Thursday, 27 January 2011

We are not a zoo exhibit (Wulingyaung, 6th of September)

After our day attempting rest in Zhangjiajie City we were off to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wulingyuan (Zhangjiajie National Forest Park). I’d discovered the National Park from one of my perusals of the World’s Heritage Sites and been looking forward to it ever since. There is a serious lack of English information on this area, but we did stumble across a few useful blogs. Lonely Planet has a bit of info but nothing that’s sufficient to guide you through. And we think you are pretty unlikely to see a clouded leopard, so don’t let Lonely Planet get your hopes up! Over 3,000 karst pillars can be found in Wulingyuan, some of which featured in the film Avatar (which I haven’t watched). There are also around 3,000 plant species and sadly an awful lot of Chinese tourists.

A German couple was going to the youth hostel in the park too so we arranged to meet them at 7:30am to go to the bus station where minibuses leave regularly to the park entrance. They wanted to get a taxi to the bus, which is not really our style. Taxis seem to me to be an unnecessary carbon (and money) expenditure, especially since the buses are going anyway. But sometimes it’s not so easy to persuade others to your way of thinking… The lady from the hostel who spoke the best English wrote us a note for the driver, something along the lines of “Hello, please drive us to the bus station, 6RMB is ok”. We all laughed at the last bit and she seemed to take offence. The taxi driver produced 40RMB out of his pocket indicating that he would drive us to the National Park for this. The bus would also have cost 10RMB each, so the taxi did a u-turn and we headed into the hills, past people selling grapes and watermelons.

The taxi driver didn’t drop us right by the entrance, but instead in some courtyard where his friends immediately tried to sell us tickets and tours. Our tickets (from the actual ticket centre) cost us a slightly painful 245 RMB each and we joined the masses walking in through the entrance. Near the entrance were plenty of signs with ‘Don’t feed the monkeys’ and others telling us we were in a monkey ‘infested’ area. I wonder if UNESCO approves of this wording? No sign of the ‘pests’ though.

Surrounded by the Chinese tourist throng we made our way along the ‘Golden Whip Stream’. Tour groups would scurry along with their guides speaking to them through amplified headsets and presumably telling them the name of each of the rock formations. Think we saved ourselves a bit of money there. A digital panel told us it was 22’C with 96% humidity. The peaks that we could see were very pretty, but most of them were shrouded in cloud and fog. There were a great many different trees and plants and quite a few trees near the path were labelled, which was handy since they were all rather foreign to us. Around the river there were lots of huge blue winged damselflies and we got excited by the sound of birds whistling, only to discover that whistles were one of the popular purchases at many of the souvenir selling shacks. We did see a kingfisher, dipper and some other birds though.

The Chinese tourists were delighted by the presence of two white skinned tourists, saying ‘hellow’ to us, making us pose for pictures or just staring at us, giggling and muttering ‘laowai’ (old foreigner) to each other. At this point we were far more accommodating towards them than over the coming days. It just became quite wearing to be pointed at and having to pose for pictures ALL the time. But this is presumably the price you have to pay for being a tourist in China.

To our pleasure we did walk right into a contaminated zone. There were monkeys all over the place, up the trees, on the rockfaces, springing through the air, but chiefly around the path where the Chinese may have been demonstrating a spot of illiteracy and feeding the monkeys crackers, biscuits and peanuts in plastic wrapping. One even managed to get itself an ice cream. As we were photographing a mother and her two youth someone shook the branch they were sitting on and thinking it was us she came rushing towards us and hissing with an aggressive stance. Imagining images of me lying in hospital with rabies might have been a bit of an overreaction.

The monkeys had mastered the art of fishing through the rubbish bins (bins shaped like tree trunks, but made out of concrete, where the side for recyclables just sloped down into the section for other waste in a very Chinese fashion). It felt like we were just looking at monkeys in the zoo and it feels so wrong that these ‘wild’ monkeys have become so dependent on people.

One woman walked past eating a cucumber on a stick and the monkeys came running at her, resulting in her screaming, throwing the cucumber on the ground and dashing off. The monkeys couldn’t stuff the food into their mouths fast enough, but when the cucumber monkey got to the unpeeled bit of cucumber she started scraping only the flesh out with her teeth. In all there must have been about thirty monkeys and they all seemed distressed when a male monkey lumbered his way over the rock.

Continuing on our way there were more shouts of ‘laowai’ proceeded by fits of giggles and more requests to pose for photos. Men walking very quickly would zoom past us with these sticks on their shoulders carrying rucksacks and others carrying people on sedan chairs. We decided not to go up the first steps we came across to the plateau, but instead continued along the river where it was a bit more deserted. The walkway was separated from the river by railings, which looked like tree trunks but were again made from concrete. On the way we found some small toads and a huge green frog.

From an area with more stalls and Chinese tourists we took the free bus which we, according to our map, could take to the top of the plateau. But it turned out that the bus can’t get up there and it drops you at an elevator that for £10 takes you up the side of one of the peaks. Seeing as there was no other option we paid the fee, at least we had the lift to ourselves.

We went to all the lookout points, saw lots of fog, a few peaks, more padlocks locked to railings and as it was getting dark loads of humungous toads were emerging from in the trees. Walking down the road in the hope of finding the hostel we saw more toads, some chickens and a large dead snake. It was dark and getting even darker, and we were beginning to suspect that we’d gone the wrong way when we rounded a bend and there it was. In the hostel we met the Germans again and consumed some actually rather tasty pea mash from Mongolia, which everyone was staring at.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Zhangjiajie City (4th and 5th of September)

Catching the bus from the station into the city was no easy feat. We couldn’t find the bus and the Chinese just wanted us to get into a taxi. The guidebooks had misguided us and you actually need to walk across the road, through a paved park area to the stop outside the gondola. We later found out that we got on the wrong side and it’s much quicker if you go on the one that goes to the right. It was a hot and long ride into the city. Someone on the bus spoke English, but they weren’t convinced that there was a hostel above the supermarket where we were headed.

Fortunately the Zhongtian International Hostel did exist and one of the ladies working there could even string some English words together. We made plans for our adventure into Wulingyuan after buying a map of the park for 5RMB. It has place names in English and Chinese and routes of the paths. It’s not entirely accurate though and you can probably get a better one inside. On the first day we would walk from the park entrance to the youth hostel inside the park, on the second perhaps visit the caves and other parts of the park and on the third day walk back out again. But before all that we were going to have a day off, lounge around and do nothing.