My trip to Hunan has ended and I am heartbroken. It was déjà vu for me. The feeling I had getting on that plane in Chenzhou on Monday back to Beijing was exactly the same feeling I had when I got on the Brussels flight from The Gambia to China in late February. I felt empty. I was only in Hunan for six days but it felt like years. I felt at home. It was a special trip for me because I didn’t only get to enjoy wonderful experiences for the first time in my life but also appreciate the spirit of community in the Hunan Province, something dear to my heart, given my community upbringing.
I visited Yueyang and Changsha, spending two days in each city. I was speechless by the hospitality and the cuisine. I climbed the Great Wall in Beijing. I walked in the Garden of Love in Yueyang. I took a night boat trip in the lake up to the Orange Island in Changsha, watching the city lit up and Zedong’s sculpture illuminated from afar. But none is even close to how I felt in a cable car. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Chenzhou, a city of height, forest and wonders.
The first place we visited was Mangshan Mountain. When I saw mountain on the schedule, I was scared. Chinese people love to climb. There are stairs even in the bathrooms. So seeing a mountain on the schedule freaked me out because I didn’t have a smooth experience last time I climbed that kind of height. I climbed the Great Wall and my thighs hurt for days. I left with a PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, but I like to call mine post-Great Wall stress disorder. Mangshan was going to freak me out but, lo and behold, there was a cable waiting to take me to the mountaintop. The experience in the cable is different gravy. It’s like standing on a glass spread over water, with sharks roaming under you. Every second you spend on it makes you feel like it would break and the hungry sharks would have you for dinner. That’s exactly how I felt in that cable, rising as high as 1000m above the ground and traveling a distance of nearly 4km to the apex of Mangshan Mountain. It was surreal. Five of us got into the cable car, two of them were our tour guides. And because I was scared, I asked as many questions as possible just to switch attention from me. If you’re scared and silent, everyone notices, at least those who are not scared. I become chatty when I am afraid. The questions however gave me some details about the cable and the wisdom behind the construction. It was built by at least 30 technicians, with top 10 from China, taking only a few years to complete. The cable gave everyone an opportunity to travel to the top of the mountain and enjoy the wonders of nature. Imagine if there was no cableway, only a few people would hike that mountain and so many splendid features of the mountain would not have been discovered.
Now, the cable has not only provided accessibility to the people but has become a hotspot for thousands of people, especially those in Guangdong. The cable costs 280 yuan per trip with kids and elderly paying half the price. The gates are free for those with disabilities and half price for the trip to the top. There are pavements on the mountain, including one for wheelchairs, so that everyone will have equal access. I admire China’s efforts in catering for people living with disabilities. There’s a spot for them everywhere you go; toilets, sidewalks, markets, and mountains. It’s something some of our countries can really emulate China. We are way behind when it comes to empowering the disability community in The Gambia.
According to our tour guide, the cable cars, number over 90, sometimes offer up to 10,000 trips on weekends, when almost everyone is free and up to 2,000 trips per day on week days. This generates at least 80 million yuan every year and 60-70% of the visitors come outside Chenzhou, mainly from Guangdong. That is equivalent to 700 million Gambian dalasi. I don’t think the whole of our tourism industry’s revenue is that impressive. It is just about creativity and preserving nature. It was a lovely cable trip. The roundtrips take roughly 40 minutes. We just ascended like a wisp of smoke and marveled at high altitude azaleas, which blossoms in late April and Huanan wuzhensong, the South China white pines. The starting was smooth. We were just chatting and wowing at the majestic elevation into the sky. It was good until it wasn’t good. We hit a fog and the weather dramatically got 10 degrees colder. There was no part of the journey scarier than that. I couldn’t see beyond the cable and staring down was even more terrifying. It’s so transparent that I felt like the thing would vomit us midway. God, I was happy to make it to the top and even happier that it wasn’t a roundtrip. I wouldn’t have the stomach to take the trip again.
Atop the mountain is the sculpture of the laotietou, a triangular-headed snake with a white tale. If there’s one animal I cannot call beautiful, it’s definitely a snake. But the “giant panda of snakes” is actually a beautiful creature that eats only mice and birds. Explaining the story to us at the monkey king village, Dr Chen Yuanhui, fondly called Dr Snake, who discovered the creature, said it doesn’t eat frogs unlike other snakes. This panda snake is missing a delicious meal in frogs. The snake once bit Dr Snake himself and, because he would die after three minutes if he didn’t suck the poison out, he had to cut off the bitten middle finger to prevent the poison from spreading in his body. That is the height of bravery. It could never be me. I would struggle to cut my nail much less my finger. The poison can mix with my blood for all I care. We saw the snakes live. It’s a good thing there is a glass between the creatures and us. Looking at the snake hiss, flick its tongue and slither evoked some childhood memories. It’s a funny story and a bit embarrassing, actually. I was less than 10 years old in Guinea Bissau. As common in most rural communities, at least in Africa, we had a pit latrine dug behind the compound to discharge solid waste. I didn’t even know what a flush toilet was at the time. I will tell you this for free, there are two advantages of a pit latrine which a flush toilet doesn’t have: an aura of security. Since it is normally dug outside the compound, even if you have a running stomach, you can just comfortably drop bombs there and no one would hear you. Flush toilets are generally inside the house; that means no matter how sound-proofed it might be, you just have to sometimes suppress the bombs, otherwise people would hear you. The second advantage is that no matter how big or ugly or strange your poop is, you don’t get to see it. You just pull down whatever you’re wearing, squat and drop it straight into the pit. Flush toilets however force you to see that thing. Ew! I frown at mine each time I stand up from the toilet seat before flushing it with anger. So, on this fateful day, I had a running stomach. I ran to the pit latrine and squatted. To provide cover, old pieces of cloth are usually wrapped around the toilet, so no one would see you naked. This particular toilet was dug under a small tree, whose branches would sometimes droop over it. So as I enjoyed myself, dropping chemicals into the pit and smiling, somehow, I just looked up and there it was; a snake on the branch not more than a meter above my head. I didn’t know whether to die or follow my poop into the toilet. Without pulling my trousers, I shouted and ran out 100k/h. I screamed so loud that people came out to check on me. The snake was scared away and I was embarrassed to have been in that situation. I never liked snakes since then.
Back to Mangshan. The construction on the mountain is an engineering course of its own. The pavement is stronger than metal and, because heavy machinery couldn’t be transported to the mountain, most of the construction was hand-made. It was exceptionally built. Even the ancient trees that appeared on the planned route of the pavement were kept to protect the environment and the tree species. The contractors allowed the trees to just pinch through the footpath and into the sky without undermining the integrity of the construction. We walked up and down in the foggy weather, most of us wearing raincoats, following the Q-shaped pavement and cherishing the red stripes on either side. People take the stripes up the mountain, make a wish and then tie them. I wanted to untie someone else’s and make my own wish but I didn’t. Their wish is probably a reality now and I didn’t want to undo that.
The mountain also has an elevator with a vertical height of 23m and 46m in length. I even learned that some scenes of Wandering Earth were shot there. From the Bagua tai which is shaped like the Arabic number 8 (٨) to the Five Fingers, Mangshan Mountain provided a refreshing experience for me. I didn’t actually see the Five Fingers clearly because of the fog; I probably only saw an elbow.
Beautifully ornamented women of the Yao ethnic minority welcomed us to the Precipice Canyon Restaurant at the foot of the mountain. I saw a variety of the Yao handicrafts and dishes, plus an amazingly curated traditional song and dance. The food looked so tempting that I had to take some to the hotel so I could taste it when I broke my fast. The only thing I recognised in the dish, however, is a small boiled egg. The rest are mysterious, greenish and delightful.
A dazzling end to the trip took us to the Gaoyiling scenic area, a glittering sightseeing spot that attracted nearly a million tourists in less than two years. The rocks are beautiful. The water is serene. The mountains are idyllic. The silence is romantic. It is known as a “place forgotten by god.” God forgot the wrong place. Spread across 11 square kilometres, at least 600 million yuan has been invested in the site, which lifted it to a top-tier attraction with cliff swings, via ferrata and cable bridges, one of which I crossed with my heart in my mouth. On a cable bridge, you just know you wouldn’t fall but you’re never comfortable and I felt like those ahead of me on the bridge were deliberately shaking it. Intrigue, fear and passion merged to push me to the finish line. Chenzhou is indeed a city in the forest.
All in all, Hunan was a memorable trip. The people are nice. The foods are awesome. The hotels are divine. I cannot forget Hunan. A huge gratitude to the team of organisers.
From Beijing; Chen Dehai, counsellor at the foreign ministry who was amazing throughout and cracking jokes, our tireless Cheng Dong (everyone’s Razeen) and, of course Cui Xiaoyi, everyone’s Miller. Both were exceptional during the trip. In Hunan, from Yueyang, Changsha to Chenzhou: Liu Zhimin, Zhu Weidi, Wang Jiaxi, Wang Xinran, Chen Yaxi, Nie Chenxiao, Wang Yang, Zuo Si, Li Qin, Huang Duo, Peng Rui, Li Yujie, Zhao Nina, Xiao Danli. Plus, the local media team; Si Yang, Weiyi Xia and everyone else whose name I didn’t get. You all deserve a cup of Chinese tea!