The bliss of being unvarnished
As a traveler one sometimes finds oneself trapped in different sorts of self-deception. A main one is that, especially when traveling for a longer period as we do, one says to seeking off-the-beaten trek spots, far from the trail normal tourists – but normally ends up hopping from one attraction to the other, just as so many others.
And likewise, even though one usually gloats about being interested in seeing how locals live and experience authentic day-to-day lifestyle, in the end remains trapped in a dolled up environment, surrounded by locals depending on the tourist industry and as a matter of course, adapting their behavior towards foreigners accordingly.
Huáihuà doesn’t have any of this. It’s some average medium sized Chinese town with around 5 million inhabitants and even though the website of the tourism board tells something else, there is nothing of particular interest to see. If it wasn’t for the train connection to neighboring sites like Fènghuáng or Hóngjiang, no foreign tourist, including ourselves, would probably ever set a foot in there.
This town is however a far more authentic and unvarnished representation of how most of the people in this country live and how their living environment looks like. Nothing spectacular, nothing particularly stunning, just real. And so was our half-day encounter with Huáihuà and its inhabitants and in the end, we were quite thankful of having been obliged to spend some hours there.
As could be expected, the ability of communicating with non-Chinese speakers reached it low here, so that when looking for a hotel room next to the railway station, Javier had a lot of trouble making them understand we wanted a double room with bathroom, even drawing stick figures having a shower, beds and Western style toilet bowls on a piece of paper. But as always, in the end all the effort leads to some sort of solution.
The streets of the station district are busy, framed by concrete buildings lighted by overwhelming quantities of neon light lettering, packed with street vendors and old-fashioned shops for clothes, suitcases and electronics. Trying to equip oneself with traveling fare in a Chinese supermarket is an exotic adventure, as for more than 75% of the boxes, cans and plastic packages, we have no idea what they contained. The same was true for the content of the huge lunch packages our fellow Chinese passengers brought on our first train, at least the items besides the obligatory set of instant noodle soup bowls. So reluctant to the adventure try slimy spicy pork sticks or shrink-wrapped chicken claw, we were left with the few things we recognized as harmless for Western stomachs: Oreo cookies and fresh fruit.
Our personal highlight in Huáihuà was the food. As anywhere where we have been in Asia so far, food sellers are never in short supply and the city streets were busy until late at night with street barbecues and fruit sellers. However, we ended up in a tiny place run by a Uyghur family (again because they had the pictures of the dishes on the wall) and were again welcome so warmly that we felt like being some kind of VIP guest. And, as the cherry on the cake, the food was one of the best we’ve had so far on our trip!