Dragon and Phoenix, in China, are symbols of the forces of nature, the gods and fate. Typically they are depicted together in ying-yang fashion – opposites that together create a unified whole. This 2019 trip to China was a series of opposites for me – old and new cities, fast and slow trains, simple and luxurious accommodations, familiar and strange dishes, treasured old and special new friends. The heart of the tour combined the dragon city of Chengdu and the phoenix city of Fenghuang.
Chengdu is huge, sprawling, economically important, prosperous, modern. Ancient Fenghuang is its counterpart – small, contained, ancient, culturally important, enduring against the odds.
I started out at the beginning of November in Tongli – an ancient and famous water town near Suzhou. It was a relaxing start, wandering the gardens, lanes and canals – no rush, a real Time Out in Tongli.
Then it was onward to Hefei and a month of teaching leadership at USTC. This was year 7 for me, and while I have routines and regular places that call to me, I always have amazing new experiences and make new friends. This year I discovered Mao and Me in Hefei and in Goose Commune.
And then off to the Dragon City – Chengdu in Spicy Sichuan. I could have taken a high speed train and been there in 12 hours, but I chose the old sleeper train taking 23 hours. In 2018, I travelled more than 4000 kms on CHS (China High Speed) trains and loved every minute – except for the many unending mountain tunnels. This year I thought I’d see more on the old trains that went around mountains, rather than through. This was only partially true because there still are long stretches of mountain tunnels, and half of any trip is in the dark – sleeping. But still a good deliberate choice!
I booked 3 long sleeper trains, travelling about 3700 kms over 66 hours on the Dragon and Phoenix Tour – 1. Hefei to Chengdu 2. Chengdu to Fenghuang, 2. Fenghuang to Hangzhou, then to Pudong Airport, with short stops in Hangzhou and Shanghai.
I boarded a train like this, found my shared cabin and fell asleep to the rocking rhythm I love.
I woke to a misty grey morning as we rolled along a river set deep in mountains and occasionally widening out into a lake.
I was enthralled with scenes that seemed timeless. What century was I in???
But the mammoth bridges and tunnels always brought me back to the present.
The mountains slowly gave way to broad green valleys and narrow white towns.
And then to bigger cities.
The rivers – the ancient highways – still set our route to the northwest.
Eventually I got hungry and found the restaurant car. I always order from the pictures on the menu.
And then back to watching China unfolding magically in the mist.
The sun set somewhere in Sichuan without really shining all that day, and I arrived in Chengdu in the dark.
Over my 4 days in Chengdu, with a series of tours and guides, I discovered what a dragon the city is – huge, modern, powerful, no foolishness, no apparent poverty of any kind. A business city with some upscale attractions.
Now for the opposite and off to Fenghuang – the phoenix city.
The train from Chengdu southeast to Fenghuang 820 kms and 10 hours away retraced some of the route, branching off south at Chongqing. I boarded at night, had a second rocking sleep and woke to more mountain valleys, rivers and small towns. Fenghuang doesn’t have a train station, so I embarked at Huaihua to take a bus. Buses don’t take bookings but they are frequent, so I wasn’t worried. However, a charming young retired soldier worried for me – manhandling my suitcase down 55 steps in the absence of an escalator, then selecting and advising a lady taxi driver who didn’t leave me until she’d helped purchase my ticket and seated me on the correct bus.
This kindness happens often to me in China, and it is what makes my adventures so pleasant. I do not rely on the kindness of strangers but I appreciate it so much!
Busing along freeways for 1.5 hours, we arrived at Fenghuang bus station. This was the first bus in my life where I was required to wear a seat belt. The countryside was hilly and treed, quite scenic, and Fenghuang was nestled into a deep valley. I needed to taxi to a further bus station, and I was helped by a smiling passerby who wrote that destination for me in Chinese, or with my pronunciation skills, I might still be standing on the street.
Fenghuang features in so many tourism ads for China that I was prepared to feel misled, but no! It was more than I expected and easy to enjoy without tours and guides. An ancient city that refuses to die – Fenghuang is a timeless, enduring phoenix.
Leaving Fenghuang was a similar but different bus ride to a different train station. I was surprised to learn that there are segments of the Great Wall this far south in China!
At Tongren, I boarded the train in the early afternoon. On this trip, I learned that if you don’t have a lower bunk and you really want one, the porter will find one if available and you pay a small fee. Scrambling to the upper bunk is challenging, and my knees were so grateful that I don’t even try. But in the negotiation, I made a lovely new friend from Shanghai who speaks no English but insists we travel to her hometown next year.
Tongren to Hangzhou is typically lovely rural China. Always rolling mountains on the horizon.Often smooth bodies of still water.Occasional industrious small cities and lush farms.The night train from Tongren to Hangzhou is 1365 kms and 20 hours. Lots of China to see, especially picturesque in the golden afternoon light.I chose Hangzhou because I planned to take an overnight canal boat from there to Wuxi, but sadly the service had been terminated. I had dreamed of sleeping on the Grand Canal – the longest man-made canal on earth, pivotal to the history and development of eastern China. I was so disappointed, but I like Hangzhou so I stopped for one night and I deliberately booked a hotel with a soaker bathtub – to offset train nights without such luxury. The Chichi Art Hotel was super but all the digital controls confused me , especially those on the toilet.Hangzhou is a lovely large city but I stayed in the old center with a couple of walking streets, interesting shops, restaurants and art that I remember fondly from 2016.The new train station in Hangzhou is one of the biggest I’ve seen. You have to be ready to walk a lot in China’s new stations!The next day, since I had to change my canal boat plans, I took the CHS to Shanghai, marvelling at the beauty and prosperity and order of China zipping past my window.My grand tour was ending, and I needed to decompress, so I stayed in luxury at the Fengyang Garden Hotel in the French Quarter of Shanghai.Again, the opposite of my nights sleeping with strangers on aging trains. Both, however, seemed perfect to me. I had time for a fantastic dinner with my dear rocket scientist and his family.Then Yang’s famous dumplings for breakfast – everybody knows!An afternoon of shopping the labyrinth of TianZeFang where nostalgia is sweet and very fashionable.And so ended the Dragon and Phoenix tour of China – the old juxtaposed against the new over and over and over.