Monday, August 30, 2010

GW student in China

Elliott School student Sarah Tynan describes some of her experiences in China:

My plane arrived in Zhangjiajie (张家界) on Monday, May 3rd, 2010 around 11 pm. I was traveling through Hunan (湖南) on Spring Break during my year abroad in China. On the plane, I had decided I would go to the train station right away and get a train ticket for the earliest train to Jishou (吉首), which was the closest city to my final destination, Dehang (德夯). So when I asked the cab driver to take me to the train station, he told me the train station was closed and that I would have to wait until morning to buy tickets to Jishou. He then offered to take me to Jishou for 300 yuan. I told him no, and just asked him to take me to a hostel that I had looked up in case a situation like this happened. Then, out of nowhere, around five or six taxi drivers surrounded us, offering to take me to the hostel for a cheaper price. Looking back on it now, I realize that they were probably just trying to cheat me the entire time, and that I probably could have just gone to the train station. I'm not sure though.

Anyway, after an annoying game of musical chairs, where I moved from cab to cab, I finally settled in a cab that told me he could take me to Jishou for 150 yuan. Then at the last second he said, "Oh, actually it's going to be 180 yuan." At this point, I was so fed up, and so angry, and so tired, and so annoyed by this process, I was just like "Fine. Go." Then, he took me to a place about 10 minutes away and I got in another cab that would take me to Jishou. As soon as I got in the cab, the cab driver's wife, who was in the passenger seat, immediately starts telling me how this trip usually costs 300 yuan and how I should be paying 300 yuan. So at this point I'm just like "What the F are you talking about??" So she's all "Oh, you know, we're giving you a special discount, you're so lucky." So I calm down, but I'm still a little nervous, after all at this point it is 1:00 am and they could be kidnapping me for all I know.

Finally, I arrive in Jishou safe and sound, and I've been texting my friends in Dehang the whole time. They are unnecessarily really worried about me, and tell me that I won't be able to get into Dehang (Dehang is a National Park and they thought the gates were closed) that night. So I tell them that they shouldn't worry and that I'll find somewhere to stay in Jishou. However, when I get to Jishou at 2:30 am, I ask around and find out that a bus leaves for Dehang at 5:00 am. No way am I going to pay for a hostel for only 2 hours. So I find a little 24-hour rice noodle joint set up on the side of the road and get some noodles and pork and vegetables. It was delicious in case you are wondering.

So I sat there and chilled with the owner of the noodle stand, a truck driver, some extremely well-dressed young men who were potentially traveling or coming home from a bar, and some cab drivers for about 2 hours. Then randomly at 4:00 am the noodle stand lady was like "Oh, by the way, the first bus to leave for Dehang is at 7:00 am." So at this point I'm like, "No way am I waiting another 3 hours for the bus." Plus it had started to rain. So she called her nephew and was like "Get out of bed, lazy bum, and come take this chick to Dehang." So he ended up driving me to Dehang at 4:00 am and it turned out that the park gates are actually open 24 hours a day, so I could have just gone there straightaway via taxi, without having to wait around with noodle lady.

Regardless, I arrived in Dehang at 5:00 am and called my friend to let her know that I arrived. She groggily answered the phone and was like, "Yeah… I don't really know where you are or how to give you directions to our hostel… and it's raining… and dark… and the middle of the night… I have no idea what to do." So I said, "Alright, I'll figure it out." So I saw this guy in a van and I asked him for directions. Luckily, he was a nice guy who also happened to know the owner of the hostel, so he took me there and called the owner to come and open the door for me. I told him I was here to meet two other foreigners, and he took me to their room. When I walked in, my friend DD goes "Oh, thank God you're here. We definitely thought we were going to find you the next morning, dead on the side of the road, without any of your organs." We all just collapsed in laughter out of exhaustion and relief. I took a shower right away, as summer has arrived in China and it is HOT, and sticky, and passed out in my friends' bed with her.

After sleeping for about 1 hour, my friend Sean woke me up and we had breakfast together with his sister. They left a couple hours later for Chengdu in the Southwest, and DD, Jess and I would continue South that night on the train. After Sean left, DD and Jess woke up and we went hiking together. We walked to the tallest waterfall in China and discovered that in the span of less than 24 hours, the waterfall had completely dried up. "This is impossible! We were here yesterday and saw the waterfall!!" DD and Jess said. But sure enough, supposedly the most awesome waterfall in China had miraculously dried up. After talking with some other the other girls in the area, it turned out that the waterfall could be turned on and off, just like you turn on and off a light. "We just called them! They said they'd turn on the waterfall in 10 minutes!!" The girls told us. So we waited and sure enough, 10 minutes later, a small trickle of water appeared and slowly but surely, the tallest waterfall in China was turned on. Although this ruined some of the charm of this beautiful and natural place, we still figured that it was part of a very necessary damming system.

After that we went hiking through a bamboo forest, but the rocks were really slippery, so we climbed back down and started down the hiking path on the other side of town. The hike wound through scenic rice paddies, and later after a long climb up steep steps, we made it to another beautiful waterfall. After that, we decided to keep going up several flights of stairs, to the peak of one of the mountains off the side of the trail. It was a hard climb to the top! When we got to the top, the sight was absolutely breathtaking. It was also completely silent up there at the top, except for a few birds chirping in the distance. It was incredibly humid and we were at an extremely high elevation, and it started to sprinkle a little bit. The rain was a relief, as the three of us were sweating profusely. After sitting at the top enjoying the view for a while, we hiked back down.

On the hike back through the rice paddies, my friend Jess walked ahead a little bit and in the distance I saw her turn around and start laughing. When I caught up to her and DD, I asked them what happened. "Two men are skinny dipping in the pond up ahead!" they said. "Are they foreigners or Chinese?" I asked. "They're white!" they answered. So we kept walking and as I turned the bend, sure enough there were two men, in broad daylight at 2:30 in the afternoon, stark naked. Upon seeing us, they didn't even blink an eye, or even jump in the water, or grab for their clothes. They just waved and said hello, asking where we were from. They had European accents! So they were not silly Americans. Score another point for us. When we said we were from the States, they screamed, "I love Obama!!" We just giggled and ran away.
As we were arriving back to Dehang, we saw two young girls of the Miao minority dressed in their traditional clothes, squatting over a dammed area of the stream, washing clothes. When I looked over, I saw that one of the girls had whipped out an extremely fashionable and hip cell phone and was texting.

We went back to the hostel and got our things together, as well as washed our faces and brushed our teeth in preparation for the 10-hour overnight train ride that awaited us. We couldn't shower though, because we had checked out of the hostel earlier that day and didn't have access to the bathroom. We carried our luggage to the village square and decided to also buy snacks for the train and get dinner. So we sat down and got ready to have a nice relaxing dinner before going to Jishou, as we had given ourselves about 2 hours in leeway time to have dinner and go to the Internet Café in town. So we ordered our food… and waited…and waited… and waited. We decided to embrace the countryside lifestyle of relaxation and not fret about the fact that it was taking so long to get our food, as it was an open kitchen and we could see that they were cooking in there. So finally 1 hour later, our food arrived. Keep in mind that this is literally the longest I have ever had to wait for food in China. It normally takes about 5 minutes to be served food at any restaurant.

So we were kind of annoyed but it wasn't that big of a deal. Then, a couple of bites into our dishes, the bus ticket woman came up to us and asked us if we were going to Jishou, as she could see we had luggage and probably needed to get to the train station. We said "Yes" and she cried: "Hurry up and eat! The last bus to Jishou leaves RIGHT NOW!" So we were like, "Wait, we thought the last bus left at 7:00 pm!" (at this point it was 6:00 pm) and she was like "No, this is the last bus of the evening!" So we shoveled food down our throats and ran after the bus. Out of breath, we piled into the bus and cursed our Lonely Planets for giving us wrong information yet again. As our bus traveled down the bumpy road on the way to Jishou for the next hour, we saw two more Jishou-Dehang buses traveling in the opposite direction, two buses that we could have caught if we had just been given a chance to enjoy our dinner. We thought maybe the woman was working on commission and got more money the more people get on her bus. I don't think this is the case, I think she must have just been mistaken, but we were pretty mad anyway.
When we got to Jishou, we were an hour early for our train, and we found out our train was 45 minutes delayed. So after spending a half an hour at an Internet Café, we waited in the hot and sweaty waiting room at the train station, played with some random baby that was running around, and told off some obnoxious teenagers that found it hilarious to mock the foreigners. Finally our train arrived. So we gathered our luggage and joined the huge throng of Chinese people pushing, shoving and running for the train for no apparent reason, as the train was not going anywhere until everyone boarded, but this is China, what can you say?

When we got on the train, we discovered that we were literally the only women in our car. As we were putting our luggage away, we looked up and a crowd of middle-aged men were surrounding us. "Where do you think they're from?" one of them asked. "I don't know, I think maybe Russia." "No, I think they're from Holland," one of them said. "We're Americans," I replied and then they just stared, wide-eyed at all of us. My friend Sean has a theory that Chinese people like to guess where white people are from, and when they guess right, they pride themselves in being able to distinguish which country foreigners are from. Chinese people particularly like to do this with Canadians and Americans, and frequently ask Sean if he is Canadian. Most of the time, like with Sean, they are wrong. They actually even sometimes have a hard time distinguishing Chinese from Koreans, and sometimes even Japanese. They rely on mannerisms and style of hair or clothing to accurately guess.

Anyway, the train car was stifling hot--either the air conditioning was broken or the train didn't have any—so we climbed up to our top bunks (always the cheapest, so always our choice), which was even hotter than down below (damn hot air rising and all) and tried to sleep. We would arrive at our destination at around 5 am, so we set our alarms, but I still woke up continuously throughout the night, afraid that we would miss our stop. We finally arrived in Liuzhou (柳州), a town 1 hour south of Guilin (桂林), at 5 am on Wednesday, May 5th , 2010. After bargaining with a man who said he was giving us a discount because we were foreigners (yeah, right!), we got a bus to Guilin.

Sarah Tynen
George Washington University Class of 2011
International Affairs

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