From where I stand, I am admiring the village laying down the valley. A hundred of white houses are surrounded by mountains. Most of the houses are high, two or three floors and most of them look empty. We are in the Anhui province, where the Yellow mountains stand proud. Departing from our housing in the village, me and a dozen of other participants have been running, walking, hiking (what they call “trailing”) our way up the mountain to reach the peak we are standing on after a few hours of pain under the burning sun. Some did feel the pain more than others. As we were on the the way up, I understood why the village seems so empty: most villagers are busy working in the fields on the mountainsides. The most of us are wearing what we commonly call “professional flashy running t-shirts and gears”. All the way up, I was wondering what these villagers, whose routine is to climb up at dawn and climb down at dusk, are thinking of this bunch of foreigners doing this for sport.
Two days ago, I was scrolling down on my WeChat while still working at TalkMandarin and I saw an advertisement for this organised trailing week-end in the Anhui mountains. Without thinking too long, I let Mister Fēng know and I am off to Shanghai, from were the party departs. Atmosphere is bad at the office where Mister Fēng will praise my work in the morning, but still remember to everyone that Mùzi should marry a Chinese in the afternoon. Those mountains are wiser than you mate.
My short passage in Shanghai to catch the bus came as a good surprise. It is my first time out of Suzhou since the pandemic started and I realise that my Chinese experience of Covid might have been different if I was in another province. As I walk through the train station in Shanghai, I am stressed and expecting deep checks of my passport, reasons to go there as well as whatever QR code Shanghai is using. Well, how surprised I was when I arrived to the meeting point without having been arrested anywhere. Shanghai is way more relaxed. People are even staring less. I directly spot the group of a dozen foreigners and join to introduce myself and try to mingle. It does not take long to already know a few people here. Networking is a second nature for expats. Sitting in the coach, we are now off to the mountains! A normality feeling is relaxing me and I smile for once since a while.
The Saturday morning we were divided into two groups, the fast one and the slow one. I voluntarily applied for the slow one, as you can understand, just because I want to enjoy the scenery. On the way I start realising how foreigners in Shanghai are different from the foreigners in Suzhou. There is no English teacher here. I met this smiling guy, a Belgian with Moroccan origins, who explains me that he left Belgium ten years ago to be a sales representatives in Shanghai. He then discovered a passion for trailing and travelled around China through this passion, that is where I got remembered of my past life. That way of seeing life I have to hide in Suzhou. That one where life experiences matters over material, that one where personality matters over title and job position.
At the back of the slow group are two taiwanese girls, they look like sisters as they are both very short and with the same haircut. One is however chubbier than the other. Both met in Shanghai as they were sent there by their company. Some would ask me what is the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese people, as both are from China, but one is traditional communist while the other legalised gay marriage. To those people, I recommend you to talk with a bunch of China Chinese people and then with a bunch of Taiwan Chinese people. You will get your answer within thirty minutes. The interesting thing is also that both parts speak the same language but do not write it the same way. All good for me, time to practice and use this as an excuse to slow down. Also, I think the chubbier one is hitting on me.
After my admiration of the scenery, which allowed me to catch up my breath, it is already time to go down as sun sets early in this part of the world. I expected this part to be a piece of cake. Well I now know that going down in trailing might be more challenging than going up. Basically, lift your body balance forward and hope for the best. As the sun slowly sets, the villagers are also going down so that the mountains will soon be deserted. With my Belgian-Moroccan and Taiwanese fellows, we finally arrive to the accommodation. As soon as I stop running, my legs get sour and my belly starts screaming. Time for a shower before the night’s barbecue.
When leaving my room at night, I have the impression to enter a new place. The tiny village does not have public lighting and the valley is all dark. I hardly manage to find my way in the tiny alleys between our sleeping place and the restaurant. With another runner, we finally find the place which is enlightened in an almost romantic fashion by the Chinese co-owner. I feel a relaxed atmosphere that I did not grasp in months. The cooks have been busy for a while and they have done an amazing job. Everyone is rushing in line to the buffet. Back with my plate overloaded, I sit next to a tall and skinny blond girl who co-organised this weekend. Czech, she spent two years in Taiwan to learn the language, then moved to Shanghai for a job. She is one of those rare foreigners in China actually speaking mandarin. I estimate them at about 5 percent of the expats community. We directly enter into a deep discussion on how to learn mandarin best and soon tips and experiences are exchanged.
Later that night a villager stands awkwardly next to our group. Probably drunk, we quickly understand his obvious wish to join the group. One of us invites him to join. He is so happy to do so and my thought is quickly confirmed: he is completely wasted. This fifty plus years old, nor short nor tall but very skinny guy still asks for more shots. As my Czech neighbour and I are the only one managing some mandarin, we have to handle the conversation. He is one of these villagers that were working on the hills sides during the days. It turns out to be the kind of interaction I love as two complete different worlds are about to collide. He explains us how his village has the cleanest water in the region, since the water is falling from natural sources in the mountains. This water is said to have vertus which I do not remember but they were magical for sure. Later, he will start long tirades on the greatness of China and their Russian brothers, while Japan, Germany and the US are forsaken countries. We are kindly nodding all along.
The end of this week-end also marked the end of me working at TalkMandarin the week after as it was time for me to go back to university. What a relieve. But before going back to the university benches, we got a request to sign a commitment letter. Basically swearing that I do not have Covid 19, nor met anyone who has it or at least symptoms and that I did not travel around. This letter is of course compulsory if I wish to pass the gates.
Everyone including me is sharing his enthusiasm about going back to the classroom. Our first teacher is also excited about not teaching online anymore. We have to keep the masks for two weeks but it does not prevent everyone from chatting around. One thing makes the experience awkward is that the Chinese learning department dropped from about six hundred students to less than one hundred. The cafeteria is now closed. The average age of the students has significantly increased with all the Korean and Japanese wifes, studying Chinese while their husband works in Suzhou. The atmosphere in school is clearly different. Nevertheless I am super excited when our second new teacher arrives for our conversational class. Her introduction will start by a question to us, the five Westerners (the rest of the class being fifteen Asian wifes): “Could you please explain to us why in such small countries as yours, the pandemic is so badly handled?“