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.


Twilight Zone

Somewhere in the skies over Asia I hover suspended between worlds. Around me the cabin lights are dim, just an occasional splash of moving colour from tiny seat-back tv screens. The flight is half empty and passengers are sprawled full length across rows of seats, dozing fitfully. Earphones, emitting soothing classical music, mask the throb of jet engines. An occasional jolt of turbulence reminds me that I am airborne and high above the Indian Ocean. Thoughts drift inevitably and nervously to the tragic passengers on flight MH 370.  What did they know of their fate? What will we ever know? Enough never to take long-haul air travel for granted again, or to fasten a safety belt at take-off without offering a blessing for them and their families.
Somewhere in Beijing my son Shane tosses and turns, sleeping lightly in anticipation of his parent’s arrival. Shan pulls the duvet over her head hoping for a brief Saturday morning lie-in. My little grandson plays in his cot, babbling away to himself and wondering if he dares wake MaMa and DaDa up just yet. He senses a mood of excitement in the air, a rush of apartment cleaning yesterday, a particular spring in his Dad’s step, a giddiness in the FaceTime call with his Nai Nai and Ye Ye who were in some noisy busy place with what looked like very big birds in the background. But hey he’s living in the moment and that toy just out of reach is much more important right now. Maybe it is time to call DaDa.

"My current favourite toy"
“My current favourite toy”

Somewhere in Sydney my daughter Claire stretches and rises to an Autumn Saturday morning and contemplates the Chinese feast she is planning for a group of her friends this evening, a house warming in her and Mike’s beautiful new home. But first perhaps there is time for a brisk walk at Clovelley Beach and to find the ingredients for Peking Duck and Hoisin Sauce made the way her Mum likes it.
Claire's new kitchen
Claire’s new kitchen

Somewhere in Austria my Mum settles down for a night’s sleep, reliving her day of sight-seeing with my brother and his wife, marvelling at the things she has seen that she never expected to see in her life-time and wishing my Dad was there to share the adventure.
A "selfie" from my Mum in Innsbruck
A “selfie” from my Mum in Innsbruck

Somewhere, sometimes it is good to pause and reflect and to savour the moment and the anticipation.
After the excitement of Shananigans’ Christmas and Shane and Shan’s wedding it has been a hectic 14 weeks since we last spent time with our little Chinese family.
In our weekly FaceTime calls we can spot the changes in Dermot. Gone is the crawling baby who quickly found every danger spot in our house, to be replaced by a little boy with a new haircut toddling around on two feet and finding a whole new level of treasures now within his reach. His infectious personality and fun-loving spirit emerge more distinctly with every passing week. And as for his love of food, well he didn’t lick it off the stones.
"Ooh these Pig's Elbows are good"
“Ooh these Pig’s Elbows are good”

He knows us now on FaceTime, getting giddy whenever he hears the sound of an incoming call and waiting with restless impatience when Shane or Shan try to connect with us. He is just beginning to say his first words in Mandarin. We have silly games we play during our iPad chats as he dips in and out of the conversation, wandering off when he gets bored with grown-up talk.
But I still can’t imagine the feel of him, the squidgy hugs, the life-force of the three-dimensional him. Each time I get back to him it’s the same but different – the same joyous tug at the heart-strings coupled with the need to get to know the newness of him all over again, the same nervousness about how he will react – wide-eyed maybe, perhaps even a bit scared – to seeing us in the flesh but knowing that it will be ok, even if it takes a while. There are bonds that can’t be broken.
Busy work schedules haven’t left much time for cooking, blogging or reading in recent weeks. You have been very patient kind readers as I can see from Google Analytics that, despite that, you continue to dip in and out of the blog every day. I intend to rectify my lapses over the next week or two by reporting on our nine day visit to Beijing and our latest adventures in China. Watch out for tweets from me @julieon with the hashtag #NaiNaiVisit and posts on Shananigans Facebook Page too.
I’m also hoping to read more about China and by Chinese writers while I’m here. I’ve just finished Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li who grew up in Beijing and moved to the United States in 1996 and I can highly recommend it. It weaves between the present day and 1990s China in a haunting tale of the ties that bind with striking insights into the way of life and mindset of Beijingers.
I can’t rival Des Bishop – and by the way if you haven’t watched Des Bishop – Breaking China you simply must, you will find the first three episodes on RTE Player – he captures the essence of Beijing and the Chinese in his own inimitable style. But let’s see if we can have some fun, new experiences and good food over the next nine days as well as some much needed Nai Nai time, with Ye Ye getting a look in too.
So sit back, fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.