I was surprised on Tuesday to discover that after my two morning classes on Wednesday, my students would be taking exams for the rest of the week, leaving me with five free days. My initial thought was “Cool!” but then the idea of being in Shenzhen for that long, unoccupied, while my friends were all working, quickly became the worst idea ever. So I decided to hoof it to a nearby province, one of the “it” places for Chinese and foreign tourists alike, and a popular destination for a lot of CTLCers during the National Day holiday back in October when I went to Yunnan Province: Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi Province.
The idea came to me Tuesday night while I still had to lesson plan for Wednesday’s classes. I lesson planned, went to bed, woke up, taught, and “planned” my trip between classes and during the two hours between getting home and leaving for the bus to the train station. Planning in this case involved rapidly making copies of an out-of-date Lonely Planet and throwing half of my belongings into my backpack so that it felt heavier for this five day trip than it did for my three weeks in southeast Asia.
I successfully purchased a train ticket for that evening, but of course there were only hard seats left, so I remained in a miserable, upright position in the freezing air conditioning of the train for 13 hours while the almost exclusively Chinese male patronage around me snored deeply or smoked between the cars. Four guys from Hong Kong approached me around hour 6 and asked if I was traveling alone, and seemed appalled when I said yes. They were heading to Guilin, too, so I gave them my number and decided to pal around with them for the day when we all got off the train.
Getting off the train was a relief, but I was nervous since the first, easiest leg of the trip was over and now I’d have to rely more heavily on my wits. As we all know, my wits are not always up for the tasks I ask them to do. Guilin was overcast, but the rain held off for much of the day. I hooked up with the Hong Kong boys: Man, Keaton, Alvin, and Ken straight off the train, helped them find their hostel, and booked a dorm room for myself as well. For breakfast we all went out for the local specialty: 桂林米粉, or Guilin rice noodles. The noodles are freshly made with thin strips of beef, salted peanuts, spicy peppers and this unidentifiable veggie, and broth.
We rented bikes from our hostel and spent the day cycling around Guilin, which is a big city with many cultural attractions, but much of the scenery is obscured by tall, ugly buildings and general city life, which I get enough of in Shenzhen. We visited Elephant Trunk Hill and Seven Star Park and Cave. The caves were beautiful, these huge, arching caverns with stalactite formations artificially lit with rainbow colors and with weird names like “Falling Fruit and Vegetables,” “The Fairy Maid” and “Lion Watching Camel”…weird, until your eyes adjust to the trick of the stone/light and you see the formations exactly as they’re described.
For dinner we met up with Ken’s local Guilin girlfriend, who took us to a restaurant, much to the boys’ relief, because unbeknownst to me, Ken has the best Mandarin of the bunch and the rest of them struggle a little to understand the locals, since as Hong Kongers, of course, they speak Cantonese most of the time. The family-style dinner was fabulous, with eel skin, fatty pork (seriously, it was like a thin strip of pork and then several thick layers of fat, and I asked Alvin, “Do I eat the fat, too?” He leaned in and said, “Marie, that is the highlight.” And readers, it was) eggplant, a seafood dish, and spicy duck that I was the only one eating because for once I was with Chinese people who couldn’t handle 辣, being the soft-tongued Cantonese they were.
We returned to the hostel where I said goodbye to the boys, who gave me a pear in farewell, and fell asleep almost as soon as I closed my eyes.
In the morning I took a bus to Yanghshuo. It was during this bus ride, through the rain streaming down the window, that I began to understand why I had come to this area of China. The scenery was beginning to physically affect me with its beauty. The karst landscape there was unbelievable.
Yangshuo was a tourist trap of the nth degree, but as a solo traveler, I felt comforted by the English all around and the various, easily accessible hostels, eateries, and souvenir stalls. I grabbed a private room in a hostel, ate some more 桂林米粉, and wandered around the streets for a bit. I found my way down to the river and was again caught off guard by the sheer fact of the karsts and the water and the dim gray sky fading into dusk. For dinner I tried another local specialty, beer fish, along with the local beer, Liquan, and called it a night.
The next day dawned sunny, and I decided it was time to get on the river. I took a bus to Yangdi, where there are “bamboo” rafts (the bamboo raft trade boomed awhile back and now they’re all painted plastic with small motors attached) available to take tourists to Xing Ping, where I would take another bus back to Yangshuo. But I had made a mistake in not booking a raft ahead of time, and had to expose myself as a dumb foreigner and ask for help. I hooked up with some other foreigners who were learning Mandarin in Guilin and were on a field trip with their teacher, Kolok. Kolok was kind enough to offer me a seat on one of the two rafts they had booked, and after waiting for two hours for those rafts to show up, down the river we went. It was gorgeous. The limestone formations jutted into the sky and the sun on the water hurt my eyes in a pleasant way. I like when the outdoors reminds me I’m actually outdoors by making me uncomfortable in someway. Kolok was a Guilin native, and he’d been down the river probably dozens of times, so he quickly grew bored and proceeded to jaw my ear off. He told me he was in not one, but two bands, and showed me some lyrics he’d written in English, because that’s just what guys do when they meet me for some reason. They show me lyrics or play me music but someday that pattern will end, right? Anyway, these lyrics were just as bad as all the other lyrics I’ve ever read, but since he was working in a foreign language, I was more impressed than I would have been otherwise.
In Xing Ping, they offered to take me back to Yangshuo in their van rather than letting me catch a bus, so I agreed and passed the time talking “shop” (i.e. teaching English and learning Mandarin) with an elderly New Zealander.
Back in Yangshuo I had “orange duck” for dinner, which I would gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, except POOR DUCKIES!, did some more souvenir hunting, and went to bed.
The next day I was up by 6am for a trip to a Zhuang minority village and the Longji rice terraces in the mountains. The day was mostly spent on the bus, but it was a good day. The women in the Zhuang minority village wear bright pink and black clothes and have the longest hair probably in the world. They only cut it once in their lives but they keep the hair they cut and weave it back into their braids for the rest of their lives. Even the old women have pitch black hair, supposedly because they wash it in “rice water.” The women sang and danced on stage, untying their hair and combing it out down past their feet for tourists to see and then they tied it back up.
We had rice baked in a bamboo stalk for lunch, and then hiked up the mountain’s stairs (all mountains have stairs in China, I’ve come to realize) to the top for the best view of the Longji rice terraces. It was peaceful up there and I didn’t want to come back down. The terraces were another wonder, in a different way from the karsts. The karsts look entirely alien but nothing could be more natural than these limestone rocks formed over the millenia. The rice terraces, however, are man-made feats of agricultural engineering, and yet they complement the landscape to the point where the mountain looks like it has been that way, ridged with terraces, since the dawn of time.
The bus descended the winding, dangerous, switch-back mountain roads at too high a speed for comfort, and we headed back to Yangshuo. That evening I caught a sleeper bus to Shenzhen, and after 7.5 oddly comfortable, snoozy hours, I was suddenly back in Luohu. I had to catch the metro to the E5 and by the time I was settled on that familiar bus, for the trip back to Longgang I’ve made dozens of times by now, I felt like my journey was almost a dream.
Pictures are on my facebook. Just over a month until I’m home!