Beguiling Guilin – China, Asia
Boarding the express bus to Yangshuo for a day trip, it was painfully
obvious that all the seats were taken, yet the optimistic driver emphatically
waved us on. Along with a dozen other locals, we submissively followed him to
the rear of the bus, sliding our bodies sideways and dragging our packs along
the floor, chanting "scuse me", "scuse me" to everyone we passed, shuffling
along and straining to look over the people already piled in the seats, curious
where we were being led.
Reaching the rear of the bus he started unstacking these ridiculous
tiny little plastic stools – the kind you use in your kitchen to set a bucket
of water on when washing the floor – and started arranging them on the floor in
the aisle one after another. Impatiently grunting at us to sit, we quickly
glanced at one another, shrugged, moved into position and gingerly sat down, the
fragile little legs splaying out and threatening to collapse at any moment. By
the time he finished there were at least twenty riders crammed in the aisle on
the little stools, lined up knee to knee like little kids stuffed on a toboggan,
ready for the hour long trip to Yangshuo.
We had arrived in rainy Guilin,
China after an overnight
train ride from Hanoi, Vietnam. Changing trains at the
border, we gladly exchanged the shabby Vietnamese train staffed by unsmiling
attendants for the sleek and clean Chinese train with the efficient officials
checking every piece of luggage, asking a lot of questions, and generally being
very fussy with our documentation. Armed with multiple entry visas, Guilin was our first immersion into the Chinese culture as
we intended to work our way north to Beijing
over the next three months
Pointing to a slip of paper with our hotel name on it, we
eventually came to an agreement at the information desk that we needed to take
the #10 bus and get off after five stops. During a break in the rain, we hopped
across the puddles and waited in the bus queue as they continued to pull up one
after another. Finally, we saw a #10 bus pull into the queue and we boarded,
then soon realized when it left downtown that it was headed the wrong way.
Exiting at the next stop, we calculated how many stops we
just made to be added back into the five stops we needed to return the
other way, then realized we didn’t have the correct change to get back on, which
required a couple stops at local stores. By the time we reboarded, it was again raining. We searched
for our hotel through steamed up windows, the bus tracing its way back along the
banks of the Li River. We counted each stop, finally arriving
tired and wet at our accommodation.
Guilin is part of the Guangxi (translates "vast,
boundless west") province, a rugged area home to 46 million people, which for
centuries was considered too remote due to its craggy range of hills and
mountains. Positioned within saw-toothed limestone karsts that jut abruptly
from the surrounding countryside, Guilin is
poetically stunning. With a population of only 750,000, it is one of China’s smaller
cities. Despite the modern day haziness of the town due to pollution, you’re
always treated to vistas of the dreamy surrounding peaks as you walk around the
This area was one of the first to be opened to foreigners when China reopened the country to tourists back in the early 1980’s. It remains a very popular destination, evident in its western influenced hotels and restaurants. Although other people on our train were continuing on to Beijing (another 30 hours), Guilin is a faithful and authentic introduction to China, and
certainly warrants a stopover, especially if you’re on an overland route to points east, like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, our next stops.
One day we walked around the many lakes sprinkled throughout town, following the well designed walkways that wound their way around the waterways, passing ancient pagodas and crossing elaborately designed bridges which curved across the water. Along the Li River we came upon groups intently practicing their Tai Chi as if mimicking Marcel Marceau, while bands of locals congregated
for impromptu concerts, with everyone singing away and banging on metal containers, or plucking on inventive stringed instruments.
Along the muddy banks fishermen plugged away in the murky depths with homemade bamboo poles, resourcefully winding their string around a coke can instead of a reel. Most surprising was the dance class which kept recycling the classic Ricky Martin tune "She Bangs" from a beat up old boom box, as the smiling partners flirtatiously whirled and swirled around the brick
pavement under the shelter of the trees, the kinetic energy of their passion joyously twirling their skirts.
Seven Star Park, so named for the seven peaks allegedly resembling the Big Dipper constellation, is the most famous and the most popular park in town. The interesting parts were the caves adorned with thousand-year-old cultural graffiti, calligraphy and other inscriptions carved into the rocks by ancient poets and artists. The panda bears in the zoo are the other draw, although I found the rock collection far more fascinating. Three buildings house an amazing collection of stones in all sizes, split and polished and set on masterfully carved wood bases. Besides
the crystals and the huge hunks of polished jade, many of the rocks reveal inner landscapes, or with a little more imagination, caricatures of people or animals.
Still, there’s this unsettling juxtaposition of ancient history meets modern merchandising; the entire park is littered with hundreds of fiberglass/plastic life size, colorful, half human, half insect spooky characters – a Chinese Disneyland replete with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s evident that families bring their kids to have their pictures taken in front of every one of these popular mascots, always with the upraised hand and the V, victory symbol. I’m sure replicas of these mascots are sold in every one of the souvenir shops on the grounds.
A popular business venture in town is offering cruises along
the Li River ranging from one hour to five hours. Like any tour you have varying degrees of comfort, from no frills to luxurious. Boats line up early in the morning for the five-hour run up to Yangshuo. They cruise together as though
tethered like a string of pack animals, with guide commentary blaring out over tinny speakers. We thought it was pleasant enough, just to walk along the banks of the river and enjoy the sights without having to partake in a cruise.
Despite the fact that every other building and shop seemed to be China Mobile, we had a challenging time figuring out our cell phone, mostly due to a failure to communicate. We had purchased our cell phone in Singapore, had gotten accustomed to buying new SIM cards along the way – a SIM card being a new phone number for your phone from a particular country that you pop
into your phone (in America AT&T charges you a $100 fee). Finally, we stumbled on a nice young lady who spoke perfect English. We were able to buy a new SIM card and additional minutes. Evidently, the new phone number is only good within the province; we’ll have to buy a new SIM
card when we move to other locations.
My wife has been patiently trying to replenish some of her prescriptions before they run out, that opportunity provides daily comic relief and an opportunity to interact with the locals. Arriving at a drug store, we ask around if anyone understands English, then show our prescription
name. Usually, they have a huge drug book which cross references the English name into its Chinese equivalent. Unfortunately, they never seem to have the drug in stock. Every time we pass something that even resembles a drug store, we size it up and weigh whether or not we should even attempt it.
Another thing that confounds us is the censorship of our blog which we are unable to access within China. Evidently, the government isn’t quite so liberal in its freedom of speech and disallows its population from certain web sites. Somewhere in China is a global router with missing entries for my www.pfeffer.vox.com URL. I’ve been able though, to get around the problem by employing anonymous IP addresses
which fools the government into thinking I’m posting from Argentina rather than Guilin.
China will be a challenging segment of our adventure. We’re ready for the unexpected pleasures along with the missteps, and we expect to get far with patience and a smiling attitude. Clean, compact and modern Guilin, an ancient city dating back to 200 BC, is an intriguing and comfortable introduction to Chinese culture, with enough sites and pleasures to occupy you for a few days before heading over to Yangshuo. Beguiling Guilin, indeed!