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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Our China Adventure Comes to an End in Guangxi Province

CHINA | Tuesday, 16 August 2011 | Views [481]

The train journey from Kunming wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  Our ploy of a couple of beers with dinner meant that we soon crashed out and actually managed to get some kip.  Sitting up all night wasn’t ideal but it was bearable and we knew we were in for a long journey.  In fact the train pulled into Guilin station pretty much on time – 18 hours after setting off.  When entering a city by train you always seem to have to go past the grotty bits and Guilin was no exception.  The hazy, overcast weather didn’t help to make the place look any better but we’d hoped things would be different down near the river.  We made a bee-line to what looked like a good place to catch the number 2 bus into town but to no avail.  The bus either doesn’t exist or they’re keeping the bus stop a secret – had to resort to a taxi to take us to Guilin Backstreet Backpackers.

We’d expected Guilin to be a lovely riverside town with a karst formation backdrop.  It turned out to be the same old story – it was probably lovely until recent times.  The city centre could have been anywhere in the world and Steve quickly dubbed it Stockport!  Once again all the places of interest have been turned into tourist attractions and the river has been spoilt with tacky parks and a constant stream of boats.  We’d been underwhelmed a number of times in China but Guilin wins a prize for shooting straight into the top 3!  We couldn’t even find a nice riverside cafe – you’re laughing if you want to pay over the odds for western food or take out a bank loan for a coffee.  Try finding somewhere selling the locals’ specialities and you’re going to be hungry.  We eventually found a back street food stall and got a good bowl of tasty noodle soup but it wasn’t the kind of gaff to linger in.

We decided that since we’d made the effort to get here and had even changed our flights we should have a peek at the surrounding area.  Guilin was looking seriously dull and miserable and by this point I’d renamed it Greylin and even Way-grim.  We decided to drag ourselves out to the rice terraces that all the tourist literature waxes lyrical about, so negotiated a taxi fare of Y500 (that’s 50 of your sterling coins).  He agreed to take us to Ping’an and pick us up later at Dazhai.  So it was a good deal as it would be a whole day event and it was quite a way out of town.

Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces

As we headed towards Ping’an and the beginning of the walk through the rice terraces the weather steadily worsened.  Fortunately we had a sensible driver who slowed down on the now very slippery surface.  You know what’s coming – not everyone was sensible and it wasn’t long before we were stuck in a traffic jam.  For once this had nothing to do with road works and you’ll have guessed there was a crash ahead.  It seemed the thing to do was to go for a wander and take a peek – so when in Rome!  It turned out to be a case of a bus going into the back of a car and a bus going into the back of a car.  No, I’m not repeating myself it really was a double whammy!  Just a bit of a prang and we couldn’t work out what everyone was getting so excited about until we realised that yet another car had taken a nose dive over the ditch and into a paddy field.  The police soon arrived and we were all on our way again.

Now, you’d have thought that would have made people continue a little more cautiously, but no.  We’d not been going long when we spotted a car having an intimate tete-a-tete with the concrete drain.  Yards later another driver must have thought that was today’s fashion and had followed suit. Within minutes we were gawping at a huge tanker that had fallen onto its side and rolled into that same road side ditch.  Now we’ve been on some treacherous and dangerous roads in our time and believe me this was not one of them.  We’ve never seen so many prangs, crashes and accidents in such a short stretch.  Our taxi driver was absolutely loving it and couldn’t stop chuckling and trying to chat to us about it.  He even stopped to take a couple of photos!

Luckily the weather had cleared by the time we reached Ping’an.  Following a tasty lunch in a simple little restaurant with cracking views from its balcony, it was time to get walking.  The entrance fee of Y80 a head we thought (yet again!) was too steep and especially as there are no direction signs along the way.  We had a simple map on our ticket and using gut instinct we managed to take the right path every time.  Locals will point you in the right direction but whenever we weren’t sure there wasn’t a soul in sight.  Yes!  We managed to find somewhere away from the crowds.  The only other people we saw walking the trail were westerners and most of them had employed the services of a local guide.  If you’re a lazy Chinese tourist you can even pay a local to carry up your handbag in their wicker basket.  If you’re super lazy or a spoilt, fat brat; you can hire a sedan chair and 4 bearers to get you up to Tiantouzhai village.  There are a couple of hotels up there and we saw suitcases being hauled up.  We reckon if you can’t be bothered to carry your things up there then you shouldn’t be allowed to stay.  But then it’s a good little money spinner for the local ethnic groups.

Anyway let’s get to the walk – in all it takes about 4 hours to walk from Ping’an to Dazhai and the scenery is lovely for the entire route.  At times the path is basically just a reinforced bund through the paddy terraces and at other times you follow streams through small woods.  Not all the terraces are given over to the cultivation of rice and we were surprised at the range of other crops that were being grown.  It was lovely to see some different styles of ethnic villages but the rice terraces themselves don’t rate as the best we’ve ever seen.  Can’t tell you why as they were impressive – just know that we enjoyed the ones in Sapa in Vietnam, Batad in The Phillipines and smaller examples that we’ve seen across Indonesia more.

As I have said we did manage to lose the crowds but at one point we were followed at close quarters by a local lady.  One of the local traditions (or gimmicks as Steve prefers to call them!) is to grow their hair very long.  Now we’d managed to skip this ‘gawk at the locals’ bit by not joining a tour group.  However, this lady seemed to think that we’d not be able to live with ourselves if we didn’t look at her long locks.  I’m sorry lady but paying someone so I can look at their hair isn’t high on my holiday wish list. Steve tried to charge her 10 yuan to look at his bald head but she didn’t appear keen! Fortunately a group of tourists past us going in the opposite direction and she obviously decided she’s have more luck with them.

On ending the walk in Dazhai our taxi driver looked genuinely pleased to see us – perhaps he assumed we’d take the wrong path.  The weather was much improved and we enjoyed the ride back to town.  We thoroughly enjoyed the walk through the paddy fields (oh sorry, rice terraces) and felt we’d had a grand day out.

The next morning we stored out excess luggage using the Backpackers’ facilities and made a reservation for the night before our flight.  By 12.15pm we were on a bus bound for Yangshou and actually got there in only 1 ½ hours without kafuffle or mishap.

 

Yangshou

Fortunately Yangshou isn’t too big so we didn’t have any ‘trying to get into town’ shenanigans on being dropped off.  We wandered down the main, busy pedestrian only street and the place was a touristy as we’d expected.  You can’t see any of the, what we believe are, nice buildings for the shops and market stalls so we continued on to the river area.  We wandered in and out of various hotels and they were either full, not particularly good value or just not our thing.  In the end we decided to splash out and settled for Riverview Hotel.  At Y300 a night it was by far the most expensive place we’d stayed in but we had enough budget left so went for it.  The room was really good and we had a great river view balcony.  The hotel is just on the edge of the town so the area was pretty quiet.  We had a view of the Li River and could see lots of trees, buffaloes and karst formations so decided it was worth the splurge.

We spent the day wandering around town but got a bit fed up of all the touts and sellers, some of whom are quite persistent, so we retreated to our balcony.  Unbelievably by night fall the town becomes extremely busy and horrendously noisy.  We’d expected the place to be popular and most places to be full but we weren’t prepared for music blasting out of every other doorway.  Once again we avoided the western tourist cafes (although the guide book said Kelly’s came highly recommended) and went in search of some of the local specialities.  We came away disappointed and it looks like we’ll have to follow the traveller sheep if we want a decent meal.

The next morning’s plan was to hire bikes and explore the surrounding area.  No problem with the bikes as they’re available everywhere including our hotel.  What held us up was trying to find somewhere for breakfast.  Once again Kelly’s and all the other travellers cafes were full and by the time we’d had an unsatisfactory breakie it was raining – hey ho!  By early afternoon we decided just to set off and if we got soaked then so be it.  The bikes weren’t the best, no gears, but we knew the area was flat.  Getting across town wasn’t so bad so long as you do what the locals do.  It seems the preferred technique is to gradually easy your vehicle (no matter what size or power) in the direction you need, go for it and for goodness sake don’t look behind.  Junctions in particular are where you need to employ this method as there’s no traffic control system in place.  Add into this people’s inability to walk, pedal or drive in a straight line and it makes for fun getting around!  Fortunately out on the country lanes everything became a little more sedate.

Well I say that but for the first couple of kilometres we were in among hundreds of other cyclists and a convoy of tourist buses.  As soon as we reached and pedalled past the first ‘scenic spot’ we lost the crowds.  Basically most people just wanted to get to the river and jump on a bamboo raft and they seem oblivious of the fact that the natural surroundings have been ruined by raft upon raft.  To give you some idea – I thought it looked like an aqua version of Benidorm as all the rafts had umbrellas for shade.  We left them to it and enjoyed the now virtually empty roads.  As luck would have it we stumbled upon a cross country route that we hoped would lead us to Dragon Bridge.

We didn’t have any burning desire to see the bridge but it made a focal point of the bike ride.  Our bikes were far from suitable for off-roading but we bumped along the narrow lanes and footpaths anyway.  My handlebars jiggled their way loose so I was in a constant battle with them to steer me in the right direction.  At particularly muddy sections I had no chance of being able to control the bike and was forced to push.  That meant very muddy feet for me but a handy stream soon fettled that.  The only other tourists we encountered had done the sensible thing and hired mountain bikes, oh yeah, and a guide.  We on the other hand relied on locals to point us in the right direction.  Luckily at one crucial junction we encountered a lady taking her cows for a walk so we continued with confidence.  We had hoped the route would follow the river but it wasn’t to be.  However, we did go through some lovely villages and past fields of wallowing buffalo all with that karst backdrop.

Against the odds we actually found Dragon Bridge but of course so did everyone else!  It was just a nice old stone bridge and thank goodness the ticket office had been unmanned as we wheeled past.  Nice but hey, not worth buying a ticket to look at it.  We didn’t hang around as black clouds were looming again and by this point my bike had a mind of its own.  We decided to leg it back to town via the main road which actually wasn’t too busy at all.  It turned out to be an inspired move as within minutes of getting back to Yangshou the rain started again.  A great cycle ride out and we managed to hit the window of opportunity perfectly.  With better bikes and weather I reckon you could explore at length in the area.  It was now time for us to move on and try to get deeper into the karst ranges.

Xingping

At the bus station the next morning we encountered more of Yangshou’s touts.  A couple of ladies tried to tell us that there wasn’t a bus to Xingping so we’d have to go to Yangdi and raft back down the river.  Hmm it would appear you own a bamboo raft as opposed to being employed by the bus services – do we look daft?!  Strangely enough we soon tracked down the Xingping bus and it set off within minutes of us boarding.  The hour long journey was lovely; very rural and we were indeed delving deeper into those karst mountains.  As with most places in China initial impressions are ruined by being dumped on the edge of town and / or someone trying to rip you off.  In this case we had a barrage of touts shouting; “hello bamboo” at the top of their lungs and flapping flyers in Steve’s face.  The worst of all it turned out that the bamboo rafts are all made out of plastic!

We shook them off – well ignored them and walked away! – and followed the signs for the youth hostel that boasted river views.  On reaching the river all we could see was hundreds and hundreds of rafts so we beat a hasty retreat before we’d have to run the ‘hello bamboo’ gauntlet again.  Down one of the old narrow streets we found Kelly’s Guesthouse and wondered if it was linked to Kelly’s Cafe in town.  It certainly was and we ended up with a bright, spacious room with great views over the old town and of the karst peaks.  It was a good deal at Y120 a night and we finally understood why all the foreigners flock to their cafe in Yangshou – the food was excellent.

The walking trail we’d read about from Xingping to Yangdi still exists even though most people choose to only use river transport.  For most of its length there are direction signs but there are a couple of tricky points – gut instinct kept us going the right way.  Generally the trail is in very good nick and it is being improved so hopefully there will be more signs in the future.  The locals (though make sure they don’t have a raft!) will point you in the right direction and best of all – it’s now free.  The route it takes is lovely as you’re walking among the strange and impressive mountain peaks while passing through villages and farm land.  We’d just got into our stride, the sun was shining and we were enjoying the walk when events conspired against us. 

We sensed that we were nearing our final destination, Yangdi, and were looking forward to floating back down the Li River.  With a flick of a switch it started to rain – but never mind there’s a village nearby so we’ll sit it out.  Typically this was the only place we’d passed all day that didn’t even have a shop never mind a cafe and not one person knew the phrase ‘hello bamboo’!  A young lad showed us down to the river where there were rafts but no one to get them going.  Plus there was no shelter and we were already soaked.  Another lass was obviously waiting to go somewhere so we hung around.  Eventually a raft puttered along and we established that it was Y10 just to cross the river or for Y20 he would take us to Yangdi.  We went with the latter option and it turned out we had almost reached the end of the trail anyway.

We wandered up the main street in Yangdi hoping to find somewhere nice to have a drink and dry off.  Luckily it had stopped raining but unluckily we found ourselves in a miserable dump of a village.  We grabbed a tin of pop and plonked ourselves in a patch of sunlight to dry out.  Once we felt less soggy we wandered back down to the river to partake in this hello bamboo business!  Initially we felt we’d bargained too hard (Y160 for the 1 ½ hour trip) and had ended up with a trainee.  We didn’t feel like we were moving and in between him hoicking big gobs into the river he was shouting into his phone.  Not the serene experience we’d had pencilled in.  Then he kept pointing at things and indicating that we’d want to take a photo.  We’re not in the slightest bit interested in looking at lumps of rock that are meant to resemble things.  He soon got the message that we weren’t typical tourists, relaxed, got the raft moving and let us take in the natural surroundings in peace.

We puttered down the river at a gentle pace and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Yes there were thousands of other rafts doing the same thing but the area is so vast you don’t notice too much.  But, on rounding a bend we encountered a convoy of huge boats all going in the opposite direction and all utterly empty.  Close on their heels was a barrage of rafts and we were almost caught in an aqua-jam.  It turns out that 90% of tourists get the huge boats en masse from Guilin to Xingping and then raft their way to Yangshou.  From there they return by bus and no one has thought to offer the return boat trip hence the empty convoy.  We were so mesmerised by the sheer volume of traffic that we almost forgot to take in the natural beauty of the area.

All-in-all we had another grand day out but there’s always that niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right or the whole thing was a tourist trap.  Fortunately no local tourists stay in Xingping (and we now knew why Yanghou had been so busy and noisy) so it’s lovely and quiet of an evening.  That gave us time in the morning to have a wander around before the next influx of visitors.  Usually the last day of the holiday feels like you’re just killing time or counting down to when you have to get to the airport.  Since we’d finally found ourselves in a peaceful little town (of a morning) we decided to make the most of it.

We took a slow amble round Xingping’s back streets and found a quiet path along the river.  Many of the buildings are genuinely old and the cobbled lanes give the place a very pleasant air.  We managed to spend an hour exploring and it was lovely to see locals going about their usual business not touting for business.  Even the souvenir vendors gave us time and space to browse – not that we bought anything!  Before leaving we just had to sample something else from Kelly’s menu so had a slap up lunch before catching the bus back to Yangshou.  Once there we were immediately boarded a Guilin bus and since we’d bagged the last two seats we were instantly moving.  There’s a constant stream of Guilin buses and they literally pull out as soon as they’re full.

Back in Guilin we once again tried to find the number 2 bus stop but once again failed – we know the vehicles exist as we’ve seen them at the other end of town!  Anyway at least the Backpackers still had our reservation so we rechecked into one of their private doubles.  The bedrooms are fine but the bathrooms could do with some modernising.  I had plenty of space to shuffle everything back into the correct bags ready for the following morning’s flight to KL.

With a bit of time to spare and good weather we decided to give Guilin another chance and explore further.  There are 4 lakes around the city and judging from the size of the pleasure boats at least a couple of them must be linked.  There were still crowds around the pagoda so we moved on and by the time we reached the second lake we’d lost the vast hordes.  We wandered along the water’s edge and actually found some peace and quiet in the city – unbelievable!

In conclusion: China is; a massive, over-populated, chronically polluted, interminably noisy building site that is depressingly devoid of wildlife.  So; did we enjoy our holiday?  Would we go back?  Yes & Yes – but only to go to Tibet and take in a couple of other major sites like the Great Wall on the way.  We can live without seeing the rest of China and really don’t relish the thought of having to share every tourist attraction with a million loud, rude Han Chinese.  On saying that; I wouldn’t baulk at the challenge of finding more beautiful, quiet places like Tiger Leaping Gorge and remote, traditional ethnic villages. For some people China is the best place on the planet, others fall in love with India or swear that Africa is THE place.  Obviously for us Sri Lanka is very close to our hearts and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time spent living in and travelling around South East Asia.  We have such a long list of places that we feel we haven’t explored adequately, or haven’t even set foot in yet, that China has once again been pushed to the bottom of the list.  Sorry China – nice try but we’ve got South America and Africa to explore!

 

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