Yangshuo

Guilin, Guanxi province, and the area around it, is legendarily beautiful. So much so that each and every 20 yuan note is adorned by its fantastical karstic landscape. ‘karst’, wikipedia tells me, is the technical name for the mystically bizarre rock formations that this, and other areas, is famous for. We were to see more such rock formations in the north of Vietnam. Less than 5o miles south of Guilin lies Yangshuo. Yangshuo is the go-to place for travellers wishing soak in the staggering scenery without having to negotiate the city. It doesn’t matter where you are in Yangshuo, there’s a photo opportunity everywhere you look.

It didn’t come all that easy, though. Our trip, as we always knew before, coincided with the largest annual migration in the world. At Chinese New Year roads, trains, buses and planes are crammed with Chinese people taking the opportunity to go home to their families. To give you an idea of the extremity of this migration: We’re not talking about any journey, but a journey between two of the four principal agglomerations of the world. Simon, on requesting a ticket from GZ to Shanghai, was informed that, unless he bought a ticket for that day or the day after, he could not get a single train ticket in the next 4 weeks. Can you imagine every single seat on every single train from London to Edinburgh being fully booked for four weeks?

We experienced this migration in full force when we went to GZ central to buy our bus ticket to Yangshuo the week before leaving. Luckily, Yangshuo wasn’t one of the more popular locations on the map, so a week before leaving was ample time. Outside the train were thousands upon thousands of people queueing to get on trains north. As I heard the buzz of an electric razor, it dawned on me that these people had not been waiting for hours but days! We scrummaged our way through the swarms of people to the bus station, which was surprisingly empty. You could hardly swing a cat in there, but given what was going on outside… This was certainly not the case when we got there to leave. For some reason, it was the bus station’s turn to be prodigiously busy. We stood around waiting for our delayed bus, with four weeks’ worth on our backs. The journey itself wasn’t much fun either. The Chinese tolerance of almost all noise translates to a tendency to make it too. The fact we were on a bus wasn’t enough reason to stop a couple of people hocking and spitting noisily into a tissue. The person next to  me just chucked his tissue on the floor. The same person (a middle aged man) played Westlife’s version of ‘You raise me up’ at full volume on his mobile phone. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Our stay in Yangshuo got off to an inauspicious start. It was already dark by the time we got there (our day was shortened by the fact we had travelled west. There are parts of China at the same longitude as India, yet on the same time as Beijing. In real terms that’s three and a half hours’ difference!). We thought we could just walk to the main tourist centre from the bus stop. We had serious doubts when we ended up walking down an unlit road with Chinese people eating by candlelight at the sides of the road, so we flagged down the first taxi that we saw. He professed to know the hostel to which we were headed before parking at the tourist place to ask in there. When he finally got to our hostel ‘En attendent Godot’ he charged us waaay too much. We realised we had made a very good choice of hostel when the young owner, Zack, proceeded to argue with our taxi driver insisting that he charge a reasonable price. Up to that point we had been so careful in China about agreeing the fee before getting in a taxi without a meter, but this was a lapse due to our desperation for a taxi. It turned out the dark road we were walking along was exactly the right road and there just happened to be a very badly timed power-cut along that very road. Typical!

The virtues of ‘En attendent Godot’ didn’t stop at shouting down dishonest taxi drivers. The hostel had a relaxed, youthful atmosphere. There was a posse of Chinese people who seemed spend their whole time there drinking tea or going out to pick fruit. They also spoke very good English – a feature that was to distinguish Yangshuo from anywhere we had been in Guangdong. My good impression of this hostel was reinforced by the friendliness of the Germans we shared the dorm with on the first night. There was just one downside to this hostel that I imagine is common to all hostels in the area: there was no heating. Just like my room in Shishan, the outside temperature matched the inside. Most the year round, this wouldn’t be a problem in Yangshuo but when we arrived the temperature was 2*C! So, after quickly exploring the main tourist street and helping ourselves to dinner and a game of pool at ‘M.C. Blues’, I experienced one of the coldest nights of my life wrapped up in half the clothes I had brought. The next morning I discovered how to use the electric blankets. Sleeping in the cold ceased to be a problem!

We emerged drowsily and late from the hostel to be struck by our first view of the town in daylight. The surrounding scenery was utterly jaw-dropping. Unfortunately our time in Yangshuo was to be blighted by murky grey skies, but that took little away from the experience. It’s only a shame that, as a result, the photos I took didn’t do the place justice. Despite the jutting karstic landscape, the lie of the land around was pretty flat, so it was ideal for cycling. The first trip on our hired bikes (£1 a day) was to Moon Hill, on which there is a huge naturally occurring arch that is covered underneath with hundreds of stalactites. At the foot of the hill near the entrance we were accosted by two women, who turned out to be mother and daughter, offering us a cut price entrance to walk up the hill. Only when the younger of the two produced a book full of ringing endorsements in various languages did we yield. It was in fact the 70-year-old mother, introduced to us as ‘Mama Moon’, who led us to a point in the wall that could be climbed. She then, agile as you like, climbed over the wall and waited for us to stumble over it. She then sneaked ahead to make sure there were no staff ahead and pointed us in the right direction. After a laborious climb we were surprised to see her waiting at the top of the hill to sell us drinks and postcards. The views were easily worth the climb and the reduced entry fee. We left ‘Mama Moon’ at the top of Moon hill and made the considerably easier walk back down. Inexplicably, ‘Mama Moon’ was back where we first found her. She had somehow managed to overtake us undetected via different less direct path. We cycled back in puzzlement!

That night we dined at a German restaurant, enticed by the novelty of finding a restaurant in China that serves Wurst and Spätzle and its German owner. As with many culinary temptations in China, it didn’t live up to expectations. The restaurant was extremely cold despite its fireplace and the food unGermanly meagre. We spent the rest of the evening out with drinks and pool in a bar called M.C. Blues. That German place (and an Indian restaurant) would turn out to be the only place on West Street (the main tourist area) we visited only once. When we got back to the hostel we found the German girls playing cards with Stan, a Dutch guy whom we had met briefly that morning. We joined in with much enjoyment and by the time we went to bed we had agreed to meet with Stan the next day for another cycle ride.

We decided to cycle to a place called ‘Silver Caves’. We had been told it was a must-see. I once again hired my lovely pink bike! The ride there was a good 2-hours and along the way we began to wonder if we hadn’t taken a wrong turning. Along the way, we asked, with the aid of our map, pomelo-sellers the way. I found the ride to ‘Silver Caves’ wonderfully liberating and certainly worth it for the journey alone, which was just as well because we didn’t find much there when we finally got there much later than planned. We saw no caves there. Just a sort of park with a lake. It was undoubtedly beautiful, but not at all as advertised. We raced the sun back to Yangshuo, unwilling to share the road with unpredictable drivers at night time without lights! Stan made excellent company on that day and for the rest of the time he stayed at En Attendent Godot. With him we also visited the Buddha Water cave, so named for an apparently naturally occurring Buddha image inside and the spring in which you could, and we did, bathe. We got to the water caves by ‘bus’. I use the term bus loosely, as it was really just a mini van. They packed us into this 12-seater with thirteen other people!

Another person we met in Yangshuo was Maja. She is an American MIT student who was studying abroad in Beijing and had some time between semesters to travel around China. We enjoyed two great days out as a foursome (and a few enjoyable nights too!). The first of these days out was a cycle ride to ‘Dragon’s bridge’. Once again, had the bridge been the sole focus of the day, we would have been sorely disappointed. But it was the cycle ride that along the river and the beautiful agricultural land that made the day. At one point along the route we had to cross the river with our bikes. It’s wholly intentional that the path we took had no alternative but to pay to cross the river. But it’s an experience we would gladly have paid for given the choice. The transportation across the river consisted of simple bamboo rafts. They took their time getting us and the bikes across, achieving the feat in two shifts. This was probably to give more time for the hawkers there who preyed upon tourists waiting to cross the river. Stan went on the first raft with the bikes, and Amy, Maja and I went on the second. For almost the entire twenty minutes we waited there, one woman pestered me to death trying to sell me a bag of oranges. When we went across we had to squat – in the manner to which so many Chinese people are accustomed – because water seeped through the gaps between the bamboo. After taking a few photos at the underwhelming ‘Dragon bridge’ we found our way to the nearest town, Baisha, to get some lunch and to visit the market we had been told about. This town was completely unaffected by the nearby tourist trade and there was nothing much to distinguish it from any other town apart from its scenic setting. The square buildings were the same, the shops were the same and the market was entirely unchanged by the potential for tourism. This, though, was our first experience of a rural market town. We were disturbed by the dangling pig’s organs, the flopping fish (particularly Amy!), and especially by the routine slaughter of chickens. Once carefully selected by a customer, the hen would have its throat unceremoniously cut and then would be shoved flapping into a barrel in which it would convulse as it bled to death. Not a pretty sight, and one that makes you think twice about eating meat.

That night, we went to a place called Lucy’s. It was not our first time there. We went there the night before after going to a restaurant that was recommended to us for its beer fish. Beer fish is the local dish in Yangshuo and is actually quite delicious. I was a sceptic before I tried it. It’s my first and only time in China that the quality of a fish dish has outweighed the fiddly extraction of bones. We went with Stan, Maja, the German girls and a Canadian guy they had met called Dan. In Lucy’s after the meal, Dan regaled us with fascinating stories from his travels. He was comfortably the best travelled person I have ever met. As a gardener, he had 4 months holiday a year, and those months did not go to waste. For the past 13 years or so he has been escaping the  harsh Canadian winters in search of exotic wildlife and heat. In that time he has visited all but two of  the equatorial countries around the world. China was the coldest trip he had planned to date. But that wasn’t enough to put him off coming to see the pandas. We managed to meet up with Dan once more at Lucy’s while we were in Yangshuo. Lucy’s was on a small street of cafes that were known to us for their western-style breakfasts. There was another place on that road we went to called Kelly’s. There they made great milkshakes.

The second of our days out together was the other way along the river by motorised bamboo raft to a town called Fuli. This vessel was a great deal sturdier than the ones that took us across the river the day before! If the cycle was beautiful, this was utterly spectacular. We just sat wrapped up in the cold and admired the passing karstic mountains. On the river we saw cormorant fishermen. These people drift on the water with cormorants on their boat. The cormorants, as nature intended, dive into the water to catch fish for their owner. They are prevented from swallowing big fish by a snare tied around their necks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see them in action. It was market day in Fuli and the market hardly differed from the one we saw in Baisha. There was however a couple of places where we could get souvenirs just where we left our driver. We tried with little success to find something palatable for lunch in the market. So looking slightly further afield we found a sort of hotel. There they offered us a hot pot. Ah. Just what we were looking for – or so we thought! The with the hot pot we were offered a tray of organs. From which animal we had no idea. None of it was edible. We needed something reasonable to eat so we asked for some noodles. At this the owner called his son who rushed out and bought some plain cooked noodles in a bag for us. The canteen at our school has sometimes not been too appetising, but this meal was on a whole other level! Still hungry, we headed back to the raft by taxi – the taxi would be better described as a motorbike with a trailer. The driver had been waiting for two hours without complaint. For our last evening with Stan and Maja, and also Dan, we enjoyed an excellent Indian meal. Just like the night before, we played Chinese dice in Lucy until they closed.

On our last day in Yangshuo we went on a quick jaunt to the ‘butterfly cave’. Didn’t see any butterflies except for the huge one above the entrance. It didn’t take long for us to walk through the whole thing. At the end there was some sort of variety performance. We have no idea what it was for or what its significance was, but it was interesting to watch objectively. It mostly consisted of singing and dancing. Maja was still around when we got back so we went for a final meal with her. Her parting gift to me was her copy of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. I ended up reading the whole trilogy during our trip, as did Amy. Counterfeit copies of popular books were easy to come by on the backpackers’ trail that we took. The next two days we had plenty of reading time, travelling across the border into Vietnam with a night in between in Nanning – a forgettable place that I will remember for the glass-walled bathroom in our hotel room! The only other westerner on our journey was a Californian, about 50-60, called Mike who was switching his English teaching job in China for one in Hanoi. He was very helpful, having been to Hanoi once before, and we saw him once more during our stay in Hanoi, as you will find out in the next post!

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Back in China

We’ve now been back in China almost a week. As I said in my first post, the Southeast Asia trip was a big part in my decision to come to teach English in China. So I didn’t exactly look forward to our return with relish now that a key incentive for being there has now gone. The dread of returning to China never got worse than when we were waiting to board our plane in Bangkok. All at once we were reminded of China’s less redeeming qualities. We sat down and the woman opposite us immediately proceeded to chew on some roasted sunflower seeds. With each seed came a deafening crunch. Unable to put up with that (it really was that bad!) we moved to a different seat. Just then a family came along with running and screaming kids. Normally speaking, the mother would be ordering her children to stop or at least hiding her face with embarrassment. But their raucous behaviour was met with apathy all round. There’s just a general disregard for the people around that can sometimes drive you mad. Having said all that, I have been pleasantly surprised with how easy it has been to fit back into the mould set before we left. Once we got back, the traffic seemed quieter than before, as did the children. The things that I was dreading were hardly what I was anticipating. The only thing is that they are STILL playing the christmas songs to wake up the children from their post-lunch nap.

I didn’t look forward to the lesson planning either. My feeble excuse for not having posted sooner since I got back is that I was prioritising the lesson planning. But I was putting that off, meaning that, overall, I achieved virtually nothing in the first couple of days after getting back. I’m sure that procrastination by prioritising your least favourable task is a method many can identify with. Over the years, I have become a master at it! Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to write up our dazzling trip through Southeast Asia. There will be a separate post for each city that we visited. The first will be on Yangshuo; second, Hanoi; third, Ho Chi Minh City; fourth, Cambodia; fifth, Bangkok; and finally, Kanchanaburi. Below are some pics to whet the appetite.

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Can’t stop…

Just got a couple of minutes to update. In Bangkok. It’s great! Just been to the beach. Going to Kanchanaburi next to see tigers and elephants!