While professional tour guides and Lonely Planets can help you get to grips with a place, on a return trip to China, featured contributor Leon McCarron finds that, sometimes, all you need to do is enlist the help of a local.
I wasn’t quite sure why we’d been invited to the party. But there we were, in a ballroom in the Chinese city of Guangzhou with members of the American Chamber of Commerce; a mixture of Chinese and international investors, bonding at small tables to the sound of smooth jazz.
We felt and were out of place. My friend Rob and I were near the end of a six-month, 3,000-mile long walk from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea and, although we’d scrubbed up, our matted hair and tangled beards betrayed us.
We’d been invited by chance after someone heard about our journey. The whole affair would probably have faded from memory, were it not for a young local man called Dennis Hu. He worked in marketing for a company that made folding bikes, and we talked at length about adventures we’d been on, or wanted to go on. And a friendship was born.
Six years later, Dennis and I are still in contact. He moved to the UK and started a family here, and after many conversations over the intervening years about how it’d be fun to share a journey in China, we finally found the excuse and made the time.
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“Let’s not let this be something we only ever talk about,” he had said. “We have to actually do it!” And so it happened, in the summer of 2018. Dennis had meetings to attend in his home province of Hunan, and I would accompany him to some of his favorite spots.
To most western travelers, Hunan is not particularly well-known, although within China, it is held in high regard—even by China’s own high standards, it has a diverse and beautiful landscape. Hunan is bounded on three sides by dramatic mountain ranges, and to the north, the course of the Yangtze river separates it from the province of Hubei.
Often, it’s the little insights into Hunan, and indeed into China, that make me appreciate Dennis’s company the most.
It sits more or less in the middle of China (“China is the heart of the world, and Hunan is the heart of China!” I was once told), and an annual subtropical monsoon means it’s lush and fertile. It is also tied intrinsically to the narrative of modern China as the birthplace of Mao Zedong.
Dennis and I land in the capital, Changsha, and drive north toward the mountainous region of Zhangjiajie. We are headed first for a mountain called Tianmen, accessible via the world’s longest cable car. The carriages leave from the middle of the city, and for the first few minutes, you glide over the top of homes and shops and football pitches and building sites. Then, suddenly, dramatic and vertiginous mountains come into view, swallowing all sign of habitation. The angle of the cable cars changes and we are pulled up, slowly and surely, into the sky.
The views, Dennis reminds me, are spectacular. I trusted him on this—we had ascended a vertical kilometer. The weather, however, had changed as we’d been climbing, leaving us trying to snatch glimpses between the clouds.
He tells me about the huge hole in the side of the mountain (‘Heaven’s Gate’) and the views of the switch-backed road up the hillside (called the ’99 Bends,’ for perhaps obvious reasons)—due to the mist, I have to imagine them both. What we do see, however—and very clearly—are the remarkable wooden walkways and glass bridges that have been built around the edges of the precipitous cliffs. On the latter, you can look straight down on a clear day to the next patch of earth, hundreds of meters below. Suddenly, the lack of visibility doesn’t bother me quite so much.
A couple of days later, in between Dennis’s meetings, we take a walk into some of the hills outside of Zhangjiajie City. Here, there’s no infrastructure; simply hundreds of square miles of hillside, and small sporadic clusters of villages where farmers tend fields of lush, green crops.
“Every time I come back, the whole city feels different. I still love it, but it’s always changing and growing.”
There are over 50 ethnic minorities in China, and when we stop for tea with an elderly farmer and his son, Dennis translates some of the stories of the Tujia, who almost exclusively populate these hills.
“We have a reputation as being tough,” said Zunzhu, the farmer. “In the ancient days, the Tujia would fight and rebel again the emperors of old.” Dennis laughs as he translates the next part. “They also like to drink,” he tells me. “Maybe for you, the best analogy is the Vikings. Work hard and play hard!”
Often, it’s the little insights into Hunan, and indeed into China, that make me appreciate Dennis’s company the most. In a teahouse, he explains to me that each time the glass is refilled, one should tap three fingers on the table by way of thanks. During the Qing dynasty, an Emperor had decided to pour tea for his servants, which was unheard of; forced to sit, they couldn’t perform the customary bow in his presence, and so they tapped the table as an equivalent. Ever since, this has become the polite convention.
Later, over dinner in Changsha, Dennis shows me one of the characters for Chinese liquor: 酒. The three strokes on the left of the character indicate that with the first drink, one feels wise, like a scholar. With the second, it’s more like work, and one drinks like a soldier. With the final drink, one becomes helpless, like a beggar. Even within this single character, there is a story to be told.
We finish in Xiangtan, Dennis’s hometown. He’d always spoken of it as a small and cozy place. In Chinese terms, I discover, this means it is a city of only three million. We drive to where he grew up and try to find his primary school, but that entire side of the city has been redeveloped. “Every time I come back, the whole city feels different,” says Dennis. “I still love it, but it’s always changing and growing.”
Spending time with Dennis had been very different to my previous experience; that one had been a wild adventure, but there was so much I’d missed. Dennis and I had the time to ask questions, and potter round, and had no pressing deadline to meet. But more than that, I got to see a little of a foreign place through local eyes; to Dennis this was home, and he wanted to share the things he loved about it. Best of all, he had the curiosity of a traveler, even in a familiar place, and took nothing for granted.
That surely is one of the greatest traits of any good adventurer. It’s a great privilege to slow right down almost to the point of stopping; to listen to those who know a place intimately, and perhaps to have a cup of tea and think about what it all means.