On December 29th 2013, we loaded our luggage in a friends Fortuner and drove the 400 odd kilometres from Bloemfontein to OR Thambo International Airport, to start a 24 hour journey, taking three flights, to arrive in Jiamusi, Heilongjiang, China, late the afternoon on December 30th.
That was 18 months ago.
On July 1st 2015, we loaded our luggage on train K2606, departing from Jiamusi train station, to start another 24 hour journey.
This time to Beijing.
And from Beijing to Liangxiang in Beijing’s Fangshan County, about 40 kilometres from the city centre.
Public transport in China is cheap and convenient.
We bought second class tickets, or what they call ‘hard-sleeper’-tickets.
You get a bed, with fresh clean bedding, in a carriage, alongside many other travelers.
The carriage is equiped with a toilet, bassin area and conductor who constantly cleans and makes sure everybody is comfortable.
The journey was easy. We played cards. Excitedly talked about what awaits us on the other side. Read some. Shared dinner and breakfast and lunch. Slept some.
And then we arrived in Beijing.
At the beautiful old train station with its bell-tower which rings on the hour.
Crowds of people easily finding their way.
We find our way to the KFC for a cup of coffee and ice cream for the kids, while waiting for Anna Wang, who is meeting us for the last leg of our journey.
In Jiamusi we had new friends seeing us off at the station, making sure we catch the right train and find our carriage and settle into our little semi-compartment.
18 months ago, at OR Thambo International, it was just us, our friends far away in Bloemfontein and Nelson Mandela Bay.
This afternoon, as we sip hot black coffee, the bell striking once, it is just us again.
Our little Tribe, on our amazing little journey.
It is different from a 3 week tour, with luxury accommodation and arranged transport.
It is immersive.
Tasting and experiencing what never could be on a short little visit.
We load our luggage in the black mini-van and head out of Beijing, towards Liangxiang.
The air-con a welcome comfort after 30 minutes at the train station.
It is a 90 minute drive.
We could’ve taken the subway. Google Maps says it is 90 minutes by subway from Beijing Train Station to Liangxiang on the new Fangshan-subway-line.
Anna insisted on meeting us.
She takes us to the Police Station, where we need to register our arrival.
And then to our new little home.
In Jiamusi the institution I worked for provided us with housing, for which we were grateful, since it would’ve been an impossible requirement for us to seek and find housing, in a country we’ve never been to, from South Africa, before our departure.
In Liangxiang, we found our own home.
Over the internet.
With lots of negotiations, with the help of Google Translate and WeChat, China’s version of Whatsapp.
I was a little worried, despite my belief that our lives are connected to the Origin of Life and Being & that there is a rhytm of loss and gain, which is good, aware that every loss brings gain and every gain will flow to loss again, creating space for new gain.
We’ve ordered shoes online.
But never before have we ordered a house.
And then you trust that everything will work out.
And eventually it does.
In Liangxiang, on the outskirts of Beijing, housing is expensive.
Not as expensive as in Beijing itself, but still, on what I would earn with the little bit of teaching I would do, a 3-bedroom apartment would eat more than 35% of my income each month.
And we did the apartment thing in Jiamusi.
Which was an interesting experience.
A difficult one, in some ways, for a little Tribe who came from a beautiful little wooden house, set on a not so little hill, overlooking forest and ocean.
It took some getting used to the 5 flights of stairs to climb every day and the view of another apartment building and the less space and the neighbours above and below.
We made the most of that and enjoyed the experience – somewhere, if we get the gift of old age, we’ll talk about the beauty of our little apartment on the 5th floor in Yi Yuan Qao Qi, but when we found a little house, with a little garden, just 10 kilometres outside Liangxiang, renting for not even 17% of my income, we were excited.
Could it be possible?
To live in a house with a garden, and a beautiful entrance gate, in China where most families live in apartments?
It must be a scam!
And had we given ourselves to fear of the unknown and belief in the worst, we would’ve opted for a smallish 2-bedroom apartment, somewhere on the 5th floor again, neatly furnished and very safe, but above our means and already inside the sphere of our experience.
It is a littlenharder to be brave when you are part of a Tribe.
When Zuko and I were just married, young and without children, we would often throw caution to the wind, without thinking about it twice.
We shared an adventerous spirit and we would deal with whatever happened, together.
We continued this tradition after the kids arrived, but it took and it takes a little more now.
We have 4 other lives to consider and you don’t know how hardy they would be and you don’t want to subject them to stuff that is unpleasant or bad.
Still we phoned and WeChat-ted and ordered.
Driving down a little alley.
To stop in front of a beautiful red gate.
And find a not so little house with 5 fruit trees and loads of birds in the garden.
The landlord and his family are friendly.
Everything isn’t ready yet.
He misjudged himself on how long it would take to prepare for our arrival.
The inside is repainted.
But the bathroom and kitchen isn’t ready yet.
Zuko can’t cook and more than 30 hours after we’ve left Jiamusi, it seems we can’t wash either.
Maddi is unaffected.
She starts playing in the soil under the fruit trees.
Dude and Pippin and Sophia choose bedrooms.
For teenagers this is important.
The house has 5 bedrooms, not 4, as the landlord indicated.
The wood-panneling and Chinese sliding doors give it an exotic feel.
Chairman Mao greets us in the lounge.
And as the sun sets our neighbours, an elderly couple, bring dinner.
Since we can’t cook.
Beans with beef.
In the cool of early evening, we sit on the steps of our new home, enjoying the warmth and hospitality of beautiful people we’d just met.
And then we start cleaning, while the landlord brings a new fridge and washing machine with great pride.
And installs a beautiful new gass stove in the kitchen.
Our Tribe impressing me, hardier than I thought, braver, alongside each other, as we livemthrough a little discomfort and make the best of this very moment.
Perhaps the Landlord too struggled to believe and was a little hesitant?
Not believing that a foreigner, who says he lives in Jiamusi, would arrive, when he said he would and rent, what he agreed to rent?
And because of his disbelief, he held back, not wanting to waste time and money?
Whatever the reasons, 3 days after our arrival we take a hot showermin our own bathroom, we do some laundry in the newly installed washing machine and Zuko cooks a beautiful dinner on her new gas-stove.
This morning we’ll head to the little breakfast shop where we had breakfast on our first morning in 大高舍村 (High house village), then we’ll stroll to the outdoor market to find bedding and seeds for the garden Pippin has already prepared. Later we’ll watch a movie and have dinner on our steps.
And so we’ll find a new rhythm, in a new place, filled with new people to meet and beautiful places to discover.
Life, not very normal, but interesting.
A little discomfort and uncertainty, always the gateway to something exquisite.