Zhangjiajie hiking – Wednesday, November 28

I got a later start than I’d intended to, but after a tasty breakfast of bus station adjacent mystery meat steamed buns, I set off on the “lower” (black marker) route that my hotel host had suggested. As I was waiting on the bus, 2 other westerners got on – they’re from Barcelona (but met while both were living in Sydney) and are now traveling for 6 months on their way home. We wound up hiking much of the day together.

Lots and lots of steps. Lots and lots of breathtaking views. I opted to take a gondola down and save my knees from the descent. Navigation was made more interesting by the varying English translations (the same place might be called one thing on the map, another on one sign, and yet another on the next sign).

At the bottom, I walked along a nice flat trail beside a stream. It was surprisingly slippery, but I was still able to walk a pretty brisk pace. I caught up with a group of school kids who took up the whole trail. A little while after I’d manage to pick my way through and pass them, they’d decide to race one another and run up ahead of me, and then walk slowly again. Kids!

But mostly it was a really peaceful hiking day. Late November seems like a perfect time to be here. Cool but not cold, and (almost) no crowds.

I had dinner at the same place as the night before, and a lady from another part of Hunan, who was in town on business, joined me. She helped me order taster-sized cups of the 2 kinds of infused rice wine they had. And after dinner, one of the people working there brought me a bit of some weird plant that they were snacking on. It tasted like dates. At the foot massage I had after dinner, a lady shared some chestnuts with me.

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Changsha to Zhangjiajie – Tuesday, November 28, 2018

Pretty much just a travel day. My train left Changsha station (not the Changshanan station I’d come into) at 7:16am, but the metro doesn’t start running until 6:30am. I wanted to give myself plenty of time, and fortunately my hotel was between the two stations, and just a 30min (fairly dark) walk to Changsha station. As I left my hotel neighborhood, I saw people setting out steamer trays but my guess was that the tasty morsels inside wouldn’t be ready just yet. Found the station right where Apple maps said it’d be, and a helpful security guard got me pointed in the right direction to a totally different part of the station where my train would be (it was several minutes extra walk, but I was happy to find a few kiosks open selling foodstuffs in that section, unlike the super quiet side I’d started in).

5hr train ride to Zhangjiajie, and then a bus to Wujiau. It was super helpful to have the Booking.com app “show address in local language” thing so I could show that to various people and get pointed toward the right bus.

At one point, I saw a lady waving and running towards the bus. The driver was kind enough to stop and wait for her. But it turned out she wasn’t just an ordinary passenger – she was the money-taker for the bus fares. She collected everyone’s fares, gave some money to the guy riding shotgun, and got off a little ways down the road (presumably to repeat the process with another bus). Interesting system. Most of the other buses I’ve been on, someone either collects the money just before or after the bus pulls away, or at some random point midway through the journey. But this was the first time someone joined us midway to perform that task.

In town, I checked into my lovely little hotel and appreciated that the guy running it spoke great English. After I grabbed some real food, I came back and got the rundown of places to see in the area, and then just wandered around town.

The ladies in one square were really pushy, trying to give people massages on the spot. I declined.

Yangshuo to Changsha – Monday, November 26

The DiDi was early, but we were all ready to go. The hour+ long drive from Yangshuo to Guilin went quickly, with people to talk with.

In Guilin, I found that the train station itself didn’t have much in the way of food, so I wandered around nearby. Extremely slippery rice noodles at one place, seafood wontons at another, and a bag full of mystery goodies from a bakery for the train ride (savory or sweet? Roll the dice!)

My train was right on time, and actually departed 1 minute early. It was pretty full, and the family across the aisle from me had a little girl who spent the whole trip with eyes glued to a phone or (later) an iPad. No headphones, so I could hear that one of the cartoons she was watching was in English with Chinese subtitles.

A tour group that was on the same train car provided lunch for their people: they dragged 2 giant cardboard boxes along the aisle floor and handed out to-go meals from KFC. Apparently the meal kit included a plastic glove and I watched a guy with double jointed fingers struggle to put the glove on, with his thumb in the pinky hole and pinky in the thumb hole.

When I got to Changsha, it was pretty easy to transfer to the subway line and navigate to my hotel (with the help of Apple maps). I’m glad I arrived during the day, as the sign for my hotel was just a tiny printed one mounted on the side of a building. In a door, up a small and creaky elevator to the 4th floor and – yes! A lobby (and/or living room – lots of kids toys there). The lady didn’t speak a word of English but she looked up my reservation and I handed her my passport and paid for the room. She gave me a key card and I walked up another 3-4 flights of stairs to my room. Not bad for $20!

There was already a room key in the card slot to enable power, but the lights wouldn’t work. So, back down the stairs, I pointed at a light fixture in the lobby and shook my head (while saying something I assumed she didn’t understand). She came up to the room and showed me the card slot and she flipped on the light switches. Yes, I nodded, but…pointed at the lights…they’re not actually on (there was a lot of light from the windows so I don’t blame her for not noticing – I just wanted to make sure I had it sorted out before dark). Hmm. Thinking. Then she gestured for my room key and put it in the slot and on came the lights. Apparently yesterday’s key didn’t work? Okay!

Later, when I came back in for the night, I was trying to figure out which options on the Chinese language remote would activate the heat (and not the air conditioning!) so I went downstairs again. This time I made a “brr” arm rubbing motion, and she came up with an extra comforter AND then helped me get the heat working (helpful for drying laundry overnight!). Anyway, sometimes sign language works pretty well.

Other times, the language barrier has been trickier. It doesn’t help that the interface for whatever translation app most folks here use is different from google translate. They think they have to press and hold the microphone button while speaking into my phone, when in fact by doing so, they’ve stopped it from listening (because I’d put it in conversation mode, already).

After I had wandered around Changsha for awhile, and had navigated back to my neighborhood, I spotted a foot massage place. No English menu, but pointing at feet, and pulling up my calculator app (as it turns out, this has been the best shorthand for “how much?” since it’s common for them to punch in a price into a calculator). They gestured for me to have a seat, then they brought over a bucket of water as usual, to soak my feet in. Then they have me turn around to sit on the ottoman while the guy gives me a neck/shoulder massage. Pretty normal so far. Then some high pressure fingers pushing into my scalp. Then they have me cross my arms and they put their knees in my back and pulled me backwards to crack my back a few times. Okay! Eventually they had me turn around and sit back in the chair, and the foot massage began. Now, when I first went in there, I was the only customer, but since then the place has filled up. A guy at the far end who fell asleep and was snoring in his chair. A girl next to me with the tiniest dog, wearing some silly outfit (the dog, not the girl). But none of them appear to speak any English. At all. The guy massaging my feet is carrying on quite the conversation with everyone else in the shop. Clearly he loves to talk. This does not come in handy when he needs to ask me a question. Instead of a short/simple phrase to have our phones translate, he goes on for many sentences. While pressing the microphone button (see previous comment). And nothing the phones are actually translating makes any sort of sense to me. Given the context, I’d think he’d be asking about pressure, or whether I wanted oil or lotion, or things like that. Then, before I know what’s happening, there’s a wooden cup and a lighter and the cup is suctioned to my foot. And then a second one. I’ve heard of cupping before, but had never experienced it. It was kind of painful. No idea if it was effective or not. He left the cups on my left foot for many minutes, and on the right foot for much less time. I can’t say that I noticed a difference between them, the next day.

Finally he gets his translation app to say: cupping 20yuan, scraping 20yuan. I answered back something to the effect of “no thank you. Just standard foot massage” (which I’d been told was 50yuan, at the beginning). Okay.

I’m not sure if foot cupping was normally included and the extra charge would be for other areas, but everyone else in there also had their feet cupped. And one girl had it on her legs, too.

The vibe of the place was pretty great – I’m sure some of the conversation and laughter was about me or perhaps even at my expense, but not all. And even without understanding a word, I felt like I got a little glimpse into this community. In any case, the experience was way more interesting than the vegetable dumplings I subsequently had for dinner.

Around Yangshuo – Sunday, November 25

Rather than shell out for the hotel breakfast (which didn’t have many interesting Chinese options), I opted to just set out by bicycle and look for food along my way. With a not-to-scale paper map and some directions from the hotel receptionist, I was on my way. On the silly pink bicycle he insisted would be best for me.

I rode thru countryside, and by the occasional restaurant, but all were totally empty. No customers eating hot bowls of anything, or steam trays with hidden treasures to be investigated. I’m not sure whether I was on the right “bike route” or not – it was a narrow country road, paved, and at times it was nice and peaceful. Other times, tour buses, trucks hauling bamboo rafts back up river, and other vehicles made it less pleasant. My bicycle had just one speed – leisurely. Maybe the receptionist was onto something after all.

I rode past the first couple of bamboo raft places, and at the farthest one up, tried to understand the options for dealing with my bike. Lonely Planet said you could bring bikes ON the rafts, but apparently that is no longer the case. Could I park my bike here somewhere and get a ride back? Unclear. Another girl in line was helpful with translating but it didn’t seem like the raft operators really cared to make it easy for the likes of me. So, I decided to forego the raft ride (it was relatively expensive, time consuming, and went through the same areas I’d just ridden through).

I was also getting a bit “hangry” and was hopeful that, as it was getting to be lunchtime, I’d be able to spot a popular place to eat. No such luck along the country roads, but at one point, I wound up at an intersection with good signage. To the left, Yangshuo. To the right, back to my hotel. Well, why not go back into town? I hung a left and rode some more, and eventually wound up in Yangshuo, but on a less-touristy street. I saw a couple of restaurants filled with people eating. Parked my bike and checked it out. I pointed at several things that looked vegetable-heavy. 10yuan for a plate of food and fill your own bowl of rice. Not bad!

After lunch, I parked my bike closer to the center of town, found some tasty baked goods, and walked around a bit. Eventually decided that I wanted to get “home” well before dark, so rode back to the hotel (only taking a couple of wrong turns along the way).

The hotel’s lovely rooftop bar/restaurant is apparently now only open for breakfast, but the receptionist said that I could have a drink up there, they just didn’t have any food. So, I brought some snacks of my own and enjoyed a quiet sunset on the rooftop.

Although I wasn’t very hungry, I thought I should really try the “beer fish” that is so popular in the area. I walked a few minutes to a nearby restaurant that had it, and ate on their massive (but nearly empty) patio along the river. It was tricky to eat, but quite delicious!

As I was eating, some fellow guests from my hotel stopped in and ate, too. As they were heading out, we chatted a bit – they’re from the US and living in another city in China (she’s a science teacher) and have been exploring other areas when they can. When I asked if they were also heading to the train station in the morning, we arranged to share a car. Win!

Yangshuo town – Saturday, November 24

Hoping my scratchy throat is just allergies and not the beginning of a cold. Also, although my knees are okay now, my legs are quite sore from the recent days’ walking. So, I just had a lazy day in Yangshuo.

Taxi into town, wandering around, tea and people watching at every tea shop with seating.

One place had a menu with only Chinese characters, so between my “is there a popular dish you can recommend?” card and the worker’s phone, I wound up with something “most popular with foreigners” – a boba milk tea. That works!

Just outside the restaurant next door, there appeared to be some minor flooding – big puddles in the street. I’m not sure if the water was coming up out of the sewer/storm drain, or what, but the fix appeared to be placing some plastic(?) sheets below a paver stone, and then scooping the excess water into a bucket and dumping it on the other side of the street. It seemed to work.

At another place, I tried a tea with cheese because it sounded weird. The “cheese” bit was a freshly whipped topping with a slightly salty processed cheese flavor. Interesting, but I don’t need to have it again. When I heard people behind me meowing (and not Nihao’ing!) I turned to see a white cat sauntering through, and getting more attention than it cared for.

Later, I stopped in for a Thai massage, and although my legs are still sore, I found that I can walk both up and down stairs again, now, without wincing. Yay! Hopefully my scratchy throat stays in check. I’m looking forward to doing more active things, tomorrow.

Huangshan to Yangshuo – Friday, November 23

Up again before dawn and a short hike up to a sunrise viewing spot. The headlamp was much more effective when not reflecting against mist in the air. A promising start! I found a comfortable sitting rock in a less crowded area and settled in. As the sun began to rise, it wasn’t the camera chirps, cellphone chimes, or constant chatter that interrupted my moment of zen, but rather the loud phlegmy throat clearing followed by someone hocking a loogie. In the near-dark. In a crowded place. With multiple tiers of viewing areas. And I wasn’t on the highest. I think I now understand why people are so set on climbing to the absolute top, and it’s not necessarily all about better views!

Anyway, I escaped un-rained-upon and on my way back down to breakfast, my knees told me that hiking down the mountain would be a bad idea. There’s no fallback plan of using Uber (or the Chinese version, DiDi) if I got tired, since there are no roads. And I didn’t want to be the person being hauled down in a bright yellow chair after being unable to make it out under my own steam. So, the gondola it was. And even the small hike from my hotel to the top of the gondola was enough to confirm I’d made a good decision. It wasn’t the uphill that was hard, it was the going down. Ow. Ow. Ow.

Since it was morning, everyone was going up the gondola. I could tell I was going the right way as much because of the mass of tour group people coming towards me as because of any signage. One girl stopped and wanted to have her picture taken with me. Yeah, sure, I guess. Why not?

I felt like I was swimming upstream, and I had to just stand my ground on the far edge of the trail at times, because the mass of people coming at me were taking the full width of the path. But, since everyone was coming up when I was going down, I had a gondola all to myself.

At the bottom, I walked and caught the blue bus back to Tangkou town. I had a few hours to kill before I needed to be at the Tunxi airport, so I walked very slowly around Tangkou.

There wasn’t much going on (aside from it being a good day to air out the bedding!) I stopped to enquire about some small pastries for sale. Using google translate, I asked “what’s inside?” (Confusion). Tried again. “What is the filling?” (First attempt, google thought I said “feeling.” Argh. Second attempt got it right). “Dried plum”. Ooh, okay. She then gave me one to eat. It was alright. Kind of dry. I wanted to pay her, but maybe they weren’t sold individually? I walked a bit and then came back and tried the app again. “I’d like to buy a small portion” confusion again. While I was standing there, a man came up, reached into the bin and picked one up with his fingers, sniffed it, said something, and threw it back in. I try not to let my germophobic side win while traveling, but between the language barrier and that, I decided it was best to just move on. Sheepish smiles and apologies/thanks, and I left the poor lady alone.

I moseyed some more, eventually ate lunch, and then figured that since I’d walked every street (some more than once) in the dense area of Tangkou, I’d head on towards the airport. I was ready to sit down for awhile.

I showed my slip of paper with “Tunxi Airport” written in Chinese and after some brow furrowing, was pointed towards a bus. The driver wasn’t on board yet, so I showed the slip of paper to some fellow passengers, just to confirm I was on the right bus. A bunch of chatter in Chinese ensued. Hmm. Not the simple head nod or thumbs up or smile that I’d been hoping for. I thought perhaps the handwriting was bad or something, so after hand motions indicating an airplane taking off failed to elicit the desired reaction, I pulled up Tunxi Airport on my phone’s map app, which included a picture of airplanes. More chatter and gesticulating. An older woman showed me a picture of a building which might’ve been an airport terminal. Eventually a younger girl who seemed fed up with the situation pulled out her phone and using a translation app communicated that this bus goes to the train station, and that I’d have to get a taxi to the airport from there. Not ideal, but I guess it’d work. (Also: thank you!) The consensus seemed to be that there was no direct bus to the airport. Maybe because it’s low season? Not sure. Anyway, I still had plenty of time, and I figured I could look for a tea shop around there or something where I might sit and people watch (there had been no such places in Tangkou, that I could find). So, onward.

As we got into town, the driver started calling out various stops. At one point, the girl indicated that he should stop so I could get out. My maps app showed that we were in fact near(ish) the airport, but this wasn’t the train station. It was literally just a bus stop on the side of a busy road with nothing around it.

Someone else had gotten off with a small suitcase, so I asked if he was going to the airport. Nope – or else he didn’t want to talk with me. Not someone to tag along with, either way. I pulled up the DiDi app and checked to see if there were cars around, and there were, but I wasn’t sure if it was pinpointing my location correctly, since it said something about a bus station (not a bus stop). So, when a taxi came by, I hailed it, climbed in, and handed the driver the slip of paper with the destination. Ok. And he used the meter, and the price was in line with what I expected based on the DiDi app (around 17cny), and he was able to make change for my 100cny note. Phew!

At the airport too early to check in, I wandered over to the only restaurant and looked at the menu. All in Chinese, with only one picture per page suggesting to me that the items might be beverages or food or dessert. Using our translation apps, I told the worker at the counter that I wanted something a little sweet. He asked if fresh juice was okay. Sure (my throat’s getting a little scratchy and maybe that’d help). The next translation made me giggle, as the options he listed were whether I wanted to quit my job or apple or orange juice. Maybe giggling wasn’t the best response, but he then said something about winter pear, and that sounded interesting, so I went with that.

Check-in, security, and then more waiting at the gate. They had fancy chairs that I think maybe were massage chairs you could activate with your phone. There are QR codes EVERYWHERE here, and I’ve seen people using their phones to scan QR codes to pay for food, and the taxi had one, as well. Someone sitting next to me was snacking on a whole cucumber.

The flight itself was on time and uneventful, and provided some good people watching. The lady sitting next to me had taken up the entire row with her stuff and was eating some kind of flakey food that looked like multiple layers of folded paper, when I boarded. I had to ask her to move her things out of my seat so I could sit there. Her husband was across the aisle, and gestured to ask if he could take a picture of the wife and I, together. Alright, sure. Eventually he had to move to sit next to her (apparently he’d been trying to stake claim to the row on the other side of the aisle, and wasn’t in his assigned seat). Tray table down, massive grocery bag full of food. Eating a loaf of bread and a sausage before takeoff. Flight attendant eventually came by and had him put the table up.

Got to Guilin, found my driver waiting where planned (holding the sign with my name upside down) and settled in for the long drive to Yangshuo. The moon rising over Guilin was full and orange. Maybe I’ll be able to get a picture of it in Yangshuo.

The silhouettes of karsts at night look really cool. Some look like giant anthills or termite mounds. Some of them are perfectly triangular.

Getting into Yangshuo, I noticed a number of scooters with umbrellas mounted on them. I can’t imagine they’d provide much protection against rain while moving, so maybe they’re mostly for shade?

Finally at my hotel, it was a relief to find the receptionist spoke good English. Talk about a day of being a bumbling idiot in a foreign land. I’m so grateful that people are friendly and patient with me. And that there hasn’t been a mass of people behind me that I’m holding up, in these situations.

Huangshan day 2 – Thursday, November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving!

I woke up super early, and headed out before dawn to join the throngs of people hoping for some cool sunrise photos. It was still pretty misty so we didn’t get warm colors, but it was cool to see the shapes of the mountains come into view as there got to be light in the sky, and waves of mist blew through.

Back to the hotel for a hearty buffet breakfast and recharging my phone (the cold did a number on it!) and when I looked out my hotel window, the sky was brilliant blue and I could see mountains. Woohoo! What a difference a day makes!

Off on a day hike involving MANY flights of stairs (mostly down and very steep). I had intended to make a loop hike and climb out, but when I got to the bottom, was told the trail was closed. Cable car up, it was. And, probably a good thing as my knee started hurting not long after we got to the top.

Along the hike down, an older Chinese gentleman and I took turns taking pictures for one another. Later, a girl who was apparently part of his group chatted with me for awhile. Her name was Xin and she had lived in Iowa for 7 years or so, and spoke great English.

After I eventually made it back to my hotel area, I stopped in at the next hotel over where I was able to get a painful yet therapeutic Chinese foot massage while attempting to use google translate to communicate with the guy. I’m hoping the massage and a good night’s rest will be all I need to be back in hiking shape. I’ll have to see how my knee does in the morning before deciding whether I can hike out, or if I’ll have to take the gondola. Since I’m trying to take it easy tonight, I didn’t hike up to a sunset view spot. Looks like I missed a good one, but at least I got some cool moonrise views.