The International Writers Magazine: (Reflections from visiting Provincial China)
Dr Steve Collins
I looked forward to my short business trip to Huangshi, Hubei Province, Central China back in 2006. I had visited many of the better known cities in China but this was a first to the 'outback' so to speak. Online I found the city is south east from Wuhan and reached in two hours or so by travelling on the G50 expressway.
The map showed a number of blue patches en route and I imagined a trip through idyllic lakeland scenery to an attractive provincial city. Sadly this was not to be.
My local host collected me Tianhe International Airport and we drove for much more than two hours never leaving urban sprawl. The expressway was a four-lane monster crowded both ways by streams of battered, lumbering heavyweight lorries transporting all manner of industrial substance and emitting clouds of fumes. What little could be seen between the many roadworks, traffic junctions, directional signs and massive hoardings proclaiming a whole range of commodities that prove China's successful entry into world markets, were dilapidating houses, offices and factories and not the countryside I had anticipated.
Huangshi online was called the 'The Southern Cornucopia' yet on arrival this seemed grossly inappropriate. Its main street was dominated by small crowded shops with living above, all seemingly squashed together with piles of their wares flowing out onto the broken, irregular pavement. There were also many dingy looking eating places cooking on the pavement using open gas fires and creating fumes that drifted across the roadway and over the low rooftops. On several corners, one-man vehicle repair stops rested their equipment and spare parts against the few blackened trees that failed as tokens of environmental improvement. My host explained later that the horn of plenty reference derives from the wealth created locally from the vast local mineral deposits and the range of mines and factories these sustained. That made sense.
||My hotel just beyond the town came as a complete contrast. At the end of a formal driveway through laid out grounds, the Cihu Mountain Villa, appeared as a huge edifice to extravagance and much out of place in the area. Its design seemed a compilation of architectural styles - Palladian, Russian Empire and Chinese Totalitarian Functionalist, if such exists, with a single tall tower in French Gothic, all welded somehow together with just enough regard for balance to create some interest rather than immediate dislike.
We passed a number of large, classical Greek statues intermingled by multi-coloured cheap plastic palm trees much admired as exotic by modern industrial Chinese taste. My host smiled at my sudden interest – interpreting it doubtless as delight rather than the astonishment it actually was.
We drove into the reception area between two rows of Ionic columns below a fascia bearing English lettering 'CHMA' and a logo and the full words 'Cihu Mountain Villa' below. Just outside was ornamental pool with a more classical Greek figures in the centre around what would have been a fountain when working. Staff, in smart blue uniforms arrived quickly and took our luggage as we were ushered almost too briskly inside into an expansive marble lobby full of wonders – an ornate marble floor, friezes with more classical figures, more columns, and in its centre a large globe shaped water feature here in operation. The positive initial effect was sadly marred by its haphazardly displayed lounge chairs in incorrect sets with other oddments between to fill the space.
The reception desk was well staffed but slow due detailed checking of the voucher given by my host, my passport, my passport entry stamp and the need to ask many questions, consult each other and take photocopies of everything. Such processing sadly forestalled friendly interaction it seemed. Whilst waiting, I tapped one or two of the relief figures and the responsive ring of polystyrene confirmed more a reality of a 1930s Hollywood film as well as an efficient hotel.
|A young, slim, tall bell boy ornately dressed in what seemed a Ruritanian toy soldier's uniform added to this film set impression as he passed around handing out newspapers to the local guests. He responded rather cautiously when I smiled towards him expecting him to take my luggage. Luggage was not, however, part of his or anyone else's duties and it was left to me as followed some brief indications to my room on the first floor, once the formalities were finally over. The room itself was small for a Chinese hotel, the bed as hard as ever and the bathroom lacked toiletries and had only small, rather thin towels.
After a quick, almost adequate shower, I made for the dining room which had little décor and was dominated by many Chinese style round tables laid out for nine or so to sit together. I sat alone at one of them, my host having returned home. Although few others guests were there, they were they were in groups and I felt rather odd, almost abandoned as a result. The dinner menu did have to my surprise an English translation attached yet did little for the appetite with its literal translations that included 'intestine', 'tortoise shell' and 'pig's penis' and generally few items that appealed. The 'duck flesh' I finally ordered was stir fried and the meat itself cut very small, over cooked with bone shards protruding.
After dinner, I discovered a shop just off the lobby that sold hand-made suits and shirts, cufflinks, leather gloves, handkerchiefs with Western initials, ties embroidered with the Villa's name and pipes and other Western smoking accoutrements and little else. Outside at the rear of the central block were two other large buildings, one a swimming pool and the other a ballroom neither, judging by their general shabbiness, having been in use for some time. My feeling was that the hotel was some Chinese vision of Western luxury drawn from US media gone somewhat awry.
Breakfast next morning was a buffet which was little more appetising as what was on offer was again basic Chinese-style – congee, often described as porridge but more a watery gruel, boiled eggs, green-coloured and tasteless rice confections various local vegetables not normally to Western taste, bread that was sweet to taste and harsh coffee that needed heavy sugaring. The tables was fairly full when I arrived with many fairly prosperously dressed Chinese groups enjoying noisy conversation and mixed platefuls, many going for seconds. Several stared at me at first but then smiled when I smiled to them. A small party of five non-Chinese, Tanzanians I later found, arrived and like me searched the buffet finding anything that appealed. I now concluded that the hotel was developed as an upmarket bonus for progressive, entrepreneurial local managers as well as a conference centre for visiting overseas contacts like myself.
Hubei province is said to be a tropical hotspot in China and it was certainly sticky during my first full day. Yet over the second night there was a three-inch downfall of snow. Clearly this was an extraordinarily rare event and the local transport authorities decided to close the expressway back to Wuhun presumably fearing the consequences of a sudden increase of accidents in their domain. I was due to fly out from Wuhan that evening onward to Chengdu, Sichuan Province for two days before returning home to the UK via Beijing. I was pleased when my host phoned me early in the morning to confirm he had arranged with the hotel for me to travel with several others from around the city in the same predicament in a mini-bus that was leaving in an hour.
Twelve mixed nationality travellers duly assembled ready in the lobby yet were delayed as some a senior level decision needed to be made I found. Evidently my host had queried a paltry charge on my bill that turned out to be for a teaspoon apparently missing from my room. I offered to pay the paltry sum involved to save further embarrassment and delay but a proper resolution was necessary I was told. After twenty minutes a decision that it was an incorrect charge was received and we could leave. We were then told our route to Wuhan would be via the back roads. The snow covered Greek sculptures on the driveway seemed to share our apprehension as we left.
The backways proved treacherous and made worse by both heavy snow drifts and by many large rattling vehicles also diverted taking the same route. Often we formed into conveys behind the slowest ones as we passed through many narrow villages with their small vegetable gardens and larger paddy fields, only able to overtake at inclines when the heavier vehicles were unable or unsure in climbing or descending. Fortunately for them, local villagers would be out pushing, heaving and gesticulating advice to those so stranded.
Our driver gave a first impression that he may never have seen snow before let alone driven on it and for much of the journey all twelve of us remained silent with our own thoughts and prayers. Yet in contrast to others our driver did fairly well. We only spun fully around once and had far less near misses and no actual hits than other vehicles - the nearest was when we almost shunted into the tail of large delivery lorry being used, by local tradition to extol the virtues of the recently departed. As young men threw handfuls of firecrackers and bundles of flaming false money from the rear whilst the females relatives sat inside looking on. Finally after nine hours we reached Tianhe Airport exhausted but in shape and thankful despite all being several hours late for flights. Fortunately, we were all checked in with little difficulty and I gather all flew out that evening.
||This initial experience of Huangshi overall was clearly not that favourable but as things turned out, I needed to make several further trips there over the next three years when I had less need to rush. I was able to became more familiar with the city by just walking its streets, shopping for oddments, trying the streetside foodstalls and I saw through its initial drabness as a result.
|As I became more familiar, the locals no longer stared but smiled at me – more readily I feel than happens in my experience in other cultures. I also began to discover that there were interesting places around the region to visit- large parks, ancient villages and the like. It was well worthwhile, for example, walking around the vast and beautiful Cihu lake itself and also the nearby Xisai Mountain, the site of many famous battles took place and the inspiration of many poems and literary works.
|My host realized my tourist leaning and became keen to arrange day trips in the locality for me. One day, he provided a driver and guide and they took me first to the Hanyeping Coal Iron Factory Site Museum with its comprehensive and organised displays, open caste pit and its monumental statue of Mao commemorating his visit some years before. Following this we moved on a few miles and then, after climbing a narrow path had lunch at a spectacular site overlooking great Yangtze River flowing several hundreds of feet below and so wide it completely dominated the horizon.
In the afternoon, after another short ride and another pathway climb we visited a large, serene Buddhist monastery on a hilltop with ornately designed and colourful buildings and where monks happily showed us round to increase the interest.
Sadly, my last trip to Huangshi was some five years ago now. Today a search on the websites for both Huangshi and Cihu Mountain Villa gives all the facts I did not have then and more. The city is now profiled as prosperous, interesting, near-to-nature with a list of many more tourist attractions and the Villa website includes several photos that show the fountain now working and blurb mentioning the swimming pool and an international menu!
In fact, I now find that Cihu Mountain Villa is ranked at number 2 of 53 hotels in Huangshi, gaining a '90% positive' rating on Trip Advisor.com's review index! It can also be booked online through Hotels.com, Kayak and several Chinese companies. Clearly the days of inefficient reception, lack of porterage, indifferent food, non-working facilities, 'paltry teaspoon issues' and bureaucratic expressway closures are now in the past in Huangshi and maybe no recent snowfalls of late either!
My Huangshi experiences found that the Chinese people through both their long history and depth of culture are losing their Maoist legacy of suspicion quickly to demonstrate their natural friendliness, community spirit and willingness to help travellers. More recent evidence just found confirms how quickly China itself can learn to exploit global markets for tourism. Reflecting on this and my visits to Huangshi of just a few years ago, I feel that that I may have lost an opportunity to appreciate more fully the wider joys of travelling in China that will in all probability soon be lost to the commercial world.
© Dr Steve Collins November 2013
Huangshi Travel Guide 2013