05/08/2013 - 15/08/2013
After our near-death-by-fire experience in Dali, we arrived in Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, to discover that all sleeper tickets to Guilin, our next destination, were sold out until the following week. Lacking the time or the desire to stay in the bleak and crowded city of Kunming for that long, we took the only option available to us: the hard seat. If you have ever travelled in China, these are two words that will send a shiver down your spine; a hard seat journey entails sitting in an non-reclining seat with your knees jammed against the knees of the passenger facing you, while standing passengers linger waiting to vulture your seat and the smell of the squat toilet oozes down the carriage. It is an unrelishable prospect even for a short journey, but we had signed ourselves up for a 22-hour ride from hell. Suffice to say, we got no sleep and arrived at our hostel in Guilin looking like unkempt zombies.
After a long, revitalising sleep we set out to explore Guilin, which, though surpassed in beauty by neighbouring Yangshuo, offers several scenes of beauty, The Li River snakes through the middle of the city carrying small fishing boats and bamboo rafts, and feeds into Banyan Lake where the Sun and Moon Pagodas stand. Guilin also has several karst peaks, one of the most famous being Elephant Trunk Hill, for its apparent resemblance to an elephant.
The next day we took a bus to Longsheng to see the famous Dragon's Backbone rice terraces. We were staying in Dazhai Village in the heart of the terraces, and in the absence of any roads the only transport option is to walk to the village, luggage and all, along uneven paths and up hundreds of steps in 35-degree heat. There is one other option where your luggage is concerned; you can pay one of the ancient village women to carry your bag for you in a large basket tied to their back. John and I, being fifty years their junior, carried our own bags, though admittedly they did climb faster than us. It didn't lessen our sense of achievement once we reached the top.
If we needed any proof that the climb was worth it, we found it right outside our dorm room window. For £3 a night we had a premium view; the rice terraces cascaded down the hills all around us, while wooden houses perched precariously amongst them. Over the next day and a half we climbed to all three main scenic spots - 'Music From Paradise', 'Thousand Layers To Heaven' and 'Golden Buddha Peak'.
We ended the day with a lovely meal of (disconcertingly named) 'local' chicken, fried green beans and rice as we watched the sun sink below the hills, the fading light glittering in the irrigation channels and casting long shadows across the terraces. I didn't want to leave but leave we did the ext morning, making an early start for Yangshuo.
I had been looking forward to Yangshuo for weeks; guidebooks and google searches alike had repeatedly praised it as one of the most beautiful spots in China. However, on arriving at the bus terminal the reality appeared somewhat different; the roads were congested, horns blared and we were hemmed in at every turn by hoards of people. After dumping our bags at the hostel we headed back out in search of food and a better impression, but the town's main street only left us more frustrated. The town seems to be living off a reputation formed years ago before the tour companies and big corporations moved in; where there used to be quaint Chinese shops and ramshackle wooden houses there are now fast-food chains and concrete hotels.
Over the next few days we had time to wander and found some calmer corners of the town. Whatever the state of Yangshuo itself, the karst peaks surrounding it will always be stunning, rising up out of parks and riverbanks and almost completely surrounding the town.
The Li river is also a tranquil spot where you can watch the boats float past and admire the peaks in the background. However it is also a prime spot to fall prey to touts; during the half hour we spent at the river bank we were offered a boat ride at least ten times and eventually retreated back into the streets. When it comes to tourism China is it's own worst enemy; as soon as they sense any interest in a place they squeeze everything they can get out of it and worry about the implications later. It doesn't help that Chinese tourists seem to love the places regardless, even after they've become a hollow shell of what they once were.
That being said, Yangshuo does offer a respite from the difficulties of travelling China; there is more English spoken here and Western food is readily available, which can be a welcome change after 4 weeks of puzzling over Chinese menus and eating mystery dishes that you're not even sure you ordered. We also had the best Chinese food of our trip at a restaurant called Cloud Nine, where we feasted on minted beef and chicken with peanuts and chillis.
However after a few days we were growing tired of the giant groups of day-trippers and stalls of tourist trash, and as southern China was being evacuated north to escape the typhoon battering Hong Kong, we wrapped up against the torrential rain and headed south to the nearby island of Macau. The things we do for travel...