There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Guilin and the Li River: Part 8 of China's Far Southwest

We reached Guilin in time for lunch, which we took in the huge dining room of an international hotel, empty except for us and a German tour party. The food was good, if unexceptional, and clearly aimed at an international market – judging by the signs throughout the hotel lobby, a German speaking market.

After lunch, with no specific visits scheduled we expected Liu to go home, but she had other ideas. She clearly believed either that we should be continuously occupied to avoid getting into mischief, or we needed our hands holding in the street. We thanked her for the offer, explained our desire to explore on our own and gently shooed her away.

‘Gui lin’ means ‘Osmanthus Forest’. The city is not exactly a forest, it is a city, but trees line the roads and spread across pockets of landscaped garden so that the Osmanthus’ strong perfume often fills the air. It is also a remarkably clean city with wide avenues, white buildings that sparkle in the sun, and shops and restaurants looking spick and span.


Beside Rong Hu

We walked through the centre and down to the small lakes that are the remains of Guilin’s Ming dynasty moat. We strolled beside Rong Hu (Banyan Lake) to the old tangled tree that gives it its name and then across a causeway with several right angled turns (because demons cannot do right angles) to a small island. It was, I thought, the place I would put a teahouse - if I had one.

Sure enough, there was a traditional teahouse with a small terrace over the lake. It was peaceful and quiet - mainly because it was too expensive for most locals. You can pay what you like for tea in China, from next to nothing to prices similar to Chateau Lafitte, but next to nothing is not an option in an elegant teahouse. We settled for a pot of Guilin Rock Tea, and one of Guilin Mao Jian, which were both obviously local and relatively cheap (about £3 each).

It is relaxing to sit in the shade on a warm day beside a lake listening to a girl tinkling on a Zhan – a sort of outsized zither. Hot water was always available for a top up and it was easy to stay for an hour or more.The Chinese have a genius for creating areas of calm in the midst of bustling cities, and the peace was only mildly ruffled when Lynne’s expansive gesture sent her tiny teacup crashing onto the tiled floor.   Our bill was 75 Yuan (including 10 for the broken cup), which was 5 more than we would pay for our dinner that night.


The Sun and Moon Pagodas, Shan Hu

Guilin is a main tourist centre, and that evening we joined Liu and a couple of tour groups on a boat trip through the lake system. Starting opposite the rebuilt Sun and Moon pagodas where the lakes meets the Li River, we progressed clockwise through Shan Hu and Rong Hu, past ‘our’ teahouse, under a Chinese arch and then through a series of neon lit bridges representing the nations of the world. We passed under the Golden Gate, The Tiber Bridge and the Arc de Triomphe (strangely relocated to a bridge). The British contribution was, somewhat surprisingly, the Ironbridge iron bridge. Despite its historical importance, it does not have quite the status of the others, and maybe we were the only people on the boat who recognised it.


The fisherman helped the cormorant regurgitate his catch

Cormorant fishing has been practised on the Li River since antiquity although it is now largely, if not entirely, an exhibition for tourists. Beyond the bridges we halted while a man punted his bamboo raft towards us. Two bright lights were mounted on the bow and a line of cormorants stood behind them awaiting instructions. Given the nod, one dived into the lake and quickly located a fish. The bird was entirely free and could have made off with his prize, though the cord round his neck would have prevented him from swallowing it. Returning to the boat, he hopped onto the offered punt pole and was deposited on the deck, which floated at, or a little below, water level. The fisherman helped the cormorant regurgitate his catch and the bird happily set off to do it again. And again, and again. The lake appeared well stocked with fish.

Leaving them to entertain the next boat, we moved on, stopping at prearranged points where a floodlight would appear and illuminate some musicians, a dance or a scene from an opera. It was like Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World After All’ only with real people.

As we headed back, a man produced a two-string fiddle and placed it upright on his knee. The quavering sounds were essentially Chinese, but he played an incongruous selection of Scottish airs, finishing, inevitably, with Auld Lang Syne.

Li River convoy
Next morning we set off for our Li River Cruise. The dock, once in the city centre, has been moved 10 kilometres south and we duly followed the approved migration route of the Guilin tourist. Our boat was full, some 80 or so passengers, slightly more Chinese than European, and was one of half a dozen making the four hour journey downstream to Yangshuo in convoy.

The Li River is neither very wide nor, in places, very deep. Despite their amazingly shallow draft, the cruise boats are big and it requires knowledge and experience to pick out a navigable channel.


The fabulously improbable karst mountains

We had a seat in the upper cabin, but, like many others, spent much of the time on the open deck watching the fabulously improbable karst mountains drift by. A group of guides sat inside and chatted, whilst Liu read a large book on Feng Shui – they must do this trip many times. More surprisingly, two groups of Chinese tourists drew the curtains and played cards.

Despite a slight haziness, the views were memorable and are perhaps better described by photographs, of which we took many, than words.



The Li River

The Li River

Floating salesman

We saw no cormorant fishing - that takes place at dusk - but the distinctive rafts were much in evidence. Once made of bamboo, moulded plastic is now the material of choice, though the traditional shape is still adhered to. With pottery or trinkets standing where the cormorants should be, the owners punted out to the cruise boats, grabbing hold of the lower deck windows and attempting to make sales as they were dragged downstream. At the same time, the boat’s tannoy continually reminded passengers, in English and Mandarin, that they should not buy from water born salesmen. They must have a frustrating life.


Yangshuo

We debarked at Yangshuo, a large resort town much favoured by pack-packers and those who cannot, or do not wish to afford the smarter hotels of Guilin. It is a lively place where bicycles can be hired to tour through more of the karst countryside. Decades have passed since either of us rode a bike so we opted for a softies’ trip in a golf buggy. The scenery was still remarkable, but the effort was less.

We gave Liu the next morning off – which should have pleased her but didn’t – and spent our time strolling around town, buying a few presents. The walk down the Li River corniche took us past the old people’s early morning exercise groups. Some were doing Tai Chi, one group’s elaborately choreographed routines involved swords, while others had brought their music and were dancing beneath the Osmanthus trees, ballroom and disco being equally popular. We met several men who each claimed to be an English teacher and whose wife, or sometimes sister, had trained for four years to work in a teahouse, and if we just came along with them….. We declined the invitations.


How grown-ups spend their time in Guilin

We met Liu for lunch and went to a restaurant rather than an international hotel. She wanted to set about ordering, but I could see the menu had pictures and suggested we might like to be consulted. We browsed for a while and I asked about a dish of something brown and dome-shaped. ‘You won’t like that’ said Liu and tried to move on. ‘It is a local speciality, alternate slices of tarot and pork’ she said when I persisted, ‘but the meat is too fatty for you.’ We insisted on ordering it.

While waiting for the food to arrive, Lynne went to the toilet and Liu took the opportunity to ask me a question. ‘Am I an awful guide?’ she asked with a worried expression. I tried to reassure her she was very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English, and we had given her time off because we were quite happy to wander round town, find a teahouse or buy our evening meal on our own. There was nothing wrong with her, it was just that we neither needed, nor wanted constant advice or protection. She seemed to find this a new and difficult idea.

We ate beef with chillies, meat and water chestnut balls with spring onions, leek and cabbage with tofu, a large plate of sweet corn formed into a sort of crisp wafer and, of course, the tarot and fatty pork. It was all top quality but the tarot and pork was particularly memorable, the fat having melted during cooking to leave a rich porky flavour on the tarot which managed to be both crisp and floury at the same time. The sweet corn cake was dangerously moreish as well.

As we ate I asked Liu if her mother was looking after her five year old son. She said he had been in hospital for the last two weeks and she had spent the previous night with him, but he was much better now. We were speechless. She had, it seemed, been fretting about not spending enough time with us when we, albeit inadvertently, had been giving her time off to spend with her sick child.

When we had finished, the owner told us we were the first foreigners to visit his restaurant and he hoped we had enjoyed our meal. We said, truthfully, that it had been a highlight of our trip. We were happy, he was happy and Liu was delighted to find something we really liked. The waitress then added up our bill on an abacus, ignoring the calculator on the counter, which made the mathematician still lurking inside me happy too.

Use of neon in the Reed Flute Caves
Our being the first foreigners to visit the restaurant was, we thought, an indictment of the tourist industry. Corralling their charges in international hotels where they believe they will feel safe, while ignoring much better, and far cheaper, local restaurants seems both short-sighted and lazy.

Leaving the restaurant, we drove a little way out of town to the Reed Flute Caves. The caves have an impressive collection of stalactites ‘n’ ‘mites, some large caverns and several small pools. The neon lighting is bright and garish but strangely effective. It is a show cave, like many throughout the world, but a particularly big one. When Bill Clinton visited Guilin he attended a banquet held in the largest chamber. It must have been an impressive place to eat, but I wondered how warm the food was by the time it got there.


Not departing from the norm

We went on to Seven Star Park, which boasts a vast mural of Chinese history and several climbable karst mountains. There is also a rock shaped like a camel in front of which Bill Clinton made a speech on the environment. Everybody wanted to stand on the spot to have their picture taken, and we saw no reason to depart from the norm.

We filled our remaining time with a visit to the Ming Tearoom. A charming young lady who really had been trained for four years took us through a private tasting of four teas. The Osmanthus flavoured tea was, sadly, not particularly memorable but we finished with a Pu'er. The fragments broken from the compacted block of long matured fermented tea looked like a shards of rotten wood and tasted like liquid wood smoke. Love it or hate it, it cannot be ignored. Foreigners rarely visit this establishment, but Hillary Clinton did, tasting tea while Bill saved the world. We were beginning to feel the Clintons were stalking us.

Serious tea tasting
The rules of airline ticketing meant that having spent two weeks travelling from  Kunming to Guilin we then had to return to Kunming to fly back to Hong Kong. This required an eighteen-hour train journey, mostly in the wrong direction.

Travelling soft sleeper class on Chinese trains is a restful way to see the countryside - if you can actually see it. Darkness fell an hour or two after we left Guilin, and the morning was shrouded in mist.

Our return route was much more southerly, taking us through the industrial city of Liuzhou and the provincial capital of Nanning before turning north for our second visit to Xingyi and then east for a mid-morning arrival in Kunming. This time ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ made an effort to live up to its name. It was a pleasantly warm November day, but sadly we were only there to take a taxi from the station to the airport.

And finally....
Thanks are due to TravelChinaGuide who supplied drivers and guides and made all the land arrangements for the--mainland part of this trip. Their efficiency and their ability to reply to every email within 24 hours regardless of the time of day or week they are received is awe-inspiring.



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