THE ESSENCE OF CHINA
YANGSHUO: DAY ONE
My introduction to China was, shall we say, a challenge?
Oh, the trip to Hong Kong airport was harmless enough and the relatively new airport itself was a thing of beauty with its high ceilings, many dining options and comfortable lounges.
The flight too was fine. Just over an hour with only the fact that the stewards came through the cabin collecting all “Western Media” shortly before we landed giving us a clue that we were about to enter a country where restrictions on such matters are still very firmly upheld.
It was once I landed that things began to go, well, a bit weird.
First of all, customs.
Now, I am a magnet for customs men everywhere. I suspect it is because, with my almost permanent covering of stubble and heavy lidded eyes, I look like a poster boy for every nefarious organisation on the planet. Add to this my British passport with an Indian name and I am usually whipped aside for extra checks before you can say the words “racial profiling”
Even 4,000 miles away from home, I still found myself pulled to one side and my bags opened while half a dozen armed and obscenely young looking Chinese customs officials had a bit of a poke and a prod. I had, as I had been advised to do, declared my laptop which seemed to cause particular consternation and I sat patiently for half an hour while the guards opened up my computer, turned it on and had a look at my holiday snaps for a while.
After about half an hour of loud debate, they turned to me, gestured that I should pack my bags and said something that I took to mean “stop wasting our time and bugger off”
Next stop, my ride from Guilin to Yansghuo.
I had booked myself into attend a well regarded cookery school and, as part of the deal, they had arranged a transfer for me from the airport to my hotel. As I came out of customs, my large backpack (which I had by now christened “ Big Red”
because it was big and, er, red) was swiped from my back as if it was a child’s lunchbox by a man who came up to my shoulders in height. He had a cigarette drooping from his mouth and a sign in the other hand that said “Majuba” That’ll be me then.
Without a word, he took off at lightning pace across the arrivals hall and, before I could say “excuse me my good fellow, do I have time to use the washing facilities?” he was out of the door and scurrying across the car park.
I had horrible visions of losing my luggage (which, let us not forget, contained some exotic and interesting changes of underwear) so started to hot foot it after him with little success as he began to move further ahead with each stride, my 25kgs bag barely seeming to trouble him at all.
Finally, I saw him stop by a small car in the distance and, when I finally caught up to him ,wheezing and out of breath, he was sitting comfortably on top of Big Red with another cigarette in his mouth and a gappy grin showing his few remaining teeth.
If my greeting was a shock to the system, the journey to Yangshuo was even more hazardous to my health. The road was shocking and Mr Few Teeth, seemed to have a sense of keen determination to hit every last pothole and crevice in an attempt to shake my glorious pearly whites loose so I had as few teeth as him.
The road markings, also, seemed to be optional. My chauffeur had decided that the best option was to take a route right down the middle and to give way to no man be they aged farmer on a cycle or two tonnes of trucky metal goodness. Near miss after near miss seemed to be avoided by him leaning on a horn that gave out nothing but an apologetic ‘parp” by way of warning. After two particularly close calls, I decided the best option was to follow the lesson of the ostrich “if I can’t see it, it can’t hurt me” So, I closed my eyes and buried my head into the comforting folds of Big Red.
No sooner had I retreated into my little haven of security than I was dragged back from it by the sounds of singing. I use the term song very loosely here. What came out of the driver’s mouth was like the unutterable scream from a character in Dante’s Divine Comedy and, as the driving got more dangerous, the caterwauling got louder. I am not sure if it was my own delirium by this point, but the wailing began to take on familiar sounds and, I am pretty sure that, by the time we arrived in Yangshuo, Mr Few Teeth had gone through much of Mr Gilbert & Mr Sullivan’s oeuvre and also performed a rather strained repetition of “The Candy Man” from “ Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” A song which, much to the annoyance of my fellow travellers, has been in my head ever since.
Gap Grin had one more surprise for me before we arrived at our final destination though, he needed to pee.
Did he pull over to a safe spot and find a bush or, even better, a bathroom? Did he heckers like. He stopped in the middle of the road. When I say stopped, I mean he slammed on the brakes so only the welcome presence of Big Red stopped me plunging through the windscreen. He then got out of the stationary car, parked in the middle of the road with trucks whizzing by either side, and proceeded to pee against the front wheel. As he stood there, hands on hips and trousers open to the world, he gave me yet another gappy grin and a big thumbs up. Oh joy, we had bonded.
A few minutes later we were in Yangshuo. He couldn’t have hung on for an other five minutes? Obviously not. He dumped my bag by reception and headed out of the hotel without a second glance at me or Big Red as he lit another cheroot and mumbled a refrain from what I am pretty sure was the second act of La Traviata as he left.
My hotel, The Magnolia was rather nice and, within about twenty minutes of arriving, I was fast asleep in an air conditioned room having dreams about airports, customs officials and little gummy men in cars.
Welcome to China………………….
My cookery lessons were not starting for another day, so, after a rather nasty western style breakfast that came included with my stay, I took the opportunity to explore Yangshuo.
To be honest, it didn’t take long as it is only a town of some 40,000 people. But, I began to like it immediately. Lonely Planet describe it as more of a “backpacking colony” than a Chinese village and they are right. It provides a stopping off point for those who have headed South through China, who are at the end of a cruise down The Li River or, like me, looking for an easy passage into things Chinese.
Over the years, Yangshuo has transformed itself from a tiny town into a bustling centre for hiking, caving, rafting and innumerable other sporting activities for tourists. Initially, it was primarily Western tourists who made the town a hot spot. First from America, then from the UK and France and now, primarily from Holland. More recently, however, Yangshuo has become a focal point for the burgeoning Chinese tourist industry and you are just as likely to see a camera wielding Chinese man, inevitably wearing sandals with socks up to his knees, as you are a Western traveller, inevitably white and sporting dreadlocks. I am unsure which breaks more rules of fashion.
The main st of Yangshuo, Xi-Jie has been renamed “ Western St” by the locals and is filled with cafes selling a strange fusion of local dishes and western food alongside everything a backpacker could possibly need, souvenirs and general tat. There is a lot of hustling going on and everyone has something to sell or a service to offer. But, unlike many places, it is done with a great deal of amiability, very little hassle and a few surprises. My favourite incident was when an old woman approached me as I was enjoying a cold local LiQuan (local beer). “ah” I thought, “a wizened old crone” thinking she would offer me some local handicraft or iced water. Instead, she came right up to me and shoved a vacuum packed item under my nose with the words “ Memory Card. 2GB” That, I guess, is progress. As indeed is their "unique" style of english translation from Chinese or "Chinglish" as it has become known. The picture below is but one example of many to follow.
At night, Western St becomes Sodom and Gomorrah as the cafes turn into raucous bars and music blares from every building. But, by day, it is relatively quiet, or as quiet as things ever get in China as I was to learn, and I spent a happy hour or so wandering around.
Precious few travellers stray away from Western St with its vaguely recognisable food, its bars and bands of fellow tourists. That’s a shame as a few streets either side see you in a different world as the streets become filled with hawkers, local stores and clusters of people going about their normal existence.
A short walk from my hotel saw me at the local market which, as all good markets should be, was an assault on all the senses. The smell was of meat which came in the shape of pork, chicken and (squeamish be warned) roast dog. The sights were of animals in cages, vegetables piled into mounds and local carp swimming around in buckets of water to clean the mud from the river out of their system before they were killed to order.
Markets in developing countries are not to everyone’s tastes I know. Cleanliness is optional and there is enough grime to give any self respecting Health & Safety officer the screaming ab dabs. The sight of animals, particularly those we in the West consider pets, in cages waiting forlornly for their inevitable fate is challenging and the smell, well the smell can knock you over at about 50 yards. But, this is real life for the great majority of the world’s population, so ascribing Western values to it is neither correct nor helpful.
Me? I loved it. I even tried a bit of dog which, inevitably, tasted like chicken. I wont be doing it again, mainly because I found out that, in China, they believe that Adrenalin improves the taste of dog meat and so put the poor creatures in a sack and poke them with spikes to get it flowing before killing them. Some things in life, whatever your cultural differences, are just objectively wrong and this is one of them.
Despite the bit of dog action, I was still hungry and set off in search of my first proper meal in China which came in the form of some perfect steamed chicken dumplings and a local mutton hot pot washed down with the local brew. This was when I realised just how cheap things were going to be in China as my first feast came to about Y30 which equates to just under £2.
By the time I had enjoyed another beer, I was ready for a stroll through some of the astonishing countryside that has made Yangshuo so popular as a destination. On the backs of the Li and Yulong rivers, the scenery is astonishing with dozens of Karst mountains sprouting out of the ground like pimples on a teenager. The river itself is clean, a rare thing in China, and away from the traffic of the town the only sound is the flowing of water and the occasional “putt-putt” of a tiny outboard motor helping a farmer take his laden raft upstream.
There are busy bits of course where bamboo rafters tout for tourist business, but for the most part, it is possible to find seclusion and peace for a few happy moments.
After my walk, the day’s heat began to take its toll on me and I retired to my air conditioned haven to have a nice kip before my evening’s activities.
One of the biggest attractions for Chinese visitors to Yangshuo, indeed, increasingly for all visitors is ‘ Impressions of Lui Sanjie” a music and light show which is performed on The River Li by over 600 artists and singers and which uses over a dozen Karst mountains as its backdrop. I have to admit, it sounded like my idea of Hell, but I was told by at least half a dozen people I encountered on my first day that I should go, so I caved and booked a ticket from the hotel lobby.
Well, I was wrong. It does happen. Far from being a tatty little spectacle for tourists, it turned out to be a stunning spectacle with extraordinary effects lighting up the scenery in different ways over several vignettes. Directed by famous film maker Zhang Yimou, it is both haunting and lyrical and I can see why it has now become one of the most popular activities in China for tourists.
Downside, well there always is, isn’t there. In this case, an hour by the river meant that the bugs had taken the opportunity to feast on my, oh so sweet flesh and I was covered in bites from head to foot. I counted about fifty before giving up and, doused in anticeptic cream, I headed to bed feeling a bit sorry for myself.
It was, to say the least, an interesting first twenty four hours in China. I had little idea how much more interesting it would become. But, that’s for next time