In retrospect I reckon I was biased against this city. Leaving Wuhu's friendliness and serenity, and nursing what turned out to be a magnificent sinus infection; my feet aching in spite of new shoes, I simply wasn't ready for the cacophony that greeted me when I first set foot in Hefei.
As everywhere I've been in China, POV drivers hustle for fares just outside the train station exit and a foreigner is their prime target. I generally manage to avoid their scrutiny by striding purposefully past them. This time, feeling punk and assaulted by the unfresh air and noise I tarried, casting about for direction. My hotel was supposed to be within walking distance from the station. I figured: if I can walk there, then surely it must be visible.
To my right, down a murky looking, run down lane I spied the hotel's logo. I remember striving for optimism as I walked there: most cities' bus depot are near the train station. Even though I only allowed myself one day here, I could make the most of it just by riding buses and sampling local food. Now with anticipation I entered the hotel lobby, the text message with my reservation number at the ready.
The desk clerk told me that my reservation was for a different hotel in the same chain further from the station. Would she not be able to honor my reservation? Even though she had told me she had rooms available, I was told my reservation was not valid and I would have to pay full price. I found that unacceptable and moved on. Looking back, it was a good thing I did. That hotel was on a main thoroughfare, where 6 lanes of cars fought for space on a 4 lane road. To my aching head, the din was untenable. I moved on.
Another hotel chain, 7 Days Inn had a house relatively close to the station. They too had rooms available but I was told the room rate was over 230 Yuan. I pointed to the sign board which indicated rooms could be had for 187Yuan. The clerk explained the reward card: I can purchase such a card for 50 Yuan and then get the 187Yuan room rate. My fuzzy, aching head did the math and concluded I would still be paying more than 230Yuan for what I deem pinch-hit, last resort type of accommodations. I moved on.
Traversing the plaza in front of the train station again I was assaulted by drivers shouting 'Hello!' and 'Take taxi! I drive you!' directly in my face. I had to push two men out of my way because they were so close. From the road, the constant klaxon of horns and shouts of angry drivers.
I had only been in Hefei about 20 minutes and already missed Wuhu. And Wuhan, too. After waving away the latest onslaught of drivers for hire I saw some people crossing that monstrous traffic jam. I followed them. Together we braved cars inching forward in spite of us walking across the road to a median divider that a policeman was holding open for us. Once safely across I asked another officer if there is a Jin Jiang Inn nearby. Those are my hotel of choice with their comfortable beds and friendly staff. The man gestured vaguely down a side road. I had my doubts but what did I have to lose?
Let me say at this point that Hefei seems to be in the throes of rebirth. What is there is dirty and run down. Sidewalks are cobbled with small tiles, some of which are missing, making walking treacherous. The side street I was directed to was grungy and greasy. Food carts were setting up for the afternoon trade. Open fruit stand and liquor market mavens hawked their wares and hollered at each other. It reminded me of a scene from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman where, as a young boy, the protagonist was assaulted by a myriad of strange sights on the streets of Singapore. I dreaded walking down the center of the street, as most people did, because I was in no mood or shape to be the focus of attention. I risked the sidewalk instead.
The lane grew progressively narrower, and the branched out into 3 others. There was another 7 Day house down one alley, a Green Tree Inn on the corner in front of me and to my left, a hotel I'd never heard of or seen: YoJo Inn. Green Tree was definitely out because that is where I stayed in Suzhou and my first night in Wuhu, the most memorable part being the exquisitely hard beds. I was not willing to repeat that experience, so I turned left...
Into a most darling, welcoming house! The room cost 160Yuan a night, breakfast included. The lobby had large, beautiful aquariums. To the left of the counter, two mynah birds cheeped: “Ni Hao! Ni Hao!” I answered them. They, and the desk clerk laughed at me. Things are beginning to look up!
The fourth floor lobby also had 2 large aquariums: very feng shui. A floor to ceiling window revealed an inner courtyard for each floor. The concrete beams were astro-turfed with potted plants placed every few meters. My room, down a gold-carpeted hall, was quaint: tiled bathroom, a small sitting area and a comfortable bed. On the desk, a computer hook-up and the ubiquitous tea service: an electric kettle, 2 cups and 2 tea bags. The only drawback was that my room faced a parking lot.
After turning the A/C on – it was much hotter in Hefei than in Wuhu, I took stock. I didn't feel well: my feet hurt, my head was pounding and I had zero energy or desire to go back out, even though I only had 24 hours to experience this city. What I had seen so far was quite the opposite of fantastic. I holed up.
A few hours later, I realized I would have to go out for food. Well, some food. Upon leaving Wuhu I had run across a vendor selling plump, veggie filled dumplings. Reasoning I might get hungry on the train I decided to buy some. They were 2 for 1Yuan, but I believe the vendor misunderstood me when I said I wanted 4. she gave me 4Yuan worth of dumplings!
So, here I am in Hefei, unwilling to subject myself to the noise and grime that, so far had been my experience there, with 6 dumplings left to eat. I took a short walk to a convenience store for chips, a soda and a small cake for dessert, and then returned to my room. I filled the kettle and suspended the bag of dumplings in it, and then set it to boil. Within a few minutes I had delicious steamed dumplings to complement my chips and drink!
Just call me McGyver.
The next morning I took my time checking out. My train was scheduled for 12:36 and check-out time was noon. I saw no reason to hurry. Walking back up that grimy alley I reasoned: it will be 3 hours back to Wuhan. I might get hungry and, besides the hotel breakfast, I'd not tasted any local fare so I stopped at a noodle stand and placed my order.
The cook went to the back and returned with a vacuum packed bundle of precooked noodles, tore it open and dumped them in a steaming pot. “Would you like 'hot-n-spicy'”? “No, thank you.” “Well, how about a little spicy?” “OK, I can stand that.” after scooping the noodles from the hot water she added a few dried ingredients and topped it off with broth from a steaming cauldron. I got it to go: better to be at the train station and eat than lunch at the restaurant and be late... who knows what type of traffic mishap might separate me from the station?
Once I got there I realized I might have a problem: there was nowhere to sit! Every train station I've been to in China has a few benches out front. Here, people were squatting, or flat out laying down on the pavement. Where to eat my noodles? I found a seat in McDonald's and sampled my first bite. The noodles were rubbery and the broth I anticipated soothing my sore throat was too spicy to drink. After a few bites I started coughing from the spiciness of it.
The time was getting close, anyway. I abandoned my nearly full bowl of noodles and headed for check-in.
In spite of the Martin Cloud and the not so good time in Hefei, I realized I did not want to end my travels. Unlike my last trip that I cut short for the yearning of home, I could have stood to linger somewhere else. Probably not in Hefei, even though I would be the first to admit I did not give this city a fair shake.
It is time to get back into real life. My travel budget is depleted and school starts in 2 weeks. I'll use that time to transition from vagabond to teacher, and to write more musings. Stay tuned!