Saturday, December 3, 2011

6. Zhangjiajie mountains

After lunch we’re off to the Zhangjiajie National Forest. The entrance is impressive, flanked by a gigantic bus parking lot (mercifully relatively empty) and faced by a bustling row of souvenir shops. You have to buy tickets to go into the area, or have a permit to live or work there, which is one of the ways they control tourism.

Which is a really good thing, after all.

Like in the Yellow Dragon cave, there are paved walkways and fences everywhere, and no going off on your own. I love to go off on my own. It’s a constraint to always have to stay with Sam & Louis, to never get away and just explore what catches my fancy. But if we were allowed to just go anywhere, the millions of people would soon have the whole countryside trampled into nothing. There would be nothing left to tour. It’s this, or nothing.

Ok, I’ll take this.

I kind of like Chinese landscape painting, the ones where the mountains are all vertical and the trees are hanging on sideways and the tiny houses are stuck on with stilts. But I always thought that was an exaggeration.

Not so! The real mountains are right here in Zhangjiajie. They are that steep. The mist really does make them mysterious. You really could put a rope bridge between this peak and that one.

Today the weather is fine. Louis is very very happy it isn’t raining for his one-day tour. We spent the heavily overcast morning in the cave, and by afternoon a lot of it has burned off. Though it isn’t exactly clear, the sky is a lot bluer than it was in Guangzhou.

It’s too bad Sam doesn’t give us more time to walk the trails. Right at the centers where the tour buses stop there’s a great density of tourists and an array of souvenir shops, but we see signs for trails that go 1 to 5 km. Probably down the longer trails you could get a moment or two with no other people in sight, but we don’t have time for this luxury if we’re going to finish the programmed sights by sundown. And Sam promises that the next sight is even better, so off we go.

At one stop he gives us 25 minutes to wander as we please, and after rushing from one viewpoint to the next for photos I find myself with 5 minutes to haggle over souvenirs. I’ll discover later that I should have done all my souvenir shopping out here in the sticks where things are much cheaper (especially jade - this is one of the main areas where jade items are made), but for now I pick up just two bracelets, and a metal statue of a horse that I can’t resist. Before leaving Guangzhou, Laisheng told me I should start bargaining by offering about 20% of the asking price, but the vendor’s first price is to me so ridiculously cheap that it’s all I can do to not jump at the deal right off. I offer half, and we end up at about 2/3 of the initial price. I’m happy. The vendor has made a handsome profit. Everything is good.

Sam has different advice for bargaining, though. We come upon a stand where a woman is selling books of her husband’s photography. They live here, and he’d be at the shop if he weren’t out with the camera. They’re nice books, and I want two. According to Sam, 20% off is really pushing as low as possible. He’s more on the vendor’s side than mine.
Near the end of the afternoon we have a choice between heading back down to the base of the peaks for a tour through the forest, and staying up on top longer & visiting an authentic ethnic minority village. It’s a tough choice, actually, because if we choose the village, by the time we get to the forest the sun will be awfully low. And I do love nature more than towns.

But we choose the village. Go on, a little culture!

Just a little. We see not so much a village, as a museum. We’re taken through a series of dioramas depicting traditional village life as it was a generation ago. I’m sure if we saw their real homes they’d be full of modern stuff. They things they’re producing the old way, they produce not to use, but to sell to us the tourists. It’s a strange situation, this village-turned-zoo. You can even buy popcorn! Which I did, just to taste. They serve it sweet. Otherwise it’s just ordinary popcorn.

Down at the bottom, at the end of a ride on the world’s tallest elevator, is a wonderful area with paths leading down two of the narrow gorges between the limestone peaks. Near the parking lot, vendors line both sides of the path, but farther on it’s nice and peaceful. Not many people are left in the sinking light, and when Sam gives us 20 minutes to wander, I zip down the path along a stream, noting the vendors - yes, I’d like some jade from this place, a scarf from that one... The path is enticing, and doesn’t seem to end. On and on I follow the happy stream, looking up at the sun on the peaks, hoping for a more open view through the thick trees. Eventually I figure my 20 minutes is more than up, and I’m right. By the time I get back, the sun is gone, the vendors have all packed up, and Sam & Louis are just about the only ones hanging around the parking lot.

Then it’s back to town for dinner. They eat very early in China! We go to a local restaurant, a huge place full of people, very loud. There’s a wedding being celebrated, and most of the crowd is there for the traditional 3 days of feasting. Lunch was deliciously spicy, but frankly a little strong for our tender tastebuds, so Louis and I ask for just a little less hot this time.

The space here is more like a meeting hall than a restaurant, and there’s a sort of stage at one end where some people are sitting at a table covered in painted scrolls and paints and stuff. It’s a local artist showing his work (and nodding off a good deal of the time), and his family is there to help with the selling.

In fact, I quite like one of his paintings. It’s a serene scene of bamboo, with a couple of small birds. The colors are just perfect; mostly black and grey or green-grey, on an ivory background with just a splash of red on the birds. Subdued but not excessively. Exactly the sort of zen thing I need in my office.

How much?

350 yuan.

Hmm, that’s, er.... (about 40€) Hey, that’s a deal for a beautiful painting about 18 inches by 40 on a silk scroll with its own beautiful pattern and all. But I will bargain! 350 is much more than it’s worth in China. Though with Sam being more on the vendor’s side than mine, we end up at 300, but ok.

For the evening’s entertainment I’m invited to attend a show of traditional ethnic minority music and dancing. Really spectacular! Ah, no thanks. It’s been a long day, and I’m looking forward to a long, hot, bubbly soak in my luxury bathtub. Besides, Louis is off to the airport so I’d not have anyone to commiserate with at the show.

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