please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
We took a boat from Guilin to Yangshuo down the Li River. We took the Chinese boat, which costs less than half of the "foreigner's" boat, there's just no English spoken. Fine – totally worth the price cut. It's a beautiful trip, full of karst formations -- like in Guilin (sort of like enormous camel humps) but the entire landscape is nothing but these. Despite the gloomy day, it was a lovely voyage, if a difficult one to photograph -- the misty gray light was no friend to my camera [at that time just a point-and-shoot.] With those less-than-ideal conditions in mind, I'll give you a little virtual ride down the Li River .....
As our boat chugged down the middle of the river, a guy on a little bamboo raft was in the middle of the river, too, and our boat seemed to be going right for him, but he didn't move out of the way. Everyone on deck was concerned and we looked over the railing with alarm while the raft and boat made a mild collision. But then the raft guy threw a rope onto our cruise boat and pulled his raft up alongside it. Were we being boarded by pirates? He quickly tied it up and immediately lifted up toward the alarmed crowd handfuls of souvenir trinkets and geodes. This happened probably ten times during the 5-hour trip. The vendors were relentless around here!
We ended up sitting with a Russian guy and his daughter for a meal. It was interesting talking with him. He mentioned the 1998 financial crisis, and said that one day he had enough money in his savings account to buy two or three refrigerators. The very next day the ruble devalued so severely that with his savings he could only pay one month's heating bill. We didn't want to push him for details of what was obviously a very painful time. But it's always sobering to hear how drastically peoples' lives can change literally overnight -- one of the very many times I'm reminded to count my blessings each day that I have them. I also thought it was interesting that he chose refrigerators as the illustration of comparative wealth.
We stayed in a family-run hostel called the Yangshuo Culture House, and the room included dinner and breakfast that the family cooked. The dinners were huge with seven or eight different dishes and everyone who's staying here eats together at a big table. We were the only Americans, so it was interesting just eating with everyone else, mostly Europeans, including Germans, Swedes and Spaniards.
Skipping back to our hostel in Guilin for a moment, here's a crazy story: We met a Kiwi who had just gotten out of a jail cell. He'd been traveling with a private tour guide and after a time came to figure out that the guide was quite severely ripping him off, charging him double the admission price to places, etc. So he confronted the guide about it, and about an hour later, police showed up at his hotel and arrested him and held him for 24 hours without providing a translator and not charging him with anything. He's diabetic and they wouldn't let him get his medication. He was stuck at that hostel for several days under orders of his embassy until he got his blood sugar regulated again. So, our lesson from him is that if you come to suspect your guide here is ripping you off, say "thank you very much" and be on your way!
The next day after arriving in Yangshuo, took a day-long trip with a guide from the culture house. We rode bicycles through the town and beyond, through rice paddies on slim ribbons of dirt paths.
Then we rode a bamboo raft down a tributary of the Li River, which was equally as gorgeous as the Li itself.
They took our bikes on the rafts so when we landed we rode to another location and climbed up Moon Hill to get an overlook of the area.
Then we went into a pretty cave and had a mud bath! This mud was very soupy and you could float in it like you were a bamboo raft yourself ... lie flat on your back or on your stomach and put your arms out in front of you like a superhero, or even lie on your side, and you float like a rubber raft. It was super fun.
We rode our bicycles home from the cave down a nice road and back into town through the chaotics craziness of town traffic.
I just followed our leader (from the culture house) like I was literally attached to her on a tether. You learn after a bit to ride with blinders on. You just can't pay attention to or worry about anything going on to the sides of you or behind you, just look ahead and make your way forward through the other bicycles and motorcycles and mopeds and pedestrians and trucks and mini-tractors and cars and buses all going in any and every direction simultaneously. Just keep your mind on your direction and ride like a bat out of hell, haha. Anyway, it was a really lovely day full of gorgeous scenery and unique experiences, one of the best activities I've done with a guide.
The next day in the blistering heat we took a long bus ride out to a terraced rice-paddy village, the Longji rice terraces, and walked around the hillsides. I happened to score shotgun seat on the bus. So I was sitting next to the bus driver when suddenly he bent down toward the floor and started feeling around. I looked and saw that the keys had fallen out of the ignition. So we're driving over this rough, bumpy road with one side of it totally washed out, leaving the passenger to look down a small cliff to the river, and the other side is strewn with rocks from landslides, and the driver's got one hand on the wheel and about a third of one eye on the road, and is feeling around the floor for the keys. He got them and reinserted them into the ignition, and the bus never hiccupped. I didn't realize that ignition keys were optional and unnecessary in China!
The driver, by the way, had some unbelievably wicked fingernails. I don't think I've seen their equal. The thumbs and pinkies had nail extensions and all the nails were very nicely shaped and manicured. Somebody told me that Chinese people often grow their pinky nails out like this (you see it a lot) as a sort of status symbol, to show that you aren't a peasant working in the fields or doing hard labor -- you have the luxury of growing out these nails. If true, this dude is incredibly ostentatious with his fingernail palaces on the ends of four of his fingers. They're like Taj Mahals hanging off his fingertips.
Arriving at the village of Huangluo Yao at the base of the Longji rice terraces, the first thing you see is a performance by several women of the Red Yao tribe demonstrating their unique hairstyles. These lovely ladies are real Rapunzels. They cut their hair only once in their lives! They do this when they're 18 years old. They keep the cut locks and use them tie up their “real” hair still growing on their head, which when let down reaches about to their ankles. They wear it in different styles based on whether or not they're married, whether or not they have kids, are widowed, etc. The Red Yao women are the most famous of about 20 "Yao" people groups.
While we were watching the performance, a gigantico-normous bug crawled onto one of the tourists. She didn't notice it but one of the performers did who suddenly rushed over and started swatting at the poor, startled tourist. The villager managed to dislodge the bug from the tourist's leg and it scampered across the floor, and I tell you, that thing was like a mammal. Another villager grabbed a broom and started whacking it, trying to kill it. I can't even express to you how creepy it was. The ladies immediately swept away its corpse so the tourists wouldn't mull over the horror. Eeeks!
The young lady below was our guide around the terraces, and the next photo down is another Red Yao woman with her exotic hair and a basket on her back walking among the terraces. The photo is Erik's (always a better photographer than me).
Here are some views of the terraced hillsides. Even though the heat and humidity was stifling, it was still a beautiful, provincial atmosphere. I'm sure it's a hard life working these fields, so I don't know if it's only a visitor's eye that can see the beauty. I hope not -- I hope the lush greenery and soft lines of the hilly horizon are pretty to the Red Yao tribe, too, in spite of the toil.
What I will remember most about these terraces is the sound of running water -- it surrounds you as water trickles in numerous places along the perimeter of one terraced paddy down to the one below, then to the one below it, and below it, on and on down the hillside. The audio experience was completely unexpected and perhaps that's also why so memorable. I'd seen plenty of photos of terraced rice paddies elsewhere, but never knew the sound the accompanied them. Photos are great but they have some limitations. You will not be able to hear the sound as you view the image below, though this is a little stream running down the hillside rather than the little troughs cut into the paddies with a bamboo chute for the water to funnel into.
The homes that nestle into the terraces were also picturesque. Here is a sampling of those, who courtyards we often walked right through. First one courtesy of Erik.
The next day after the terrace tour, we got rowdy and decided to rent bicycles on our own and try to find a particular village mentioned by some guide books. Almost right away we got ridiculously lost. But it was fun, as we ended up riding around through tiny village streets/paths in a couple different villages but always ended up at a dead end, either ending at the river bank (we were trying to follow the Li river) or at somebody's yard or at a rice paddy.
But after a time we found what we thought was the right road, a rough dirt road through the rice fields, in time to have lunch at a little "cafe" in the middle of nowhere. We still weren't certain of our whereabouts or if our thoughts about being on the right road were correct, so finally we began asking people where we were and if we were going the right way, and how to get to the ferry to cross the river to our destination village. This went surprisingly well considering the language barrier, and we eventually found the village of Fuli. It was nice, but frankly I thought the little villages we got lost in were more interesting and quaint.
As in the photos at Longji that you can't hear the trickling water in, this idyllic-looking photo you can't smell the sewer stench of the pond in. So many people have liked this photo, and Erik and I just laugh at how quickly we rode by it, how I had to breathe through my mouth for the short time I stopped to snap the photo. If you've read many more of my posts and essays from China, you will know that I mastered the art of shutting out all olfactory input and breathing through my mouth in this visually stunning country.
The senior ladies of Fuli wanted 3 yuan to allow us to walk down their historic zone that they're working on reconstructing. We paid and came to the end of the zone after passing three small rooms holding really crude Buddhas and Confucian-looking items and two dragon heads with light bulbs for eyes. That was the entire historic district. But the ladies were cute anyway, it was hard to regret 3 yuan. Especially when we saw ........ a kitty!! (not too common in this country but not unseen)
It was a rather grand day out, but having not ridden a bike in eons and then riding twice in three days, my butt, I must confess, felt quite damaged.
Something else I just remembered ... they have these rain ponchos here that are specially designed for wearing on motorcycles. The fit over person and motorcycle simultaneously with one piece of fabric and there's little slit for the handlebars to come through and a clear plastic square built in for the headlight to shine through. When I was riding in the front of the bus to the Longji rice terraces, a guy with a green one of these panchos was racing the bus in the rain. His rain coat was flapping wildly at his sides and he had a little "brain bucket" helmet on and was all hunkered over. He was like a little caped crusader, a cartoon super-hero racing through the streets, like our bus was evil and he was flying to get ahead of us and thwart us with his green cape.
So in sum, we had a delightful time traveling to and around Yangshuo. I'd almost say skip Guilin if you're on a tight schedule or want to avoid tourist traps, except that the river trip from there to Yangshuo is worth the stop there. I don't know how its popularity among travelers compares to Guilin, but Yangshuo had a far more relaxed and not over-touristed feel to it.
Read more articles from China II