Well, Yangshuo is a lovely area. We are staying here in a "culture house" hostel run by a family and the room includes dinner and breakfast that the family cooks for you. The dinners are huge with probably 7 or 8 different dishes and everyone who's staying here eats together at a big table. We are the only Americans, so it's interesting just eating with everyone else, mostly Europeans. Yesterday we rode the boat from Guilin to Yangshuo down the Li River. It's a beautiful trip. All the 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.
Just after we arrived at our hostel here it downpoured rain for many hours. But today the weather was perfect for us. First we rode bicycles through the town and then rode through the rice paddies on slim ribbons of dirt paths. Then we rode a bamboo raft down a side river to the Li River, which was equally as gorgeous. They took our bikes on the rafts so when we landed we rode to another location and climbed a mountain to get an overlook of the area, then we went into a cave and had a mud bath. It's particularly appropriate somehow that today I took a mud bath, since my mud-bath partner from days of old is getting married this weekend and was on my mind anyway. So, Marla, I took a big pig-roll in the mud just for you in honor of your marriage, and may you introduce Shawn and Alec to these simple joys of life. :-) 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's really fun. Then rode bicycles back home down a nice road and back into town through the chaos 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 drive 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. So you just keep your mind on your direction and ride like a bat out of hell. Anyway, was a really lovely day full of gorgeous scenery.
Yesterday on the boat ride, we took the Chinese boat, which costs less than half of the "foreigner's" boat. There's just no English spoken. Fine – worth the price cut. But we ended up sitting with a Russian guy and his daughter (had been staying at the same hostel as us). It was nice talking with him. He said that one day, before the fall of communism, 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 from what he told us, it's just unfathomable how drastically peoples' lives there changed literally overnight. But he said within the last 7 or 8 years things have been improving. We met a Kiwi in our hostel in Guilin 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 the 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. ! Right now in the room with me are Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and us. We spent the day with Spaniards and there are a lot of Spaniards staying here at the culture house.
It's still blistering hot in Yangshuo. But we're managing a good time anyway. Yesterday we took a long bus ride out to a big terraced rice-paddy village and walked around the terraces, very beautiful and serene. The women in those villages have this thing with their hair that they only cut it once in their lives, when they're 18. And they keep the locks and use them tie up their “real” hair. Their hair is down to about their ankles. They wear it in different hairstyles based on whether or not they're married, whether or not they have kids, are widowed, etc. The landscape was just really nice.
Today Erik and I rented bicycles and set out to 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 the right road (a rough dirt road through the rice fields, a pretty ride also). Had lunch at the little "cafe" in the middle of nowhere and finally 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 language barrier), and we eventually found it. (village called Fuli) It was nice, but frankly I thought the little villages we got lost in were more interesting and quaint. And 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 things and two dragon heads with light bulbs for eyes. That was the entire historic district. But the ladies were a little cute anyway. Then rode back home on the highway, which was still nice scenery and there wasn't much traffic. Having not ridden a bike in eons and now riding twice in the last 3 days, my butt, I must confess, feels rather damaged.
It's just amazing how ruthless the vendors are around here to tourists. When we came down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo the other day on the Chinese tourist boat, a guy on a little bamboo raft was in the middle of the river 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're looking over the railing with alarm while the raft and boat make a mild collision, but then the raft guy throws a rope onto our cruise boat and pulls his raft up alongside it, quickly ties it up and immediately lifts up toward the alarmed crowd handfuls of souvenir trinkets and geodes. This happened probably ten time during the 5-hour trip. The other day when we took the bamboo rafts down the side river, the first 30 minutes were full of vendors on their own bamboo rafts paddling up and trying to sell us cold drinks. It's just relentless! It was nice today riding around lost in the little villages where nobody at all came out to try to sell you something. One time on the highway to Jiaxian City (back during my village stay), which isn't even a tourist town, our minivan came around a corner and sitting there in the middle of the highway was a kid with a begging cup. He was literally on the yellow centerline of the highway sitting on the ground. Maybe in America it wouldn't seem quite so absurd (though obviously still absurd) because drivers tend to stay in their lanes and stay on the right side of the road, but in China, lanes often aren't even marked and when they are, they're merely an artistic exercise for somebody. It's like one of those esoteric works of art, a series of simple lines that were painstakingly drawn and are absolutely meaningless and without form. Right side of the road, left side, all of that is optional in China. Just drive where-ever. That begging kid must be a terrible burden on his family, because I can’t imagine they actually expected him to live very long that way and surely were waiting for an accident to relieve the burden.
But there are all kinds of random things in the roads! If a car breaks down, often they don't tow it away but rather bring to it a mobile repair unit and fix it right in the road. In Datong, we saw men rebuilding a truck engine in the middle of a highway. I can't remember what Erik said they were doing exactly, but he did say that it was something more complicated and time-consuming than when he (and friends) replaced the head gasket on our Subaru wagon last summer. Yesterday I was sitting next to the bus driver in the front seat on the way to the rice terraces. 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, but 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. 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.
Oh, yesterday in the rice paddy village while we tourists were sitting watching a dancing show put on by the village ladies, a gigantico-normous bug crawled onto one of the tourists. She didn't notice it but one of the village performers did and suddenly rushed over and started swatting at the poor startled tourist. The villager managed to dislodge the bug from the lady's leg and it started scampering across the floor, and geeze Louise, Mark and Henry, that thing was like a mammal. Another village lady grabbed a broom and started whacking it trying to kill it. I can't even tell you how creepy it was. I've never seen a member of the insect family that freaky large. Not even on TV. The ladies immediately swept away its corpse so the tourists wouldn't mull over the horror. Eeeks!
Regrettably, we saw something even more disturbing today, though, as we saw a man in the Fuli town skinning a certain type of popular pet for an impending barbeque. There are lots of water buffalo here, they are often to be found submerged completely in the water. I didn't know they could hold their breath.
And now I reveal to you my grand theory about the Chinese people that will surely earn my international repute as a groundbreaking scholar: The Chinese people are genetically mutated to have fly feet. Little sticky fly feet. Everywhere we've been, the sidewalks and walking surfaces are super smooth and slick. Even when dry. And when they're wet, good golly. Erik and I are baby-stepping around while the Chinese women cruise on by in their dainty high-heeled shoes and men in their smooth-bottomed loafers like it's nothing. Flies. 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. The other day (when I was riding in the front of the bus to the 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. Made me chuckle. Well, anyway, should move along now.
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