2019, BLOG XXII: Guilin, China
The next day we flew to Guilin, a pleasant town without skyscrapers. Those are out of town, huge residential complexes. Somehow I forgot to stop at the airport ATM. We asked for a bank at our hotel but none of the ATMs would take a foreign card. This is China.
We received vague directions to a Bank of China, taking us along a street by a tree-lined river that was lovely until it got dark. The Chinese like Americans believe in improving on nature. Once the sun went down the trees were illuminated with green, yellow, blue, purple and red lights. In the old days there was certainly artificiality in China. The Dowager Empress wore cloisonné fingernail protectors but in modern times artificiality tends to be garish.
By asking every fifty feet we found the Bank of China. I successfully withdrew money, but E, who is with Bank of America, could not. It was dark; we were hungry. When E wants something he prefers it now. We came upon a hotpot restaurant immediately after the bank and in we went.
Between various people they managed enough English so E could explain that he was vegetarian. He ordered three different kinds of tofu, and crisp lotus root, radish, and another vegetable I’ve forgotten. It was an excellent meal but spicy. Whatever was boiling in the hotpot was vegetarian and delicious. There was also a tahini dip, which cooled things down. I had beef shashlik, chewy but flavorful.
We found our way back to the hotel without incident.
We met the next morning our guide, Helen, of Manchu descent. Her real name means Rock-in-the-River and she was for us. We, with an international gaggle of tourists from the hotels, descended on the double decker boats lined up on the River Li. We boarded and were swept into the Li, quite shallow at this season, as the sugar loaf mounds of the mountains rose ahead and on either side. Despite the Lonely Planet’s admonition, “Let the cool breeze from the Gulf of Tonkin caress you;” in September it was hotter than the hinges making us happy for air conditioning.
These are, indeed, the mountains of the Chinese scroll paintings, prickly with trees, streaked with grey limestone patches, or black and occasionally red. They appear in groups leaning toward or away from each other, singly like thumbs or index fingers planted in the earth. We passed small boats chugging along with cargo. People fished from rocks or, knee deep in the river, searched for crabs. I had a plate of fried crabs, like crunchy nuts. Delicious.
You could stand outside on the lower deck or the upper, which was crowded, but the sun got to me even with my hat on; I found I had to retreat to the cool cabin. Passengers in chairs on boats with shade roofs motored up and down the river. Water buffalo grazed at riverside. The vegetation was thick–vines, trees, scrub. It was continuously magnificent.
Seated near us were an American man and his Russian wife. Over our not very good lunch when I said I had been in Japan he responded that he didn’t like the Japanese, too polite. He liked the Russians who had edge. I began to pick up his political odor in part from his aggressive attitude. For some reason the disaster and decay of Detroit was mentioned and when he said, “Well, it was their own fault.” I knew I had been right about his Trumpness. I, with malice, commented that indeed the executives of GM and others had made a number of disastrous decisions, knowing that wasn’t what he meant; I felt him restrain himself. We left it there but I was amazed anyone could think workers, by not being willing to lower their wages and give up benefits, were to blame for the crash of the American motor industry. Apparently in his thinking the working class is there to absorb the errors of the executive class and cushion that class from its mistakes. However, he gets gold stars for being a traveler.
We arrived in Yangshuo in the afternoon, got to our hotel and had dinner next door before going to a show featuring local minority groups, similar to the hill tribe people of Northern Thailand. This is how the Han Chinese like their minorities, singing and dancing and then disappearing. The show takes place in a natural setting around a lake with local fishing boats paddling on it, and mountains, all artificially lit. The “set” is real and everything else is artifice. It is slightly like the Pyongyang, North Korea show where colored pictures of great precision are made by flipping hundreds, maybe thousands of placards in unison and Radio City Music Hall with singing and some dancing but more frequently just a lot of moving in unison. Once, however, there was a “scantily clad” young woman who ran up and down a crescent moon making it rock. That’s Radio City straight up.
The audience didn’t clap much but shouted things. The music was traditionally tribal, some of it lovely, but distorted by amplification through monster speakers, although one children’s chorus was beautiful and delicately faint being performed without amplification. By intent? By accident?
The town of Yangshuo, once undoubtedly a quaint and poverty stricken fishing village, is an amalgam of amplified noise and neon, somewhere on the continuum between Coney Island and Las Vegas. It was so loud signs in our rooms told how to call the police directly. It was, every day, somewhere between 30 and 35 degrees. I don’t think we hit 40. Our rooms were cool with air conditioning and, until E changed rooms, quiet.
He was offered a larger room with balcony and lots of noise for the same price as his old, smaller, quiet room because they needed his room for another customer. Somehow he survived the noise assault. He kept his room at meat locker temperature. I couldn’t stay in it long without goose bumps.
We spent the next day being regulation tourists, going to the Silver Caves—I don’t like caves much being mildly claustrophobic—which was a bit more than an hour of going up and down dark, wet stairs through beautiful formations garishly illuminated in purple, acid green, bile yellow, red, as the river in Guilin had been lighted. One towering rock face looked as though it had a forest of high trees on it with foliage only at the very top of their long trunks.
Helen wasn’t quite sure what to do with an 83 year old. She held my arm through the caves, congratulating me when we emerged. Moon Hill was more difficult. I suspect she didn’t think I could climb it at all. I am decidedly slow up hill, which meant that I had made it a bit more than half way by the time we had to go down. I needed another half an hour to get to the top and our schedule didn’t have that half hour. So E went to the top and we decided to come back without Helen so I could get to the top in my own time.
We took mopeds to Moon Hill driven by women, all nicely dressed and solicitous of their passengers. The mopeds were electric, silent, wonderful in some ways but dangerous since one cannot hear them. Many mopeds are covered with insignia in the form of stickers, the two most noticeable being the British flag on blue mopeds and Hello Kitty decals on pink ones. It was a delight to see a cube of muscular Chinese male hunched over a pink Hello Kitty moped.
We went to see the 1,500-year-old banyan tree with its dependent trunks, well worth a look. The banyan is called the walking tree since it puts down roots from its branches and, therefore, can create its own forest around itself.
We were to go on a raft. I had thought this would be a nice leisurely drift or poling on the river. The rafts were made of plastic bamboo; they were poled up and down a small cul de sac of the Li where there were flotillas of young ducklings. E had worn his swimming trunks and went in. On the rafts there were large water pistols and people squirted each other. I was squirted, to Helen’s alarm, by a young man.
We picked a restaurant at random and hugged Helen goodbye. She has two children. He husband works in a corporation. I’m not sure what that means in China. We felt a bit abandoned with out her.
However, the next morning we found a backpacker restaurant, Lucy’s Place, run by a spirited little Chinese woman with a fair command of English. The food was good. E took to the banana pancakes like a veteran backpacker.
We hired a car to take us up to Shitoucheng, an old stone town. The views of the mountains on the drive were superb. Our driver dropped us at a town of houses strung along a paved road and then pointed vaguely up hill. I took my guidebook pages to two men who didn’t want to look at them but motioned us up the hill adding a gesture to the left.
We started up the path in smothering heat. It was very up, always with views of the Chinese scroll painters’ mountains and valleys with little human interruption. I think we must have been having a good time talking because we missed our turn off which, when we came back, was fairly obvious. We just didn’t see it. We did see mountains sometimes leaning into each other as though conferring or pulling back as though from an offensive smell.
The path was stony with bare patches of firm mud, the heat terrible and exhausting. Sometimes the path disappeared into waist high weeds where crickets leapt and yellow butterflies erupted. It seemed unlikely that this could be the path to the village but the walk was so wildly beautiful we just kept at it until we came to fields and small orchards where we could see a farmer working. He was the first person we had seen since we left the road. E took the pages to show him the name of the town in Chinese. We were far beyond the village.
It was as spectacular going down as going up. I slipped once because my Tevas had acquired a supplementary sole of mud. I asked E if he missed anything in the landscape. He couldn’t identify anything. I pointed out that we had neither heard nor seen a bird in all our walking. In China one does not. Mao was thorough in having them exterminated. There are waterfowl, ducks, egrets and cormorants hanging out their wings to dry but not one sparrow.
We were almost all the way down when E notice a path to the right that ascended stone stairs. This was surely the path to the village. We walked up it a bit but had neither the time nor energy to get even within sight of the village.
We came the rest of the way down to the road where there were ruins of stone houses of the variety we would have seen if we had made it to Shitoucheng. Ethan ordered eggs in the form of a gigantic pancake covered in chopped scallions at a little restaurant. It was, I think, a four-egg pancake.
That consumed we continued down and found the car waiting for us. Once back in Yangshuo I tried to get my outer sole of mud off my Tevas before entering the hotel. I scraped off some and later, after dinner, I washed them off throwing great gouts of mud into the wastepaper basket.
The next day, although E had decided to read and laze, he walked me to the main road. I had not listened carefully and thought I was to catch the bus to the Dragon Bridge from this road. E returned to his meat locker temperature room and I wait for the right bus that never seemed to come. A Chinese woman standing near me with her husband asked, “Do you speak English?” I then asked her where she had learned English. She told me she lived in Virginia. They got their bus and left.
I started showing my Xeroxed guidebook pages to bus drivers. Then I discovered I had to go to the bus station. I had been told that earlier but somehow it had slipped out of my mind. The next bus driver took me some blocks, then told me to walk ahead. Using my technique of stopping and asking every fifty feet I made my way. The last person I asked, a woman, lead me to the entrance. Never would I have known it was a bus station.
Once in the station, having put my daypack through the x-ray machine, I showed my guidebook extract and was pointed onto a bus where I was loaned a fan until the air con went on. As always in Asia there was a lot of waiting as the bus filled. We took off but stopped for more people in Yangshuo, started again and didn’t stop until we came to a small, ugly town where the Yangshuo passengers left and an entirely new genre of passenger got on board. They were country folk with town purchases. The woman beside me had peppers, vegetables and fruit. She gave me an Asian pear, a high priced fruit in New York City. It was crisp and refreshing. The woman next to her had a rooster in a plastic bag between her knees. He complained in a low mutter. Across from her was a man with a red plastic bag from which protruded the feet of a dead and plucked chicken.
Sheep and chickens, unlike horses and dogs, are structured so that they don’t notice the fates of their fellows. You can shoot a sheep and none of the other sheep in the meadow will notice the death. Chickens are limited in the same way. Therefore, while complaining constantly, the rooster never reacted to the plucked legs across the aisle.
I showed my neighbors my guidebook pages with the name of the bridge, Dragon Bridge, in Chinese. They nodded. When the bus stopped and the driver motioned me off, they all waved goodbye to me from the windows. I felt as though I had left my family behind.
Standing on the roadside looking about, I located the river, looked up and down it, but saw no bridge. There was a big concession for rafts by the river. I walked around it but saw no one I felt I could ask about the bridge. Coming back to the parking area I saw a young man, all in white, with an engaging smile in a big straw hat. After a great deal of linguistic fumbling, and after I had left him to go to some mopeds thinking perhaps I could hire one to take me to the bridge, he took his phone out and we began to talk using a translation app. What a wonder it is.
He prefaced everything with “Hello”. “Hello. There are two bridges.” “Hello. You want to go to them?” I asked to be taken to the Dragon Bridge first; then I would make up my mind about Fulin Bridge, the second. He had a white van; surely he rents this by the day. He ceremoniously seated me in the back. The Dragon Bridge was not far. Its shape was the Chinese high arch with little steps up to its top where the views along the river were of umbrellas in front of rafts waiting to be hired. The ripening rice fields spread their patchwork out on either side, a soft pale green.
Having seen one I could not resist another. We went to Fulin Bridge, even better, among swaying willows, little steps mounted to its high arch, mountains and fields spread out up and down river. Its stone was splotched, stained with age and lichens; it was missing stones; its steps were warped and broken. Coming down from its arch’s crest I walked beside the river to see a mountain perfectly framed in its stone reach.
We stopped at his favorite view for a photo before driving back to Yangshuo. I tried to hire him for the next day’s trip to Moon Hill but there was something about traffic police. However, it was grand having him in my life for the afternoon.
E and I breakfasted at Lucy’s and then set off for the main road and the bus to the bus station. The 801 came fairly quickly and let us off at a stop beyond the bus station. I kept thinking the bus would deliver me to my destination and I was always wrong. They immediately put us on the right bus and we left. Again we were let off not at the entrance to Moon Hill but a half a kilometer away on an unshaded dirt road. But we found our way, bought our ticket. There is a big billboard showing Nixon and Pat, who looks totally, wretchedly unhappy in a fabulous mink coat, at the start of the stairs. It tells how Nixon didn’t believe the arch was a natural phenomenon. He thought it had been made by a missile punching through a mountain. Once paranoid always paranoid.
I was totally unenthused about the climb with the temperature at 30 to 35. E recognized the path at the beginning and I recognized it further on. An Indian man, when we were beginning, told us there was an old woman at the top selling cold drinks. Beyond the place where I had turned back, it became very steep. It was all stairs. We were surrounded by bamboo forest—no birds—that closed the heat in around us. As we climbed steeper and steeper stairs, some of which had been built a little high, people coming behind us caught up. They were from Andalucía. You would think I was Spanish born given the enthusiastic reunion we had. The man in the lead, maybe fifty, told us there 800 steps and that we were close to the end. After another flight we could see the inside of the arch of the moon.
We came to the woman, indeed elderly, from whom I bought my annual Coke. The Andalucians were already ahead. The wife of the lead man, when I told her about my annual Coke, confessed she had done the same.
There were also four young Spaniards, shirts off, pants below their pale, young jelly-bellies. The Andalucians were a delight. These were not. They tried to bait me about being Catalan. I immediately became unable to understand Spanish.
We walked down. I do this slowly too. I started asking for a taxi. An older woman—she could have been fifty—who sold the usual purses, magnets and so on, intervened. I wasn’t having any luck with the ticket seller and other official types. She said she could get us a “tasi” for “eighteen yuan,” which I correctly interpreted as a taxi for eighty yuan. She had one there in ten minutes—I tipped her causing her total confusion—and we were home in twenty minutes.
The next day, after a long ride to Guilin in a car too small for E’s six feet four we flew back to Hong Kong. He left the next morning. I went to the train to the plane with him and the Apple Store for earphones. The American two-week vacation is ridiculously short. I went to Great Food on my way back and comforted myself with some excellent, expensive Camembert.