Jishou: Visiting the Fenghuang Ancient City

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June 19th 2015
Published: June 19th 2015
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"First Lone Train Ride"

I have mentioned before the timelessness of a place, but a night time train rides are more like a stagnant time period. Seating in an aisle seat with only a few more words added to my Chinese vocabulary scared me. This was unfortunately the adventure I had agreed to take by accepting my friend's invitation. It was like the times I had walked alone on the streets of Paris or the streets and parks of Jinhua because of the freedom it gave me. Unfortunately, the language barrier seemed more heavy on my shoulders in this confined space in time. The lack of my heavy suitcase was the only boon I received during this first lone ride. I travelled much lighter this time with only my courier bag, black trench coat, and my trademark travelling hat for this four day weekend. My heavy luggage, laptop, and other unnecessary things were left safely behind in my motel room in Jinhua. My only technology came in the form of my cellphone that acted as my camera and my connection to the world (thanks to WiFi hotspots).

The train ride was a little over 19 hours in length which made me realize that I prefer long flights over long train rides. But this time also gave me a chance to complete notes of my previous adventures and practice what little Chinese I knew while hopefully allowing me to learn new words. All this while crossing from deep in Jinhua province to deep into Hunan province. Between the town's and cities, the feeling and view of flying through a perfectly black tunnel touched me. It was not the dimly lit passages of subways or the train ride I took in Paris upon my departure. This was a complete unyielding darkness through which the distant lights of civilization could barely reach our window. The blackness would be breached only if we sliced through a town or city to deposit or collect passengers. This for me was stagnant time where you feel drawn out of time into a void in which time stood still. The look of tired faces around me confirmed to me that they felt this frozen time as time flew around our metal box leaving us untouched. The vehicle we all rode in took the ravages of time for us while we drifted in this stagnation period of time. I remembered that my many flights gave me the same sensation but to a much lesser degree. My 6 hour bus ride from Sudbury at least had the lights of other vehicles blazing lightning trails through the windows to breakup the constant night we drove in. The constant reflection from the blackened window pane showed only the traveler in its natural habitat. It was a stagnant image like the time stop felt by myself as the train rocked gently beneath us. It is not surprising that, in this empty time, I drifted into an uncomfortable sleep in my seat.

I awoke as noon came around with the small shock of catching myself as I nearly fell out of my seat. As I realized there was light outside the train window, my mood improved from the nearly claustrophobic depression I suffered before falling asleep. I tried my best to snap a few shots through the window but still doubt my success lacking a high-speed camera. My best photos came from the brief pauses in the cities and towns where the train stopped. The scenes of wonderful green pastures slowly turned into the edges of emerald hills rising high upon both sides of the train tracks. The typical multi-platformed farming fields rose along the mountainous edge like steps for giants. It gave more land to the Chinese farmer to grow crops in the smallest possible space. The train slipped in and out of tunnels that riddled these green hills as we continued unwittingly toward our destination. The last major thing I noticed from the now active window was the smoke/mist wreathed mountains.

"Jishou at a Glance"

Rain had been falling as I left Jinhua and had followed in bursts during this long train ride. My arrival in Jishou heralded the end of a heavy rain storm that had been falling when I boarded my train in Jinhua. My guides (and friends) waited impatiently to rush me from the station to get food and place me in a hotel before more rain fell. The first bridge we crossed spanned a swollen river thanks to the rain that had finally seemed to subside. I have seen this rain swollen effect before but this muddy and debris choked river felt out of place within such a large city. Muddy brown water rushed beneath us as we walked over the bridge. I was quickly feed and we proceeded to the task of finding me a hotel for the night. Unbenounced to me, my original friend and guide had unlisted the help of many friends to make this visit perfect for me. Our small trio soon turned into a pentet (group of 5) in the search to find a place for me to stay. The only thing that had me slightly worried was the fact I was the lone male surrounded by 4 wonderful young women. It was also a little flattering as the group formed up with two leading the way and two guarding my back . The first hotel was voted as unacceptable by 3 of the 4 young women without even glimpsing at the room itself. This lead us to a secondary hotel where my "guardian angels" accept the chance to see the room before accepting this as a good place for me to stay the one night I would be in Jishou. I did listen closely to my guides for advice about this simply designed room. Once they appeared to accept the place, I was asked if it suited me. All I needed for that first night was a bed to sleep in soundly to be ready to visit Fenghuang the following two days. My guide group left once the had me securely in place in my new hotel room. They returned to the University campus that had gates across the main street of my hotel. I barely remember falling asleep that night. All I did was stretch out on the bed and was awaken by the sound of knocking heralding the next morning.

"Fenghuang Ancient City "

It was an early morning start with a hearty breakfast as I meet the actual trio of guides that would be travelling with me to the Fenghuang Ancient City. It was a more even group as it consisted of the matching number of males to females. After a short taxi ride, we boarded the bus that would take us to Fenghuang County (modern section of the this area). A second much shorter bus ride took us from the outskirts to the entrance to the Ancient City. As non-native of the area, both males of our group needed to purchase tickets for our visit. Once inside this place, the search for a hotel started again and ended with the similar selection of the second hotel we visited. Where the result in Jishou dealt with my safety, this second matching result was a question of money. My trio of guides firmly and unanimously refused the first place we visited based on it being too expensive. The second was still wonderful furnished and served my needs as a place to lay my hat during my stay here.

This lead directly into a walking tour of the city minus one of my guides. She had felt I'll because of the bus ride and decided to rest until diner. My two remaining guides (so dubbed "my day team") took this in stride and accepted quickly to lead me through the twisting maze of streets. They introduced me to the local ginger based candies and many other new dishes and flavours only found in the Fenghuang area. If I gained weight during this walking excursion, I blame them and the wonderful food they introduced me to. I did do something I could never see myself doing prior to this moment. I rode in a boat. I have always suffered from an irrational fear of water which made me avoid boats, especially small rickety looking crafts. But once the idea was suggested by one guide and agreed upon by the other, I did not truly have an escape route. It was actually very pleasant with my biggest worry being if I dropped my phone into the river. The small rapid ride midway in the trip was more exciting than fearful to me. I do have photographic proof that I did this for my doubting friends.

This boat ride happened after seeing many different streets, bridges, temples, and shops. Likes in the Wuzhou Ancient City of Jinhua, many vendors filled the edge of the streets which did include store displays. The cultural clash of higher priced stores mixed in with the older style stall shops showed the modern influence alive in the Ancient City. Some may argue that this form of capitalistic expansion is wrong but, with the expenses related to the maintenance and repairs required for these ancient structures, it is a necessary evil. Many outlying buildings along the waterway were slowly being renovated to be added to the expansion of this living Ancient City. As I have noted before as typical, the Ancient style of architecture overlaps the edges into the modern city built around this site. It helps ease the shock of entering and leaving the Fenghuang Ancient City. Many costumed guides and photographers prowl the site both days and night with the offer of helping to find things and taking photos of tourists in authentic style garb. Others patrol the zone selling flower wreaths for the women's heads. Even booths are set up to take photos on the top of the wall offering the peasant style straw armour and other military based costumes. The cost for a photo taking you back in time ranges from 5 to 10 ¥ ($1 to $2 Canadian). But, if you realize the total number of all these relentless ambulatory sellers of momentos, it could easily cost over 600 ¥ ($100 CAD's) in a day. This may explain the global trend by businesses to attempt investing in the Chinese market. The adage of "more bang for your buck" is present in the active investments markets offered to foreigners by China. It is also in the nature that money equals stability in the eyes of most Chinese citizens. They are efficient, polite, and also fierce at earning money from their ingenious ideas and tenacious labours. It is not a new aspect in Countries with a weaker currency to find more creative ways to earn your daily bread.

We returned to the hotel after the boat ride to retrieve the missing guide for a group supper. We exited the area deemed as the Ancient City to find the previously mentioned overlap in the architecture. After a flavorful dinner of mixed shared plates, I was informed that it was time for a break until dusk arrived. I was told by them that the spectacle would start as the light of the setting sun would dim the streets of Fenghuang. From the window in my hotel room, I began hearing music and remembering Paris' nighttime light show. Even these memories paled as our group stepped into the early dusk into to central square.

Hidden mini flood lights gave the fountain's statue of the Phoenix (proper translation of the city's name) fiery life. Every hanging lantern glowed brightly along the streets and pathways. Groups had gathered around the central brightly burning phoenix fountain to dance. My guides referred to this as "square dancing" which I must pressume was because it took place in the many squares all over China. To my eyes it was a fusion of soft aerobics and americanized line dancing choreographed to modern dance beats. It was not the first time I had seen this group health dancing phenomenon in other places in China. But in the Ancient City of Fenghuang, it was just the tip of the nightlife that flooded the city with the setting sun. The ambulant guides, the roaming photographers, the multiple vendors, and even the stoic servers seemed dressed in brighter reflective colours to greet visitors. The crowd, which was heavy during the day, swelled to fill the streets making it harder to move against the tidal wave current of pedestrians. Many pubs and bars, seemingly closed, opened their doors to allow monstrous lineups to fill them in seconds. The more modern dance club lights flashed in rainbow hues across some of the windows to bring new life and colour to the wooden outer faces of the buildings. Varies styles of music filled the night air echoing down the myriad of twisted streets from different musicians playing in the many bars. This harmonious clash of music was the underlying heartbeat of Fenghuang that proved the Ancient City still lived in this modern world.

We had rewalked a good section of the area covered during my daylight excursion. But to anyone as new as I was to Fenghuang, the streets appeared as a different world when seen at night. We crossed the central bridge on the lower tier where I was shown the Phoenix seal that graced the ceiling of this lower pathway. The suggestion to return to our rooms was mentioned by my guides. I would have ignored it easily to continue touring the streets until the first light of dawn. But the best I could offer myself was the delay at a coffee shop before returning to the hotel adjacent to the Phoenix Square. I sat by an open window at the coffee shop which over look a restaurant. I could hear the music floating up to me mixing with the softer notes that drifted across the river from the active places lining both banks. We discussed our plans for the next day as I slowly sipped my coffee. By the time we eventually returned to the hotel, the dancers were gone and the only faint echoes of the music reached us. The flaming phoenix statue sat as a lone guardian over the now emptied square. I fell asleep quickly knowing that, even if we were leaving Fenghuang early, more was left to be seen in Jishou before my departure.

"Shiji Square and Qianzhou Ancient City"

The return bus ride was quiet and, as we reached our destination of Shiji Square in Jishou, I lost my daytime guide group because they needed to return to their University studies. Shiji Square was a wonderful and simple park that covered a large territory in Jishou. Trees, fields of flowers and colourful bushes, and small dispersed entertainment areas lined the many pathways. My lone guide mentioned a "ghost house" built under one of the many walking bridges of this square. It intrigued me since the term was both new and brought images of rumoured haunted dwellings from the world over. What was shown to me turned out being the typical carnival style house of horrors (the haunted house). It took a few minutes to explain to her what it was called in the western world and what I had indirectly hoped we would be seeing. We laughed as we continued exploring the square. An etched mural caught my eye and lenses of my camera giving my guide time to excuse herself. I remained there shooting segment pictures of this long wall while waiting for her return. She arrived as I snapped a photo of the last section allowing us to continue without delay. A small side section hosted games for children and rides for older "kids" easier to spot during our return to the street.

But my visit didn't end there as we proceeded to the Qianzhou Ancient City of Jishou. It was not loaded with street vendors but boasted many statues and multiple bridges including a chain-linked edged wooden bridge (referred to as "the Drawbridge" by my guide). The same style of older structures lined the smaller streets in a more peaceful and somber manner than the lively streets of Fenghuang. I was informed later in this tour that my guide would need to absent herself believing I would be stuck waiting at the hotel until my departure on the next day. I informed her that I would be fine and allowed her to return me to the hotel before she vanished back into the campus of the University of Jishou. The truth was that this gave me time to chronicle my adventure over the last few days. Secondly, all the walking had actually tired me out more than I would admit to my guide team. I barely had time to list the events from the last two days with the help of my electronic photo album (my cellphone) before I passed out on the bed. The next day consisted of a quick meal and collecting snacks for the long train ride before I was on my way back to Jinhua.

“The Return to Jinhua”

The return train ride felt different than my first lone ride. My company may have had something to do with this new sensation and experience. Three lively and wonderful Chinese women gave me the kind of train trip Terry told me about. Sharing food and drink while laughing and talking during a long train ride made time fly by. The night time void barely effected me on this over night return trip. Even the language barrier seemed less of a problem thanks to simple hand signs used to define our words' meaning. It was imperfect but effective enough in this temporary company. I do regret that they needed to leave the train midway to Jinhua but that is the reality of traveling. The three replacement were not as active but still good company.

Idle chatter passed between the four of us separated by silent napping moments taken in turns. Daylight did not change the level of small talk until my stop came upon me as a bit of a surprise. My riding companion confirmed our location by flashing me his ticket that also bore the ending location of Jinhua. I thanked them as I gathered my belongings to disembark. With a feeling of being home again, I stepped out onto the streets of Jinhua knowing I would see much more before my eventual return to Canada.

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