China Chronicles – Fifth Installment

25 June 2006, Day 11: Beijing to Guìlín

The following day I was back on the train for a 27 hour ride south to Guìlín. This time I opted for a hard sleeper on the train. During the ride to Beijing I had found the luxury of the soft sleeper with its closed compartments, lace curtains and velvet roses a bit too rich and isolating for my taste. The hard sleeper with its door-less compartments and three tiered bunks was much more to my liking. Here I got some proper contact with the locals when a boisterous group of young business men decided to take a look at all my belongings. I was reading on my bunk when I felt something brushing my feet and looked up to see two guys happily flipping through my books. In the West this would have been a gross invasion of privacy, but here it seemed normal and the guys and I managed to have “conversations” by passing around my Mandarin phrasebook, reading and pointing to phrases such as “Have you eaten?” in Chinese and English. At one point the young business men engaged in an animated conversation shouting and pointing and looking at me as if I understood. I sat quietly with the older couple from the bunk below shrugging helplessly until we all broke up laughing – it was great fun!

26 June 2006, Day 12: Guìlín

After the insanity of Beijing, Guìlín, with a population of over a million, felt peaceful and I was happy to wander around the Binjiang Lu shaded by Guìlín’s famous Osmanthus trees. In the late afternoon I boarded a bus for Yangshuo, a bit of a backpacker Mecca. Despite its reputation as a tourist trap I had found Guìlín devoid of tourists, but Yangshuo was a different story. The aptly named West Street was full of Westerners, and I was immediately bombarded by a chorus of “Hello, hello! Hotel? Postcards? You buy? You buy?” I made a beeline away from West Street and was very happy to discover that my hostel – The Yangshuo Culture House – was located well away from the main drag and in a typically Chinese neighborhood. The Culture House is so named because it gives visitors a local Chinese experience. My room overlooked a dusty street where I watched people make bricks from scratch. My toilet was in typical Chinese squatter style and was combined with the shower. This may sound disgusting, but it was in fact rather practical as the toilet was always sparkling clean. Just an aside about Eastern-style squatting toilets versus Western-style sitting toilets. I have heard Westerners in Beijing bemoan the scarcity of sit-down toilets by referring to them as hidden dragons in a sea of crouching tigers. But having traveled in a few places, I must admit that if presented with a somewhat unhygienic toilet, I much prefer squatting over the ground than trying to hover above a seat that I would rather not touch. But that’s just my opinion.

27 June 2006, Day 13: The Li River and Yangshuo on foot

Yangshuo’s defining feature is its landscape. Set amid a forest of stunning karst peaks and next to the aqua blue Li River, the scenery has inspired painters and poets for generations. Han Yu, a Tang Dynasty poet described it as follows: “The Li River is a blue ribbon of silk and the hills are hairpins of jade.” Three hundred million years ago the Yangshuo area was swallowed by the sea and when it emerged the geology was dominated by limestone from sea sediments. Karst is a geologic term that describes areas subject to forming caves and sink-holes, and limestone is a typical karst material because it dissolves easily in water. Caves are formed in karst as ground water in underground streams carries away dissolved material. Over time the caves get larger and their ceilings collapse creating sink holes and eventually the strange pillar hills seen in the Yangshuo area.

I spent the morning enjoying the landscape on a small boat in the Li River near the town of Xingping just north of Yangshuo. Around mid morning a train of large tourist ships paraded by with tour groups doing the mandatory Guìlín to Yangshuo cruise. Watching that insanity I was happy to have conquered my fear of traveling China alone and opted against an organized tour. I took a bus back from Xingping and arrived back just as the tourists were exiting the Yangshuo market. As the crowds dispersed I got a great chance to watch the locals packing up their stalls and then spent the afternoon walking the Chinese parts of town. Most of the time I was the only Westerner in sight and I’m pretty sure the locals thought I was lost – at times I was. I found a classic clothing market in a covered alley and watched endless groups of people playing mahjong. In the river a group of teenaged boys were swimming and I had to laugh as they splashed at the grazing buffalos when they got too close, and then gave up and swam side by side with the great horned beasts.

28 June 2006, Day 14: Cycling Yangshuo

The day dawned sunny and humid and I decided to brave the heat and cycle the countryside surrounding Yangshuo. I rented a bike and headed off past paddy fields ringed in karst until I reached the Yulong River. Then I turned south following the river and watching tourists as they were poled along on bamboo rafts. From the river I continued south following a veritable parade of tourists toward Moon Hill, a famous karst formation with a moon shaped hole in the center. After the turn-off for Moon Hill the crowds thinned and by the time I reached Gaotian Town, less than two kilometers away, I was the only Westerner. It was market day in Gaotian and everything from clothes to autoparts, to rice, to live fish and eels and chickens was on sale. Chicks peeped and played in wicker baskets and adult chickens were kept in wicker cages. The birds were bought live and carried away by the feet and new shipments of squabbling birds were brought in on the backs of overloaded motorbikes.

After taking my fill of the Chinese market I reentered the tourist train and cycled back to Moon Hill. As soon as I paid the entrance fee I was joined by a local who accompanied me all the way up and down the hill chatting and trying to teach me Mandarin while I helped her with her English. Moon Hill is so touristy that it is impossible to climb the hill without a “guide” like mine, but since I knew this in advance I didn’t mind paying her triple price for a can of soda and a postcard at the end of the walk, she was good company.

29 June 2006, Day 15: Hiking around Yangshuo

For my last full day in mainland China I opted for a hike along the Li River north of Yangshuo from Yangti to Xingping. The hike was beautiful and took me through some of the most stunning karst formations of the region. There was even time for a swim and the water was almost swimming pool clear, a stunning change from the multicolored rivers I had seen from the train. I highly recommend this hike, but it shouldn’t be done without someone who speaks Manadarin. I went with two Swedes and an American who had lived in China for three years and spoke Chinese well. His knowledge of the language was necessary to negotiate where to pay the entrance fees, where to find the ferries, and where to go when we got lost while following tiny paths along the terraced crop fields. Another important point about this hike is that the towns of Yangti and Xingping can be a bit dodgy about charging fees. The cost of the hike is by no means expensive and we had no problem paying the equivalent of 2 euros to enter in Yangti. However, when we tried to leave in Xingping, our way was hostilely barricaded by government officials who yelled at us when we showed our payment receipt and made us pay again. It would seem that both towns want a piece of the tourist action. In principle I think paying 2 euros at both ends of the trail so both towns can benefit is reasonable, but I have to admit that the way they treated us left me feeling ripped off and concerned about corruption.

I had another small culture shock later that evening as I waited to be picked up by the overnight bus that would take me to the border with Hong Kong. My “ticket” was a crumpled piece of paper the said “Pick up for this girl at Happy Hotel Lobby 9 PM – 29 June 2006”. Following the instructions I went to the Happy Hotel and was told to wait across the street for pick up. I stood at the side of a very noisy, dusty and hot road for an hour, but no bus came. Then a group of people from the hostel (including the fluent American) passed by and I sheepishly told them that I had likely been ripped off. When a sleeper bus approached, slowed and then drove off without me the American chased it down and was screamed at by the ticket taker. It seemed that he wanted to know what time her bus was meant to arrive and she was insisting that they were full. They yelled at each other, she yelled at me and then the bus sped off. So we asked at the hotel if it was normal for buses to be late. “Oh yes” they said “Often 2 hours late”. Great. So I waited some more, by this time feeling rather desperate. About this time strange men started approaching me on motorcycles muttering in Mandarin and motioning for me to get on if I wanted to go to Shenzhen (indeed the border town where I needed to go). But there was no way I, a single women traveler raised in a big city, was going to get on the back of some strange man’s motorbike. So I waited some more and different men came. Finally I returned to the hotel to use the phone hoping to call my American interpreter, but the hotel staff held up their hands, told me they were not responsible, and would not let me use the phone. Oh dear. Finally they took pity on me and sent me walking towards town with a bell boy who spoke no English. Suddenly he stopped and started screaming into his radio in Mandarin. Then he held it out to my ear, but I couldn’t understand a thing. So we walked some more. We arrived at a travel agency and four more men on motorbikes showed up and motioned for me to get on. By this time I was hot, tired and very desperate. A woman from the agency told me in broken English that these men would take me to the bus and I finally gave in and got on. I must admit that as we road along I started to cry, I was past tired and was convinced that these men would take me off somewhere, steal my things and kill me – or worse. But then we pulled into a gas station and lo and behold there was a sleeper bus! I paid my driver about 40 cents for my safe delivery (in fact I was so relieved I would have paid him much more) and feeling rather embarrassed about not trusting the locals I climbed aboard the bus. Why the bus never came to the designated pick up point and why it was nearly two hours late I’ll never know. Before reaching the border, China gave me a final surprise. At 2:30 in the morning the bus stopped and all the lights were turned on. Bleary eyed I stumbled out for what I presumed was a bathroom break. I was right, but I have to admit that the toilets left some to be desired. In the ladies room there was a cement trough. No toilet, no running water, just a cement trough. I watched as the others straddled the trough, squatted and completed their business. What the hell, getting on the back of some strange man’s motorcycle didn’t kill me so this won’t kill me either.

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