When we found out we were leaving China, the first thing I thought of was how much we will miss Amy. Amy is our ayi, which is basically a nanny/housekeeper/superwoman who runs our household and takes care of Paul. We hired Amy when we arrived in China, 5 years ago. She’s been ‘ours’ since then. She and Paul are especially attached, and often times Paul will ask to call Amy while we’re on vacation or in the States. She’s told me she sees him as a second son and I can tell she loves him so much.
So when I had to sit down and tell her we were leaving, it was hard. We are both sad, but we agreed that one thing we could all do together before we depart is travel to her hometown. She wanted to show us where she grew up, meet her friends and family and give Paul a sense of what life in China is like outside of a modern city like Shenzhen. I thought this was fantastic, so we set some dates and put it on hold until later. Well, our first set of dates fell through, and we almost went to Perth instead of Hunan, but in the end, the stars aligned and we had train tickets to her home county of Xiantan in Hunan province. This was as far into China any of us (Donnie, Paul or I) had ever been, and we were looking forward to seeing a China we didn’t know.
Amy planned the trip to a tee, all we had to do was show up when and where she told us to and she took it from there. Her Australian fiance (Reg) and best friend (Ahwei) were traveling with us, which made for a fun crew. We met up with everyone on Tuesday morning and rode to the train station together, we were early, which was fine by me. We bought some snacks and hung out until boarding time and then joined the masses filing into the high speed train.
It was the first time on a high speed train, and it was cool! A journey that usually takes 12 hours took only 3, and it’s way easier than airplane travel. There was lots of room, plenty of snacks and lots of space to walk if we needed. Reg and Donnie had fun hanging out, Paul played Minecraft, Amy and Ahwei chatted and napped and I enjoyed watching the scenery change from city to country. It was a fast ride and we arrived in Zhuzhou city at around 5pm, and headed to our hotel to check in.
Amy had booked us into the nicest hotel in Zhuzhou city, and it was really nice! It was only 350rmb for the night (which is about $50). After a quick rest (Donnie and Paul went for foot massages and Amy and Reg went to look at an apartment), Amy picked us up in a taxi and took us to her parents’ apartment for dinner that night.
Amy’s parents are living in the city right now, not at their home in the countryside due to their health. Amy’s mom has to go for weekly dialysis treatments and her dad has emphysema. The rent a small apartment close to the hospital, which doesn’t really have a kitchen big enough to host a large group. So instead, we ate at local restaurant that felt more like a community kitchen. Lots of Amy’s family members were their, her sister and cousins and their kids, and also her mother and father. We met everyone and then enjoyed the local dishes that they had ordered for us. So. Good. Amy even jumped back into the kitchen to make Paul a special meal, his favorite of pork steak and an egg. He is one lucky dude to be spoiled so much.
After we ate, we walked over to Amy’s parents’ apartment. It is small, but cozy and they have a really cool MahJong table. I had never learned MahJong, so I jumped in and Amy tried to coach me and Reg at the same time. Paul helped me with the Chinese numbers and clearing my tiles when it was time for the next game. After a few rounds, Paul was getting restless and we were all a little beat from the travel day, so Amy called us a cab. She and Reg stayed, while we headed back to the hotel and crashed before an early day on Wednesday.
Wednesday morning came early, and we met for breakfast at 7am then checked out of the hotel. Amy had a full day planned for us, and we were excited to get on the road. Our itinerary was Chairman Mao’s house, Peng Dehuai’s house, then Amy’s house, then to her Uncle’s for dinner! We had a lot to do, and as you should for any Chinese tourist attractions, getting to a place early is key, otherwise the lines are too long.
Amy had arranged for a van to transport us for the whole of the trip, so the driver picked us up with a few extra passengers, some of Amy’s childhood friends! They were in town to see her and also visit family because of the Qing Ming festival. So we loaded up 10 people and all our luggage into the van and set off!
It was a couple of hours in the car to get to Mao’s house, and according to Amy, this is a popular place to visit in her hometown area. We arrived and agreed. It was already crowded, but somehow Amy used her connections to get us to the front of the line and walked through Mao’s childhood home. I saw the room he was born and lived in, and it was very humble. It makes sense some of the decisions he made based on his life before he changed China. Paul wasn’t too interested, and was in a bad mood because everybody kept asking him to take pictures with him. It doesn’t happen much in Shenzhen anymore, but he doesn’t like the attention. And that spills over to taking NO pictures at all, not even with us. We did get a few good ones, and we tried to cheer Paul up with an awesome bubble wand, but the Hales were ready to move on. We walked a little ways down the road to check out a big plaza with a huge statue of Mao, but instead of more pictures we opted for a snack of chips and Coca Cola. It was almost lunch time already.
From there, we stopped and had lunch at a place her friend recommended. Again, it was delicious meal. Each meal we enjoyed had a dish I’d never tried before, and most of them were vegetarian (I’m not an adventurous meat eater). Lunch was leisurely, and next door was a fireworks shop. the Qing Ming festival is a time to visit your family’s tombs in China (kind of like Day of the Dead in Mexico), and one of the popular things to do is set fireworks off at their graves. So Donnie and Reg bought some big fireworks to enjoy at Amy’s uncle’s house later that night, against my motherly warnings.
With full bellies and a now very full car (BIG fireworks), we set off to our next destination. We arrived at Peng Dehuai’s childhood home, and it was much more peaceful than Mao’s. Amy’s family is related in the same way-she explained it that they share a family name, and so it has special meaning to her. We wandered around the house and explored the countryside a little bit before getting back into the van and heading for Amy’s house.
From there it was another long-ish ride to Amy’s childhood home, and it was starting to turn cooler on the way. We arrived and Paul was resting in the car, so I let them go down to a nearby river before we drove up to Amy’s home. Her aunts and uncle were waiting for us there and welcomed us with warm beer. We chatted for a little bit with her cousins before going in and seeing her home. Nobody lives there right now because her parents are in the city, but her aunt and uncle take care of it and use it for storage sometimes. Amy took us on a tour, she showed us their kitchen and loft area where they kept hay/wood. She showed us the bedrooms where she grew up (a Titanic poster!) and the crib that she kept her son in when he was born. She took us to the roof and showed us the land they have, including a pond across the way where she learned to swim. She told us about dinner time and taking her bowl to all her neighbors because everybody served different food and that’s what all the kids did. Her home is beautiful because it’s so filled with love and memories and I felt lucky to see it and see how she grew up. I hope Paul will remember this particular moment.
From there, we walked with Amy on the well-worn path to her Uncle’s house. She told us stories along the way of how she would play and swim with her cousins in their neighborhood. I could tell that it was a tight knit community and an even more tight knit family. Her uncle has a house up on a hill nearby, one which he build the driveway himself to (super impressive!) and they were fixing a huge meal for the family and us. Paul got right to playing with the other kids there (daughters and sons of cousins and friends), chasing chickens through the orchard, playing badminton, and generally getting dirty.
Donnie and I spent time meeting and giving gifts to her family members, and trying out some new snacks and drinking more warm beer and tea. We walked up to her grandmother’s tomb to pay our respects with her family for the holiday and set off some very loud fire crackers. It was so personal and I felt honored to be there. After that, it was time to settle into some good food. Her family had made so much! We ate and ate and ate some more, and enjoyed the company of her family. It was growing darker and later, and the day had been full, so we decided to set the fireworks off and head to a hotel. The fireworks were awesome, like having our own personal show right in our yard. We could see other fireworks in the distance, people with our same idea. After that, it was time to say our goodbyes, and load back into the van for a short drive to the hotel. Actually, a lot of Amy’s family came with us to the hotel because it was in the closest town, and they had plans to go out to KTV afterwards. I wish I had Amy’s energy! Amy checked us into a kitschy room with a round bed and an underwater theme, which Paul loved! We took showers and promptly fell asleep after a very full day.
We were up early again on Thursday to meet Amy and go to breakfast. Amy’s friend had bought some more kid friendly fireworks (sparklers) and so we had a little fun with that before getting back into the car for the day. That day was the actual Qing Ming holiday, so there was a lot of fireworks and traffic already starting. After checking out and loading up the car, we drove down the road for a traditional breakfast. You go to the cart and pick out a bunch of small dishes to eat with your rice and tea for the meal. I picked out lots of yummy vegetable dishes and tofu and we were ready to go with our bellies full.
It was really, really cold, well cold enough to see your breath and we were headed to the mountains that day. It was another long ride in the car (which was harrowing at times because the driver was a tad reckless). We arrived at Mount Heng (Hengshan), which is a little resort down built around the mountain area. It’s supposed to be a really popular place to visit, especially in summer, but that day it was cold and rainy. We bought tickets and boarded a bus that would take us to the top to do some hiking.
Unfortunately, the bus ride was long and windy (I get a little carsick even thinking of it), and when we got to the top, the mountain was surrounded by a cloud. You couldn’t see even 20 feet in front of you, let alone the views we were supposed to be enjoying. It was so cold and so wet, Amy got us some ponchos, but they did little to battle the wind and chill. We set off on our hike after some pictures at a temple, but Paul didn’t last even 15 minutes. I don’t really blame him, it was cold and wet and we watched someone fall. We told Amy to go ahead and we’d meet her at the bottom. So we rode back down the windy road and ended up waiting for a couple of hours in the visitor center. We weren’t in the best mood, but at least Amy and Reg had a good time. We went for a hot meal after their hike and then back in the van to settle into our hotel (same as the first night). We were all too tired to go out to dinner, so we hung out in the hotel, had a little more firework fun, and then bed.
Friday morning we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast before our checkout time. Amy came to get us (she was out meeting with friends again) to take us to an early lunch before we caught the train home. We had one last meal with her family and friends. I could tell Amy was sad to go, and her family didn’t want her to go either. They’re worried about when she moves to Australia. But again, the food was amazing and we said our goodbyes before heading to the train station. It was uneventful travel home, and we were back to our apartment by 6pm, where we promptly ordered pizza. 🙂
The trip was more than I could’ve ever hoped for. Amy was such a gracious host in all of the places we went and her family was so kind and loving. We didn’t pay for a single meal on our whole trip, it is the Chinese way to take care of their guests even though I felt bad for not giving more. I can tell where Amy gets her hard working, yet warm hearted personality and she is such an inspiration.
Thank you, Amy. For this trip, and for becoming a part of our family in these years we’ve been here. Our lives would not be complete without you and we wish you the very best. You will be truly missed.<3
Much love, J