Friday, August 10, 2007

Hunan Travels

I'm now in the midst of about four weeks of traveling over my summer break, and wanted to make some comments as I go along. Most excitingly, my father and brother visited China for the first time and traveled with me for two weeks, but I'll write about that in more detail when I have the chance, probably when I return to Zhangye. For now I'll just talk about the past few days after they flew home and I left Beijing.

I ended up heading to a small place in Hunan Province called Fenghuang (凤凰; the name means "phoenix"). There is no train station in Fenghuang so I first had to head to the nearby city of Huaihua (怀化). As I waited for my train in the Changsha station a girl my age in over sized sunglasses took the empty seat next to me, greeted me with a confident "hello," and then stammered for about 15 seconds, managing only "speak...... China......?" I assured her I could speak Chinese (I was also clearly reading a book about Chinese grammar, dork that I am), and she immediately relaxed. As a college graduate she had probably studied English for 10 years; I have my serious doubts about China's policy of mandatory English instruction for all students. She was named Chao Lang (巢浪) and was heading to the same city, where she works in the construction business.

I've been having a hell of a time understanding the accents in southern China, even the normally standard Chinese of students, and conversation with Chao Lang was awkward and brimming with silence. Even so, it's not necessary for a Chinese-speaking foreigner to be clever, and she suggested we hang out while I killed time until my bus the next day. Actually, translated literally she said "why don't you come to my place and play." This sounds saucy indeed but in Chinese it's simply the way you talk about hanging out with a friend.

Even so I was wondering what this pint-sized girl, with her smoking habit, big earrings, and tiny shorts was up to. As it turned out not much; she took me to her apartment, which had five people in two bedrooms, introduced me to her co-workers/roommates (it's normal for your job to arrange your living situation in China), treated me to her roommate's cooking, and found a hotel for me. Oddly, 20 minutes after meeting me she had also suggested I could come down for next Chinese New Year if I didn't have plans. The Chinese are nothing if not hospitable.

The city of Fenghuang, from the road, looks like a hidden gem of ancient China - picture-perfect traditional architecture, a lazy canal, working class Chinese hiding from the sun in lampshade hats, picturesque countryside. It's not in the guidebooks, and I had only read about it 48 hours earlier on the internet. On closer inspection, it's quite a nice place but is oozing with Chinese tourists. I don't feel the need to go into the amusing spectacle of Chinese tourists, as I can refer you to a spot-on description I read yesterday on another blog I like. The site of boatloads of Chinese in identical orange lifesavers, singing in unison to the tune of a microphone-wielding woman in a token minority outfit outside of my hotel room window was humorous, followed quickly by very annoying. However, the advantage of the herd mentality of Chinese tourists is that if you move a couple of hundred meters away from the crowds you will be completely alone, and down the river I watched local boys swimming (many naked) and jumping gleefully from a bridge.

It hasn't quite been totally ruined but the town has been built up for tourism in a major way; a sign that said "No Jap!" in English and Chinese in one of the bars caught my attention. In the evening I was drinking imported Budweiser at imported prices when the woman sitting near me passed me a note in Chinese, along the lines of "are you also alone? Don't misunderstand me, I don't normally talk to strangers but if I'm not bothering you maybe we could have a conversation. Do you speak Chinese?" I liked that she didn't ask if I can speak Chinese until the end of the paragraph. I had seen her sitting by herself and casting glances at me. She was older than me and drinking by herself, and I thought she might be a prostitute. It turned out she was a kindergarten teacher. Her accent wasn't so difficult to understand, but liquor-inspired Chinese shouted into my ear over the sound of live musician with a full PA system was, and it was kind of a relief when she finished her glass of mysterious Miao nationality alcohol and we went our separate ways, accompanied only by the sounds of Chinese cover songs and the glow of tacky neon lights.

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