Night masks my vision as the bullet train slides into another empty modern edifice. It’s a trip I’ve been lucky to make at all. Rolling back three years to a time when my travel plans were thwarted by Chinese New Year I wasn’t expecting any problems in late August. Unknown to me, a secondary kind of CNY occurs at this time owing to the vast amount of students returning to their respective universities. If I can’t get on a northbound train, they will be less one teacher. It has, courtesy of the visa conundrum, already taken me two days to get from Taipei to Shenzhen! A trip only necessary for the latest in a long line of visa visits to HK, replacing what would have been a two hour flight to Guangzhou, but bureaucracy is never simple.
By Chinese standards, Chenzhou is a small city boasting a mere four and a half million people (similar to Ireland or New Zealand) which lies almost exactly halfway between China’s third metropolis Guangzhou and Hunan’s provincial capital, Changsha. Next to most of the other cities I’ve visited in the middle kingdom it certainly does feel more rural. There are few creature comforts for westerners here; no Starbucks, no UNI QLO and unusually the one and only McDonald’s resides on the north-eastern corner of Beihu Lake – away from the familiar logos dotted around the main square. At the time of writing, only KFC and a localised version of Pizza Hut are present. Even getting toast is impossible compared to Taipei. Depending on your standpoint, some would say this is refreshing, for me it is more an annoyance – there is only so much rice and noodles one can take. Perhaps more surprising is that considering the rapid expansion of the hotel industry in China, there is only one major chain; the Wyndham Grand and that is located a considerable distance to what is the bonafide centre of town (in Wanxian opposite the Xiangnan University – XNU).
Note also that (as yet) there is no state of the art airport or subway system under construction. The aforementioned high speed rail station to the west is currently as classy as this town’s transportation gets. The only problem is getting to it; no direct bus route from XNU means connecting or taking a cab. No, for now, Chenzhou is happy to continue as it is. Part dive bar, part picture postcard; Glasgow meets Geneva with whatever she has up her sleeve ripe for discovery. And what might that be exactly? Well for one there’s Wuling Park pagoda situated on a hill (visible from Wuling Square) especially stunning at night. Ai Lian Lake and its temple are tucked away behind the Omiga Hotel in an unassuming part of town, this is a place that doesn’t offer up all its jewels easily, you have to search them out. That said, the idyllic Beihu Lake is relatively easy to find being smack bang in the middle of town with walkways, poetry walls, water calligraphy, dancers and a Ferris wheel that looks like its been out of action since the sixties and left to rust. There are however signs of things to come.
Like many Chinese cities Chenzhou is a work in progress and the groans of industry can be heard in many key plots building the next generation of super malls that will hopefully house more international brands (although whether these will be official or Chinese counterfeits remains to be seen). The plans I’ve seen for the upcoming NICE CITY are lavish and will, when completed, feature an IMAX cinema and an aquarium. One mall, TIMES SQUARE, exists already. The first floor which is charmingly referred to by the Chinese as ‘famous museum’ curates cosmetic brands: L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Dior, Chanel among others, though for now Haagen Dazs remains its sole international food occupant. The fifth floor houses an IMAX alongside interesting eateries like Sugarhut with its many intriguing desserts while XL Book on the fourth has its own cafe and some wonderful Chinese artefacts; anything from vases and fancy stationery to tea making sets, pens and globes. Also on the fourth are Adidas, NIKE and Converse.
However it is what lie outside of town which is Chenzhou’s real crowning glory, the colossal Dongjiang Lake – or at least it feels colossal when you’re there. It’s only when a friend shows me on a map does it seem minuscule to the larger lakes sprinkled throughout Hunan – itself meaning South Lake. Dongjiang is reminiscent of New Zealand’s Lake Waikaremoana and also features the Doushuai Caves and ridiculous amounts of dried fish. Like the high speed train station to the west, it’s location can present a particular conundrum. For a tourist attraction your best option is to find a friendly local with a car. Otherwise you’re looking at a change of bus or rather a bus and a mini-van which winds its way along the alpine like road a fair distance up the gorge, eventually reaching the dam and lake. It’s then down to pot luck how busy it will be and how long you’ll have to wait for a ticket or which package. I am with another of the extremely kind locals who, acting as a de-facto tour guide, hastily buys tickets for the boat. Without knowing what he’s bought as the exchange between him and the ticket tout was in Chinese I’m clueless, though this soon becomes clear. He’s bought tickets for the boat journey but not for the attraction the other end – the island with the caves. No matter though, I’ve still been very fortuitous to have seen some breathtaking scenery that not only reminds me of NZ but also Tuscany and Turkey’s Princes Islands off Istanbul’s coast.
Back in Chenzhou, the city slowly reveals itself, layer after layer until you find what you’re looking for is there, it just takes a while to chance upon it. Any place has its cool cafés or chic bakeries and here this falls to the Well Attitude found in Feihong Lu, near the old train station. Decked out with books and maps of the world on cloth, when I call by it’s pristine though eerily empty. One look at the menu and it’s not difficult to see why, a mocha near where I work can be had for 18rmb but the best the Well Attitude can do is 32rmb with an espresso clocking in at 24rmb. L’Senna bakeries are a common sight, busier and equally stylish fronted by beautiful local girls in blue shirts and matching eye liner. These are western prices in a city with plenty of affluent aspirations but it’s mostly an earthy old town where people shuffle around dirty market stalls of rickety sheds imbued by the scent of pork and piss. Chenzhou’s charms may suffer a little in terms of finesse though its people are reliably warm hearted folk curious of the few westerners who pass them by; some drifters and some who call Hunan home, for however long.
COFFEE AND CAKE
L’SENNA (throughout town, however the flagship store is at Wuling Square near Walmart)
ABOUT COFFEE (Wen Xing Lu, a lovely tree lined street adjoining Min Sheng Lu below. Not sure if this is still operating as the shutters were down last time I passed by)
CAFFEINA (also on Wen Xing Lu, coffee with a meowing kitten! And sometimes a movie in the evening)
WELL ATTITUDE (Feihong Lu and a smaller shop on Min Sheng Lu)
XL BOOK (Level 3 Times Square)
Some quirky cafe/bars can be found around He Ping Lu and Guo Qing Nan Lu (both inner city backstreets) but these seldom have English names, menus or staff; one that does is 1882 Classic Cafe but their English is sketchy to say the least. Great decor though with vinyl records and artwork adorning the walls.
WALMART (Supermarket, Wuling Square)
McDONALD’S (only one that I know of near Beihu Lake, you can also opt for the local version which goes under the somewhat comical moniker Man Donuts)
KFC (many throughout town but not great service, expect cold chips/fries or having to wait for either the fries or the chicken. This seems to be the case with KFC all over China. The Chinese it seems have yet to grasp the concept of fast food!)
PIZZA HUT (Wuling Sq. By contrast to KFC the service here is reasonably good but expect to queue to enter during holiday periods. Pizza so so, other meals ok)
HAAGEN DAZS (Times Sq Level 1)
H&M (newly opened in a corner of the Times Square mall, entrance from a side pedestrian street)
Images above: 1 Chenzhou Tourist Plaque 2 Beihu Lake islet 3 Ai Lian Lake gateway 4 Beihu Park dancers
*more images of Chenzhou can be seen on my Flickr account link above