Shi Jia Zhuang is a farming village in Shandong Province, south-east of Beijing. It's set on a flat and fertile plain and was the first village in China where foreign visitors were allowed to make homestays. "We'll arrive at the administrative building," our guide Richard tells us, "where your various host families will be waiting to meet you. We'll be staying two to a family, sharing a room. You'd better remember where you're staying in case you go for a wander and get lost. It's no good saying you're with Mr and Mrs Wu, as most of the villagers are called Mr or Mrs Wu."
My Mrs Wu is a smiling middle-aged woman with a round brown face. She whisks us off as the rest of the group depart in different directions. Swallows are swooping along the streets and the cicadas in the trees all start squeaking at the same time, a deafening chorus of shrieks.
Mr Wu is waiting to smile and beckon us into his home. The village consists of two-storey brick buildings, laid out in long straight streets, rather like a barracks. Picturesque it may not be, but it is more pleasant than tumble-down shacks.
Mr and Mrs Wu show us upstairs to our room: two beds, a fan, easy chairs, a chest of drawers, some pop posters on the walls. Outside is the dining room where a pot of jasmine tea awaits us, and bowls piled with peaches and nectarines. The tea is welcome, and peach juice spills down our chins. Mr Wu sits with us, smiles and nods, doesn't eat but continually encourages us to do so. Hen hau, I say (very good), using one-third of my entire knowledge of Mandarin. Have another peach. Sheh-sheh, I say (thank you). I'd already said hello to him, ni hao, so I'd used up my entire repetoire. However, words aren't always needed either to give or accept hospitality graciously.
Several peaches later we head back to the administrative building where the committee chairman, Wu Zhong Hua, is waiting to greet us. A courteous man with a thin face and wearing what appears to be a barber's jacket, he gives us a speech through his interpreter.
"Please allow me, on behalf of all villagers, to give you a warm welcome," he says. "I would like to give you a brief history of our village. In ancient times - before 1949 and China's liberation - this was a very poor village. Now we have 300 families, 1,300 people, 79 hectares of farmland on which we grow wheat, corn, vegetables, barley and many other crops. In 1996 the average income for each villager was 3,840 yuan [about pounds 320]."
In 1990, he says, the village set up a company to run eight small factories. These include a chicken farm raising 80,000 chickens a year, a flour mill and three washing factories, for crops such as ginger and garlic. Between 1980 and 1990 the village implemented a ten-year plan and built 300 new houses. Between 1990 and 1995 there was a five-year plan for welfare facilities which provided a kindergarten, a clinic and the village school.
Mr Wu says he'd be pleased to answer any questions we might have. "Is this a typical village?" I ask him. "This is one of the better villages in this county, but it is not the best. I would say it is better than average."
Are there many foreign visitors like us? "Each year we get about 6,000 tourists, mostly from other parts of China. In 1996 there were 1,100 foreign tourists and 5,000 domestic tourists. The foreign tourists are mainly American, and also from South Korea."
Mr Wu escorts us round his village, past people tending lines of ginger plants. The ginger is being harvested and the freshest is sold in Asia. So where does the not-so-fresh stuff go? "To Europe." To make up for that, we're given a huge knobbly clump of ginger to share between us.
The next generation of ginger-pickers is at the village school, where we get a deafening welcome from the infants, a ni hao that almost blasts us back out of the classroom door. They launch into several songs and dances, one being the Chinese version of "Old MacDonald had a farm". The boys are wearing red waistcoats and yellow trousers; the girls have red tops and white shorts with pink and yellow pom-poms round their wrists. One teacher accompanies them on the accordion before the backing switches to a ghetto blaster. We're perched on tiny infant chairs, our knees up under our chins. We've been warned that we will have to sing a response, so our international group (English, Welsh, Canadian, Australian) has opted for "Do-Re-Mi".
The children then launch into some acrobatic dancing, at the end of which they rush towards us and haul us up for a ring-o'-roses dance, during which we have to stop periodically and say ni hao to our neighbours, or clap our hands or stamp our feet. At the end of this we're asked for an encore, so we launch into "Jingle Bells"and hope for the best.
It's a wrench to turn away from the children but Mrs Wu has made supper. We dine with Mr Wu (Mrs Wu will eat later) and I note down the dishes that are jostling for space on the table: chives with pork, chicken with mushroom, meatballs, egg-plant with a meat filling, hot pepper with pork and eggs, celery with pork, shredded pork with peppers, dim sum. There's a basket filled with steamed bread in assorted shapes, and Mr Wu urges cans of beer on us and fills other glasses with a snort of grain liquor. I down mine in one and can feel the flames roaring up to the back of my throat. Mr Wu refills the glass and says a Chinese cheers. I try to respond but can only whisper.
I need Chinese Dutch courage as by now I've learned that the evening's entertainment is a laser karaoke show in the courtyard in front of the administrative centre, with all the village attending and us as the star turns. The village has the latest equipment, with several discs of songs for us to choose from. The courtyard is packed with, it seems, all 1300 villagers perched on tiny Chinese chairs. The laser discs are passed round and we each have to choose our tune. Do I fancy myself as Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Elvis Presley or Neil Sedaka? I point at "Delilah".
Our interpreter provides encouragement by singing the first song, though I'm so nervous by this stage that I've no idea what it was. Our tour guide, Richard, has offered to do a duet with Lucy from Manchester, who is at least used to performing in public if not quite like this (she's a barrister). I make no connection between her legal speciality, road traffic accidents, and the quality of her duet with Richard on "I've Never Been to Me" by Charlene. It is also pure coincidence that everyone runs out of the courtyard the moment they've finished, taking their little chairs with them. The few spots of rain that have been falling turn into a torrent, and the rest of us dash for the shelter of the stage. Someone finds "Rhythm of the Rain", and we spend a happy hour singing for a few brave villagers... I am sailing... My, my, my, Delilah... Oh Carol, I am but a fool... wider than a mile... down at the end of Lonely Street...
As I was packing my bag the next morning, I spotted a coffee-table book on California in the bedroom, a parting gift from previous visitors. Inside was a card. "To the Woo Family," it read. "Thank you for making Ben and my stay so wonderful. The food was delicious - much better than in the United States. You are very warm and caring people. We will always remember you. Bella."
Bella, you said it.
china fact file
The author travelled as a guest of the only British tour operator currently offering stays in Shi Jia Zhuang: The Imaginative Traveller, 14 Barley Mow Passage, London, W4 4PH, telephone: 0181-742 3113. The Imaginative Traveller's three-week China Adventure costs pounds 1,480 plus flight, with departures from April to October, 1998.
'The Rough Guide to China', pounds 15.99. Also, the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Guide to China, pounds 16.99. Both titles cover Hong Kong