Monday, October 13, 2008

the beginning of an epic...

oh my, if you think vacation is an adventure, try vacation in china. there's just nothing quite like it. i'll do my best to sum up the highlights, but it's difficult when there is at least one thing every hour worth writing home about.

we managed to arrive in Zhangjiajie without any trouble at all. unfortunately, that ended the second we stepped out of the airport. i've found that finding a taxi or a bus in a developing country is pretty much always an adventure. after a lot of arguing in chinese (thank goodness for danny's skills) and several attempts to climb into multiple taxis, we eventually made it to our hostel. which turned out to be nothing that we expected. the picture on the website shows an adorable cabin-esque building surrounded by gardens, a water wheel and lots of blue sky. the place our taxi dropped us off was a 10 story building on a main street of the city. but the names matched and the poster in the elevator claimed that it was "such a beautiful and pleasant place, i don' wish to leave," (their punctuation, not mine) so we decided to give it a go. turns out the picture is taken from the roof 4 floors up and the blue sky is really several floors of hostel rooms. but the water wheel does exist.

the hostel itself was nice, minus some strange rules about payment and magnetizing our keys. personally, i was a big fan of the leopard/dalmation sheets and rock hard beds. and really, who needs a shower curtain?

after some quick settling in, the first order of business was dinner, our options being chinese food or more chinese food. we settled on a restaurant and of course they seated us at a giant table in the front window of the restaurant, right next to the fish tanks - which only served to persuade us not to order fish there (i'm pretty sure they shouldn't swim upside down...). i felt like we were the window display.

the food in hunan, it turns out, is very spicy. delicious, but spicy.

Day 1:
"hey, let's go to the national park today."
"ok, we can take the bus, right?"
"yeah, sure, the woman at the front desk gave me what she thinks are the directions for finding it, but which are actually useless."
this is the conversation we should have had thursday morning. but we didn't. instead we headed out in search of a bus. an hour, 3 chinese people and the only other foreigner within blocks later, we settled on the oldest, crappiest taxi left in town. remember in high school and college when you would try to see how many people you could fit in someone's car, just for fun? (i mean, i would never do that, mom, i just heard that other people did...) it was kind of like that. no one really wanted to take us that far, especially not in 2 taxis. so when one guy said, climb in, we said, ok, and let the rest of the town gawk as we attempted to cram all 6 foreigners in one tiny car.

two-thirds of the way there the taxi driver pulls over and starts talking to us in chinese. we all look at each other and pray that he isn't trying to drop us off here, in the middle of nowhere, china. but no, he just wanted one person from the front to climb in the backseat. apparently we were coming up on a police station and too many foreigners in the front seat would look bad. i'm not exactly sure how 5 people in the backseat is ok, but we've learned that it's generally best to smile and comply, so we made room.

by the time we finally arrived at the national park we were pretty ready for some nature. you think national forest park, you expect hiking, beautiful scenery, relaxation, etc. not in china. try 3000 stone stairs up the side of a mountain crammed to capacity with chinese tourists. tourists wearing high heels, carrying babies, with old people and dogs, eating corn cobs and goldfish on sticks. or entire cucumbers - that was also a popular one. add to that men carrying people up and down the 2-person-wide steps on sedan chairs and you have our day. not quite the day we expected, but a day nonetheless.

in all fairness, the view from the top was pretty incredible and, personally, i think it was worth the chinese experience. when all else fails, we have a great story.

rather than facing the stairs and corn cobs again, we opted to take the cable car down. i think we expected something scenic and at least slightly less crowded. however, after being herded through a maze of moveable fencing (think amusement park ride line meets cattle ranch), we arrived to find that what could be a beautiful, scenic ride has been china-ified into nothing more than a way of transporting the most people in the shortest amount of time possible. i still can't decide if it was really worth the price and the waiting. my legs appreciate it but my soul hasn't completely recovered.

anyway, by the time we got down we were ready for some food and where else do you go after a day like this one but KFC, the only american chain in town? it was actually not bad. atmosphere-wise it was the place to be in zhangjiajie. as for the food, they have these wraps that are pretty decent and incredible peach juice, but i don't recommend the salad.

after a brief stop-off at the hostel we decided that our aching feet deserved a little pampering and so, because that's what we do here in china, we headed out in search of a massage parlor. which, as turned out, wasn't very hard to find. the problem was finding one that could accommodate all 6 of us in one room. 4 is apparently a max in zhangjiajie and 6 white 20-somethings looking to get massaged together was apparently unheard of. after making a mild scene in multiple places, we finally settled on one and were pleasantly surprised when our foot massage turned out to be more leg than foot. our limbs definitely needed it and, in the end, i think it was $7 well spent.

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