For two weeks in October we decided to do another workaway. It was our first in China and also our first which did not mention cleaning anywhere in the job description. It was billed as an aquaponics farm on the outskirts of Chengdu and had great reviews so we were excited to learn about a different method of farming. The information boards in the farm explained aquaponics as a method similar to hydroponics but where the plants are grown in water that has been fertilised by fish ‘waste’. This reminded me of an NBA player (shout out to Tristan Thompson) who refuses to eat fish “because the fish eat their poos. I don’t eat that stuff. Fish eat their own poo. So, I’m not eating fish.” – if aquaponics takes off the poor guy might starve.There are no photos that match your search criteria.
We arrived late at the farm because our train from Jiayuguan to Chengdu was delayed by one hour. They arranged a taxi to collect us from the metro and when we arrived they gave us tea and showed us to our room, a nice double bedroom with an en-suite shower and toilet. After our incredibly unpleasant hostel experience in Jiayuguan this seemed like 5 star luxury. The next day we had dumplings for breakfast, worked for 3 hours in their greenhouse and then had lunch. We didn’t realise it but that would be the sum total of our work at the farm.
After lunch they drove us to their other project, an eco homestay they were building using reclaimed timber called FanPu Life. It was beautiful, bespoke timber buildings are dotted around the site, surrounded by bamboo and small ponds. The owner showed us around and then brought us to a huge pile of reclaimed timber of all different shapes and sizes. “Can you use this?” he asked me. You see earlier that day I’d said that I had built a compost bin before and they wanted one at FanPu Life. However ‘before’ is quite a vague timeframe and in my case it was probably around 15 years ago when I helped my dad make one. Still, I’d done more complicated structures since then so I said “probably” and then Rosanna and I started to work on a design. We thought we’d spend a few days working on the compost bin and then go back to working at the farm.
That night we ate the spiciest food of our trip so far. Sichuan hot-pot is famed for being spicy, but I think something went awry in the cooking process because many of the staff members couldn’t stomach this level of heat either. All the staff at the homestay gathered around the table chatting and eating and the atmosphere was so homely. It felt like a family setting almost, something that we’d been missing for 6 months. They laughed and apologised for our streaming eyes and noses, then said that we should stay with them and then we’d all be friends. On the short trip back to our little room at the farm that night Rosanna and I both agreed that we wanted to move to the homestay for the full two weeks.
Over the following fortnight we completed the compost bins (I think they turned out quite well), painted signs for most of the plants in their garden, decorated the welcome boards at both entrances, built some mushroom storage and helped with a few of the children’s activities that they offered. One of these activities was making pizza which we were more than happy to volunteer for. It was really good fun and definitely eye-opening in terms of just how versatile a platform pizzas can be, for example did you know you can use jam as a pizza topping?
Our most technical accomplishment was definitely the mushroom storage we built, what quickly became known as the mushroom house. Because we were using random timber (and I was concerned that anything we built would be too flimsy) all our creations were massively over-engineered. When they showed us the mushrooms and said “maybe you could build something for these to go in” their hand gestures outlined a roughly waist-high cabinet, what they got was taller than Rosanna and took three people to lift. It could store a lot of mushrooms though. We really enjoyed doing the woodworking, it’s something that I have some experience in (thanks Dad for pulling me out of the house all those summer weekends to help with your garden projects) and Rosanna was impressed enough that she happily took instruction. The abundance of professional carpenters on site was a bit intimidating at first but they were helpful, using gestures or small demonstrations to give us advice when it looked like we were struggling.
One morning a few days before we left we were taken on an excursion to a local street market in Longxing. Five of us climbed onto the little electric three-wheeler: Yolo and Xiao Chu who were permanent staff members at FanPu, CK – a volunteer from Malaysia who’d been studying architecture in Glasgow for the last five years and Rosanna and I. Yolo was the only one of us who was insured to drive the vehicle so she sat in the driver’s seat while the rest of us piled in behind. On the drive in we attracted confused stares from just about every person we passed. I’m very thankful to Yolo for driving us, we’d have been stuck without her, so all I’ll say about her driving is that I’m glad the trike couldn’t go above 30 kph. We spent a while trying to find the market but it turns out that it’s not held in any one location, people from the local area come to town and just set out their produce along the streets. We were definitely a novelty but people were actually more respectful than in the larger cities, I didn’t notice anyone taking sneaky photos of me anyhow.
We were very sad to leave. In contrast to our other workaways the time at FanPu passed so quickly. It was so nice to be able to contribute something permanent to the project. Doing cleaning or farming it feels like when you leave, your job will be taken up by someone else and the fact you were there wasn’t really significant. Being able to build physical structures that will be used by staff and guests every day is so rewarding and makes the work seem totally worth it. I know that the contributions we made were valued and necessary. We’d like to say a huge thank you to all the staff and the other volunteers at FanPu, and if any other travellers are thinking about doing a workaway near Chengdu then this is the one.
Yolo is a really talented photographer, some of her photos of FanPu Life Homestay (and a few taken by other staff members) can be seen here:
Our less skillful pictures can be seen here: