Yong Tai is a hidden valley in FuZhou’s expansive county. It itself is a vast area of mountains and hills with numerous hidden treasures. We were told to go by one of our Chinese friends, as they recommended that there there was “fresh air, and mountains, and seafood”. We packed our bags late one night, booked a train for the next morning and away we went.
A half hour standing train journey at 8am found us in Yong Tai’s tiny train station. Although described as tiny, I mean tiny by Chinese standards; Yong Tai is a small village with a train station the size of Kings Cross. There are no train stations in China that are purely a couple of platforms and an office. Even their small stations have a couple of convenience type stalls, a huge lofty waiting room, and a grandiose entrance hallway.
Alighting here we headed to find some kind of transportation to a hotel that we had booked. The taxis were all asking for more money than we were willing to pay, and all refused to put their meters on. Bartering away in our broken Chinese, we refused a few taxis before a kindly man pulled up and asked where it was we were going. We finally settled on a price and got into his car, before realising that he had no meter and we weren’t sure that he was a taxi at all. Still, as he pulled out towards the hills and we were wowed by the views, we weren’t altogether worried. Here we witnessed the most audacious driving we have seen yet in China. Overtaking around switchback blind bends, whilst holding the horn in one hand and his phone in the other, for the thrill seekers amongst you, this should feature highly on your bucket list. We arrived in record time, and as we pulled into the hotel and he handed us his card, we realised that he was a private car hire service; we were in ‘safe’ hands after all.
The hotel, perched atop a spur in the verdant green valley, was split into an accommodation wing overlooking a sprawling slope of small hot spring pools. We were not allowed to check in until 2pm however, and it was presently only 10am, and so we left our bags behind the desk and headed for adventure.
Adventure came a quick march down the road a couple of kilometres, where we noticed a small artificial boulder with large red type. It apparently advertised something in the hills; through the old Chinese style arch we went.
Down a winding road and over a bridge, we reached the national park office, paid £2 for a ticket, and headed through a turnstile down a path that led into a thickly bamboo forested gorge. As with all Chinese hiking, the path was a crazy-paved, moss-covered and vine-draped snake winding its way over, under, and through the landscape. The lack of hand rails and brightly coloured safety signage is a far cry from British tourist spots, but on a quiet day like this was, it made it easy to feel a part of the natural environment, and not just a spectator in it. For a country that gets so much bad environmental press, I am constantly impressed by how they maintain their relationship with nature, and how much value they place on it.
Our winding path promptly brought us, via stepping stones and gangplanks, to the first of many waterfalls and deep pools that line the valley floor. There wasn’t much water in the river, and the pools were still and quiet. If they weren’t so bitterly cold we would have swam, and we were sorely tempted regardless. The photos hopefully do a better job of describing these falls than I can, so i’ll let them speak for themselves, and simply say they were magnificent.
This procession of lakes and falls went on for miles, and we were so enraptured by the cascading water that we barely noticed the hundreds of meters we must have climbed up the valley. By the time the stream had dwindled to its source, we were most of the way up the towering cliffs that lined the gorge. Along the way we passed various points of local lore and superstition, following a journey made by the “Champion of Yongtai” to see God at the mountaintop temple. The translations were a bit hazy but by all accounts he had a rougher time of it than us.
Thankfully by this point they had installed some much needed handrails, as the path wound its way through caverns and hollows in the mountains side, passing shrines and stilted huts, replete with weathered old locals making soup and setting off strings of deafening New Year bangers. Again I suspect photos will do it better justice than me rambling…
The Path led us in a precipitous circle around the pinnacles of the QuingYun mountain, then back down a switchback staircase through the forest to the entrance gate. In all we spent 5 hours wandering the hills, and returned to the hotel thoroughly knackered.
Fortunately our last minute bookings at the hotel included the “spa package”, so trunks in hand we made for the hot spring complex attached to the hotel. A novelty for Sam, and entirely unlike the wild hot springs I had seen in Iceland, we went into a lobby reception, fumbled some Chinese to the girl on the desk, and headed for the changing rooms.
I can’t speak for Sam’s experience, but the gents changing rooms were hilarious. In the rural mountain countryside of a remote non-tourist city, a hirsute red haired chap like myself is basically a once in a lifetime sighting, and I was the cause of some considerable commotion in the showers. (Sam speaking for Sam says her experience was no better. A young girl who wont get her clothes off for love nor money in a changing room of mostly young-middle aged women walking around in their birthday suits was a far cry from the locked cubicle doors of the UK. She finally found a row of lockers that was – thankfully – completely uninhabited and changed behind a towel).
We left our phones in the lockers, so no photos here, (thank god). Neither of us are big pampering fans, but spending the evening sat in a 40 degree tea pot perched on the side of a picturesque mountain was a pretty decent way to recover from a hike, and certainly beats the rainy welsh lay-bys that I’m used to.
Eventually we got too wrinkly and bored to stew any longer, and made our way back to the hotel to sample the “Western-Style” restaurant they had proudly boasted.
We gave up the right to expect Western food in China when we chose Fuzhou as our home, but when someone claims to provide it, it’s always a laugh to investigate. It was, as we suspected, nothing at all like a restaurant in the west. We were sat at a table by a frantic Chinese host, clearly trying to impress us, but obviously far too busy to do it well. After 10 minutes of sitting there looking puzzled, he came back and told us they don’t have menus but we can look at the dishes ready made and choose what we want. Standard practice here, but not particularly useful if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
After some pointless deliberation, we opted for what looked like a duck breast, some hopefully potatoes and veg, and asked for some noodles. Our host returned again to our table showing his phone and apologising profusely that they didn’t have any Western-Style noodles, they only had local noodles. After trying to assure him that that was what we ordered, as the west doesn’t have any noodles at all (minus the American spaghetti noodles) he raced off again to let the over-worked chefs know.
Back to the table for 40 minutes of regular apologies for the slow chefs, but no drinks menu or options beyond the complimentary tepid brown water (supposedly tea, but I fear the leaves had never been properly introduced to the water, let alone had time to impart any flavour).
Thankfully we were entertained by colourful toddlers in over-stuffed winter coats wandering around the restaurant aimlessly, bumping into things, and trying to sneak looks at us, only to flee when we caught their eye or waved.
But in the end our food did arrive, and it was hot.
The potato and veg turned out to be frog (whole, not like the french, but equally odd) on a bed of dried chilli peppers and whole garlic cloves.. The duck turned out to be the local smoked variety, that tastes uncannily like a mouthful of diesel I once accidentally sucked though a hose. The non-western noodles were indeed Chinese noodles, but chopped into inch lengths, and occasional lumps of maybe-squid, in oil.
After 20 minutes of playing frog or garlic, and gamely forcing down as much duck a la diesel as we could face, we gave up and headed to bed. Probably wont try a “Western” restaurant again for a while. What a reputation we must have in China if that’s what they think we eat.
Day two we awoke refreshed and ready to tackle the breakfast non-menu that we had been offered, again with our last minute booking of the hotel. After a shower in which we were actually able to stand, we made our way to the restaurant again to see what “luxuries” awaited us in the kitchen this morning. Giving our vouchers tot he attendant, helpfully placed at the door this time, he waved us through to the plush seating of the night before. It was a completely different sight. It was still hectic and absolutely heaving with Chinese tourists, and we had to wangle a table. However, breakfast consisted of a buffet of all the Chinese food you could imagine. Two types of fried rice, three types of noodles, fried eggs, a whole counter top of vegetables, spring rolls, dumplings, chicken feet, numerous plates of chopped fruit, drinks machines spitting out coffee and tea, and three different types of milk. Plates piled high, I believe the only thing I said over breakfast (minus translating the labels on the coffee machine for Callum) was “If only I were allowed this last night”. It was incredible.
So, being happy bunnies after such an amazing breakfast, we checked out and asked the young, helpful chappy behind reception for a map. He looked confused, and even though my Chinese is bad, it isn’t that bad. Looking at the Chinese-English brochure we had picked up from the same hotel the evening before, he went about telling us that this one was too far to walk to, and then changed his mind and told us another was inaccessible. In the end we gave up and looked at a map on our phones.
Walking a couple of kilometres past the QuingYun mountain of yesterday, we approached an old row of houses along the edge of each side of the road. Although it was busy, everything hushed as we walked through. Leaving here and following a beautiful but low river alongside the road, we found a highly decorated and fantastically busy corner. Again stood a concrete boulder with red writing that indicated another Chinese National Park Site of Interest. We paid our £2 and entered.
Following the advice of not walking whilst sightseeing, and not sightseeing whilst walking, we found ourselves again on a rocky, cobbled pathway with few safety barriers or warning signs. Following the path through the valley, meeting a local beekeeper selling fresh honey in water bottles, and being rewarded for attempting a conversation in Chinese with fresh lychee, we hit an immense cave with a waterfall too big for our cameras. Paying 60p we got a raft across the lake and walked up through the cave, behind the beast of the waterfall. It was only on the way back that we realised that the rafts were floating on empty water bottles. Seeing the incredible temples at the top of the mountain, a cave used by the Red Army and Guerrillas, and also meeting a well-travelled Chinese guy, we walked again for many an hour on this route. As Callum earlier professed, the pictures will do a better job of describing this than I…..
From here we walked further down the road another kilometre or so. Here we happened upon a large hotel on the far side of the road. As we entered White Horse Canyon we were stopped by an attendant asking what it was we were here for (we think). Half an hour later and we were still trying to understand what it was that she was asking of us. All we wanted to do was walk the trail advertised in our brochure. Finally agreeing to leave our bag – no she couldn’t look in it – behind the reception desk, even though they closed at 5, but closed at 6, but then closed again at 8, we promised we would be back before five, and six, and eight pm and headed off along the trail.
Here it was mainly flat, with no stairs and only a slow accent into the wooded valley. We were the only people on the path, aside from a man emptying bins in a business suit, complete with tie. We finally happened upon a temple in a cave unlike anything we had seen before. The front boasted a waterfall, which was large but had little water like the others, that fell into a man made pond. In the temple were the statues of many gods, and though a back door there were more gods, sat in the cave with bare rock to protect them. As we were looking around, an attendant had come to close up the temple and blow out the candles. I asked if he could show us the cave, and without fail, he taught us the entire prayer ritual, consisting of three incense and three bows for each of the statues in order. He even let us climb an ‘Indiana Jones’ type staircase up the side of the mountain where we found a pagoda with a large bell (which we were itching to ring but didn’t) and a second man made pond, complete with red writing on the rocks and a further trickling waterfall.
As we descended he offered us a lift in his tour bus, free of charge, to take us back to reception before it closed. We were grateful, it had been a long day, and it was only 5pm.
After picking up our bag we asked the staff if there was a bus that went from where we were to the train station; our trip was almost over. The guy who had driven us back to reception in his tuk-tuk-style tourer said that he lived by the station and would happily give us a lift. He asked his boss of he could clock off a few minutes early to give us a lift, and there we were, hitchhiking in China!
The lift back was every bit as thrilling as the journey there the day earlier; overtaking on blind bends, letting go of the wheel and racing at unimaginable speeds along this windy mountain road. He got us back to the station in time for us to attempt to find some food before our train that evening. Still aware of the food we had eaten the previous evening, we were cautious in choosing a restaurant.
We did in fact, find a steak house. The manager seated us, eager for us not to wait for a table, and yet having no tables free, we were seated int he middle of the restaurant on a couple of stools around a badly balanced square tressel type table. We were attracting a lot of attention, and a few of the children, older but no less rowdy than those of the previous evening, came to talk to us in their broke, school-learned English. We were provided with well cooked and delicious steak, fried egg, western-style noodles (spaghetti), and a free salad bar (that included chicken nuggets, chicken feet, sausage, garlic bread, haribo, ice cream, spring rolls, boiled vegetables, and a myriad of fruit). It was, in fact, delicious, and we left raving reviews with the manager.
With still a couple of hours to kill before our train we sat in the gargantuan entrance hall of the train station and played i-spy. Turns out they aren’t as different from English railways – people still get on with badly packed luggage, there’s still a handful of bored and sleepy attendants, and there’s always a semi-deflated helium balloon on the ceiling.