On May Day, our day consisted mostly of travel. We took the 7.53 bullet train from Hankou to Enshi, from where we continued our journey to Mufu. The journey to Enshi takes about four hours, and the trains are very convenient (= it’s easy to sleep). The altitude rises on the way, and the Enshi Grand Canyon is at about 2000 m above sea level, so you have some time to get accustomed to the conditions. We had to drink lots of water, and started panting easier than usual and suffered from small headaches during the first day when ascending the mountains. Wen told me that Chinese people often withdraw to mountainous areas in the hottest summer months, because the temperature is lower in higher regions. When we arrived in Enshi, we took a taxi to the long-distance bus station. The journey cost about 15 yuan (1.7 euro) and the distance was about 10 kilometres. The Chinese urban infrastructure is interesting: big transportation hubs such as train and long-distance bus stations are almost always located some kilometres outside the city centre. There is a minivan leaving from the bus station every hour, and it costs 25 yuan. You need to find the van yourself, though, and you need to have a good grasp of Chinese. The local people are very helpful, and often accompany you to the exact platform or other place you need to go to. I’m sure we’ve heard the phrase “follow me” more than a handful of times. Judging by the bulging-eye stares we got at the bus station, we were the first foreigners to use the local bus service. The observance doesn’t ever feel threatening, though, so you don’t need to be afraid of that. In China, it is important to respect a foreign person’s personal space. This relates to “saving face” in front of strangers. The local people are very curious and extremely, even overly kind towards foreigners. The minivan journey takes about 100 minutes (60 km, winding mountain roads) and gets you to Mufu, located very close to the Shaanxi province border. The views are breath-taking. There were only three other people (locals) in the van with us. The van passed by many small mountain villages and you could see almost-vertical rice terraces on the other side of the river gorge, running between the mountains. The van drives very slowly upwards on the roads, perhaps at 40 km/h, so you have good time to take in the scenery and enjoy the gust of mountain air wafting in through the open windows.
We arrived at the canyon gorge about two hours later. There we waited for our host to pick us up. We stayed at a local home, run by a wedding planner and photographer. Apparently, he liked us a lot, because he treated us literally like queens during our whole stay. He didn’t speak anything else except Hubei dialect, and was very relieved when he could use his own language. His family also welcomed us very warmly. We learned that we were the first foreigners to visit their house. They had a 6-year-old girl who taught my friend Mandarin. She is a very good teacher: she spoke slowly and in a simple way. She also used hand gestures to show when a tone goes down. This is a perfect start to speak Mandarin for my friend: children are very good and empathetic teachers. They don’t mind if you get something wrong, they just giggle and repeat the word correctly. Then we laugh, play a little tickle game together and then continue talking. During our first day, our manager-host brought cherries from the village at 11.30pm to our room. He also cooked us a huge Chinese dinner brimmed with herbs among other things to promote bearing healthy children. Earlier that evening we were escorted by the 6-year-old girl to a dragon boat show held at an amphitheatre not far away. The performance was very beautiful: the stage was three-dimensional, utilising natural settings such as a pond, forest and mountains as its main features. The characters played out the story in the natural surroundings. When darkness fell, torches were lit by the actors and several dozens of torches lit up the surrounding natural scenery, their light reflected from the pond. A Chinese outdoor theatre is something everyone travelling to Hubei, and China in general, should experience.