Winter suddenly swept in over the weekend with a mighty, frigid bluster that rattled our windows and doors. Yesterday, I watched a swirl of the season’s first snowflakes fly by my window. Now, a chilly calm has settled in. I know it’s time for flannel sheets, down jackets, hats, gloves, and scarves. All of which has me longing for warmer days, like the first truly hot day of spring. That day occurred late last May and a friend and I celebrated by going cherry picking.
If you want good cherries, Haiyang is the place to be. It’s also good for apples (as is where I’m from back in the U.S.). I have yet to pick those here, though one time a kind and curious local picked two for me. I had been walking along a newly paved road that runs between orchards before it abruptly dead ends in the middle of flat, parceled farmland. A guy had been following me on his scooter, well, tailing me really. I used the encounter as a chance to practice my Mandarin. After a quick, confusing conversation, he walked up the steep embankment that separated the orchard from the road and plucked fruit off the nearest tree. He shoved the overripe apples into my hands a few seconds later while shouting “Gěi nǐ! Gěi nǐ!” (“for you! for you!”).
As it turns out, we didn’t pick cherries either. We intended to, but were too tired after our hike up the mountain where the cherry trees grow. It’s a place most expats know as “Cherry Village.” In Chinese it’s called 丁家夼 (dīng jiā kuǎng). To get there, we took the slow-going back road out of Haiyang. Locals use the S306/S210 to go to Yantai in an effort to avoid the much faster and much safer toll highway (S24). I can’t recall how many tractors, mopeds, and pedestrians we almost hit — or were almost hit by — on the drive, but we arrived in one piece thirty minutes later.
We parked at the base of the mountain where stout farm women sat protected from the sun under cheap canvas tents, selling cherries picked from their plots of land to passersby. We ignored them and started our ascent, walking underneath the gigantic traditional Chinese lanterns hanging down from an impressive two-tiered painted blue and red gate.
We passed through a typical looking farm village. Rows of small homes were spread out along the sides of the road, each capped with a terracotta roof. The older homes were built using a of mishmash of red, gray, and black brick as well as larger tan stones. Stars adorned the upper side of some. New homes were simple concrete blocks and painted white or a combination of baby blue and pale yellow. In front of one, a middle-aged man clad in a navy blue Mao suit and cap asked if we wanted a ride to the top of the mountain. He would take us in his three wheel cargo scooter, along with the elderly woman already in the back. We declined the kind offer and kept walking, passing by endless terraced rows of small trees with shiny green leaves and colorful cherries dangling from delicate branches. Some were deep red and sour in taste. They’re the ones Chinese taste buds love. Others were pale yellow and strawberry pink and tasted just how I like them — more sweet than sour.
More than a few motorcycles and cars whizzed by us, racing towards the mountain top, forcing us off the road. Other than that, the walk was as I imagined it would be: mostly idyllic. Chickens clucked and scuttled around in search of tiny specks of food. A mangy, malnourished looking donkey stood tethered to a tree, munching on vegetation growing in a dried up stream bed, unperturbed by the people standing nearby.
Towards the mountain top, an old woman leaned heavily on a tree branch as she gingerly crossed the garbage-filled stream that ran parallel to the road.
In the small cluster of homes spread out on the mountain top, we rewarded ourselves with warm Cokes purchased from the only shop in sight. We sat outside on the curb, panting and sweating, as we watched consumers carefully select the cherries they wanted to purchase and then bargain hard with sellers. It always seemed like the two parties were fighting, but that’s typical of most transactions in China. When there were no customers around, the competing sellers chatted, joked, and smoked with each other.
We didn’t want to carry cherries back down the mountain, so we waited to buy ours. It was mid-afternoon when we got back to the car. This time, we approached the women selling cherries and strolled from vendor to vendor. Each one tried to tempt me to buy their cherries by giving me a few as they encouragingly shouted “shì shì” (have a try). “Hěn hào chī!” (“tastes very good!”) they declared as I ate and then asked if I wanted any. I did and eventually bought a box. I wish I had a handful of those warm, sun-kissed cherries to munch on now. Instead, I’m warding off the winter cold by slowly sipping down a cup of hot milky brown tea.