Monday, 10 December 2012

Yanghsuo - Part 1 - Last Stop in China

Our journey from Zhangjiajie was not without difficulty but given the days we have spent travelling on the Chinese Rail Network, we were genuinely surprised we had encountered few delays, not bought tickets to the wrong destinations (easily done in China), missed any conncections or simply got on the wrong train or bus.  In fact we were always slightly bemused each time we reached our intended destination. 

In order to get to Yangshuo in one hit, we had (rather optimistically) booked a 5 hour train journey to Changsha and then an onward overnight train from Changsha to Guilin with an hour between trains.  This would give us plenty of time to disembark and exit the station, only to re-enter the station again through the correct entrance, go through ticket check, passport check, security, and find the waiting area for our train to Guilin, before being herded onto the train.  

Bridge over the River Li
In China you can’t just hop off a train and nip down a few platforms and hop on your connecting train.  There are procedures to follow, many of which are designed with crowd control in mind, ensuring the thousands of passengers are efficiently funneled in one way and ushered out of the other as quickly as possible.  In fairness, it all seems to work rather well.

However on arrival at Zhangjiajie we were dismayed to note that our train was delayed for 2 hours which meant we would miss our 11.30pm connecting train to Guilin and we were faced with the very real possibility that we would arrive in a huge Chinese city at around 1 o’clock in the morning with nowhere to stay.  We remained philosophical and were mindful this was the first real travel problem we had encountered.  Paul decided that he would try and find out whether there was any possibility of catching a different train and making our connection.

Yangshuo and the River Li and the karst mountains
He trundled off to find someone in a uniform and seek assistance but returned shortly afterwards looking very downhearted saying he just didn’t have enough Chinese to sort out the problem.  However, within a few seconds the lady he had approached reappeared by our sides, looked at our tickets again, gabbled away in Chinese and hastily hauled Paul off somewhere, instructing me to stay exactly where I was and look after our bags (in fluent sign language).  

They returned 10 minutes later, the lady still gabbling away, grabbing both of us and leading us towards a gate, wildly indicating (we assumed) that we should head in that general direction towards another train departing shortly for Changsha.  Paul had managed to get our tickets exchanged for an earlier train and we didn’t have long so after thanking her profusely in our best Chinese we ran off and headed to the platform to catch our train.
More stunning views of Yangshuo scenery
For the first time on a Chinese train we had booked seats as this was a short 5 hour journey (short by Chinese standards).  The seats were not particularly comfortable but the train was not crowded so we had a bit of room to stretch out. 

For the early part of our journey we sat with a young Chinese girl and her boyfriend.  She could speak very good English and chatted to us for a while asking the usual questions (where are you from? where have you been in China?  what do you think of China? how old are you?  do you have children? why not?  how much money do you earn? etc – they don’t mind asking you what we consider quite personal questions but it’s the norm for Chinese).  She was really very sweet and acted as an interpreter for other people sitting around who wanted to ask us random questions.  As usual we were the only westerners. 
Peanuts, like money, do not grow on trees apparently
There was one particular guy, probably in his 50s, who just sat and stared open mouthed for a while but the girl who spoke English explained he was particularly interested in Paul’s tattoos.  Had all this been attention been at the beginning of our trip we may have been slightly alarmed, particularly as the man's persistent glare was vaguely ominous but we were used to it by now and knew (hoped) no malice was intended.  It’s just what they do.  Usually, if you smile at them, a huge grin will break out on their face and with the help of wild hand gestures some kind of conversation will begin where we don’t have a clue what they are saying and they clearly can’t understand a word of English but with lots of smiles and incessant nodding it’s communication of sorts nevertheless.
About an hour into our journey the Chinese girl and her boyfriend left to join some friends who were travelling in the upper deck and we settled down for our relatively short journey to Changsha somewhat relieved in the knowledge that, all being well, we would make our connecting train to Guilin.

Stunning scenery with karst mountains and bamboo
Happily, everything did indeed go to plan.  We caught the train to Guilin and after a fairly restful journey arrived at about 10.00am the following day.  We hoped to get a bus quite soon to Yangshuo as we knew there was a regular service from Guilin but we weren’t too sure where the bus station was. 

We considered doing what we normally do which is to just jump in a taxi.  Even if the bus station is only a 5 minute walk it’s sometimes easier and safer to jump in a cab for a few yuan (particularly if you have to cross a road in a Chinese city where you risk death by all manner of vehicles but the worst are bicycles).  And when you’ve got all your bags with you the last thing you want to be doing is wandering around aimlessly for too long, particularly at our age with our various ailments (back back, dodgy knees etc).

However, while we were having a cigarette and catching our breath before the next leg of the journey we just happened to wander about 3 steps to the left of the front of the train station where we spied a bus which, which we were reliably informed ("you wanna go Yangshuo?") was heading to Yangshuo any minute.  No doubt some unscrupulous taxi driver would have gleefully taken us round the block and charged us handsomely for the privilege but we stumbled upon the bus by chance simply by taking exploring every so slightly and a few random steps in the right direction.  Sheer luck of course but nice all the same.
Moon Cafe for lunch with Wendy
We stowed our luggage, hopped on the bus and soon we were on our way to Yangshuo, stopping to pick up various passengers along the way (never at apparent bus stops) and drop others off at quite obscure points in the middle of nowhere.  This is normal for a bus in China and we were used to it by now.

As we arrived at the bus station in Yangshuo, it was the usual chaos of taxi drivers and general noisy mayhem.  We had studied a map and knew that our hotel was just at the end of the main tourist drag West Street overlooking the River Li.  We decided to walk because it didn’t look too far and luckily it wasn’t.  But West Street was chaotic and much more geared towards Western tourism than in fact any other place in China we have been to.  This meant that a lot of the shop owners and hawkers could speak English and so we were constantly bombarded the whole length of West Street until we reached the riverfront. 
FIghting our way through the people trying to sell us bamboo boat trips and bicycles for hire we made our way slowly to our hotel. There is one such salesperson every couple of feet and you wonder why they think you may have changed your mind in the three seconds since you said no to the last person trying to sell you a bloody bamboo boat trip.
Quiet roads winding through paddy fields

It was a bit of a culture shock particularly after spending the last couple of weeks in the heart of Hunan where we hardly saw anything in Pinyin never mind English, and westerners was as rare as hen’s teeth, and usually left pretty much alone because of the language barrier.
We reached our hotel after about 15 minutes which is a long time with a heavy rucksack.  It was just around the corner from West Street and was surprising quiet and peaceful in comparison to the chaos around the corner.  We had booked a room with a balcony for 3 nights.  It was supposed to be a river view (which was by some strange coincidence the name of the hotel) and, to be fair, the balcony looked out into the general direction of the river but really view was of the huge trees along the river bank doing a fine job of blocking the any view of the river although we could see snippets of water between the branches and the karst mountains which rose beyond the other side of the river (and slightly above the treeline), but the sound of water was pleasant enough and it was just nice to have somewhere to sit outside and relax.

A temple in a small riverside village
The following evening we were meeting Jim and Laura, the couple we had met on the bus to Xi’an and who taught English at a school in Yangshuo.  When we met them in Xi’an they spoke about Yangshuo, which they love enough to have lived for 6 months of the year for the last 6 years.  They had told us that it was generally warmer than most places in China in winter which, to be fair it was but it wasn’t that warm!  During our two weeks there we did have a two or three really lovely days when the sun came out and the temperature climbed over the 20 degrees mark, but most of the time it was overcast and sometimes it drizzled.  However, it was definitely warmer than Hunan we were bored with being chilly and damp and were beginning crave warmth as much as we were craving cheese.

But on our first evening we wandered up to Monkey Jane’s rooftop bar which boasts one of the best views in Yangshuo and that is no exaggeration.  The view is indeed jaw dropping.  You are surrounded on all sides but towering limestone karst mountains which are lit up at night and it really is a beautiful place to enjoy a beer or two.
We chatted to a few people sharing stories of China and, in Paul’s case, the difficulty of learning Chinese.  Some people were heading north (were they mad? don’t they know it’s winter and very very cold up there?), and we met a couple of people who live in China.  Later in the evening Paul managed to get cornered by the resident mad old Chinaman for about an hour but he did get a free Chinese lesson.

Paul and Wendy with their scooters
One of the other attractions of Yangshuo was the availability of western food and, in most of restaurants, the availability of a menu in English!  Admittedly this takes some of the fun out of dinnertime but it also gives the tummy a bit of a break which, after nearly 3 months in China, it really did deserve.  It’s quite nice to know what you’re ordering rather having to rely on guesswork all the time.
Yangshuo is situated in Guangxi province and considered by many to be one of the most beautiful parts of China.  It’s no wonder it is inundated with tourists, both western and Chinese.  To begin with, Yanghsuo is a small town and unlike many of the major tourist destinations in China not part of a larger city.  So not only is the surrounding countryside breathtaking, it also very easily accessible.  There are lots of tiny villages to explore, the banks of the River Li and the River Yulong to wander along, miles of farmland to wander through, and of course there are karst mountains everywhere you look, and it is all within easy reach of anyone who is prepared to jump on a bike for the day.
And by far the best way to explore Yangshuo is by bike.  We had originally arranged to hire bikes and to go on a tour with a local guide the day after we arrived but when we met our guide, Wendy, Paul was presented with the option of hiring a scooter and once that possibility was offered to him, there was no persuading him otherwise. 

Moon Hill - those dangly things are people climbing!
In fairness we were both a bit under the weather.  Spending weeks in a damp and chilly environment for weeks on end begins to take its toll and we both seemed to have little chest infections which wouldn’t go away (probably not helped by smoking Chinese cigarettes but they are so cheap that we actually met non-smokers who actually take up smoking while in China simply because they are so cheap!). 
Anyway, spending a whole day cycling around Yangshuo was probably not the best idea in the world coupled with the fact that Paul couldn’t remember the last time he rode a bike but at a rough estimate it was around 30 years ago, and so we went for the motorised option.  I remained determined to get him on a bicycle but was resigned to the fact that I would have to leave that particular challenge for another day.
There was no way in a million years that I could consider riding my own scooter without having had at least 24 hours to acclimatise myself to the mere idea of riding on Chinese roads.  Although the roads in and around Yangshuo were not nearly as mad as in the large cities, they were still bonkers.  Paul, on the other hand, was champing at the bit and couldn’t wait.  I rode pillion with Wendy because the person we were hiring the scooters from doubted the ability of the Paul's suspension to cope with both me and Paul on the same bike.  Little did I know that, experienced as Wendy was driving on the roads in and around Yangshuo, she had never ridden with a pillion before.  She imparted this little nugget of information at the end of the day but in fairness to her she drove really well (and in fairness to me I am a really good pillion passenger).

Watching local farmers
harvest water chestnuts
We were able to travel a lot further afield on the scooters than we would have on pushbikes and we headed south across the River Li, up to the Yulong River and Long Qiao (Dragon Bridge), then across to Moon Hill and back round again.   We snaked our way around the imposing karst mountain landscape, passed through fields of diverse crops from kumquats to water chestnuts, dodged chickens and ducks, and stopped every now and again to watch the farmers doing a bit of harvesting here and there.

Wendy encouraged us to take photographs.  We took some photographs of the farmers but one older lady really didn't want us to take a photograph of her.  Wendy explained that she believed that if we took a photo of her, she would end up going all round the world and it would make her very tired.  Of course we respected her wishes.

In one of the fields where we stopped, there was a lady harvesting groundnuts (aka peanuts aka monkey nuts).  I am ashamed to say that I had absolutely no idea that they grew in the ground.  I was convinced they grew on trees.  They look like they could grow on trees.  Cashews grow on trees as do lots of other nuts but my ignorance on this subject has been the cause of much hilarity for Paul.  Needless to say, this continues to be brought up on a regular basis...
We must have covered about 35 km during the course of the day and spent a lovely day exploring the beautiful countryside in relative comfort. 

Wendy was a very informative guide and also told us about her family and her business.  She
explained that she began her business years ago before Yangshuo became the booming tourist town it is today.  Initially she set up a small café up near Moon Hill and began taking tourists on guided tours around the countryside, sometimes providing meals for them in her own home, using vegetables from her garden.  As her business grew more successful she became the main breadwinner in the family which was a little frowned upon in her small village outside the town but her husband supported her.  She had three grown up children and she explained that when the third was born (the long awaited and longed for son) her and her husband needed to raise the funds to pay the government fine and also that child’s healthcare and education.  The business provided her with the funds to be able to do that and she was very proud that all 3 of her children had gone to university, a first in her village.

Obviously I have more to say on this one child policy myth but I’ll get to that later.
The next day we met up with Jim and Laura.  Over the course of the next few days they were kind enough to introduce us to some of their friends, recommend restaurants, take us out and also show us around their favourite places around the town and beyond.  They also took us to the fireworks which heralded the opening of the local Fish and Fire Festival along the river.  It was an amazing display lasting over 40 minutes and the little town was absolutely bursting at the seams with locals and tourists alike.

Farmers working with massive bamboo in the
However, the first evening we met Jim and Laura at Kelly’s Café which turned into our regular haunt.  We continued to go there almost every day for either breakfast or dinner.  Sometimes we had breakfast or coffee at Café Too which doubled up as a bookshop/library and was just a lovely place to while away an hour or so.  We also ate dinner at either the Minorities Café where the food was excellent, or the Black Pepper which served delicious and authentic Indian food.  There was no shortage of places to eat and drink in Yangshuo.
But we kept returning to Kelly's Café, primarily because Jim and Laura had promised the owner they would keep an eye on the young Chinese waitress MT who was running the place while Kelly was on her honeymoon (in Hanoi of all places).  MT was 17 years old, spoke really good English, and was a real sweetheart.  She was born in Changsha but moved to Yangshuo when she was about 11 and although it was hard to know exactly what her situation was but we think that Kelly was a bit of a mother figure to her and had taken her under her wing.  MT was a great kid, a really hard worker (10 hours a day, 7 days a week) and she was the main reason we kept going back because she was just lovely, full of energy and always delighted to see us (big hugs all round), but it helped that the food was great, the beer was cheap, and the brandy measures were absolutely enormous.

More lovely scenery
Jim and Laura also suggested we consider volunteering at Omeida College to provide conversational practice for Chinese students.  This was the school where they had both taught for the last 6 years.  In return for one hour of conversation practice a day we would be provided with free accommodation.  This seemed like a good deal to us so after 4 days at the Riverview Hotel we checked out and moved into our new temporary digs around the corner from the school. 
Paul and MT
The school was located in an area north of Yangshuo tourist district, about half an hour’s stroll at a very leisurely pace into the town.  We had a large room with an ensuite Chinese loo (not ideal) in an apartment with a kitchen area and large lounge.  The bedroom had a standard Chinese bed (rock hard) and air conditioning unit which we ended up having to leave turned on to heat constantly, to little avail.  We moved in after 4 days of relative luxury at the Riverview Hotel and spent the next 10 days saving ourselves a bit of money.

In was our intention to spend 2 weeks in Yangshuo before finally leaving China and head to Vietnam.  As well as finally getting Paul on a bike and spending one hour a day speaking to Chinese students, we would spend the next 10 days obtaining our Vietnamese visas, deciding how we were going to travel to Hanoi (by bus or by bus and train), and just generally taking it easy.  It was going to be nice to be in one place again for a while.



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