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’ 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 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 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 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 as 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 have going back the other way, then realized we didn’t have the correct change to get back on, which required a couple stops at local stores before we were able to acquire the correct money. By the time we reboarded, it was again raining and we searched for our hotel through steamed up windows as the bus traced its way back along the banks of the Li River and we counted each stop along the way, finally arriving tired and wet at our hotel.
Guilin is part of the Guangxi (which translates into ‘vast, boundless west’) province, a rugged area home to 46 million people, which for centuries was considered too remote due to it’s craggy range of hills and mountains. Positioned within saw toothed limestone karsts that jut abruptly from the surrounding countryside, Guilin is poetically stunning, and with a population of only 750,000, 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 compact city.
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, and 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 as they 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 away on inventive stringed instruments.
Along the muddy banks fishermen plugged away in the murky depths with home made 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 most 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 here, although I found the rock collection far more interesting. 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 as the entire park is littered with hundreds of fiberglass/plastic life size, colorful, half human, half insect spooky characters wherever you turn as if a Chinese Disneyland replete with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s evident that families bring their kids here in quest to have their pictures taken in front of every one of these very popular mascots, always with the upraised hand and the ‘V’ for victory symbol. I’m also sure that 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, as they cruise together as if 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 and 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 which you just pop into your phone (and which in America AT&T charges you a $100 fee to do). Finally, we stumbled on a nice young lady who spoke perfect English, and were able to buy a new SIM card and additional minutes. Evidently, the new phone number is only good within the province, so 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, and 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, but, 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.
China will be a challenging segment of our adventure but we’re ready for the unexpected pleasures along with the missteps and 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.