'Good King Wenceslas looked out On the Feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight Gathering winter fuel.'
Those lines had been much on our minds lately, and not just because we were practising our Christmas carols. Andy on descant with Ed on bass, forth we went together, marching through 'the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather'.
In every village, morning and evening, we see people carrying bundles of firewood twice their size. In their homes heating is an unheard-of luxury - the best anyone does is a charcoal burner, which usually doubles as a cooker, around which family, friends, and two shivering foreigners huddle for warmth in the evening. Back home, we undress at bedtime; here, we put on more clothes - including woolly hats and gloves - before going to sleep. Don't even ask about going to the toilet.
Christmas awaited us in the county town of Jianhe,swhereswe had asked friends to send a few special items to help us concoct some sort of celebration. The only question was: could we get there on time? In the seven days it took to cross Liping County and reach Jianhe, there were moments when it got darker, the wind grew stronger, and we both thought, 'I can walk no longer.' Only the fear of missing Christmas drove us on, over so many mountains we lost count, through freezing mist and dispiriting drizzle. The villages were mostly of the Dong minority, and we were often invited in to rest, eat or sleep - but each day we pressed on until we could go no further. Almost broken, we reached the market town of Nanshao late on Christmas Eve - 45 kilometers to go on the main road, 30 on the Red Army trail over the mountains.
The guesthouse in Nanshao was the most pleasant we have come across, run by a welcoming Miao family who despite the lateness of the hour gave us hot water for our feet and hot food for our bellies. Outside our room was an open walkway, beyond that the Taiyong River. We made coffee, ate a bar of milk chocolate as a special Christmas Eve treat, put all our extra clothes on and went to bed.
Some days earlier, Andy had posed a question: what was the best Christmas present ever? Ed struggles for an answer, but this Christmas Day he found it - Wang Fanghe, a 61-year-old Miao gentleman who led us over the mountain ridge to Jianhe before dark. The man who saved Christmas, indeed.
A box of goodies was waiting in the Shengfa Hotel. We plucked out a bottle of Brown Brothers' Australian red wine and crossed the street for a cross-cultural Christmas dinner of gan doufu, peppery potato slices, spicy green beans and egg-fried rice. We bellowed our Yuletide toasts over the hail that had started pelting the corrugated iron roof. Under the table, a charcoal burner kept our knees warm. By the time we finished, hail had turned to snow. By midnight, the town was buried - Ed's first ever white Christmas. Our dream was a cosy hotel room from which we could telephone friends and family back home.
Unfortunately, the Shengfa's telephones, like its hot water taps, were purely for ornamental purposes. We took turns shivering outside the shop next door to make IP card calls to England, Australia and California. Family got them, friends had to wait for a warmer opportunity (another seven days, as it turned out). So sorry. We had planned to hit the hotel karaoke bar, switch off the music and do a few carols a cappella, but the weather had closed the place early. Instead we hung up decorations and partied alone in Andy's room.
What do you need for a Christmas party in a Jianhe hotel room? Well, something along the lines of:
1 bottle of red wine
1 box of crackers
1 block of cheddar cheese
2 Christmas cakes
2 Christmas puddings
2 red-and-white Santa hats (also useful for blocking the holesin the window pane before bed)
assorted seasonally appropriate decorations
cotton wool and sticky tape (enough for one Santa beard each)
Most important, you need friends imaginative enough to buy all this stuff in Beijing and have it shipped on time and intact. Thank you all.
It was the weirdest Christmas ever, but ultimately full of the right spirit. On the evening of the 27th, we were picking our way across the ice outside our hotel when we bumpedsintosour guide, Wang Fanghe. He had been stranded by the weather, which closed all roads around Jianhe for three days, and evidently had taken this chance (and his fee) to go on a festive bender around town. He gave us a big hug and said, 'Can I have some more money?'
'Sure,' we said. Party on, Wang.