The what-is-not-a-phoenix city
Three days after our arrival to China it was time to leave the safe haven of cosmopolitical Shànghǎi and head towards inland China. Our first stop was the ancient city of Fènghuáng, called the phoenix city by the Chinese, in Húnán province.
Fènghuáng is a day train journey away from Shànghǎi, and it is not accessible directly. We would have to take the train to Huáihuà, a medium sized town and railway hub for the sights around, and then change for a bus heading to Fènghuáng. Google maps was not able to find any long distance bus station in Huáihuà – and anyways making Google maps and so many other essential webpages work here is a pain! – so our first big challenge: get out at the right train station and manage to get on the right bus.
The city name, Fènghuáng, is obviously not pronounced as we would read it in our European approach – “Fenghuang”, with open “e” -, but when the locals say it sounds something like “Fúnhua”, which is the reason why in our first attempts to explain where we were heading at, no one seemed to know the city we were going to and it took us the entire train ride to get the pronunciation figured out in a way, the Chinese would be able to guess what we mean.
Our first experience on a Chinese train was quite… exotic, let’s say. As prices for train journeys more than tripled when compared to the ones we had been used to in India, and as we were told Chinese trains in general were modern and comfortable, we did an attempt to do something good to our travel budget and bought tickets for the lowest class: second class hard seats. Buying the train tickets is quite an easy task, compared to other communication issues, as all the trains are easy to look up on the internet and by writing train number, destination, travel date (Chinese write the date in the reverse direction: year-month-day) and class on a piece of paper and handing it over to the ticket selling lady, the process is quite straightforward, as far as there is seats available. If not, you still have the option to buy a standing ticket which means: you pay the same as for a seat, but you don’t have one guarantied – which according to our experience with the trains here mostly means: you have to stand.
When we got on the train in the – admittedly very modern and well organized – Shànghǎi South Railway station, we already recognized that this would not be among our most comfortable trips. The wagons of second class seats arranged in rows of five with a small passage in between them two rows in front of each other and the leg space for the not even enough for us to sit straight. seat upright and no really corresponding to the form of a back, wagon packed with people standing between the rows in the whole wagon. The no smoking sight seemed to be pure decoration and the AC didn’t seem to work properly, so the air inside the wagon was stuffed with cigarette smoke, reminding me of movies set in Europe and the US in the 60s and 70s.
If already in Shànghǎi the general level of foreigners on the streets was pretty low when compared to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, in this train we were the only long noses and therefore kind of an attraction for everyone, especially as people sitting with us tried to start a conversation. It took them some time to understand that really we didn’t understand one word of Chinese and then seemed to be already discouraged by the difficulties of us answering the question where we wanted to go to – Fènghuáng? Never heard about this city…
Despite all communication difficulties, people around us where however very friendly and welcoming. They invited us to crash sunflower seeds with them and even offered us for dinner a leg of some kind of unrecognizable bird, cooked in a sauce that was so spicy that we couldn’t even chew one tiny bit of it – obviously to the great merriment of our sponsors.
As could be expected, the night in this train coach was not really a night, although we tried to fold our bodies in any possible way to get some sleep. But with the lights remaining on the whole time, the loud music from surrounding phones and laptops, people watching movies, smoking, walking around and having loud conversations … most passengers however didn’t seem to care a lot about it, they fell asleep in any possible position and remained the same way until they had to get off.
Luckily, one younger passenger around us spoke some English and was also eager to get in contact with us – in the end, everyone on the train was bored at some moment – so we extracted all the information from him we could: that the train was one hour late, when we had to get off and even if he knew where to buses for Fènghuáng were leaving in this town we were getting to. The last information he didn’t know, but he started asking around among the people getting off at the same stop as us, and ended up finding an elderly man with a neon yellow suitcase telling him he knew and he would show us so the young guy told us: “Follow him, he know”.
We didn’t have much of a choice, so arriving in Huáihuà we already saw that the orientation-with-a-map time was also over, as all signs were now purely written in Chinese characters, so we followed the tiny little man we couldn’t communicate one single word with and his yellow suitcase along the roads of the medium sized Chinese town of Huáihuà, at least 15 minutes walking – and arrived to the bus station were showed us the right ticket counter and then handed us over to the driver of the bus heading to Fènghuáng, to make sure we did get on the right one. We were not sure if he had to get a bus there also or if he had walked all the way with us just to help. We didn’t know how to express our gratitude otherwise than with a big smile and at least five wrongly pronounced Xièxie! – Thank you!
It is listed as candidate for being UNESCO World Heritage site, but unfortunately the development of local tourism presides over conservation of the old buildings and so the phoenix sees itself transformed into a Chinese version of Venice.
Additionally and to our big grief, our visit coincided with the Qingming festival held on April 5th, the Chinese ancestral veneration day. There wasn’t a lot to feel about commemoration, but more about the occasion for weekend trips thanks to the nationwide 3-day holiday, which meant soaring accommodation prices and the narrow streets overcrowded with local tourist groups.
Finding available hotel rooms was however no problem at all and as we knew everything was expensive, we decided to grant us a little luxury and found a beautiful attic room with a splendid view on the river.
Finding this room was again the result of a linguistic adventure. Fènghuáng doesn’t seem to be frequented a lot by foreign tourists – confirmed by the fact that we were again the only Westerners around. Accordingly, English skills of people around are zero and so are transcriptions of street signs, shop fronts, etc. into Pinyin. So to find a room one has to look into the house entrances to see whether it looks similar to a guesthouse reception, draw a bed on a piece of paper or imitate a sleeping person. Or one could just follow one of the many ladies standing at the bus stop offering rooms with pictures… which we did and it brought us to a nice little guesthouse with spacious rooms, but unfortunately an Asian style toilet – a hole on the floor. Even though after nearly three months in Asia we are pretty well trained using those facilities, for the price we would have to pay we still preferred when we consider a “real” toilet.
When we attempted to walk out the door the lady renting the room looked at us with a worried face and asked us via Google translate:”What’s wrong, you didn’t like it?”. So how could we explain to her, that the room was okay, but that we preferred a Western style toilet? Google translate didn’t help, so Javier thought about a more plastic solution and put a picture of a lavatory in Google images – which she understood immediately. So did her neighbor, who had been standing in the entrance the whole time watching the spectacle and seeing the image of the WC on the computer screen shouted (of course, in Chinese): “I have one, I have one! Come see!”.
To make it short, we ended up at a totally different place, but still we were both surprised and amused about the creativity in trying to make some sort of communication work.
Luckily, we arrived one day before the crowds of Chinese day trippers and had one afternoon with nearly empty streets, some hazy spring sunshine and warm climate to stroll around the river and make pictures of the beautiful scenery, traditionally dressed Miao women selling handicrafts and – of course! – the new varieties of local food offered on the streets.
One thing we will probably not get used to during our stay is the habit of Chinese restaurants like to sell animals you eat alive. This concerns not only fish but also all other sort of smaller animals, like goose, frogs, hedgehogs, pheasants… We understand the purpose is to show the meat is fresh and you can select the animal you want to eat. But walking along you watch the little creatures shiver in their minuscule cages, look into their terrified eyes and hear them screaming as if they knew they were merely waiting for death… and it’s just heartbreaking. Even though we know that it is a hypocritical feeling as both of us eat meat and this is just the way it is: you must kill an animal to eat it and one should not only be able so watch it but even to do it on one’s own or otherwise turn vegetarian.
We preferred however to stick to noodle soup, the most unexpensive, while tasty and satisfying option of food around and for us many times the only one were we could understand what we were going to eat. As we can’t read menus written in Chinese and no one is able to explain us the different dishes, our choices are more of less restricted to restaurants showing images of their food or of walking in and pointing at what other people eat. According to our experiences so far, the restaurants most likely to put some images on the wall and menu are noodle soup vendors and Uyghur restaurants.
We found a small family run noodle soup restaurant we resturned to at least three times, in absence of Western style breakfast in the morning and afternoon, and independent of the time we came were always offered three free glasses of rice wine by the senior owner, an elderly little man with a bowed back and green jacket and cap which seem to date back to revolutionary times. They would have a large picture of Mao hanging on the back wall and a flat screen television showing old Chinese movies in black and white. The patriarch was welcoming the guests, while his wife and daughter were sitting at a table in the back cutting meat and vegetables for the next portions of soup and his granddaughter, aged about 20, served the soup dishes.
It was such a friendly and welcoming environment, that we always ate our soup at slowly as possible to spend more time sitting there, forgot about the never ending rain outside and the masses of umbrella carrying Chinese upper class youngsters in high heels, coming in for a party weekend in Fènghuáng buzzing bars on the riverside, with minimum consumption in drinks of around 500 yuan (60 Euros) – more than our daily budget.
So in its own way and without intending it, the not-really-a-phoenix city exemplified a contrasts and contradictions of what we see in modern China: ancient architecture from empire times, dolled up for a booming domestic tourism industry to welcome the posh, consumption and fun oriented one-child-policy offsprings of rising economic-boom-time middle class, run by traditional family businesses owned by heirs of the cultural revolution. We are curious what’s coming next!