Travelling China, part II - Guilin, Kunming and train to Tibet
Guilin – the watercolour image of China
So lets pick it up from Hong Kong… We left this vibrant city by metro that took us all the way to mainland China Shenzhen. Here we went through very convenient passport control where an immigration officer put the second-entry tick in our double-entry visa and off we went to China. Our first destination for this second month in China was Guilin - that dreamy romantic scenery everyone knows from traditional Chinese watercolour paintings. But although traditionally referred to as Guilin, the beautiful area is around Yangshuo village, about 1.5 hour away from the very normal Guilin city. Funnily enough, as we were passing through Yangshuo to Guilin, some taxi drivers were trying to lure us into staying there by claiming that Guilin and Yangshuo “is the same”. We had to disappoint them as our plan was quite set – in Guilin we were about to meet Jordi’s friend Jordi (yea, in case you are wondering about the names, they only have one patron saint in Catalunya). This Jordi’s friend Jordi was spending his vacation in China and luckily enough despite of our very different routes and travelling styles, we managed to cross our trajectories in Guilin. This is definitely proof that it’s a very small world. (And our own conclusion is that if you travel it long enough you can manage to run across your family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances with surprising regularity - we already met a friend, Jordi almost met a colleague and we are planning to meet Jordi’s family later in Vietnam. Anyone planning to travel Asia or South America this year let us know and we will be happy to ‘run into’ you also J).
We celebrated meeting Jordi and his friends Dani and Fafu by going to a nice restaurant and trying the specialty of that area - the beer fish (tasty but the sight of how it is killed on the spot after you’ve made your choice would probably discourage many from eating it again). Over dinner we were sharing our experiences about China and listening in amazement about how Jordi, Dani and Fafu were ‘hopping’ over China with amazing speed and how after 1 week in China they concluded that it’s ‘too small’ (!) for them and were considering going to Thailand or Vietnam for the remaining week. Anyway, the next day we had to separate as they had to go on hopping to Yangshuo and we had to still visit places around Guilin.
Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces and amazing minority folks
So next day we went to see Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. To really enjoy the scenery we opted for a day hike between the two villages in the area, Ping'an to Dazhai. Although not as breathtaking as they might be on some postcards (endless pools of water, level after level after level), the terraces were truly lovely.
Kilometre after kilometre, village after village, angle after angle we were enjoying the views over the velvety green levels that looked so soft and fresh you would want to stroke them.
As we were approaching one of the minority villages half way through our hike, local Yao women greeted us and were anxious to show us the way to their village, or rather to their home (as there was only one path and it would be quite a feat to get lost there). Following them, we were admiring their skill with the very sharp curved multi- purpose knife (killing snakes was apparently among the purposes: I saw one on the path and showed it to one of the women, who immediately reacted with a lightning-fast strike at the poor snake).
Just before the village we made a tiny detour to see a waterfall and there we got a nice surprise: the Yao women offered to show us the pride and glory of this folk - their incredible long hair that reaches the ground. The most amazing thing about it is that it turned out they carry a couple more long parts of cut hair twirled inside their traditional hair style (I can easily imagine that it must be very difficult to simply throw it away). The only price for all this special treatment we received was a promise to have a meal at their home. So once we reached the village, we were welcomed into a Yao house – quite spacious wooden structure with an open fire inside and almost no furniture, very simple but quite cosy in its own way. They treated us to some tasty fried rice and vegetables, we paid and thanked them and went on to enjoy more terrace views, more villages and villagers. As we reached Dazhai it started to rain very hard but we didn't care any more as we could sit down in the bus, rest our feet and enjoy the sensation of a lovely day behind.
Fake bamboo raft to Yangshuo (as if there is not enough bamboo in China)
Next day we took a boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo on a ‘bamboo’ raft, which turned out to be plastic bamboo. We were expecting a lot of breathtaking scenery, but somehow after the 3-gorgeous-gorges trip, the gorges in Guilin area looked less impressive... Well, as we say in Russian, everything is learnt through comparison…
Packaged tour in Yangshuo and the fun in the mud caves
In Yangshuo we again crossed our path with the hopping trio who by this time had a chance to buy all the tour packages that the guy in the hotel had to sell J (after they missed the Forbidden City in Beijing they developed a fear of missing out on essential stuff and ever since Beijing had been purchasing the packages to prevent this J). So once we arrived we had little choice but to join in one of those packages, which is normally not the way we do things on this trip but for this time it was just fine, and the guy from the hotel turned out to have very good deals indeed.
The first activity on the list was the famous water/mud caves. The guy gave us bikes and a very draft-like map with our destinations written in Chinese and we started peddling through Yangshuo.
We got lost once or twice but since Yangshuo is quite small and with basic Chinese you have more than enough to ask for directions, we were peacefully cycling through the village direction caves. However, as to the caves themselves, before we could enjoy them we had a puzzle to solve, in the style “find 10 differences”. The problem was, the original caves were so successful and apparently so profitable, that about a dozen other local entrepreneurs couldn’t resist the notorious Chinese urge to reverse-engineer the successfully selling product, so they created a dozen new fake water / mud caves.
The problem we were facing was to try to identify the original ones. The only information we had available was: signs, staff and locals, all of which of course were claiming that their caves were The Caves. Anyway, after much ado of this puzzle-solving we made our lucky guess and were very happy when inside the one we picked we saw more tourists with a guide – this was proof enough that we picked the good one! And on entering the cave we didn't have any doubt left about it any more, as it would be hard to imagine how nature could create so many incredible caves all around Yangshuo. Actually, it was so unreal that for a short while I was wondering whether the stalactite wall we were passing was just Disneyworld-like decorations (you know like some very perfect things in nature at first rough glance sometimes look like they are made of plastic?). Anyway, the caves were impressive, with lots of colours and weird forms inside, one very much like an elephant.
Inside the caves we had an agenda to follow – apart from enjoying the sights, we had a swimming pool, a mud pool and hot spring baths. The pool was very cold but Dani and Fafu were brave enough to jump and swim (we passed). The mud was also cold but irresistible – we all enjoyed floating in it except for Jordi’s friend Jordi (lucky for us, as now we have some pictures). The hot baths were the best surprise – so relaxingly hot, in such a lovely setting,.. so difficult to leave.
The Moon Hill and super strong old lady
Anyway, we had to leave as we had a busy agenda still. Next stop was Moon Hill – the beautiful arch-shaped rock from which we had a beautiful view over Yangshuo. A hundred-year-old-looking tiny woman with a heavy basket full of drinks climbed all the stairs after us with an enviable agility to just sell us some colas, so we celebrated the twilight of this lovely day by drinking her cola and looking at the views.
Trip to Dragon Bridge – getting lost, flat tire and swimming
Next day all 5 of us rented bikes and went to see the scenery around Yangshuo. The destination we had in mind was the very old Dragon’s Bridge. En route to it we of course got lost, but finding our way to it was fun as we were just following the directions from village people and enjoying the sights along the emerging route – villages, fields, local people. On the way Dani had a flat tire so we were not sure we would make it to the bridge. But in one of the villages there was a reparation point and we stopped to fix the wheel.
While they guys were busy with the bike we heard lovely music and saw a man playing traditional Chinese string instrument. He was kind enough to offer us to try! Since it is a bit similar to the violin and I’ve always been fascinated by it, I really appreciated the opportunity.
Once the bike was ready we continued our journey. By the time we reached the bridge it was almost time to go back. So we had a swim around and under this very simple and very old bridge watching its ancient arch in the mellow light of late afternoon… Then a ride back via a big road (as it was getting dark) and that was it for this lovely Dragon Bridge day.
Biking trip with no specific destination, saying ‘bye’ to the trio
Next day we again took the bikes but this time we didn't have a clear itinerary in mind. The previous day we cycled along the smaller and (as they say) cuter Yulong river so this time we decided to take the route along the big Li river. We started cycling north following the cobble-stoned (so very bumpy) path but after a while it started to take us further and further away from the river so we turned back and started to go down the river instead. This time we had more luck and the path was taking us along the river with some lovely viewpoints on the route. After a while when the path seemed to have disappeared we stopped for a swim in a place from which we had an excellent view of the gorges framing the river.
By that time it was time to go back as that day the guys had to catch a bus to Hong Kong and all of us still needed to do some souvenir shopping. (Actually, on this trip it had been very easy for us to resist the shopping temptation as otherwise our bags would grow exponentially but this time since Jordi’s friend Jordi was going back to Spain we used this opportunity to buy a couple of traditional #hinese paintings). After all of us were done with the shopping we started to look for a place to have our last dinner together. Since somehow the whole bunch of men developed a strange craze to try dog meat, we started looking for dog meat restaurants. But to the guys’ disappointment and my relief, despite the signs advertising such restaurants, in a couple of places we walked into we were told that dog meat wasn’t available (the usual #hinese “mei you, mei you”). Maybe dog meat is no longer legal in China, or at least they prefer not to serve it to foreign tourists (for instance due to some prior experiences with animal rights fighters). Anyway, we found a normal eatery and had normal Chinese food instead (stir fried vegetable and meat dishes and the obligatory rice). By this time we had to go to the station where we said bye to the guys and watched with amusement how they were trying to make themselves comfortable in their small sleeper places. Well, that was it for our mutual stretch in China.
Hiking trip Yangdi to Xingping – mistake with very positive consequences
We still had one more day in Yangshuo so this time instead of the bikes we decided to explore the area on foot and do a highly recommended (by LP) hike from Yangdi to Xingping. According to the route description we needed to first take a bus to Yangdi, from there take the path down the Li river and hike it all the way to Xingping, crossing the river three times during the whole way, each time “for a small fee”. Well, simple as it sounds, some things just don’t go according to plan, and we were to find out very soon. It all started with the very first river crossing which we had to do straight on arrival to Yangdi. Instead of a small fee mentioned in the guide, the ferry drivers demanded about 10 euro.
At first we thought it’s the usual haggling and we would get down to a more reasonable number after bargaining. But to our surprise they persisted with amazing stubbornness. Since it seemed too insane to pay this amount for a 20-metre stretch of water (we would have swum it in nothing if it were not for the cameras), we tried asking more boat drivers. But they had quite some team spirit there, and everywhere we went we were followed by some entrepreneurial woman who started to talk to all those drivers long before we could utter something and in a much more fluent #hinese I could ever hope for. After a lot of trying and about an hour of wasted time (which we didn't have a lot of, as we had to catch the last bus from Xingping in a few hours) we managed to bring the price down to something like 3 euro.
However, it wasn’t this crossing that was our concern – it was the perspective of another two in which we were more than likely to encounter the same problem, and have a choice between either paying the insane price for two minutes of rowing or waste a lot of precious time trying to bring the price down. But of course there was a silver lining in this cloud of ours: probably our internal protest against this mugging was manifesting itself so strongly to the universe that we ended up skipping all of those future crossings and having a glorious day still. What happened was that somehow at some point along the path we took the wrong route which led us all the way up to the gorges and on through some very lost and very authentic villages. In fact it was quite lucky that we stumbled upon that path up as we had already seen all the scenery along the river from our fake bamboo raft a few days before and were much happier to follow our own route through the peaceful tourist-free villages and nature.
In fact the whole hike was filled with an intense feeling of Discovery, that “noblest delight” which was “swelling our breasts with pride ”from knowing that we were” walking in places where none others have walked before”: that we were “breathing the virgin atmosphere” (special thanks to Mark Twain for this precise expression of this feeling). During the hike at some point we ran out of water (we were planning to buy more in one of the multiple stalls along the other - proper – route) so we stopped and asked for some at some lonely house. They didn't have mineral water of course and instead offered us the only water they had – from a tiny poodle formed by either rain or stream in front of the house. We didn't have a lot of options so after some hesitation the thirst won and we drank and filled our bottles with it. I couldn’t help thinking all that time about the Russian fairy tale about a small boy who drank a water from a poodle just like that one and turned into a goat. Luckily after a while we were still humans so it was ok (and we didn't have any problems afterwards either). One curious thing I remembered from that place was that inside that house lost somewhere in a remote #hinese village there was a framed portrait of Mao on the wall, highlighted by a bright red ribbon… Anyway, reenergized with water we continued on our discovery hike. All along to find our way we had to ask the shepherds or villagers for the way to Xingping, as we had to use the paths that the locals use to go between the villagers and some of the stretches were not very straightforward. But after a while we managed to reach a big village which was connected by road to Xingping. As it was getting late, we needed so hitch-hike something to Xingping, that’s why we eagerly excepted an offer from a local guy on a motorbike to give us a lift for a small (genuinely small) fee. We enjoyed the rest of the views along this last stretch and after a while hopped on to the bus that took us back to Yanghsuo. What a glorious day it was! It’s good to make mistakes sometimes as they can bring lovely surprises…
Going to Kunming and Tiger Leaping Gorge hike
Next day we had to cross half China by train to go to Kunming province. Our first destination there was the Tiger Leaping Gorge – according to the respectable LP, the best hike of China. Well, it was an amazing hike indeed, with a route going high through the gorge overlooking beautiful mountains on the other side and a wild river (that created all that beauty) down.
The access point to this hike is the small Qiatou village, so our complete journey that summed up to a couple of days on buses and trains was Yangshuo – Guilin (1.5h bus) to Kunming (overnight train) to Lijiang (an overnight bus) to Qiatou (a few hours bus).
We arrived at midday and on leaving our bags in a guesthouse immediately started our hike. After 8 hours of following the so-called Higher route through the gorge, we reached the end of our hike and our target for that day – Tina’s guesthouse, in a village connected by road to Qiatou and with a great view over the gorge on one side and the mountains on the other.
Next morning we woke up early to make our trip back as by evening we wanted to arrive in Shangri-la (a few hours away by bus). At first we were considering getting a lift. But the day was so sunny and the views were so gorgeous that somehow it seemed a crime to cram ourselves into a minivan and rush down.
On a sparkle of impulse we decided to go for the “middle way” – to JOG down J! Since the distance was exactly 21 km, it was kind of half marathon in a beautiful setting and via a mountain road. And although some stretches going up were really tough and all the minivans passing us were insistently offering us a lift, we felt so happy and energized that we just kept on jogging with joyful determination. All the locals who were working on the road (improving it so that once done they can conveniently take huge hordes of #hinese tourists up and down) were cheering and smiling. We were waving back and running on.
Later on we discovered that not only was it a happier way down to Qiatou but also the fastest one, as at some point we saw all the minivans that had passed us before stuck in the stretch of the road where a huge truck was blocking all the traffic. In about 2.5 hours after the start we arrived in Qiatou, very proud of ourselves for discovering this unique way to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge and for making it all the way back while overtaking all the minivans. Overall, this has been the most beautiful jog of our lives so far…
Shangrila – the real fantasy city
That same evening we arrived in Shangri-la – this fantasy city (some cities inspire movies but this one is a bizarre vice versa) which was our first “touch of Tibet”.
We spent two very peaceful days in this cosy city. Apart from visiting a very big monastery, we didn't do anything much – just lazy strolls through the streets of old town and people-watching in the main square.
As we were sitting there the first evening, at some point we saw all the locals forming a very big circle and starting to dance to lively Tibetan music traditional dances. Since anyone was free to join and it looked so much fun, I couldn’t resist the temptation and ended up dancing along till the very last piece of music. Jordi refused to be making a fool of himself and was taking videos of all this fun instead. We have a very good one where young stylish guys (the type you can easily picture moving very nicely in a modern disco) dancing these traditional Tibetan dances with incredible enthusiasm and grace. We are still not sure whether the locals have this dancing marathon (it lasted for 2-3 hours) every day or we were just lucky because it was a Tibetan festival time. Probably the latter, as one of the evenings we also watched a very-very-very long fireworks session (a-la New Year in Holland). Well, that was our Shangri-la…
Chengdu – closing the loop
Next day we had to leave for Chengdu where we needed to pick up our permits for Tibet and take a 2-day train to Lhasa. (Unfortunately, it’s still not possible to travel Tibet independently and everyone has to obtain permits and arrange a guide via one of the numerous agents in China, accordingly sinking exactly half the money in China and only the other half in Tibet). We had started arranging this trip about 3 weeks prior to our departure date via a hostel in Chengdu. By emails we managed to team up with 4 more people (a French couple and a couple of American actors) and got quite a decent price for the package “Lhasa to Nepal border in 8 days”. We needed to go to Chengdu via Kunming as although on the map it looks only a small stretch away from Shangrila, going directly by bus-hopping would take days. Luckily we had managed to again get sleeper tickets for the long Kunming - Chengdu train (in the two cases that we had this unbelievable achievement it was probably due to the fact that we were lucky enough to be in the same city from which we needed to take the train one week in advance). So a couple of days of buses-trains later we arrived in Chengdu, the city where we had landed a couple of months ago, thus closing our “China loop”. To close the loop completely, we again went to see the beautiful old temple area and while strolling there looked back on our first impressions of China. Funnily enough, at that time we were naively thinking that this was only the beginning and we would get much more of this “old China” look in the cities to come, but in reality it turned out to be the first and only one that gave us that feeling…
Hotpot – the ultimate food experience
There was one more experience we had to try before leaving China – the famous Sichuan hot pot (basically, a #hinese fondue with extremely spicy oily soup in which you boil the foods of your choice). For this we picked a very good hotpot restaurant (you could see how good it was just by the queue of #hinese waiting for a place in a restaurant with a huge number of tables). Our turn came after about half an hour and we could make our choices with the help of the only waitress who spoke a tiny bit of English. Mainly for my sake we opted for a hotpot with a non-spicy part (they put a small bowl of normal and very delicious soup inside the huge main “fiery” bowl). I did try to spicy version but couldn’t handle it. Jordi went all the way so for the rest of the meal I was enjoying my “gentle” version and the funny sight of Jordi sweating and gasping for breath as he was struggling with the pieces cooked in this “fire” pot. An awesome experience!
"Before" and "After":
Train to Lhasa – two days and nights in a seat
Next day we were leaving China (or at least that’s the way we prefer to refer to it when we think of Tibet). For the 2-day train Chengdu – Lhasa train we had (alleluia!) two hard seats (an incredible luxury compared to sitting on the floor). We did ask the guys who were arranging the trip to buy us sleepers of course but that was impossible because impossible. The story was that the whole sleeper part of the train gets purchased out by the black market dealers who later sell it at double – triple prices to those #hinese who can get it. Who these #hinese are and how they manage to get it they couldn’t tell us, but I guess it’s some kind of VIP network that is not accessible to mere mortals. The guys in the hostel apparently were in this latter category so they told us there was absolutely no way we could get sleepers. Well, we thought no big deal since after all this “train training” we received in China this was peanuts for us and we could save a lot of money by getting much cheaper hard seats. The French guys opted for the same and the Americans went for a flight instead. In the end we spent quite comfortable 2 nights and 2 days on this train, looking at the sights and reading books. As to the sights, we actually were quite disappointed as according to LP the train was supposed to be passing through some spectacular places, so I guess we had our expectations set very high imagining that the train would be taking us through Everest-like peaks all the time. As we were to find out, it was totally opposite as the whole Tibetan plateau although very high above the sea level is as flat as the Netherlands. In any case, although not spectacular this endless flat wilderness had its charming beauty. Now and then a very soft (=not audible) voice of a Chinese guy speaking correct English was telling us what we were passing us and making extra accents on those places which were the special pride of the Chinese for the brilliant engineering achievement that they represented. One such place was at a point where they used special breakthrough technology to freeze the ground to make it more stable. We kept wondering why it was necessary in such a flat terrain but the voice omitted this part of the explanation. In the late sunny afternoon of the 3rd day we arrived at the shiny Lhasa station to begin our Tibet trip…