29.04.2008 - 06.05.2008
For our one week vacation we flew from Xiamen to Guilin, about 800K. The area around Guilin, including the tourist city of Yangshuo, is famous for its green karst mountains, straight out of a Chinese landscape painting.
We spent two days in Guilin, wandering around on our own in the city's extensive parks and along the riverfront. We found it to be quite an attractive city, but wherever we went, other Chinese tourists and some locals wanted to take their picture with us. We felt like celebrities.
Disney characters it seems, are very popular in China with both children and adults. Here is a view of them from another section of the park pictured above.
The riverfront had it's share of wooden rafts and boats, some of which were floating restaurants.
In our guesthouse, we ran into Karen, probably the only black Canadian teacher in all of China. She too worked for WECL, though in Beijing where they had another school. Just prior to our trip we happened to be looking at the WECL newsletter and saw her picture, and there she was right next door.
We soon headed for Yangshuo, about an hour by bus. The town itself is an interesting mix of Chinese tourists and western backpacker types, complete with "Western Street" because of the number of western shops and restaurants.
The surrounding area is indeed gorgeous, with very green karst peaks sticking straight up from narrow river valleys and rice fields.
We are staying in a charming, but simple hostel, the Yangshuo Culture House, which is a few blocks away from the hustle of the main drag. The food, all part of the deal, is fantastic, and at the family styles meals we met some really nice folks from Holland and elsewhere. Nanette had a brush painting lesson with the owner Wei, which he offers free of charge.
We went on a long bike ride through several villages along the Yulong River, with our young Dutch friends.
This is ancient China, full of rice paddies being tilled the old way, by farmers with water buffaloes.
Narrow and rocky paths took us in between the villages and almost everyone was friendly and smiling.
The people live in old brick houses or houses made from adobe with slate roofs, and most of them looked to be as old as the houses. The young have all moved to the city to find work. It was a delight to get away from the hordes of tour groups that fill the main streets of Yangshuo. We ate lunch near Dragon Bridge, several hundred years old, and watched the bamboo rafts ferrying other tourists up and down the river.
The following day, we went on hike starting at Yang Di and ending at Xing Ping. We were told it was 24K in total, but it didn't seem quite that long. The trail and dirt roads weaved along on both sides of the Jiang Li River, which we had to cross about four times. The scenery was breathtaking, with sheer, rocky cliffs with lush vegetation rising directly from the river. Waves of misty peaks stretched into the distance with the occasional Buddhist shrine impossibly perched atop some of the rock outcroppings.
At one point we waded out on the slippery rocks and splashed ourselves with river water to cool down, as it got quite hot in the afternoon. At the same time a few old village women were trying to sell us fried fish and rice wrapped in banana leaves, which we didn't eat, anxious to avoid getting sick. They got big kick out of the lawei swimming in the river. Modernity has not touched everywhere in this country, at least not yet.
We find that even the few word we can say in Chinese make a big difference when we are touring like this. We can ask for simple directions and even find the bus station. This might not sound like much, but to able to make ourselves understood with all of the tones, feels like a big accomplishment.
On another excursion we took a local bus, accompanied by Karen, Bart and Maleenja, our Dutch friends, to Putao,
and then another one to Shitoucheng, which was about 10k down a very bumpy dirt road. On the bus we hired an old wrinkled farmer, just how old we found out later, to be our guide for the day.
It turns out he was 83. He took us up a steep set of old steps, muddy from the humidity and clay-like soil. We went further into the mountains and entered a world of stone houses, narrow rock walled lanes, and verdant bright green rice field interspersed with well tended vegetable gardens.
We hiked for an hour or two when our guide asked if we wanted to have lunch. We realized later that he barely understood a word of Karen's Mandarin, because he only spoke a local dialect. Karen spoke better than we did because she had spent the preceding year teaching at WECL, but obviously it was of limited value in this situation. Somehow, we managed to communicate, as we continued walking up past the old stone gates of the town and then down into another valley until we eventually reached his house. Also made of stone, the primitive place was an interesting mix of the the very old and the relatively new. The walls were adorned with a big picture of Mao, and some other old Chinese Mandarins we didn't recognize. Nevertheless they had an old TV set, and yep, you guessed it, a cell phone. They cooked our rice and vegetables on an open fire while we took several pictures of the house, and the old NiNi's and YeYe's, grandmothers and grandfathers.
Bart happened to have a pink balloon, which he blew up, and one of the grandchildren was entranced for quite a while.
We debated how many westerners had made it into this town. Opinions ranged from once a day to once a month, or hardly any.
They brought out a live chicken and asked if we wanted that for lunch, which we declined, not wanting to witness the execution. We opted for vegetables and rice, but no matter, they butchered it anyway, carefully saving the blood, and then they ate it.
Our Guide Trying to Decipher the Dictionary
We soon had our illusions shattered of being the only westerners to "discover " the place, when another young American who spoke quite good Chinese walked in with his guide. . The guide said that almost 50 westerners a day came through the town, and not only that, lunch was going to cost us 100 Yuan, $15 US, and grossly overpriced in rural China. Sure enough, they asked us for 100 Yuen when we finished. At that point we began to think that maybe the old man rode back and forth on the bus everyday, just looking for tourists to guide and bring to his house for an expensive lunch. The Chinese are certainly very canny businessmen. It took a little of the joy out of the experience, but we still got some great pictures and had an enjoyable time tramping through the village and exploring the old stone walls and gates of the the town. When we got back to Yangshuo, the town was even more packed with Chinese tourists on their May Day holiday. It was wall to wall people, complete with firecrackers going off in great bursts, buses and cars honking adding to the general din.
Today we managed another nice bicycle ride to another nearby, but uncrowded village. We had lunch at a nice spot by the river, at a "farmer food" restaurant, though once again we were overcharged. We then pedaled through the narrow lanes and found an idyllic spot to dunk ourselves in the water. For about 20 minutes our only company was a water buffalo, also enjoying the coolness of the water. After that. a couple of cute, but rambunctious boys showed up and we skipped rocks in the river with them.. They each crunched loudly on cucumbers, spitting out the seeds and skin wherever it was convenient, sometimes almost on top of us.
Getting used to the lack of personal space takes some time. The Chinese, all 1.3 billion of them, seem to love a crowd which is just as well.