To go from Zhengzhou to Kaifeng, it takes between 30 and 45 minutes depending on whether you take a regular train or a Chinese high-speed train. As the price is the same and more flexible train schedule, we opt for the TGV. What is revealed to be the wrong choice. Indeed, the TGV depart Zhengzhou Dong (East station) on the other side of the city and it takes half an hour to get there by taxi. We then discover that the “TGV” Kaifeng station is located far from downtown (which I had noticed on the map) but most of all taxis which await customers refuse to use meter and ask 30 yuan to reach the centre. The price is ridiculous but I hate this kind of practice and we return to the station for a bus that we wait half an hour. In short, the journey by train took half an hour but in total it took us almost 4 hours to reach the centre of Kaifeng.
Coming from Zhengzhou, Kaifeng looks a sub-prefecture and it is resful; the city is much smaller and its center, surrounded by an old city-wall, more easily identifiable. But finding spinning top players will be as difficult as in Zhengzhou. Ultimately, it is the newspapers stall from whom we buy a city plan that gives us a first track; we need go in the morning along the walls, to the West of the city. As the afternoon is already well underway, we decide to go there the next day and we start visiting the city.
The next day, after a quick breakfast, we start again our quest; a half-hour walk leads us to the Western ramparts which are deserted. We follow them a kilometer without meeting anybody and especially see any single place large enough to accommodate a few tops players. A little bit despondent, we moved back to the center looking for another idea and our steps lead us by chance in front of the tourist office. As it is still early, the office is closed and we decide to come back later. It is at this time that my wife advises a retiree who makes his morning walk; She calls him and asks him if he knows in the city where people play spinning top. Great idea because if there are people who know where this sport is practiced this is the elderly. This time we have a track; the man explains that on the side of the walls there are players who get together every day. Unfortunately, the Chinese spoken in Kaifeng is a little different from Cantonese spoken in Zhanjiang and my wife does not exactly understand the name of the place. Time to explain me everything, the old man is already far away but as he walk slowly, we quickly join him. He proposes to guide us to the place and we move together for a ow speed ride in the streets of the city. My wife makes the conversation and we learn that this 70 years man walks two hours every morning to keep himself in shape; the afternoon he goes to meet up with friends to play cards, and that is by going to play cards he cross every day to the place where gather tops players.
After a half-hour walk, we arrive next to the city wall. This time it is not the Western ramparts but the southern ones on the other side of which a park runs along the wall for more than a kilometer. We keep on walking still two or three hundred meters and I again hear the snapping of whips. This time they seem more numerous. Actually, two minutes later, we discover a plaza in front of which are stationed a few motorbikes and three wheels scooters. Twenty people discuss in small groups on the edge of the esplanade while others tap spinning tops or simply excercice with whip. But what strikes me upon arriving is the vision of this colossus of two meters which is snapping a whip whose diameter exceeds that of my forearms.
The man with the hat
As in Zhengzhou people look at us arriving, with curiosity, a curiosity which increases when I unpacks the spinning top and the whip and moves to the playground. They smile when I miss my first launch and smile again when I miss the second. But the third is the right one and I get some signs of encouragement from a spectator wearing a hat and a white trousers. A bit later, I will understand that it is an expert and an excellent teacher (and incidentally he promotes his friend the spinning top sellers articles). He joins us when I pause, borrowed me my top and my whip and starts playing; This is not a mere spectator but an experienced player. After a few minutes, he hands me my whip. It’s my turn. He corrects bad habits I’ve taken to Zhanjiang by the dint of practice alone (with summer heats, Marcel, Dédé and others have left our playground). Feet position, angle of strike, spinning top launch, in twenty minutes I learn more than in six months of practice.
Then begin the nitty-gritty; he borrows a whip consisting of a chain and a string, shows me how use it and hands it to me. We then continue with a whip with a long handle which allows hitting with both hands, then it’s a big whip more than a kilo. All these whips are more powerful than mine and allow to spin large tops without too much effort. At least, we study spinning tops. On his three wheels scooter, the tops seller has an assortment of tops of all sizes which he willingly lends to players who frequented the place, knowing that they will come when they will want to change their spinning top. The man with the hat picks up a 5 kg spinning top, launchs it and hands me a whip. No problem; I already have a top of almost three kilograms and finally, there is not too much difference, except for launching. With the 7 kilos spinning top, on the other hand, it is somewhat more difficult, and there I take a big whip it wields two-handed. In two hours, we had an overview of different whips, spinning tops and techniques. I’m still missing stick practice but apparently here nobody uses it and the spinning tops sellers proposes only small sticks for children who want to practice small tops.
In the meantime, I spotted a spinning top gourd-shaped in the merchant assortment. I weigh it; too light. I ask him wether he has others. Yes, he has others that he reserves for buyers. He picks up from a bag a brand new spinning top, carefully oiled and wrapped in an old towel. Superb. I ask him the price; 200 Yuan, or a little less than 30 euros. It’s pricey but as we stay in Kaifeng two or three days, there is no hurry. We will return the next day.
The next morning, we find the same players in the same place. As a good dealer, the spinning tops merchant has unpacked the one that interests me, and placed it prominently above its assortment. The man with the hat takes it, borrows a whip, and we test the toy i guess is about two kilos. Perfect. I return to see the merchant try to negotiate the price. In vain. I take two 100 Yuan banknote and hands him. Business is business. Anyway, with my foreigner face, I surely afford this price. For duty, I ask him to repair my whip which the strap added by Zhengzhou players is already frayed. Here it is in Kaifeng, not in Zhengzhou; people do not fix a strap at the end of the whip but a long twisted string ended with a snake tongue. I am doubtful about this solution but I have to do to with a specialist and finally the result is not so bad. A matter of habit again.
Two days later, we take the train back to Zhengzhou where we have an appointment with the Dong meng kou tops players. We didn’t find other spinning tops players in Kaifeng, nor than specialized shops. We even came back to the tourist office in the hope of obtaining more information; Alas, the employee advised us to go around the souvenirs shops on the main avenue. What we did without result. On the other hand, we learned that the merchant of tops was also referee in spining tops competitions and we have already made an appointment in October for the next competition that must take place in a nearby town.
Talking about sticks
On the day before our return to Zhanjiang (where we live), we take the last afternoon in Zhengzhou to visit Dong meng kou players. They have all there, with an outsider who arrives at the same time that we, his sticks attached to the luggage rack of his bicycle. Me who despaired seeing an experienced player spin spinning top with a stick, I am delighted. The man has e texan cowboy look, hat screwed on the head, old jeans and protruding belly, but it wields the stick with the grace of a dancer and the effectiveness of a player who has many years of practice behind him. Naturally, I come to see him and ask: “Ni jiao wo ma? ” (you show me?). No problem; he takes the lightest stick and shows me the movement at reduced speed. Obvious! What my friend Dede of Zhanjiang failed to make me understand correctly, the cowboy of Dong meng kou explained me a simple gesture. Again, it is a matter of distance from the spinning top and position of the stick. He hands me the stick and I repeat the movement. Obvious! Once you have understood the technique, the following is just a matter of practice that I fully intend to work upon our return.