ZHANGJIAJIE, HUNAN — If there is one tie that can bind Chinese and Americans together, it’s our innate friendliness, although I think the Chinese might even outdo us Americans sometimes.
This weekend was the May Day holiday, which I and a friend spent in Zhangjiajie at the home of our mutual friend. The three of us had a good time touring some beautiful country, but the scenery was not the only thing impressive about the trip. It was the people we met.
Weeks ago, Nora had invited Ailsa and me to spent the weekend at Nora’s home. With no classes on Friday, we decided to leave campus on the 9 pm train on Thursday. The train was predictably crowded with northbound holiday travelers, and we had no seats. [The Chinese rail system will sell you tickets even after all seats have been booked. China Railways figures you’ll either make do standing or whangle a way to sit down.]
We walked toward the rear of the train until we could go no further. There were no seats, but by chance we ended up next to a group traveling together to Zhengzhou. They were feeling pretty mellow after downing some baijiu (aka “white wine”), so when two of them left to smoke on the end of the carriage, they gave their seats up and everyone scrunched together to make room. [It also helps that one of us was a white-haired Westerner; I get preferential treatment because of both age and exotic-ness.]
The Zhengzhou group included a woman who was just four years younger than I, two younger men and two men who were maybe in their mid-40’s. None of them were fall-down drunk, but they were garrulous — albeit in Chinese. Nora and Ailsa served as translators as the ZZ travelers asked me to drink some wine (I did, but not too much) and the woman asked me to pose with her for not one, but easily 20 photos. [She never seemed satisfied with the way she looked in the previous 19. I also wondered if she wasn’t subtly hitting on me]
These pastimes kept us happily occupied as our train, a local, crawled its way toward Zhangjiajie. Local trains stop at every station and have to yield right-of-way to the faster trains. So, ours pulled onto sidings at least four times (I lost count), taking nearly three and a half hours to cover 125 km. Did I mention this train was not air-conditioned?
Friday was pretty much a bust in terms of sight-seeing, since the rain poured down all day. So, on Saturday morning, when it was clear the rain had stopped, the three of us were more than ready to get out and about.
We grabbed a quick breakfast, and hopped the #8 bus to visit a reservoir lake Nora had visited in the past. We sat in the back of the bus, and soon Nora and were chatting with a woman sitting directly in front of us. As it turns out, she (Kerry Wang) was a Changsha native who had come to Zhangjiajie to be a tour guide to Chinese clients several years ago. She is keen to improve her English so she can also guide foreigners, and said she was excited to see me, a westerner, on the same bus as she.
Kerry and Ailsa are both from Changsha, so the Chinese hometown hail-fellow-well-met mode kicked in. Like Americans, Chinese people travel far and wide within their country to find work. Unlike Americans (or at least unlike me), the ties they have to their hometowns are deep and long lasting. So anyone from the same city, town, village or wide spot on the road is immediately considered family. So it was that Kerry offered to be our tour guide for the day, gratis, since she was off work on a year’s maternity leave. [Yes, American women, I said a year’s leave. Jealous?]
Our first stop, the reservoir, offered boat rides from the Xiang Ren Xi dam to the other end of the lake where sightseers can hike along the river. One boat already had four passengers, university students who were patiently (?) waiting for the captain to decide when he had enough passengers to make it worth his while to leave. Three of the students were, coincidentally, from Changsha, so the hometown ties-that-bind sprang into action as we shared our snacks and brief introductions.
As the boat set off finally, a young couple hollered for passage and the captain came about to pick them up. The young man was an art student in Zhangjiajie and his artist girlfriend was visiting from Shandong for the week.
We all became pretty good friends that morning, agreeing to eat lunch together at a noodle place after our boat ride and morning hike and to visit another scenic spot, Lao Dao Wan, that Kerry knew about. It would offer the same kind of spectacular sights as other more touristy places near the city.
Rather than take a bus then hike to our destination, Kerry and the local art student found two neighborhood men willing to transport us in their vehicles, a minivan and an open air tuk-tuk. [A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeler with a motorcycle’s front end and a drive axle in the rear. Ours had two facing bench seats a little longer then the fender “seats” in the back of an old Jeep CJ.] Adventurers as we are, the art students, Nora, Ailsa and I all wanted to ride in the tuk-tuk.
The air was fresh and clean-smelling after the heavy rain, and the temperature was cool and refreshing, so we had a great time as our noble steed jounced along the road to Lao Dao Wan. We had just gotten off to start our hike to the entrance to Lao Dao Wan when another minivan pulled up, and its surprising cargo hopped out.
The American hometown mode now kicked in, as one of the new arrivals was Gary, an American English teacher in Zhangjiajie, and his girlfriend, Karen. Gary, a Trenton, New Jersey, native, recently coached basketball at Mercer County Community College. Karen used to work at the Princeton University U-Store. And I (if you didn’t know) went to Princeton, which like MCCC is in Mercer County. Instant bonding.
We hiked together to the entrance, crossing the river several times on conveniently placed rocks, only to wait while Kerry and Nora negotiated ticket prices with the operators. The original prices were 13 yuan for the Chinese students and 23 yuan for the three foreigners. Persistence paid off, as we all only had to pay only 13, but the haggling took up time the four uni students did not have. They left with Kerry, who had invited Nora, Ailsa, the two art students and me to her house for dinner and now needed time to prepare.
Gary is as garrulous while sober as the ZZ crowd on the inbound train was while tipsy, so we had a great traveling “English corner” as we climbed up and down and around the cuts the river had made through the foothills of Tianmenshan, the mountain beside Zhangjiajie city.
Someone needs to rate Chinese scenic hiking trails like US rivers are rated for whitewater rafting. On a difficulty scale of 5, this particular hike was about a 4. If you are afraid of heights, rivers crossings on slick rocks and steep muddy slopes, skip Lao Dao Wan. Some segments of the trail would scare the willies out of Americans used to liability-proofed tourist magnets. The paths along the canyon walls and hillsides consisted of steel rebar steps driven into the rock with chains as handrails or bamboo ramps and railings. Under these circumstances, hikers have to to be as surefooted as mountain goats and similarly unperturbed by precipitous drops along near-vertical slopes.
Our guide followed us, but we were not entirely sure what he would have done in an emergency. None of our cell phones had signals in this deep divide.
On reflection, I still would have done the hike. The best scenery is the kind you have to work to find, and this area has not yet fallen prey to the crowds and the rampant commercialism of the Zhangjiajie Forest Park and Fenghuang.
After the hike, Gary and his party went their way, and we five tuk-tuked back into town, then hopped the #8 bus to Kerry’s side of town for dinner. The plan was for Kerry to cook Changsha style, Nora to cook Zhangjiajie style and XiaoDan (the girl from Shandong) to cook her style. I invited Mike, an English major I know from the Zhangjiajie campus, to join us and we shared a scrumptious meal and an evening of English and Chinese conversation. We all were acting like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for years, but in fact the majority of us had met for the first time that very day.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what impressed me most about the weekend. Few Americans would invite six complete strangers to their house for dinner, and few strangers would have accepted the offer. But we did, and were that much richer for it.
A little trust and friendship go a long way. More of us should try both.