The old man had been hacking away on his erhu for at least an hour. I wasn’t sure whether to cry, sleep, or cry myself to sleep—the saddest instrument on the planet was truly having its intended effect. It was the end of yet another long day on my class’s six-week trip through China, and this time we had trekked out of the city for a short stay at a village in Anhui province. After the long bus ride, we really just wanted to get into some nice, cozy beds so we could pass out and prepare for our upcoming hike at Huang Shan… but our professor had squeezed in yet another ‘cultural experience’ as usual.
Unfortunately, a soft bed was not to come. After the man wrapped up his symphony, we were shown to our lodgings and found that we would be staying in an absolutely ancient traditional village house. That may sound pretty cool (and in all honesty it was), except for the small caveat that old-style Chinese living was apparently not very comfortable. While the rooms all had rooves, the hallways between them did not, meaning plenty of cool, damp air was seeping into everything, from the walls to the linens to the floorboards. I was pretty sure I would be putting a hole in my room’s rickety floor at any moment—some of the boards were resting at a very strange angle, others were already cracked, and all were oddly soggy.
And those ancient Chinese beds… Made of wood and containing no mattress, we basically went to sleep on a flat slate with just one thin little damp blanket and flat pillow for comfort. On that first night, I remember curling up in bed feeling quite bleak about the whole experience, and waking up to a tasteless bowl of traditional congee for breakfast didn’t exactly help.
On top of the discomfort, the whole thing had a distinct air of creepiness. Maybe it was the fog that hovered in the hallways in the early mornings, the cold stone walls without windows, or the ancient photographs of wide-eyed little boys on the walls, one of which was hidden behind my door, causing me to jump in shock as I turned out the light and shut the door on that first evening. Or maybe it was the fact that the building next to the house was full of the remnants of old propaganda posters, slogans from the Mao era, and for some reason, bats. The village seemed utterly haunted with the ghosts of Chinese past. It heightened our feelings of unease as the second night approached.
That evening, we decided to take advantage of the ghastly atmosphere, so we headed to an empty room and turned out all the lights in order to tell ghost stories. It was a mistake. Just as one of my classmates was midway through a horrifying tale, with the rest of us submerged deep into that altered state in which suddenly one can really believe in poltergeists and vampires, we saw a small glowing light approaching us, illuminating a stately figure dressed in all white. We all began screaming in sheer terror.
But as the figure approached, we realized it was just the proprietor in her white bathrobe holding a candle and telling us to go to sleep already, as we were probably waking half the village up (and that was before our shrieking). We apologized and headed back to our rooms, but after being scared so thoroughly we were too shaken to sleep alone. All of us girls paired up and shared beds that night—in the morning we found out that even some of the boys had done the same!