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mike’s reflections on china

In late January, my husband Mike traveled from Virginia to visit me here in China.  We went to Hunan province, where we visited Fenghuang and Zhangjiajie, and to Guangxi, where we visited Guilin and Yangshuo.  I was disappointed for him because we had horrible weather for nearly the whole time he was here.  His one and only experience of China was a rainy, fog-enshrouded, cold and gloomy one.  In his reflections below, you can see that despite our hardships, he managed to see the experience as a positive one.  This was more than I could say for myself, but then I’ve seen better days in China.

Mike eats dumplings at the Red Sign

Mike eats dumplings at the Red Sign

Here are Mike’s reflections, along with some of the photos he took.

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After Cathy decided to go to China to teach this year she suggested that I should plan on visiting and traveling with her on one of her breaks. My initial reaction was less than enthusiastic. My first inclination is to plan relaxing, stress-free, outdoorsy vacations away from crowds and the fast-paced life I deal with in the DC suburbs. After giving the idea some thought and talking more with Cathy, I committed, leaving the planning to her, providing feedback on trip options when asked. I am an avid reader, like Cathy, and have an interest in cultural anthropology and world history, which I get from a fictional and non-fictional perspective. In addition to having the opportunity to spend some time with my nomad wife, I would see firsthand how one in five people on our planet live.

a wedding in the streets of Fenghuang

a wedding in the streets of Fenghuang

I knew from the outset that this trip would be a challenge, starting and ending with the long time-zone crossing flights halfway around the globe. From Cathy’s early travel experiences in China I knew that our in-country travels would not be easy. Neither of us are much on tour groups, preferring the freedom to move about at our own pace, surrounded by local folks, being forced to figure things out on our own. That‘s half the adventure. The apprehension we felt every time we ventured out to our next destination was rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and relief upon arrival. I came with no expectations other than to relish the uniqueness of China. Cathy put a lot of time and energy into our itinerary, hoping to show me the picturesque and historic side of Guangxi and Hunan provinces. You seasoned travelers understand the tenuous balance between trying to visit as many places as possible within a tight time window and allowing oneself the time to soak in the essence of each layover, and recharge, before diving in to the next adventure. I felt like we achieved that balance.

Fenghuang

Fenghuang

Cathy was very honest on her blog in describing her disappointment with the cool damp weather during my visit. Besides yielding a series of fog shrouded photos for her blog, she was sad for me. I am sure that many travel bloggers portray only the positive aspects of their trips, which is not reality. You have to accept and learn to deal with weather and other circumstances that don’t go your way. I like how Cathy freely shares her personal frustrations in her blogs.

Yes, I would have enjoyed some clear sunny days, but I was so alert to the sights, sounds, smells and the way of life wherever we went that the weather had much less of an impact on me than Cathy. The mist encased quartz-sandstone pillars of Zhangjiajie and the limestone karsts of Yangshuo looked whimsical and mysterious. The one rainy day where we didn’t go trekking was spent lounging in bed reading and treating ourselves to a muscle relaxing massage. That was just what we needed, some down time to recover.

Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie

I was constantly fascinated by assorted modes of transportation, the unified flow of scooters, bikes and buses on the crowded streets and dusty rural roads, the lack of heat throughout, the family way of life in the shops, service bays, and eateries, the variety of critters and body parts offered on the menus, the placid acceptance of a quality of life that few westerners could imagine, the third world toilets, the often derelict trains and train stations, the rural communal hamlets we cycled through, the villagers laboring in the never-ending fields, and the general friendliness of the people we encountered.

I wanted to see where Cathy lived, where she worked, the students she taught, where she shopped and ate, how she traveled, the soul and spirit of the bustling cities, the steady march of the rural farms, so I could get a sense for the environment she moved about in during her life in Guangxi. Thankfully those impressions will now be with me for the rest of her stay in Nanning, sensory impressions catalogued and brought to mind as she shares with me her weekly recap on Skype. Instead of her face and the stories she tells in words, I will see much more.

The Yangshuo countryside during a rainy bike ride

The Yangshuo countryside during a rainy bike ride

There are so many memories and images that come to mind from our two-week excursion, all fascinating to me, many of which Cathy has already shared in her blog. Some of these memories can’t be captured by pictures and words. They were moments of interaction, on some level, with others, in a land where one feels so isolated, despite being surrounded by 1.3 billion people. The thirteen hour plane ride seated next to a mother and her young son from Mongolia on their return trip from studying at the international school in Miami, Florida, the respectful sharing of a small train compartment for twelve hours with two young strangers, the prideful smile on the face of our dumpling lady in Fenghuang who was thrilled to see us show up for breakfast three mornings in a row, the conversation with a young woman, employed in international sales, on our boat ride on Baofang Lake, the engaging conversation with Duco, the young Dutch backpacker, on our bus ride to Yangshuo, the family we traveled with on our Li river bamboo raft, and the many challenging interactions arising from the language barrier at every twist and turn.

the town of Yangshuo

the town of Yangshuo

In one of Cathy’s blogs about Alex’s time in China she mentions a tension-filled afternoon. This is to be expected, in less than ideal travel situations and close quarters, as individual expectations collide with circumstances and each other. I suppose the key to traveling with someone else, successfully, is to recognize that this will happen and what to do when it does happen. I think in Alex and Cathy’s case, space and time was all they needed, and by the evening they were fine. It was surprising to me given all of the traveling we did and the inclement weather we encountered that we didn’t really encounter any moments of tension. Perhaps I’ll chalk that up to my laid back nature; HA! Just joking Cathy, I know it takes two to make this happen.

In looking back on my two weeks in China, followed by Alex’s two weeks, followed by Cathy’s trip to Myanmar, I am amazed at Cathy’s stamina, especially in light of the cough she came down with on our trip. Both Alex and I were exhausted after our short journeys. I can’t even begin to imagine doing that for six weeks. Cathy is like the Energizer Bunny, she keeps going and going and going!!!

the Yangshuo countryside on the way back to Guilin

the Yangshuo countryside on the way back to Guilin

As I left China I realized that this was truly a once-in-a-life experience. It is an experience that for myself, and for Alex, will resurface in years to come as we put global events into perspective, as a result of having the opportunity to glimpse a way of life so different from our own. I am thankful for that opportunity.

Categories: Airplane, Asia, Baofeng Lake Scenic Spot, Bicycle tour, Bus, Changsha, China, Fenghuang, Guangxi University, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guilin, Holidays, Hunan, Jishou, Li River, Nanning, Nanning Wuxu International Airport, Seven Star Tea Plantation, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Spring Festival, Train, Transportation, Travel, West Street, Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve, Xi Jie, Xianggong Hill, Yangshuo, Yangshuo River View Hotel, Zhangjiajie, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

an extravaganza in zhangjiajie & a day of travel to guilin

Sunday, January 25: After our disappointing day in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, we at least have a show to look forward to: “Charming Western Hunan.”  We eat a nice dinner in the hotel, then walk next door to the theater to see an acrobatics and dance show.

I love how the walls of the theater have Chinese-style carved railings and red lanterns.  As is usual in Chinese public buildings, the space is not heated, so we stay bundled up in our jackets for the show’s duration.

The theater

The theater

I’ve seen a number of Chinese shows by now, and they’re always impressive in the way they use backdrops, lighting and sound effects.

Fire dance

Fire dance

Dancing extravaganza

Dancing extravaganza

They always seem to create either a magical fairy-tale land, or a land beset by violence and war.

Delicate Hunan

Delicate Hunan

Blue Hunan

Blue Hunan

The show is impressive, but not as good as many I have seen.  This one has several unrelated dance numbers, so it doesn’t tell a story.  Toward the end, there is a lot of talking by one person about various things that I can’t understand because it’s all in Chinese.  I think what she talks about is the history of Hunan province and the ethnic groups that make up the province.  But who knows, really?

Warriors

Warriors

We leave the theater, thinking the show is over, and we find this diorama of a traditional Chinese village in the lobby.

Diorama in the theater

Diorama in the theater

We also find an interesting wood carving with a fierce-looking face hovering over it.

in the theater lobby

in the theater lobby

When we walk outside, we find there is an outdoor theater as well, where people are doing all kinds of daredevil performances.  In one instance, a man lies down and blocks of wood are piled upon him like a pyramid; a lot of people come to stand on those blocks of wood.  It looks like the poor man underneath would be crushed to death by all that weight.

One of the performances really freaks me out, so much so that I have to leave.  I don’t take a picture because the light is so terrible, but now I wish I had at least tried.  A huge curved sword is brought out to the stage.  The sharp blade is facing up, and a man stands barefoot at one end of it.  He bends over and takes a piece of string and pulls it over the sword’s edge, slicing it cleanly to show how sharp it is.  Then he walks slowly down the curve of the sword barefooted and balancing on its sharp edge.  I can barely watch as I can’t stop imagining him slipping and falling and getting cut in half vertically!!  That is not something I want to see.  I would be traumatized for life.

The outdoor show

The outdoor show

It’s freezing standing outside at this theater, but the Chinese are very tough characters, used to living without heat or air conditioning in most aspects of their lives.  They seem willing to stand and watch for the duration.  Meanwhile, as a spoiled Westerner who’s already been suffering in the cold and fog all day, I am tired of being cold.  We leave early to return next door to the hotel, where we get warm and toasty in our room.  We leave tomorrow for Guilin.  With a day of travel ahead, all I want to do is relax.

Monday, January 26:  Today, we have a flight from Zhangjiajie to Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province, from 1:10 p.m. to 2:15 p.m.  When we arrive at the Changsha airport, we have to get quickly to the Changsha train station for a 4:17 p.m. train to Guilin.  We’re due to arrive in Guilin by 7:47 p.m.

We make the mistake of arriving way too early to the Zhangjiajie Hehua International Airport.  This is a really small airport, one of the smallest I’ve ever seen.  It’s not heated and there is not a single shop open to grab a bite to eat or to get some coffee or a drink. It’s an extremely long wait for what appears to be the only flight going out of the airport for the day.  Not only that but the boarding starts late, making us nervous about making our train connection in Changsha.  The airline has the reassuring name of Okay Airways and it’s China’s first private sector airline.  It’s a small old-fashioned propeller plane, but the flight is comfortable and without incident.

It turns out we make it to Changsha with plenty of time to get to the railway station.  We take a taxi to the huge train station, where we immediately find a McDonald’s to grab a quick meal.  Then we get on our train for the 3 1/2 hour train ride to Guilin.  Luckily, it’s a fast train, with comfortable seats and not too frequent stops.

By the time we arrive in Guilin, it’s dark, and we find a taxi at the taxi stand to take us to our hotel, the Guilinyi Royal Palace, which is on the grounds of the Guilin Central Park, the city’s botanical garden.  We get dropped at a gate outside the botanical garden, where an electric cart waits to pick up hotel guests.  Here’s a view of the hotel at night.

The Guilinyi Royal Palace

The Guilinyi Royal Palace

We’re starving, so we go immediately to the restaurant, where we order a Chinese meal accompanied by beer and tea.

the restaurant of the Guilinyi Royal Palace

the restaurant at the Guilinyi Royal Palace

Me in the restaurant of Guilinyi Royal Palace, pouring some tea to go along with our beer

Me in the Guilinyi Royal Palace restaurant, pouring some tea to go along with our beer 🙂

There is a tea room where you can stop in for a tea ceremony.  It seems pretty deserted.   I’m not a tea drinker, so we opt not to go in.  However, we can hear this woman playing a delicate melody on a traditional instrument.

The tea room

The tea room

Finally, we can relax in our room.  This room, like the Hotel Pullman, also has a bathtub.  This of course is a rare treat in China, so I always take full advantage by taking baths in the morning and at night.

Our room

Our room

We plan to take our time leaving in the morning for Yangshuo.  The forecast is for more rain and clouds, so what’s the rush?  It won’t be the same as when I went in October, at which time I had warm and somewhat clear skies every day.

Categories: Airplane, Asia, Changsha, China, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guilin, Guilinyi Royal Palace, Hunan, Okay Airways, Train, Transportation, Travel, Yangshuo, Zhangjiajie, Zhangjiajie Hehua International Airport | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

a train to zhangjiajie & an afternoon at baofeng lake scenic spot

Friday, January 23:  Everyone should know by now my aversion to buses, especially those of the Chinese variety.  Usually I won’t submit to one over two hours long, opting for a train or a plane if possible.  Sometimes I’ll even pay a taxi an exorbitant sum just to avoid them.  In this case, we need to get back to Jishou this morning for a 10:48 train to Zhangjiajie, only about an hour’s bus ride, but I still don’t want to take the bus.  We decide we’ll pay for a taxi, directly from our hotel to Jishou.  I can’t remember the amount we pay, but whatever it is, it’s worth it.  Sometimes I don’t care about money and I will opt for comfort and convenience over all else.

We arrive at the Jishou train station and wait with the usual hordes to board.  This is not a fast train, but an older one that makes numerous stops along the way. I love the new comfortable bullet trains, but I couldn’t find one for this trip.  This one is due to arrive in Zhangjiajie at 12:33, but as it’s late to arrive in Jishou, it’s also late to arrive at our destination.

Me at the Jishou train station - photo taken by Mike

Me at the Jishou train station – photo taken by Mike

The seats on this one are a little cramped, with three seats facing another three seats.  These are called the hard seats and were the only option on this train.  The bullet trains have only two soft and larger comfortable seats on them, and they all face forward.  It seems every college student in Hunan province is on this one.  They all have the same break from school that I do.

Me on the train to Zhangjiajie - photo by Mike

Me on the train to Zhangjiajie – photo by Mike

Somehow, Angela, my student helper who bought these tickets for me, wasn’t able to get seats for Mike and I together.  However, he’s sitting behind me, back to back.

Mike's travel companions - photo by Mike

My facing travel companions – photo by Mike

Here’s a view of our whole car. Notice how everyone’s on their mobile phones.

Our train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie - photo by Mike

Our train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie – photo by Mike

And of course, we must have at least one picture of a Chinese train toilet.

The squat toilet on the train - photo by Mike

The squat toilet on the train – photo by Mike

Zhangjiajie must be a big destination because the train station here is sprawling and relatively new.  New buildings in China seem to always be large to accommodate the large crowds of people.

the train station at Zhangjiajie - photo by Mike

the train station at Zhangjiajie – photo by Mike

Mike was worried about heating in our hotels, as I told him that I’ve heard there is no heat generally in Chinese buildings south of the Yangtze River in China.  He asked me to book us a nice hotel in Zhangjiajie, so I booked the Hotel Pullman Zhangjiajie, which is a real treat.  It turns out we don’t encounter many heating problems in our hotels generally, but this one is exceptionally toasty.  Most of the older buildings have wall unit air-conditioners that double as heaters, but they’re not that warm unless you happen to be right under them.

Our room at the Hotel Pullman - photo by Mike

Our room at the Hotel Pullman – photo by Mike

We have a great view of the pool below, but of course it is too cold to enjoy a pool.

the view from our room - photo by Mike

the view from our room – photo by Mike

The best thing about the room is the bathtub.  I love a long hot soak, and am normally a daily bath taker when I’m at home in Virginia.  Sadly, I’ve had to give up my baths for the most part when I’ve lived abroad.  I also like that the folding doors open up to the rest of the room so you can have a bath with a view!

the view from the bathroom (with bathtub) - photo by Mike

the view from the bathroom (with bathtub) – photo by Mike

Since it’s late afternoon by the time we settle in and eat some outrageously expensive pasta for lunch at the hotel, we decide to visit Baofeng Lake Scenic Area, which will not be so time-consuming as the Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve (widely known as Zhangjiajie).  At the entrance, a sign states that senior citizens get a discount, and so I give the woman the reduced price for Mike, insisting that he’s a senior citizen.  She refuses to accept the reduced fee and keeps waving her hand back and forth emphatically: “NO!”  After going around and around about this, someone else comes to the rescue in our stand-off and states in broken English that this reduction is only for Chinese citizens.

When we enter the Scenic Area, there is a pedestrian-only road, and we walk uphill a long way until we see steps climbing up and up into the clouds.  It’s a very long walk up, with many stops to catch our breath along the way.

According to ChinaTravel.com: Baofeng Lake:  Baofeng Lake and the area immediately surrounding it offer pristinely beautiful natural scenery. Being located high up in the mountains, the lake catches some of the first and purest runoff water from the mountain peaks. Its height also guarantees an air freshness not found around lakes at lower altitudes. Baofeng Lake is bordered by lush green trees and shrub-clad stone peaks of various shapes that enclose the lake and give it a fairytale-like atmosphere. Indeed, Baofeng Lake is a reservoir, with a dam enclosing its waters, not for the purpose of power generation, but for the purpose of crop irrigation.

There’s a boat ride around the 2-kilometer lake, but we have to wait a bit for enough people to get on the boat.  Apparently, it’s the last one of the day.  So we wander around and check out the scenery, with the karst reflections on the water’s surface.

Me at Baofeng Lake Scenic Spot

Me at Baofeng Lake Scenic Spot

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Mike at Baofeng Lake

Mike at Baofeng Lake

A Chinese woman, who is at the lake with her boyfriend, speaks excellent English and talks to us for some time about her business of exporting mostly to Middle Eastern countries. She also asks us a lot of questions about ourselves.  We ride on the same boat together.

The boat ride is actually quite short.  It’s overcast today, but tomorrow rain and fog are forecast, so I guess we should be happy with the non-leaking clouds.  It’s a little disappointing after our sunny but cold days in Fenghuang.

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Karsts at Baofeng Lake

Karsts at Baofeng Lake

As we approach this little cottage, a woman in ethnic costume walks out on the porch and serenades us with a lovely melodic song.

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

a folk singer at Baofeng Lake

a folk singer at Baofeng Lake

All onboard give her a round of applause and we continue on our little boat ride.

The average depth of the lake is 72 meters, and as I stand near the edge of the boat to take pictures, the Chinese woman asks me if I’m not afraid to stand so close to the edge of the boat when the water is so deep.  I say to her that it doesn’t really matter about the depth of the water because I can swim.  Whether it’s 10 meters or 100 meters makes no difference.  I guess I don’t understand these kinds of fears.

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Here’s the boat.

Our boat

Our boat

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

a boat on Baofeng Lake

a boat on Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake - photo taken by Mike

Baofeng Lake – photo taken by Mike

Karsts at Baofeng Lake - photo taken by Mike

Karsts at Baofeng Lake – photo taken by Mike

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

Baofeng Lake

After our boat ride, we are deposited on another shore, and we walk down many flights of steps to the valley floor.  Here’s our view from above as we walk down.

the view from the top

the view from the top

We see this old set of steps that is no longer used.  It looks a little scary and precipitous!

some steep steps no longer used

some steep steps no longer used

At the bottom, we find a koi pond.

Koi in the pond

Koi in the pond

And a hanging bridge, which we walk over.  It is more scenic from below.

a bridge at the bottom of the mountain

a bridge at the bottom of the mountain

From the valley floor, we can see the karsts towering above us.

karsts

karsts

As well as a grove of bamboo.

Bamboo grove - photo taken by Mike

Bamboo grove – photo taken by Mike

We decide we will walk back to town, which turns out to be quite a long haul, especially after all the stair climbing and descending we did to get to Baofeng Hu.  We find a restaurant, where I use my WayGo app to read the all-Chinese menu and we order a meal of bok choy, eggs with scallions, rice and pickled radishes, accompanied by two tall beers.  As most people know already, I don’t have many choices in Chinese restaurants as the meat is all full of gristle, fat and bones.   These make me gag.

Our dinner: eggs and scallions and bok choy with rice

Our dinner: eggs and scallions and bok choy with rice

Mike at the restaurant

Mike at the restaurant

me enjoying our dinner after our long hike

me enjoying our dinner after our long hike

We drop by a convenience store to buy some water, orange juice and a box of some of my favorite chocolate mousse cake snacks.  We’re exhausted from our day of travel and our long uphill and downhill hike, so I take a long hot bath and we conk out early.  The forecast for tomorrow is still for rain and fog, but I keep foolishly hoping it will change just in time for us to explore the reserve.

Categories: Asia, Baofeng Lake Scenic Spot, China, Fenghuang, Hotel Pullman Zhangjiajie, Hunan, Jishou, Train, Transportation, Travel, Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve, Zhangjiajie | Tags: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

arrival in fenghuang: the phoenix ancient town

Wednesday, January 21:  We arrive in Jishou on our overnight train at about 6:30 a.m. and immediately are accosted by numerous taxi drivers trying to charge us unreasonable sums to take us to the bus station, where we need to catch an hour-long bus to Fenghuang.  One honest fellow points us down the street to the bus station, which is only a block away!  The station is barely a hole in the wall and we almost miss it as we walk down the street.  It’s the chaos pouring out onto the street and the large board listing the bus times that alert us to its location.  We try to buy a ticket for the bus but are sent out to the back, where we board a bus bound for Fenghuang.  A few moments after we’ve loaded our luggage under the bus, someone instructs us to get off that bus and onto another bus which is nearly full.  Buses don’t leave the station until full, so we’re lucky to be moved to the other bus, otherwise we would have had to wait awhile.  We drag our luggage out and move it to the new bus.  As we’re the last passengers to board, the bus immediately takes off.

In Fenghuang, there is no bus “station,” only a big parking lot.  There a solitary taxi driver is waiting and wants 20 yuan to take us to the Ancient Town. In Nanning, I pay a taxi driver about 15 yuan to take me through the congested city traffic from the Railway Station to the campus, and as I know Fenghuang is a small town, I tell the driver we’ll pay 15 yuan.  Of course when I say “tell,” I mean he’s showing me a 20 yuan bill, and I’m showing him a ten and a five. He refuses, so we in turn refuse his offer and walk toward the street, which is some distance from the parking lot.  I can see it will be a battle of wills.  He keeps following us and flailing his 20 yuan in our faces, and I keep shaking my head, insisting on only 15 yuan, and telling Mike that we’ll just pull our suitcases to the street.  This goes on, the hard-headed taxi driver, and hard-headed me, playing cat and mouse and refusing each other’s offers until finally the taxi driver relents and agrees to take us for 15 yuan. Just as I imagined, it isn’t far and it certainly isn’t even worth paying 15 yuan for the ride.  He drops us along the bank of the Tuo Jiang River, and points vaguely in a direction across the river and north.  Mike and I struggle down a steep muddy bank with our suitcases.  Fenghuang is a walking town, so the driver can’t drive us to the door of our hotel.

We cross a bridge over the river to the Ancient Town, which is spread out all along the river.  We have no idea how we will find our hotel, the Fenghuang Melody Inn.  Finally, we show the name in Chinese to a person walking along, and we are pointed in the right direction.  The hotel is right along the river.  Here’s our room with the view.

Our room at the Fenghuang Melody Inn

Our room at the Fenghuang Melody Inn

View of the Tuo Jiang River and Fenghuang from our hotel balcony

View of the Tuo Jiang River and Fenghuang from our hotel balcony

Tuo Jiang River

Tuo Jiang River

It’s early and we’re hungry, so we go out into the town immediately in search of breakfast and coffee. We find a cute coffee shop but it doesn’t serve food, so we move on to another one.

First stop: a coffee shop

First stop: a coffee shop

We find another coffee shop.  Neither does it serve food, but we stop anyway for a cup of coffee.

Me all bundled up in the coffee shop - Photo taken by Mike

Me all bundled up in the coffee shop – Photo taken by Mike

We had earlier passed a friendly lady serving up boiled eggs and dumplings, so after our coffee, we make our way back to her little hole-in-the-wall cafe.  We pass this enticing set on stairs on the way.

stairs beckon in the Ancient Town

stairs beckon in the Ancient Town

The smiling lady invites us into her cute little breakfast spot.  We order up some pork dumplings and boiled eggs and she gives us a paper bowl full of chopped green chilies.  We also put some soy sauce into another cup.  This is a surprisingly tasty breakfast.

Where we finally find some food

Where we finally find some food

Our breakfast: boiled eggs and pork dumplings dipped in chopped green chili

Our breakfast: boiled eggs and pork dumplings dipped in chopped green chili

After breakfast, we take a leisurely walk back to our hotel to take showers since there was no chance for showers on the overnight train.  Later, we go out to explore the town.

According to China Travel Guide: Phoenix Ancient Town (Fenghuang): ‘Fenghuang’ is Chinese for ‘Phoenix’, the mythical bird of good omen and longevity that is consumed by fire to be re-born again from the flames. Phoenix Ancient Town is so-called as legend has it that two of these fabulous birds flew over it and found the town so beautiful that they hovered there, reluctant to leave.

Ancient & modern

Ancient & modern

The town sits on the western boundary of Hunan Province and claims to being one of the two most beautiful towns in the whole of China; the other town is Chang Ting in Fujian Province.

preparing for the day

preparing for the day

The town has been modernized somewhat, with cute little businesses offering enticing goods for sale.  I’m especially mesmerized by the colorful lanterns, but I’m not about to buy anything on the first day of our travels.

lanterns beckon

lanterns beckon

People in the town are hard at work from early morning until late in the evening.  Most people carry things in baskets or on carts, as there is no room for cars on the cobbled streets.  Some people do drive their motorbikes through the streets though, keeping us pedestrians on our toes.

Hard at work in the streets of Fenghuang

Hard at work in the streets of Fenghuang

The Miao ethnic minority is predominantly settled here. The Miao women dress in traditional blue garments set off with a white scarf. They love also their silver jewelry especially during festivals.

a Miao woman

a Miao woman

We pass this little restaurant along the way.  In front are some ducks with signs on them in Chinese.  There are also a lot of chickens and other animals in cages out front, including a porcupine.  I guess if you want your meat fresh, you can get it here.

a cute restaurant...

a cute restaurant…

Some of my followers on Instagram tell me that the sign behind the ducks says “Japanese not welcome here.”  I guess this is a common sentiment here in Fenghuang as we also see some other signs saying the same thing in English.  It’s disturbing that the Chinese feel this way and state it so boldly on the fronts of their establishments.

with ducks wearing signs.  And apparently, I'm told, that says "Japanese not welcome here."

with ducks wearing signs. And apparently, I’m told, that says “Japanese not welcome here.”

Hangdog face

Hangdog face

Every time I see the shops with lanterns, I so want to stop and buy one, but I have no desire to carry one around for the next two weeks.

more colorful lanterns

more colorful lanterns

enticing lanterns

enticing lanterns

There are so many cute shops and restaurants that the town is quite charming and colorful.

Another cute restaurant

Another cute restaurant

I have no idea what this place is, but I find it intriguing that it says in English “Raise High the Roof Beam, Moses!”

Raise Up the Roof Beams, Moses

Raise Up the Roof Beams, Moses

We come across some kind of little temple but it has no sign in English telling what it is.  It has a cute courtyard with a tree holding red ribbon wishes for longevity and prosperity.  There are some images of who I believe to be Confucius.  In one room there seems to be a Buddha image, which I wasn’t allowed to photograph.

Continuing down the street, we come to this building with colorful and elaborate woodwork.

And there are games of various types being played everywhere.  Here is a game of Mahjong.  As you can see, everyone is bundled up against the cold.

Mahjong

Mahjong

Fenghuang was home to the writer Shen Congwen (1902-88) who contributed greatly to modern Chinese literature. Venerated by the local residents, the one time home and tomb of this famous writer have become tourist attractions.

Shadows in Shen Congwen's house

Shadows in Shen Congwen’s house

Shen Congwen's house

Shen Congwen’s house

We stop in at the Museum of Ancient Town, where we see buildings with ancient architecture and woodwork and fancy beds and other furnishings.

Then we simply wander around the town, admiring the rooftops with their phoenixes curled up at the edges.

Streets of the Ancient Town

Streets of the Ancient Town

Streets of Fenghuang

Streets of Fenghuang

We happen upon some kind of celebration coming joyfully down the street.

Celebration of some kind - Photo taken by Mike

Celebration of some kind – Photo taken by Mike

After a lunch of green beans with pork and scrambled eggs with tomatoes, we go back to the room to rest a little before going back out for the evening.  We walk along the Tuo Jiang River, which is very muddy and has a lot of construction and dredging going on due to severe flooding of the town in July 2014.

Along the Tuo Jiang River

Along the Tuo Jiang River

Bridge over the Tuo Jiang River

Bridge over the Tuo Jiang River

Buildings lining the river

Buildings lining the river

After we have a rest, we head to the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot.  We climb countless steps to reach the top, where we find delightful surprises, including views of the Ancient Town and the Tuo Jiang River.  According to a sign at the Scenic Spot, it is “the first scenic spot in China to fully experience the Chinese Phoenix culture, with a history of 8,000 years.  Original ancient buildings such as pavilions, terraces, palaces, columns, bridges and drums, which are full of elements of the Phoenix culture and theme locations, are embedded in it.

“The Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot has accurately captured the 18 deities of the god bird, Phoenix, with a view to vividly present the profundity, mystery and beauty of the Phoenix culture of our Chinese nation.”

View of the rooftops of Fenghuang from the Phoenix Pedestal

View of the rooftops of Fenghuang from the Phoenix Pedestal

View of the Tuo Jiang River and Fenghuang from the Phoenix Pedestal

View of the Tuo Jiang River and Fenghuang from the Phoenix Pedestal

Near the pavilion below, we find the following sign: No craving, no scarifying!

Pavilion at the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot

Pavilion at the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot

Me at the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot

Me at the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot

At the entry to the wooden swing bridge below, we find a sign with lots of instructions:
50 people limit.  No Shaking!
Break Step, Avoid Covibration!
Row Wooden Path.  Watch Your Step!

Mike walks across the swinging bridge

Mike walks across the swinging bridge

Jiujiu Heaven Steps are 99 steps in total.  Again, according to a sign at the scenic spot: “Nine is the largest odd number, which represents the god Phoenix who lives high in the 9th heaven. The structure of the heaven steps is magnificent in order to present the stately atmosphere of being close to the heaven.  The heaven steps are flanked by 18 towering nanmu totem columns which are hard to reach.  Many species of 100 peculiar birds are popular in the Xiangchu Civil Society, 18 vivid birds with different forms are sculpted and are combined with classic Chines phoenix totems.”

The Jiujiu Heaven Steps

The Jiujiu Heaven Steps

Some of the 18 nanny totem columns as you approach the Phoenix

Some of the 18 nanny totem columns as you approach the Phoenix

The prototype of the 9.9 meter Phoenix Pedestal is “the Huzuolifeng (the tiger is seated with the Phoenix standing atop), an uncovered relic of the Chu State in the Warring States period. According to the ancient records, the people of the Chu Nation respected the Phoenix by performing the sacrificial ceremony and the Phoenix representing the god would rise and reach to the heaven. The copper sculpture of the Phoenix has a simple appearance and light weight, attempting to fly. The god — the Chinese ancient Phoenix — is a combination of three auspicious totems: tiger, Phoenix and deer.”

The Phoenix

The Phoenix

The Phoenix

The Phoenix

The Phoenix Fairy Tale is the “holy” Phoenix wish-making holy land. On a sign at the entrance to this charming and delightful area, I find the following: “One who has crossed the Wude Gate in Nanhua Shan has been purified by the five morals of Confucianism, namely Benevolence, Justice, Courtesy, Wisdom, and Trust, and is allowed to enter the forest to make wishes. The forest has five wish-making platforms surrounded by dozens of Chinese parasols used for hanging the Phoenix wish-making cards. After you clap your palms, close your eyes and purify your heart, the god Phoenix, together with the sun and moon, prays for the wishes of the common people.”

I am mesmerized by this magical area, with its parasols and woven straw bells containing wishes.  While there, a Chinese girl randomly asks me to pose with her.  She then asks Mike to do the same.  I wish I could read some of the wishes written here, but of course they’re all in Chinese.

The Phoenix Fairy Tale

The Phoenix Fairy Tale

We leave the Phoenix Fairy Tale and retrace our steps back past the Phoenix Pedestal.

One last glimpse of the Phoenix as the sun is setting

One last glimpse of the Phoenix as the sun is setting

Pavilion of the Phoenix

Pavilion of the Phoenix

Waning light at Fenghuang from the Phoenix Terrace

Waning light at Fenghuang from the Phoenix Terrace

After descending the mountain from the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot, we take a leisurely walk along the opposite side of the river as the sun goes down.  We stop in for beer and a pizza dinner at a cozy restaurant called Soul Too along the river.

View of stilted buildings from the other side of the Tuo Jiang River

View of stilted buildings from the other side of the Tuo Jiang River

Colorful business

Colorful business

bottle decoration

bottle decoration

After leaving the restaurant, it’s dark outside and the town is all lit up.  It’s quite lovely with its reflections in the river.  Because the river is so muddy due to all the dredging work, I find the town more beautiful at night than during the day.

Nighttime views of Fenghuang along the Tuo Jiang

Nighttime views of Fenghuang along the Tuo Jiang

Nighttime along the Tuo Jiang River

Nighttime along the Tuo Jiang River

Finally, we make a stop for another beer at Soul Cafe, where we hear a young Chinese lady singing some melodic and romantic Chinese folk tunes.  It’s a lovely end to our first day in Fenghuang.

A Chinese girl sings folksy songs in a cafe

A Chinese girl sings folksy songs in a cafe

Categories: Asia, Bus, China, Fenghuang, Fenghuang Melody Inn, Hunan, Jishou, Jiujiu Heaven Steps, Miao ethnic minority, Museum of Ancient Town, Phoenix, Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot, Phoenix Fairy Tale, Phoenix Pedestal, Shen Congwen's house, Train, Transportation, Tuo Jiang River | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

hanging out in nanning & an overnight train to jishou

Tuesday, January 20:  Our overnight train to Jishou, in Hunan province, doesn’t leave until 5:20 p.m. so we have a leisurely morning in my shabby Nanning apartment, where I serve up scrambled eggs with cheese and coffee, made with the fabulous 3-in-1 coffee packets that are my mainstay here in China.  Black coffee: forget it. It doesn’t exist except out of a Nescafe jar. In the late morning, I take Mike out for a walk around the Guangxi University campus, through the West and the East campuses and the Agricultural College.  It’s about a 4 mile walk all around.  Mike’s amazed by the huge athletic field with its multitudes of basketball hoops and nice track.  We talk about how the Chinese love basketball, along with table tennis and badminton.  He also wonders about all the elderly people who live in decrepit buildings on the campus.  The campus is surrounded entirely by a wall and it’s said thousands of people live on the grounds (I’ve heard estimates of 20,000 but I have no idea if that’s correct).  It seems the campus just plopped itself down in the middle of old neighborhoods during its 1928 establishment.  Or maybe the elderly residents were once graduates of the university! I would love to know the history of this.

I still have to finish packing, so, as the weather forecast is calling for cold and rain in Hunan Province, I figure layers are the key.  The forecast is for incessant rain in Zhangjiajie, but the temps are expected to be in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit.  I do pack one blue men’s size medium puffy jacket that I bought in the Nanning WalMart.  It turns out I will wear that jacket a lot over the next two weeks. That is, until I abandon it in Myanmar!

All we eat for lunch are the leftover dumplings that we took away from our lunch yesterday.  Neither of us is very hungry after our big breakfast.  We do pack some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit and other snacks for our train trip since we don’t know if we’ll be able to get dinner on the train.

We arrive early to the Nanning Railway Station, with its usual chaotic hubbub of activity.  I really hate sitting around in Chinese train stations, especially the Nanning one, as it’s so filthy and uncomfortable.  Yet I always like to arrive early because I’m terrified of missing connections.  Since Mike is here only 2 weeks, I’ve planned everything precisely.  It’s the Spring Festival holiday time here in China, so I booked all our train tickets, hotels, and plane tickets in advance, just to make sure we could get where we needed to go without hassle.  Finally, we load onto the old train like a herd of cattle, and settle in to our four person soft-sleeper compartment.

The train (it isn't a bullet train!) - by Mike

The train (it isn’t a bullet train!) – by Mike

We decide I’ll take the top bunk and Mike will take the bottom.  On the other side of our 4-person compartment are two young men who don’t speak to each other; obviously they are strangers. We sit for a long time on Mike’s bottom bunk until it gets dark, which isn’t long after we chug off.  We do get to see about an hour’s worth of scenery, mostly the city of Nanning.

The view from the window (taken by Mike)

The view from the window (taken by Mike)

We pass by the new Nanning Railway Station on the east side of the city (I live on the west side). I only just heard about this new station and it looks gleaming and fresh.

Me on the overnight train from Nanning to Jishou - photo by Mike

Me on the overnight train from Nanning to Jishou – photo by Mike

In the aisles outside the compartments are little fold-down seats in case someone would like to read or eat while the other people in the compartment are sleeping.  Luckily on the soft-sleeper cars, we do have a door to our compartment.  The hard-sleeper compartments have six bunks and no doors.

Various vendors walk periodically down the aisles offering snack foods.  It’s possible there is a dining car somewhere on the train but as we brought our sandwiches, we’re fine with what we have.

the aisle of the soft sleeper cars ~ where people can have some solitude - photo by Mike

the aisle of the soft sleeper cars ~ where people can have some solitude – photo by Mike

The toilet is a hole in the floor at the end of the car.  Like trains in India, it feeds directly onto the railway tracks.  The doors are immediately locked by the attendants whenever the train comes to a stop.

Once it gets dark, there isn’t much to do and I decide I’d like to get in my top bunk to read.  Each bunk has a little overhead light which makes this possible.  The top bunk is so high that I can’t climb up; Mike has to push me by my behind like I’m a sack of potatoes. When I get to the top, I get under the covers and wriggle about trying to take off my bra and change into a sleeping shirt.  I don’t know why I bother hiding under the covers as the boy on the top bunk across from me is totally engrossed in a game on his phone.  I read awhile until I have to go to the bathroom.  When I do, I have just as hard a time getting down from the bunk as I had getting up.  At this point Mike gallantly offers to take the top bunk and let me have the bottom.  Ah, much better.

I’m reading Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Gelman Golden.  I can’t totally relate to this woman, although the title seems appropriate to my life.  Here’s the review I wrote about it on Goodreads:

At first I thought the author was annoying and spoiled by her high-class life in L.A. and her refusal to eat dinner alone once she separated from her husband and found herself in Guatemala and Mexico. She would stay in her hotel rather than face being pitied by fellow diners as she ate dinner alone and “friendless.” It seems she always needed to be surrounded by community, and that was the thing that made her happiest. I have trouble relating to this as I love my time alone and don’t feel the need to be surrounded by people all the time. The author easily talks to strangers and is able to win their trust, enough so to be invited to stay with them for months or even years! I am totally unable to do this and do admire her ability to make friends so easily, but I would crave my solitude too much to stay with random people all the time. Also, she is able to totally trust strangers; I can’t do this at all! I almost always distrust people at first, until I get to know them. So she is admirable in this respect, if not even a little foolish. However, her trust seems to have served her well.

In the end, I found the book lacking somehow; I don’t think I got a true sense of Rita and her emotional struggles; I found much of the book to be on the surface and thus it didn’t impact me emotionally. As a reader, I always want to feel the struggles and humanity of a person, and to sympathize with the characters (the author in this case), or at least relate on some level. I believe Tales of a Female Nomad missed the mark somehow as I always felt one step removed from the life Rita chose to live. I never felt any great bond with the author although we have both traveled extensively, due to the different ways we have chosen to travel.

Throughout the night, the two young men in the opposite bunks are awake either watching movies on their phones or playing games. The movie the one boy is watching must be hilarious, because he keeps laughing all night long.  What I don’t understand is how they have enough battery charge in their phones to keep this up all night.  I had to turn off my phone early in the evening as my charge rapidly evaporated.  He was using a battery to charge the phone, but even when I’ve used such a battery charger for such a long time, the charge has run out.  These Chinese phones must be better than my iPhone 5.

It’s a restless night of sleep, with numerous stops at many stations, but it’s a fascinating experience of one of the many modes of travel in China. 🙂

 

Categories: Agricultural College of Guangxi University, Asia, China, East Campus, Expat life, Guangxi University, Hunan, Jishou, Nanning, Nanning Railway Station, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Train, Transportation, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

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