(Ed. note: Just as Terry started writing this blog, I had the most surreal experience. I had taken off my clothes and laid down on the bed, and I suddenly thought, we are on a 4 day mini holiday in CHINA, for God’s sake!)
Wow! Here we are at one of the most magnificent places we have ever been! The city itself has been beautified to attract a healthy tourist crowd since as much as 85% of the population works in tourism. The natural beauty of the many Ozmanthus trees (from which came the name Guilin Gui being the Chinese name for the tree and Lin, meaning forest, therefore ‘Forest of Ozmanthus trees”) and the limestone karst formations that surround the city make Guilin beautiful enough, but the local government has added river walkways and gorgeously planted boulevards and baskets, all of which are softly lit at night. Set along the Li (Lee) River, Guilin has a slower pace of life and the relaxed feel of a holiday town. In addition, there are many stellar attractions that draw people to this area.
On our first afternoon, our tour guide Yang Yang or Daniel, took us for a walk in the area of our hotel along the tree-lined road and walk ways along the river. From the bridge we took a picture of a sculpture of 9 horses, see below, while Daniel told us that in the rainy season, they could easily be under water. We find that a little hard to believe.
This apartment building is still inhabited although in a state of semi-destruction. The government planned to expropriate the land and move the tenants to new larger apartments 5 km away plus give them some money, in order to take advantage of the great value of the land, ideally located on the main drag with a clear view of the river. The tenants had other ideas, however, and disagreed with the whole affair. The new apartments were too far away, they said, and the amount of compensation was not enough. A stalemate has lasted 8 years, in spite of efforts to drive the tenants out, such as erecting a smelly garbage disposal site upwind from the apartment block and playing music at all hours of the day and night. A particular favourite is the pile drivers that were on site when we were there, banging away in preparation for the day when the new “city park and parking lot” would be built. Rumour has it that this is a ploy to create public pressure on the tenants to vacate. And so it goes. The apartments till have electricity and water but some are missing walls or windows…
On our first evening in town Daniel joined us for dinner at a place where the locals eat. The congee was terrific as were the bamboo shoots and green beans and everything else we had, even some oysters for Geoff–all of it sufficiently spiced with hot peppers to keep us happy. Cheap cheap Chinese prices, too. Next, Daniel took us on a tour boat of a second river, or at least a section of the river that has been channeled off to make one a series of (tacky ?) tourist lakes. Both shores are lined with Ozmanthus and one passes under or by a number of world famous landmarks that have been recreated in Guilin:
The Arc d’Triomphe, The Rialto, The Golden Gate plus a few locally inspired designs such as a glass bridge and a huge tree whose roots extend into the water and may or may not be real. “This is China,” says Daniel, and we are really good at copying!” Along the way are various stations where entertainment has been devised for the river traffic: a segment of a Chinese opera, folk girls singing and dancing, an ethnic presentation involving drumming and chanting and real cormorant fishermen demonstrating their technique as we watched from the boat. Wonderful!
First on our Day Two agenda was a boat ride down the Li to Yangshou. All boats are boarded some 30 miles from the city so as not to clog the immediate area. We got on one of the newer ones and set off on a 4 hour trip that was wonderful. All the way along karst rock formations formed a stunning backdrop to the river on this dry day, something of a rarity in this area.
Guilin is in sub-tropical SW China, so it is humid and rainy much of the time. The clouds make for a soft light that softened images, so the mountains look quite mysterious as you pass by.
Daniel was a great guide and knows the river well, so well that he could tell us down to the second when certain formations would appear. One is called the Moon, as it appears to rise up in the sky as the boat passes a certain point. The moon part is actually a hole through the mountain that was eroded by water when it was still underground many moons ago (ha ha).
We were served a passable Chinese lunch on the boat, with enough time for me to have a nap on the deck before we disembarked in Yangshou.
Yangshou is a crazy place. Thousands of people come every year to see it, the Dragon bridge, and rice terraces. In fact, 17, 000,000 people descend on the town every year! Fortunately, we were there before the National Holiday which is May 1st, Labour Day in China, and avoided really massive crowds. We wandered around for an hour before meeting up with Daniel to take a small river cruise on 2-seat bamboo rafts, followed by a trip to a small “real Chinese” village.
By this time the day was hot and to be guided down the river on our private raft, watching a demonstration of cormorant fishing and wandering among water buffaloes, was wonderful. Actually, a glass of cold white wine would have made it perfect but it was still a mellow way to spend an afternoon. The little village was rough, very poor but interesting, and we learned about the red couplets hanging on each side of the door to keep out demons as well as the mirrors above to scare away ghosts when they see their own reflections.
The next part of the trip was wild. Daniel and two other guides told us they were going home but no problem, he would write instructions for the rest of the evening along with some translations for “I’m lost and need to get to Guilin” which should have been a sign right there. He charged Geoff and I with taking care of two Thai ladies and a German couple and left. We had dinner with the couple and then followed his instructions to get to a massive outdoor theatre for a show called Impression Liu Sanjie, directed or developed by the same guy who put together those cast-of-thousands shows in the opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. We arrive at the entrance to a scene of absolute chaos, or regular way of doing things in China.
We saw the ticket booth and then spotted the blue flag of the tour company in front of it and found our new man. He recognized that we were from Daniel so added us to his group. Did he then turn to the ticket booth to get our tickets? No, he did not, because one does not get tickets from the ticket booth; instead, one has to cross through and in front of other groups, then travel into the park, leave one’s tour group, then run into another building where the tickets are dispersed, then run (literally) back out and distribute tickets by calling out names and checking them off a list. Needless to say, we were the last name called but he could not put it together that my name written on the paper Daniel had given me was the name on his list. Reluctantly, he gave us the tickets. He then ran back outside and picked up another group and proceeded through the same rigamarole. Finally we, with the Thai ladies under our wings, could move into the seating area.
Other than the incredibly disrespectful, rude behaviour of many Chinese who talked on cell phones or to each other all the way through the performance, it was impressive. Again, it was a huge but smaller cast of around 600 actors but the backdrop were the real karst land formations and a lake where most of the performance took place. It was only later that we really understood some of the nuances but suffice to say the story was about the beliefs and life style of the local people and was really quite stunning. Many of the effects were worthy of an Olympics and even though we didn’t understand the words, we appreciated the spectacle of the show.
In keeping with the non-stop talk, about 10 minutes before the end of the show, many people got up and began to leave the seating area. We believe there were 3500 folks there, so was this distracting to the performers? Who knows? Did anyone care? Perhaps a few foreigners in the crowd but what the heck. Our next task was to somehow find a bus to Guilin. The Thai women had a bus number but there were many many buses, all of them backed in, so to find our number was going to be a crap shoot at best. We walked along and saw a bus with some people aboard and the door open, so I went up and asked the driver if he were going to Guilin. No worries, it is easy. Just stick your head in the door and say “Guilin?” with heavy emphasis on the question mark. Amazingly, he was going to Guilin! The women with the paper and the bus number go first. He lets one on, then reacts to the second woman but only momentarily before letting her board. Then I get on and say “Yang Yang” or Chinese for Daniel. He pauses and looks at his list where our names don’t exist but what does he know, he let’s us on. Next come the German couple with whom we have become friendly. They are not part of any tour and certainly do not belong on this bus but we try to explain that they too are going to Guilin and will pay, and finally, out of desperation at not understanding any part of what we are saying, he lets them on, too! Then, with 4 seats remaining on the bus, arrive the last 6 people of his tour! We all tensed as the scene unfolded; however, after a few minutes, he simply moved some gear from two front seats and got everyone situated. About 10 miles down the highway, he pulled over and let two more people on the bus! First he jumped out, opened the storage compartment and produced 2 plastic stools, and once again, everyone was seated and we were on our way. This is China!
Twenty minutes later, Geoff’s cell rings and it is Daniel asking where are we, the bus is ready to leave. Geoff: “We have left. We are on a bus going to Guilin.” Even Daniel is thrown by this bit of news but hangs up, only to phone back in a few minutes, asking to speak to a Chinese to determine whether in fact the bus IS traveling to Guilin. We guess that he could see his bedtime slipping away if he had to leave to fetch us from wherever we might wind up but sure enough, we were on a bus that was prepared to take us to our hotel. All was well. We arrived without further fanfare at our hotel, just before 11:00 pm. Good night, all!