Once I had finally managed to board the plane successfully, the onward flight to Changsha was pleasant enough. We were informed that the staff of China Southern Airlines would ‘cherish every opportunity of service’; a promise they fulfilled by providing me with a Coke, some peanut biscuits and the English-language ‘China Daily’ newspaper. This featured articles about, amongst other things, the plight of China’s migrant workers, who leave their families behind in rural areas in search of work in the big cities, and the arrogance of Western nations in assuming that their democratic systems are the best form of government for every society.
Upon arrival in Changsha I collected my luggage and made my way to the exit easily, but purchasing a bus ticket to Xiangtan was a little more difficult. Nobody spoke any English, and my pronunciation of Xiangtan was so bad that I had to write it down before they could be sure of where I wanted it to go. Nevertheless, this was at length accomplished, and I settled down to wait for the next bus.
The bus turned out to be a coach not dissimilar to any English one, except that the driver smoked on-board as well as off. About half an hour into our journey we stopped on a small semi-rural road. It was so dark outside that it was hard to make out what was going on, but I think our path was blocked by a lorry whose driver had decided to have an extended cigarette break and had just parked in the road. The smaller cars and mopeds were able to either squeeze past it or perform a U-turn, both of which involved a good deal of horn-beeping, but we just had to sit and wait for the driver to return, which he did after perhaps 15 minutes.
After another half hour of driving we entered Xiangtan, whereupon most of the passengers started holding shouted conversations with the bus driver simultaneously, trying to get him to stop in their desired location. There was only one advertised stop, and I had no idea how to identify it, so I got off when it seemed all of the remaining passengers were also disembarking. As I gazed around in bewilderment wondering how I might go about calling a taxi I had a great stroke of luck. Two of my fellow coach passengers turned out be students at Xiangtan University, and one of them approached me and spoke good enough English to work out that I was also trying to get there. The three of us got back onto the coach which took us a bit further, and they then set about trying to flag down a taxi. After a couple of minutes an unmarked car did a U-turn in the midst of fairly fast-moving traffic, and pulled up beside us. My suitcase wouldn’t fit in the boot, but the female driver was content to leave it poking out and close the boot as far as it would go. Then we were off, horn blaring, seatbelts unfastened (except for me), on the wrong side of the road as often as not and with the driver chatting on her mobile. I was already somewhat accustomed to the Chinese style of driving from my visit to Shanghai two years ago, and so wasn’t as alarmed as I might otherwise have been. I haven’t looked up any traffic accident statistics, but my suspicion is that the Chinese are simply forced to learn to be better drivers than their British counterparts, and the chaotic nature of their roads doesn’t lead to many more accidents. In any case, I arrived at the university unscathed at around 10 pm.
Here again my student helper was very useful. She fetched two of her friends and together they managed to work out where the building I needed to go to was and take me there. Even late at night there were around 5 staff members there, all of whom turned out to have a look at me and help with issuing my room keys. I have since learned that none of the receptionists at the International Exchange Centre speak any English, so had I not had the students with me this bit would have been tricky. After showing me to my room the students helped me with one final thing, taking me to an internet cafe type place where everyone was playing World of Warcraft and where I used the one spare computer to send an e-mail home saying that I’d arrived.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned – you never know, maybe the next update will be before October!