up. That should be no problem, after all it’s right around the corner. I leave the uncle’s house, striding confidently with my bag swinging on my shoulder. Bathed in the morning sunshine, everything looks completely safe once more. Even the dogs are just running around, wagging their tails. I take a right. I raise my hand to greet a worker who looks back at the unexpected sight of a foreigner in the village. I take another right. I look at the houses around me. It was supposed to be right here. Hmm! All the houses look just like Miao’s house. My bag is no longer swinging on my shoulder. Instead it is settling into an uncertain twitching motion. It stops when I stop, only to swing again when I turn back on my heels. I raise my hand to greet the worker again. This time he’s right to think that I’m a strange sight.
Soon, I see the familiar brick wall in front of the toilet and step back inside uncle’s house. One of the rooms is occupied by a grandchild and a pregnant daughter-in-law. I knock on the curtain hanging from the doorway and gesture “Please take me back to Miao’s house.” Fortunately they get the message. The daughter-in-law puts on her flip flops and we head out together on a one-block walk.
Walking in silence, I smile as I allow my bag to swing freely on my shoulder. I wave confidently at the worker once more. This is how we roll in the Chinese countryside.