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 flamb√©'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!


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