Life in Siping: a blog by former participant Karen
Xu Shufang, 2016-01-05

Day 1

After being met at the airport by our friendly and welcoming Chinese volunteers, we travelled by coachto Siping village, where we were met with an incredible welcome. I couldn't believe it. Lots of local people had crowded into the main square to greet usand with much ceremony we processed along the main street. Women in beautiful traditional dress played drums and cymbals to the music giving the whole event a very festive air. We were introduced to our hosts and allocated volunteers and after being given a cup of hot tea were led to our new homes, where we had a delicious snack of the homemade tangyuan (a glutinous rice ball filled with tofu pork and vegetables yum) and fresh fruit before going to bed.

Day 2

The next day, the excited atmosphere in the village centre was infectious! Lots of people turned up to watch the proceedings and whilst we were taking photos of the local people going about their business they were also taking photographs of us! The welcome ceremony included speeches from various and distinguished guests, followed by a lesson in making tangyuan at the local restaurant. This is pretty tricky and sadly all of mine were quite misshapen and holey. Thankfully we weren't relying on what we made for lunch, the restaurant had prepared an amazing buffet lunch for us which had so much good food, I just wish I hadn't gotten full so I could have eaten more! My favourite bit was a deep-fried fish stuffed with meat and vegetables. In the evening, each participant had a chance to introduce themselves and where they were from, whilst presenting a gift to the village eand explaining the significance of this. I learned a little bit about every country people came from; from Indian jewellery and South African wedding ceremonies to Italian flags, Laos musical instruments and maps of the United States. This was a great way to get to know our fellow participants.

Day 3

Today we went on a cycle ride to a local tea plantation where we were able to pick and dry our own tealeaves. We also watched a tea making ceremony and of course sampled the freshly brewed tea. In the afternoon we learned about the fascinating process of making rice wine and again sampled this tradition. In the evening we were fortunate enough to watch the bench dragon procession which was really fun - it was just ariot of noise and colour. There were fireworks and burning incense. The dragon itself was made from wooden sections each of which are contributed by a household in the village and decorated with paper flowers and candles (interesting combination, I know).

Day 4

Early in the morning we went to the Wu Qin Xi (similar to tai chi) class in the main square which was pretty tricky but fun to learn, and nice to practise along with music. We had free time for the rest of the day so we wandered around the village. There are lots of food stalls along side the main road where people are making snacks like layer cake or candies. When we stop to have a look they give us little bits to try, it's like something out of a dream!

Day 5

We went on a long tour on the bus - firstly to see some new-age vehicles, then to Jinhua ham factory where I tried ham with melon (not something I am a fan of), and to the Jinhua museum.

Day 6

The warm sunny weather was perfect for our leisurely cycle to the rice plantations, going past fields, water buffalo in the river and we saw the bullet train in the distance. Afterwards we went to the rice factory for a guided tour including how they process the rice.

Day 7

In the morning we visited a temple. The drive up the mountain revealed some beautiful views and thetemple area itself was also very picturesque. We were privileged to witness aceremony which involved burning incense and candles, chanting, rhythmical playing of drums and bells, the main person walking around with a shaped pieceof wood and shaking of water with a sprig of green plant. There was a ting-yang symbol on the floor which if you stood in the 2 circles, somehow produced an echo of what you said. After this there was a display of martial arts including swords. We had a sit-down meal of vegetarian food which was so tasty and I think I would `happily be vegetarian if I could cook like that! Something I've tried for the first time over the past few days is lotus root which is a very crunchy white-purple vegetable. Cooked to a certain texture it has spiderweb-like material that strings out from each mouthful like melted cheese. One of the volunteers told me a saying which roughly translates to "your family is like lotus can't separate from it if you try". In the afternoon we went to the double dragon cave. We walked past several tranquil pools and waterfalls whose water flows from the double dragon cave. To enter the double dragon cave you walk into a large cavern which had a small roost of tiny bats (maybe pipstrelle bats) and get into a boat, you then have to lie down to pass under a mass of rock to enter the cave. Inside there were stalactites and stalagmites, large caves lit up by pink purple and green lightswhich whilst artificial did still make the caves look very attractive. We gradually ascended to the surface past some waterfalls. After our long climb anideally situated refreshments stand at the top supplied us with a well-deserved ice-cream!

Day 8

Another free day; we had a lie-in then went for a potter around the village. As you walk along the mainstreet there are many street vendors who sell layer cake, some fried sweetsesame balls, some black sesame-filled candy. The friendly street vendorsalways proffer a little bit of snack to try which is a dream come true for someone like me who wants to try all  the food they see. Today we wanted to buy a box of candy as a present for our volunteer, trying out our broken Chinese we tried to ask how much it cost but they kept waving their hands and I thought they didn't understand what we were saying. Eventually it dawned on me that they weren't accepting our payment - we had to walk away with the free box of candy. Later we strolled over the bridge to the market where we saw a woman using some sort of wooden tool to bash peas out of their pods on the floor. People were unbelievably friendly, always smiling and nodding and not infrequently welcoming us into their homes for something to eat and drink. It's incredible how much communication you can make without speaking the same language. The few words of horrendously butchered Mandarin that we do manage produce a big smile in the people we are talking to. These people may never have met foreigners before and are just incredibly friendly and curious about us, often rushing up to take a photo with us or shake our hands. In the afternoon a walking tour around the village about the culture and buildings gave more depth to the beautiful architecture round the village. Our tour took us past Maria who was sat with an old lady peeling oranges and as we stopped to say hello the old lady passed us oranges to take with us...lovely!

Day 9

After another lie-in this morning we grabbed a coffee from the salon then went for a walk around the fields and bamboo forest. We saw lots of grasshoppers, frogs and butterflies. It's so nice now that as I walk around the village I see other participants and volunteers and everyone is so friendly. It's not uncommon to see people from the project sitting with an old lady helping her to make bee boxes or whatever. We've got into a pattern with our host family and are pretty comfortable with them, they often have family or friends dropping in at mealtimes which is nice.

Day 10

We set off for another cycle through the countryside, arriving at Jiufeng mountain to climb to the top and around the mountain on a slightly precarious narrow walk-way. From there we cycled to the hot springs where we were treated to a fancy lunch and then spent a few hours in the outside hot pools. They also had the cleaner fish that eat the dead skin off your feet and I had a go... it was unbelievably tickly. After another cycle back to the village we met in the hall for a celebration of the 9th day of the 9th month (as per the lunar calendar) which is a celebration of elderly people, 9 being associated with longevity in Chinese culture. We shared green tea, oranges and layer cake whilst learning a little bit about their lives. The 4 gentleman we were sat with were all aged over 80 and had lived inthe village for all of their lives, having worked in agriculture. The next table over had the elderly ladies and I think they really connected with the girls they were talking to, some of them lived on their own and reminded the girls of their own grandmothers, resulting in them ending up in tears. I guess it was a bittersweet meeting. In the evening we worked on our task in the salon.

Day 11

Today I attended classes on calligraphy and Chinese painting. Whilst being really poor at these, to the point where the teacher actually looked over my shoulder and sighed, I really enjoyed the feeling creative and having a go. We started to map the roads on the village and I finally feel like I can navigate my way around without getting lost!

Day 12

Firstly we visited the Bagua village which is a beautiful ancient Chinese village complete with medicinal herb garden (which includes a snake pit). We stayed the night on Soyuoan village where we were treated to another display of the bench dragon and actually got to help carry this one!

Day 13

Yiwu - the largest small comodities market in China -was huge! So many of everything..from turtle plush toys to toilet seats to handbags. It is so big that there is a free bus that runs between the different sections! I actually managed to buy some sailor-pattern cloth shoes that I've been wanting for a while and a powder blue handbag (not realising it was a fake Miu Miu) and of course bargained down the price a little bit for each of these.