A Gweilo in 1980s China – pt. 10

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Written by Tai Pan


When we arrived in Changsha, a group of officials from the local textile factory – the same officials that I was there to do business with – were kindly waiting to welcome us at the train station.

Contrary to what I had done during my first business transaction in China, at the beginning of the trade, even thou the Chinese businessmen gave me some pretty good prices, I started a long and hard-fought negotiation. Whilst I was arguing with the officials, I noticed that they were looking at me with a surprised look on their face, which then turned into a look of admiration and respect.

So I realised that the Chinese were actually enjoying doing business with me, and so was I!

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In the late morning I met the main official, the superior of those I had just done the transaction with. We discussed about textile prices for a bit more, until lunch was served at the local factory.

After thanking the Chinese man for the successful business relations that we had just established, the hosts informed us that they had organized a whole day trip to the mountains for the following day.

That night, as I was re-living in my mind the amazing experience I had on the train, I fell asleep dreaming about another train ride in another part of China, always rural and extremely beautiful.

In the morning three Chinese men came to pick us up in a van that could seat up to 8 people, and while they were driving us around I had the chance to admire the amazing landscape that was surrounding us. As soon as we left the town centre, infinite rice paddies began to open up all around us, while small traditional agglomerate of houses were decorating the sides of the roads.

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The streets only had one lane for each direction and they did not have any kind of separation structure between the roads and the actual countryside. Indeed, every now and then, we had to slow down, and sometimes even stop, as the ‘highway’ was temporarily occupied by a sheep or a cow that were being pushed by a farmer who needed to cross over from a side of the field to the other.

Looking at all those locals working so hard to keep their harvest growing, made me think of how privileged I was. I began to think that I was pretty lucky to be in the position that I was at that time: a 27 years old Gweilo being able to visit China and experience the real atmosphere of the country on first hand… I was, indeed, quite lucky!

As I was totally absorbed in my thoughts on life, I didn’t realise that the landscape had change: I was suddenly struck by a spectacular view of the mountains of Hunan, a magical and fascinating composition of rocks and plants, that made the panorama look like a living painting. At that point we were already starting to drive up the mountains.


What my eyes were witnessing was quite unique and magical. The Chinese officials that were accompanying us during this trip pointed out all the various caves, particular rocks, waterfalls, and in general any small detail that only locals could actually spot in that fabulous landscape. As I was getting more and more excited about the view, I noticed that my Italian ‘colleagues’ were being hypnotised by what the view too!

The journey lasted for only few hours, and it was alternated with few quick stops to stretch, go to the toilet, or to better admire the landscape. As soon as we reached the top of the mountain, my eyes could not believe how beautiful, charming and wonderful the whole scene was!

Today the mountainous of Hunan are famous all over the world as the American director James Cameron, used them as location to shoot his masterpiece ‘Avatar”. Indeed, for those of you who are familiar with the movie, the mountains of Pandora actually exist, and they are in the Chinese province of Hunan.

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Once we reached the highest peak, we stopped the car in front of a stunning ancient temple. A Buddhist temple that I vividly remember to be so peaceful and quite, that it made me smile inside. The structure was probably hundreds of years old, but despite the oldness of the place, the decorations were as beautiful as timeless.

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The monks were very kind and hospitable, and the first thing they showed us in the temple was the kitchen: which was not other than a humble room made of stone pavements and wooden walls, with a gigantic pile of burning logs positioned right in the middle.

I walked over to the centre of the kitchen see what the monks were cooking, and I noticed that one of them was holding a huge wooden spoon that he used to stir whatever he was boiling. It all seemed so surreal and magical! Another interesting thing about the monks’ kitchen was the big pot that was placed in the centre  right next to the fire. It was a rounded ceramic cauldron of about 1 metre and a half of height! Inside this gigantic pot, a monk was cooking plain white rice.

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The officials told me that the huge amount of rice would have then been mixed with different kinds of vegetables, and that all the food that was being prepared wasn’t just for the monks, but also for the poor families that couldn’t afford to buy rice for themselves.

I know I am probably repeating myself, but once again I felt like I was living in a 1920s movie!

While I was inside the temple, I had the chance to try the mixture of rice and vegetables that the monks were cooking, and I was also lucky enough to talk to some of the monks that were serving us the food.

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On the way back I couldn’t stop thinking about the amazing things I had just witnessed: the Buddhist temple, the incredible view from the top of the mountain and the peaceful monks that invited us to eat with them.

I said to one of the Chinese hosts that was sitting next to me on the van, that I really enjoyed the trip, as I had never experienced something so incredible and wonderful – referring to the temple. So the official smilingly told me an ancient Chinese saying:” Seeing things with your own eyes is way better than reading about them in a thousand books.” Oriental wisdom is always right!

The day after our excursion to the mountains of Hunan, we planned another “trip”, but this time for a professional purpose: it was time for me and the other two Italians to go visit few local factories to check where and how the goods that we agreed to buy, were being produced.

Anyway, I will tell you about my day among Chinese workmen in the next coming chapter!

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