A still night in Fenghuang
I met Mr. Xiang on an epic hike on Hua Shan (华山), one of China's 5 great mountains, near Xi'an, Shaanxi, but that's another story. Despite my sketchy Chinese and his almost non-existent English, we managed to converse during the 9 hours or more on the mountain. We parted having swapped contact details and he extracted a promise that, if I visited his home province of Hunan, I would visit him and his family. This is how I did just that.
Traveling with some teaching colleagues during the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year, the greatest annual human migration in the world, we had been south from Jiangsu, where we live, in search of warmer weather. Even on the far south coast of China, Beihai, (北海) in Guangxi Province had only managed a milder, but damp and not very inviting environment. We had been there partly to visit a friend living there, Sunshine, whom I had known in Jiangsu. She joined us on the way back too but, during this time of colossal stress on the transport infrastructure, none of us had been able to get train tickets so the 5 of us end up on a 16 hour sleeper bus trip to Changsha, the capital of Hunan.
Inside a Sleeper Bus
For those who have not traveled on a sleeper bus in China I should take a little time to describe it to you and after which you may well ensure you never do. Up the steps and take a red plastic bag from the bunch hanging on a peg. At the top take your shoes off, (trying not to stand on the grubby steps in your socks or the still pristine floor in your shoes!) and put them in the bag. Then find your bunk among the three rows of two tier bunks. One row along each side of the bus, another down the middle. The aisles in between are about half a meter wide as are the bunks themselves, just enough room for me to slide in and sit up.
The length is about adequate for the average Chinese person, not for my 1.83 m (6 ft 2 in). In the end I manage to curl up in a foetal position, my knees projecting into the aisle and posing a risk to anyone making for the toilet at the back in the dark. I even surprise myself by sleeping well, in instalments, hood up over my head and trying to ignore the occasional smell of smoke from the already malodorous toilet just behind us, as addicts on this “Non smoking” bus assume they'd remain undetected in this dismal, tiny cubicle, which to a slim, agile Chinese dwarf with no sense of smell might just be adequate.
The bus stops at around 4 am, just after I return to sleep after the huge argument about a woman's underpaid ticket at around 3 am. We have no idea why but we're there for about 3 hours. It turns out it was one of those huge traffic jams for which China is rapidly getting a name. We finally arrive in Changsha, more than 4 hours late. A 20 hour trip no one has forgotten since.
Reflections in the canal Fenghuang
I had contacted Mr. Xiang previously and he seemed overjoyed when I said we could call in on the way back to Jiangsu, if not inconveniencing him of course. The train on which we should have traveled would have taken us quite close to his home town of Jishou (吉首). However the bus station in Changsha is another 400 km (249 miles) east. Undeterred Mr. Xiang sent a friend to pick us up. Mr. Liu looks remarkably cheerful having been there since 5 am waiting for us. We got into the Toyota Highlander at around 10:30 am, ready for another 3 hours of travel to Jishou. With snow on the road and cars crashed everywhere and it actually takes around 7 hours. Full marks to Mr. Liu, who does a sterling job on difficult and frustrating roads. Naturally, this being China, he won't accept any money for fuel, tolls or lunch.
Street Food Fenghuang
Mr Xiang, his wife and daughter meet us in Jishou, then we drive for another 50 km (31 mi) to Fenghuang (凤凰), or Phoenix City. I'd been recommended to see Fenghuang if I ever got the chance. He and I are in a police car that he, as the Public Prosecutor for the region, has commandeered. This apparently gives him carte blanche to overtake on bends and rather too close to the crests of hills for comfort at times. He told me before we left Jiangsu that he had booked accommodation for us. We're all hoping it's a) adequate and b) reasonably priced.
He leads us to a very large hotel near the old town which is: definitely more than a) but almost certainly not b). We are wondering how to get out of this saving face and money. He ushers us in and goes through the formalities. I think he has already paid the bill. “How much do I owe you?” I tentatively enquire, in a small voice. His only answer is a strong, clear hand signal he ushers us to the lift and up to our rooms, I share with a teaching colleague, Sunshine and a Canadian teacher in another room, Mr. Xiang and Mr. Liu in the third.
Shao Kao Fenghuang
Within 20 minutes and after over 30 hours traveling from Beihai (北海）, he has us walking to the old town where we end up at a streetside shao kao (烧烤) or barbecue, eatery. It's normal in China to eat outside, even in the winter. We look at what's on offer, a considerable selection as you'll see from the photo. My colleague George asks, “What's that?”, as though someone can speak English. The woman grabs a handful and puts it on the hotplate. He turns to me. “I think we had these in Yangzhou...” The woman follows his finger and throws another handful of those on. Hands in pockets and mouth closed he just peers silently at the selection. By now she's following his gaze and seems to throw in anything he glances at. Mr. Xiang doesn't seem to mind. Afterwards we are almost too full to get up for a walk around the town. Naturally we are not allowed to pay.
Night in Fenghuang
Reflections on a still night in Fenghuang
Fenghuang is an old city built around canals & UNESCO World Heritage Listed. Older than it looks. Among all the cities, sites and artefacts in China that date back thousands of years, it's actually only 300 years old. The buildings and walls are all stone and brick and it is sinking into a defiantly dilapidated old age. By night it is quite stunning, lit up in a way only the Chinese seem to manage and reflected in the still waters of the canals. Some of the shops, stalls and bars are still open, on this freezing winter's night, a young duo are busking under a bridge. The place would be really buzzing in summer. The girls just comment on some bags a street trader has on sale. Mr. Xiang immediately buys them one each.
A bridge over still water in Fenghuang
Buskers in Fenghuang
We're up bright and early, except for Sunshine, who has to be prised her out of bed for a walk around Fenghuang in the daytime, avoiding a trip on a precarious looking boat on the canal but rising to the challenge of a photo shoot in costume in which, I'm told, I look like an Uzbekistani silk merchant. Judge for yourself. I've been called worse. There's a small fee for the hire of the costumes but despite a price list for photos they have no problem when we take our own. I'm sure that wouldn't happen where I came from. We drive back to Jishou for lunch with Mr. Xiang's wife and their daughter. What a spread. Even I must be putting on weight.
The author and Sunshine posing as as silk traders
Butcher shop, Feng Huang
We're still not sure exactly what will happen after this. I ask about trains from Jishou but don't get a clear response. Remember Mr. Xiang's English is almost non-existent, his daughter is learning at school but certainly can't translate, my Chinese is still, sadly, pretty sketchy. All is slowly revealed. After lunch he drops his wife off, and I assume he is going to drive us to the station, but no, he and his daughter drive us to our next destination, Zhangjiajie. It's about 300 km (186 mi) north! Generosity in China is amazing, but at times overwhelming. There's more to the story, but I'll leave that for another day.
Fenghuang by day
Canal in Fenghuang
Reflections at night in Fenghuang
Dave Lambert is currently teaching English while living in the ancient and venerable city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, where the Grand Canal meets the Yangtze River and where Marco Polo once reputedly held a government post. He is also a musician, writer, photographer and traveler. Born and raised in England's East Anglia, he has lived in Botswana, Australia and now China. In the last 5 years he has visited numerous places in this enormous and varied country, but still feels he has just scratched the surface. He now divides his time between the activities mentioned and studying for a languages degree, with a major in Chinese.