Travels with John Smith
Chapter 54 year 8 (2019)
-Zhangjiajie Avatar mountains
-hiding from the monkeys
-pool with a view
-bad line up
-very very bad line up
-Simon and the ‘guitar boys’
-Anything is possible
-eating favourite foods
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 54 year 8 (2019)
It's raining hard, with a chill in the air. We are driving up a dark, winding mountain road. Each hairpin turn in the road brings the question of what might come around the next corner, since there is only room for one car on this skinny road. We are grateful that John booked a car to come pick us up as we have been driving for over an hour and we are not sure a normal taxi would be able to find their way to this out of the way hotel. The driver is driving safely now but when we exited the airport we almost had a head on collision when he took a shortcut and was driving on the wrong side of the road so we are wide awake and not quite feeling any trust just yet.
This was added on to coming off of the kind of flight I have nightmares about, with major turbulence and before that, a crazy dangerous taxi ride to the airport in Changsha. And this is coming from 2 people who have been in China for 8 years! The driver in Changsha weaved in and out of the traffic, cutting other drivers off and pulling into the oncoming lane when he was impatient with the cars in front of him. He was definitely in a hurray and there were no seat belts in the back so we hung on as best we could, but it was frightening too.
The only way to get Zhangjiajie from Wuhan, was to either take 2 trains, going through Changsha or a train and a plane so we opted for that one and stayed for a couple days discovering Changsha. We mostly just walked around and checked out the food street which was super busy but we also met up with 2 Grade 12 students, Betty and Henry. I have spoken about Henry before, he is probably the best guitarist in the school right now and very rock n roll. Both of them have taken John’s cooking class and they are delightful. They took us to a place called ‘The Modern China Tea Shop’, to try a kind of Tea Latte which is popular with the young hipsters of China. Apparently part of the attraction is that you can only get this in Changsha so we are happy to be included in this new ‘movement’.
The rain increases as we pull up, in front of the No 5 Valley Lodge. The main lobby looks like a stone hunting lodge with dark wooden beams, high ceilings and a rugged fireplace with leather chairs in front of it. The room is dark and chilly but quirky and handsome. We check into our rooms and we are now following a man up winding paths, past various stone buildings, avoiding the streams of water flowing down the mountainside. We pass under a doorway, trying not to slip as we dodge the puddles that pour around our feet, turn a corner and stop in front of what looks like a small 2 story country house.
We open up a large, thick wooden door and step into a warm and cosy room with a stairway up to a 2nd floor. There are high ceilings and large wooden beams here too and the floors have large grey slate tiles. There is a king size bed with comfortable white cotton sheets and a washroom on the 2nd floor that has a large wooden bath tub.
On the ground floor there is a couple of lovely sitting areas, and in one there is a lovely emerald green tea set in one corner with fresh mountain green tea available to make. Everything in this place feels like a comfortable mountain chalet and it's also got satellite TV, great internet, etc. There are large terraces wrapping around the room on both floors so we can hardly wait until morning to see the view.
We are in a golf cart, riding down a steep road that runs from our hotel down into the valley and the village where the entrance to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is. At the entrance there is no line up at all and while we are paying for the park entry, they look at John’s passport and tell him he has to go into a different gate about a 50 metres away. Confused I try to go with him but they insist I go into the gate where I am. They have taken my money and given me a ticket but they wave their hands about when he tries to pay. Suddenly we get what they are saying. John gets in for free because they saw his ID and he’s an old geezer, but has to go in the gate that corresponds with that. I have to pay because I’m just a little bit younger. Even though there is no one else there, going in either gate takes you to the same place, so we follow the rules and go through the ‘appropriate’ gates.
We take a cable car that travels through a wispy fog floating around the towering rock spirals covered in dense green foliage. It looks like something from a lost city and we understand why this magical stone forest was the inspiration for the Avatar movie.
It is raining and a little chilly, so the steps are slippery. We buy some boot protecters, which is a plastic boot that fits over your shoe with a zipper on it and can be folded neatly in your pocket. We buy umbrellas too and now we can explore this beautiful site. It’s quiet here, possibly because of the rain but we are aware that the Chinese are not on holiday yet. We want to see as much as possible before that time.
We are told to be careful and not to carry food as there are lots of Rhesus Macaques monkeys in the forest and they can be aggressive if they think you have food. They apparently have no fear of humans and there are signs everywhere saying not to feed them. We don't see any monkeys but decide not to buy anything from the stalls near the platforms where we get off the cable car.
Today we are in another part of the park. The sun is peeking through the clouds and the temperature is in the low 20’s Celsius. Not sure where we are or where we were yesterday. It is huge and we can’t quite figure out how and where it is connected but walking around, everywhere we stop, there are breathtaking views in this World Heritage site. There are meant to be around 250 peaks and more than 3 thousand rock pinnacles here in the floating Avatar mountains.
I take a deep breath and sing a low note, then a high one. Down in the canyon below the notes bounce off the enormous limestone walls. After the notes repeat, we hear people further down on the trail whooping and trying to do the same. We are standing at a look out point called Echo valley and it seems to be the thing to do from here.
We stop at a small cafe at one of the stop off points on the trail to have a drink. We haven’t seen any monkeys today so we buy food from one of the stalls selling traditional rice and peanut cakes and John is carrying them in a plastic bag. We are about to leave and we see them, lingering on top of some buildings and hanging about on a path leading back into the forest, off to the side of the cafe. Oh no! They are smart and the crinkling sound of the bag will be an obvious tip off to the monkeys that we have food. I put a couple packets of cakes in my bag but that’s all that will fit in there. John takes the 6 packets of cakes that are left and stuffs them inside his jacket.
He now looks a little like the Michelin man and has to hold his new stomach at the bottom so the cakes don’t fall out. We walk looking like smugglers trying to take illegal substances over a border and begin to feel dread as I’m sure those monkeys are smart enough to figure out what that is. We make it past them on to the path but feel like they are watching us carefully.
We are in the middle of the thick forest on a raised wooded walkway and we relax a little. Today has been busier than yesterday though and there are more noisy groups and people on the observation platforms, fighting for the best spots for pictures and also attracting the monkeys. I see them up in the trees, watching everyone walk by. Some are curious and come down closer to the people making noise. I am sure we look guilty. We make it back to the bus that will take us back to the village entrance and breath a sigh of relief. We will enjoy those cakes!
There are 2 pools at the hotel. One, is outside the hotel bar, which doesn’t appear to be open very often. No one appears to use the pool but this could be because it’s a little chilly outside. We are walking by and notice a light on. There are 2 Chinese girls inside singing Karaoke. In China it’s called KTV. We go inside, order a soft drink and realize that both girls are actually working there. They ask if we want to try, so I look on the playlist, find an Amy Winehouse song and have a go. John finds a country song and we applaud each other. Our small audience clap when we finish but barely look up from their phones so we leave.
It is morning and we walk by the pool to get to the restaurant. The hotel has a prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner, which is like being at Grandmas house every day. In the restaurant, they prepare a bunch of different dishes that are brought to your table so you kind of have choices. Even though we don’t get to choose what we want to eat on a whim, the food is home cooked, excellent and all locally sourced.
We see a couple older ladies hard at work cooking food all day in a building right across from the dining room building so we stop to tell them how much we are enjoying the food and they blush and giggle at our Chinese.
The view from the large window that covers the space on one side of the dining room wall, is spectacular. The grounds outside are huge, about 1000 acres, of mountain and valley views. There are rice fields that look like giant steps going down the mountainside and wooden walkways with intermittent pagoda covered benches along the way for people walking to rest or sit and look out at these stunning vistas. The hotel buildings are spread out over the property, which includes bamboo forests, a huge vegetable garden, honey bees, etc. and walking around the whole property takes about an hour.
It is a little warmer today, so we decide stay around for the day to take advantage of these views as they are as good as anything we might see outside of the Avatar mountains.
The manager or informal concierge at the hotel’s name is Rain. His English is excellent and he is a lovely guy. He has been guiding us through where to go and what to do while we’ve been here. He takes us up to an infinity pool, which is at the top of the property and looks over everything I just described but from even higher up. It is actually warm enough to swim today but the pool is a little chilly so Rain brings out a blow up turtle for me to float on and then a clear fibreglass canoe I paddle around in.
It is the 1st day of everyone in China being on holiday and it’s our last day in this gorgeous hotel. We are a little sad to leave this place and to move to another hotel but we knew everything would get busy so we booked this next hotel before we came here.
It is closer to the entrance Tianmen mountain, which is the famous mountain with 999 steps that that lead to Tianmen Cave or otherwise known as"Heaven's Door”. On the same mountain, there are famous glass skywalks, and a bus ride down the mountainside on the winding 99-Bend Road.
We take a taxi that drives through the city of Zhangjiajie and arrive at our hotel. It’s a nice, modern, clean hotel but doesn’t have half the charm as the one we just came from. We check in and find our way to the place where we will take a cable car up to the 999 steps. We see the very long line up which disappears around the corner. We are not sure if this is the right line up to get tickets but after walking all around it, asking people what to do, we are disappointed to find that it is.
There are no more tickets to take the cable car up so our only option is the bus. We go to the back to the line which is only for buying the ticket and it inches forward, like a line in Disneyland.
It’s 2 hours later and after being crowded, having sore legs from standing and not being able to hear ourselves think, we are finally on the bus. The bus drives for a short amount of time to another gate where we must get out. From here, we can see Tianmen Cave and the steps leading up to it further up the mountain but the line up is like a nightmare compared to the one we just left. It goes all the way back into the parking lot and is at least 5 people abreast wide.
The noise level is now unbearable, with the guides of multiple tour groups shouting into portable microphones and distorted speakers filling the air, competing against each other. People are jostling to keep their place in the line and it is clear that it is going to be like this for some time. We begin to move slowly in this chaotic lineup, with dread in our hearts. We find out it will be a minimum of 3 hours before we get to the bus that will take us to the foot of 999 steps, then there will be more line ups for the escalators that take you up inside the mountain and for any of the walkways and/or the cablecar down and/or then again for the bus we just took, going back the other direction. We had been warned about how crazy it gets here when everyone is on holiday at the same time but we didn’t imagine it to be this bad.
After a brief conversation, John and I decide we are on the same page and do not want to put ourselves through that kind of a day. We feel happy with what we saw on the other side of Zhangjiajie. It’s not worth it. We will come back some day when it’s not a holiday. We sit looking at the hole in the mountain that is Tianmen Cave, from afar and join the ever growing line up to take the bus back down to the city, where we go shopping at a kind of local crafts place, have a good meal and call it a day.
We are back in Wuhan. We have decided to ship our travel treasures and memorabilia from China back to Canada. We contact a company that others have used in the past and we start the process of packing and purging. The good thing about there being such a high turnover of teachers every year is that stuff gets recycled easily.
I do as many school trips as possible; With John’s classes, to buy food for their next project and with my friends Jeanine and Patience’s Science and Biology classes. Spending time with the kids is always a blast and I take advantage of getting out and enjoying their company.
John organizes a project where kids are cooking for and with their favourite teachers and I am lucky enough get to do this with 3 different groups.
We go to one last ‘Murder mystery party’ hosted by fun loving couple Kasi and Sam, where John plays a sleazy Elvis impersonator. We do some last parties and dinners with other friends and neighbours, many of whom are also leaving.
Simon, my number one wing man and musical accomplice comes back from University and gets involved with the last Teahouse, as usual, accompanying lots of different people, including me. He also helps me by recording and producing more of my music. He is an extraordinary musician; plays guitar, piano, sings and has now begun to play pedal steel quite well, even though he says he’s just a beginner. He produces a song I wrote for the Grade 12 Grad called ‘Anything is possible’.
The ‘guitar boys’, who include Henry and Mycroft, are the guys who play and sing in every Teahouse and are pretty Rock n Roll. They come to visit me often in the library to jam or practice a song we are going to play together and once Simon is there even more often. We are all leaving at the end of the year so we play as much as possible. Mycroft refers to Simon as ‘Eric Clapton Junior’ and they all have their roots in guitar playing from Clapton, Mark Knoffler, John Mayer, etc.
I ask them whether I should do the song I wrote with a Country feel or a Blues feel. I play the song both ways for them. They listen and say “Country is happier”. Simon, who loves country music is delighted and the song becomes more country than country but also quite cool.
I decide to do the last Teahouse on 2 nights to include everyone. One night for the Grade 10 and 11’s and one night for Grade 12’s so everyone gets a chance to perform for their friends and teachers and go out with a bang.
I finish writing another song to do with Oscar, a Grade 10 student who plays the cello and Simon on keyboard, for the 1st night.
On the last night we decide to do the song I wrote about Wuhan with Simon and Liberty (both alumni) on guitars, Tristan (teacher) on BV’s and Taber (Grade 12 student) on snare drum. We are a little nervous as we don’t want anyone to get the idea that we are making fun of Wuhan. We love Wuhan because it’s crazy!
It’s a lot of work to organize but with help from volunteers and especially my partner Maggie, we pull it off. Maggie will continue with the Teahouse next year with neighbour and friend Jerry in my place so it can live on. The show is like my baby and as I’ve said before, a fantastic opportunity to showcase the talented students, alumni and teachers at the school.
The whole audience joins in with the phrase ‘Wuhan, Crazy!’ while we sing the song, they laugh in the right spots and we end the evening on a high note.
John and I try to do all the things we know we will miss. We go out and eat in all our favourite places to eat. We go to say goodbye to Baopei and her family and our favourite dish, Gong Bao Ji Ding (Kung Pao Chicken). We find out they too are moving on and are opening a restaurant (instead of a hole in the wall), elsewhere. We go to the Jiaozi (fried dumpling) place in front of the school more often than usual. Our favourite American restaurant, Aloha is closing so we go there to say goodbye. We stay in the hotels we like to stay in. We start to have dinners with people who have been special during the time we lived here. We have long conversations with the people we have known over the years we have lived here. Cindy, Lydia, Betty, Blue, Tien Tien, Zhang and more.
In some cases we don’t know if we will ever see them again. It’s like closing a Chapter. This is sad. We’d like to come back again and visit but realistically, it might not be possible.
John has always made a joke, saying “We will leave Wuhan when it is finished” (relating to the massive construction that is always going on here).
Now he is saying, “We’ll come back when Wuhan is finished”.
Stay tuned, there are a few more episodes of travel. We are not quite finished yet.