I doubled back to the Chinese pharmacy, hopeful I might be able to replace our broken thermometer. Wandering up and down the aisles, I scanned the shelves that were stacked with mysterious jars of herbs, the air flavored with a grassy aroma like a freshly harvested field. Soon shadowed by a curious clerk, I attempted to verbalize what I was searching for – thermometer, fever, sleeping, sick – when I resorted to pantomime - touching my forehead with the back of my hand, fanning my face, sticking my finger in my mouth, then observing my knuckles as if they were numbers. Quickly, my feeble acting attracted another inquisitive clerk.
Met with vacant stares, suddenly, from across the store, yet another clerk called something out and smiles of understanding washed over their faces. Led around the corner, they pointed to two stacks of thermometers, one pile red, and the other blue. "Two Yuan, two Yuan," (25 cents) they harmonized as I picked up one of each color, held them out, and asked "same–same?" "Two Yuan, two Yuan," they both answered, and we began a singsong refrain of "two Yuan, same-same" back and forth, like competing cheerleading squads at a basketball game, neither of us able to break the communication logjam.
Finally, another clerk from across the store walked over with an impish grin, grabbed one of the thermometers, stuck it under her armpit, and shook her head while repeating "no-no," all the while her co-workers continuing to provide a background chorus of "two Yuan, two Yuan". Of course, I realized. A rectal thermometer! Only then did I notice the readout was in Centigrade, but wisely thought to leave that discussion for another day.
Traveling independently in China for three months presents many challenges, with even the simplest tasks requiring inordinate amounts of patience and humor, and where achievement is measured on something as simple as finding and buying a pack of band-aids. Replacing a broken thermometer at the pharmacy involved a humorous skit of charades, while shopping at a food market becomes a test of perceptive reasoning, as you speculate on the contents of the vacuum-sealed package based on the cover picture.
Fortunately, we had arrived in Yangshuo, the premier attraction in the Hunan province of Southern China, located one hour southeast of Guilin by bus. Throughout history, poets have crafted lyrics over its mystical beauty and artists have rendered the landscape into unique and characteristic Chinese scroll ink paintings. With hundreds of saw-toothed limestone pinnacles haphazardly poking up through the colorful terrain, this area of China will surely delight and inspire your imagination.
Yangshuo is tourist friendly, with English widely spoken and plenty of affordable accommodations and restaurants along the pedestrian road Xi Jie, commonly identified as ‘Foreigner Street’. It’s easy to find a comfortable place to stay, with most of the guesthouses offering the same basic look. We found the perfect guesthouse at a great rate with a balcony overlooking the street, only to return home after dinner to find rats on the stairwell. Yech! Needless to say, we moved to our second choice, the lovely Rosewood Inn, where we ended up staying for ten days.
One of the premiere activities is the spectacular fourteen-mile daylong hike along the Li River that connects the towns of Yangdi and Xingping. Cram into the miniature bus at the main bus station for the one-hour trip to Yangdi, pay a modest entrance fee of two dollars, hop on the ferry that crosses the river, and enjoy the path as it winds through the countryside. Wander by habitats and refreshment stands, where crooked old grandmas sell oranges and bags of peanuts and merchants barter polished river rocks, while villagers shout out offers of rides on homemade bamboo rafts.
As we strolled along the Li River, I surveyed the limestone crags and struggled to match the names on the map with the appropriate rock face. The mysterious ‘Eight Super Naturals Crossing the River’, the humorous ‘Tortoise Climbing Up the Hill’, the obvious ‘Fish Tail Peak’, the evocative ‘Nine Horse Fresco Hill’ and my favorite, the imaginative ‘Grandpa Watching Apple’. The inventive surroundings transformed me into another world, where I expected at any time to stumble across Frodo and the fairy tale Hobbits as they waddled out of the Middle Kingdom to greet us on the well-worn path.
There are many bike routes outside of town, with every hotel and guesthouse renting bicycles for a couple of bucks. One day, we embarked on the highly recommended 20-mile bike loop up the Yulong River to Dragon Bridge. We pedaled along paths muddied by recent rain, through neighborhoods colored with bright red lanterns snapping in the wind, past immaculate, well-tended gardens, and ponds teeming with plump catfish gulping for air.
Farmers twisted homemade cigarettes and patiently waited in line with their leaky burlap bags of rice, as the merchant muscled the sacks unto rusty old scales, rebalanced the iron weights, and penciled in the amount. "Nee how, nee how," (Hello) we echoed to people on the path, as we balanced along the narrow causeways that separated the patchwork of paddies. Everywhere, vegetation draped peaks punctuated the horizon like a saw-toothed dragon asleep beneath the surface.
Along the Li River, shorter bike routes led to the community of Fuli, famous for its handcrafted fans that decorate the many workshops. We cycled past hunched over farmers standing knee deep in muddy squares as the brilliant sun baked the atmosphere into a sweaty mugginess. Sluggish, dirt spattered water buffalo grunted along the trails as a comforting earthiness flavored the air. Stumped at a questionable fork in the trail, we leaned our bikes and rested in the shade. Soon a local arrived and we pointed down both paths, shrugged, and asked "Fuli?"
Getting around the countryside is easy; just arrive at the busy bus station located in central Yangshuo, locate the sign for your destination, and squeeze on with the other passengers. Many of the routes leave at regularly scheduled times, while others may not depart until they have a full load. We jumped on a bus to Yueliang Shan (Moon Hill) for a couple of hours one day, where we scrambled to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
During the day, Yangshuo swarms with day-trippers from Guilin, five hours downriver. Arriving on the cavalcade of boats around noon, the tourists poke around town and leave by bus in early evening. One after another, the vessels churn up the river accompanied by a constant blaring from cheap speakers, as the tour guide points out rock formations along the way. Merchants line the walkways into town and offer cheap souvenirs as they disembark at the dock.
Food choices range from dumplings to pizza. When dining, brazenly choose from the local menu, point to something that looks interesting at an adjoining table, or safely choose rice and noodles - it’s all an adventure and a riotous one at that. Our favorite was the affordably priced ‘Noodle Bar’, easily identified by the overflowing tables set in front, with huge portions of Chinese favorites served at a hectic yet organized pace. Curiously, bands of police patrolled the streets one day and forced all restaurants and vendors to move their displays and tables indoors - they felt they were blocking the walkways. The next day, the police disappeared and the tables and displays quickly returned to their original locations.
Some of the coolest souvenirs are stone-carved stamps, where your last name is converted into Chinese characters and engraved into the rock. Quite a few shops in town offer this service, although we’d recommend going to the best – Huang Guan Hua Stone Engraving – where a master calligrapher will produce a memorable rendering of your name on a unique piece of stone for around $15. Around town, you’ll find innumerable Chairman Mao paraphernalia - posters, playing cards, clocks, and bags stamped with his image – still a popular and respected figure in Chinese history. Or, stock up on the latest DVDs, purchased from one of the many shadowy entrepreneurs who maintain their inventory in a daypack, and nervously glance about for local police.
Getting to Yangshuo is easy; leaving is difficult. We both loved it and would have gladly stayed another week. To fully appreciate this intriguing area you should plan to spend more than a day and wander into the countryside, which is truly representative of rural China. After ten days, it was time for us to move on to other parts of China, although I would be quick to return, and enthusiastically give Yangshuo our highest recommendation.
Having had such wonderful experiences in Yangshuo, one of my favorite U2 songs comes to mind – "Stay, Faraway, So Close." So many memorable scenes and impressions will stay with us fondly, and long after we leave, though faraway, it will remain close in our hearts and minds for years to come, the memories certain to bring a warm smile to our faces.