By Fuchsia Dunlop
BBC News, China
What is your antidote to a frantic day's Christmas shopping? In China, one of the de-stressing options available to rich and poor alike is to go for a foot wash.
The young man sits at my feet, gazing up at me occasionally with almond eyes.
Foot-washing is one of the most popular leisure activities in China
"How is this?" he asks me. "Is it comfortable? Too heavy? Too light?"
He massages ointments into my feet, rubs them and strokes them, easing away every tension.
From time to time he explains what he is doing in terms of Chinese medicine.
"This is the stomach," he says, as he focuses on one spot on the sole of my foot. "This is the kidney."
And after an hour and a half of his gentle ministrations, I am so happy and relaxed that I can hardly move.
So-called foot-washing is one of the most popular leisure activities in China.
I was first introduced to it by a sassy female restaurateur on a rainy afternoon in Hunan Province.
They soaked our feet, and then they kneaded, pummelled and slapped them in such perfect unison it was almost comical
She and her friends had planned to take me sightseeing, but there was a thunderstorm raging outside.
"Let's go and have our feet washed," she cried. I had always assumed that foot-washing was a euphemism for more sleazy services. But I am always ready for an adventure, and in such respectable company, who could refuse?
So the four of us piled into the car and drove off to a luxury hotel, where we hired a private foot-washing room.
Soon, as we lay back in our easy chairs, four young women came in with wooden pails of hot water, fragrant with herbs.
They soaked our feet, and then they kneaded, pummelled and slapped them in such perfect unison it was almost comical.
My host spent most of the time on her mobile phone, doing deals and gossiping with her friends. The rest of us sipped chrysanthemum tea and watched television. It carried on raining all afternoon, but none of us cared.
That blissful experience was, for me, the first of many foot-washes all over the country.
I started to notice the proliferation of neon signs advertising xi yu, "wash feet", in every Chinese city. And I have tried out all kinds of places.
Some are cramped basements carved up into cubicles, others have the air of private medical clinics.
Some foot-washing centres, obviously, are also brothels, and it is not always clear where the boundary lies
And some are extraordinary emporia of pleasure, vast cinema-like spaces where you can have your feet massaged while watching the latest kung fu DVDs.
In the more salubrious establishments, an hour and a half of indulgence might set you back £5 or £10.
But in the cheaper places, it will not cost you more than £1 or £2, so you do not have to be rich to afford the occasional visit.
Some foot-washing centres, obviously, are also brothels, and it is not always clear where the boundary lies.
Once I spent a surreal evening at a massage parlour with a restaurant tycoon and a food-writer, both middle-aged men.
I felt uncomfortable as they unhooked their trousers and loosened their clothing. I felt out of place, as two pretty, flirtatious girls crawled all over them in a vigorous massage.
The apparent loucheness of the situation brought out all my English reserve. But they just carried on chatting and smoking as normal. I was as baffled by the end of the evening as I had been at the start.
My Chinese friends have mixed opinions about the whole business of foot-washing. Some love to indulge whenever they can. Others feel slightly embarrassed to confess to a footwashing habit.
A great friend of mine, a gastronomic journalist, was delighted when I told him I'd become a foot-washing addict.
"I never dared invite you before," he said. "I was afraid you might think it was part of the dixia shehui -the social underworld."
The foot-washers themselves are migrant workers from the countryside. The media tends to portray these people as a vast, faceless ocean of humanity. In fact, many are skilled, articulate, and working hard to better their lives.
In Chengdu, I met a masseur who had come with his wife from Yangzhou, more than 1,000 miles away in eastern China. They were enduring years of separation from their young son so they could earn enough to send him to school.
And in Shanghai I had my feet washed by a bright, funny 22-year-old from deepest Guangxi province. She was one of seven children, and her parents couldn't afford to give her more than a middle-school education. Now she was sharing a flat with three other girls, having fun, and spending her earnings on learning English, Japanese and computing.
"One day," she told me, "I'm going to to run my own company."
The young man with the almond eyes had travelled from his home village in Henan province to Kashgar, the old Silk Road town on the distant fringes of the Chinese empire. It seemed an unlikely destination - but he told me his main motivation was curiosity.
Like a Western teenaged backpacker, he wanted to see a bit of the world - the difference was that he was working his way. And as I lay back in that massage parlour in Kashgar, I was full of admiration for his spirit of adventure, his skills and his ambition.
I reflected on how it is now China, with her cheap and willing labour, that is massaging the feet of the West. But as I enjoy the easy luxury that my English pounds can buy, I wonder how long it might be before it is the other way round.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 16 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.