I’m stuck in a Catch-22. I find myself mimicking Alice in Wonderland, running around, always a little lost, marvelling at smoking caterpillars and grinning Cheshire cats. China is a land full of inspiration and wonder and every day I find something new I want to write about. But, running around like this I can never find the time to write my blog about everything I want to. And the catch is, if I did spend my time writing as much as I want to, I’d not have the time to experience all that I find so inspiring. As if this catch wasn’t bad enough, I’m also relentlessly aware of not stuffing too many words down your collective throats. Better to write less and not overload my loyal fans with too many stories, as much as I want you all to hear each and every one.
As if to prove my Alice-in-Wonderland point, I’m writing this whilst gorging myself on fruit and cakes which a lovely lovely Chinese couple are essentially force-feeding me. Don’t know at what point on this 12 hour train my ears will start sprouting fruitcake saplings, but it’s sure to happen soon.
And so, stuck in this Catch-22, I’m forced to handpick just one or two of these stories to share with you. A little like Sophie’s Choice, but not really and that was a morbid joke and I’m sorry.
Here then, I want to tell yous about one of the most goddamn breathtaking places on earth (I assume, earth being so big and all and me not having seen much of it) – Zhangjiajie National Park, Hunan Province.
My trip to Zhangjiajie (pronounced, by the way, Chang-ja-jay) was inspired, as all great adventures are, by a photo on Google Images. Simply put, my birthday was coming up, and I wanted somewhere beautiful in which to spend it. Boy, did I pick well – the place inspired the scenery in Avatar for the love of James Cameron.
My hostel in the actual city of Zhangjiajie, about 35km from the park, was dead quiet. My room was empty bar me, and the halls ghostly. The few other kids kicking around were Chinese tourists who I never got to talking with. The city was cool, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch bummed out by the lack of company – something I’ve depended upon so much in my travels – especially so close to my birthday, which I knew would be difficult to spend away from home, let alone if I had no-one else to hang out with.
Still, the hostel managed somehow to have a chill vibe, the showers were hot, the rooms not totally freezing, and the staff super helpful, so I ploughed on.
I had just one day in the city before heading to the park, and decided to take it easy, spending the morning lazing around on the sunny terrace (sun, oh my lord, sun. how i’ve missed you), watching a mangey cat lick its scrawny skeleton clean, writing poetry, and dining on honey & butter flavour crisps (the closest I’ll get to h&b on toast in China, I reckon). Later I took a wander along the river past derelict and decaying building sites – a staple of Chinese cities – making my way slowly towards a ‘cultural park’. On the way I was stopped by two elderly gents enquiring as to just why I was there, and complimenting my beard as being, quote-unquote, beautiful. Nearly popped the question then and there. The cultural park was typically Chinese. Centered around an 18th century ‘floating’ (raised) castle of nine or something stories, the architecture and history of the place was exciting. However, as ever, it was marred somewhat by the glitz and glam and countless tour-guides, ice-cream stalls, and mic’d up salesmen of ‘traditional’ wares, which China believes add to the experience. I disagree. But then again China and I don’t see eye to eye on much (the death penalty ain’t all that chill, etc.), so I’m learning as I go just to take the good with the naff.
That evening, wandering around the centre, a lass of 17, having just skipped school (she’s supposed to start at 7am and finish at 10pm – wtf) strikes up conversation with me so as to practice her english. After a quarter hour of her trying to help me find a noodle joint, we admit defeat and she invites me back to her parents house for dinner. Aware that maybe a nearly-23 year old foreign dude getting in a taxi with a Chinese school girl is maybe not the best look, I’m hesistant. But I’m also hungry. And if y’all know me, you know what wins out in the end.
Long story short, it’s all kosher; I’m cooked derishious noodles by her uncle (not taking the piss, my Chinese sounds like a cheese grater on chalkboard), whilst we talk family, hobbies, etc. I’m not asked about marriage plans by her mum, who instead feeds me tea and this weird but tasty melon-sized orange thing, and afterwards the lass, Li Le (or 李乐), walks me back to my hostel and bids me adieu! She also tells me that it’s lucky to eat noodles for your birthday, so that’s cool.
Early next morning I pack up and set off for the National Park. Using my Chinese map to point and ask how to get there, I find myself crammed against the window on a tiny shuttle bus, the driver of which is determined to pick up every single person we pass – inc. guy with bag containing a live, fighting, and evil looking raccoon, badger, skunk-hybrid. Naturally. But it’s my birthday and, as has been the case as long as I can remember, when it’s Diva Cal’s birthday, ain’t nothing gonna phase him.
We get there, and I’m greeted by this:
Which was nice.
Honestly, I have to say this now: I will include pictures from the park, course I will, but nothing, nothing, can do justice to the immensity, power, beauty and atmosphere of that place. Especially not photo’s taken on an ageing iPhone.
The hike to my hostel at the top of the mountain was gorgeous but gruelling. I didn’t keep count, but I’m fairly sure I walked 56 miles, and at least 20 of those at a sheer vertical angle. Just ask my knees and back. Still, the exercise felt good, and the air – oxygen rich and coated in the scent of running water and pine trees – helped alleviate the exhaustion. And the reward at the top, oh my word. I was like a donkey who’d finally caught that carrot, only to find it was even tastier than he’d ever imagined (by which of course I mean it was totally smothered in hummus).
How to describe that first exploration of the mountain tops? Your heart flutters. You grin instinctively. You want to howl at the sun. Each sandstone tower is unique, and each new angle from which you view them raises a whole new bunch of how-the-fuck-do-these-things-even-exist type questions. Just the enormity of those juggernauts calls into question your sense of purpose; your existence, even. Like the stars do when you’re drunk, but in a more obvious fashion, and with greater immediacy. Here, the typical glitzy Chineseification of national heritage sites is done on just way too small a scale to even begin to compete with the park – it’s like they started at ground level and then someone looked up and was like actually lads, dunno bout yous, but… pub? Of course there are still vendors of every food and drink imaginable dotted all over the place, and McDonald’s has managed to perch its underpaying, greasy, greedy corporate ass at a couple of the major bus stops, but walk just five minutes off the beaten track and suddenly you’re in the serene quiet of wood, water, rock and sky, staring out across vast expanses of wow.An hour or so before sunset I made it to my mountain-top hostel, and guess what? It’s empty. And I mean empty. Once I’ve got settled and plugged into the WiFi – priorities – birthday Cal does, I’ll admit, start to give way to neurotic, lonely and sorry-for-hisself Cal, as I contemplate a long night ahead. Thankfully, my prayers to Lord Jeremy McKinnon (ADTR were my birthday soundtrack, obvs) were soon answered.
Anna and Helen, two German fraüleins studying Biochem and Mandarin here in China, rocked up at the hostel an hour or so after me. In a place as bare and abandoned as that, we of course spent the evening together, eating surprisingly great noodle soup, chatting and playing Knifl (or something – a simple points based dice game which killed a half hour and made us forget for a while about the cold). I treated myself to a beer and toasted my boy Leonardo DiCap on his Oscar win (the best present I could ever have received; I love you Leo).
You know, Chuck. I’ve been thinking.
What’s that boss?
Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die without an Oscar?
Despite the near-freezing conditions, I slept like a rose (that’s a Diny-ism for all my Mainstreet Massive back home) and woke around 7am in time to go watch the sunrise.
The silence at that time in the morning was wonderful, interupted only by the creaking of the trees and the chatter of birds rising from their softly rustling leaves.
Returning to a breakfast of even weirder tasting crisps than the previous day (I’m generally eating healthily mum, I promise), I set off mid-morning to explore further into the park. My first stop was Wulong village and the giant rock wall of Tianbo mansion. Getting there was the most fun I’ve had in a while. A steady flow of tourists ducked around outcrops of sandstone on the edge of perilous drops, climbed roughly hewn steps, edged along narrow paths that rose and fell away steeply on either side, squeezed through passageways which I feel nature had intended only for hobbits, and eventually came to an old wooden bridge across a ravine. The bridge was barricaded off, with an alternative path of equally unstable looking metal ladders dipping down and up onto the viewing area for Tianbo Mansion. But this is China, so of course the barricade was pushed to one side, and the rickety bridge crossed with tentative steps. The views, as ever, were the icing on the crazy cake.
For the rest of the day I visited a host of other scenic spots, some crowded, some quiet and serene – enough so as to be able to meditate undisturbed for a short while, the sun on my face and the air light and filling.
As time marched on and the last free busses round the park started departing, I made my way home, hungry and looking forward to relaxing some more with Helen and Anna. But of course, then I had to spoil it all by not saying something clever like: is this the right bus to Wangqiaotai?
Half an hour later and I am all the way back down the bottom of the mountains I’d spent 3 hours climbing the previous day. And on the wrong side of them…
Knackered after another day of tough hikes, this slip-up triggers an onset of panic and anger – the latter directed entirely at myself for being so careless. I know that the busses will soon stop running, if they haven’t already, and the walk back to the top of the mountain alone, let alone to the hostel, would be several hours in the dark. Needless to say, I’m freaking out just a little.
POW. What’s that? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nada, Ms. Lane, that’s a healthy dose of Chinese kindness here to save the day! Hurrah!
Laughing maniacally, I explain to the driver as best I can what’s happened, and where I actually need to be. She indicates she’ll take me back to the top in her bus – the last run of the day. I’m xié xie, xié xie’ing with all the energy I have left, though still down about the walk I’ll face at the top. Little do I know, she’s actually phoned ahead and got the last bus going towards Wangqiaotai to wait at the top for the stupid foreign kid too scared to speak up when he realised he’d got the wrong bus down.
By the extraordinary kindness of this Chinese lady I make it back to the hostel just after sunset, worn out but soon refreshed with more egg noodles and the companionship of a group now bolstered by three new travellers – Manuel, Bernie and Vanessa. Lo and behold, these guys are German too, and I’m psychically transmitting an apology to Fraü Mitchell for not keeping up my German lessons after 4th year.
After the silence of hungry bellies getting their fill, we chat away into the cold, cold night, as one by one we peel off the conversation and make for bed. In the end it’s just Vanessa and I left awake, filling our bottles with boiling water to use as makeshift heaters, and talking incessantly.
The next morning the new kids join me to watch the sunrise, just as spectacular as it had been on my first morning here.
It’s funny, travelling. How you can enjoy someone’s company intensely for a few brief hours, and then mourn their absence when they continue on their own path.
For more of my thoughts on travelling and friendship, refer back to my earlier post: This is for the lions.
Don’t look at me like that.
The same can be said for Bernie and Manuel, who I hiked with for the morning, before leaving them in a rush so as to get out of the park and catch my train on to Guilin, the city in which I have just arrived.
As it should happen though, Helen and Anna got the same two trains here, and are staying in a hostel not so far from my own. It’s a small world after all! Travelling with them was cool, and the possibility of hanging out with them again makes the parting of the small Zhangjiajie group more of a bittersweet than a bitter memory.
Zhangjiajie taught me two things:
- China is a crazy beautiful place sometimes, and
- I need to stop worrying so much. Things will work out in the end, be it by the kindness of strangers, or through the friendships that you will make – if only you’re patient and open enough; and of course comfortable enough in your own company for when that’s all you’ll have.
From the idyllic setting of Guilin, I leave you with not only my love, but a poem thrown in for free.
Yours, C x
On the 17:26 from Zhangjiajie to Mordor
Riding on a train
through the mountains
of what I can only assume
to be Middle Earth.
We enter a tunnel
eclipsing each others’ faces,
and during this midnight
The Ride of the Rohirrim
rises gently into the earphones
of my iPod Classic 4th Gen.
Without warning we emerge in
a flash of light and my eyes
adjust to peaks soaring hundreds
of feet above us, violent
against the greying sky.
I look to the inscriptions
around my arm and ring-finger
If this train takes me all the way
to Mordor, I should really give Frodo a call; tell him to get
the 2011 from Zhangjiajie
next time he’s got a
world to save.
I’ll give him a call.
Saying that, though,
international rates to
the Grey Havens aren’t cheap,
and he’s probably too busy
with fanmail to answer anyway.
Hell, I bet I’d be put
through to some orc over
in Moria, who probably doesn’t even speak a word of Elvish –
It’s just not worth the hassle.
From over the tannoy rattles
a tinny voice:
Next stop, Barad-dûr