Fenghuang looks like it's been seeing tourists for many years. The old town bares its wares with a weary sigh but still puts on a smiling face for the punter. Grey stone buildings all decorated with the obligatory red lanterns line pedestrianised alleyways and display their goods to the passing tourists. There are the local specialities - tea, rice wine in bamboo bottles, ginger cracknell (quality gear, this) and cured pork, including pig's faces, plus a whole host of shops selling scarves, shawls and trendy clothes, naff t-shirts, Communist memorabilia, and batik clothing. The old ladies who are selling jewellery (of both the silver and tacky plastic kind) have probably been doing this since Mao popped his clogs. Dotted amongst all this are restaurants, trendy cafes and bars that have live music every night - usually one man and his guitar singing James Blunt songs off-key. The feature of the old town, as with many places, is a murky river with a grand covered bridge and a few more basic wooden bridges and stepping stones. Men in boats will punt you downstream for a small consideration, but not small enough for us to consider it.. The river shallows are clogged with a kind of weed that I think we've been eating every day since we arrived in China - water spinach, is it?
The holiday spirit is still going strong here and we wander along the old city wall, dodging tour groups led by diminutive women holding flags and barking instructions through small loud hailers. "And on our right is the oldest Buddhist Temple in Fenghuang. Admire its pagoda style roof. It is now used as the local middle school. Now, forward march!" The groups shuffle onwards towards the antiquities stalls. Down on the riverbank everyone is photographing everyone else. There's the usual array of folk costume stalls and girls and boys dressing up for more photos. Despite the tourist tacky edge to the place it's still rather pleasant. We amble into the new town to photocopy our passports. It takes a while, with frequent asking, to find a place, but everyone is very helpful. The town, like all the other places we have visited, is incredibly clean and free of litter. This is incredible because everyone throws their rubbish in the street. On the buses, the window is the litter bin.
The weather is the only let down as cloud and occasional drizzle dampens the days and dulls our photographs.
We have a couple of days before our train journey northwards, so we move on to Dehang, a village in a "Scenic Area". It's still grey and wet when we arrive, and although the narrow valley and gorges with karst peaks are lovely, the village itself is far from scenic. It's plain ugly, really. It's not helped by the new buildings, including an open-air theatre, built for the domestic tourists, that line the route from the coach carpark to the village square. Our mood is not helped by the grotty accomodation options. We are shown one room with two beds that would only permit standing room for one person at a time. The room has only wooden latticework over the windows, but a large piece of plywood is provided if we want to close out the damp and the light. Fortunately we are rescued by a woman who leads us to what looks like a school boarding house. The room is clean, and despite damp sheets, we take it and quickly head off up one of the walking trails to look at China's highest waterfall. The waterfall has no water, even though it looks like it rains here every day of the year. It's one of those days. What are we doing here? we ask ourselves.
The next day is much better, with sunshine breaking through the morning mist, and we hike up another gorge and climb up a long set of steps to a viewpoint at the head of the valley. The view looking back is wonderful, but turn around and you can see a new expressway just being finished. It seems improbably high up and looks ugly and out of place, but I guess all big roads do at first. We hurry down and checkout, having resolved to spend a night in Jishou, the town where we catch our train. There's nothing to do there, but there's good street food stalls and the hotel room has it's own computer. Gayle quickly gets to work uploading photos from China onto Flickr - a slow task at the best of times, and a bit tricky when all the dialogue boxes on the screen come up in Mandarin. So how does everyone type Chinese characters then? Roland had told us that everyone has to type in pinyin, the romanised form of the language. The pc will then suggest characters to match the pinyin. Another day I watched a woman texting on her mobile phone. She had a touch screen, and with a long fingernail scratched out her characters. The phone then suggested various alternative characters and she chose one. It looked a slow process, but it works.