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Fishing with farmers in southern Sichuan

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A few days before Golden Week last year, my university, in their wisdom, organized a flower-arranging competition in an attempt to improve their foreign students' understanding of Chinese culture. Never one to listen to my teachers, and always one to find any excuse to go traveling, I told them I was sick and jumped on a train heading north.

I was due to meet a couple of friends in central Sichuan on the first day of Golden Week, so my plan was to make my way up through southern Sichuan and just see what happened. I like this kind of travel, this kind of exploration, just going to places and daring the world to do something to me. And in Panzhihua I wasn't disappointed.

When I got off the train, not entirely to my surprise, there was a crowd of people trying to sell me stuff, including rooms. I followed one woman to her hotel, but she refused to let me stay when she realized I didn't have a Chinese ID card. A kind lady who owned a nearby stall saw all this and took me to another hotel, where, to her surprise and not mine, exactly the same thing happened. The next-door hotel also rejected me, and all the hotel owners agreed that there was only one hotel that could accept foreigners, which was the most expensive one in town and way beyond my budget.

Sensing my despair, the kind woman took me to the police station to see if they could give me a registration form which would allow me to stay at a normal hotel. After the policeman made a long phone call in incomprehensible Sichuanese, it turned out they couldn't, but somehow everyone now agreed there was another hotel that could accept foreigners, slightly cheaper than the other one. The lady duly took me there and we were both relieved when the receptionist said I could stay.

However, it turned out that he had never welcomed a foreigner before and didn't know how to put me in the system, so the three of us spent the next half an hour crowding around the computer trying to figure out where to put my nationality and visa number and so on. Twice we accidentally deleted all of our progress but eventually, having made up some information when we didn't know what the system was asking for, it worked and I got a bed for the night.

This all made me think about the fact that China is still governed by very strict rules. Chinese people are often surprised to learn that if you turn up at a hotel in England they don't ask who you are and whether you have police permission to stay there. But I was hungry, so the thought didn't stick long. I dumped my bag in the room and went out to find food. By now it was midnight so I was relieved to see some restaurants were still open. I picked the nearest one to the hotel, went in and ordered food. A party of young men at an outside table invited me to sit with them, so I did. I didn't know it then, but they would be my hosts for the next two days.

The table had about thirty empty beer bottles on it — always a good sign — and they immediately gave me beer. There were ten of them, nine guys and a girl, and only the girl spoke any English. They were all in their twenties and none of them had gone to university. I didn't quite understand when they told me what their jobs were, but I understood it involved manual labour.

Most of them spoke very clear Chinese, apart from one who was very drunk and didn't seem to understand that if he yelled and sang at me in fast Sichuanese then I wouldn't understand a word. Eventually he was standing up, shirt off, gesturing at me and proclaiming something or other to the whole street about me, not caring that all his friends, all the other customers and most of the staff, were laughing at him. He had a goatee so I nicknamed him 'Goatee'.

I had thought that these people would only be my dining companions, but that changed when they invited me to go fishing with them the next day. I jumped at the chance. Things like this don't happen very often, so we exchanged phone numbers and agreed that they would pick me up at 9am the following morning. By now I was exhausted and slightly drunk, so I went back to my room and, despite the fact my bed was literally a wooden board with a sheet over it, fell asleep quickly.

I woke up at 11am the next day, slightly concerned that I'd missed the fishing trip. So I sent a text message and was relieved to get a reply that they had things to do in the morning but would come and pick me up when they were done, which in the end was at about 3pm. In the meantime I explored my surroundings. Panzhihua is primarily known for its heavy industry, which is a shame because it sits at the junction of three enormous and beautiful rivers and is surrounded by stunning hills. I wanted to get down to the river, which was only 100 meters from my hotel, but there was a railway depot in the way, with large walls on either side that were mostly black with coal dust. I ended up following the railway for about a kilometer before I found a path under it and ended up at the river.

Suddenly I could have been in the countryside. There was a patch of farmland on the river bank and my view of the hills on the other side was no longer spoiled by heavy industry. I met a guy with a large boat who apparently made a living shipping vegetables up and down the river.

I decided to go back to the hotel on the other side of the railway line, which turned out to be a mistake. The farmland quickly gave way to a kind of shanty town that I'd more readily associate with somewhere like Indonesia than with China. The buildings were small and wooden, the streets were muddy and there was coal dust in the air. There were also a lot of dogs about, and at one point about five of them decided to chase me while their owners tried in vain to call them back. I got away from them, got lost for a while in the muddy streets, and eventually managed to stumble back to the hotel. It was a more adventurous morning than I'd anticipated.

After getting back, I waited about two hours for the guys to turn up. Initially I was a bit annoyed they made me wait, but I reflected that I'm also terrible at timing, and that people who are bad at timing are also very liberal about changing their plans and inviting people they don't know to their tables and homes and their fishing trips. I decided not to be annoyed.

They eventually turned up in quite a nice SUV, which surprised me. This time there were only four guys, two of whom I didn't recognize. In the front passenger seat was the guy whose phone number I had. Goatee was driving. This was an excellent sign. He shouted a greeting at me in incomprehensible Sichuanese, I replied with ni hao, jumped in the back and off we went, quickly getting out of the city and winding up narrow roads into the mountains.

I had assumed we would go to the river, but clearly we were headed somewhere else. We got out at a farmhouse where we shared the tastiest mango I have ever eaten, acquired two more guys and then set off on foot. One of the new guys was young, the other was the father of someone in the group, I wasn't sure who, and the owner of the house and the surrounding land. His land was in a beautiful place, overlooking the Panzhihua valley and surrounding hills. There were several large irrigation ponds dug into the hillside and we stopped at one, where the guys unfurled a fishing net. So this is why we didn't go to the river.

The net was big enough to spread across the width of the entire pond and two guys stripped down to their underwear and jumped in, walking and swimming the edges of the net along each side of the pond, presumably trapping everything in there. When they got to the other side they'd caught about ten fish, although a couple had spectacularly jumped over the net to freedom. The fish were big, but to my surprise all but one were released, apparently because they weren't big enough. The guys dragged the net across the pond twice more, trapping about 25 fish and keeping a sum total of four. I offered to help a couple of times but they didn't want me to. They seemed quite serious about the whole affair so I didn't push it. When we were done and about to walk back to the house, the land-owner randomly set fire to a large patch of grass. Apparently he wanted it shorter.

Back at the house I met his father, who was 87 and looked every bit a man who had spent his life working the land on that hillside. I wanted to ask him about the Cultural Revolution and how China had changed throughout his life, but unfortunately his Sichuanese was completely impenetrable, far stronger than Goatee's, and I couldn't understand a word.

By now evening was falling and so we drove back to the town with our catch of fish and stopped at a restaurant where someone knew the owner. Loads of other people turned up, mostly young men, including a couple I recognized from the previous night. I don't know if they came specifically to drink with me, the foreigner, or if it was a pre-planned evening of boozing with friends. Either way, drinking was very much the core of what happened next.

Normally when I drink with Chinese I count as a strong drinker, but not with these guys. The fact I hadn't had lunch probably didn't help but either way, as we ate the delicious spicy soup the restaurant had turned our fish into, they completely drank me under the table. Many expats tell stories of being singled out for special treatment, having to down beer or baijiu with everyone at the table in turn, but that's not really what happened. It turns out Sichuanese farmers are just really good at drinking and, embarrassingly, after a while they had to tell me to slow down.

Amidst the drunkenness I had a short but interesting conversation with the land-owner. I asked him if life had gotten better over the last ten or twenty years. He looked at me as if I was stupid and replied that yes, of course it had: everyone had more money and a better life than before. I had thought he might complain about today's corruption or materialism or something else, but he didn't. He was very pleased with what modern China had to offer.

As the meal eventually came to its end, one of them asked me where I was staying that night. I replied that I had no idea, so he told me I could stay at his hotel. I agreed, assuming I'd misheard and that he'd actually offered to let me stay at his house. We were going to karaoke after the meal so we decided to go to his place first to drop off my bags and then meet everyone. We left together, walked drunkenly down the street and went into the door of what I thought was his house.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the police station. All the lights were bright and I was suddenly very conscious of being very drunk in front of a group of policemen. I tried not to say anything stupid. My friend said something clever and one of the policemen magically produced the registration form which hadn't existed 24 hours earlier. I filled it out and we went to the hotel next door that my friend's family apparently owned to drop my bags, then on to the karaoke, where I was plied with yet more beer. At this point my memory gets hazy, but I vaguely remember giving history's worst ever performance of In the End by Linkin Park and receiving rapturous applause. I also at some point ate some fried octopus on a stick.

Then I woke up in the hotel room with a splitting headache. There were two beds, both with very dirty sheets. I had apparently poured water all over the one I wasn't sleeping in. At least there was no one next to me. My head spinning, I walked to the bathroom, congratulating myself on having had great fun the previous day and spending no money whatsoever. The bathroom door apparently was of the opinion that I hadn't spent enough money the previous day and so as I pushed it to try and enter the bathroom, it promptly broke in two. This wasn't a good sign. When my hotel-owner friend came to check on me he wasn't impressed, and in the end charged me more for the door than the expensive hotel would have charged for a night. I paid up and he insisted that we were still friends, but I felt like an idiot.

Head still spinning, I left the hotel. The sun felt bright and my bag felt heavy, so I decided to go to an internet cafe to write my experiences down while I waited for my train. Chinese internet cafes, like hotels, needed a Chinese ID card to be beeped onto a machine before you can use their services, presumably so the government can see what you look at. I don't have one, but luckily the receptionist had a pile of about ten of them and selected one for me to use.

It's a funny kind of authoritarianism, China is. Some rules and regulations are so rigidly enforced, while others are so easy to get around. It never makes sense, but in my opinion at least that's all part of the fun. Either way, I'd had a much better introduction to Chinese culture than those students who'd stayed behind arranging flowers, and I wasn't done adventuring yet. On to the next place!

Images: Philip Occitan

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