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The Cave-Dwelling Farmers of Shanxi 居住在岩洞中的善良农民

We rely a lot on the kindness of farmers. 

Every night when we set up camp it’s either on farmland or very close to it, given that every square inch of flat land in China is given over to agriculture including road verges, spare pocket handkerchiefs of land between fences and homes, and tiny slips of land beside bridges and waterways. The skerricks of land that are left over are too steep to farm but also too steep to park on, causing us all to roll forwards under the dashboard during the night, like slow-rolling stones.

When the farmers are about we ask if we can camp, and when they’re not we choose a quiet site away from farmhouses so we stay out of the way of daily farm business, allowing the farmers to go about their work without any disruption from us.

At times though, we accidentally cause a lot of disruption to daily farm business. Some afternoons shepherds bring their flocks of sheep or goats home past our van and we suddenly realize we have parked right in their  path. No wonder the grass was so flat and short! But they just move quietly around us without any bother.

Other times we park in what we consider a remote spot only to discover the next morning we are directly next to a ‘tractor highway’ as all the local farmers drive their tractors to work out in the fields. Did you know farmers start work at 4.30am? Neither did I until the deafening two-stroke engines rolling past had me leaping out of bed in the dark. 




This week we set up camp near a tiny village in western Shanxi Province and parked amongst tall wildflowers next to a field of corn. The village consisted almost entirely of yaodong – cave homes. I’ve been fascinated by these homes for several years, but the closest I’d ever come to seeing inside one was when I visited an abandoned cave house village outside Xi’an. 

These extraordinary homes are the most common form of dwelling in this part of China – almost everyone lives in one. They are not naturally occuring caves, like those inhabited by the papermakers of Guizhou, but are man-made arched caverns dug into the compacted dirt hills of the region. They’re cool in summer, warm in winter, and have the advantage of not occupying any precious terraced land used for farming.

We thought we were far enough from the village that the noise of our generator wouldn’t bother anyone, but what we hadn’t counted on was how curious those local farmers were about us.
Perhaps they had never met foreigners before. Certainly they had never seen a fangche before. In their ones and twos, then in their tens they all came to say hello, ask a lot of questions, look inside the van, and watch us cook and eat dinner. Babies, small children, teenagers, parents and grandparents – all came. I imagine not a lot of work got done in the village that evening.



The next day, at their repeated invitation, we visited their yaodong cave homes. The village had all stopped work and downed tools for our visit, waiting for us under the great big walnut tree at the entrance to the village.


Yaodong have a natural, simple beauty. Each one is fronted by three graceful arched doorways with inset windows decorated with fretwork and decorative brickwork. Inside, the yaodong are light and surprisingly airy, with light reflecting from the curved ceiling of plaster-covered rammed earth.

 The rooms are all furnished simply with a kang – a large earthen platform bed with a chimney underneath for heat during the cold, harsh winter months – a small stove, a cupboard and sofa, and framed photographs on the walls of their families, some far away. The first two arched rooms are for living, and the third used to store grain and preserved foods.


The farmers were so pleased to have us as visitors, and so proud to show us their wonderful neat houses. It’s a great privilege it is to be welcomed into someone’s home as a stranger, let alone the homes of an entire village.


As a way of saying thank you I took polaroid photographs of everyone in the village. At first there was some confusion about the strange white toy camera that spat out a white card, then amazement all round as the first photograph slowly developed, revealing first coloured shadows, then forms, and finally faces and details. 

Several spent some minutes staring intently at the black side of the photograph before realizing the image had already fully formed on the reverse. Several others rushed away to change their clothes and smooth their hair for their portraits.

Already so generous in taking us into their homes, as we left the farmers filled our hands and pockets with pears, walnuts and corn they had grown themselves. 

In our travels we’ve now met so many kind and open people living and working in the countryside. This post is a tribute to all of them – I know they will never see it or read it, but I thank them anyway.


Taming the Kitchen Dragon: Farm-Style Home Cooking in China

It’s half an hour past midday, late by Chinese lunch standards. A whole hour late actually – lunch generally beginning at the barely-finished-breakfast time of eleven thirty – so everyone in the smoke-filled kitchen is starving and beginning to steal bits of food from the bowls covering the square wooden tea table, dressed with a piece of pale blue floral sheet. They’re all hoping the cook won’t notice.
The cook meanwhile, has a huge fire-breathing machine to control, a square squat black and white patterned dragon in the corner of the room puffing smoke and steam and full of fire, and he’s trying to tame it enough to get the lunch finished so we can all sit down and eat.

I’m in the farmhouse kitchen of the Xu family, along with eight neighbours, relatives and friends who have stopped by to see what’s for lunch, and the dragon is the wok stove that takes pride of place in every eastern Chinese farm kitchen, a rather lovely hand-painted beast of a thing. After a morning visiting the local market and farms of Farmer Feng and her neighbours, I’m having a home-cooked farm-style lunch and spending the afternon seeing the farms of the extended Xu family and their neighbours. 

I’m very taken by these big Chinese farmhouse stoves though, and the skill needed to cook with them. This one (in Farmer Feng’s kitchen) is typical, with it’s simple painted designs and chimney recessed to hold sauces and condiments. Made from rammed earth then tiled and painted, the stoves are so enormous that farmhouse kitchens tend to be enormous too, just to fit them in. I’ve come across some really beautifully decorated and painted ones, like the stove at a peach farm I visited, but others are very simple and functional.
The stove usually has three deep indentations set into its broad top, for two large woks and one small one. The woks, seasoned to a deep bronze-black patina, are divided up according to their purpose – one for stir-frying, and the others for boiling water or steaming.
The stove backs onto a small alcove behind the chimney and has two long narrow fireplaces about the thickness and length of a man’s arm, each fireplace leading to the spot directly underneath one of the two large woks. The fireplaces are fed with a stash of dried bamboo and straw standing in the chimney corner.

Cooking on a wood-fired wok stove is way more complicated than just turning the gas up or down, and it requires a lot more skill, but here’s how it works. Cooking is a two man affair, with the cook standing in front of the stove tossing ingredients into one of the two woks at great speed, and calling out to the second ‘cook’ the necessary instructions – ‘more heat!’ ‘less heat!’ ‘fast heat!!’ and so on.
The second cook sits facing the fireplaces, feeding in bamboo at the required speed for the level of heat. When a really high heat is needed, she works a small electric bellows which draws air through a side vent, magnifying the fire massively (I guess in other farms manual bellows might still exist, although I’ve never seen them used).
Meanwhile, the kitchen is dense with smoke, steam and heat, and the dishes are coming out to the table at a great rate of knots. Every single thing we’re eating today has been pulled out of the earth this morning. 
The pale blue duck eggs, collected today and given to me earlier by Farmer Feng, are going in the soup. The eight different vegetable dishes have come from vegetables picked less than thirty metres from the kitchen – baby celery, fresh scallions and garlic, spinach, bok choy. Many I’ve never seen before including a claw-shaped, multiheaded vegetable called wa-wa cai or baby vegetable, shown below.

It’s quite some spread! White-poached chicken with a soy dipping sauce, and hong shao ji  (red-cooked chicken) in a sweet, sticky soy reduction are both on the table (the chickens freshly dispatched an hour prior) along with crisp fried local fish, and a parade of fabulous vegetable dishes, each one simply cooked to show off the wonderful fresh-out-of-the-ground flavours. Duck egg soup with tomatoes and slices of radish, Stir-fried spinach with finely shredded tofu and a little pork, and the baby vegetable, boiled first to soften it, then gently stir-fried in the wok with a pinch of salt and a touch of oil. It has a forgettable mushy appearance but the flavour I like – a cross between a really fresh brussel sprout and cabbage. That may not be the most attractive description, on reflection, but I did enjoy it!

As did all the assembled neighbours – Wang Ayi (Auntie Wang) in the centre, her cheeks marked from years of winter work outdoors, spent the entire meal negotiating with me to find her single 29 year old son a wife. The foreigner the better, she thought, seeing as he’d so far failed to find a Chinese wife and produce any grandchildren. Twenty nine! she exclaimed.
And heartfelt thanks for a memorable meal to our wonderful two cooks – Xu Ayi, who controlled that fire so well, and Cook Wang who tamed the dragon in the kitchen and sent forth dish after dish of fresh, simple, delicious food. Don’t you wish you could eat like this everyday?

Farmer Boy, Farmer Girl: Allotment Farming in China

Meet the delightfully friendly Farmer Xi Hu Li, who at nearly seventy years of age has two things to show for a life of hard work – a neat little half-acre farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, and a pair of very fancy silver teeth.
He’s a quietly spoken man, well shy of five feet tall with a soft weathered face and a ready smile, but completely mystified as to why a foreign woman, myself, would suddenly show up in one of his greenhouses. He is far too polite to make a fuss about it though.
I’ll have to go back a few steps to explain how I came to be in his greenhouse. Every time I travel by road or train out of Shanghai I see hundreds of tiny farms, often with rows of arched plastic-covered greenhouses crammed like sardines on the city’s outskirts. I wanted and meet some of these small plot farmers and see what their life is like, how they farm, and where they sell the food they grow. 
The constant scaremongering in China about food safety gets a bit tiring, and everyone seems to live and eat in a state of perpetual alarm-readiness. What’s on the blacklist today? Yesterday someone told me that strawberries sold in Shanghai are injected with sugar solution to make them sweeter and heavier. What? Where does the truth lie? I wanted to see farming in action for myself but until recently I had no idea how to even meet any farmers, let alone wangle an invite back to their farms.
Then I had a lucky break – when I went to Mr Xu’s metal workshop recently I noticed it was smack bang in the middle of a village of small farms, and after taking his portrait he agreed to lend me one of his staff, Little Chen, to meet the local farmers of San Tuan village this week.
The chosen day dawned grey and dismal – pouring with rain, feezing cold and windy, with bouts of sleet. A sunny day would have been lovelier but this is the reality of farming – you have to go to work in any weather. 
Little Chen thought we should go to the local market first to find the farmers, who would be there selling their wares, and we could hopefully coerce one or two into showing us their farms.
The first farmer I met was Dong Ai Xian, selling baby celery so fresh there was still earth clinging to the roots. The seventy year old mother of four children goes to market at four in the morning three days a week, earning 50 yuan a day ($8) selling the vegetables she grows herself. It’s very little money, and the days are long but she says every bit helps.
On the other side of the market I met a row of women selling vegetables, all local farmers, and among them the very shy Feng Wu Bao, who for reasons still unknown to me agreed to take Little Chen and I back to her farm for the morning and meet her husband Xi Hu Li who was mending their greenhouse. I wish you could have seen the hastily suppressed look of surprise on his face when we turned up!
Feng Wu Bao and Xi Hu Li have a traditional zi liu di farm – a small allotment assigned to individual families at the close of the Cultural Revolution, derived from the breakdown of large communal farms. All the farms in this area are run on the same basis and are small, no more than an acre each. The farms can be handed down from generation to generation but can’t be bought or sold.
Farmers Feng and Xi, like all their neighbours, grow vegetables and raise ducks and chickens for their own use, and for their children and grandchildren too, with any surplus taken to market to sell. Because their family are all eating the food they grow their foremost concern is that the food be safe, and for this reason they don’t use any pesticides or herbicides, and the only fertilizer utilized is the manure and straw mulch from their duck pen. 
They’ve farmed this way for over forty years, growing only what’s in season, with the only nod to modernity being the construction of an arched plastic-covered greenhouse in which there is a healthy crop of tomatoes thriving. Greenhouse farming helps them conserve water and prevents crop loss due to birds and pests.
Although they might not be familiar with the term ‘organic’ these farmers have, in fact, been using organic farming principles for a very long time.

Back at their house, I poke around the chicken pen, the duck pen, the storage shed and the tool shed. Not a skerrick of chemicals anywhere. By now, Feng’s best friend and neighour has popped around to see what’s going on. There are smiles and giggles all round as these sixty-somethings share a private joke and have their photo taken.

To be honest, I feel quite elated myself – despite the sleet, the mud, and the miserable grey skies I feel very optimistic that there are many, many farms like this one all over China, not organic, no, but clean, well-cared for and chemical free. It’s nice to know the next time I go to my wet market I can ask: 

你自己种得吗?Nǐ zìjǐ zhòng de ma? Did you grow this yourself?

As I leave Feng presses a bowl of the palest blue duck eggs into my hands, for my family. They’re practically the loveliest things I’ve ever seen.

Seeing Red

A full twenty four hours from Kashgar by rollicking train across the northern edge of the Taklamikan Desert lies the green oasis of Turpan, home to China’s best grapes, and our destination for the next few days. Except that, thanks to my thorough reading of the guidebook, I discover too late that the train isn’t actually arriving in Turpan, but in the rough and ready transit point of Daheyan, 60 km away and smack-bang in the middle of a dusty desert wasteland. It’s definitely not an oasis.
The road between Turapn and Daheyan threatens to be one long hour of monotonous flat grey gravel, broken only by the vicarious excitement of our driver overtaking trucks on the wrong side of the road while the truck is overtaking something slower, like a bus. Then back to gravel, lots and lots of gravel. 
Then all of a sudden, the entire horizon changes from grey to red, and as far as the eye can see in every direction are acres and acres of long red chilies drying on the hot dry ground. I cajole the driver into pulling over so I can get a closer look, and as soon as I open the car door the pungent chili in the air makes my eyes smart and my nose sting just a little. 
Nothing, and I mean nothing grows out here – not a blade of grass or a stunted tree, nothing – so I wonder where the trucks delivering the bags of fresh chilies have come from. Each truckload of chilies (and in a sweep of the horizon I count fifty or sixty trucks) is being tended by a small work group of four or five men with pitchforks. The chilies are poured out of sacks onto the ground and spread evenly by the men to a depth of about two inches. The men tell me it will take three days for them to dry, then they will be packed back into sacks and driven away again.
As we chat the men tell me they are non-local labourers, Han Chinese not Uighurs, from far afield. Despite the heat and the pungency they are enjoying the camaraderie and passing around cigarettes as they wait for the next truck’s arrival. 

This is what I really get out of travelling across China – a better understanding of food, where it grows, how it’s processed, and how completely simple and unmechanised many of these processes still are, albeit on a massive scale. 
So next time you buy a packet of dried chilies here in China and there’s a bit of grit in the bottom of the bag, and the chilies are on the dusty side, think of this post. That packet holds not just any old dirt but a little bit of the Taklamakan Desert, free of charge.  
Travels on the Silk Road

Farm Feast

Lunch at the peach farm was a huge home-cooked spread of eighteen different dishes. All this had come out of a very traditional farmhouse kitchen about half the size of a conventional western kitchen, and in all, there were about thirty-six of us Shanghai city folk to be fed. So while everyone was sampling the peaches, I was nosing about in the kitchen and chatting to the farmer’s wife about lunch, and watching the cooking in progress.
The kitchen was dominated by a very old wood-fired stove, decorated all over with tiles and simple frescoes. These old fire stoves are almost extinct, in fact the first time I ever saw one was in a museum in Shanghai, but they are still used in larger country houses where there is plenty of space, and plenty of firewood. They are usually very simply decorated, if at all, but this was by far the most colourful one I’d seen. The fire is at the back, and it fuels the three set-in woks at the front, two large and one small. They can be used for stir-frying, or filled with water and used as steamer bases.
The largest wok here, on the left, was filled with water and covered with a giant two-tier silver steamer. The wooden tub sitting on the other side was slow-cooking a type of fragrant rice pilaf. The smallest wok, in front, was filled with water ready to blanch the soy beans that a girl was shelling on a stool outside the kitchen.
The steamer lid was removed to reveal four whole fish in two tiers, being steamed whole with soy, ginger and garlic. The easiest way to cook fish, ever. A little splash of sesame oil at the end and you’re done. Cooked this way, the fish retains its shape and skin, and is always very tender.
The kitchen bench held the dishes already cooked – slow-braised pork knuckle in red sauce. You can cut it with a chopstick. Alongside were plates of eggplant with garlic and soy, vinegar beans, and poached chicken.
The cold dishes were ready to serve from the small table in the next room. Fresh whole prawns, thousand-year old eggs, and dishes of salted and pickled farm greens. 
The stand-out dish though, was served last along with wintermelon soup, to aid our digestion and ward off too much internal heat. Rice dishes are often served at the end of a meal, to fill up any emptiness that might still exist after the first sixteen dishes. This one was a winner – it was long-grain rice, slowly cooked in the wooden tub on the wood-fired stove with slivers of pork and the same salted pickled farm greens mixed in. The base of the wooden tub was cast iron, so the bottom layer of rice had turned nicely crispy. The crunchy base was served broken up on top of the dish. 
It was reminiscent of the persian dish cooked in the same way, but without the addition of spices and dried barberries. Anyway, I ate way more than was good for me, or I had room for, because it just tasted so good. Afterwards I had to have a digestion-aiding cup of green tea, and a sleep in the car all the way home. 


I found myself today in the midst of a heatwave, in the middle of nowhere, picking peaches with my landlord. These things seem to happen quite often here, and I have decided it is best to just assume a zen attitude when faced with questions like ‘Do we really have to go and pick peaches with Mr Zhang?’ and ‘Will there be anything to do?’ from daughters one and two. 
Here’s the thing – if by some odd coincidence you should be invited to pick peaches, you know, somewhere other than China, you would have some fair idea of how it works – for example, you go to the farm gate, you pay the farmer, he gives you a basket. But I don’t know how anything works here, and I never know when I agree to these outings whether it will involve
a) a large sum of my money
b) an opportunity for some unknown person to practice their English
or c) an unanticipated overnight stay
I’ve learnt from bitter experience to expect all of the above.
So to give you an idea, this involved no actual picking of peaches, an opportunity for some unknown person to practice their English, and the slaughter of thirteen chickens.
It all began badly. Mr Zhang, his wife and his son arrived a customary thirty minutes early. She was wearing a red t-shirt dress with black rhinestone-encrusted letters that read ‘Punk Ass Motherf***er’ next to an Anarchy symbol.  Along with heels and designer sunglasses. We chatted, as we drove, about schools, and our recent holiday but I couldn’t take my eyes off that t-shirt. It seemed an odd thing for a middle-aged Shanghai landlady to wear to go peach picking.
The peach farm was over an hour past the outskirts of Shanghai, and promisingly, it turned out to be organic, or the closest approximation of ‘organic’ that it’s possible to get on the outskirts of a densely populated megalopolis. The farm grew peaches, nashi pears, vegetables and chickens, who got to eat all the bruised peaches in exchange for the use of their manure as fertiliser.
The peaches looked very healthy, and were wrapped individually on the tree in paper bags to keep pests away. We weren’t allowed to actually pick any of the peaches ourselves – they had all been pre-picked and packaged in pink boxes with a heart-shaped cellophane window, ready for purchase. They were big, fat and juicy white peaches, with a delicious perfume and no, I didn’t feel so bad about not picking them when I realised we would all get sunburn and heat stroke in two seconds flat. 
It became clear that part of the peach expedition would involve lunch at the farm, in the big open bamboo shed they used for sorting, boxing and weighing the peaches. The farmhouse kitchen was heaving with food, and not long afterwards another seven cars rolled up, all full of city folk looking for a day in the country. They walked around the shed in high heels and smoked a lot while they waited for the food to appear. 
The lunch was amazing, but I’m saving that for tomorrow. Over lunch we made friends with the farmer’s father, who served in the merchant navy for years and had circumnavigated Australia. It had been a long time since he’d needed to speak English, but he used the opportunity to practice his pronunciation. It was a damn sight better than my Chinese. After lunch, as a gesture of hospitality we were offered freshly slaughtered chickens to take home. No fewer than thirteen birds were quickly dispatched in another shed, plucked, gutted, bagged and trimmed for our pleasure. 
So that makes it the first time I’ve gone peach picking and come home with a rhinestone anarchist and a freshly dead chook.