Longevity Village and a Grill Mates BBQ on the outskirts of Beijing

It’s Friday night and I have been watching Des Bishop on the Late Late Show, clips from his “Breaking China” series a welcome reminder of our time in Beijing.
Truth is I am homesick for my home from home. And this time it’s not just Shane, Shan, Dermot and his squdigy hugs that I’m missing. I’m feeling the loss of place and pace – the group of nai nai in the lobby of Shane’s 25 floor apartment block greeting me with warm smiles and a chorus of “ni ha0 nai nai Teng Teng” as they noticed me on my own seven months after they last saw me; the manic traffic and crochety taxi-drivers; the guy careering along on a rickshaw with a full suite of furniture on the back; the unexpected greenness of the city at this time of year, tall trees shading the streets and softening the skyline of endless high-rise buildings; the extraordinary ease with which you can find a quiet space in a park or by a lake in a city of 21 million people. And of course the food.
Yes I can understand why Des Bishop is staying on in China. Beijing and its people have a habit of  getting under your skin and into your soul.
My thoughts stray back to this night last week. My qing jia mu, Shan’s Mama, arrived back from her holidays in a whirl of energy and good humour.  She and a friend had spent a month in the village of Bama in Guangxi Province in the south of China. Bama is known as “longevity village” and Mama and her friend had rented a simple room there for about 400 RMB (€50) for the month.
She wanted to see us before we returned to Ireland so she took a train from Nanning, the capital of Guangxi. It took 31 hours and 28 minutes to reach Beijing South Station and she hadn’t had a sleeper or even a seat for the journey. Then she took several buses to cross the city.  She arrived looking rested and refreshed. She had travelled light, with only a small back pack for her belongings and  a bag of luscious, ripe mangoes from near the border with Vietnam, oozing golden juices. Dressed simply in a black tunic and cut off pants, with her hair cropped short by her own hand and her skin lightly tanned, she looked way younger than her years.
Bama Yao Autonomous County is an extraordinary place. It’s inhabitants are lean and fit and rarely suffer from ill-health. At last count there were 580 villagers over the age of 90 with the eldest aged 113. Their longevity is attributed to many factors – the breathtakingly clean air and water, the particular magnetic field of the earth where traditionally they went barefoot, their diet of mainly fruit and vegetables with only small amounts of meat, all eaten in moderation: the hemp or cannabis soup that is used locally; the way they shin up and down the steep hills of this very beautiful place.
Mama’s perceptions were interesting –  she says the villagers do eat meat but in small quantities – fatty local pork which may help to lubricate their joints. They work hard at all ages. Every generation has their own chores and it’s not uncommon to see elders hard at work well into their nineties. She agrees that the hilly terrain keeps them mobile and nimble on their feet. A local saying goes “if not climb for one day you feel unfulfilled; if for two days, you feel anxious; for three days, you feel your body run sour”. They all have slim figures, she says, and as for the cannabis oil – it just makes you sleepy. Despite fears by some observers that the place is being overrun by tourists and will lose the very qualities that have made it such a healthy place, Mama says she didn’t see one westerner during her month there. She herself is a testament to the health-giving properties of the place. It seems literally to have renewed her.
The following day we all took off, including Mama, to a small village on the north eastern fringes of Beijing where Elvis, an American friend of Shane’s had organised a BBQ in the courtyard of a small hutongTwo families live in the four rooms that surround the traditional-style courtyard and, in return for a contribution to the rent, they allow Elvis organise his get togethers there on summer weekends. These “Grill Mates” events are a long-standing tradition. Elvis, has lived in Beijing for over 15 years and has been cooking on a grill for even longer so his reputation as a barbecue chef is well established .
Word of an upcoming Grill Mates spreads rapidly via We Chat among their wide circle and the crowd is a happy mix of Chinese, American, Canadian, Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh friends and relatives. There are babies about too. Elvis and his wife Dongue have a little boy, William, just six weeks older than Dermot. A little blond boy of seven months old, half English, half Scottish and the four month old baby son of Shan’s close friend Wei are the youngest guests. There is a multilingual older boy too conversing effortlessly with the daughter of the house. The toddlers find a whole new use for a pool table while the adults release their inner musician, discovering drum kits to play with and a guitar.
Everyone who attends contributes a small amount to cover the costs. The table is replenished regularly with bowls of pasta salad and coleslaw and the beer and wine flows freely. Elvis works away at the grill producing platter after platter of chicken pieces and slow-cooked pork while the man of the house leans over a traditional chuan’r grill and sizzles the lamb skewers with chilli and cumin so that they taste just like the street-food in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province.  A large tray of sausage rolls appears, brought it seems by one of the few people in Beijing to make authentic British sausages. And finally, Elvis’ signature dish and excuse for many corny jokes – beer butt chicken – is ready to be devoured as the flesh melts away from the bones.
As the convivial conversation swirls around me in many accents of English and Chinese and the little ones get giddy with heady freedom in a contained space I begin to feel sad. Well happy-sad, the kind of rueful musings that come with recognising that the world your children inhabit with ease is so vastly different from the one in which they were raised; the kind of teariness that comes with the realisation that the holiday is about to come to an end and that the next time we will spend time with Dermot he will have changed again as he does so rapidly from baby, to toddler, to small boy; the kind of rush of emotion that makes you wish you could change everything but knowing that you wouldn’t change one iota, even if you could.
We all strive to live in the moment but sometimes it is easier to fully appreciate these special moments, created by the magic chemistry of good friends and families together, with the perspective of half a world of distance and a little time elapsed. As I sit here now a week on I can watch it all unfold in my minds eye without the overlay of anticipated partings and enjoy it once again.
Thank you Elvis and Dongue for your hospitality. Oh and by the way, you can expect to see a recipe for Beer Butt chicken on the Big Green Egg any week now on the blog.
Some random snapshots of the day are below.