During the October holi-day, instead of flying, I spent three entire of my six days’ travel on slow, ground conveyances around Hunan province—and it was fabulous. Looking out the train window onto the countryside of Hunan was as gratifying as watching the best movie. And that#s pre-cisely what I did for eight solid hours, on a ride that began at noon—just taking in the scenery from my small seat in the sleep-ing car, eating snacks and occa-sionally snapping photos. When it became dark, I brushed my teeth & went to bed, sleeping through most of the stops until I was woken at 4:30am. We were approaching Guangzhou, where I had to transfer to a bus for an-other six hours of road travel. Although sleepy, I enjoyed the sunrise and green hills of the Shenzhen-Shantou freeway. And this was the end of the trip—nearly 24 hours of one-way ground travel.
To start, I had made the mad dash to the train station with the help of local friends on the morning of the National Holi-day. I would like to have cap-tured on video the energy chan-neled by all of the people wait-ing to get on the train early. I rode all night to the capital of Hunan to meet some old friends who were arriving from Shang-hai. After suffering more ticket lines, we went by bus to Heng-shan, one of the 5 sacred moun-tains in the country. ‘Sacred’ is kind of a stretch thought, be-cause highway traffic up & down the mountain nearly spoiled the natural experience. Some wealthy tourists in cars constantly honk at the throngs of pedestrian travelers. I thought it shouldn#t be allowed. But we lat-er found an alternate footpath a-long a stream through mountain-side farms which was very satis-fying. We stayed overnight in a lodge on the mountain for a rea-sonable ￥50 each. We finished the hike the next morning, sav-ing breakfast for the top. It was difficult climbing without food, so once we reached the restau-rant row on top, even plain bread and porridge was so utte ly tasty.
After coming down the mountain we returned to Chagsha for a full dinner and took an overnight train west. We found ourselves the next day in Fenghaung (Phoenix), a fabulous ethnic tourist town that was part Venice and part Gatlinburg. There were gondolas on the riv-er among narrow alleys full of shops selling lots at lots of near-ly identical tourist stuff, but real-ly fun. Nestled in some low mountains, Tennessee-sized. Miao minority groups were wearing traditional clothes and performing music from boats in the river. Peddlers waited to dress us up in these clothes and take a Polaroid for cash. There were sellers of BBQ, gourd flutes, batik-dyed hemp clothes, purses, live ducks, and a deli-cious vegetable that is a cross between a potato and a pear. Juicy, light, but not too sweet.
Our hotel room in Phoenix-town had a balcony.I spent several hours watching people pass underfoot. Some rich tourist, some locals car-rying baskets, some balanc-ing two baskets from a bam-boo pole on their shoulder. I could see the entire main drag on both sides of the riv-er, from the shapely highway bridge to the ancient footbridge. Birds and cats dashing about, people washing clothes in the river, drunk tourists looking for a room.Friendliness and a lack of rushing pervaded the atmo-sphere there. I think I found my callinging life—just sitting on a balcony, watching everything until dark, when at the red lanterns were lit from other bal-conies. (Neon is kept to a mini-mum in Fenghuang, thank God.)
After only one leisurely day, night & morning in Phoenix-town my friends and I got together for one last real Hu-nan-style lunch and parted on two different buses at the sta-tion. After one night in a com-fortable hotel, I was back on the train for a 24-hour ground ex-cursion home (see paragraph 1).
So, there I was on the east-to-west train in Hunan, just as fall colors were be-ginning to appear. The ter-races haystacks, neat rows of house and farms were unspeakably beautiful as they rolled by, hour after hour to my pleasure. The photos I took from the mov-ing train don’t do justice, but it was breathtaking. You’ll have to trust me on that. Better yet, take a train through Hunan for yourself.