To be honest, I had expected much more from a bullet train. I had never ridden one and all my previous experience with trains of this kind had to do with the song of such title by “Sparks” where the train is called “immaculate”. The Guangzhou-Changsha express was by no means immaculate – it`s interior was inferior to regular trains that I had ridden in Europe, and the speed wasn`t breathtaking either – it never went over 310km/h, and I didn`t feel that it was fast at all. Of course, my bitching in the previous sentences doesn`t necessarily mean that there was anything wrong with the train – it just wasn`t a life changing experience as I had thought it would be. In the seats next to us sat an English family with two teenage kids who were complaining about the food, the daughter was outraged by a milkshake that was purchased at a McDonalds and when the father got a call from someone inviting them to a feast, none of them seemed very happy. We were meanwhile feeding on wassabi flavored peas and enjoying the fact that we were leaving Guangzhou behind, as that city hadn`t impressed us much.
I wouldn`t say though that we had especially high hopes for Changsha. Lonely Planet characterizes it as a “typical second-tier Chinese city with somewhat less traffic than most cities of its size” - not a single word about mind-blowing architecture, fine cookery and charming women. It took us three hours to cover the 700 kilometers between the cities, and off we went into another crowd of annoying taxi drivers and junk salesmen.
The train stopped quite far from the city center, much further than I had expected. I had presumed that there would be something like 2 kilometers from the railway station to our hotel, but the GPS indicated that we were at least 10 kilometers away. Thus we were almost ready to succumb to an offer to get into a taxi, but after the pricey taxi experience from Guangzhou we were much more cautious this time. One driver was especially active in his offers. At first he offered to drive us to the center for 100 Yuan, but that seemed excessive and we were low on cash anyway and I would consider 50 a much more adequate price. After some haggling the driver lowered the price to 80. I said that all we had was 60, so – take it or leave it. And he decided to leave it which was better for us anyway, as it turned out that there was a bus to the city where the ticket price was 1 Yuan per person. We had to switch buses though to get to our hotel, but we got there smoothly enough anyway.
Our hotel in Changsha was much more pleasant than the one in Guangzhou – with a window away from the street and with probably the least plank-like beads that we had in our entire trip. Some strange stuff happened at the checking-in though – a Chinese man who spoke very limited English seemed unhappy with something about the visas in our passports and for a while we thought that he was going to call the secret police and we would spend the night (and the rest of our trip) in jail – although there were no reasons for that, but something didn`t seem right to him, and we had to wait standing for 10 minutes at the reception while he was doing god knows what with our passports, maybe buying a new xBox.
The only problem one encounters when visiting Changsha – there`s not much to do there. The city, as our guidebook told, was devastated in the Chinese-Japanese war and nowadays it is only known as the place where Mao went to school, plus from here you can go to Shoashan – the village where the so-called Great Helmsman was born. Not that Mao is that much of a hero in modern China, as far as I`ve gathered his current status is somewhat similar to that of Lenin in modern Russia. Anyway, we didn`t go to China as Mao-pilgrims, so Shaoshan was not in our plans. Having spent much of the daytime on the train, we decided that we should go to find the only geocache there is in Changsha, in order to leave there a geocoin that we had brought from Latvia.
Getting there was quite tricky as the cache was far from the city center (our hotel on the other hand was in the heart of the city) and the receptionists in our hotel weren`t exactly fluent in English, however with a little bit of sign language and after having shown then our desired location on the map, we got a bus number that should drive us there. It turned out – that it didn`t go exactly where we wanted, but at least – not that far off. On the way to the cache we passed the Changsha university and saw lots of Chinese students either celebrating something or just having a regular night on the town. Also near the university we saw the only publicly displayed statue of Mao during our trip (not that we wanted to see more of those). Despite the place being quite crowded, the student-populated part of the city seemed somewhat more welcoming and less grotesquely chaotic than what we had seen previously. The cache, as its description stated, was hidden near a Dagoba (also known as Stupa - “a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics), personally I didn`t see where any relics could be hidden within that rather small stone object that we saw next to the cache, but it was dark, so maybe what we saw wasn`t a dagoba at all. At least we found the cache, and fulfilled our mission to take a coin “East”. Then I persuaded Liene that we should go a little bit higher up the hill to see a Buddhist temple, but because it was completely dark, we didn`t see anything.
So we went back to the area close to our hotel and entered a pedestrian area (or something as close to a pedestrian area than one can find in China, as there are people who are better than the rules everywhere) with tons of small souvenir shops and some pleasantly looking restaurants, as we had decided not to enter a sleazy “white chicken” joint ever again. We ended up in a frienly-looking restaurant where the language barrier played some tricks on us, making us feel as if had been placed in a Monty Python sketch.
Ironically the biggest problem in the restaurant was to get some food. The menu had pictures, so it seemed that there wouldn`t be any problems, but there were... We thought that we had ordered the main dishes and then we asked for some mineral water for drinking. It turned out that our waitress wasn`t familiar with the English word “water” and not with any other language names for it that we could name (“Wasser”, “l`eau”, “aqua”, “вода”), probably we should had tried asking for it in Latvian (ūdens) – who knows, maybe all the people that we encountered had mastered Latvian in order to be able to spy on us for their communist government. Since we couldn`t get water, we asked for tea, altough we already had tea, so we got some more, and this time – tea with flowers in it. After nearly an hour tea was all there was on our table, and then we were finally served. But instead of getting two main dishes with rice, we got just one main dish and no rice at all. Which meant – spicy pork with nothing to neutralize the burning. When we asked the waitress about the second dish, she was surprised and said “ok” lots of times, but it was clear that she didn`t understand us. An hour later we got one more meal of the spicy pork (and not the other dish that we had ordered), but this time luckily rice was there, so at the end of the meal we weren`t as hungry as before it. Then we were ready to retreat to our hotel.
On the next morning we started quite early in order to leave for Zhangjiajie – the park that inspired Avatar (or so they claim). We got to the bus station which was about as worn-out looking as a bus station can, and by showing the name of our destination in hieroglyphs to everyone encountered, we quickly were seated on a bus that departed almost instantly, thus concluding our rather short stay in the city where there`s not much to see anyway.