I just had to get the hell out of Shanghai. A city which I have struggled to form a bond with for the last year and a half. Through the diminishing ancient culture, thick smoggy skies and an increasing feeling of being in a metropolis enclosure, our relationship result has come out as a C minus. I tried but I’m a lady made for green stuff, action, adventure, open spaces, an open road with dirt and grime and spectacles rough around the edges. Desperate to mend my relationship with China, I escaped to Xingping Fishing Village this month in the quiet, humble lands of Guangxi province. There, Bill Clinton might just have saved my unstable relationship with the land of the rising sun.
Stepping through the leafy embrace of the pomelo and orange orchards, a little girl with infectious energy yells ‘hello’. I throw back a mighty ‘hello’ too! I’m covered in a glowing layer of sweat having hiked all the way from Xingping but I feel great! Travellers I connected with at the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces have assured me that this place might just save my sanity. As the little girl runs around in the sun with a wooden hula hoop, her mother is setting up shop in the warm, yellow street passages. I’m in the precious morning time window, one of the first visitors to arrive here before the tourist boats bombard the village dock. I’m savouring the seconds. My eyes flash across the delightful trinkets on sale: a golden astrological compass, a worn and crumpled comic book, a neatly formed line of handmade dangly earrings. I resist the urge and focus on stepping further in.
I head forwards into the twists and turns of the village’s narrow streets, exploring the bright and welcoming labyrinth. I can smell the gardens, feel the scratchy earth and stones under my converse and see endless mountains wrapping their arms around me. No overpowering skyscrapers. No harsh yonks from charging taxis. I relish the simplicity.
As I pop my head into one of the archways, something tells me I should change direction. As I reverse and take a whole new path, a man suddenly appears. He’s been waiting for me. Beckoning me to come forward, purely through body language, he kindly reassures me to follow. Having always trusted my gut, my brain quickly whizzes through all the factors and I go with it. As I lift my legs over the heavy door frame into his house, I let out a little ‘oh!’. Standing proudly, the man waves his hand over his impressive collection of Bill Clinton photographs, showing them off one by one.
I can’t help but giggle at the collection: being British, growing up and seeing Bill be naughty with Monica, all makes it feel a little strange. I had heard about Bill visiting this tiny village asking to see the ‘real China’ back in 1998. Looking at the pictures, it seems him and the locals had had a jolly good time. I’m feeling playful. The man starts to eagerly point upstairs. 10 yuan and all will be revealed. I agree and step through. Immediately, the room is dimly lit and masked by a lingering smoke. As I make my way through, his wife standing in the corner of the kitchen tries to convince me to buy her cucumbers as she boils some breakfast on the stove. I politely decline and find myself left to my own devices to wander through the house.
It’s narrow, petite and old: I love it. Shanghai is fading into the background and Xingping is welcoming me in. Bill must have been happy. I imagine him walking up the steps and talking to all those important people at the same time: did he have time to soak everything up like me? I feel even more amused as I pass a wall with Kristy Zhang plastered all over it: this house has a little crush on this lovely singer eh?
I eagerly keep looking around as I ascend, anticipating what sight I will discover. The steps and walls become narrower and narrower. I shove a creaky white door open and the sun and heat blast through to a view of the village rooftops.
I’m not sure what I’m meant to be looking at exactly but I’m enjoying myself nonetheless! Music starts to drift up the stairs and slowly but surely the owner comes to join me, playing patriotic music from his tiny speakers, from some unidentifiable triumphant movie soundtrack. It’s terribly random but my love for China has been restored. By the time I leave China and go to Taiwan in August, we might just have upgraded to an A. If it works for Bill Clinton, it works for me too.