Winding Down Again
After traveling together from Xi’an, Mike has finally headed of for Nanning, and the crossing into Vietnam. I’ve retired from the noise of Yangshuo proper into the countryside North East of the city, which was something I probably should have done a week or so ago. If you saw the video from town you’ll certainly understand why. Reports vary as to when, exactly, it rounded the bend, but almost everyone agrees that the current city is a bit of a trainwreck. A few kilometers out of town, people still go about their usual farming, but the city itself is completely given over to package tourism and weekenders from Shenzen and Hong Kong.
I haven’t spoken with anyone who really knows much about the details – most of the locals who speak English do it proficiently enough to sell whatever they have at hand and not much more – but it seems like this area must still be a fairly important agricultural center for China. It’s true that there are about 100 new luxury hotels going up in the Lijiang river valley, but they seem to be pretty well planned in terms of impact on the farmland they’re meant to exploit. One of the girls at the Bamboo Guest House in Yangshuo is a local, and her father’s orange grove was a bit of a destination for some of the visitors to the guesthouse. She didn’t know much about the overall output of the region, but her father’s crop is definitely sold in regional markets.
The Bamboo was a really nice stop-over, but its proximity to West Street’s non-stop disco bars got pretty wearing after a few nights. The entire street is lined with western-style bars and clubs, most of which play truly horrible music all night and day. The Yak cafÈ on Guihua road, touted in Lonely Planet, is the one exception to the general rule of loud and gaudy. It’s run by a Tibetan woman and her Canadian husband, who recently made the move over from Ottawa. They’re nice people, and the food at the Yak is better than average, but they’re a little raft sinking in the sea of college-town party crap. My guess is that, with a baby well on the way in the next month, they won’t be around for another season.
Food in town is also less than one would expect, with a couple of good dumpling spots the only exception for late-night eating. Dumpling Dynasty made some decent, but watery veggie dumplings, but a place around the corner on Cheng Zhong rd., closer to West Street, did much better, with really fiery pork dumplings and some good noodle dishes. The town market is where things get really interesting, with everything from flat rat to kitchen-prepped dog for sale. Mark, an Australian guy staying at the hostel, seemed to take every sign of life as a challenge to dine. In the time I was there, he went through a leathery-looking rat, dog and a pretty large snake, which the hostel cook murdered for him right there in the kitchen. I didn’t bother trying any of it, and I’ve got to say most of the stuff looked and smelled pretty unappetizing.
On my first day in Yangshuo I tried the balloon trip, which turned out to be ideal. It was a slightly misty evening, but the wind was still and it was a beautiful sunset over the river valley and all of the Karst peaks. The next day I rented a bike – another must-do in this flat, lush region – and headed out along the river following the route of the balloon the day before. Along the way I ran across the Giggling Tree Guest House ( http://www.gigglingtree.com ) – a beautifully but simply restored traditional farmhouse hostel. It’s only been open one season and is run by a Dutch couple. There’s an amazing flagstone patio out front hedged in on one side by the road and a gigantic old Banyan tree. The rooms are off the center courtyard, like in an old Tuscan or French farmhouse. There seems to be a trend of guesthouses moving out to the countryside, which really makes sense, since that’s the only thing bringing folks out here anyway, but the Giggling Tree is by far the nicest and most imaginative of the ones I’ve seen. The rooms are reasonably priced, the food is great and reservations in the summer will certainly be required.
I ended up making a wrong turn, of course, which extended my trip by about 20 km, but managed to see Moon Hill and the Dragon Bridge in one day! The Moon Hill is, I assume, a natural arch formation in one of the limestone cliffs that looks like a half moon. It’s super popular around here – the land of anthropomorphizing every last tree and stream – but still worth a look. Rather than follow the same road back North to the Dragon Bridge, I took one of the raised ox trails along the opposite bank of the river and ended up having a fantastic little bit of single-track all to myself. At one point, a little old lady, bent nearly at a 90-degree angle under her load of oranges, stopped just in front of me. I jumped down and moved my bike off the trail so that she could pass, but instead, she wrangled a package of dog-eared postcards from her old bag and stuck them out in my face. “Hello postcard!” That’s what they say here when English is at a premium – “Hello ______ (insert whatever it is you want to sell)” A woman begging down West Street constantly regaled us with cries of, “Hello Money!”
The track weaves along the patchwork of fields growing melons, rice, oranges and sugar cane, and seldom remains straight for more than 30 meters or so, which makes for pretty interesting riding. At one point, I turned off left to the base of one of the limestone cliffs to investigate a cave opening, only to find that it was an artificial cave that looked intended to provide a sheltering spot for local picnickers. There was a massive stone slab table set up in the middle of it and an old fire pit by one of the fissures along the back wall, and I’m sure it’s a fantastic spot to spend the night during the summer. The Xia Ting stockade and Baisha town were the last two stops on the way to Yulong, or Dragon Bridge. The stockade was a fairly uninteresting landmark, but the naturally secluded and protected spot was really beautiful. The cattle, who don’t need so much protection these days, evidently, had been replaced by drying chili peppers, grain and what looked like sliced apricots.
Baisha town is a hideous little village whose only bright point is the Dragon Bridge, an ancient single-arched stone bridge over the Li river. I have no idea how they get away with it, but the tour busses flock to the place and herd their crowds through the miserable little village without spending a penny. They take their obligatory photos, then cram the river on their obligatory bamboo rafts but it seems like nobody in the poor town benefits a tiny bit from the whole thing. Bare brick buildings are nearly collapsing onto one another and the stray dogs that crowd the doorways. Inside, bare concrete floors and glass-less windows are the norm. It’s unbelievable that the tour guides manage to steer their crowds through to the ancient bridge. Mafia, evidently, bought up most of the free land and enterprises in the area by making loans during the SARS epidemic, when the lack of tourists impoverished most of the local businesses. The bastards are sucking the place dry now, as they own the bus lines, most of the hotels and probably own the bamboo rafts as well. You can pick out the fatty cobags strutting through town, peering in at every shop like they own the place (which they probably do…) Their wives, who rival rich Russian women in sheer and utter tastelessness and a genetic propensity for needlessly accessorizing, trail along behind their little lordlings at a discrete distance, buying whatever they see like whales sucking plankton into their gobs. The more things change in China…
Thanks to a caravan of tuk-tuks taking the last of the day’s harvest into town for market, I managed to get back in to Yangshuo in time to watch Mark devour a rat 😉 I grabbed on the back of the steel cages and let them tow me up the hills until the driver complained or the road got to hazardous to be towed along on at 30 MPH. I’m getting to the end of the trip now, which is a real shame, as the countryside is becoming more beautiful every day and the weather is ideal, but I think I’ve gotten a nice general grasp of China’s diversity for next summer, when Bara and I can hopefully spend some time here together. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these so far. Next stop: Hong Kong!