High level plots and a karst of thousands.
After several weeks skirting the summer furnace that is the East of China we finally had to face the fact that when you descend from the mountains July in China is extremely hot and more importantly humid. From here to Hong Kong, where good air-conditioning abounds, we have felt and I have looked like the traditional Chinese dish of steamed dumplings – slimy and very difficult to pick up with chopsticks.
The city of Guilin (pronounced gwaylin) in the North East of Guanxi provence, about a days drive North West from Hong Kong, was one of the first tourist destinations for the Chinese in China (the other being the city of Huangzhou near Shanghai), and remains one of the largest and most important. The reason is that the outskirts of the city and the whole of the surrounding countryside is filled with the giant karst mountains, so typical of Southern China and South East Asia, adored by travel writers with a passion for fruit and veg – apart from the obviously phallic I’m afraid my similes are struggling … like “up-ended cucumbers” or “gherkin-shaped” or “fields of Martian missile silos” or “a giant alien hatchery”, none of which are particularly helpful. Best to look at the photos.
Guilin appears to be a quite pleasant city, but it is a city with facilities aimed at tour groups and high-end tourists, hence the presence of brands such as Sheraton. Many years ago the first backpackers struggling through the newly opened China discovered a small fishing village on the Li River about 100km or so downstream from Guilin. Gradually more western travellers came, cafes a hostels sprang up, the place got into the guidebooks and then onto the tours for the western adventure travel companies. Then a few Chinese started to come, and then a few more, so more hotels, tour companies and restaurants were opened. Our guidebook, researched and written in 1998 and 1999, describes the place as a haven where travellers can rest and recover from the bruises of travelling around the rest of China. According to the people we spoke to the change in the last three years has been dramatic and rapid, with Yangshou turning itself into the standard disneyland of western cafes, agressive hawkers, unreliable tour operators, stoned idiots escaping the world for a little longer than is healthy and the regular weekend invasion of Chinese tourists understandably keen on escaping the struggles of city life and letting their hair down.
I’m probably doing the place a disservice. If you were in Hong Kong for any length of time I would recommend coming here without question – and if you are planning a holiday to Hong Kong but are wondering how you might fill up an extra week then you should definitely head here. After all there is an awful lot to do, from cruising around the scenery on boat, raft, bike and balloon to taking the chance to learn some Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Mah Jong, Chinese cooking or simply helping out at the many language schools and making some new Chinese friends. Latterly the area has been discovered by rock climbers, and several outfits now offer climbing and abseiling to tourists. All these are offered at prices that for a holidaymaker are a bargain, but for a backpacker tend to be a little steep.
In addition, a nightly light-show illuminates the karst hills and the river whilst actors and dancers portray the drama of Liu San Jie, who resettled in Yangshuo and found her lover. Although this doesn’t sound very dramatic the show was apparently designed by the same person responsible for the visually stunning movie “Hero”. I don’t know how true this is but we experienced some pretty hard sell to try to get our bums on the seats and the agent his commision.
Personally I found the atmosphere at this time of year a little hot and cloying – temperatures were up to 39 degrees and humidity above 97 percent each day. The same could be said about the many vendors competing for your money – whilst few individuals were actually that bad taken as a whole the hard-nosed commercialism of the place left us both with a bad taste and we were glad to leave. Alf, the Australian owner of the Buffalo Bar, stood out from the crowd. He stuck simply to what he does – beer and food – but as an ex-manager for a western adventure travel company was happy to offer free advice on what is good and what is not good to do. His satellite television allowed us to stay-up longer than we should have to watch the Wimbledon semis and final.
Just down from Buffalo Bar is the “Karst” restaurant, known for it’s excellent pizza, which are probably the best or second best in town. We also tried Thai there, and the Tom Yum Goong soup was stunning, although his attempt at a red curry was quite disappointing. If you are a mozzarella fan you should try the mountainous Spaghetti Bolegnese, which which was dripped in the stuff.
If you want a rooftop view then try the China Cafe who serve food, or better still Jane’s Monkey Bar. Jane doesn’t serve food but will order you in a pizza from Karst, and this is a very pleasant way to wile away the evening.
Kim spent a profitable and enjoyable afternoon at the Yangshuo cooking school, whilst I updated this site. The school is situated out in a country village and the cooking area is open to the fields and hills at either end. Whilst run by an Australian, the chef is chinese, and by the end of the day I was presented with a beautiful dish of Beer Fish (a local speciality), chicken with cashewnuts, mushrooms and pumkin flowers stuffed with seasoned pork, stirred fried vegetables with garlic shoots (why can’t we get these in England, they are gorgeous) and spicy aubergines. The technique of steaming was used liberally and the flavours were fantastic. Thanks to all the other class members who donated their prize dishes for my dinner.
Fishing using tame cormorants appears to be still carried out in several places within China – we saw adverts for tours on Lake Er Hai in Dali also. Tame cormorants, presumably reared from chicks, are sent out to fish with string tied around the necks. Although the string is not tight it is enough to prevent them from swallowing the fish once caught. This traditional fishing method has been used for many years by the locals, and apparently some still fish this way, although much more money can be made performing for the tourists. We paid 30 Yuan each (should be 20) to go and watch the Cormorants fishing on the swollen Li River shortly after sunset. The fisherman had about six or seven cormorants which sat idly on the front of the boat as we made our way upstream, alert and erect but with the kind of uncoordinated air one sees in groups of penguins. After we had travelled for five minutes or so away from the town the birds were shooed into the water where they swam in front of and alongside the boat. Periodically they would dive, and every dive in about ten, or probably less, a bird would surface with a fish, which given it was pitch black I find quite incredible. At this point the fisherman would reach out to the bird with a long rod onto which the bird would perch and be lifted onto the boat, ready for a good throttling. We’ve all been there – guests around for dinner who you wish to impress, a particularly nice bottle of wine aimed at doing exactly that and the stubborn cork won’t come out. Humiliation rises as you wrestle the reluctant bottle with more and more determination until out pops the cork, wine and all. Ok, so the cormorant fisherman tend to handle it more like the polished sommeliers at your very rich uncle’s favourite restaurant but the overall effect is the same. Once the ‘cork is popped’ the cormorant is flung unceremoniously over the side and back onto the job. Apparently it is necessary to let the birds actually swallow a fish occasionally or they work to rule. It seemed to me that in this case the fisherman wasn’t really bothering to haul in all the fish, presumably his portion of the cut from the thirty or so spectators will allow him to buy as many fish as he wants. I guess the cormorants approve of the increase in tourism also.
The whole business of cormorant fishing for tourists leads me onto some considerations relating to the difference between amateur and professional photography, which the area around Yangshuo highlights nicely. As I have said it is a scenically stunning area, but getting a good photo, particularly at this hot and humid time of year, is extremely difficult. Before arriving I had seen the typical “cormorant fishermen” silhouetted on the Li River with rows of gherkin-shaped Karst mountains in the background. In truth we didn’t see any real fisherman on the river, just boats carrying tourists for fairly hefty fees, and the one, rather unphotogenic, cormorant fishing boat which we paid to see.
So the first problem is, getting a really good photo without being on the river is quite difficult, and getting onto the river costs, particularly as the local region have cracked down and the boat’s people now have to buy expensive licenses. I tried climbing the nearby hill overlooking Yangshuo, which, after slipping and sliding on steep mud, getting drenched in sweat with the effort, and bitten to death by mosquitos, yielded a passable view to the East over the river. But only passable, and on the way down I slipped, accelerating on my backside as if I was on an ice sheet, and only saved myself from injury by leaping of the mudslide and onto a rock some way below. Whilst the studs on my fell-running shoes would have made a second ascent slightly safer the heat and the mosquitoes put me off. Moon Hill at sunset might give some nice results if you happen to get a good evening, but the chance of that at this time of year is probably less than one in ten.
I looked around the Yangshuo tourist offices to see if anyone offered photographic assistance. They did, and a chap whose alias was ‘Mike’ or ‘Bill’ or something (if the Chinese insist on adopting Western aliases why not choose some good ones like ‘Slasher Stevens’ or ‘Jack the hat’ or ‘Spiney Norman’). He showed me the brochure from a high-end western tour company and there were the cormorants, front page, in all their glory. The scene was almost perfect, with an elderly chinese gentlemen whose weathered face contains years of history, complete with whispy goaty beard and traditional woven straw hat. He is standing on a bamboo raft with cormorants perched fore-and-aft, and a oil lantern hanging midships to give the scene a warm glow. The boat is resting on a pebbly beach by the side of the river which placidly flows in the background, whilst the ubiquitous karst mountains complete the final third of the picture, which is bathed in the bluish light of the early morning before the sun came up. The price offered to set this up was only 200 Yuan, which to a professional photographer is probably very reasonable – you might go out five consecutive mornings in a row to get the best shot – but for me was a bit more than I needed to pay on this low budget trip. Incidentally the elderly gentleman of the wise and benevolent face hangs around the tourist street in the afternoons, charging 5 Yuan for a shot with him and his cormorants. For a little more he’ll take you out on his raft in the small lagoon of the posh hotel complex just behind – what better way to shed the stresses of that high-powered office job in Shanghai? Do the Chinese read Dilbert?
Finally, as Kim recovered from yet another cold 🙁 we escaped Yangshuo for the mountains two hours North of Guilin, to stay in the idyllic village of Pingan, surrounded by the most spectacular sculpted rice-terraces I have ever seen, and the sounds of silence. Pingan, whilst a major tourist attraction in this area, retains its sense of beauty by the fact that no roads go to it, and it is at least a ten minute uphill walk to the village from the nearest one. Despite that building goes on at a fast pace – well as fast as it can when bricks are carried up to the village in wooden baskets hung from a bamboo pole, and the availability of electrical carpentry tools is quite limited. Even so more an more guest houses are being put up and I wonder how long the village will retain its eclusive air.
For the time being though this really is a place to sooth your sore nerves. Despite the harrasment from the bus driver who had taken us from Yangshuo, we refused to stay in his guesthouse, but opted for the recommended Liqing Guesthouse and this was a good move. Our room overlooked the rice terraces and the guesthouse itself has an well-situated restaurant terrace from which to sit back and watch the sky redden at sunset. We were impressed by the two English chaps we met travelling with ‘Imaginative Traveller’ who had forsaken the overnight trek through the mountains to an even more traditional village, and had simply decided to sit and chill taking in the excellent mountain scenery.
We were joined that evening by a group from another Adventure travel company – Intrepid – and we enjoyed the conversation, food and sitting and watching the interplay within another group. They were all very nice but in fact it reminded us that we were quite glad to be travelling on our own. Even though the price of the Intrepid tour was very competitive we were managing on much less than half the budget they were, and seemed to have seen as much. I’m not knocking the tour concept – I’d go again if I was on a short holiday or if the places I wanted to see were just too much like hard work to visit on your own.
We spent much time wandering among the rice terraces, watching the villagers hard at work still in a fairly traditional manner, although it looks as if pesticide is now in use. Sadly, we had missed the rice planting, which was only three weeks prior, when the terraces are full of water and at their most picturesque (except perhaps when covered with snow). The weather wasn’t particularly kind either, and I spent several hours before and after sunrise waiting for the sun to peak out between the clouds and light up the terraces. Ah well.
The rice terraces themselves are often dramatically steep and visually stunning. At times I found myself balancing along a 5 inch wide wet and muddy ridge, with a muddy pool on one side and a 4 metre drop into another muddy pool on the other side – not much fun with a bag full of camera gear. Alongside the narrow paths that take contour the hillsides taking the villagers to work are barrow-like graves, built into the hillside and capped with a traditional headstone and littered with offerings of rememberance.
The irrigation systems are also very impressive, comprising a network of bamboo rods split in half that carries the water from the fast flowing streams in the valley bottoms out to where it is needed on the spurs and ridges that contain the terraces with the most surface area. Wandering through the village the water gurgles through overhead pipes and at one point we thought we had found the mythical dragon of the terraces – asleep. In fact what we were hearing was the water forcing its way through a blockage in the underground irrigation, creating a deep, rhythmic snoring sound – it took us some minutes to
be quite sure it wasn’t a sleeping animal.
Like many of the peaceful areas we have visited, we could have spent a long time in Pingan and the surrounding villages, but onward, ever onward, after only a day and a half there we boarded our overnight train to Hong Kong.
For lots of information on these areas check www.yangers.com