China was added to our itinerary months ago because we had a wedding to attend! We decided to make the most of it while we were in the country and take a three week tangent from our route through Southeast Asia - an interlude from the heat and instead layer on the winter woolies to beat China's glacial mid-winter temperatures.
To be perfectly honest, I was a little nervous about travelling in China. Of course I had heard plenty of good things, but on the flipside, I had also heard that the language barrier can make it a particularly tough country to travel. I’m always up for a challenge but after spending four months in the well-trodden tourist paths of Southeast Asia, China was beginning to feel particularly scary. Southeast Asia was so easy (well, most of the time), what on earth was ahead of me?
We flew bright and early from Bangkok to Wuhan, where we surprisingly quickly managed to score the last two seats on a stuffed - and stuffy! - bus to Huangshi, my friend’s hometown and where we would be staying the next five nights to spend time with her family and attend her wedding.
Wuhan airport impressed me with its unexpected, Singapore-esque cleanliness. Get this: the bathrooms had a sensor you would hover your hand over as you entered the cubicle, which would automatically activate a new plastic seat cover that slid onto the seat - without you having to touch a thing! Can I just say - hooray for not having to hover, and hooray for western toilets! Unfortunately over the next three weeks we learnt dirty squatters tend to be the norm - but hey, I appreciated it while it lasted.
From Wuhan it was a couple of hours on the highway with a view that seemed like boom town - in every direction we could see a countless number of cranes assisting the build of skyscrapers and apartment blocks. The province of Hubei, that is home to both Wuhan and Huangshi, has a staggering population of 57 million - so I can't really be surprised, can I!
On arrival in Huangshi, despite doing the very best planning we could, we had absolutely zero idea where we were when we were dropped off by our bus at the final stop. However, the friendliness and desire to help from the locals came to our aid immediately. One young guy about my age got chatting to Alan in broken english and asked the bus driver if he could drop us directly at our hotel - despite the bus journey being over and our hotel being a further 10 minutes drive down the road! That was the first of many experiences we had in China where, despite language difficulties, people generously went out of their way to help us hopeless foreigners.
Huangshi is not on the tourist trail - even when we were looking for accommodation in advance it was difficult to find more than a few options on any english-language website. No hostels or budget guesthouses set up for backpackers here! We decided to splurge a little and booked the hotel that the wedding was at - a plush four-star - which was especially welcome following our budget guesthouse accommodations of the last four months.
Because the city is not on the tourist trail, in terms of western visitors the numbers Huangshi sees are few. A handful of the hotels may see perhaps a handful of western businessmen over the course of a year, but certainly young tourists like us (especially a young, blonde one like me!) are an absolute oddity. Therefore we were stared at constantly, wherever we went - some people even came right up to us for a closer look. We may have been the first westerners some of the local children had ever seen!
Huangshi is a city of beautiful lakes, and by China's standards is really just a small town of 650,000. We spent five nights in Huangshi, exploring the city with my friend and her family by whom we were also generously treated to a number of delicious, banquet-style meals. Of course, plenty of time was also spent lounging in our room (I’m still convinced the bed was a cloud sent from heaven), and ended on a high with the most EPIC buffet breakfast of all time on our final day. I may or may not have indulged in two helpings of bread and butter pudding before 10am in the morning.
But we weren’t in Huangshi to talk about bread and butter pudding, we were there for a wedding! As it was not my special day I won’t go into too much detail, but I will note that the bride looked incredibly beautiful, I caught the bouquet (in fact I think my friend’s cousin and I both caught it together and I over-enthusiastically tugged it out of her hands…sorry!), and post-wedding we celebrated with karaoke until the place closed at 3am. Good times were had by all.
Other notable highlights of our time in Huangshi included:
- A $6 gel french manicure (what a bargain!), though this could be argued as a lowlight for Alan as he had to sit and watch the whole thing.
- Trying stinky tofu, wasn’t my favourite but try anything once, right?
- Catching public busses, because our poor receptionist was horrified when we mentioned we were going to catch the bus and encouraged us to take a taxi instead. She probably thought we would get lost and never found again - ha, we proved her wrong! Well, we did get a bit lost, but…
- New Years eve dumplings, cooked by my friend’s mum (who makes the best Chinese food ever), and eaten by us in the hope of prosperity and wealth in the year ahead…YUM.
- Our final night we splurged on the fancy five-star Tonino Lamborghini Lakeside Hotel to stay with our friends after the wedding. So lush!
It was so wonderful to see a couple of our friends from home after months on the road. But all must come to an end and before we knew it we were back on our own again. We had a series of trains booked to take us north to our next destination and had to collect our tickets at the station a couple of hours beforehand.
Naturally, there were a couple of momentary episodes of pre-train panic - once when our taxi driver nearly took us to the wrong train station, followed by a few drawn out minutes when the ticket lady insisted we did not have any tickets booked and there were no seats left today...uh-oh. Turns out we did have tickets booked after all, phew! It simply took a bit of convincing because the ticket lady had just never seen a booking confirmation from an english website before...we were probably the first westerners in the history of time to catch a train from this station!
Tickets tightly in hand and panicked moments behind us, we entered the station and waited patiently for our train. One of the guards came over to us and started speaking to us in Chinese, of course it was very clear that we didn’t understand. This happened about three more times and we were beginning to wonder what was going on, then he managed to recruit an english-speaking passenger to translate - the guard wanted us to follow him with our luggage. We were led past the giant queue that was forming for our train, bypassed security, and shown to our seats on the empty train - all at least 15 minutes before anyone else was allowed to board! It was such a generous and welcome gesture, he must have been so worried about us!
If only all our train experiences were that easy…
Stay tuned for some stories from our next destination in China, Luoyang, where we checked out some breathtaking history!