Travels into Yunnan in search of the promised land. And more stairs.
It's strange to be travelling with people again. I hadn't really realised it, but on this trip I haven't actually travelled with anybody at all. Sure, i've met people on the way, in hostels and other random places, bumped into several people on multiple occassions, and arranged to meet a few on the way. But In over 8months, I hadn't actually travelled with somebody(ies) I had met along the way until leaving Shangers, and it's suddenly very strange, and despite being a solo traveller by trade, i'm realising how much I do periodically miss traveling with other people.
Our intrepid quintet of mountaineers, however, became a trio quite quickly. James, who's idea it had been to begin with had developed a personal interest in Shanghai in the time waiting to be able to leave, and thus decided to cut short the road trip to return to Shanghai. Kyoko is lovely, and best of luck to the both of them. A day later, Jimmy headed off to Nanjing. Originally he'd planned to come a little further, but with a new job starting in only a few days, he decided to stay closer to Shanghai to avoid being caught out trying to return.
Huangzhou is somewhere which in summer i guess would be absolutely gorgeous. A large lake, parks, woods and low rolling hills with temples and pagodas in them make it a place that you want to be outside enjoying, whereas a fairly damp, chilly, windy winter day is not ideal, and it didn't leave a huge mark on me. I hope to return though, and give it a fair chance.
And so it was that we headed south, aiming for the promised land. That almost went horribly wrong, with the taxi driver cunningly taking us to teh wrong railway station, leaving us with one huge mad scramble and second taxi ride to Huangzhou East. If the station had been any busier, or we'd have been literally 2seconds later, we'd have been goners, but for some reason, our luck was still holding and we got away with it. Just.
Chinese trains are classified. Z are non stop, T are the top level express trains. Chinese train tickets are also very hard to acquire for trains which don't originate in the town you are departing from. Most Chinese agents and ticket staff don't even bother to look up space availability on trains which originate elsewhere, even if requested. And thus it was that we spent 37 hours on an A train to Guilin. The journey actually only takes about 23hours, but being an A classified train means its a slow one. Which doesn't actually mean more station stops. Just that it stops randomly and frequently in the middle of nowhere for other trains to pass. The fact that this would be entirely unneccessary if the train wasn't scheduled to stop in the middle of nowhere anyway, seems to have eluded them. At one point in the middle of the night, i played rock/scissor/paper for 20minutes with a random and bored white guy on a train which had stopped next to ours for no apparent reason, whilst on a seperate occassion three trains behind ours all stopped alongside us, whilst yet another train went past. That cost us over 80 (timetabled) minutes, and explains why we took so damned long.
Our 37hour trip worked out at a hair-raising average speed of just under 27mp/h.
I love train journeys.
We were heading for the promised land. I've never had a warm/sunny winter before, and was looking for a month or so of warm weather and sun to enjoy, just for variety. Unfortunately, the promised land didn't turn out to be quite as promised.
Guilin was still wet, and not especially warm. But not unpleasant. Guilin and the surrounding area of Guanxi province is charecterised by limestone Karst scenery. Basically, tall pillars of rock randomly dotted around. It doesn't sound especially amazing when put like that, but is actually really cool. We wandered around the Elephant Hill Park (literally, a Karst peak which resembles an Elephant drinking in the river) up the stairs to the top, and after collecting a friendly local (christened Simon, in honour of our Huanshan helper, as we know that they all will be from now on) the Princes City, a kind of smaller, less impressive and more expensive version of Beijing's forbidden city. And containing the inevitable limestone Karst pillar with a building on top. Up the equally inevitable long and steep stairway.
River ferries and view of Princes City peak from below
Stairs are fast becoming a fixed point and overriding theme of this leg of the trip.
Guilin's other curiosity is that without exception, all restaurants have (a) all crockery and cuttlery shrink wrapped in plastic - due to some bizarre local law - which you have to pay to use (yup, you pay to use chopsticks and a bowl) and (b) that all meat and fish is displayed live outside, and you pick and choose what you want killed to eat. Well over half of it looks in a pretty poor way to begin with, whilst another segment contains animals that you can't even work out what they are (some voley things, some large brown things amongst others). Which is worrying when you ponder items offered on the menu, as you know that it sure as hell isn't a chicken or a pig...
Guilin suburbs set out amongst the Karst peaks
We headed to Yangshuo, an hour by minibus. Getting minibuses is never straight forward in China. If the bus is not filled to about 120% of capacity, the driver trawls the streets at random looking for more passengers, and refuses to actually depart for the destination until he has satisfactoraly overfilled the bus. This can take time,and does take an inordinate amount of shouting, weaving and horn beeping, although in fairness this is standard to all Chinese driving. The delay mean't that we got to see the entirity of an absolutely fabulously bogus Hong Kong police/kung fu movie, which unfortunately i never knew the name of.
Yangshuo is a self confessed backpacker haven, and it shows. A small town on the river surrounded by some of the more dramatic karsts in the area, it has been turned into a white person's haven. In most places, menu's and signs are in English only, the food being served is often Western or westernised, and the entire town seems to contain entirely of hostels, cheap hotels, restaurants and gift shops selling every piece of unimaginable tourist kitch possible. But despite all that, it's not a bad place - it's picturesque, fairly relaxed and cheap. Our accomodation was 20yuan a night each, or about gbp1.40. I figure in the height of summer, it could be a hideous place, and overly full of white people, but off season it wasn't quite so bad.
We hired some bikes, gained another Simon as a guide, and later on two more travellers, and headed out into the countryside. Which is really lovely. Opportunities to do many things, including mud bathing, white water rafting and pot-holing (all simultaneously if you really wanted and fell out of the boat at the wrong moment), but we stuck to cycling and climbing. Moon Hill was only 841 steps (yes, i counted) and nothing at all like Huanshan had been, but still fulfilled our daily stair requirement quite happily. I told you that stairs were becoming quite a feature. And the view from the top over the local area and karsts was fantastic. The sun was even out. And I was back on a bike with some open road to play on, which was absolutely fabulous in itself.
The view from Moon Hill
I've said it before, but if your reading this rubbish anyway, then you are stupid enough to put up with my constant repetitions, so i'll say it again anyway. I really miss my bike.
Some evenings are memorable for events, some for individuals. This was definitely one of later. A group of 8 of us (we randomly picked up a couple of old Shangers friends amongst others) headed out for dinner to sample the local speciality, beer fish. With a Chinese speaker in our ranks, we decided against the overpriced tourist restaurants, and instead headed to a small local looking place. Amongst others, we tried both the beer-fish and beer-duck (literally, fish - or duck - marinated in beer). How they are actually supposed to taste I don't know, as we ended up with, basically, two large plates of small bones. The fish plate also contained scales. But no meat was to be found anywhere. The meal would have been a complete farce, had it not been for the resence of a specific Chinese man and his extended family at the next table.
Out at dinner on the beer fish night
Towards the end of our meal, and fortified by some consumed Baijou, he decided to befriend us. He spoke no English, but it mattered not a jot. We received biscuits, cigarettes, fruits of assorted kinds, spirits, mints and more as gifts. We offered leftovers, beer, cigarettes, and, well, us. Games we're played. Rice wine and beer was drunk. Singing was cringe worthy (and the title here reflects one of our favourites, which has been turned into a cult track to be sung at every opportunity, along with another more soppy but brilliant Chinese classic, approximately translated as "Mouse loves Rice"). Pictures were taken in abundance and much hilarity was had all around. We left the restaurant entirely unconcerned by the pathetic meal, and having had one of the best times of recent months. And all because of a drunk Chinese man, and his amazing family.
Although I will divulge that i ended up being given a free taxi ride and being dropped off randomly in the middle of a field, being waddled after by large cow (i believe, although it could have been somthing else making moo-ing noises) and also walked alone over a not inconsiderable Karst in the pitch black, i will leave the story there. Events, memories, pictures and impressions from the remainder of the evening are best left as such, well out of public consumption, and deep in the depths of a few fuddled memories. Unless of course, somebody somehow becomes famous...
Karst landscape near Yangshuo. But not from THAT night
We bounced back via Guilin and, due to an inability to get through train tickets, we overnighted in Nanning, a major regional centre, which feels entirely un-Chinese. More relaxed, less hassle, and less noise. I'm in no way suggesting that it was orderly and traquil in the way that a Swiss city might be, but it was a definite and noticeable change from all other Chinese cities I have previously visited. It's notable mainly for it's insanely long ticket queues at the station, for excessively priced Vietnamese visa's, no white people at all and for being entirely nondescript and irrelevant. With the exception, and a worthy one at that, that a section of the city centre is pedestrianised, entirely out of all look and feel of the rest of the city (and indeed, China), which looks and feels suspiciously like Newport. Thats Gwent as opposed to the Isle of Wight or Salop. And some of the side streets have seemingly been stolen from Romsey.
Despite that, we didn't stick around.
Got the train towards Kunming, and thus, we arrived in Yunnan.