It's still cold and damp when we leave Xijiang, but the scenery is quite pretty. Eventually we reach a town where we catch our first train in China. It's a four-hour ride and we can't get a reserved seat. In fact we have no idea what we're in for and the characters on our ticket give no clues. We join the milling throng in the waiting room as far from the smelly toilets as possible. At one end is a fence with four gates. Our train number is on one of them and in front of it a huge queue. A tannoy announcement is finally made, the gate opens and the queue pushes forward. We queue jump with five hundred other like-minded people. There's a hint of desperation about the crowd and I start to sweat although it's cool out, but out on the platform there is order and calm. And there are several uniformed women with white gloves on making sure it stays like that. They bark out orders and point a lot. We are directed to a short queue - one of many that has formed along the platform. When the train pulls in we are slightly out of alignment with a carriage door. We are instructed to realign before we are permitted to enter. It's a bit scary but then no-one needs to be clubbed out of the way - something we once saw at an Indian railway station melee. Of course there are no spare seats on the train and we stand and watch the other passengers in their seats - families playing cards, children eating pot noodles, young couples kissing and cooing. Unbelievably, several seated passengers stand up to stretch their legs. After an hour I'm exhausted. But I'm getting off at 2 o'clock. This lot are going all the way to Beijing.
When we do get off we have to reserve a ticket on an overnight train for a few days hence. We have researched the train numbers and routes and times, but when we try to buy the tickets the woman behind the glass screen just says "mei you". There are none. She says a lot more in Mandarin but I'm buggered if I know what she's saying and walk away in surrender. Gayle goes up to have a go and seems to make progress. There is another train we can catch. After a lot of scribbling and double-checking, the ticket seller showing us the choices on her computer screen (all in unreadable characters of course), we finally buy a ticket. But it's a crap deal. We'll arrive at 2am at a town that is only a transit point to our destination. Whilst I'm moaning and rolling around in anguish on the concourse floor a young student approaches us and offers his assistance. Too late!!!! Never mind - he's very nice and helps us get to the bus station for a bus to Fenghuang. Can we walk there? we ask. He tells us it's a 40 minute walk, better to take a taxi. We do. It's a four-minute ride to the bus station, just around the block form the train station. But at least there's a bus for us and seats. We get to Fenghuang at nightfall.
I've just read in a Bill Bryson his description of travelling in countries where they don't speak English. "I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only a rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."
As we walk down the street looking for a hotel I feel like I'm five years old again. I can't read a single sign, it's dark and we're disoriented. Ahh, but we can recognise a hotel reception. Gayle suggests we try the first one we pass. Bingo. The room is clean and cheap and there's a woman who talks sense (or at least we guess she does, since it's all in Mandarin of course. Whatever. She looks like she talks sense). Out on the street there are stalls selling food. It's busy with visitors and there's a liveliness to the place. We pick a stall run by a family - mum, dad and daughter. They have a display of fresh vegetables and skewers of meat. You pick what you want for barbecueing or for the wok. So simple. One thing noticeable in a country with a policy to reduce the number of children, is how child-friendly everywhere is. Especially the restaurants and food stalls who have furniture that looks straight out of my old infant's school. Of course, it's hard enough trying to eat your food with unfamiliar utensils, but to do so whilst sat on a kiddies' chair at a table about one foot lower than your knees, is an act of contortion. Amazingly no-one notices my Mr. Bean performance and we have a great meal. As I try to extricate myself from my limbo position under the table though, I really do wish I was five years old again.