Monday, 20 April 2015

My Solo China Trip: Huangshan Hike/Tangkou "Part III"

The hour long ride to the remote town of Tangkou was filled with curves, abrupt stops, and beautiful hillside farmland, and was preoccupied by my personal attempts to evoke generic banter between the driver and the 2 university students sharing the backseat with me. Unfortunately, the majority of my inquisitive attempts, were received with smiles and giggles as I was confident everything I was saying was not being comprehended.  The driver I so strategically chose for this leg of my trip was actually the only link we had for communication between all 4 of us.  Thankfully, the drive felt short, and before I knew it, we had arrived at our final destination...a random road side entrance?

 I looked around, not sure what the plan was from here.  I saw one road sign in both Chinese and English exhibiting the words "scenic access".  Based on my extensive research before the trip, I knew I needed to take a scenic bus shuttle to the entrance of Huangshan mountain, so I surrendered to the conclusion that I must be in the right area.

The two girls gathered their belongings and seemed content on the whole arrangement as they made their way up the road to the gate entrance.  I unfortunately did not have it so easy.   I somehow needed to convey to the driver I first needed to get to my hotel "Pineridge Lodge" to drop off my main luggage before heading up the mountain with my day pack for the night.  It took him a few moments to conceive my plans, but once he finally came around, he requested the hotel phone number as he needed the directions.  I eagerly gave it to him...anything to help me along here.

He looked confused as he sat there waiting for someone to answer.  He looked at me bewildered after concluding the very short conversion with what I could only assume was the owner of the hotel.  Closed!
NOTE: I should mention at this time that several days earlier, I received an email from stating they could not complete my reservation for unforeseen reasons.  There were two things going through my head at this, he was lying, so he did not have to drive around so much, or two, he was telling the truth, resulting in not being able to complete the transaction based on the place being closed.  Like so many other times throughout this trip, I was forced to put my full trust into this complete stranger.  I agreed to follow him to a hotel literally 1 block from the gate entrance.  If I was being swindled into something, at least this so called "friends hotel" was in a convenient location.

We walked into the hostel like hotel and were met by a young lady.  Oddly enough, she had this honest look to her that instantly eased my skeptical nature.  Her antiquated thick worn-out wool sweater, buck teeth under-bite, and frizzy hair in a bun, added to her trusting demeanor.  In less then 20 minutes, I was able to book the following night for 120 yuen (cheap), and also book the bus to Nanjing two days from now for 110 yuen (just like my book had said).  This was all facilitated by the cab driver as he was the only one who knew a lick of English as the lady behind the desk knew zip!

My complete faith in the cab driver and hotel lady was now officially solidified as I handed over my suitcase to her to store in the back for the night while I departed to hike the neighboring mountain.  I grabbed my backpack, ready to hunt out the ticket booth for the scenic bus shuttle, but to my pleasant surprise, my driver was not done helping me get to where I needed!  He escorted me all the way to a ticket counter, talked to the lady behind the window who again knew zero English, bridging the communication gap I would of struggled with.  Once all was concluded with ticket in hand, I shook the drivers hand, thanked him in Chinese (shey shey), and jumped into the bus at 8am, all while wishing I could of properly shown him my appreciation.    He was another random stranger going out of his way to help a foreign traveler…with no hands out for a tip…so refreshing!

The line up into Tangkou bus station for the scenic shuttle.  Notice the matching tour hats

The short 15 minute shuttle bus ride cost 17 yuen, and was packed full of local Chinese tourist groups…each flaunting their matching tour hats which categorized each into their respective group.  On the ride up, many were comparing their selfie poles, while others were comparing their $1000-$3000 camera lenses.  I was equipped with a cheap waterproof Nikon camera, but I guess I never was a hardcore photographer.

Once again, I found myself on a bus, not really sure on its destination.  Not the most flattering picture I must say

After passing a few waterfalls, and winding by some great vistas, (causing a few cheers from my fellow patrons) we pulled into a large parking lot with roughly 20 other buses.  We shuffled off in a hurry, only to be greeted by another 2 lines…one to get into the park by hiking up (210 yuen), and the other to get into the park with the assistance of a gondola.  I had read the hike up was hard, and exerted unnecessary energy…energy that was needed for the top, so I reluctantly lined up for the gondola which I knew wasn't going to be cheap.  I waited patiently, enjoying the opportunity to people watch, taking in the commotion all around me, until I noticed a familiar face.  It was the two girls from the ride up from Hongcun.  I waved in the direction of the other line they were in to catch their attention, and quickly caught it…I guess it wasn't hard when you're the only bald white guy in a sea of black hair haha.  They ran over with giggly faces to say hi.  They then hand gestured to me asking if I wanted to join them on the hike.  I normally would of said no, but company was always welcomed, and heck, what did I have to lose.  So I agreed!  The only problem was they were going to hike up to save money.  I changed my plans on the spot, paid the park entrance fee, and before you could say "Bobs your Uncle"…we were in the park, ready to hike the endless stairs that was reportedly estimated to take 3.5 hours to complete at a steady pace.

The conditions were not ideal.  Not only was it hot (maybe 20C), but the humidity was unexpected, and I began to sweat like a dog (yes I know dogs don't sweat), but kept my demeanor relaxed while I followed the two girls pace.  It was quicker then expected, but not long after, it slowed quite considerably.  I was well prepared with my micro fiber t-shirt, breathable pants, breathable back pack, and light weight running shoes.  On the contrary, everyone around me, including the two girls, dressed in anything from jeans, to slippers, to even high heels. It was to the point of laugh out loud funny.  Leather pants and designer dresses were also observed on the trail.
This is how the hotel receives all its supplies...hence the cost

It wasn't even an hour before my companions stared to look worst for the wear.  The humidity stared to catch up with everyone…even me.  The girls began to take short breaks, followed by longer breaks, followed by sit down resting.  I was recuperating quite quickly, and started to get a bit anxious.  I decided at this point, it was time to wave goodbye to my new friends, slip on the headphones, and power my way up.

The never-ending stairs

I ignored my elevated heartbeat, powering past dozens of fellow hikers struggling to find a pace that would work for them.  There were several moments when a few hikers would run past me smiling, only to be passed several minutes later as they laid flat on their back at a rest stop.  The stairs were relentless, never ending, and after an hour, my water was not cutting it, and I needed to re-energize.  Every kilometer, there were these snack stops with Red Bull and fruit.  I took this opportunity to grab a pricey cucumber (normal here, a first for me) and an energy drink.  I inhaled the much welcomed cucumber as bystanders stared in my direction.  One guy pointed at me and did an Arnold Schwarzenegger flex, laughing.  I took this opportunity to laugh it off, and continued on my way to my much anticipated destination…Xihai Hotel.

The much needed cucumber and Red Bull

They were all making fun of me, but apparently they did not want me to take pictures

Only 20 minutes later, I passed the gondola trail where other hikers were unloading, followed by Baiyun Hotel, and then quickly followed by several more trails forking off from the main path.  I now needed to pay close attention to the directions and numerous signs, as everything began to feel completely random.  15 minutes later, my hotel came into view…and it was only 11am…sweet.  I did the entire hike up in 2 hours; not bad!  I later talked to two Americans who also powered their way up, proud to inform me they did the hike in 2.5 hours.

Xihai Hotel exceeded my expectations as I approached the grand lit up marble check-in counter.  The lady was well versed in English which made the whole process that much more easier.  I was informed I was a bit early as my room still needed to be cleaned, but they would do everything in their power to get me in sooner then later.  I was completely cooperative knowing it was my fault for expecting a room at such an early time when normal check in is around 4pm.  I waited in the fancy waiting room looking out to the extremely foggy views just outside the hotel.  I was a bit disappointed to see the confining clouds dwarf all the potential views, and really hoped all the planning previously done to this point was not all in vain.
Xihai Hotel...exceeded expectations

I don't think 10 minutes passed before I was notified my room was ready.  I made my way up to the upgraded mountain view suite located in the new wing, and was relieved upon entering.  I was quite worried the $200 it cost me to stay on the mountain would be predictably bad as some have expressed on Trip Advisor, but this was NOT the case.  The room was large and clean.  The rain fall shower faucet and weigh scale I was accustomed to seeing in all previous hotels was welcomed, as were the 3-4 English TV channels. I think the most welcomed bonus I found in the room was the heated towel rack.  This allowed me to rinse and hang my stinky sweaty shirt to dry while I switched over to something a bit more comfortable.  I laid down for 20 minutes watching the first English channel I've seen in what felt like a decade, only to have a nagging guilty feeling build up in my subconscious.  I knew I was here to hike, and hike I must.  I peeled my weary body up off the bed and headed out to hike the quieter, yet much rewarding, West Grand Canyon.

My room, worth every penny

The clouds were still engulfing everything including the wet cement trail in front of me.  I had a bit of a jump to my step after leaving my soggy backpack in the room, and was eager to complete most of the West Canyon even though many online posters stated a full day was needed.   I was still clinging to the hope that maybe, maybe, the clouds would dissipate and reveal the wondrous scenery the mighty Yellow Mountains were known for.

Stuck in the clouds for the majority of the first day

This is what I was looking for!

Now and then, the mountains would appear out of no where

I passed a few groups taking photos of what I could only assume was misty fog.  I continued in search for the cliff hanging stairs I had studied back in Canada, as this was the ultimate goal.   I made my way down approximately 500 meters of stairs, knowing full well that what must go down, must come back up….and I was not looking forward to it.  The stairs were abnormally steep, almost to the point of vertical.  I would periodically peer into the clouds only to see a few faint shapes, what I could only assume were sheer cliffs.  All of a sudden, without any warning, a wind gust from the heavens pushed the lingering clouds down the valley for a split second, revealing the awe inspiring Yellow Mountains.  Words could not express these beautiful inspiring views that were finally exposed to me, and my camera could not capture the view I so desperately wanted to portray.  As the views disappeared on and off behind the passing clouds, I tried to take in as much as possible.  My resulting strategy was to hike a 100 meters for a new perspective, get another 5-10 second window of vistas, only to be drowned in clouds again, and then bolt off to the next vantage point.  Without even initially noticing it, I was standing on walkways hanging from 1000 meter cliffs, with only a few concreted re-bar to trust in.  It was quite surreal, and immensely enjoyed by myself.  After 2 hours of being unexpectedly impressed to the point of exclaiming several times "you've got to be kidding me", I decided to start the loop back to the hotel.
This picture shows the ingenuity on constructing this trail

My pictures just could not capture the feel that was present in this mountain range

lots of love locks on railings 
A rare view without clouds
Sure, lets put the trail here

It was only 4 pm, but I felt I had packed in a ton of sights, and was very keen on having a hot shower, a beer, and a quick lay down on the bed for an hour to take in some English TV before having a much needed dinner.

My Huangshan beer to finish off the day

The shower was genuinely enjoyed, but the same could not be said for my pricy 25 yuen Huangshan local beer.  China beer in general is very light and watery when compared to Canadian beer…but this label seemed even more so.  I sucked back the small can of beer and headed downstairs for dinner.  There were a lot of staff to assist the customers, but as usual in a 4-5 star hotel, there was always at least one on the floor who was the go-to guy for English.   The guy had an uncomfortable look on his face when I told him it would just be me for dinner.  I quickly understood why as I observed into the restaurant and noticed the large 10-12 person round family tables.  We stood there with a moment of awkward silence, broken only by the waiter recommending I join the only other table in the restaurant that had 2 similar white tourists like myself.   I nervously introduced myself to the two men, feeling like I had just invaded their personal space.  Conversation was a bit forced to begin with, but once the initial introductions were behind us, we were able to enjoy our overpriced meals with good company.  The two Californian men were your typical loud brash tourists, joking with the waiter expecting him to role with the jokes…he did not.  The food was extremely tasty, and once we were content the night had offered all it could, I paid, and concluded the evening with a couple of hardy handshakes, yearning for the soft bed waiting for me that was well earned. camera is crap!

Day 6

Morning came early…real early.  The sunrise was apparently a highlight in these parts and was not to be missed.  The resulting consequence was for me to hit the trail by 6am.  I headed east of the hotel out to the numerous, much talked about, sunrise points.  Many of the brave souls up to witness the sunrise with me conceded to the lower points at risk of over exerting themselves.  I of course wanted the best view possible, so I hiked all the way to "Lion Peak" and "Stone Monkey Gazing Over Sea" point…the highest I could find.  I plopped in my head phones and listened to the first song that came on…Chandelier by Sia.  It really resonated with the intensity that was happening all around me.  As the sun made its way up, I peered down into the valley at the clouds blowing through at an elevated speed, while also noticing the several other view points poking out along the forest canopy.  It was a surreal feeling that is really hard for me to put into words.  I never really got the absolute perfect picture, but the atmosphere at that time was worth the effort it took to get out of bed.

I really like this picture.  I would stand waiting for the clouds to break, while the entire time not knowing there was a peak there

After an hour or so, I was content I had witnessed as much as I could at that given time, so I sprinted back to the hotel for the much anticipated buffet breakfast.  It was 119 yuen, but I convinced myself I earned it.  I took a seat in the corner near a large table full of Americans from San Francisco (my eaves dropping was working overtime), and thoroughly enjoyed my final meal on the mountain.  I made sure I overindulged on coffee as I knew once I was back in town, it would come at a premium price.  Once I finished, I packed up and started to make my way down to the gondola.

That rock sitting on top of the ridge...thats "Stone Monkey Gazing over Sea"

It was still extremely early, and I knew I had all day in Tangkou once I reached the bottom, so I decided to explore and meander the eastern peaks.  I followed the crowds when I wasn't sure of my direction, and avoided them once I saw an opportunity to get a view without the hordes of tourists suffocating me.  I hit up several worthwhile viewing points, happy that I put in the added effort to see more, before making my way down on the Yungu gondola for 80 yuen (ouch).   This officially confirmed my day complete on the mountain.  
I left wanting more.

On my way down...not cheap, but a great new vantage point

After paying another 17 yuen to take the scenic bus back down, I walked over to my newly acquired hotel and checked in.  It was only 1pm at this point, so I had lots of time in Tangkou.  It would later come into fruition that I had too much time in this little town.

My room was cheap…and deservingly so.  It was dirty…so dirty to the point I never took my shoes off until I was officially in bed.  The floor was discussing, hair, stains, and cigarette burns littering the entire room.  Uncharacteristically, I took this in stride, took a deep breath, and headed out to see what this fine town could offer me….well, it appeared it wasn't much lol.

I walked with my headphones in, looking lost, having no where in particular to go.  I got lots of curious looks from the many local shops.  The temperature was abnormally hotter then normal, and I felt my head burning.  I decided to head into the largest fast food chain in the town…KFC.

The loud bustling restaurant was packed full of affluent teenage students indulging on greasy chicken.  I tried not to stir up too much attention, which was pretty much impossible.  I grabbed a weird looking chicken/shrimp sandwich and retreated to my chair to have some "me" time (I'm joking).  I sat back, not really having anywhere to go, when unexpectedly,  I again recognized two familiar faces looking for a table.    Shockingly, it was the two girls I met earlier.  They had met a guy from Taiwan on the mountain who was very outgoing, knowing a tad more English then the other two.  He was immediately curious on every aspect about me.  Questions rained down on me as I tried to keep up with his inquisitive nature. He then looked through my camera while the 2 girls giggled to themselves, something I had become accustomed to.  He informed me the two girls were just finishing up in University, taking a Community degree…something I was unfamiliar with.  Still going through my camera, the picture with my mountain top hotel room intrigued him.  He was in shock learning it was my accommodations for the night.  He then asked "Did you win a lottery?"  I embarrassingly tried to explain to him why I stayed there with no success.  Not quite satisfied with my answer, he continued to shuffle through my pictures, concluding with a concerned look on his face.  In a somber voice, he stated the obvious observation... "You have all these pictures of you by yourself".  I said "yeah, I'm traveling solo".  He looked at me with a depressed look and without hesitation said "You must be so lonely".  I laughed not able to catch myself on his sincerity.  I reassured him I was fine and I took the camera back.

The tone was immediately changed when he spoke to the girls in Chinese for a few minutes, paused, and with a guilty look on his face asked "Do you like Chinese girls".  Now…I am not the smoothest guy by any means, so instead of saying the obvious response "Of course", I preceded by saying "I like all girls in this world". I am such a moron!

We concluded our conversation, and after a brief farewell, we went our separate ways.

I was still bored, which forced me to continue walking randomly around town till the sun disappeared.  I took this opportunity to head to bed for another early night.  I was ready to take on tomorrows excursion (or so I thought!)...first by bus to Nanjing, and then from there by bullet train to Beijing…

WATCH MY SHORT VIDEO:)…its a bit lame, I know   

Sunday, 12 April 2015

My Solo China Trip: Tunxi/Hongcun "Part II"

After a quick 60 min domestic flight on Shanghai Airlines, I landed in the small soggy town of Tunxi.  Our jet was the only one on the tarmac, and as we disembarked, everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere…so I joined them, looking like I too needed to get somewhere.  My luggage was one of the first to be unloaded…zipper open and all!  After confirming nothing was missing, I made my way outside to where I was immediately approached by a guy waving me into a taxi cue.  When it was my turn to board, it was a bit unsettling to see the driver eager to take me…almost like I was that “white” whale he was waiting for to top off his quota for the day.  He showed me a 50 yuen, saying a bunch of stuff in Chinese.  I tried to tell him too much…20 I stated emphatically!  He kept saying 50 with a confident smile on his face, almost like he had me where he wanted.   I went up to 30.  Well…I think I was literally talking to myself because he had that look on his face as though he had no clue what I was saying, all while simultaneously grabbing my bags.   As my negotiating skills went onto def ears, the remaining cabs demanded me to hurry up as I was stalling the line…yeash.  I sat in the passenger seat…a bit pissed.  I looked in my homemade travel cheat sheet book and said ”ti gway la”!(to much)  He laughed.  Well at least he finally understood me.

My mode of transportation from Shanghai to Tunxi

I arrived at my destination…Parrion Hotel.  It felt empty.  I started to get that uneasy feeling in my stomach again that this may not be as easy as originally planned.  I reluctantly paid the driver 50 yuen shaking my head as I disembarked to check in.

The hotel itself had this very unassuming look to it, but the much trusted Tripadvisor told me it was one of the better hotels in the region which slightly reassured me.  It was located along the Xin'an River, opposite to the old town Tunxi region.  

The Parrion Hotel in Tunxi
Only a few seconds into check in, it dawned on me that the internationally travelled tourist hot bed of Shanghai was long behind me, and from here on, things would not come easy.  I handed over my translated confirmation form to the quintessential looking professionally dressed young women standing behind the marble desk.  She had this bewildered look on her face.  It was quite apparent that she was the only one who knew ANY english…but no more then 5% worth.  I tried to confirm my quoted price with no success.  There was a lot of unsuccessful back and forth…both struggling to grasp a break through in communication.  The remaining 20+ minutes or so it took to check in, resulted in them offering me a lower rate then the original quoted Agoda price I originally came in with, but the catch was I needed to cancel my current booking.  This was not possible as most reservation websites have a 24 hour no cancelation policy.  I trusted my original price would be honoured and sufficient, and eagerly took the room key as I retreated to my room.

The room was large and modern.  Once again, the bathroom had a lovely rainfall shower faucet, and oddly enough, a weigh scale under the sink…just like my last room in Shanghai.  I collapsed into the plush king bed, needing an hour to reboot before heading back out into the rain to explore the old town of Tunxi.  I flipped the TV on…50 channels…no english.  I watched a few cheesy game shows and military dramas in Manderin to tie me over before forcing myself up.  I bashfully approached the front desk and hand gestured for an umbrella (my acting skills are impeccable).  Wonderful!  Instant success!

Xin'an River
Early morning, laundry in the river.
I walked roughly 1 km along the river under my umbrella, and then another 1 km over the main bridge crossing Xin'an River.  The heavy traffic of scooters, peddle bikes, and cars all seemed to be very engrossed in my presence which imbedded an underlying uncomfortable feeling.  The bridge spit me out into a very underwhelming part of the city.  Big ugly 4 story concrete buildings, selling everything from prescriptions, grocery, to electronics.  I began to wonder what all the fuss was as I made my way through a couple of back roads.  I took this opportunity to look for a quick bite, but nothing appealed to me.

Walking over the bridge in the rain
The rain subsided for a split second allowing me to put away the umbrella for a few seconds.  This was when I saw the old Chinese style archway leading into an older community.  I immediately knew this was what everyone referred to as the "old town Tunxi".  It looked exactly like the Yuyuen Garden region in Shanghai.  Old 2-3 story traditional Chinese buildings, all exhibiting elaborate roof tops, intricate wood trim, and cobbled walkways full of local tourists.  The half dozen or so narrow alleys within the old town had a common theme for shops … tea, paint brushes, spices, wood carvings, and restaurants, each spinning their own unique angle.  Other then the authentic feel this location had, nothing particularly appealed to me, and after 30 minutes or so in the rain (which resumed with more intensity), I decided to head back to the hotel for the night.  On my way out, one vendor caught my eye.  Half pineapples stuffed with rice sat in a steaming basket.  Each had a red pepper perched on top, making the treat that much more appealing for me to commit 20 yuen.  My first chop stick full immediately made me regret my decision….it was not that good.  To add to the disappointment, the pineapple was less hollow then first thought, and after only a few mouthfuls, my meal was done.  I was still hungry, but couldn't find any safe looking street vendor food or anything that didn't involve family dining, so I headed back to the hotel as my feet were beginning to get sore.

On the edge of old town Tunxi
One of the main squares in Tunxi
My disappointing pineapple stuffed rice
After a refreshing shower, I ended up going to bed hungry at 9pm.

Day 4

The day started early.  6:30, hunger propelled me out of bed to the free buffet that was included in my hotel stay. My energy and mind frame was rejuvenated as I sifted through the restaurant for a small table away from the onlooking locals.  The buffet pleasantly exceeded all expectations.  Western food and traditional Chinese food filled the several islands dotted throughout he room.  As usually, I went right for the local dishes, trying out a few of the "safe" sides which included a variety of dumplings, and the common lotus root.  I obviously couldn't turn away the fried eggs and bacon that were offered as well…that would be just inhuman;)

After overindulging on breakfast, I did a very quick sprint walk back into town to grab a few snacks which included bananas and Lays "lime" chips (why don't we have these in Canada..they are delicious!)  then headed back to the hotel to check-out, which was surprisingly painless.

I now needed to somehow portray to the lady I needed to get to the bus station.  It was not easy, but after a few attempts, I was able to get her to write in Chinese the name of the bus station.  Mentally, I thought the next step was to head outside in the rain to hail a cab.  This was not the case, as a guy proceeded to grab my luggage while talking to me in Chinese.  I obviously had no idea what he was saying, but he worked for the hotel, so I trustingly followed him as he loaded my bag onto a golf cart.  He drove me down the highway, all while I had NO idea what was going on.  He pulled into a KFC parking lot, unloaded my bag, said something in Chinese, and was off.  Ummmm, huh?

 I stood there in the rain, wondering what the heck just happened.  I watched a few locals hail cabs, and it dawned on me this was the spot to take a cab.  A smidgin of relief came over me.  I saw one, put my hand up, and the very first one pulled over for me…phew, that was easy.  The driver had the "deer in the headlights" look on his face and looked like he regretted his decision….maybe knowing this may not go as smooth as he was accustomed to.

We drove 10 minutes or so, no words exchanged between the two of us.  I watched the meter intently, happy to see the charge grow at a snail's pace.  We arrived at the station that I recognized from a picture I had printed out, but it was much bigger then originally thought.   I looked at the meter…it read 7 yuen.  Sweet!  I handed him over the change, but how could I be so naive to think it would be that simple.  He uttered a whole slew of Chinese phrases that obviously went right over my head.  He did not look impressed.  What was I doing wrong?  He then made on "X" sign with both of his fingers…again, no clue what he was trying to convey to me.  He continued to speak to me in Chinese, ignoring the blatantly obvious fact I was not comprehending anything.  I shrugged at him, trying to illustrate to him my confusion.  I decided to hand him a 20 yuen bill.  He seemed to get even more frustrated.  What was I doing wrong?  The driver began to get impatient, and when I tried to hand him the 7 yuen again, he finally grabbed it in disgust.   I think he just wanted me gone haha.

The station looked like a jumble of unorganized cues.  I had no idea where to start!  A lady came to me and asked me in broken english where I wanted to go.  I immediately assumed she was after something, but reluctantly told her Hongcun.  She smiled and said "Bus 9"… then proceeded to grab me and led me to the back where dozens of buses sat.  Things were happening so fast, and before I knew it, I was sitting on a small bus full of locals, not having yet paid for anything.  I sat there skeptical, all eyes fixed on me.  I began to get nervous that I said the town name wrong…what if my pronunciation meant something else?  The bus doors shut which confirmed my fait…I'm past the point of no return.  Where ever this bus was going, thats where I was headed.
My expression says it all

We stopped several times picking up local farmers.  The bus was so full that they started to set up stools in the aisle.  The ride was long and windy through the valley.  I tried to stay relaxed, but the lingering feeling that I may be going in the opposite direction weighed heavily on my mind.  After 1.5 hrs, we pulled into a smaller bus station.  Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said a word that eased my tensions…"Hongcun"!

I transferred onto the smaller commuter bus that had two other tourist from overseas already seated.  This abated my stress as it confirmed I was on the right track.  A short 15 minutes later, we pulled into another bus stop. The bus driver motioned to us that we just needed to walk down the street a few 100 meters.  After paying the entrance fee of 104 yuen, I had made it to the remote ancient town of Hongcun!

The rain stopped for a short period, allowing me to walk the extremely narrow alleyways at a relaxed pace.  The unorthodox method of hoping to stumble onto my accommodations was forced onto me as I zigzagged my way through the small town.  After 20 minutes or so, the "Hostels International" sign revealed itself, easing the ongoing tension that was slowly growing inside.  I just wanted to shut my brain off for the night, and take in the sites and tranquility Hongcun was so famous for.

Thank God I made it…not sure how
I checked in with the brains of the hostel operations…the owners young daughter.  She collected my money and assigned me the keys to my free upgraded room... I had assumed they needed my originally booked room for someone else.  The room had a tacky beach theme, and the bed…wow,never in my life have I ever felt something so hard…a rock would of been softer.  Again there was the familiar weigh scale under the sink I was so accustomed to seeing…what was this phenomenon that all Chinese needed to weigh themselves lol.

My tacky room
View from my room
I dropped off my damp luggage and backpack and went into the courtyard to see what was going on.  There was a big yellow lab dog in one corner, barking on and off, which by the end of my stay, got annoying.  On a small bench in the other corner was an adorable puppy, eager to stir up a fight with me, which I was game for.  The third dog, a french poodle style dog, stayed inside at the check-in counter, never leaving his perch on the stool.  

One of the 3 dogs…this one never left the stool
As I sat there sticking out like a sore thumb, a younger lady approached me with very broken english.  She was a very friendly volunteer from Mongolia working for the hostel. She was very curious on why the heck a single guy with no mandarin skills would travel to a place like this.  I shrugged, not really knowing the answer.  We exchanged common banter back and forth until our exhaustion set in from trying to understand one another.  I decided to take this down time to walk the town while the rain subsided into a light mist.  

Hongcun was a maze of old alleys and walkways.  Most were no wider then 5 feet, and exhibited an exposed trough with running water making its way down to one of the several ponds the town was build on.  Random gardens and ponds littered a few backroads, while others had small courtyards I could only assume were for some sort of gathering.  I knew that the flowing water would lead me to the lakes, so thats what I did, followed the water. When I reached the prominent spot where many local artists and tour groups made their base, I stopped to take in the amazing views.  The reflection on the water with the misty mountains in the background was well worth the effort.  The old worn out white buildings with the cobbled roof tops added to the mystic.  The famous bridge crossing the main pond was quite photogenic, and it was easy to see why this bridge was littered on google images.  Heres a quick "did you know"… this was the town where "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" was filmed.  Another interesting tid-bit …they have only recently started to allow foreigners to stay within the town overnight…now you know;)  

The many narrow alleys
The amazing reflection this pond gave me
A random garden squeezed into this community
a cherry blossom adding to the allure
The famous bridge in all its glory
Such a great feel
Once I had my fill for the evening, I headed back to the hostel, as I had earlier agreed to join the volunteers and owners for supper at 8pm.

Artist students doing a fine job painting
The large family style dinner took place in an open aired courtyard that simultaneously also felt like it was indoors.  If it weren't for the sparrows above my plate making a nest, I would of assumed we were indoors.  For 40 yuen, our meal included everything from bean curds, to a pasty egg style cake, to a flambĂ©'d fish and rice.  The meal was wonderful.  All the food was placed on a turn table in the middle for everyone to share.  All you had to do was be alert to catch the food while it was in front of you while others would spin it around.  The slurping from the 6-8 occupants around the table was deafening, but I had previously remembered that slurping was a sign in China that the food was being enjoyed…but I could not get myself to slurp to their degree.   
I bought some street side chicken before supper because I was VERY hungry! (hiding from the rain)

My meal at the hostel

The meal was enjoyed by all, and when all was said and done, I felt this overwhelming urge to help clean up after, but from previous experiences during my short stint in China, this was never the case.  Before I knew it, everyone had left, and I was left sitting there with an extremely dirty table.  Feeling a bit guilty, but reminding myself I did pay for the meal like a restaurant, I finished my 20 yuen beer, and reluctantly got up to stumble my way in the dark back to my room for another early night in bed (damn my jet lag).  

Day 5

I was awoken at 3am by a very zealous rooster trying to assert his territory.  The damn thing would not stop! Was no one else bothered by this bastard?  3am quickly turned to 6am, and before I knew it in my groggy state, I was packed and ready to hunt for my bus to Tangkou.

I walked to the entrance as the sun began to rise above the horizon, all while surrounded by roosters joining the awakening choir.  I crossed the river into the bordering town.  I remembered the bus stop was only a few blocks, but as I walked, nothing looked familiar.  I started to get frustrated.  I was sure I had this figured out, and couldn't decipher what I was doing wrong.  I walked back and forth as the sky got brighter and brighter, adding to my anxiety.  Several vans stopped beside me asking if I wanted a ride…"100 yuen" they yelled out. I repeatedly responded "no, too much, 17 yuen on bus"  I think the only word they understood was bus, which was enough for them to scoff and bolt off.  30 minutes past, and it was getting down to crunch time.  Then an older car stopped and asked the same thing I heard several times earlier…"100 yuen?" The only thing different this time was his english…it wasn't half bad.  I again said no while walking away from him, refusing to overpay on anything.  Desperately, he yelled out "ok ok, 50!"  Again, I yelled back, "Too much!  Bus is cheaper".  He thought for a second and in a disappointed tone yelled "ok, I will do 30".  This peaked my interest due to his english possibly being an asset for me in the not to far future.  I agreed and jumped into his car.  That's when the disclaimer was revealed.  He needed 20 minutes to find 3 other passengers to make up the missing 70 yuen.  Ugh!  I reminded myself that even with the added time, it was probably still faster then the bus.
My mode of transport for the next 50 min  to Tangkou

20 minutes later, my driver was content after finding 2 university girls looking for a ride, and before I knew it…we were off!  
Off to my next unpredictable adventure…Tangkou and Huangshan!