A thrill from head to toes

Hair-washing day proves the best things in life are . . . very cheap, writes Jo Hegerty.

The punk-fringed, skinny-jeans-wearing salon owner is looking at us like we've just stepped out of a spaceship and asked for a Big Mac. I used to know the word for "hair wash" but it's long gone from my memory, so I re-enact a Herbal Essences ad, working my locks up into an imaginary lather. Completing the charade, I say "we don't want" in Chinese, then snip furiously at the air like Edward Scissorhands.

Somehow this works and the three of us are seated. I assure my dubious friends, Daniel and Louise, that no hairs will be harmed in the following procedure and that this will be the best damn hair wash they've ever had. I used to get this done all the time when I lived here. Well not here, actually, we're in Wuhan, which is infinitely more hip than Chongqing where I lived six years before.

I've asked three times for the price but haven't yet managed to interpret the answer. In Chongqing a hair wash and blow dry costs a ridiculous ¥10 ($2.10) but that was a long time ago in Chinese pricing standards.

We are each issued with a young man; mine asks me in English if I've had breakfast. As I sit upright in the chair, he squirts water from what looks like a contact lens solution bottle onto the back of my head, adding shampoo and rubbing his fingers in a circular motion around that one small patch. With more squirts and more shampoo, he slowly moves out in concentric circles until he's holding the wet weight of most of my hair in one hand.

Here comes the best bit. I sneak a look to my right where my friends are a few steps ahead of me. They have their eyes shut, mouths slack and are completely relaxed.

My turn. Dropping the back sections of hair, my young washerman brings both his hands to my forehead then claws back, dragging the hair off my face, sending a thrill from my head to my toes.

For the next 10 minutes, he scrapes at my skull with his fingernails, pausing only to dispense with the mounds of foam he creates. It's rhythmical, almost violent and stimulating every nerve-ending on my poor, neglected skull.

"OK," he says and leads me to the basin, which is actually a bed with a sink at one end. More head massaging ensues, then it's back to my seat to be blow-dried. As my young man works the hairdrier, I watch a stylist in the mirror opposite singing along to the blaring Chinese pop, gazing at himself and endlessly restyling his hair.

Dan, who reports that his curly hair has never felt so fluffy, soon tires of watching us girls and leaves. I watch him pay for his hair wash, shelling out ¥45. Not bad for a rainy morning's entertainment, I think.

Lou and I eventually stand up, shaking out our silky locks. When we attempt to pay, our respective hair washers shake their heads and point in the direction of Dan's departure. It seems we owe him one - the price was ¥20 each for us and ¥5 for him. As China takes on its "greater leap forward", it's nice to know some things haven't changed.