We’re back!

We’ve just returned from a trip to the south, a classic China-travel whirlwind featuring three overnight trains and one overnight bus all in the space of a week and one day. Each day of our travels the words “peak season” rang in our ears more loudly and ominously, as tickets from one place to another became harder and harder to procure. A news report we saw halfway through the trip said that China’s rail system expects to carry about ONE BILLION PASSENGERS over the course of the forty-day high season surrounding the Chinese new year. I suppose that between the two of us, plus our friend from Shanghai, we counted as about nine of those.

I’m hoping we’ll have time to write a little more about what we saw down in Hunan, but right now we’re trying to catch up with things here in Beijing, so just a quick report:

First we took a 24-hour train from Beijing to Jishou, a city in western Hunan province. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about Jishou, though it is an area with a large Miao and Tujia minority population. You see a fair number of women with big black turbans piled high on their heads, where they seem to keep a few odds and ends tucked away (several times I saw women pulling out a washrag or other utilitarian item from the concave space at the top of the turban). Also, in that area the container of choice for transporting everything from babies to groceries to trash is a big barrel-shaped basket slung on the back with two straps, like a backpack. But the real attraction there was Fenghuang, a small town about an hour’s bumpy bus ride away from Jishou that’s “been waiting for you for a thousand years,” as its advertising slogan goes. It’s a beautiful old town set in low mountains on a sleepy river, and it has recently come to realize how attractive its late imperial architecture is to tourists. Fortunately for us, January is about the lowest part of low season in Fenghuang, so hotel rooms were plentiful and discounted, and we could ramble around the narrow streets in peace, for the most part. (You can get a better feel for Fenghuang from Dan Washburn’s funny, well-written blog)

After Fenghuang we caught another train to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, which only a few days earlier (according to the newspaper I read while waiting for the train) had suffered a cadmium spill in its major river, the Xiangjiang. Of course, no one had bothered to announce this until two days after the spill had actually happened, by which time the levels of cadmium in the river had dropped from 25 times the regulated maximum to 0.1 times to regulated maximum. So there was no danger by the time we got to Changsha…at least not from that particular industrial accident.

It was not the danger that attracted us to Changsha, anyway, but the Mawangdui site. Mawangdui is the site of three 2000-year-old tombs of nobles from the former Kingdom of Changsha, excavated in 1973 when authorities were building a hospital in the city. The site of the dig is now inside the grounds of the hospital, and you can go in and look down into the pit of tomb no. 3, but all the goodies (and there are many) have been moved to the fabulous Hunan provincial museum across town. The aristocrats (a marquis and his wife and son) were buried with all sorts of lacquer dishes, textiles, books, food, medicine, and wooden and pottery replicas of all that was needed to live the good life in the early Han dynasty. There were rows of flat little wooden servants, replicas of musical instruments of all sorts, weapons, and lots more.

The reason Mawangdui is particularly interesting to me is that the earliest extant Chinese medical books were found at Mawangdui, written on wood and bamboo slats and on silk scrolls. These texts predate the canonical medical books like the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, and reflect a time before ideas like the Five Phases, yin and yang, and acupuncture tracts had really coalesced in Chinese medical theory. So it was very cool to be able to see the bamboo slats and tattered silk scrolls in person.

By the time we got to Changsha it was impossible to buy train tickets to Shanghai (the madness of buying train tickets in China I’ll save for another post) so we settled on the bus. Which left at noon, and arrived at 3 the following morning. The fog and rain precluded any good views from the bus windows, so we simply sank into our torpedo-launcher beds (each person gets a bunk with a slightly raised back, and your feet go into the slot underneath the raised back of the person in front of you) and tried to block out the mind-numbing video of stick-skinny girls gyrating to techno beats that was playing at the front of the bus.

In Shanghai we had the pleasure of seeing an old friend and meeting a new one, as well as the pleasure of returning to Beijing in the soft-sleeper class of an express train. Hard sleeper was naturally all sold out, this being peak season, so we splurged– and I think we were both grateful that we did. I’ve never had quite such a comfortable train experience. First of all, the train station has a special entrance to funnel soft-sleeper passengers away from the shouting, crowding mob, and we boarded the train without the usual pushing and jostling. Our bunks were in a cabin with a tablecloth-covered nightstand stocked with newspapers and a travel magazine. We had light and sound controls inside the cabin (in hard sleeper you’re subject to a centrally-controlled schedule of music and news broadcasts as well as lights on and off), and once we got started the attendant came through and brought a complimentary dinner. The car had a choice of toilets– western style or squatter– and the bathroom floors weren’t covered with smelly, sticky liquids. We didn’t stop once and cruised into Beijing at seven-thirty in the morning, twelve hours after we got on. Apparently these express trains are very popular with Chinese businessmen, as you might imagine. The attendant asked whether we had “frequent traveler cards,” and the businessman in our cabin told us that after ten trips your eleventh is free.

Now we’re back, and still exhausted from the big adventure. Glad not to be traveling, for the moment.