The 10-Day Break, the Nightmares of China Traveling… And Some Silver Lining

For the past six weeks, our lives have revolved around planning our 10-day break. This break was built into the program to give students a chance to travel throughout China for sightseeing and touring; “out-of-classroom” experiences, if you will. I formed a group with my roommate, Claire, and our friends Sam and Trevor, and we set about planning out our 10 days. Of course, almost nothing actually went according to plan.

The first destination for my foursome, 张家界 (Zhangjiajie), is a mountain city in southeastern China, reachable by airport and train. We opted for the latter, purchasing tickets for a hard sleeper train leaving 天津 (Tianjin) early Saturday morning. The train ride was supposed to last 22 hours, but it took us 29 hours to reach the city. The ride there though had no shortage of entertainment. Hard sleeper trains are set up in a way I hadn’t expected; there are six beds per “room,” and the beds are stacked three high. There is the largest amount of space between the lowest and middle bunk, allowing people to sit on the bed during the day, but the space lessens the higher up you are. Additionally, the beds are not long or wide. Even with my below-average height 5’4″ my feet were still hanging off the end of the bed.

When we first boarded the train, we found our beds with relative ease. Three of us were able to get beds in the same train car, but my bed was in a room separate from the other two. However, the five other Chinese people sharing with me were very nice. After greeting me with the customary, “外国人 (waiguoren; foreigner)!” they spoke with me in Chinese for a while, and when the others came over to join me, taught us offensive Chinese hand gestures.

The train ride passed like that. We would randomly retire to our beds whenever we felt tired, alternating between sleeping and consciousness, speaking more with the Chinese people in my room and attracting crowds of onlookers.

But finally, we arrived, greeted by the sight of beautiful mountains. Some of the mountains of 张家界 were shown in the most recent Avatar movie, and they’re just as mystical in person as they are on screen. We were excited to leave big city life behind for a while and explore this side of China.

We got off the train and proceeded to try finding our 宾馆 (hostel). After booking it, we received nothing except an address, a phone number, and the promise that it was a short ten-minute walk from the train station. But no one we asked recognized the name.

We wandered around for a bit, but were soon swarmed by a mob of taxi drivers, none of whom recognized the address either. However, one used his cell phone to call the hostel, which was apparently fruitless. We left the drivers and started heading towards a McDonalds to ask directions when a biker came up behind us. We turned, and he introduced himself as the owner of our hostel. He showed us a notebook with my name written in it, along with the reservation number. Slightly wary, we followed him as he lead us down he street.

Long story short, we ended up at the hostel, which was actually much more hotel-esqe than anything I had seen. We were given a three-bedroom, one-bath room, amounting to six beds total (we only used four). And after showering and relaxing, the hostel owner (unfortunately we never learned his name, only referring to him privately as “Hostel Guy”) told us how to spend our time in 张家界–mountain climbing and hiking. [We would only be there Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday, we were planning on taking a bus to 凤凰古城(Fenghuang Gucheng), and spending two days there.] He literally mapped out mountain routes for us, while suggesting a time to leave, and offering to help us catch the bus the following morning.

Monday ran smoothly. We got up bright and early and went to 张家界国家森林公园 (Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.) In 张家界, it is almost always raining, and today was no exception, giving 张家界国家森林公园 a rain-forest feel. At our hostel guy’s recommendation, we headed out on a path not frequented by most Chinese tourists, who seem to prefer the company of tour guides on well-traveled paths. We saw many beautiful sights: streams, tall trees, abandoned pagodas… And we had the area to ourselves. As we hiked, we noticed random large stone playing cards scattered beside the path, and we fashioned an I-Spy game around finding them.

Soon, though, our path crossed a busier one, where we met up with the hordes of Chinese tourists. We let the crowd direct us down the trail, and after a quick lunch, we found a cable car station, which took us to 黄石寨(Huangshizhai). There’s a saying that goes, “He who has not been to Huangshizhai does not really visit Zhangjiajie,” which, having done that, is entirely true. Huangshizhai is beautiful, providing an unforgettable view of the mountains and trees, with random batches of fog obscuring some of the peaks. We hiked around there for a while, then took a hiking trail back down, towards the park entrance.

All day we had seen signs warning visitors not to feed monkeys, but it was not until that leg of our journey did we finally see the wild monkeys. We were hiking on a stone path, when two swung down from a tree and stood in front of us, sizing us up. Trevor’s first instinct was to take a monkey selfie, which he did promptly, while Claire and I were a bit more wary, having heard stories of how monkeys tend to take people’s belongings right out of their hands. Luckily, we weren’t the victims of monkey theft, but a Chinese man near us, who was carrying a bag of umbrellas, almost had it pilfered from his grasp.

We continued our hike, and when we got to the base, we found a bus to take us back into the city.

Tuesday morning was much more relaxed. We were sore from Monday, so we had a slow start to the day. First, we headed to the bus station to buy our tickets to 凤凰, which went off without a hitch. Then after a breakfast of 包子(baozi), we walked to the cable car station at the base of 天门山 in order to take a car to the mountain peak.

Of course, it just wasn’t that easy. Because we are all students at Nankai University, each of us has a student card, which allows us to purchase discount admission tickets. However, the women working would not accept our IDs as valid because one section was not filled in, despite that we had never had this problem elsewhere.

Annoyed, we spent about 40 minutes calling our program coordinator and filling in the boxes ourselves with pen, even one that was designated for a seal. After, we got back in line, amusing the women working. Knowing full well what we did, they grudgingly gave us the student tickets, and triumphant, we went to the cable car line.

At the top, we got out and walked around. These mountains were much different than the ones we had seen yesterday… Much more similar to ones we had seen before across China and the US (the other park’s seemed other-worldly, but that could also be the Avatar influence talking).

Unfortunately, half our group got separated, so Claire and I, holding both the maps, hiked alone around the peak. As we walked, we saw many red cloth blessing ribbons hanging from the trees with characters written on them. We learned that you could buy blank ribbons and write a loved one a message, so with our translator apps handy, we did just that, and hung them around tree branches.

We continued walking, losing hope that we’d ever find Sam and Trevor. Eventually though, at a mountain-top temple, we were all reunited, and we continued hiking together from there. It soon started raining though, so we headed back to the cable car station to go down the mountain.

Over dinner that night, our program coordinator, LV, called us. He had heard of a city near where we were staying flooding, and wanted to check in with us. We were surprised to hear of it, but after reassuring him and eating our 米饭和糖醋鱼 (rice and steamed fish), we soon forgot about the call altogether…

Until later that night, when we learned that it was 凤凰, our planned next stop, that was flooding.

Wednesday morning dawned early. We were out of bed around 6, having already secured our hostel rooms for two more nights, but still feeling desperately stressed. Not only did we have to return our bus tickets for today, but we had to make sure that we could actually make our train on Friday. The original plan was to go from 凤凰 to a connecting city, 吉首 (JiShou) by bus, then take a train from 吉首 to 郑州 (Zhengzhou). We would spend Friday night and all day Saturday in 郑州, then take a train Saturday night back to 天津.

We were able to return our bus tickets easily, but we decided to wait until the following day to figure our the rest, as various buses and trains kept getting cancelled due to the weather. We headed back to the hostel to plan our next move.

We were all still exhausted from the hiking, and to top it off, I had the stomach flu, so I opted to stay in bed all day. Claire and Sam decided to stay with me, but Trevor headed back to 张家界国家森林公园 and did some more hiking by himself.

On Thursday, I was feeling a lot better, so per Hostel Guy’s recommendation, we headed to 黄龙洞穴 (Yellow Dragon Cave) in the late afternoon. We hiked around a bit, but mostly spent the afternoon in the cool, dark cave.

After we retuned, Hostel Guy hooked us up with discount tickets to the Fox Fairy Show. It was an amazing musical, originating from a traditional Chinese myth and folk tale called “Love between Man and Fox,” a love story about a woodcutter and a fox fairy woman. There was a stage set at the foot of 天门山, with the mountain as the backdrop, and it was an impressive site.

When we retuned to the hostel at 11 p.m., Hostel Guy took us to the train station so we could see about exchanging our train tickets from 吉首 to 郑州  for ones that left out of 张家界 (the train we had tickets for, out of 吉首 had to come through 张家界, so we figured it’d be easy enough to swap). However, it turned out that that train was cancelled entirely due to bad weather, but the woman working insisted she take our tickets anyway, despite the fact that we couldn’t get a refund. Trevor had forgotten his in our hostel room, so he rode Hostel Guy’s bicycle back to the hostel, ran up six flights of stairs to our room, grabbed his train ticket, and biked back. When he arrived, sweaty and breathing heavily, he handed the woman behind the counter the wrong train ticket, and exclaiming in exasperation, jumped back on the bike and raced to the hostel. It turns out though, as he told us when he returned the next time, that he had had the right ticket all along; when he arrived at the hostel, he ran up the six flights of stairs only to find it in his pocket.

The woman took all of our tickets, and by that time it was around midnight. Hostel Guy returned to the hostel, and we roamed the streets in search of working ATMs (we were running low on cash, which is needed to make most transactions in China) and street food. None of the ATMs worked for us, so we found a stick food stand, which sold roasted meat and vegetables, including delicious egg plant and corn on the cob.

We returned to the hostel, exhausted and stressed, to shower and pack frantically before crawling into bed for a few hours, so we could get up early to find bus or train tickets.

Friday morning came too quickly. We jumped out of bed, gathered our things, and headed to the hostel lobby, where we met up with Hostel Guy. Hostel Guy and Trevor headed together on bikes to the bus station to check out the bus schedule. However there were no buses directly from 张家界 to 郑州 available; the one leaving that day was full. But, Hostel Guy did tell Trevor that there were buses from 张家界 to 长沙 (ChangSha), then a bullet train from there to 郑州. Once Trevor returned, we headed back to the bus station together to find 长沙 bus times, then we ran to the train station to see if there were any bullet trains leaving 长沙 for 郑州 that night after 7.

We waited in line at the train station forever. It was a busy place because so many trains and buses kept getting cancelled due to the flooding. Then, when we were one person away from buying tickets, the woman ahead of us bought over 20, which slowed down the system horrendously. Meanwhile, Trevor ran back to the bus station to double check on the bus situation for the following day; it turned out that the bus tomorrow from 张家界 to 郑州, but it was full. It was either this bullet train or nothing.

We finally managed to buy the bullet train tickets, then we ran back to the bus station to buy those. It was 8:45 by the time we finished, and our bus was scheduled to leave at 9:25. It was supposed to be a five-hour ride, leaving us plenty of time for our bullet train at 7:19.

But of course, the bus didn’t arrive at the station on time. We spent about ten minutes frantically trying to figure out where our bus was. It was even more troubling because there was another bus there, which left at 9:30, heading to the exact same place. However, ours finally pulled in, and we left around 9:45.

We arrived in 长沙 after five hours, just as scheduled. However, the ride wasn’t that easy. Driving in China is scary and uncomfortable, especially because of the overuse of the car horn. Our bus’s horn was very audible from inside the bus, making sleeping impossible. Drivers here are also fearless, and they don’t sweat passing two or three other vehicles at once, even when here are bends in the road… Even the sight oncoming traffic less than 500 feet in front of us didn’t faze our driver.

After we got there, we found a subway station (where fare was five times more expensive than that of 北京–Bejing) and took it to the train station. We waited there for about four hours until boarding the train, just to ensure that we didn’t miss this leg of the trip.

The bullet train ride went really smoothly. We sat in comfort for about four hours, while the train raced across the country at speeds of 300 km/hour. We arrived in 郑州 around 11:15, and waited in line for a taxi for about half an hour.

When we arrived at the hostel, it was around 12:30 a.m., and we had no idea how to find it. It is located on the 29th floor of a building, so we wandered the area for a while, asking various Chinese people until we found the right building. When we got to the 29th floor, nothing looked very hostel-esqe, so we tried calling the number listed on the reservation, but there was no answer. We wandered around for a while, until we ran into a Chinese man in the hallway, who happened to be one of the co-owners of the hostel. He took us to the proper room, but we were told that they never received my reservation, so only two beds were available, one for Trevor and one for Sam. However, Claire and I were offered spots on a couch in the lobby, which we gladly took.

This hostel was unlike any we had stayed at before. Sam’s and Trevor’s beds were bunked, but they were little more than wooden boards with a blanket on time. Claire and I were definitely grateful for the couches.

Saturday morning after we got up, we “checked out” of the hostel and found some food carts across the street, where we bought breakfast/lunch. Unlike 张家界, which sold many 包子, the food carts of 郑州 sold primarily 面 (noodles), which you could take to-go in a plastic bag. We say on the curb to eat them, attracting the attention of many Chinese people, some who stopped to talk to us. One was a female college student, who really took to Sam (we’ve heard that a lot of Chinese girls hope to find an American boyfriend; unluckily for her, Sam already has a girlfriend in the US). She sat with us for a while, laughing at our attempts to speak Chinese with her.

Once we finished eating, we set out, with our new Chinese friend in-tow, and found a China Construction Bank, with ATMs that allowed us to withdraw money. Then, our Chinese friend gave us each a pen and a hug, and elicited from Sam and Trevor a promise to add her on WeChat (basically a social media app similar to Facebook), before snapping our picture. We parted ways, and headed to a (free) provincial history museum containing relics from a thousand years ago. However, as we walked around, we realized that we were attracting more stares than the museum exhibits themselves…

Claire is Chinese, born in China, but adopted and raised in the US, and Trevor is half-Chinese, able to pass under-the-radar. Sam and I definitely attract the most attention from the Chinese people, with our clear foreigner features. However, because my hair is blond, I’m always noticed first. In 郑州, which isn’t really a tourist destination, I was a definite oddity, and many Chinese people in the museum that day (who had most likely never seen a white person before in the flesh) would shyly approach Sam and me and ask for a picture. We were happy to oblige, although I am looking forward to returning to Wisconsin and reassuming my identity as “just another white girl.”

After leaving the 博物馆 (museum), we killed time for a few hours in a neighboring park before taking the bus to the train station. The train ride back was uneventful… We had upright soft-seats for 13 hours, which made for uncomfortable travel, with all of us sleeping on one another or lying our heads on the window or table.

However, our train even arrived in 天津 on time, and we were happy to return!

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