This is Wancai (meaning to get rich), our dog. She came with the house and her owners didn’t want to take her to the city; not because they cared about her, completely the opposite. For them she had just one function, to bark a lot and fool people into not breaking into the house for fear of being savaged. She’s about four years old and for all we know she’d spent all that time attached to the end of two metres of chain and not able to do anything that dogs like to do. As soon as we could we started to try and make friends. After a few days of going to see her she finally let us unfasten the chain. Immediately she began to run, and her eyes lit up, sniffing everything she could find, biting sticks and chasing her tail. After a few more days, Ling was able to give her a bit of a wash. It’s been a few months now and she’s slowly learning how to interact with people. She’s started coming to Ling when she calls, and enjoys being stroked. The only touch she’d had before was from the wrong end of a stick. Having lived so long in such conditions, she’s not fussy about food. We just cook a bit more than we want and she gets the same as us – rice and vegetables with a bit of meat, and the odd bone to chew on. For now she has to stay on the lead when we go for walks but hopefully one day we can let her off, knowing that she’ll return when we call.
Finally the rains have come, and all the farmers can breathe a sigh of relief. They all tell me it’s been the driest year in living memory. Hard to know if that’s actually the case but it’s certainly been dry. Since my coming here there have probably only been half a dozen rainy days. With the rain comes the realisation that our roof has a few holes. For now we’re just doing the best we can with plastic sheets and buckets, a tactic which seems to be quite successful. All of the roof rafters are exposed and get a good amount of air flow, so they dry quickly after the rain and are unlikely to rot in a hurry. Still, it’d be nice if the roof did what it was supposed to do. I’m making a note of all the leeks and then after the rains have gone I’ll try and make some more permanent repairs.
On the side of the house there’s a swallow nest and for the past few weeks mum and dad swallow have been busy feeding up the chicks. They seem completely oblivious to my poking a camera in the nest to get this photo. One morning I came down from our room and noticed the tweeting had stopped and they’d all flown. It’s lucky they had, as just a few days later the nest came crashing down. I don’t know if they’ll build a new nest next year, but I hope they come back. It was nice having a swallow nest on the side of the house.
Until this week, all of our electricity had been coming through a single circuit of 1mm wire. Now, I’m not an electrician, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not the safest way to wire a house. Saying that for wiring up a few bulbs and a TV and occasionally using some power tools, it’s probably not going to set on fire and burn the house down. Having been unable to find someone to wire the house like we’d wanted, I’d been spending my evenings studying house wiring diagrams. Luckily, we found a guy who seemed to know what he was doing. He had all the tools anyway; wire cutters, electrical tape, knife, screwdriver and a voltmeter that looked like a prop from Star Trek the Next Generation. He was also willing to do the job with Ling helping, and making sure he didn’t try and cut any corners with no one watching. We now have four circuits; lights, sockets, kitchen, and an 8kw shower for when there’s no sun and not many people are here. After struggling to wire up the fuse box, the guy called a mate who works for the electric company. The first thing he said was, “Why so complicated? Such a small house. You could just put it all on one circuit”.
Finally, the fuse box was joined on to the mains with doubled up 6mm wire and half a role of electrical tape. It wouldn’t meet any codes in the west, but it seems to be working.
One of the shower doors is on. That’ll do for now. The other can be a curtain until I get round to it. No point trying to finish something when I could almost finish everything. That way I can have a final glorious couple of weeks knocking off all my unfinished projects in a wave of self satisfied glory.
Like doing everything here, it’s not as easy as it should be. First of all, buying wood. Before coming here I thought that wood would be plentiful and cheap. All the houses are made of wood and there are forests everywhere. Actually, it’s very strictly controlled with police blocks on all the main roads just for the purpose of controlling the timber trade. They have wood (imported I guess) for sale in Lijiang but I haven’t a car and the price and quality means this would be a last resort. The only way to get local timber is by knowing someone with a chain saw and a truck willing to go out it the night and take it illegally, or by buying old wood which is also hard to get hold of. One of our neighbours had a few old planks he was just going to cut up for firewood. We offered him money for it and he seemed embarrassed but was willing to sell it. It was well seasoned but twisted and the only way to get straight lengths meant a morning with the electric planer and a lot of wood shavings (at least I have a good supply for the toilet now) I then routed a groove and a decorative moulding before cutting some basic joints. I glued it up with polyurethane because it’s waterproof and is easy to clean and sand after it dries. The panels are made from plywood, painted white on the inside and blue on the outside. At some point I’ll even put a handle on the door, but it’s usable without.
Like a lot of people around here, the owners cooked on an open fire. Not surprisingly this had made the room a bit sooty. At first we attacked the soot with scrapers and wire brushes but there was no way it was going to be cleaned up. The photo above was taken after our attempts to clean it. Once again the only course of action was to get back in to the street and start mixing lime. Due to the soot soaking through the lime and the very wobbly wall, we had to go about 10cm thick in places. That’s a lot of lime. We finished it off with a couple of carefully selected black pots and a giant pestle and mortar, and the top section was left all black and sooty as a reminder of how dirty the house used to be.
In the corner of the old kitchen is a rather large dirty slightly broken stove. I kind of wanted to keep it but it takes up too much space and isn’t even any use. It doesn’t have a good draft, fills the kitchen with smoke and even the owners of the house didn’t use it, except for the occasional boiling up of pumpkins for chicken food.
We set to work with a sledge hammer and smashed it to bits, along with a concrete sink next to it. The inside of it was made with mud bricks and the part under the chimney was just rammed earth. We took turns to carefully knock back the mud as close as we dared to get – a bit like jenga but with the danger of a chimney falling on us. We then used the old bricks to build a box to contain the earth holding up the chimney and filled the holes in the floor, one side with bricks and the other side with cement. The plan is to make a stove out of an old gas bottle sat on the bricked over part and run a pipe into the old chimney. When the nights gets cold we’ll be the only people in the village sitting in a warm room.
The shower’s up, and I must say I’m pretty impressed. Despite the setbacks and my dodgy block wall, they’ve done a really nice job. The basic shape is typical for the area but we’ve made it look a lot prettier than the usual concrete box. The door frames were made by myself (still need to make the doors and fit the windows) but everything else was done by the father and son team from the village – with a bit of creative direction from us and a few good ideas of their own, such as tiling just to head height and then plastering above.
The hot water is supplied by the extremely efficient and relatively low cost solar hot water system on the roof, which has a capacity of 220 litres and is insulated well enough to keep it hot for 2 or 3 days. In this part of China they are surprisingly (surprising for me anyway) common. A quick web search and I discovered that in 2012 70% of the world’s solar hot water installations (by capacity) were in China. With the cost of electricity so low, it still takes a few years to pay for itself but for people here I get the feeling that it’s a bit of a status symbol, like having an expensive car parked on the drive for all to see. In such a sunny place we should be able to get all our hot water from the sun about 90% of the time, and for the less sunny periods it has a built in emersion heater.
The new kitchen is up and running. It’s not finished but usable, and a vast improvement on cooking on an open fire in the greasy sooty grimy disgusting mess that was the old one. I still need to put more shelves in, put doors on the cupboards and tile around the back of the work surface and behind the cooker where I’ve temporarily stuck some plastic sheet. Not too much but I’ll leave it for now and get on with other stuff.
When we came this room was used as a spare bedroom and storage area – not useful stuff, more like a dumping ground where things could be safely hidden behind a closed door. Also, there were two big cracks in the wall I could see right through. The first thing I did was make a big hole in the wall to fit a window. Rammed earth is much easier to make a hole in than brick, concrete or stone, but I think this is offset by the amount of material to move. The walls are around 60cm thick and it took the best part of two days to make the hole and shovel out the dirt. I patched up the ragged edges with mud and straw, put a bit of a botched wooden lintel on top and then fitted the new window. I then rendered around the sizes and the window sill with lime. I also filled the cracks with lime and gave all the walls a couple of coats of lime whitewash. I thought that putting in the cupboards was going to be relatively straightforward, but a considerable difference in floor height and walls not at 90 degrees to each other made it a bit more complicated. For the shelves I just used ply and the work surface is made from tiles stuck down to ply with high temperature resistant structural silicone – not the usual silicone sealant but something so sticky that within seconds the tiles were completely unmovable. The sink and cooker are fitted through holes cut in the tiles and we even have hot and cold water coming out the taps, with the hot water supplied by the solar system. It’s the first time in China I’ve had anything like a fitted kitchen.
There’s a village about 20km from here with a natural mineral spring. They call it smelly water because it smells like bad eggs – sulphur in the rocks. For three days a year it’s believed to have health giving properties and so people come from all around. It sounded like it would be an interesting experience so we got a neighbour to take us there. The village was much like ours but with even more rubbish and it felt a bit rougher. These were real mountain people. There was a small market selling the usual greasy street food and they’d even set up a sound system. It looked like it had been quite a party. Elderly women were gathered in their traditional minority dress, and some people had made themselves beds and were sleeping out. We asked the way to the spring and were led up a narrow side street. Surprisingly, people seemed to have formed quite an orderly queue. Some, like us, were there just for the novelty, but others, locals I’d guess, were taking it more seriously. They were filling 20 litre bottles to take home to use for washing. I thought we’d be waiting for ever to taste some of this fine smelly water. It did take a while, but the people filling the massive bottles were good enough to let others push in front. The water turned out to be not so smelly and tasted better than I’d been led to believe, a little fizzy and just a slight taste of sulphur which gave it a bit of a zing.