Transsiberian Part 14 - Yangshuo and LongJi
After about 10 hours, we arrive in the city of Guilin. The train ride is quite peaceful and efficient. I guess that's what happens when you get the Germans to build your railway for you. We are greeted by our taxi driver, who drives us another hour out of the city, to the town of Yangshuo. It is here where we will stay for 3 nights (our longest stay anywhere on this trip), enjoying China's great outdoors and it's famous limestone mountains.
You've all probably seen the photographs. This is the territory where there are eroded mini-mountains covered in trees and vegetation. There is mist covering the far mountains; you can imagine dragons and monks doing battle somewhere in and amongst them. This is classic China. As a result, parts of this area have become quite tourist-centric; the local economy almost totally dependent on the tourist trade.
Yangshuo is a small town, very typical of southern China (I believe). It has old tower blocks, shops with living areas above, a mixture of new and old roads and many people on mopeds and bicycles. It's busy, noisy and smelly, though the smells are not all bad - hints of tasty food mix in with the diesel smell. It's also hot. We've gone from minus 6 in Russia to about plus 30 here. Our bags are bursting at the seams with all our artic gear. We are staying in possibly the most picturesque hotel outside of town in a place called Jiuxian.
As we arrive, we are offered an evening meal. I opt for a local dish of green peppers and beef, which turns out to be half beef, half super hot, green chillis. That said, it's a terrific dish! The following day, after my chilli heartburn subsides, we rent a couple of bicycles and head along the river. We spend all morning cycling along roads, mud-tracks and barely visible tracks between paddy fields, marvelling at the amazing landscape. We finish the day, by climbing up to a large, natural arch, known locally as moon hill. After cycling all day in the intense heat, it's a hard climb, but worth it.
The food here, in this part of the world, is extremely tasty, if a little odd in places. For lunch, I try some random snacks from a lady selling food from the back of her trike. Corn on the cob, a strangely barbequed green bean paste patty, some heavily seasoned tofu and some kind of potato-esque cake comprise my tasty snack. It's cheap and delicious though it may have possibly been the cause of our upset stomachs two days later. The coffee here is pretty good too, apparently grown in Yunnan province. I'm surprised to see a local coffee offering a flat white. Of course, I order it and it's not actually too bad at all. Hipsters are obviously not uncommon here.
A large industry seems to have developed around bamboo boats. You are constantly pressured for a bamboo boat ride. I'm not a huge fan of being hassled when I'm so obviously a tourist and I have a minor altercation with a local who presses her luck too much. However, we meet another local who is much more ameanable. Katie does an excellent job of haggling for a good price and we take a slow, two hour ride down the river back to our hotel. Such boats were originally used for fishing, along with cormorants, but that particular trade doesn't really exist anymore. Now they are almost exclusively for tourists (most being domestic). Boats go down river mostly, where they are picked up in trucks and taken, with their owner, back to the top of the river where the process starts again.
The hotel we are staying at (Secret Garden Hotel) is run by a chap, who the locals call "Mad Ian" - A Welsh architect originally, now turned native. This is perhaps partly why the hotel seems so popular with foreigners and caters to Western tastes whilst looking authentic in style. Tiled roofs, stone slab courtyards and wooden fittings all add to the image. All over the ground are the remains of firecrackers and decorations, from the new year it seems. We nip out to Yangshuo again to visit the market and take part in a cookery class. Chicken and Cashew, Beer Fish, Stir fried Veg and stuffed tofu with pork are all on the menu. Turns out it's really easy with the right gear (like many things).
We bid goodbye to Yangshou and take a cab to the nearby area of Longji. This area is known for it's rice terraces, with a large area cordoned off as a sort of tourist preserve. In this area is the village of Pin'yan where we stay for a night. The view from our hotel room is breathtaking! The rice terraces are only just being flooded in parts, but we've arrived at the time of the Tomb Sweeping Festival, so fire-crackers are being let off all over the place. The bottom of the hill is quite... shall we say touristy. One class of souvenir does catch my eye though: polished rock slabs and carvings that look like pork! No joke! You can have a rock sculpture of a slab of bacon!
There are no roads here. Whilst we carry the majority of our bags, a porter comes along and places one of the heavier bags in his wicker backpack. I politely refuse any more and hike up the hill. I'm gob-smacked to see there are sedan chairs with two chaps carrying some wealthy Chinese tourist. That said, it's an honest living for what appears to be a group of people who are all elderly. It is perhaps, somewhat easier on the back than picking and planting rice all day I suppose.
The weather, sadly, is somewhat cloudy and hazy so I get little chance of photographing the total eclipse of the Moon (heart?), rendering all my astrophotography gear useless on this trip (I should have researched more I think). We wander around the various rice terraces, admiring the view from the various hilltops. Despite the weather, the view is amazing. It's one of the few places where the Ordnance Survey Map Contours would be the actual model of the terrain! As Spring is officially recognised and celebrated here, some locals are beginning to tend to their terraces. We witness cows and horses being led up small paths, weeds being cut and terraces flooding. An odd contrast to the new hotels being built further up.
We leave LongJi in another taxi to Guilin North Station; our last big sleeper train on this trip. This drive takes about 3 hours, an extra hour longer than perhaps it should as our driver gets somewhat lost! This isn't helped by roadworks and busy traffic and by the general state of driving in China. More than once I'm fairly shocked by, what I consider to be reckless driving by people on the road. Nevertheless, we make it in good time. Bags are x-rayed and a full pat down ensues. Im asked about the odd thing at the bottom of my bag. The bag goes through again and I can see the Siberian railway spikes there. The attendant tries to get sense out of me but seems busy. Another asks me to empty the bag so I begin to start but when they see it'll take a while, they laugh and wave me through. Safe so far!