On the back of any nation’s currency is a statement that says “this is your country! Isn’t it beautiful! Isn’t your supreme leader/ex-head of state/psychotic dictator a wonderful man?” On the back of Chairman Mao’s head on the 20 Yuan note is a lithograph of the most famously beautiful scenery in China and has been the inspiration for countless artists, poets, writers and film makers for years.
Flying in to Guilin, I was expecting a sleepy backwater town that I would leave and head south to Yangshuo, in the depths of the karst scenery that is so lauded. Well, China constantly surprises you with the stunning scale of its smallest provincial towns and of course Guilin turns out to be a city of skyscrapers and millions of people. Walking from the airport shuttle terminus to the bus station (why not the same place? Because China) took a sweaty half hour in the first place that was actually warm that I’d visited in Asia. Scooters use the pavement where convenient, and cars give it a go too, so this was a half hour fraught with danger. Fortunately, getting to Yangshuo itself turns out to be a breeze, so a couple of air conditioned hours on a bus later, the bustling town of Yangshuo arrived, surrounded by flood lit hills and packed with the expected tourists.
It must be stated that I was looking forward to this part of the journey immensely. It is a region that even Chinese talk about in revered tones as a “dream destination” within their own country. Beautiful, rugged, warm and packed with activities. I bedded down in my nice warm bed, in my nice cosy hostel and dreamt of all the things I could do in the five or so days ahead of me. Rising in the morning, the ominous pitter patter of rain could be heard and so it was that three days I sat glumly staring out at the hills surrounding the town wishing for it to stop. Sadly the clouds paid me no heed, so it kept at it. All I could do was read, attend a cookery class and mope.
When, after a few days it did finally stop, I had to pack in as much as I could in the little time I had left. Rock climbing in the morning! River cruise in the afternoon! Get a haircut! Ok, this one wasn’t affected by the weather, but it was needed. Still, it was a pleasant surprise: after dreading the moment in South America, I received a pretty poor hatchet job. Here, I was given half a spa session! Hair washed and conditioned? Head massage? Good haircut? Five dollars? Fantastic!
The only thing left was the nearby village of Xingping that is supposed to be a “must see” in the area, and who am I to go against popular opinion? Many Chinese and foreign film makers have called “action” in this area.
The village was not as built up as I’d feared given my experiences with past popular destinations, and the creaking buildings still maintained an historical air of authenticity, even if the classic maelstrom of cabling lining the fronts took something away from it all a little bit!
There is a riverside walk that leads from Xingping to the village of Yangdi and actually passes the place where the picture from the 20 Yuan note was drawn. Setting off, I quickly arrived at this spot and took the appropriate pic a little further down the road, so as not to have to pay for the privilege. Oh China, you just have to try and charge for everything. The path then veers inland for an hour, passing through some very dull localities away from the river until you reach the first ferry crossing. Stump up the cash for the 15 metre journey and head off again. Keep walking for an hour and a half or so, and you will reach crossing number two, where you will find the ferry to be out of action for the low season. You will then try to flag down one of dozens of boats who could easily give you a quick ride for some money, but they don’t stop, embarrassedly shaking their head and pointing non-committally downstream. You can at this point panic, or you can walk around in circles looking for boat owners before settling on one (drunk) man who may or may not own the boat he points at and asks for double the going rate for a crossing. You accept.
It had not escaped my notice that the path hitherto was quite overgrown in places and I thought that maybe this walk was not as popular as I had supposed. The other side of the river was even more overgrown, but all the more beautiful for it. An old bridge covered in plants, led enticingly to a rough path through flowering grasses.
I passed working parcels of land filled with Pak-Choi and orange groves, and smiling locals waving hello to the obviously rare visitor. Passing through the village, I boarded the final ferry that has an English sign pointedly stating that the ferry was for locals only. This made as little sense to me as it evidently did to the pilot, who had no trouble accepting my money for the short hop across the river despite not having any other passengers than myself and my having woken him up from an afternoon nap.
All in all, it was something of a disappointing walk, made up for all that was unexpected about it.
Then, just like that, it was all over. No more China! A night bus to Shenzhen and the border with Hong Kong meant a whole new travel experience was about to begin. Back to the big city lights, but only for a few days.