Monday, 16 January 2012

Hunan Province – Part Three – The Hongjiang Old Town of Mr Nie.

Hongjiang was definitely the highlight of our trip to China. We’ve never thought we would go, but at the last minute we made the decision to visit the town, and thankfully we did, as it is definitely a bit of a dark horse of a town.
It’s a bloody nightmare to get there as well. It’s not even on any reasonable route, which has kept it as good as it is.
To get there we had to take a bus from Dehang to Jishou, and then a train to Huaihua, then another bus from there to Hongjiang. It’s an all day mission, but bloody well worth it.

Upon arrival we were left at what seemed like a disused bus station, which actually turned out to be the bus station. Out of season, Hongjiang does not see many visitors and everything goes quiet giving an almost deserted feel to it.
As with a lot of heritage towns in China, there is an entrance fee, which is normally anything from 50RMB to 100RMB. But to be honest I don’t actually mind paying it, as from what I can see the money is actually spent on the upkeep of the towns and does give quite a bit of employment to local people.

We were assisted by the lovely Grace in buying our ticket, who not only scorned us on our choice of hotel, by literally calling it a filthy shithole, but she even rallied round the town to find us somewhere else to stay. As I said, lovely girl.
Looking back on it, it was fate that we were to stay at the home of Mr Nie. Him and his wife were the perfect hosts. They allowed us into their home, they made us feel so welcome, that when it was time to leave, I actually didn’t want to. I wanted them to adopt me.
Hongjiang used to be a prosperous financial centre during the early Qing Dynasty, and thankfully with the policies of the now Chinese Government, making this one of the many towns to obtain help in preserving the ancient buildings, which we were told there were over 300. The home of Mr Nie being one of them as well.

The Ancient Commercial Town is like a living museum, it has a distinct character with narrow, high walled lanes all in the same grey colour. Each corner leading you into a new area to discover. We spent 2 days just wandering around wondering what it must have been like in its heyday, as these days it has a very relaxed feel to it.
As a keen photographer Mr Nie wanted to show us the best parts of his town, which he was so proud of. In fact I think all the residents are very proud of this town. Only thing is, all the residents are old. There are not many young people living there. They have left to find work elsewhere, as locally there is not much around this area.
Not only did Hongjiang surprise us with its character, but also it surprised us with some damn fine food.
Mr Nie had a big part in this as well. For dinner he offered to take us somewhere to eat. We jumped at it.

We weren’t sure where he was taking us, but we figured out it was it was his favourite restaurant. The Yao People of Hongjiang.
We thought he was going to eat with us, but it no, he just ordered for us, and then departed. We feasted well on the advise of Mr Nie.
This was one of many times that animals had been dispatched on my orders. In two days, they chopped up a fish and a duck for us.
Both dishes were cooked with a sizeable quantity of chilli, as is the Hunanese way. But surprisingly they were not scorchingly hot, it was more of a gradual build up, so you got a glowing feeling by the end of the meal.

The fish was cooked to perfection. Soft mounds of flesh falling away from the bones, and even though there were vast amounts of chilli, it was not that hot, but added a great flavour to the dish.
The duck, which we thought was just going to be a portion, but turned out to be the whole thing. It was even cooked with pork belly as well. We even met the lady who did the deed and chopped it up for us. She was mighty happy that we were enjoying her duck.
Actually it was bloody good, and when I say we had the whole duck, we really did. Even the feet and beak were on that plate.
I think this was the first time in a long while that we had lotus root, it was cooked as you would expect with chilli, but also with chives as well. Man they were good. I had not seen them for sale here in London, but maybe I am blind. Please let me know where I can buy them if anyone knows.

The other place Mr Nie took us to was his favourite noodle shop run by Mr Yang. The shop was just on the edge of the old town along the main road. It was as we’ve found out in Asia, that 99 out of a 100 places that do not look the part are far from it. This was one of those hidden gems.

He basically did two types of flat noodles, wheat or rice, plus two toppings, pork and beef. We had all combo’s are they were fantastic.

I still hanker over the pork, just unxious pieces of soft juicy fatty pork belly in a slightly spicy hot sauce. Man it was good. If this was sold in London it would rank as some of the best, and be charged at least £10 a pop, instead of the 20RMB we paid.
The other surprise the town had for us was when we finally managed to leave the lanes of the ancient town and venture into the new town.
To be honest the new town is pretty dull. At night not a lot happens, most people just wander around seemingly lost, as there didn’t seem to be a lot to do. We did witness a bust up between 2 motorists, which had a crowd of at least a hundred people watching as well. It all finished peacefully as soon as the police arrived on their mopeds. Boring.
During the day we took a stroll down by the river and discovered a whole new world. This was where everyone was hiding. The local fresh food market.
This long street with small shanty like wooden warehouses on one side, which now doubled up as tea houses for all the old folk of the town, who spent their days playing mahjong with friends, and concrete buildings on the other with all manner of shops in them.

In the middle were the market stalls, with the stallholders doing their darndest to sell everything they had to all and sundry, including us. One poultry seller was on the little aggressive side with some prospective buyers, when their first offer was put in. She was not impressed and literally scolded them for their bare faced cheek.

We found the people in this area to be some of the friendliest folk we encountered in China. None of us could communicate with each other, but they were happy to chat with us about who knows what, but a smile goes a long way.

I have a thing about markets, I love them so much, that even just wandering down them and looking brings me great joy.
You may be wondering that Mr Nie spoke English to a good level. He did not. We communicated via his laptop and google translator. A wondrous piece of software that allowed to very different people from different cultures to learn things about each other and become friends.

If any of you are in this area of Hunan, please make the side trip to Hongjiang for a day or two and enjoy the city. You may not get to stay at the home of Mr Nie, but you will experience something totally different and unique.


Nava.K said...

I had a great time reading your adventure and all that you have shared. Oh yes, I would also love to try the fish, what more it looks quite spicy to me as well as the pork.

Though I have not hit China, my hubby has brought back many stories from the many places he has been. For me, the main issue was food because he does not eat fish, chicken and meat, so there was this limitation of the type of food he can taste.

Mr Noodles said...

What I'd give for those noodles...

Su-Lin said...

Me too... I want a bowl of those pork noodles.

As for lotus root, I tend to buy mine at my local Japanese shop in West London but it must be available in Chinatown or the Japan Centre too...

Mzungu said...

Nava K - Chinese vegetarian dishes are some of the best in the world, but you do really have to search them out.

Mr N - They were prob the best noodles we had on that trip. Really good stock base.

Su Lin - I must be blind, but I'll have to look much harder thanks.