Friday, 30 November 2012

Fenghuang - A Charming Riverside Town

After the bus trip from Dali we checked in for one night at The Hump Hostel before catching the train to Huaihua the following day.  At The Hump we bumped into an American guy, Benny, who arrived at the same time by train from Dali and who is now our friend.  He was lovely.  He recognised us from The Jade’s barbecue and pool night.  Although he had been staying elsewhere in Dali, he had been persuaded to join in the pool completion and I somehow remembered it was mentioned that he was from Wisconsin.  It’s strange the details you remember you have eavesdropped about other people!

We ended up spending the evening with Benny, drinking beer, eating pizza and putting the world to rights!  He was unusual for an American as you don’t meet many travelling for any length of time or specifically backpacking.  Many do travel but they have so little holiday (statutory minimum is 2 weeks for most workers) that they often just want a beach holiday in Mexico or the Caribbean where they can kick back for a week or so (something I can relate to!).  Many do live abroad but stay in one place to work and we have met a few expat Americans.  You seldom find a yank just bumming around like you do so many Australians or Europeans. 

So we had a few beers with Benny who was great company.  He had travelled from Moscow by train to Mongolia and then spent about 6 weeks in China.  He was now heading to Vietnam and then Cambodia for some warmth and from now on would be ahead of us by about 2 weeks.
The following day we left in the early afternoon to catch a bus to the railway station where we caught our overnight train to Huaihua.  The train was fairly quiet for a Chinese train.  Well, until about 2am when there must have been a major stop, lights were flashed on and off, announcements over the tannoy and people milling about, eating noodles, and chattering away very loudly.  This is all fairly normal for a Chinese train but it means you have broken sleep and really don’t feel rested when you arrive at your destination. 

We were awake quite early to changed scenery.  The weather was very overcast as we entered Hunan province, something we were expecting anyway, but the mountains were still spectacular.  The steep tree-covered karst mountains rose through the clouds, some mountains were terraced with all manner of crops growing (including, we think, tea).
We arrived in Huaihua, and although we knew the bus station was only a ten minute walk from the station, we had no idea in what direction, and there was (of course) more than one bus station!  We jumped in a taxi to the bus station (a two minute ride), Paul bought bus tickets to Fenghuang and as we were examining the tickets to see what time the bus left, a young girl in a pristine uniform and red sash asked us in broken English if she could help us.

She examined our tickets, and asked us to follow her through security, which we did.  It was 10.30am and on our tickets it looked like our bus was leaving at 12.00.  However, as soon as we had put our bags through the security x-ray, another woman (no uniform) appeared, took our tickets, grabbed one of our bags and me by the arm, babbled at us in Chinese (very loudly and in a very high pitch which we had gathered by now meant that we should urgently follow her instructions) and ran off through the waiting area dragging me in her wake.
Fenghuang - houses on stilts
She continued to babble to me, and anyone else in her way, until we arrived in front of a bus with its engine running, doors shut, which looked full and just about to leave. 

The woman shouted at the driver to open both the front door and the luggage doors, indicted to Paul to throw our rucksacks in the luggage area, at the same time pushing me on the bus and into one of the front seats next to a rather startled elderly Chinese gentleman.  She then disappeared off the bus, and reappeared with Paul, dragging him right to the back of the bus where there was one last free seat.  She jumped off the bus, and within 10 seconds we were on our way (we hoped) to Fenghuang.

The journey was only about 3 hours, along winding roads (many unfinished), through mountains and villages.  We felt we were heading off the beaten track a little and we spent the time just enjoying the Hunan scenery.

The old man next to me looked about 80 and mumbled to himself a lot leading me to question his mental agility at times (although sometimes I think he was praying when the driver took some of the corners a bit fast!) but when his mobile phone rang numerous times he answered with a surprisingly sprightly “Wei!” which was completely incongruous to the way he appeared.  I couldn’t help but giggle.

The colourful shops lining the streets
Paul’s journey at the back of the bus was relatively uneventful except that someone fell asleep on his lap but he said he didn’t really mind too much – we were beginning to realise that this was expected behaviour on a Chinese bus.
We were deposited at Fenghuang bus station a little after 1.30pm and caught a taxi to the old town to begin the search for our hostel through the winding, pedestrianized lanes.

Fenghuang is a really beautiful little town on the Rive Tuo.  It is famous for its houses on stilts on the riverbank and it is the only place in China we have visited that truly lives up to the images you see in guidebooks.  The old town is full of narrow, winding lanes, roads and pathways with no cars (although motorcycles manage to get through so you still have to have your wits about you).  The river is crossed by many bridges including two narrow wooden bridges and two sets of stepping stones!  The main bridge is Hong Qiao (Rainbow Bridge) and our hostel was located near here. 
Us sporting our rather fetching garlands
It was quite chilly and damp all the time we were there, but it was the end of November, and we did not see one western tourist the whole time we were there, although there were plenty of Chinese tourists, particularly groups of young Chinese, doing their thing – happily chattering away at a ridiculously high pitch, shouting “hello” to us, enthusiasting taking photographs of everything (including us) and generally have a great time.

Our hostel was situated down a very narrow alley off a narrow lane.  It was very quaint but really cold and quite damp when we got there.  We were able to use the air conditioning unit to try and warm the place up a bit but I think it only took the temperature to just above freezing!  That was when we could persuade the bloody thing to work – obviously all the controls were in Chinese and every time we got back to the room we had to spent a good 15 minutes trying to work out how to get it to blow out warm(ish) air again.  There was also a resident ginger tom who tried to squeeze into our room when we weren’t looking and climb onto (and into) our bed at every opportunity!
Fenghuang lit up at night
We went out on the first evening, and wandered around to see what Fenghuang had to offer.  The first thing we noticed was that the restaurants don’t so much have a menu, preferring to display your dinner in tanks and cages out on the street.  There are all manner of fish including cat fish about a foot long, huge freshwater clams, small freshwater crabs, and snails.

There are also the usual chickens along with ducks, geese, pigeons and pheasants.  Other favourites include snake and bamboo rat, a grey rodent about the size of a rabbit, as well as an actual rabbit.  We were not tempted by any of this.
We also saw something which seemed peculiar to Fenghuang, which was flattened pig faces which are usually displayed in rows outside the meat shops with at least one of them with a cigarette dangling from its mouth. 

At the night market, cooked food included whole baby piglets, small whole crabs on sticks, unidentified meat on sticks, as well as an incredible array of fresh and tasty vegetables. 

The night food market
What becomes increasingly clear, particularly in a places such as Fenghuang which is mainly popular with domestic tourists (there is little to accommodate foreign or western tourism i.e. very little is in pinyin, never mind English) is that while much of what we see is alien and a little unsavoury to us, is just accepted by the Chinese and they don't bat an eyelid.  The concept that their customs may be unacceptable to westerners does not seem to cross their minds – indeed, why should it?  I believe this is true across much of south east Asia although where it has become known in some places that, for example, westerners largely find it abhorrent that Fido might be on the menu, they play up to this.  Eating dog in China at least is apparently quite specialised and you have to seek out specific restaurants – contrary to common belief that dog is routinely on the menu!
Most Chinese have never left China and will be unaware to a large extent of how they are perceived by the rest of the world although this is changing fast;  more and more Chinese are taking trips abroad and certainly the younger generation have the desire to travel abroad more than their parents' generation did. 

For our first night in the town we splashed out on fish and chips in Soul CafĂ© which turned out to be an expensive (for China) evening, but we sat enjoying a spectacular view of the river and also splashed out on Mojitos (which were rather lacking in rum but cheap).  The following two nights we went to the night market which was much more within our price range, reverting to beer again. 

The night market was fantastic for food.  Basically, you choose from a variety of raw ingredients, stick them in a bowl and they are cooked for you there and then, served up with rice, noodles and spicy fried potatoes. We had two really good meals there, lots of meat and prawns, with beer for about £7 for both of us. Another reason the night market was so attractive, was that you were sat at tables behind the stalls, near the woks and the heat from the hobs and barbecues kept you nice and toasty!

Paul was managing to communicate in Mandarin more and more and was starting to be able to understand much of what was being said in return.  He was still frustrated by the language but his efforts were appreciated by the local people.  However, when he ever got stuck, we were noticing more and more that people would write down what they were saying.  Using Chinese characters.  Which is of course as much use to us as that chocolate teapot!
Many different languages are spoken in China but Mandarin is the standard (the common language) and it is what is taught in schools.  Most languages spoken in China however share the same written language:  Chinese simplified characters or Hanzi.  So if you are from Beijing where Mandarin is widely spoken and you visit Yunnan for example where Bai is widely spoken and you are having problems understanding what a local person is saying they will write it down for you in Hanzi and you should be able to read it in your own language.  The characters mean the same in most of the languages spoken in China.
Traditional dress
A lot of the Chinese people we come across can't understand why we can’t read Hanzi.  As far as they are concerned Hanzi is the written language that everyone can read no matter what language they speak.  Even if you’re not from China, they find it difficult to comprehend that you cannot read Hanzi as it is the common written language just like Mandarin is the common spoken language.  As far as they are aware, Mandarin (and Hanzi) is the common language of everyone! 

It's hilarious but endearing when we are struggling with the language barrier and the person we are speaking to writes down the Chinese characters for us and we have to admit ignorance.  I have learned a handful of the Hanzi characters but to have a decent working knowledge you have to memorise at least 2500 characters and there is no fast or easy way of doing that and I've got a long way to go!

Back to Fenghuang.  We were so glad we visited this little riverside town as we really felt like we were heading off the beaten track a little and despite our initial concerns it was really quite easy to get there.  The town itself was touristy but charming, and while it would be even lovelier in the spring, summer or autumn (in other words: warmer); we also knew that it would be packed to the rafters with Chinese tourists in high season, so we wrapped up and enjoyed the relative quiet season. 
We spent most of our time here just wandering the lanes and alleyways around the old town of Fenghuang, crossing and re-crossing the river over the various bridges, just enjoying the charm of the place.  Every now and again we would plot up on the riverside and just watch the world go by on the river.  We were tempted to take a short river boat cruise but somehow never got around to it.  It always feels a bit like a extravagence to do something really touristy and we feel a bit guilty about it.

Once we were sat near one of the bridges watching a party going on the third floor of one of the buildings on the opposite side of the river at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon.  The party seemed to be well underway and was getting quite raucous.  We could see that as well as beer, much Chinese vodka was being consumed and as we sat there we could clearly hear lots of shouting, laughing and general good humoured fun although they were some distance away.  We thought it might be a wedding or some other celebration but couldn't spot a bride among them. 

Suddenly one of the partygoers noticed us sitting across the river and started shouting out "hello", "ni hao" and waving like crazy.  It was just so funny that they could single us out so easily and just immediately wanted to get our attention.  Soon the whole balcony was waving madly at us, yelling cries of "hello" and lots of general laughter.  This is so typical of China and the Chinese and it just endears us to them all the more.  They really know how to have a good time and their good humour is so infectious.

We also spent the evenings just wandering around the town which at night was really atmospheric.  The whole town was lit up along the river and although it was out of season, a lot of the bars were packed with young Chinese tourists letting their hair down, dancing like lunatics or (more likely) taking a turn at karaoke.  Most bars are karaoke bars, and the ones that weren’t were playing the same awful electronic dance music but they were clearly having a great time, and it was lovely to witness it.

Flower garlands are sold by local older women and although we never bought any we were twice we were lumbered with some after we were asked to pose for photographs with some young Chinese complete with head gear, and they insisted we keep them.  They wouldn’t take no for an answer so we ended up walking the streets clutching flower garlands wondering how long it was polite to hang onto them and when it would be safe to dispose of them.
As the temperature dropped on the third day, and it was starting to drizzle (the sort of rain that doesn’t actually fall from the sky but hangs about in a mist getting you nice and wet anyway!) so we decided it was time to buy panda hats.  Paul’s got a big head and I’ve got a pin head so he needed a stretchy knitted one and I wanted a fluffy one.  We duly purchased ridiculous (but warm) hats and spent the last evening walking around the narrow lanes looking like idiots, providing much hilarity, posing for the usual photographs but avoiding flower garlands because they spoilt the panda look!

When it was time to leave, tickets were purchased successfully for Wulingyuan where we were heading to visit the national park where, it is claimed, James Cameron was inspired for Avatar.  There is some dispute about this as Huangshan (Yellow Mountain near Shanghai) also makes that claim to fame and I’ve read somewhere that Cameron conceded Huangshan was in fact the place where he took inspiration from for the movie but it doesn’t really matter - there is a promotional poster included in the advertisements for Wulingyuan (and no doubt for Huangshan!).

There were various bus ticket offices around Fenghuang and the morning bus to Wulingyuan was advertised as leaving at anywhere between 8am and 10am (mostly 9am).  When we bought tickets the girl in the office told us the bus left at 8.30am so we made sure we left the hostel early to get to the bus station just outside the old town, about 10 minutes by cab. 
The bus actually left at 8.20am so we still don’t know the actual scheduled time of the bus although we suspect that it is like most bus services in China – they give you a vague timeframe but if the bus fills up early, the bus leaves early.  The journey took 5 hours through stunning Hunan countryside, small villages, and huge limestone karsts heralding our arrival to the Wulingyuan scenic area – a massive park of about 230 square kilometres with so much to see, long walks through valleys and through mountains, two scary cable cars, a lake, monkeys and salamanders. 

The weather was horrible when we arrived so we immediately decided to extend our stay, to warm up a bit, have lots of hot showers and hope the weather would improve as promised.  However, it was December in the middle of China, a few hundred feet above sea level so weren’t holding our breath!



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