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LONGSHAN, HUNAN — No, I was not in a bus plunge accident, but I was in a bus, on a mountain road, in the rain last week. The experience was oddly enough one of the highlights of the last three weeks.

A time-honored half-inch filler in many newspapers has traditionally been the proverbial “bus plunge” story, which goes something like,

GENERICA, HOONOHSISTAN — Nearly 100 people died last week when their overloaded bus skidded off a snowy mountain road and into a ravine 100 feet below. Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until weather conditions improved yesterday.

Despite the morbid subject matter, among newspaper people, bus plunge stories are somewhat of a running joke, since they are basically boilerplate copy. You just change the date, the number of casualties and the location and leave everything else basically the same. For years, I half wondered if the Associated Press was pulling our legs and just making these stories up. Some intern was sitting at a desk somewhere manufacturing half-inch bus plunge stories for release at random times.

Of course, such accidents really do happen, and they’re no joke. All this was running through my mind as my bus ambled from Longshan to Jishou.

As the crow flies, Longshan 龙山 is barely 80 miles NNW of Jishou 吉首. But we’re in the mountains here, and there is no such thing (yet) as a halfway straight road between two places. By bus, it takes seven hours (yes, friends, seven hours) to travel between these two places. The route is basically a series of switchbacks up one range of mountains and down into the valley where Longshan (“Dragon Mountain,” literally) lies. And of course, there are stops along the way at other towns like Guzhang 古丈 — home of really wonderful tea — and Yongshun 永顺, even before you start the climb.

Not only that, but the Hunan Highway Department is rebuilding the road up thar in the hills, so some sections are not even paved. This required our iron-willed bus driver to pick his way carefully between ruts and potholes while weaving around slower motorcyclists, men on tractors and dump trucks carrying huge loads of rock blasted from the mountainsides. It wasn’t so bad on the way to Longshan, but on the way back, there was a light rain. The dirt roads turned into muddy roads and he had to drive even more carefully to keep us from being the subjects of a bus plunge filler.

So, yeah, seven hours was just fine by me.

So, why was I subjecting myself to this slow-motion roller coaster ride? One of my sophomores, Jackie Li, had invited me to her home while I was still in the USA. I knew it would be a grueling journey, but it was a serious invitation and I was determined to honor it.

It was worth the trip. First, I stuck another solo trip in my hat, successfully finding my way from Jishou to Longshan all by my little lonesome. Secondly, Jackie’s folks are really good cooks, and I got to meet most of her uncles and aunts, who were very delighted to meet their first foreigners. We visited some scenic places — up on mountains, of course. (Oh, my aching legs! Three weeks of idleness in Louisville did not prepare me for all the mountain climbing I did after I came back to China.) And, it was a relaxing way to spend my last week of Winter Holiday.

I came back to Jishou on Feb. 9, after sleeping off my 13-hour non-stop in a comfy hotel in Changsha 长沙. After a couple of days lazing in my apartment, I took off for a weekend trip to Fenghuang 凤凰, where a teacher friend had invited me to visit her home. Then, I went with another friend to Taohuayuan 桃花源 Nature Park, where if they are season you can see peach blossoms in bloom. There we met two charming middle school girls, who I swear hung around the park until we came down from our walk up the mountain just to speak with me. They helped us find a monkey habitat down the road, while they practiced their basic English.

After Taohuayuan (“peach blossom garden” but it also means “Shangri-La”), I visited Tongren 瞳仁, a small city about four hours away by train. There we climbed yet another mountain to visit Nine Dragon Cave 九龙洞 (jiu long dong). I swear I did as much vertical travel this winter vacation as I did horizontal!

Fortunately, none of the vertical travel included riding a bus on a one-way trip into a ravine. It would have been a crummy way to start the Year of the Rabbit in China.

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