Posted by: Richard Marshall | January 18, 2014

Hunan: Zhangjiajie and Fenghuang

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Misty Zhangjiajie

I had originally decided to spend my second nine day vacation in China in Beijing. By October though I was tired of huge cities, and my experience of tourism in China made me think that the Forbidden City and the Great Wall would be marred by crowds, noise and litter. So I looked for somewhere I thought would be reasonably quiet and settled on Hunan. I love Hunanese food, my girlfriend was from that province and I wanted to see something of China’s colossal interior. I hate flying, so I boarded a 20 hour train to the town nearest Zhangjiajie national park. The train was fairly comfortable and I only had one other person in my compartment. I felt pretty adventurous sitting in the dining car eating spicy food and drinking Xizang beer while the other passengers stared at me through their cigarette smoke. The countryside slipping by was fascinating but hardly attractive. It was early autumn and they were burning off the rice stalks so a haze hung over the whole country (I only saw blue sky once or twice the whole trip). The towns and villages looked incredibly bleak – unpainted concrete tenements mostly, with clusters of half-built tower blocks. Away from the coast the industry looked dirty and poor – brick and tiles being burned, abandoned Mao-era factories with brick smoke stacks, and hills scarred by quarries. At one point the train passed a massive spirits factory with two smoke-stacks belching white smoke into the air. Most of Hunan seemed crossed with the columns of unfinished elevated highways and rail. Eventually I arrived at Zhangjiajie station, swirling with smoke and traffic snarled up around an enormous building site. A taxi took me to my hotel near the entrance of the park.

My hotel was simple but very nice. It overlooked a stream where I saw several new birds, and a densely forested hillside. On arrival I had a tasty lunch and headed to the park. I was in at the park for 3 and half days and had pretty mixed experiences. The first afternoon I walked up to the cable car station and was taken aback by the crowds. There were monkeys in the park, and although there were many signs asking people not to feed or tease them, most of the local tourists did both of those things. They seemed more astounded by the sight of a monkey than I would be if I had seen a unicorn or a pterodactyl. I made my way past the mob towards the top of one of the mountains. I was greatly distressed by the litter strewn all over the park – bottles, cigarette packets, tissues, fruit peels and plastic bags. The mountains echo so every single idiot in the park had to yell towards the cliffs to hear their voice bounced back at them. As there were thousands of people the whole place was constantly roiling with hubbub. The noise was added to by the tour guides yakking into the microphones while their groups stared at their cellphones and took hundreds of photos.

The great pity of all this was that the park was stunningly beautiful. Huge columns of sandstone rose out of dense forest. Some of the paths ran along the edge of cliffs with sheer drops on one side. The view from the cable car station was amazing. I took the cable car back down and it was tremendous to be above the trees and the cliffs. The trick then was to try get away from the mob, which I was able to do on my second day by going slightly off the beaten track. Just by walking a kilometer or so I found myself completely alone and finally experienced some the peace and quiet which I look to find in mountains. I couldn’t quite get away from the echos which enveloped the whole park, but I did some birding, sat in the sun which briefly showed itself, and relaxed.

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View from the cable car station

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Sky bridge in the park

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View from the bridge

The national park is split into three or four separate and very large areas, so on the third day I headed to a different section of the park. The park has the misfortune of having been James Cameron’s inspiration for planet Pandora in Avatar, so there were lots of pictures of silly blue critters about. The section of the park had some of the most iconic attractions which were absolutely rammed with people. I got on a bus at another entrance which wound up past a lake whose shores were dotted with white plastic bags and bottles. Eventually we were dropped off at a huge elevator which took people up a sheer cliff. Nobody bothered to queue properly so I jostled with the crowd for about half an hour in rising annoyance till the current of people eventually got me to the lift. The lift was remarkable and the view from the top fabulous. There was no where to go but another bus to another attraction, so I rode the buses through the afternoon. Each stop had people selling gross food in disposable containers, almost all of which quickly ended up on the ground. It also started to rain, so everyone bought plastic ponchos and dumped the paper and plastic packaging on the floor. The few people who did put their trash in bins did so to no avail as the semi-tame monkeys tore the bins apart looking for food. Eventually I got to a temple overlooking the park. They had built, unbelievably, a gigantic McDonald’s nearby so empty Big Mac containers joined the other junk everywhere. There were huge crowds yelling and snapping thousands of pictures. The great pity again was the amazing beauty of the view. Mist was swirling in the valley and around the great sandstone pillars, with pines clinging precariously to any patch of loose soil. Chinese magpies were flitting about and a hawk flew overhead. I took in the view as best I could and then fled.

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The elevator in the mist

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View from the temple

My last day I revisited the quiet path and as the sun came out again got a few nice pictures.

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Sunshine

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Cliffs in the sunshine

The next day I took the bus to a small, historic town called Fenghuang. At the bus station guys were taking dumps over squat toilets without troubling to close the door, cellphone in one hand and cigarette in the other. Although I could hardly see my pecker through the cigarette smoke that didn’t stop half the people there craning their necks to check it out. It was vile. The bus passed through more grim, grey countryside. Eventually I was dropped off near the old town where the owner of my hotel came to meet me. For the most part the town was very attractive. I especially liked the old gates and section of the wall, and there were some lovely pagodas. The town also had a great location along a river in a wooded valley. Neglect and the impact of tourism sadly were taking their toll. The town teemed with tour groups. One of the most popular things to was to dress up as a Red Army or KMT soldier or a Shanghai gangster and have a picture taken. The river seemed to have water artificially pumped in – possibly it would have run dry otherwise. Along the river were dozens of KTV bars that were lit up at night and poured hideous noise into the valley till midnight. Unfortunately it was cold, smoggy and I had become slightly ill so I spent a lot of time in bed. The little stores selling evil-smelling snacks – stinky tofu, deep-fried mini crabs on sticks, and oily fried potatoes made me nauseous. It was a pity I was unwell as really the only way to beat the din would be to drink in the bars. If I had been single and could speak a little Chinese I suspect I could have had quite a party, but as it was I shivered in bed and cursed the racket.

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River bank

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Town gate

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Covered bridge

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Riverside houses

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Pagoda

I felt better by the last day and managed to explore the town. I caught a midday bus for the capital of Hunan, Changsha. The bus seemed to take all sorts of detours which people argued about and I of course couldn’t understand, a group of cops felt it was ok to light up inside, and I felt annoyed and lonely. Although travelling in China is adventurous and very interesting I decided next time I went somewhere I’d try not to go alone, or to visit friends or relatives. Changsha itself was dull – massive empty highways, hideous buildings and the usual half-build towers. It could have been any provincial city in China. The hotel had condoms and massage oil laid out and a number you could call for a hooker. The train station was set in a dismal, empty square and the building all the more shoddy and gimcrack for its feeble attempt at grandeur – it had a big clock tower and huge entrance hall meant to be splendid.  I took the fast train back to Shanghai which still took quite a while as the dedicated line for it is still under construction.

I am glad I went to Hunan. I hope if any of my Chinese friends read this they don’t take offence – I know it sucks to have a foreigner criticizing the country. And I’m sure if the weather had been better, if I hadn’t got sick and if I had been with friends my reactions would have been different. I am distressed by noise and by litter, but I am sure that in the future people will be more aware of these things. In Shanghai people already are. I found seeing China’s countryside fascinating, everyone was very nice and friendly, the food was great, and the destinations were spectacular despite the human impact on them. My next trip was to an old town near Shanghai which was beautiful, clean and bathed in autumn sunshine. And I hope I will have opportunities to see more of China in the future.


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