China Part II, Yangshuo and the Li River

The first line in the introduction of the Lonely Planet Guide to China reads, “China is not so much a travel destination as a mind-boggling phenomena.” What a perfect way to express our feelings about the trip!

A favorite tourist location, particularly for the back-packers, is an area just north of Guangzhou. The town of Yangshuo (only 300,000 people, the smallest we visited while in China) is situated along the Li River that wanders around through a myriad of karsts. Being early in our trip, we relied on finding a guest house mentioned in the Lonely Planet as we had done during our earlier trip through S. America. It was quite a struggle to find it and we passed up several attractive hotels in the search. After renting the room for one night and dumping our bags, we settled down for breakfast outside the hotel. It turned out to be nearly impossible to eat our food between the Chinese who were trying to sign us up for a day-trip and the ones trying to sell us trinkets and postcards. They would push the trinkets in front of our faces as we were trying to put the food in our mouths. From that moment on we decided that we would try to distance ourselves from the regular tourist crowd and find our own way around.

The second night in Yangshuo, we stayed in a hotel that usually caters to the Chinese tourist. The manager of this hotel, Lily, was the person who kindly helped us with our small flip-book of Mandarin phrases. We paid half the price in Lily’s hotel (a little more than $6/US) and the room was great. From what we could determine, it has been a very recent development for most hotels in China to accept foreigners as guests. That was OK with us! We would look for the Chinese-looking places from that point on!

The usual way to see the Li River was to ride on one of the large tour boats from Guilin in the north, down-river to Yangshuo. On our path of doing the “non-tourist” thing, we decided to travel up-river by bus to a town called Xing-Ping and find boat transportation back down-river to Yangshuo. The first part of this plan worked well; however, as soon as we alighted from the bus the Chinese tour operators were all over us. One of them was a lady who was particularly determined. She attached herself to us and followed us for an hour around town. Jane got brave and tried a local dish of dumplings in a soup and then we headed for the river. Our “attached” lady said that we would need to pay $25 in order to find a small boat to take us down-river and that we should take one of the small bamboo rafts on a short trip for much less money. “No thanks, we’ll keep looking. Please go away!” we told her.

We wandered north along the river passing lovely small gardens. The Chinese people are terrible about throwing their garbage anywhere and everywhere, but their gardens were ALWAYS neat as a pin and gorgeous. We arrived at another area with bamboo rafts and several souvenir stands where a Chinese couple asked us to take their picture with the karsts and the river in the background. They showed us that this was the very scene on the 20-yuan note and therefore, quite famous. After taking their photo, they motioned that they wanted a photo of Jane with the lady and promised to send it to us via email later. Photo #1 is that shot. This was our Chinese experience – an isolated moment of meeting lovely people amidst the craziness that is usually China. Through all of this we had FINALLY lost our Chinese shadow and it was time to seriously look for transportation.

We were not afraid to go back in a small boat so we started asking some of the drivers hanging around the docks. One driver said “OK, for 150 yuan (about $19)” One lady and a boy of about 13 years jumped into the boat with us and we were off! WE did not go far though – just across the river - before he pulled over and the lady motioned that we should jump off and follow her. We thought that was still OK as we had not paid money to anyone yet. She led us down the beach, through the garbage, towards a group of women and children sitting in the shade in front of a house. The boy was calling someone on his cell phone and they were both nodding assuredly. What had we gotten into? We would ask, “Yangshuo?” in a concerned voice and they would all nod their heads ”Yes” and smile. After perhaps 10 minutes, we were led back to the house of the lady. Entering the front door we saw a large photo of Mao on the living room wall and the lady’s older (16 years) #1son watching TV. We were given some watermelon and tea and peanuts in the shell. We were getting a little nervous by that time and were to find out later that we had been waiting for the father of this family to return from somewhere. He was to be our pilot in the small family boat.

We spent some more time waiting by the shore of the river. This village still uses pet cormorants for fishing. While fishing for the owner the cormorant has a line around his throat preventing him from swallowing the catch. When work is done the cormorant is allowed to fish for himself. The Li River has been quite “fished-out”; therefore, in most places the cormorant fishing is done just for the tourist and the tourist dollar.

#1 son became fascinated with our Mandarin phrase book and spent a long time happily reading it and practicing his English. Momma and #2 son were busy cleaning out a very small family boat that was to be our transportation. See Photo #2 When Poppa got home, he came directly to the boat in his suit. #2 son pushed us off and we were headed south to Yangshuo. We can’t attach all the photos from this experience to this message but there were some great ones – tune in later to the website. #2 son’s job was to handle the flags out of the window. Red flag meant that our captain intended to pass oncoming traffic port to port. And there was a LOT OF oncoming traffic! All the big tour boats that had come down the river were now on their way (empty of passengers) back up the river. It was quite exciting to be in this tiny boat and our captain did seem to know what he was doing…which is quite amazing considering the bicycle-type-gear of the boat. It was a long trip. After an hour we had not reached the city, but the captain was heading for the shore and motioning that this was the spot for us to depart. We imagine that he must have seen the panic in our faces and kept waving his arms at the path and saying “Yangshuo”.

We did not have much choice in the matter as Sander had, by that time paid him the fee. It was about 4PM, we still had some daylight left and it was a lovely path through the woods, so we were not too worried. As we came to locals working in their gardens, we would ask “Yangshuo?” They would smile and point in the direction that we were headed. Finally, we met some Caucasian bikers headed in the opposite direction and they assured us that we had only about 1km more to walk. We still have no idea why he captain did not deliver us to Yangshuo as promised.

A walk through a city was always interesting for us as the small shop keepers did their work right out in front along the sidewalk. They were cutting aluminum and stainless steel, welding gates together, turning wood, fixing teeth, giving haircuts and shaves. What more could want for entertainment?

The last photo is of the Dragon Bridge built in 1412. The trip to find the Dragon Bridge was lovely in itself. We took a bus to a nearby city, walked along the main road for about 20 minutes and then turned off into the rice paddies. We came through a lovely small village where people were playing cards and enjoying lunch together. Of course there were more bamboo rafts and more people who wanted to take us for a ride; however, they were not so insistent and bothersome as the previous day. We passed by a young boy and girl along the way and showed the camera to see if they wanted to have their photos taken. The girl hid behind the boy first but when she saw the photo she insisted on our taking a second one so that she could see herself. A very pleasant day, indeed!

Of course we had to eat while we were in China. In the next letter we will tell you some humorous stories about “eating in China”.

Jane and Sander