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Up S*** Creek without a paddle....
We landed at the Guilin airport during a severe downpour and were subjected to a lengthy wait for our bags which finally appeared on the conveyor belt glummly and besodden. Fortunately there was no real damage to the contents therein. We were shepherded onto the shuttle bus and made our way to the Aviation Hotel. The CAAC flight booking office there was very helpful and even gave us a 30% teacher discount on our homeward flights to Shanghai. Once outside the hunting season on our wallets was officially declared open as taxi drivers quoted us ridiculous prices to take us to the Xi Kai Yue Hotel opposite the railway station (see picture) which we knew was only a short distance. Finally one agreed rather reluctantly to take us using the meter, and the fare turned out to be only the minimum 7RMB. The hotel was disappointing. It was rated 3-star but was in reality 2-star. The first night the lift was out so we had to walk up and down 10 floors. The next night the a/c was out. This was a real nuisance, as it was 32° and very sticky, particularly after we had become used to the cooler weather in Yunnan. If we had caught some nasty rashes in private places I could've sued.
Our first night in Guilin we spent walking around the local area near the train station. There were some very cheap clothing sales going on so we took the opportunity to stock up on some things, plus another suitcase to carry everything. The storage space in our apartment is full of extra bags from our various trips around China, from home leave and other overseas destinations. At least we'll have plenty of things to pack our possessions in when we leave China. I can imagine the shipping estimate now - 4 pieces of furniture, 2 snowboards, a teddybear collection, 3 large pictures, 6 boxes....and 27 suitcases. Amongst the shopping we were able to enjoy some Chinese street theatre where one woman loudly abused some shop attendants for, and I'm only guessing this, throwing her out onto the footpath for the crime of being an annoying fat bitch. When the police finally arrived the women and her husband, plus a couple of shop attendants, were bundled into the police van and taken away to be shot, or maybe cautioned. After their final curtain call we wandered off to the local food street and enjoyed a delicious serving of noodles and dumplings.
It must be said that, with a very early start, Guilin could be 'done' in one day. But we were not too worried about that fact and instead opted to spend a substantial part of the morning laying in bed and watching Chinese TV. The best part were the ads for varying Chinese medicines that would stop you from being fat, remove scars from your skin and make you taller. The latter was particularly funny showing a small dweeb being converted by liberal doses of this medicine into a strapping six-footer that every girl that came into contact with him wanted to engage him in long bouts of sex. This was not shown (the sex I mean - there are certain prohibitions on Chinese TV) but it was certainly inferred as far as I could tell. Not that that counts for much I guess. We eventually dragged ourselves down for a Cantonese dim-sum breakfast. What I could not believe (but you must know I'm an awful cynic) is that the group a couple of tables way was actually having beer with their breakfast, including the 7-8 y.o. boy! Nothing like an early start I guess. We went for the coffee instead, which apart from being ten times the price of a pot of tea (mental note to self: check price before ordering), was so strong it kept us awake for the next three days.
Late in the morning we made our way to Folded Brocade Park. My notes here only say two things about this place. One is 'nice views'. The other is about the Buddha collection bowl in the Wind Cave. Here you throw some money at the bowl and if you actually get it in the Buddha makes some 1980's Space Invader type noise. Some sort of religious side-show game one presumes, that with enough hits you make it into Nirvana. As can be seen in the picture there were plenty of players. Next stop was Fubo Hill. My only notes say 'so so'. Hence I presume I was underwhelmed in my appreciation of the place. The next stop, 'Reed Cave', was much more impressive, apart from the noisy bird whistles that everyone bought at the entrance and then proceeded to use the whole way through, along with the musical pandas that played Gloria Estefan hits, and the omnipresent and ubiquitous tour guide megaphones. I have come up with the theory that Chinese must think that if you are silent you must not be enjoying yourself. Therefore to put on your very best face you must make as much din as humanly possible. Anyway, at least here you can take your own photos unlike in Yichang. Last stop for the day was 'Elephant Hill'. The most noticeable feature of this place was the overpowering smell of rice wine that comes from the cellars deep within it's bowels. Once again my only other notes summarily state 'so so'.
For dinner we thought we had better consume the pot noodles that we had been carrying since Mt. Emei in Sichuan. Seeing we had some extra room in our new suitcase we thought we'd better slip out and buy some more clothes and drinks, plus check our e-mail. After another morning attack on the dim-sum carts we packed and rearranged our growing collection of bags. We made a booking for the hotel next door for our last night, left some of our luggage there, then crossed the road to the rail/bus station to fall unknowingly into the clutches of an 'evil eddie'.
We walked around the station precinct, ignoring the pleading shouts of the many touts, looking for a bus that had a/c and didn't look like it had been pensioned off by the Guomindang in 1948. It was here that we were met by Larry and were convinced by him to take a bus that was 'leaving in 10 minutes'. He also claimed, before it left 40 minutes later, that it only cost 10RMB. When I saw others only paying 7.5RMB I too forked over that amount, thereby depriving Larry of his extra 33% commission. As for the a/c - well, they were smoking with the windows open even before we left the depot. By the time we hit the tollgates all windows were open, the a/c was off and every second seat contained a chain smoker. The slowly sobering up man in front of us (with the roadmaps for eyes) did not smoke but regularly stopped the bus so as to lean out the door for a quick vomit. Larry spent the whole trip convincing us how wonderful 'his' hotels were and that we should stay there. They were clean, cheap and 'only 2 minutes walk from the town centre'. Give him his dues, at least he was right on one point.
He got us off the bus just before the station, presumably so he would not have to compete with other touts. He took us to the Jin Bao Hotel near the bus station that was quite clean and 'only 300RMB'. However he would 'let us have it for 240RMB'. We told him 80RMB and eventually agreed on 90RMB. Later we were to find that the usual price is around 50-70RMB. Then he tried to set up tours for the next 3-4 days and insisted that we should book and pay for them immediately before we left the hotel. Of course he was trying to gouge roughly double the standard price and he knew once we went elsewhere in town this would be discovered. However we were pretty much onto his game. We were later that day to meet the very friendly and helpful Jack (who operates out of the Youth Hostel on Pantao Lu) and he was to gain all of our business while in Yangshuo. Larry, rather deservedly, got none and now has his name etched forever on the "Tales of the Orient" black list.
After settling in we walked the 10 minutes (certainly not 2!) into the main part of town and helped ourselves to a lunch of nachos and pizza. From there we hiked up to the wharf but there wasn't much to see except for an almost endless line of gift stands where we bought a couple of trinkets. At one stand I asked the price on a small jade carving and was told 130RMB. I told her I would pay 5RMB. She said yes. I've never known a Chinese trader to ever collapse that quickly on a price. Maybe it was such a stinking hot day that they were suffering from heat stroke or similar. That evening we had dinner at the YH where we made our first encounter with Jack (phone 13877372250). We booked the first of our tours with him and would highly recommend him as a guide to any intending travellers to Yangshuo. The cafe at the YH is also very nice along with friendly staff. Upon our return to the hotel we found, rather to our consternation, that the room was open. This happened 2 or 3 times until one day we shouted at them so hard they actually paid attention to the loud ranting lo wai.
The next day dawned extremely early. We were up at 5.30 and in the foyer by 6.00. We were joined quite a bit later by two surly looking Germans. At least we thought they were Germans. They only uttered about two sentences to each other the whole morning and later in the week we heard them speak clearly and discovered that they were actually British. We shuddered and shook over a potholed road all the way to Xing Ping to meet our boat. The morning was clear and the river quiet and still. We sat on the bow of the boat, in between occasional bouts of precipitation, and just took in all the gorgeous scenery including water buffalo, bamboo groves so big we thought they were palm trees and one karst scene immortalised on the 20RMB note. We returned by lunchtime, happy but in need of physiotherapy for 'road shock'. We walked in through the back way to Yangshuo Park which is hardly worth the 9RMB entrance (which was good because we didn't pay it). In the evening we paid for our next biking trip with Jack then had to bolt back to the hotel under a drenching downpour.
In the morning we had breakfast at the YH and waited for the rain to stop. By 10.00 we gave up and set off under the sullen skies. It proved to not to be much of an inconvenience as there were few others on the trail. Also our end goal were the Water Caves (see picture) so getting a little wet (in fact, quite wet) was not going to make any difference. We made our way along back roads and through villages. Farmers, forced to be inside, sat under the eaves playing cards or mah jong, whilst one hall we passed echoed to the sound of karaoke tunes. Inside the caves we stripped down to the minimum and clambered downwards. My wife made it through one very tight 'shortcut' but I decided to take the long way instead. The caves were fun apart from cutting my foot rather badly at one point. My wife packed on the mud deeimg it healthy but seeing it had been trampled through by thousands of smelly European backpackers I was not quite in concurrence on that thought.
The caves were followed up with a delicious lunch at a restaurant owned by one of Jack's friends. From there we were meant to climb Moon Hill but decided against it as it was a little slippery with the rain. Instead we took a very peaceful bamboo rafting ride to the Banyan Tree. From there our guide took us up to see the small village nearby. At the back of the village we went through a very large cave that was also utilised as a stable. Overseen by an old lady knitting there were chickens, a pig, a camel (really!), and judging by the size of the turd by the entrance there was also an elephant usually resident. By now the rain was clearing and we rode back to Yangshuo along the main road. We booked Jack again for the day after next, then had an average meal at Minnie Mao's. The waiters didn't help the cause when they kept on insisting that the lemon sauce was in fact tartar sauce. I knew it wasn't because A) it didn't come in a jar marked 'tartar sauce', B) it wasn't white and creamy, C) it was hot and runny, and D) the clincher - it tasted like lemon.
With a free day on hand we decided the next morning on a long leisurely breakfast at the Rosewood Cafe who run an excellent buffet including coffee and use of the internet for only 25RMB. In the afternoon we thought a trip out to Puli may be nice. Near the bus station a motorcycle taxi quoted us 50RMB, next a van quoted us 20RMB each, then finally we climbed into the van who decided to more realistically quote us 3RMB each. We had gone there to see the local markets, but they were nothing to get excited about, so we set off towards the wharf to see what we could find. It was really interesting area to walk around plus the kids and dogs were all very cute. We had lunch at the Three Sisters cafe and tried to see if we could somehow get a ride on a boat down river. However we just couldn't seem to get any joy there so we set off back toward the markets. Near the wharf we stumbled across some incredibly cheap painting shops where we ended up purchasing two very large scrolls and two medium for only 200RMB (about US$25). One large scroll can sell by itself in Shanghai for several hundred yuan. Back in Yangshuo we had another average meal at Planet Yangshuo (Editors note: do not go there unless you are not diabetic and/or like everything full of sugar). Afterwards we watched a VCD (Notting Hill) to while away the evening. As we did some locals became quite raucous and the more we turned the TV up the louder they became.
The next morning we had breakfast at Rosewood Cafe again. Did I mention they also have the coolest music there? It didn't take a lot to be better than much of what we had suffered through during our journey (refer: Jack West Restaurant, Kunming). Jack arranged to put our bikes on a bus to Baisha and from there we rode to the famous Yulong Bridge. Guides were waiting there to take us on a five hour bamboo raft drift downstream. The five hours included about 1 1/4 hours for lunch where the rafting guides wanted us to buy lunch for them. It seems they are friends with the people at the restaurant where we stopped. So not only did they expect us to buy their lunch their entrepreneurial friends wanted to charge us a premium price. Presumably there would also be a kickback to them. Eventually as we sat on the bank with Jack munching corn from the local vendors they gave up and purchased their own lunch.
Along the way the raft have to negotiate several weirs, some small, so not quite so small. The largest of these we encountered shortly after lunch. As we moved to the edge the raft began to drift sideways and we were instructed to hurriedly abandon ship. We jumped out onto the dike just as the boat tipped over the top minus passengers and guides. There we stood watching our transport drift away into the distance followed by a struggling swimming guide. Not only up S*** Creek without a paddle, but also a boat. We gingerly tiptoed our way along the mossy tops, then waited on the banks hoping that the guide would catch up. Eventually he did and we re-embarked to finish our journey without further concern. Well, not too much.
Our bikes were waiting for us at our destination and we rode up to Moon Hill. There we were trailed up and down by an elderly female vendor who was quite upset that we hadn't bought anything from her. Hello? Hadn't we pointed out our full water bottles to you? The ride back was along the same trail that we had come on our previous trip to the Water Caves. Without the rain we were able to appreciate the beauty of it's stone karsts, rice paddies, grazing water buffaloes and hovering dragonflies just a little more.
Guilin (a reprise)
In the evening we collected our bags and headed back to Guilin, not before the bus went twice around the town looking for more passengers. We booked into our hotel and found the first room dirty. The second was okay until we discovered some used underwear left under the towels. With this evidence we began to suspect that these rooms may also be rented sometimes for hourly rates and that if we didn't lock the door securely we may find a formerly short little dweeb (who has been taking the right medicine) coming through the door clutching the hand (and whatever else) of the gorgeous Chinese blonde he had just picked up.
In the morning we sorted our luggage that had grown in the last month from 2 and a bit bags to 4 plus boxes of paintings. We spent the day at the Seven Star Park which was quite nice and not too crowded. The zoo in the park was quite sad. The inmates included a single gloomy panda, a tiger pacing back and forth in a small cage plus an ostrich on a saline drip. Actually it could be anti-depressant given the stress they live under. People would be yelling at the animals, plus banging on the bars and walls. In the end I was surprised that they just didn't give out sticks at the entrance so they could poke the poor hapless creatures too.
Afterwards we picked up our bags and headed to CAAC to catch the shuttle bus, but not before the taxi driver made one last valiant attempt to rip us off. The bus was leaving just as we got there so it was a quick connection through to the airport. By sneaking on some very heavy carry-on we had a snug 41kg to check through. A miracle happened upon boarding and we were placed in Row 4 business class, or should I say business class seats. We only received economy service but at least we had the extra leg room. We asked if we could perhaps go up one row more to first class but our luck didn't stretch that far. The shuttle bus from Pudong Airport was packed, particularly with commuters loudly using their cellphones. Welcome back to Shanghai and the real world. At least our plants back in the apartment were still alive...
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