The long (torturous) road to Fenghuang

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March 9th 2008
Published: March 9th 2008
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My next destination was to Fenghuang in Hunan province. I knew that it was going to be a long journey there so I'd mentally prepared myself for one or two problems along the way. It started relatively easy by jumping on a bus from Yangshuo back to Guilin. I then had a short wait in Guilin as the rained drizzled down. It was then a ten hour train ride to Huaihua a small nondescript town in Hunan province which serves as a hub for connecting trains.

I was lucky enough to meet a lovely elderly Chinese couple on the train who took it upon themselves to look after me throughout the journey. Like most Chinese people I've met they were extremely friendly but also very inquisitive. I had told them that my Chinese language ability was limited but nevertheless they continued to speak to me in Chinese, albeit I might add very slowly. We chatted for a while before they produced an enormous bag full of food which they then proceeded to feed me for the next half an hour. I wasn't particularly hungry but I thought it would seem impolite to refuse. When I nodded off in the late afternoon on my bed I'd left my feet uncovered the woman actually went out of her way to pull the sheets over my exposed feet, I felt five years old again!

Unfortunately there is only one train which runs from Guilin to Huaihua daily and this arrives at past midnight. I was left in a dilemma; wait in the railway station for the first bus out to Fenghuang or try my luck with one of hotels nearby the station.

Once off the train I soon decided that I'd prefer in fact to stay inside the station as the quality of hotels didn't really seem that different from the inside of the station! Before I could sleep I still needed to do one important thing and it was here where I faced my first frustration of the trip. I'd planned on arrival to buy a ticket for the following Monday to Kunming. I stood in line with my pre prepared piece of paper listening all the times, with an asterix clearly pointing to the time and number of the train I wanted. A policeman saw me and came to see if he could help. I showed him the paper and he went directly to the front of the queue bypassing everyone before him to enquire about the tickets availability. When he came back he said that there were no tickets on sale for Kunming now. I couldn't believe it, it was Saturday morning, I wanted a ticket for Monday, in all the other places I'd bought my tickets in advance. Our conversation was creating quite a crowd which made it even more difficult for me to get across just what I wanted in Chinese. It was late, I was tired and cold and just wanted a ticket. I tried to explain this to the policeman, who I have to say was also very friendly and I think was just genuinely trying to help. I guess it's one of those things that just happens, very frustrating but I've lived here long enough to know that arguing in a situation like this won't get anything done. I was told that if I return on Sunday or Monday then I could buy the ticket I needed. And that was that, I was off to find my bed for the night.

Having eaten my last supply of instant noodles and washed it down with a late night/early morning beer it was time to see if I could get any sleep. I'm not sure if Huaihua gets many passing foreigners, I'm sure it does but as I climbed into my sleeping bag and put on an extra layer of clothing I felt rather similar to that of an exhibit in a museum. Everyone seemed fascinated with the tall 'laowi' settling in for a night on the seat. Some people were brave enough to venture a small hello but I was very tired and for the first time on the trip decided a smile was best. I certainly didn't want to be getting into any conversations at one in the morning.

The clock opposite seemed to move incredibly slowly, ten minutes seemed like one hour. It was also desperately cold and I was thankful I had my sleeping bag. I kept falling in and out of sleep wary of the fact that I still had two bags to look after. At about three o'clock in the morning my policeman friend appeared next to me smiling from ear to ear, he put his mobile phone close to me and started to play "Yesterday Once More" by the Carpenters, looking at me and smiling the entire time. Once finished he was off again, could this night get any more surreal I wondered?

The eternal wait was over and six thirty finally arrived, I packed up and headed for the short walk to the bus station negotiating my way through plenty of people trying to get me to take their taxi or stay in their hotel. I really couldn't wait to get out of Huaihua. I thought that by getting up early I would have plenty of time to get to the station, buy my ticket and get settled in my seat ready to read my book. The first two were completed with ease however I hadn't bargained on everyone else getting there early and was a little shocked as I boarded the bus to be handed a small plastic stool. Once on board I soon realised that the bus was jam packed and I would in fact be sitting on the stool in the aisle! As if my lack of sleep wasn't bad enough I would now have two and a half hours to face on a small plastic stool. I did have to laugh though as the driver actually brought me a second stool to put on top of the first as he was worried one might not hold my weight! Compliments too....

A Chinese guy very genrously offered me his seat halfway through the ride but I declined his kind offer, besides how could I give up the comfort of TWO stools!

I was beginning to wonder if I had made the right decision in coming to Fenghuang as the whole journey was becoming something of a nightmare. However all my fears soon passed as the bus pulled into Fenghuang station.

Fenghuang is in Hunan province which just happens to be the province that Chairman Mao hails from, a little more of him later. It's also home to two ethnic minorities, Miao and Tuija people. These minorities of people are also to be found in Hubei, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. Fenghuang or as it means in English "Phoenix" is a small town situated on the banks of the Tuo River (Tuo Jiang) The town is named after the mythical bird of good omen and longevity. As the story goes the phoenix is consumed by fire only to be reborn again from the flames. The legend is that Fenghuang is so named as two phoenix once flew over the town but instead of leaving hovered above it as they were so taken with it's beauty. Fire continues to play a role in the town but again more of that later.

From the station I managed to find my hostel, a rudimentary style youth hostel located in one of the old original buildings but nevertheless full of 'old world' charm. Having spent the best part of twenty four hours travelling I decided that I would splash out on a room for myself. Once situated I headed out into the streets to explore.

Fenghuang is an absolute delight, unique, homely and in many ways like the phoenix itself, mythical. The Tuo River runs through the heart of the old town and the river banks are lined with over hanging wooden houses, some of which look like they might fall into the river at any moment. From an architectural point of view it's the most beautiful place I have visited so far. It's a mixture of wooden a high walled stone carved buildings, the roofs of which are typically Chinese and look almost temple like. You really can quite easily, as I did get lost wandering around the narrow cobbled streets.

Having arrived on a Saturday obviously the place was swarmed with tourists. It's worrying having just come from Guilin and Yangshuo and seeing the negative side that tourism has had on those places I only hope Fenghuang isn't next, although unfortunately signs of it can be seen already.

I strolled around the narrow streets taking in the atmosphere of the places. It seemed that despite it's somewhat remote location that people didn't seem that badly off. Perhaps this is the positive effect of tourism.

Walking around it's apparent how proud the local people are of not only there ethnic minority status but also of the fact that Hunan is the home of Chairman Mao. His face is everywhere, just peering into a house it's possible to see his face plastered on the wall. The ethnic ladies sit alongside the river dressed in their beautiful outfits complete with unique headwear peddling various local crafts. Unlike other places I've visited people here aren't the least bit pushy when it comes to buying something, they are quite happy for you to browse and simply move.

Another interesting aspect of the town is the way in which you can buy all variety of dried meats. It's a little strange to see whole skinned ducks and chickens hanging upside down but more so to see a skinned flattened pigs head smiling at you! Nice....

Fenghuang is full of small yet lovely peculiarities. Take for example the system of heating. Under many tables they have carved out a small hole which they then fill with hot coals!

At night time new sellers appear on the street this time selling numerous paper floats with candle holders, everything is here from heart and flower shapes to whole miniature ships. People then proceed to light the candles and watch as the floats drift on down the river. I took in this spectical sitting on some steps next to the river whilst enjoying a beer, could life get any better? On seconds thoughts it could have been a little warmer, Fenghuang seems to be cold in the morning and very cold at night with a little bit of warmth in between.

This is real 'laowi' town too, despite appearing in the Lonely planet travel guide there seems to be a real lack of foreigners walking around, in fact I haven't seen one. People really do see genuinely surprised to see a tall foreigner walking around and I'm getting a 'laowi' every two or three minutes. I would be lying if I said it wasn't a little annoying now!

Well that's all on Fenghaung for now, I could go on but I seem to have written much more than usual today, I think it's due to the fact that it's pouring with rain outside and I'm really hungry! I'll try and finish up on Fenghuang tomororw but my advice to anyone who hasn't been here is COME A.S.A.P before tourism gets too much! I'm hopefully off back to Huaihua tomorrow just praying I can get my onwards ticket to Kunming. Perhaps I'll even have to take a hard seat for twenty two hours, anything would be better than having to stay in Huaihua!

Just finally a quick hello to all at WEB International, I hope you are all studying hard and also learning lots of new words and phrases from these blogs, it's not easy I know, but remember practice makes perfect! Missing you all, until next time..........Paul


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