Wednesday, August 22, 2012


My second trip of the holiday was to Guilin, China. Guilin is about 300 miles north (the distance between Seattle and Eugene) but the best way to get there is by overnight train. The trip was planned by my old friend Henry, whom I’ve mentioned here before. Henry’s been teaching English in Guangzhou for the past six months and had been to Guilin only a month ago on a solo journey. This time Henry took his coworker friend Angel and myself along for a few memorable days in the region.

I had been to mainland China twice before: once with my university jazz band in 2009 and once to visit Henry in April of this year. But this was the closest I felt to experiencing China as the Chinese do, mostly because of the train. At around 5:30 pm, we departed on a train from Shenzhen—the Chinese city bordering Hong Kong to the north—and spent its 15-hour journey in seats since we hadn’t booked our tickets in time to get beds in the sleeper cars. In the passenger cabin, the lights never turn off and lots of people only have standing room only tickets. It’s hard to believe, but many aboard the train actually stood up for the entire trip. As far as facilities, there is a toilet between cars for dozens to share and hot water to prepare cup of noodles. That's it. Not a pleasant night, but certainly a unique one.

We arrived in the main city of Guilin and took a bus to the smaller, more touristy city of Yangshuo. Once we got to Yangshuo, we rented bikes and spent some time looking for our reserved hotel. By the time we arrived, it had been nearly 24 hours since departing my flat in Hong Kong. We were a bit tired but it was only the afternoon by then, so we went on a bike ride through the nearby farm area.

I can’t overstate enough how beautiful the pastoral scenery is in the Guilin region. What dominates the landscape are numerous pointy mountains created by karstification. I’d never heard that word before I went to Guilin so for an idea of what it means, consult our friend Wikipedia! Anyway, biking through the farm lands and seeing acres of rice paddies beneath hundreds of mysterious green spikes felt otherworldly. The only downer of the first day was the mother of all side aches hitting me at the end of our ride. I’m not sure if it was eating too much before or lack of sleep or what, but it was not pleasant. Fortunately, the pain was all gone after a few minutes lying on the hotel bed.  

The following day was the best day. With Henry at the lead, the three of us biked the twenty-two mile stretch to the town of Xingping. Twenty-two miles may not sound like all that much but the journey was quite hilly and ended up taking us around seven hours. I’m a competent biker but not a great one and this now holds the record as my longest bike ride. The sights we saw along the way were even better than the day before. Near the end of the trek, we were given a spectacular viewpoint looking down upon the Li River. Just as the sun was setting, we caught a raft and floated down to Xingping, bikes, tired riders and all. As Henry said to me, the great thing about biking on trips is that it’s both a rewarding, healthy activity and a way to feast the eyes on magnificent scenery.

That night I stayed in my first hostel. In a nutshell, it was amazing and I want to stay in more like it. We went to bed after eating delicious pizzas cooked in the hostel, just what I most desired after a long day of exertion. The next day, we hiked up to the top of one of the mountains known as Lao Zhai Shan. As expected, the view was stunning and first time we’d been able to see a city from above.  We headed back to Yangshuo by bus this time, and ate at a Buddhist influenced vegetarian restaurant. The nice thing about China is you can eat what may be on the pricier side by Chinese standards, but still ends up costing a reasonable amount in Hong Kong or US terms. With work in less than two days, I had to depart from the group at this point. I headed back to Guilin by bus and then to Shenzhen by sleeper train. Fortunately, I was able to book a sleeper bunk on the way back and shared my room with an astoundingly nice family from Guangzhou. I slept well and received Chinese lessons and free fruit from them in both the evening and the morning.

I’ve read a couple books about China recently—one by Peter Hessler called River Town and one called Factory Girls by his wife, Leslie Chang. Both are great books about the extremely complex nature of China. In Hong Kong, it’s easy to look at China as the bad guy, more of an “oppressor” than Britain was back in colonial times with China’s current educational mandates and role in the housing monopolies. This trip didn’t do much to change my own complicated feelings about China but I certainly was moved by the majestic countryside and the kind people I met along the way. Everyone should come to China at least once. It may not always be the best, but I think it’s the most interesting country on earth. 

My wonderful travelling companions: Henry (tour guide) and Angel (translator) 

Sure doesn't look like it, but it's rice

Li River

Guangxi Province countryside

Looking down on Xingping

Corn with antennae

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