Thursday, December 1, 2011

4. Zhangjiajie

This is a 3-day tour. Yeah, right!

BIT, guys; don't ever, ever travel with BIT unless you want to pay far, far too much for far, far less than promised.

Day 1 consists of meeting at the convention center at 5pm. Not in the lounge of the hotel, where there are comfy places to sit and wait, no. Meet in the main convention welcome hall, where there is nothing at all to sit on. It's a vast, marble, empty space here. There is a snack bar, which appears to be open, in spite of the display cases being devoid of edibles. Three people man the register, and when I take one chair and lean my baggage against another, they are quite happy to sell me a bottle of water. So I sit and sip, and read the increasingly irritating travelogue book I brought for waiting. The book is just a hair from being annoying enough to ditch half-read, but I didn't bring anything else. It's so lonely here that after several minutes the server brings me a cookie, on the house. How sweet!

At 4:50 I start wandering around, wondering if my guide will be early, wondering if there's anybody else going on this tour, since the only other people around are arriving for events at the convention center. Ah, here's my guide, a tiny Chinese girl of 20 or so who speaks passable english. I can understand what she says, but her vocabulary is so limited she can't say much. At any rate, I won't be touring anything with her but the route to the airport. We're waiting on a second traveler, a colleague from the breast cancer meeting. Waiting. Waiting. Aha, he's waiting for us over at the hotel lobby!

Off to the airport for a 9pm flight. We'll be at our hotel in Zhangjiajie by 11. So the largest single block of time we have today is spent hanging around the airport. Gee, cool. I do notice an "Italian" coffee bar near our gate, and the coffee there is not bad.Better than the usual Chinese stuff. An Italian coffee bar that serves noodles and the usual Chinese snack fare. Strange.
Another thing about BIT's tours. They never tell you anything. Our guide takes us to the ticket counter, cutting ahead of the crowd though nobody seems to mind, gets us our boarding cards, and says See you when you get back. We don't know how long the flight is. We don't know the name of the hotel. We assume we'll be met at the Zhangjiajie airport, but this is not mentioned explicitly. We don't know the airline, flight number, or time of our flight back. We don't know the name of the hotel we'll be staying at on our return. Just go. Just remember: if you say Yes to anything, consider it bought.

We are met by Sam, a skinny 30-something guy in jeans and a tattered jacket. His english is excellent even though he's never been to an anglophone country. His image isn't quite up to that of our shiny new minivan and suited driver, but he's a great guide.

Three memorable things about the 40 minute drive though the dark countryside (isn't there a city of a million people just around here?): The driver drives the Chinese way: in the middle of the road until something makes you get over. There's a China Giant Salamander Museum lit up in neon (but it's not on our itinerary). We overtook an emergency vehicle with its lights & sirens on. Normally, you see such a vehicle and you let it go on its way. But this one, which was going our direction, was travelling more slowly than our driver was happy with, so we just passed it.

The new hotel is even more luxurious than the convention center one. Which is probably just a very nice hotel, but my standards aren't very high. This one is newer, the carpets thicker, the sitting area more comfortable. The breakfast buffet is even larger.

It's just me and Louis for the tour, and Louis has to go back a day early. He got caught in a trap: a flight back to Paris on the 22nd at 0:20. A few minutes after midnight. This does not count as the 22nd! We get back to Guangzhou the 21st at 11:50 pm. Half an hour to catch his flight. Can't be done. So I'll be on my own for the "third" day of the tour.

Sam's not meeting us until 10, so after breakfast I go out for a stroll around the town. I'm confused as to whether this small town of 50,000 or so is Zhangjiajie of if that's the city nearby or the name of the whole region. It looks a lot like a ski-resort town, with a dozen huge modern hotels charging western prices surrounded by small buildings and shops comprising the rest of the town. The locals and the visitors definitely do not mix. In my walk around, I see nothing of interest to an outsider. There's not even a souvenir shop. Tourists must stay sealed in their hotel, going out only to board their buses and be whisked to the sights.

The local people are out having breakfast in the numerous small shops along the main streets. Typically there's some kind of grill with a frying pan, and a place for steaming dumplings. The Chinese seem to eat for breakfast pretty much what they eat for lunch or dinner. Elsewhere I've been, the menu for the morning meal is quite different than that for later ones. Not here.

Walking around, the town reminds me of North Africa. The sidewalks are broad, because so much business is done there, and it's dirty, the tiles cracked or missing, weeds growing, trash strewn about, dogs hanging around. Aside from the hotels, the town is very poor. The apartment blocks aren't even painted.

The sky is somewhat bluer than it was in Guangzhou, but the haze is still thick enough to obscure the jagged mountain peaks in the distance. And not a far distance; just a few kilometers. It's pretty thick in the morning, but the sun might burn some of it off by afternoon. So it's just as well that our first stop is the Yellow Dragon Cave.

This is the largest cave known in China, and one of the largest in the world. Discovered less than 20 years ago, the Chinese quickly developed a roaring tourist trade here, with miles of concrete walks and iron handrails and thousands of lights inside. Louis and I thank goodness for Chinese discipline, because such a fragile site as a cave, with all it's wonderful limestone formations, would quickly be trampled but for their willingness to stay on the path.

A different kind of degradation is well on its way in the cave, however. With thousands of visitors a day and lights on, everywhere & all the time, it's becoming quite green inside. Not just algae in the ponds and on the damp stalactite and stalagmite surfaces, but leafy plants around the light fixtures.

Cave pictures never really come out without a tripod, but here are some anyway.

A boat ride from one cave part to another is part of the fun. That's my companion Louis in the front row.
After the cave it's time for lunch. Sam takes us to a local restaurant, not to one of the hotels thank goodness, and we have some very spicy food. Delicious! Hot peppers seem to be just another vegetable here, there are so many in there. Yes, we are in Hunan province! It's a welcome change from the mild Cantonese fare in Guangzhou.

From the restaurant balcony.
And that's all I've typed so far.


The Bug said...

Why DO we eat eggs for breakfast? When I'm at my dad's house I tend to eat leftovers - like bbq and spaghetti :)

This seems like a VERY odd trip to me. I'm hoping you had some positive stuff happen too!

NanU said...

The trip was a very mixed bag. China wasn't high on the list of countries I'd really like to spend time in, and it hasn't moved up the list now I've seen a bit.
I like to write about the stuff that was interesting, unusual, outside my normal experience, and the financial fiasco with BIT means I likely have to cancel Christmas with my family unless I can find a last-minute bargain flight.
Liurong Temple was very nice, and there's nice scenery to come and a visit with friends, but it's true, I didn't come home with a lot of positive memories.

Titus said...

I'm finding it fascinating because China is somewhere I would like to visit. Of course, contemplating it's vastness and the obvious difficulties of really 'doing' the country, I am realising this is not the most achievable of my dreams.
And sorry it was not a great time, and terrible news about Christmas. Hopefully flights will be bargains thanks to downturn central.

Dana said...

Well, it seems to be a strange trip... I would have hated this as I always want to prepar and to know everything when I travel! But the cave seems nice. It reminds me of Padirac Cave in France wich i visited this year. There are also boats there.