November 9, 2004

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Thursday, November 11, 2004

My journey to Feng Huang was arduous, but worth it in every way. I have now experienced for the first time (and hopefully the last time as well) what it's like to ride in the hard seat section of the train. Unfortunately, the hard sleeper tickets were long gone and me, in my blissful ignorance, thought that I could rough it.

I went with Shelly (my Chinese teacher) and her university friends, Candy and Candy's boyfriend named (appropriately enough) Honey. We boarded the train at 8pm Friday night. I think the most accurate phrase to describe the ensuing hours is "slow, excruciating torture." And we were some of the lucky ones who actually had seats! It took me awhile to realize that the people milling about the aisles had boarded the train with the intention of standing for eleven hours straight. Shelly, Candy and Honey looked totally unaffected by the crush of people. I had an aisle seat, so people were constantly knocking into me; one woman practically sat in my lap and another used my head as her armrest. Every time the train attendants came through pushing their carts of food, everybody had to shift around. This often involved my feet being stepped on, or an armpit being shoved into my face. When I got up at one point to fight my way to the bathroom, I wasn't surprised to see a man sitting in the one free spot left in the car: the washroom sink.

By the time 3:30am rolled around, I was completely delirious. I watched a cockroach climb the wall next to my knee and didn't even react. Between the garish florescent lights, the constant haze of smoke blanketing the car, the shrill rising and falling of the voices around me, the ever-present whiffs of Ramen noodles and stinky tofu, the whole experience seemed surreal.

At last we arrived in Jishou at 6am. We emerged from the disastrous, litter-strewn train into the cool darkness of the city. After a quick breakfast of searing hot noodles, we hopped in a cab to Feng Huang, arriving at the edge of the old city around 8am. Every person I talked to before I left described Feng Huang as a beautiful and famous city, which, if you have traveled at all in China, is not surprising because these are two words Chinese people use to describe virtually every city. Feng Huang was truly beautiful though, an ancient oasis in a China moving at warp speed towards modernization. It lay mysteriously shrouded in mist, its pagoda spires and bamboo tile roofs rising like apparitions from the fog.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the winding streets and alleys, visiting temples and buying souvenirs. At night we took a river cruise in a boat steered by a barefoot man wielding a long bamboo pole. I bought three paper flowers with candles in them to light and then place in the water. Each flower represents a wish, and as we drifted down the river the water was dotted with flickering pinpoints of people's wishes floating by.

The next day we visited the southern part of the Great Wall before returning to Jishou for lunch. Honey's father happens to be the second in command at the Bank of China Changsha branch, and has connections all over the place. So, his pal, the mayor of Jishou, personally picked us up in his van and escorted us all over the city. He treated us to a special lunch of sheep meat and other delicacies, then took us to a remote village called De Hang to watch a traditional dance performance and hike to a waterfall. Dinner that night was also very "special," at a dimly lit outdoor restaurant by the riverside. One of the dishes that came out looked unfamiliar, so I asked Shelly what it was. She couldn't give me an answer, or even tell me if it was an animal or vegetable. Abiding by my rule of only eating things I can identify, I picked up a piece of the food, examined it and almost threw up right on the table. It was some sort of larvae, smothered in hot peppers of course.

Thankfully, on the return trip Honey's father again worked his connections and was able to get all of us tickets in a hard sleeper. Inexplicably, the train ride back to Changsha was well over three hours shorter than our original trip. I don't question things like this anymore; just chalk it up to some sort of strange Chinese logic.

After a brief rest at Honey's house, Shelly and I departed by bus for Xiangtan, a neighboring city where she went to college. In a burst of stamina, I had decided to spend the rest of my vacation days seeing as much as possible, including Shaoshan, Chairman Mao's childhood home. We went to lunch with some of her university friends, and I unwittingly sampled some camel meat. Just when you think you've tried it all...

Shaoshan, although nothing to write home about, was interesting only because of the Mao memorabilia and museums. The iconic stature of the Chairman is bewildering to me. He was a primary instigator in the Cultural Revolution, which brought about the deaths of millions of innocent Chinese people, and yet every single taxi driver has a Mao pendant hanging from his rear-view window, and every peasant home has a giant Mao poster hanging in some prominent place. Shelly even told me that her own grandfather was beaten to death in the street during the Cultural Revolution, yet she still bought a book of Mao's poems and a good luck charm for her wallet.

I arrived home Tuesday night, broke, exhausted and content that I had made the most of my four days off. Only a couple of days teaching, and then off to Shanghai.
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