Just south of where the terracotta warriors stand in the ground at silent attention to, and in silent, stern protection of their onerous, mean spirited master (Emperor Qin was a $&^%# by all accounts) lives another man, also in the ground. Mr Zhang. Not so silent and still however. And of a much more gentle disposition than his 2000 year old neighbour. Mr Zhang is a pomegranate farmer. Who has dug a hole in the bank, under his three acres of trees, in which to live. He proudly showed us the hand adze with which he dug out this hole. And with which he dug his well, into which I peered and saw my face darkly in the liquid metal grey shimmer of water ten feet down. Here he lives with his wife, Mrs Zhang no less! And with his two daughters. One a recent graduate of engineering from a Xian university. And the other crippled with… well, we were not too sure with what but one suspected rheumatoid arthritis. She walked with a stiff rigidity, inflexible neck and a tentative step but bore a smile that would bring one of those terracotta warriors to life and which melted us. The engineer was back home after graduation to help Mum and Dad on the farm. What a split world she must live in.
Mr Zhang invited us to lunch and we sat around a table in his little cave, which is modelled on those live you might have seen in Yanan. About ten feet wide. And thirty feet deep. In the shape of a modest arch, maybe almost ten feet high. I discovered the doorway is less than six foot two inches high by cracking my head on it rather soundly. Immediately to the left of the doorway – a bricked up wall covering the mouth of the cave – is their bed. A “kang”, which is a bed constructed of brick with a fire under it with a flue that takes the heat out under the bed and vents outside. There is always someone doing it tougher than you – I thought I had it hard cutting firewood to get hot water into the house on a frosty morning when I was a kid. But a fire in the bed!! It must get cold in here in winter.
Mrs Zhang has a neat trick. She quickly glances at you, then pulls out a small pair of nail scissors, and with head cocked to one side in concentration, snips out a profile about 6cm high in black card, all in a matter of seconds. It is kind of cute. And endearing. A little gift from the heart.
After a steaming pile of noodles, which I could not finish, we were treated to a display of handicrafts made by Mrs Zhang, a discourse by Mr Zhang on the ins and outs of his little farm (in the middle of which a jangling phone jolted us out of a timeless cave back into the twenty-first century – and through which a delighted Mr Zhang received an order for some of his pomegranates) and then a meeting with Mr Zhang’s mother. A classic leathery old Chinese girl who looked rather bemused at this crowd of people her son had dragged into the farm. Past a quick display of a loom, a single point plough, various farming implements, three sties of pigs being fattened (Mr Zhang made me laugh – no more breeding, sows, they are too cantankerous – took me back to childhood memories of cranky sows) and back out onto the road and a cheery wave from them all standing on the side of the road.
Amazing hospitality really. Would you take a group of strangers into your home who could not speak your language, cook them a meal, feed them at a table in your main bedroom (OK, it is the lounge as well) and let them ferret around your garden shed among the tools and play with the pets?. No, I didn’t think so.