Tuesday, 29 September 1998
Kaili, Guizhou, China
By now we were getting pretty bored of buses. This time it was from Rongjiang to Kaili which is supposedly the capital of the Miao ethnic group. Again the journey was spectacular and this time not too dusty and no people throwing up. We finally left the course of the Duilu river and exchanged it for an equally aquamarine and beach strewn stream. The thing is that there is a total absence of any industry in these valleys which means zero pollution. My mind went back to the trip we did from Songpan to Chengdu down what must have been the most pollution choked valley we had seen. When you compare it to these green valleys packed with wooden villages, populated by hundreds of different ethnic groups and lined with beautiful rivers you wonder why Guizhou does not get its share of tourists. Then you realise exactly how far it is off the "tourist itinerary" and how hard it is to access.
We reached Kaili itself seven hours later. It was a little disappointing given the scenery we had been treated to before - but it was clear that it made a good base to access these things. We strolled around the faceless streets looking at all the recommended hotels but ran into problems. Now I am never sure when they show you a cheap room that is in a disgusting state whether it is an attempt to get you to upgrade to the next category of room (which they think you can afford because after all you are a foreigner) or that is actually how it is. In the first hotel the bathroom was indescribably dirty, like it had never been cleaned since the room came into service, and although we had put up with all sorts of horrors this had to be the worst. The second hotel we found was even worse and it was not until we located the most expensive hotel in town and knocked their price down by thirty five yuan that we actually got something where we could have a comfortable shower after a week of dusty travel.
We had a good night eating at a restaurant where an attempt to find a missing duck dish got us a second bowl of what we had assumed was the complimentary soup. After this failure we went to the market to try tiny crabs on skewers and tons of fried potatoes.
Wednesday, 30 September 1998
Zhenyuan, Guizhou, China
Being for the first time in two weeks in a comfortable hotel with such luxuries as clean sheets and crisp towels (as opposed to crisp sheets and no towels) we took our time getting out of the hotel. Then we had to go to the station. We did not understand why but everyone was telling us that there were no buses to Zhenyuan, our next destination. They insisted that the train was the only was to do the one and a half hour journey despite the fact that we knew from previous experience that the train is a hassle for such short hops. As it proved, we had two hours wait for the train, avoided a bit of jostling at the first set of barriers by acting like stupid foreigners and walking round them to talk to the attendants, followed by an all out melee to get a seat on the train. Which proved fruitless and naturally we had to stand for the duration.
By the time we got to Zhenyuan it was nearly four, we wandered around and found a hotel, managed to get the price of our rather dismal room halved and then set about washing all of our clothes and our filthy rucksacks. This ended up a bit of a trial because the drain in our bathroom turned out to be blocked and the water, along with some more unpleasant stuff, eventually backed up and started flooding the room. We had to be moved...
Whilst all of this was going on we began to realise that all was not what it should be in town. A truck seemed to be doing the rounds continually letting off firecrackers so wherever you were you could hear a continual barrage of explosions which would shift volume as the truck was coming towards or going away from the hotel. As far as we could work out this carried on unabated to the next day, they were still letting them off after midnight and we woke up as the truck passed the hotel early the next morning. Our attempts to sleep were also hampered by the staffs insistence that we close the windows for security. They tried hammering on the door to get us to close them and when this failed one of them came around the back of the hotel and closed them from outside causing us a bit of a shock.
Thursday, 1 October 1998
Zhenyuan, Guizhou, China
A lazy day and the only reason we stayed in town was to see the washing dry. This was a fortunate decision as we went to visit the Qinglong Dong temple and in doing so got to see the more scenic end of town. The Qinglong Dong is a set of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian shrines built partially within caves in cliffs overlooking the town from the East. The river that runs through Zhenyuan is again azure, although it is a little more polluted than some of the ones we had seen in past days. However at the train station end of town this is more or less academic because the buildings hem you in and you can rarely get a look at it. From the Qinglong Dong we could get amazing views of the river, one of the older bridges in town and some of the older houses. The houses were all pretty unique as far as China is concerned, there were a lot of multistory stone buildings not more than three metres wide but about twenty metres in depth. I wondered if this was because everyone wanted a house that overlooked the river.
We walked through all the different shrines until we finally came to one which was either Taoist or Confucian (the altar had a figure dressed in traditional Chinese clothes and was accompanied by two attendants). Here we were able to sit in complete peace on the veranda of the temple writing our diaries until the afternoon traffic of Chinese tourists picked up and the tranquility of the spot was lost. On the way back we walked through the older part of town past some of the narrow buildings we had been looking at. The interesting thing from this point of view was that the street side of these buildings' ground floors was in a lot of cases a shop or small business. I have already commented that there was very little industry of any kind in this area and there were very few offices apart from banks and local government. Thus the majority of these towns that we stayed in were basically little more than shopping centres for the local villagers. With this in mind the tall narrow design of the buildings takes on another light. Since the majority of the town's residents are shopkeepers they build their houses exactly one shop wide, living in the top two or three storeys and conducting their trade on the ground floor. Looked at this way the design has a certain efficiency which we rarely see in London where the days of family businesses and people living above their shops are over.
Friday, 2 October 1998
Tongren, Guizhou, China
With the washing dry it was time to move on. The next destination was a Buddhist mountain in the very East of Guizhou called Fanjingshan. The nearest town of any size was called Tongren and it was written in our guidebook that it was an ordeal to get there. This proved to be true, we had to change buses twice and neither change went smoothly. On the first no one seemed keen to tell us which bus we needed to take and on the second we were bundled out of the bus and into a taxi having been told that there was no bus. As the taxi moved off we noticed that there was a bus but the driver still insisted and would not let us out. I had to open the door of the taxi in order to get him to stop. Once we were in the bus we became convinced that we should have taken the taxi. It was full of children who, although they started the journey in a good mood, by the end of two hours were all vomiting, screaming and generally not much fun to be around.
When we finally got there our troubles were not over. The buses in Tongren were completely deregulated and so operated from all sorts of street corners. Ours deposited us over 2km from where we wanted to be and the locals, seemingly not having heard of the main thoroughfare of their own town, were not of much help. So we basically headed off in a direction we thought appropriate and after an hour of lugging our backpacks around in the sun finally found a hotel.
Meanwhile I was having a bit of a crisis. It seemed like we had undergone several million bus trips since we had left Yangshuo and, with the exception of a couple of bridges, a sandy beach on the banks of the Duliu and an afternoon's peace in the Qinglong Dong, had received very little in return. Now here we were arriving at another complete dead-end town and it the effort had left us completely worn out. It seemed that we were travelling all wrong. The blend of uncomfortable hours in buses (plus nights in dead-end towns) and relaxing in exotic locations was very much biased towards the former. We were well off the tourist track and I began wondering if we should have stayed on it. At least the way points on the conventional routes are littered with friendly English speaking natives and the occasional break from very standard Chinese cuisine. Anyway I put these concerns to one side, after all we were pretty close to the end of our time in China, and we made preparations for our trip to Fanjingshan.
Saturday, 3 October 1998
Fanjingshan, Guizhou, China
It appears that my concerns were completely unwarranted, Fanjingshan the highest peak in the Wuling Mountain Chain was worth every excruciating minute of the previous day's journey. We started off rather too late and again ran foul of Tongren's deregulated bus system. This time it was the bus not leaving until it was full routine which, although common in other countries, we had very rarely seen in the time tabled China. We got to the park gates around 1200 and managed to get away without paying for about five minutes until we asked for directions and were promptly returned to the gates by a policeman and had to register and gain "permission" to enter a process that seemed to involve someone running off to get a book of entry tickets.
Finally in the park we knew that the start of the stairs up the mountain was quite a walk from the gates but nevertheless ignored offers from a large fleet of minibuses stalking the road. This turned out to be a good idea because the walk along the road was one of the best things about the trip. The area surrounding the mountain is a nature reserve and for us, used to the bare terraced hills and wall-to-wall agriculture of the rest of the area, the amount of greenery was breathtaking. Added to this there was a crystal clear river running along the valley that lead to the foot of the mountain. The river had numerous waterfalls and deep blue pools that were achingly inviting on such a hot day.
At the foot of the stairs there were far too many people. My guidebook said a "steady flow of Chinese visitors" but here it looked more like a torrent. However since they all seemed to be going in the opposite direction, it was now 1400 and so a little late to be starting the five hour ascent, we adopted a wait and see approach. We did not have to wait long because on the first stretch of the seven thousand stairs to the top we were surrounded by people. Fortunately they all stopped at the first "teahouse" and we overtook them and from that point on the people we met were all coming down. It is at this point that I must put in a bad word for Chinese tourists because as usual they were the only bad element of the experience. First off although there were a number of litter bins along the way they still insisted on throwing their litter into the forest at the side of the stairs. As if this were not enough they adopted a similar approach with their own waste products. Rather than wait until they reached one of the toilets on the way they were availing themselves of convenient bushes which meant that the less well ventilated lower parts of the staircase were a bit smelly. Anyway this hardly detracted from the beauty of the views we got walking along the ridges of the mountain and after three months we had built up a certain immunity to the way that the majority of Chinese treat their countryside.
Walking up seven thousand stairs is no joke. It is not only the physical effort of it but also the repetition. You would clamber up a 100 strong staircase then find yourself on the top of a ridge and a flat bit. You would then walk a few metres on the flat and find yourself confronted by yet another soaring staircase. By 1600 we were seriously flagging. We had been walking in the midday heat for nearly four hours and the end was not in sight. We kept asking people how far we had to go and the estimates varied wildly from one to three hours. In the end we reached a two-storey concrete building that resembled some sort of military command bunker, made the international symbol for sleep and receiving a positive response and a cup of tea decided that we were going no further.
Sitting by the side of the path we were able to observe the procession of people going up and down the mountain. The funny thing was that an awful lot of people were not actually doing any walking at all. There was a huge army of porters with sedan chairs and for 200 yuan you could be carried to the top. We thought that this option would not be very popular what with the cost and the loss of any sense of pilgrimage, but we were wrong. Nearly seventy percent of the people had opted for the easy way. One thing this did clearly show was the massive gulf between the rich and the poor in China. It turned out that there were more than the average number of people on Fanjingshan that day and so we guessed that a percentage of the hundred or so porters had been drafted in from the neighbouring farms. The effort involved in carrying someone up seven thousand stairs, especially as some of the people were a little on the fat side, was considerable but clearly to them it was a gold mine, they could earn so much money in a day's backbreaking work that they would drop everything to come in search of the money. We must have been a distressing sight for them, two westerners, who obviously must have a lot more money, who want to walk up the stairs. On the other side it was clearly part of the experience for the Chinese who, blindly ignoring the pilgrimage aspects of the journey, had opted to be carried up to watch the sunrise then carried down again.
Sitting there watching the afternoon come to a close we were not at all prepared for the next surprise. We had been travelling so far off the beaten track that we had not seen any other westerners since Chengyang eight days ago. Now, in the middle of nowhere, two of them suddenly appeared as if from the trees. They turned out to be dendrologists engaged in a long running project for the International Dendrological Research Institute called the "Conifers of the World" who were coming to the end of a long expedition in China and were on Fanjingshan to catalog a conifer unique to the mountain. More coincidentally Dr Istvan Rcaz and Dr Zsolt Debreczy were both Hungarian and Anna, having spent two years studying in Budapest had the first opportunity for a long time to practice her Hungarian.
They were great fun and we chatted for several hours about our trip, their expedition, Budapest, the Chinese and surprisingly enough trees. We finally got to the bottom of two matters that had been plaguing us. The first was the firecrackers from which we had suffered in both Zhenyuan and Tongren. It turned out that it was a four day national holiday. In fact October 1st was the date on which the communists came into power in 1949 and this year, with it being on a Thursday the whole thing had turned into a four day weekend. It was also the reason that there were so many people on the mountain. It turned out we were very lucky since the night before there had been around two hundred people staying at the concrete bunker and they were sleeping seventeen to a room. It also explained why the bunker's stores had run out of beer, a fact that had caused me no end of distress on our arrival.
The second revelation came in the arena of drinking games. It appeared that they had spent a fair amount of time drinking with minor officials in order to secure relevant permissions and preservation orders. I took as one example of this the account of their lengthy trip around Inner Mongolia looking for a "crazy little conifer", as Istvan rather superbly put it, which when they finally found it had been chewed almost to the ground by cows. They had to get a fence erected around them and this had taken a fair amount of persuading. Anyway Zsolt was finally able to explain the strange table drinking game which we had seen so many people playing in restaurants. It was a bit like spoof, both you and the other person would simultaneously bring out your hands displaying a number of fingers whilst shouting out a number from one to ten. The idea was to guess the total number of fingers, if your partner guessed correctly you would have to drink and vice versa.
They also gave us a run down on the problems that Chinese clear logging was causing and the worldwide problem that trees were being felled too early (before their most productive stage) because people needed the money. Also very interesting was the reason why a lot of China's Buddhist mountains have a great bio diversity, basically their sacred status meant that people would not touch any of the trees. Whereas in the western world we have only been setting up nature reserves for the last century or so, through religion the trees on these mountains have been preserved for a thousand years. The final thing that interested me greatly was the fact that when I asked Istvan, away from the crowd, how he had enjoyed China he said that it was great but he was glad to be leaving because of the chaos. The Mongolian story was recounted later in the conversation but when I think back on it I see what he meant. It does not take too much artistic license to say that the survival of one species of conifer was reliant on Dr Zsolt Debreczy's skill at drinking games.
Sunday, 4 October 1998
Fanjingshan, Guizhou, China
Unlike the masses who had trooped all the way up to the monastery we missed the sunrise. This was fine in our book since we had been to that kind of gig before in Bali and this time the peace of it all would have been somewhat hampered by the hordes of Chinese. Instead we made our farewells, started off at a leisurely 0730 and got to the top in about an hour. The monastery that had existed two years beforehand had been supplanted by a monastery shaped hotel. We were invited in to pray at the hotel for a modest fee but declined and headed off to the "tower". Above the hotel was a tall pillar of rock and somehow a path had been constructed up it. We ascended having to literally pull ourselves up by chains on some of the steeper sections.
At the top the pillar was split into two and the path climbed up between the rift. At the time the sun was in the right position to be framed by the vertical sides of the rift and the wind was mercilessly whipping through so it was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. However once on top it was anything but, it was back to the tourism game with two shrines topping each of the pillars where very secular looking people were charging one yuan to light incense sticks and ten yuan for a 20cm bit of red ribbon which you would write your name on and tie to a tree. There were no monks in sight and the only authentic looking shrine was back down the pillar at the beginning of the rift. However putting pilgrim thoughts aside we decided that it was best just to look at the view which was amazing and would have been more so without the heavy cloud cover.
On the way down we saw something that I had never seen before. The monastery was located on a saddle between the "tower" and the summit of the mountain proper. The wind had picked up amazingly and was now propelling a cloud very fast over the saddle. It looked exactly like one of those films of clouds which have been speeded up ten times. Since the weather looked set to get worse we decided to pass up on the true summit and settle for some weird looking rock formations in the same direction. These having been photographed we decided it was time to get back down and return to Tongren. Going down was not as tiring as going up but was a lot more painful on the legs, in fact we were still suffering two days later when we set off on our next trek. However we managed it in about two hours and on the way stopped for lunch. I was also interested, given our new found dendrological connections, to observe the way that the vegetation changed with the altitude. Not that this is something unique but I cannot remember being on a mountain which was so covered in trees.
We decided to avoid the in-reserve taxis and walk the nine back to the gates. On the way we passed a waterfall which emptied into a clear blue pool. Since there were no tourists now that the national holiday was over I decided that we should follow a path that took us to the stream above the waterfall and then follow the course of the stream away from the road. We found what we were looking for very easily, a crystal clear pool below a tiny waterfall where we would not be seen. We then shed our clothes and had a much needed bath in the freezing waters of the pool. We then sat in the sun to dry off, got dressed then returned to the main road. After the walk we had the usual complications getting back to Tongren which we reached about 1800. We then had dinner, had half an hour of Fawlty Towers style confusion about our registration card and fell asleep.
Monday, 5 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
In the Rough Guide it says that "Hardy tourists follow up the trip to Fanjingshan by visiting Zhangjiajie [the entry point for Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve ] over the border in Hunan". So what choice did we have being the hardiest tourists of all. The book also warned us that the trip would take eleven hours so we resolved to take the earliest bus to the first way point Jishou. This bus turned out to be at five in the morning and, having arranged with the confused hotel staff the night before not to lock us in as had happened before, this was the bus we caught. The trip went very seamlessly, we caught a train ten minutes after our arrival at the train station in Jishou, got seats on the train and then were whisked onto buses to the reserve entrance where hotels awaited. We in fact completed the journey in nine hours! We then bargained a hotel room with a good view down from 180 to 120 on the back of their being no other guests and settled in.
There is only one more thing to say about that day. The guide book had warned us that everyone would overcharge us for meat at restaurants and at a roadside skewer stall they charged us one yuan for a skewer of potatoes and ten for a sausage. We had an argument about it and were assisted by an embarrassed Chinese guy who we had been chatting to despite his refusal earlier on to talk about the overcharging subject ("let's just talk about cultural" was his response). We got a more reasonable price in the end but were still not entirely happy at having risked stomach complaints for the same price as we had got an entire meal in Tongren the night before.
Tuesday, 6 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
Our calves still ached from the seven thousand stairs so we had decided that this would be yet another rest day. Well that about summarises what we did. I guess the one thing worth writing about is ham. All over China the only thing that they sell in shops are bizarre bits in chili oil flat-packed in plastic, biscuits of varying levels of niceness (all well below "rich tea" biscuit level) and sausages of processed ham wrapped in red plastic. The last of these we had avoided for a long time because they had dates written on them that were always a month or so in the past. After a while we realised that these were probably the date that they were packed and on one train trip we actually tried them. Since then we had eaten a few, but in Zhangjiajie we went ham mental. There was in fact supermarket in town and rather than pay inflated restaurant prices we had opted for ham and biscuits. Then when it came to equipping our expedition we discovered the extra large 350g sausages which cost five yuan each. So we had planned to be out for four days so we bought... four processed ham sausages. In fact it was a life saver as the only restaurants in the reserve were just as expensive as in town. After all the excitement we had difficulty to get to sleep... or maybe that had something to do with the Chinese version of "The Rivers of Babylon" that people were karaoke'ing to in our hotel that night!
Wednesday, 7 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
Our first day in the reserve began comparatively early for us. We had worked out a rough route for the next day but since the only available maps had no distances, no scale, no contours, were out of proportion and featured paths that were not there, we were prepared to be a bit flexible. The first goal was Huangshi "village", a group of hotels on top of a sandstone plateau. The scenery on the way was spectacular, sandstone pinnacles covered with every imaginable type of pine tree. It was literally like being in one of those stylised Chinese paintings. Except here you began to realise that the paintings are not stylised at all - such places exist in China. It was here that I felt closer to the China of history than we ever had before. Although we had been to many places where the poor had lived in the same way for centuries here was a link to the cultural side.
For a change things were pretty pleasant. There really was no litter, there were lots of litter bins and although we had to slap one woman around we did not really see the same fascination with throwing rubbish off of high places that you do everywhere else. Off of the paths the flora and fauna was really untouched, It was, as Anna said, like walking in a jungle - everywhere you looked there was a different species of plant, unlike the regimented forests of Europe. This place had been left in the way it was for centuries because it was near impossible to farm and then it was protected by UNESCO. We were in paradise...almost.
We passed a few impressive outcrops, the Sea Suppressing Needle and the South Heavenly Pillar, then climbed up a steep staircase to the lip of the plateau. Here we found the first of several superb viewing platforms. You see the weathered sandstone pillars nearly always have flat tops and these tops, with the addition of a few ladders, make perfect viewing platforms. The first of these, the Star Plucking Stand we had seen in photographs but none the less took our breath away. The next day we were to see more beautiful pillars with a greater density but the view from this platform takes some beating.
We did a complete circuit of the plateau seeing the Five Fingered Pear (?) and the Front Garden and some fairly scary drops to he side of the open path. We then went back the way we came and by twelve we were having lunch (ham and crackers!) by the side of the Golden Whip Stream. To be quite honest, as one of the top attractions the stream was a little disappointing. It is okay walking round at the base of the outcrops and you see more of the supposed shapes (for example the "Long Awaited Meeting of Couple" which apparently looked like a couple kissing) but, with the exception of the Shadao valley, it is all a bit too large in scale to take in from ground level. In addition you spend so much time staring in the air that you regularly trip over or fall down stairs.
Before we got to something known as the violet pool we made a quick side trip up an almost deserted but beautiful side valley called the Shadao valley. Here the pinnacles closed in around us, the jungle started to encroach on the path, the path started to disappear into the stream and there was almost total silence. We enjoyed it but when we reached its end after half an hour we started to realise that the proportions of our map were not quite as good as they could be. After this we walked the remainder of the Golden Whip Stream to another "village" known as Stream Winding Through Four Gates. By this point we had been walking for nearly eight hours so it was time to settle down for the night. We were a bit taken aback by the prices of the first hotel we looked at but in the end found a dorm-type affair for forty.
This is where the almost slipped into paradise. I am sure they receive a fair few foreigners at the reserve but from the way everyone stared at, made fun of and generally crowded around us one would guess that it was none. Curiosity and lack of privacy are one thing but being abusive is another. Again it seemed that the only thing bad about China was the attitude of most of its people. Anyway after a lot of shouting we finally cleared enough room to consume a fairly average dinner. We spent the rest of the night doing a "rear window" and observing the hotel opposite ours where some fairly complex to'ings and fro'ings were going on. Sadly we had become like the Chinese, with little else to do we grabbed an evening's vicariously entertainment courtesy of the tourists.
Thursday, 8 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
Again a day of astounding scenery this time plagued by the non-existence of paths. In fact we had got an inkling of this the night before. Everyone seemed to want to send us on buses and when we pointed at this footpath or that we met with a "may-yoh". We decided to head off in roughly the right direction and try to find the start of at least one of them. We found nothing at all and in the end had to settle for the Ten-Li Drawing Corridor which according to our map had a major path. However the bottom of the corridor was a mess, clearly the river that ran down it, despite now being nearly dry had flooded earlier in the year and wiped out the path. However this time we saw the now familiar porters with sedan chairs so we knew there must be a way through. We walked up a rocky riverbed for about a kilometre and then the river split. Someone told us that one direction was the rest of the Corridor and the other was something else we could not understand. We had a bit of a dilemma we wanted to continue up the corridor but there was no path, in the other direction there was also no path but a steady trickle of sedan chair porters. After a brief argument we decided to set off into the unknown. Within a half a kilometre we encountered a steep upwards flight of stairs ad pretty soon after that the matter of where we were was settled. We were on a path that lead through one of the densest areas of pinnacles heading towards something called the mid-air stage.
It turned out to be quite a fortunate detour. As we struggled up the stairs the views got more and more impressive. The pinnacles were forested with pine trees hanging on at impossible angles. Soon we found ourselves walking along a ridge with a massive drop and equally outstanding scenery on either side. Then we had to face a most depressing task - a staircase that plunged down directly opposite one that soared upwards. We could have done with a bridge but we soldiered on. At the saddle between the two staircases we encountered a fake Buddhist shrine complete with someone playing music. It was a little sad since it was housed in the same wooden building as the next door drinks stand but I guess it made a change.
The view from the Mid-Air stage was, you guessed it, amazing. On one side we could see the outlines of the Ten-li corridor and the peaks we had climbed through. On the other was a forest of pinnacles so dense that they looked like hundreds of pins stabbed randomly into a pin cushion. The Stage was unfortunately populated by people wanting to take your picture as you perched on one of the stone outcrops but since this involved climbing over the railings we passed on this option.
Carrying on from the Stage we had to ascend yet more stairs to get to a pagoda and a whole flock of tourists congregating on the strip of rock between Helong villlage, and the pagoda. To visualise where the village was imagine a huge plateau of rock the edges of which have fallen away like icebergs off the polar caps. Although the pinnacles of Wulingyuan were not formed in this way this gives a pretty good idea of what it looks like. Anyway dotted around the edge of what remains of the plateau are a couple of villages and the one we had reached was Helong. Here we had a couple of beers and decided, because of the density of tourists to set off for the next village around the rim, Tianzi village. Because the path were so poorly marked we were in effect forced to walk along the road which, not hugging the edge provided very few views. However we did take a side path to Shentangwan, a point where the density and sharpness of the peaks lead to the legend that Xiang, a great Tujia king, committed suicide here after defeat at the hands of the Imperial forces.
Tianzi village proved to be exactly what we wanted, not swimming with tourists and housing a few people who looked like they actually lived there. We found a room in a mediocre hotel and managed to bargain there price down to half the starting figure. We then went out in search of the path we would take the next day and had a very good dinner at a very basic re saturant. After this came the tragic realisation that as usual there was a karaoke bar cum disco five rooms down from us in the hotel but the enthusiasm of the customers waned around nine (China being such a partying place) and we got some sleep.
Friday, 9 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
Rain stopped play. We had two walks planned, one a three hour circuit around a tongue of plateau sticking out into the park from the village, the other a whole days walk to the lip of the plateau above the Shadao valley. Both had to be abandoned in favour of a day long session of playing cards because of almost continuous hard rain. We decided to stay in the village because there were a couple of things we wanted to see in the vicinity and we hoped that the rain would lift the next day...
Saturday, 10 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
...And how wrong we were. The rain was a bit more patchy but with the village being a quite a high altitude everything was enshrouded with clouds. We decided to visit one of the local attractions, the Immortals bridge, during a break in the rain. This turned out to be a somewhat strange experience. The bridge is a strip of rock just over a metre wide and about sixteen metres long between the two sides of a very sheer cove on the plateau's rim. I guess normally it is very impressive since you can see the drop, which is around seventy metres, and this makes crossing it all the more scary. However the clouds gave us very poor visibility so standing on the bridge, I didn't cross because it was too slippery, you experience the rather disorienting feeling that you don't know how far the ground is below, ten metres or ten thousand metres. Standing there suspended in space I suppose it did seem like I was in the realm of the immortals. Or maybe I was just dizzy...
The walk back to Helong was cold and wet. We had a couple of showers and in the hour and a half it took to walk it not one single bus passed us. The reality of the transport system became clear to us when we started to encounter the locals themselves walking between the two villages with umbrellas. When we finally reached our destination we boarded a very expensive (thirty-five yuan) cable car down to the valley floor. We had a brief argument with the ticket seller because they force you to buy insurance with everything in the reserve, even though you are fully insured, and lost. The descent was amazing as we dipped below the clouds. Now the surrounding pinnacles really did look like traditional paintings, the clouds swirling around them created a mystical effect and served to silhouette the pine trees hanging onto the rocks. The only problem was that we were in an Austrian made ski lift with an emphasis on safety which meant there was barely enough room to squeeze a camera lens through the bars of the single window in the cabin which naturally turned out to be on the wrong side. All in all we should have, despite the drizzle, walked down.
At the bottom we had an idea that we could arrange some sort of transport to Souxi town, a largish place where we were going to spend the night before returning to pick up a bags. Here the attitude of the attitude of the people making money from the park so sickened us that we ended up walking. Basically I went and asked someone how much it would be for the six kilometre journey. On his fingers he started to form the hand sign for ten but one of his colleagues rushed forward to take charge and produced a hundred yuan note. This basically summarised the general attitude of everyone there, greediness. It was not enough to charge excessive amounts for everything seeing that we were foreigners they seemed to be under the impression that they could charge us even more. He may have just been having a joke and I know we could have bargained him down but it was too much for us. It was if rather than feeling any pity for us, cold, wet and faced with a long walk, they saw the rain as a way of making more money. They did not seem to care and they probably did not need to because the rain and zero visibility had in no way reduced the flow of insane Chinese tourist groups.
Although the walk back was fairly pleasant by the time we got into Souxi town we were tired, cold, wet and miserable and not really in any shape to visit any of the sites around the town. So we traipsed around town to get a reasonably priced room and spent the afternoon and evening trying to warm up.
Sunday, 11 October 1998
Wulingyuan, Hunan, China
The weather was still unpleasant but not actually raining. We were down to a few hundred yuan so did not have enough money to buy our sleeper fare, and it being Sunday we had no way of getting more. There are two major attractions in Souxi village, Baofeng lake and the Huang Long Dong or Yellow Dragon Caves. We had walked past another lake the previous day and the water level was so low that metres of muddy rock had been exposed and it looked less than picturesque. Not knowing whether this was because of a dry spell terminated by our arrival or because of repairs they were doing to its retaining dam we did not want to risk that Baofeng lake was the same. Besides if it did started to tip down the caves would be a dry, if not particularly safe, place to be.
Anyone who has been to a system of caves in China will have a pretty good idea why we had avoided caves so far in our trip. I had read descriptions in our guide book and had been assured by other travellers that these were not exaggerated. The problem is that the Chinese have this perception that when it comes to caves they can improve on the staggering beauty of the ones nature has endowed their country with. And how do they do this, by lighting it up like Saturday Night Fever. Every colour of the rainbow is used, red, blue, green, yellow, purple and on the odd occasion (when viewing some formation like the Pine Covered in Snow) even white. Add to this the Chinese propensity for noise manifesting itself in a love of echoes and a love of actually touching the stalagmites and you start to get the picture.
I must not be too harsh because in truth even these things could not detract from the beauty of these caves. Every kind of formation was present from loess flows, stalactite curtains, pillars etc. In the main chamber, the palace of the dragon king, the stalagmites had grown to an impossible size, some at least 30m tall, and there were literally hundreds of them. Interestingly they seemed to mirror the landscape above the ground, a sort of scale model of the whole park, even some of the names of the formations were identical to those of pinnacles. The area covered was huge, at one point we journeyed up a river in motor boats, and it was all accessible by rather too organised walkways. We spent about two hours walking around and even then, although this was not our fault, did not see all of it.
However the crowning turd on the dung heap of human behaviour that weighed against the reserve's natural beauty was presented to us here. We had paid a whopping sixty yuan to get into the caves (bear in mind that the Terra cotta Army in comparison had cost us sixty-five) and just before we came full circle back to the entrance the guide stopped everyone and explained something in Chinese. We did not understand what she was saying but soon it became clear, there was another section of the cave containing even more beautiful formations for which you had to buy an extra ticket, none of which was explained outside the caves. There was even a ticket office molded into the cave wall. We were astonished and it was not only us, the Chinese seemed a little upset as well. Fortunately we knew exactly where we were and so walked off leaving the Chinese to squabble in the dark. We concluded that after two hours we had seen enough anyway so whatever was in that extra bit, rather than being icing on the cake, would be more like "Just one wa-fer thin mint".
Having spent so long in the caves it was difficult to know what to do. We had to get back to our luggage in Zhangjiajie but had been unable to find a direct bus. With a trip to the train station and back being the only alternative I thought it would take us two hours which would leave us enough time to re-enter the reserve for a few last glances to restore our faith in the park's beauty and forget about it's dark side. Sadly it was not to be. Souxi village it turned out was curiously isolated and it took over an hour and a half of switchbacks before we got to a nondescript roundabout where we were bundled out to hitch a lift in a box-van which turned out to be the mainstay of local public transport. In Zhangjiajie we picked up our luggage and checked back into our hotel then watched the rest of the day go by.
Monday, 12 October 1998
Liuzhou, Guangxi, China
The first day on our long awaited departure from China. We failed to wake up amazingly early and did not particularly want to as we intended to find a sleeper train. Our first problem however was getting back to the train station, achieved in the back of yet another box van, followed by the problem of finding a Bank of China able to give me money. This was a lot harder than it sounds as we did not have any map of the main town (which also, confusingly was called Zhangjiajie) and we did not know where the van dropped us off. When we finally found the central branch the teller at the credit card desk looked at my card as if she had never seen a credit card before in her life.
The Bank of China is a curious place. Most of the central branches seem overstaffed and for some reason they feel obliged to operate everything on a four-eyed principle. This means that there were two staff on the foreign exchange desk and two staff on the credit card desk. The second is not as reasonable as it may sound since although the Bank does have its own credit card we had rarely ever seen anyone use one much less any business apart from international hotels that accepts them. Thus you basically had four staff at this bank to serve foreigners of which there were precisely two in town that day.
Thus it was no surprise that the staff seemed both bored and a little surprised to see me at the same time. However my credit card was so much a mystery to her, despite the fact that it has nothing but numbers on it, that she had to call her boss over. He put her back on the rails and she got on with authorising the transaction, getting half way through before she realised that she had not asked me how much I wanted. Meanwhile her double, a lad, who looked like he was barely out of school let alone university, wearing a baseball jacket and jeans thumbed through my passport as if it contained the meaning of life if only he could understand it. Within a very confused half an hour I got the money we needed and we were off to the station.
Here we were in for a little bit of a shock. Contrary to our expectations there were either not that many trains going through or they would not book us on any that were. We managed to get tickets on a 1700 train and it was only 1200. So we shocked one of the row of ten restaurateurs at the front of the station by ordering some food and beers and basically entrenching ourselves in her establishment whilst we read the various guide books to SE Asia we had with us and watched the rain continue to poor down.
The sleeper train was basically the usual experience with one comic exception. One topic I may not have expostulated on before is that of the carriage attendants. Each carriage has at least one person working in it and they seem to have a variety of strange jobs. One is to swap your tickets with metal tags which represent the berth you are in, swapping it back half an hour before your destination. This seems a little over the top but I guess it stops any arguments as well as making sure you get woken up at the right stop. The other jobs are even more mundane like mopping the entire carriage floor (plus your shoes) with a mop that is dirtier than the floor, sweeping and closing the windows at night so that you suffocate. One job which is curiously absent from their remit is cleaning the toilet.
On this trip however we observed another ritualistic task that was so bizarre that it could have only been invented to give the girl something to do. The train was pretty new and still had the red carpet it had been delivered from the factory with. This however began the journey rolled up in her store room. About ten at night, just before lights out, she revealed it then rolled it out along the length of the carriage. She then bought out a roll of another material like a dust sheet and rolled this out on top of the carpet. The whole process took about half an hour and the next morning, before anyone got up, it was repeated in reverse. We have no idea what it was about as of course nobody uses the corridor in the night much less why she had to put a dust sheet over the top of the carpet. I am sure that if we had been equipped to ask her she would have been as equally baffled.
Tuesday, 13 October 1998
Nanning, Guangxi, China
The majority of the day was spent on trains as, for the first time so far we had to change trains. The train from Liuzhou to Nanning, the provincial capital and departure point for the train to the border, was a modern double decker train. This was quite a relief because we were afraid that we were not going to get a seat and we suffered all the tension associated with travelling hard-seat to find, once again, that the train had plenty of space. Nanning , once we arrived, proved to be a very generic Chinese provincial capital. Half being demolished, half being rebuilt, nothing older than fifty years, nothing to do in the day, nothing to do in the night etc. We went to a restaurant in one of the best hotels in town (since we had too much currency) and were bitterly disappointed - the street stalls looked more promising.
Wednesday, 14 October 1998
Nanning, Guangxi, China
Our entry visa was dated for the fifteenth and we did not really feel enthusiastic about the series of train rides needed to get to Hanoi. So we lazed around for the day, catching up with our diaries, posting books back to England and generally waving goodbye to China. We attempted to go to the provincial museum but like the rest of the town it was in the throes of being rebuilt. They let us into the gardens, for a price, and here we were able to walk around Dong and Miao structures that had been constructed there as exhibits. We had our last meal in China, sensibly, at a roadside stall. The food was excellent, they did not overcharge us and we amused them immensely with our attempts to play our newly worked out Chinese drinking game. We stayed there half the night to say a proper goodbye to Chinese beer.
Thursday, 15 October 1998
Nanning, Guangxi, China
We basically got up early and caught the train to the Vietnamese Border. The hotel surprised us by charging us extra for the towels we had asked for but we let them get away with it. The train was surprisingly comfortable, it seemed that transport in Guangxi was a notch above what we were used to.
Conclusion: Three months is a long time to spend in a country and you would be forgiven for thinking that we would be glad to leave. But the thing is that China is such a large place and there are so many different regions that it never really bored us. Having said that one thing that was just about all pervasive were the Chinese and their behaviour.
If someone were to ask me about China I would say "go for the landscape rather than the people or the history". This is the attitude I began with and, although I have had a few surprises, I still firmly believe it. The Chinese have systematically destroyed their past leaving little more than the odd reconstructed or restored temple. Even the modern history seems to have been wiped clean with very little to make you think that you are in a Communist country. The pockets of the past that remain are the ethnic groups but you get the impression that this is more through poverty than design. The main racial group, the Han, have attempted to homogenise Chinese culture and in the places where the old life still remains you get a feeling that this is either through lack of interest on the Han side (eg Langmusi, the Dong villages) or because it has been preserved as a human tourist attraction (eg Xiahe).
Of all the racial groups we met the Tibetans were without a doubt the most friendly. In the main we found the Chinese cold, more content to stare at you than welcome you to their country, more likely to a laugh at you if you trip up than give you a hand up. Of course this is a crude generalisation and there are people and areas we will never forget, but on the whole it is true. I have no idea why this is, years of forced xenophobia and isolationism starting from the Ming through to the Communist indoctrination may be to blame. Alternatively it may be that they are rushing towards their westernisation so quickly that a lot of human qualities have taken a back seat.
One thing that definitely impressed me, and sometimes made me feel a bit claustrophobic, is the population density. I have never seen a country like China where practically every square centimetre is used. Terracing and irrigation allow them to squeeze farms into the unlikeliest of places and by controlling the prices that rice is purchased at these very labour intensive farm methods are kept cost effective. In the west the majority of agriculture has been mechanised, the transition gradual allowing a migration from the land to the city. If China were to suddenly embrace these methods it would cause a lot of problems as millions would be left unemployed. The alternative route they have chosen is to keep a large percentage of their population in relative poverty. I doubt very much whether this can go on for ever. The gulf between rich and poor is so wide that sometimes you experience a culture shock going between the towns, almost indistinguishable from those in the west, to the countryside, almost unchanged since the dawn of time. I think that this could prove the weak link in China's race to become a superpower.