Hello from Guoliang, a really remote place in China,
Navigating my way to the legendary "Long Corridor in the Cliff" in Guoliang China turned out to be more of an adventure than seeing the tunnel itself after returning from my death defying climb of Huashan. Without Chinese back in Xi'an for a few days, buying a bus ticket required a series of bystander interventions. Nearly every crowd has at least one English language student in it and they are ALWAYS anxious to practice with a native speaker: "May I help you?". That is fortunate for me as my collection of understandable Chinese phrases is still minuscule... but slowly growing. Crowds of people jostling one another in the main long distance Xi'an bus terminal made getting a ticket to Lingbao problematic. Fortunately, a visit to the bus station the night before flushed out a charming, young female employee anxious to be of help with my language problem. As tickets were only available on the day of the trip, she would personally assist me the following morning with booking two adjacent seats on the left, shady side of the bus. "Just ask for Gao Jin and I'll help you tomorrow." she assured me... and she did.
Lingbao is a small city on the railroad line. It is the "real China" and famous for a special variety of delicious apples that grow in the region. Reaching the city two girls sitting across the isle from me on the bus, one of whom looked about to give birth, insisted on being my English speaking attendants, that despite repeated cautions that the pregnant girl should not exert herself on my behalf. The two insistently urged me to take a taxi to the "good hotel" they could suggest. When I resisted saying I wanted something close to the bus station for my early onward journey the next day, they made inquiries of locals and started walking me some six blocks to the Xin He Hotel where the entire staff showed an eagerness to use their rudimentary English language capabilities unrivaled in my travels. To me it appeared that everyone I encountered inside the hotel could communicate to some degree in my language! Two hotel security guards wearing red berets standing at the entrance to the hotel were exceptions; they spoke only Han Chinese, but took an interest in my photographic activities. So, naturally I discretely snapped their pictures as they "inspected" my strange little camera gadget.
Once reception staff in the hotel understood my onward travel objectives, someone wrote out instructions in Chinese. The only problem turned out to be a confusion of train station with bus station. I wanted bus and they gave me explicit instructions for getting to the train station!
That evening a stroll through the area around the hotel provided glimpses of the "real China" in action... ordinary people doing ordinary things, many out for a walk just like me. As it is a common custom in China for the older folks to watch grand children, the wide sidewalks were littered with tiny tots scampering around under the vigilant eyes of the oldsters. Pre-teens were demonstrating their remarkable ability to propel articulated skate boards in and around obstructions along the walk. A number of people peddled their two wheelers along the walkways, a pair stopping astride to chat with one another. Men in baggy "Bermuda" shorts and tank tops hiked up exposing their bare midriff to the cooling air swaggered around smoking cigarettes or sipping tea from large open mouth jars.
Even at this hour I saw a few people using the exercise machines and others simply enjoying a brisk walk in the cool evening breeze. Cooks busied themselves at tricycle carts preparing a variety of street foods for late diners who consumed "nothing fancy, but plenty of it" on the spot. The exotic cooking odors wafted through the air reminding me this is China where nothing smells Californian. Someone in the area practiced on their squeaky horn. Every now and then a passerby would call out "Hello!" and I would reply in my best tonal Chinese "Nee How," grins and wide smiles serving as our only possible conversation. This gentle cool evening I heard none of the boisterous shouting that passes for "normal" conversation among people at other times. My presence also provided opportunities for another of rural China's favorite pastimes: foreigner ogling.
Helpful folks the next morning on the way to the bus station assisted in sorting out the train-bus confusion. As the bus for Luoyang didn't leave for a couple hours, I took the opportunity to explore the area around the terminal after buying my two tickets. Small hole-in-the-wall mom and pop noodle shops populate every block in the downtown area. Their tremendous popularity with customers is obvious. As usual, throngs gathered to watch/listen to my encounters with some of their neighbors who wanted to practice English, my camera clicking away all the while.
Several people on the bus inquired about my ultimate destination and deduced my next goal after Luoyang would need to be ZhengZhou. Buzzing conversation around me concluded with someone noting the bus conductor would put me on the correct bus once we had reached Luoyang. Instead, halfway to Luoyang at a rest stop she hustled me off our bus and over to another departing that very moment for ZhengZhou. The driver had to pause his departure for the tardy new arrival. As I had had two seats on the original bus, but only paid for one seat on this one, I expected to be stuck holding a bulky pack on my lap for the entire two hour trip to ZhengZhou. But, good luck or special foreign guest hospitality prevailed and they gave me two seats. In ZhengZhou a bus for XinXiang left shortly after I arrived and got me there just before dusk.
In XinXiang I took the first decent looking hotel I could find thinking it would be for only one night with a vague plan to head on over to Huixian or even straight to the Guoliang Tunnel the next morning. Wow, can looks be deceiving! The 180 Yuan (about $27 cash) Jiuzhou Hotel consisted of several separate four story buildings all of which needed major renovations. The attractive lobby turned out to be the best part of the complex. The toilet in my room would not drain. The Internet connected computers in the lobby were malfunctioning or had Chinese keyboard programs installed. The dining room building effectively hid the entrance and once inside presented a maze of hallways to a cavernous dining hall where inedible breakfast "foods" were arrayed for guests accustomed to eating weeds and gruel every morning. That observation, by the way, could be made about all but the most classy international hotels anywhere in China.
The next morning I did grab an early bus for Huixian and with the help of a high school student on the bus immediately transferred there to one for Guoliang. The bus that got me to Guoliang village started it's two hour run in Huixian packed to over capacity. People sat on boards laid between seats, some on the laps of others! The strategy involved uncomfortably packing the bus with people who needed to go only a short distance so the few of us who wanted transportation to the end of the line could be justified; I was the only passenger that stayed on the bus to the end of the route.
At the park entrance the bus stopped and I was instructed to buy my sixty Yuan entry ticket. When our bus finally reached the front of the traffic jam at the entrance gate and we were allowed to proceed, it only took another fifteen minutes to the actual village. Guoliang village consists of a couple dozen structures, most of which provide services for the day hikers and other tourists. Three or four "guest houses" offer absolutely minimum accommodations: a couple twin beds with a shared toilet down the hall for around $15-$20. A half dozen hole-in-the-wall cafes offered food, but all raised cleanliness questions in my mind.
The very small village of Guoliang is not much but a dozen parked tour buses made it obvious many people were visiting the area. All signs were in Chinese and I could not tell which of the several hiking trails went up to the "Long Corridor in the Cliffs," as the Guoliang Tunnel is known in Chinese. Some guy who apparently runs the best "restaurant" in town as well as a "guest house" and river rafting concession offered to drive me up to the tunnel for 80 Yuan. I walked about halfway into the kilometer long tunnel road and snapped photos of several characteristic "windows" hacked out to the cliff face at frequent locations along the tunnel. To best see the layout of the tunnel road one needs to be high up on the other side of the canyon. My photos are all from inside the tunnel road itself. Later after returning home I found an excellent six minute YouTube video of the place. The best part of the tunnel is the story of how and why it came into being. A much better collection of pictures from different, more advantageous perspectives, plus an excellent narrative of the history is here.
When we got back into the village area my driver convinced me to try his family's home cooking; his brother is the chef. I enjoyed a delicious 10 Yuan egg and seaweed soup followed by a tasty 60 Yuan chicken stew featuring claws and the bird's head, which I skipped! Apparently his establishment serves as the social center for all the locals as well. Several groups were having lunch while a large gathering of men wearing only shorts jovially argued over animated games of Mahjong.
As I waited for the next scheduled return bus like the one that got me to this out of the way place, a couple girls with a smattering of English offered to share the van they had hired to take them back to Xinxiang. Preparing to depart they indicated "father" should sit in the front passenger seat. Immediately after I had gotten settled all hell broke loose. The driver had been exhibiting predatory behavior and appeared to be going along with the girl's new travel arrangement with some reluctance. As he started the engine a large white tour bus pulled up and blocked the way. The female conductor/security agent got out and started shouting at our driver and the girls. I'm not sure what was going on, but I clearly wanted none of it and got out of the van. I watched the fracas for a while from a distance, finally deciding I'd be better off walking back to the city than getting further involved with this party.
The park entrance, about fifteen kilometers down hill seemed like an easy hike, if I had to walk the entire distance. As there were perhaps a dozen transport vehicles still waiting for their passengers back up in the village, I figured someone eventually would come along with whom I could get a ride. The first vehicle to stop was driven by the guy involved in the dispute and I had no intention of spending anymore time with him. Ten minutes later a gypsy cab stopped and announced "Xinxiang?" He nodded to my proffered fifteen Yuan, so I got in and off we went, picking up and dropping fares along the way with little concern for his passenger's preferences.
Back in Xinxiang I immediately determined the Jiuzhou Hotel used the night before would not be my home again and went instead to the $65 four star Xinxiang Hotel for one of the best values I've enjoyed so far in China. A total of six nights in the hotel's VIP Tower gave me a good chance to finish the Huashan postcard and catch up on email plus time to explore the city.
At $5.80, lavish buffet lunches and dinners in the Xinxiang Hotel's dining room provided memorable experiences. One evening I passed up "head of duck" sautéed in a yellow sauce; it reminded me of the embarrassing experience two decades earlier when as an official guest of the Chinese Government my naive comment upon tasting "tongue of duck" that it "seemed an awful waste of a duck" almost set off an international incident. Breakfasts in this deluxe hotel fell far short of my expectations as they were designed for normal Chinese tastes. Chinese like lots of vegetables, soft filled buns, and gruel made from corn, rice or red beans. Fancy places like our hotel sometimes throw in an egg, but the egg chef here must have learned his craft in the army as he could not vary his routine under any circumstance. Eggs are cooked one way only: over hard! Take it or leave it.
Very young children wear training pants with open slits down the back to make "potty training" convenient for both kids and parents. One evening in the dining room a preoccupied father studying the offerings along the buffet line became the star attraction as the baby in his arms decided to unexpectedly empty its bowels. Shouts from wife, grandmother and others alerted the oblivious father to the ongoing emergency and he squeezed closed the baby's action end dashing out of the restaurant where he held the kid over one of the sand filled cigarette disposal containers. Back in the dining room two good sized piles of grayish-yellow excrement became the focus of attention for family, hotel staff and nearby guests alike. Fortunately, I had finished eating or might have lost my appetite.
One of the shopping center malls hosts an outstanding sculpture garden. Most of the ancient historical figures immortalized in bronze would be unfamiliar to Westerners, but well known to any Chinese school child. At one point I witnessed a petulant little guy of about two standing next to a huge statue of one of the Immortals defying his mother's urgings to come along. As little Chinese kids often find me intimidating, I gingerly approached the tot motioning with my finger that he should behave his mother. The rebellious kid backed away from me in the general direction of his mother glowering, finally hurling a partially eaten snack package at me and dashing to his mother still defiant. A dozen people in the area witnessed the humorous "terrible twosies" episode with various reactions. The mother took charge of the now more compliant kid and smiled as she ambled on her way tot in tow. Many photos taken in and around Xinxiang (pronounced SIN-SEE-ANG) are on this page and the auxiliary photo page.
To break the ten hours of bus rides back to Xi'an I stopped for one night only in the little town of Luoyang. Only later while searching the Internet did I discover all the extraordinary historical sites for which the city is justly famous that I had missed! During my usual evening stroll I passed a shoe store with a "big" sale in progress. Young female employees stood at the entrance lackadaisically clapping and shouting slogans at passersby... obviously trying to attract attention. As I am a natural attention getter in China, I stopped to give them a hand. Clapping loudly and proclaiming in English what great shoes were being offered, I soon had the entire compliment of store employees out to watch the performance, soon enthusiastically joining in. Passing pedestrians took note of the commotion and a couple actually entered the store. After five minutes of "helping" them I bid my farewells to cheers of approval from both staff and onlookers. (And the Catholic hierarchy rejected my young adult application for the priesthood claiming they considered me too introverted!)
Having completed two of the principle objectives of this sojourn I am now considering a couple new options: a meandering exploration of the approach to the Xizang Zizhiou Provence, also known as the Tibet Autonomous Region and holy sights around Chengdu which could be on the way. The Leshan Giant Buddha is in the region and has long been high on my Bucket List. However, Xi'an is the best place to finalize plans, so I'll take a few more days there to finish this postcard and enjoy some luxury accommodations before bounding off into the undoubtedly less comfortable wild yonder.
More photos taken during my day trip to see the "Long Corridor in the Cliff" or Guoliang Tunnel on 9 August 2008 are available in the auxiliary photo page.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: Today is 18 August and I now have my flight ticket for Chengdu leaving Xi'an tomorrow afternoon at 13:25. This hotel room has an Internet connected terminal, convenient for tweaking the final draft of this postcard. To get the technology I had to change to the $51 three star QinDa Hotel and give up my wonderful American breakfast at the four star Bell Tower Hotel. So, it is weeds, gruel and buns tomorrow morning... or a hike over to Mac Donald's for some real coffee and an Egg MacMuffin. F
Peace Fred L Bellomy
Fred L Bellomy