Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Zhangjiajie...

We certainly would have heard of terms like sandstone, quartz, stalactites, and stalagmites during our geography classes but very few of us would have actually had a chance to experience them. I'm glad that I'm one among those privileged few. Monstrous sandstone rocks, colorful limestone caves, exhilarating forest treks, exuberant screams from mountain tops, its reverberating echoes, natural oxygen bars - all packed into one name - Zhangjiajie.

Located in the northwestern Hunan province, this geological national park is an abode to numerous flora and fauna. A forty-five minutes bus drive from Zhangjiajie city is all that is required to reach this park. A quick ticket (costing RMB 245) check at the entrance of this magnificent verdure nature reserve throws the gate open and all you have is unending chain of sandstone rocks, man made alleys passing among them, taking you to newer heights with every step you take. The incline made us perspire despite cold weather.

The sandstone rocks are lean though gigantically tall, brownish red colored, uneven surfaced and are clad with shrubbery scantily across the length and densely on the summit, giving it a feel of a tiny boscage. The miracles of nature, for me, were limited to magazines and television, but Zhangjiajie gave me a chance to witness such miracles in reality. There were rocks that had a semblance to a tortoise, a human face, a candle, a whip (the famous golden whip), dragon and several other forms. I continued my stride spellbound by nature's vivid manifestations. At some juncture, gradually, with every step I took, a sort of a bridge connecting one such tall mountain started unveiling itself. I was about to damn the tourism department for having spoilt the intrinsic beauty by building such bridges. As I got closer to it, I realized that it was a natural one, to add, it is the world's highest natural bridge. I was awestruck by the architectural capabilities of our mother nature. I allowed my camera to have a quick glimpse of it and raced towards it to have a privilege of treading the world's highest bridge. The thin metal balustrades of the bridge were fully clad with pairs of locks, signifying the everlasting bondage among the couples who lock them. This natural super structure brought our first day's trek to a halt. We checked into a tiny lodge, which provided us with sleeping space, hot water shower and sumptuous food. Unfortunately there was no heater, mercury levels fell below zero, outside rain and snow mingled and fell from heaven. I still remember that night to be one of the coldest nights I've spent.

A hot breakfast of noodles with omelet helped us beat the cold and realize our second day's itinerary to Yangjiajie scenic area. The red dusty roads that I witnessed the previous day were now turned into slurry - mixture of ice, water and red soil. My black Nike track shoes were now brown and our pants had artistic patches of slush. The shuttle service gave us a warm ride to Tianzhi Mountain that lasted, sadly, for just 30 min. The warmth of the bus made me reluctant to alight, but I had to. The fog was so dense that our visibility was limited to a few feet. We boarded a bus to Yuangjiajie had more picturesque and diverse collection of rocks than Zhangjiajie. While the latter had splendid landscapes formed by collection of sandstone mountains, each rock of Yangjiajie had its own personality and distinctive beauty. This is the place where we got up, close and personal with the rocks - we walked amidst them, tread them, touched them, and got photographed with them. A Cock Heralding the Day welcomed us to this scenic spot. It resembles a cock proudly standing atop a tall stone pillar welcoming the dawn The journey ahead was a bit adventurous and added thrill to the trek, we had to walk on the slippery rocks, ascend steep and wet steps, had to maneuver to get through the weird rock formations. The cold dense fog greatly reduced the visibility, the humongous mountains appeared like apparition revealing hazily from the moving mist.

On the way to Tianbo mansion, we ran into a courtyard enclosed by wooden structures on all four sides. It housed traditional Chinese wedding attire and other bridal materials which were quite fascinating, but the best of all was a charcoal heater, maintained by a local person, which mitigated my shivering and gave me much welcomed warmth.

The "Tianbo mansion" is located atop a very huge rock. Metal stairs lead to the summit, which is almost a ninety-degree incline. The view from the summit was again a hazy one due to the weather but occasionally the passing clouds gave us a glimpse of the landscape hidden by them, which was both mysterious and interesting. The other equally beautiful spot was "One Step to Heaven", truly lives up to its name.

"Wulong worshipping Buddhism" was another fascinating spot from which we could see the summit of another rock from a very close distance. This particular rock has a sparse growth of bushes, unfortunately some ignorant tourists had littered that green rock top with used water bottle, I hope that would be cleaned someday. We took an offbeat route inside the forest from here and got lost for some duration, which again added some kick to the trek.

The place I liked most was "Corridor in the cliff". A very spacious corridor, atop the mountain, to which an adventurous twenty minute trek is needed to reach. It is a natural reverberation hall, the echoes resound harmonically. The passing clouds play a peek-a-boo revealing the terrific landscape below. The thought that struck me at that time was, how much more gorgeous this landscape might have been if the sun wouldn’t have lost the battle with the clouds.

Our second day had a happy ending, with a hotpot of assorted vegetables that gave life to the cold slothful cells of my body. A hot shower and a sound sleep quickly followed the dinner.

The third day was the day of descending. With an add-on, made of rope, to the shoes, to prevent slipping due to ice, and backpacks in position we started gravitating the depths of Zhangjiajie mountains. It took nearly two hours for this job. It was extremely cold and snow kept falling. The descent was mostly by steps, which were a bit too slippery and the green forests were so thick, that the surrounding landscape was almost hidden by them. A shuttle bus drove us to suo xi yu, a small town. After rambling for about an hour in search of a hotel, we checked into a posh but affordable hotel in the outskirts. The dinner included some spicy vegetables and fish, cooked in authentic Hunan style.

Yellow dragon cave was our destination on fourth and final day. A taxi hitchhiked us from the town, the tickets to the cave cost RMB 65. This cave consists of quartz stalagmites and stalactites, which were lit by colorful lights. There were numerous of them with vivid colors, various shapes & sizes. The boat ride was something that I had not expected, inside the cave. The cave is not illuminated dazzlingly and I had to pump up my ISO rating to 1600 for photographing, carrying tripod is surely worth the pain. It takes more than two hours to fully traverse the cave. A countryside motor rickshaw dropped us back.

Hunan food, as all of us know, is very spicy and sumptuous. The taste of final dinner in Zhangjiajie city, is still lingering in my mouth. The Hunan style fish head, with chilly-soy sauce, noodles immersed in it.... ummm.... it waters my mouth every time I think of it. Not to forget the Changsha mifa (Changsha rice), which again is a very authentic, delicious cuisine of Hunan. The taxi drove us to airport and there ended my four days of a memorable Odyssey to Zhangjiajie. I'm an avid trekker and have witnessed various landscapes, but the one I saw in Zhangjiajie, the sandstone mountains and caves were something very new and exciting to me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Where Phoenix hovers…

If I were to describe something orally I used to say “Ah! I don’t have any words to explain how beautiful it is”, but now since I’m supposed to convey my experiences to others, I struggled hard to find the right words.

Serene, picturesque and unique are the adjectives I feel are apt to describe Fenghuang. Known as Phoenix town to foreigners, never had I expected that I would spend my spring festival in this wonderland, which is described as China’s one of the two most beautiful towns. Fenghuang is located in the western part of Hunan province (Central China), south of Tujia and Miao prefectures.

How I got there?

We traveled to FengHuang by train from Shanghai. It is around 27 hours of journey, most of which I spent looking through the windowpane of the train. The best part of the journey was waiting for us – spring festival celebrations aboard the train that consisted of songs, dance, riddles – a fun packed hour during evening, though I understood nothing since they spoke in Chinese. We reached Huaihua by evening and the connecting train to Jishou was on the next morning. It takes nearly 2 hours by train to reach Jishou from Huaihua and another one hour to reach the final destination by bus.

Alternatively, if you have more money to shell out you can fly to Zhangjiajie and travel by bus to FengHuang, which is around 4 hours.


The town

The legend has that two phoenixes flew over this town and found it so beautiful that they were reluctant to leave the place. The town is surrounded by mountains and is along the river Tuo Jiang. The bridges are very traditional Chinese kinds and the houses are uniquely built over the river bund. And if good luck is something which you posses (which I lacked) then you may end up in an accommodation very next to the river treating your eyes with the mystique beauty of the town. I guess it’s quite difficult to find a room if you visit the town during Chinese vacation (first week of May and October)…

At this point let me divert a bit from the main topic which I can’t resist telling about – FOOD. For the people who do not like Chinese food, they must visit Hunan province to change their opinion. Known for its spicy and sumptuous food, this place has many good restaurants. Rice constitutes the main course usually accompanied by varieties of curries (mostly non-vegetarian). I liked noodles more than rice. One should be brave hearted to enter the restaurants since most of them will have varieties of animal corpses hanging down at the entrance (they are used for cooking). Knowing to use chopsticks is an added advantage.

…back to where I was

Must see parts of the town –

Southern Great Wall – a very ancient long wall built by the Ming dynasty for fortifying the town. This place is a good choice for shooting portraits since the backgrounds consist of artistic rooftops. Climbing the wall gives rise to a scene from the other side of the river from where one can see the stilted houses built on the river bund.

Huangsiqiao Bridge – a marvelously built closed-top bridge now houses numerous shops selling varieties of handicrafts, ornaments and books. It has three arches for the boats to sail across and the roof resembles any typical Chinese buildings with horn shaped edges.

Tuojiang River – considered as the “Mother river” of Fenghuang, it has nourished people for hundreds of years. You can take a boat ride along the river, which is quite an experience. This river also adds to the beauty of the town by reflecting the mountains around. Also I found many red lanterns along the river since I visited during spring celebrations.

Pubs and coffee houses - It’s not disappointing for beer guzzlers too. There are ample pubs with a western ambience serving the drink of your choice. Most of them are situated along the riverbank and it was a pleasing experience to gulp the cold beer on a sunny afternoon with your eyes seeing wonderful scenery. “Bingo” – a pub cum coffee house deserves a special mention. It has the best ambience and a retro style balcony, from where the view of the river is splendid. Here one could find some English magazines, Internet is available and a lovely Labrador dog for pass time. I savored a hot cappuccino on the balcony enjoying the serenity of the river.

Apart from the above-mentioned places, I enjoyed walking along the narrow streets with shops on both sides selling paintings, handicrafts and artwork. Never accompany people who like shopping along these streets for you may end up not seeing the rest of the town at all. Yeah it’s a paradise for shoppers. And if luck favors you, you may witness the well-known dragon and lion dances of China.

LaoDong village - The local tourism runs a bus to this village, around 2 hours from FengHuang and is dominated by the MIAO minority community. Believe me it’s a resplendent place embellished with natural beauty of the mountains, fields and the kind hearted MIAO people. They welcome their guest into their territory by singing a song, offering wine and playing drums (which the guests have to imitate). Their village consisted of narrow lanes made of juxtaposed stones and houses mostly made of stones and yellow bricks. All the houses were sparsely lit and had a fireplace over which there were dried pork corpses. We were treated with their traditional lunch (consisted mostly of rice and curries of pork, pumpkin & carrot) followed by a performance. Their performance included artistic drumming, bamboo dance, a wizard performing a ritual wherein he ate burning wood, men pounding rice and girls making rice cakes out of it. Ladies wore traditional blue dress, which was adorned with varieties of sundries and silver ornaments. The attractive headgear made of white metal enhanced their beauty.

Not to forget - Never ever dream of visiting this place without learning Chinese or without being accompanied by a person who can speak both Chinese and English. You cant expect English at its very basic level too, not even commonly used words. Carrying a Chinese-English dictionary is not a bad idea at all. It’s also advised to print the map of the town available on the Internet for easier navigation. Vegetarians suffer lack of food choice here, for almost all dishes contain meat in one or the other form. Carry warm clothes during winter if you don’t like shivering.

Conclusion – If you’re looking for some kind of a relaxation, break from your mundane activities then this is the place to be. Fenghuang offers the visitor, a view quite different from anything experienced in modern cities that are more widely known. I believe it was a great opportunity for me to visit this cute little town. The memories, I’ve saved for myself and photographs, for the others.


Quik facts:
Location: Central China (Northwest of Hunan province)
Distance from Shanghai: 1100Km
Nearest railway station: Jishou
Nearest airport: Zhangjiajie
Temperatures: 24 to 27 degree centigrade during Summer (July) and 1.7 to 4.3 degree centigrade during winter (January)
Nearby places worth visiting: Zhangjiajie Forest park, Heng mountain, Yueyang city.
Cost: Nearly Yuan 500 /couple for 3 days (bargaining works!!!) excluding travel
Language: Chinese (absolutely no English)
Food: Mostly non-vegetarians with very less options for vegetarians