Tarka’s Great China Adventure

Baz B, who had worked and travelled in China had long suggested a morris tour to China. The decision to go ahead came when a local businessman incredibly generously offered to pay the air fares. Then the real hard work began; over a year of planning and preparation, including a reconnaissance trip by Baz to China as part of the “Far Flung Folk” project. The underlying philosophy was not to do stage shows, but to meet the people by dancing in schools, parks and with local dance groups.

September 2005, the dream of the trip of a lifetime became a reality as seventeen members of Tarka Morris Men from Bideford checked in at Heathrow Airport, bound for Beijing. This included Phil H, who had managed to lose his passport, complete with visa only a week before. The first opportunity to dance came at Heathrow where the security staff were puzzled by all the bells in our bags, and the musical instruments. A dance in the departure lounge convinced them that we really were a dance team.

Our first taste of China came at a restaurant close to the railway station in Beijing, where a superb meal for twenty cost the equivalent of £32 in total. Not quite London prices. To thank the bemused staff, we danced outside the restaurant.

The lack of a flight at the right time meant traveling to Guilin by train, a mere 1200miles and 26 hours. The staff at the railway station were unimpressed by an impromptu dance, as we managed to block the concourse with around 200 Chinese audience, who were to, or had been traveling by train, and escorted us off the concourse. The staff were more nervous of us than we of them. We had a man with a gun who stayed with us in the sleeping coach or restaurant car, we think to ensure we did not suffer the unwanted attention of opportunist thieves. The restaurant car was more geared to people who drank beer as an accompaniment to their food, rather than people who ate food as an accompaniment to their beer, and so the supply ran out. No problem – we just jumped off at every station and bought a crate of beer.

Then on to Yangshuo, our destination for most of the stay. Yangshuo is a popular tourist destination, as it is on the Li river, in karst country. That means it is surrounded by huge limestone pinnacles.

they weren't their yetserday!

[Above, we arrived in the Dark in Yangshuo, so we had a great surprise at daybreak to see these towering features, literally all around us!-ED]

The first evening, after 51 hours traveling, set the tone for the week; another splendid meal, dancing in the main thoroughfare Xi Jie or West Street,  and an outdoor music and song session.

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[Above, dancing in West Street, Yangshuo]

Having nine musicians in the party meant that we could create a passable sound. All lubricated with pijiu, the one word that we all learned, and the first. ee, are, san, were the next,  One, Two, Three, so that we could ask for one two or three beers! The next six days passed in a pleasant blur of dancing, eating, drinking and sightseeing. Locally, we danced again in the town, in the local park, and in two schools, including involving the pupils in folk dancing.

The visit of a group of traditional dancers from England caused a minor problem for the people of Yangshuo, as they had no equivalent dance group to join with us. So for the previous six months, older dancers had been training a group of youngsters, sorting out musicians and costumes for Chinese traditional dancing. We gave two shows with these dancers, musicians and a Chinese opera group. The first was at a civic reception, the second was a concert on the Saturday night on a stage set up in the town square, with an audience of the best part of a thousand people and national television coverage. The biggest problem was that the temporary stage was designed for slender Chinese girls gliding gently and gracefully, not for a pounding by Morris dancers with a combined weight approaching 100 stone, and the plywood stage threatened to disintegrate. Despite this, the event was deemed such a huge success that the townspeople are going to organise a concert every Saturday during the summer months. The fact that our visit catalysed local people to rediscover their own culture has to be one of the big pluses of the trip.

We met up with more local dancers in the nearby town of Fuli.

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[Above, our trip down the River Li, to Fuli]

There was a timeless feeling as our boats beached on the river bank next to basking water buffalo. We were met at the town gate by the dancers, musicians and their dragons, who led us in procession to the huge sun-baked market square, where we shared a long display.

fuli dragon dancers

fuli dancers

[Above, Dragon Dancers in Fuli, we later learned that these were an new troupe, who had learned the dance from old people who remembered dancing prior to the Red Guard purge. The dancers learned the dance and put the costume together to celebrate our visit, as all of these dances were  forbidden during the Mao period. We felt very humble and honoured!-ED]

Two points were most obvious here. Firstly, the advantage of having so many dancers during the long spot here; six men could dance whilst another six had a breather and drank copious amounts of  water. And there was usually someone out of action, assessing the beneficial effects of Imodium. Secondly, Chinese dances tell a story, for example a morality tale about a farmer, his wife and two dragons. So we were frequently asked what a particular dance meant. So what does “The old woman tossed up a blanket” mean? Try explaining that it is the whole style of dancing that has a meaning, rather than individual dances.

More leisurely activities included a bicycle trip, bamboo rafting, climbing Moon mountain, going down a cave, watching cormorant fishing and attending an amazing waterside Son et Lumiere show, with a cast of 600.

don't we look fresh after that climb!

[Above, a sheltered feature at the top little mound just behind our Hotel in Yangshuo. After,what seemed like a 100 meter climb in temperature around 30°C . we rested, Knackered- ED]

We left Yangshuo never establishing the role of “pyjama man”, a man of some authority who just seemed to be everywhere that we were.

Next to Guilin for a day, where we danced in the Culture Park, with semi-professional local dancers.

Trust George and James to pull!

[Above, Guilin, Trust James and George to Pull!]

At the evening meal, the restaurant musicians, playing traditional Chinese instruments, seemed surprised that we actually listened to and applauded their music, and were even more surprised when we offered to play some music. Inevitably, after a bit of retuning, this developed into a jam session for everybody.

a chinese jamb session

[Above, a Chinese/English jam session]

Back to Beijing again, this time flying. Here we had the most memorable meal; a Mongolian Feast shared with some very gifted Mongolian traditional musicians who also happen to be a celebrated pop group. The main course was two roasted sheep, blessed with water and the wearing of blue silk scarves before being served. We drank tea with mares milk and salted yak butter, and numerous toasts with a fiery spirit.

Choo our Mongolian guide in Beijing

[Above, Chu, our Mongolian Guide who met us in Beijing]

We spent  another evening in Beijing in the courtyard of the International Youth Hostel; music and singing with people of many nationalities.

Rather than risk causing an international incident by trying to dance in Tiananmen Square, we contented ourselves with dancing in the nearby Jingshan Park. Dancing on The Great Wall was a must, although we know not a first. As well as dancing on a rebuilt part, we headed for an unreconstructed section. There we scrambled to the top of an old fort where there was just room for us to dance. No audience, just us, the mountains, and The Great Wall snaking off over both horizons; a private celebration; our last dancing in China and a vindication of what we had set out to do.

we climbed that, in the heat!

[Above, our first climb up the Great Wall, one of the many un-repaired sections]

our icon knackered

[Above, before our ascent, our first Dance on the Great Wall, around a bloody big hole in the middle of the set]

we just climbed that!

[Above, the top of the ascent looking back]

great wall coming down!

[Above, the next bit, our descent and dance on a restored section. Note the very small wall to the sides, protecting us from a 30 meter drop; Don’t Panic!]

it's one hell of a walk

[Above. the descent is slightly easier, but lots of steps and downward sloping pavement]

General impressions? Some of the party had visited China previously, for others China was a new experience. But we all remember the warmth of the reception and interest from the local population; the interesting food and drink; the posing for photographs, where James B (young and eligible), John B and Whitbread (old and bearded) were in demand. And The Great Wall wasn’t quite the last dance of the trip. Foreman John B danced a jig in the aircraft galley at 32,000 feet somewhere over Mongolia.

We have to thank the then owner of Bear Street Pharmacy for his generous financial contribution, Baz B who did the lion’s share of the organisation, Shelley, who organised our programme in Yangshuo; the Bideford Bridge Trust, Arts and Business Working Together and the East of the Orient Restaurant for financial support.

Keith L On behalf of Tarka Morris Men