Friday, November 30, 2007

China - Guilin and Yangshuo

After around 14 hours on the train and 3 at the border we arrive in the southern Chinese city of Nanning. We have no plan but are tired from the journey. I try to enquire about onward tickets to Guilin as we are herded into the waiting lounge. The train we were on is in fact heading to Guilin, but we were unable to buy tickets in Vietnam. There is some confusion until I meet an American that speaks Chinese and after some translation, I am allowed out of the waiting room to go to the ticket desks. I step outside into the humidity to get my first experiences in China. I have less than 30 minutes to get money and onward tickets. After trying several ATM's it becomes clear that they do not accept foreign cards. I have some chinese yen that I changed from Vietnamese Dong on the train...let's hope it's enough. I push through the crowds of sweaty people milling around the train station and head for the ticket office. It's a complete mess, there are people everywhere and about 20 counters. Having no idea what anything means, I join a queue and hope for the best. No one speaks English, so armed with the Lonely Planet Guide opened at the "buying train tickets" section, I point, use some sort of sign language and show a map of Guilin. Success, I get 2 seats for the smae train we just got off, which leaves in errmm, 5 minutes!! I sprint back to the waiting lounge where Nuria is minding the luggage and we make a dash for the train. Another 5 hours and we roll into Guilin in the early evening of Saturday 4th Aug.

We spend a couple of nights there in quite a nice hotel booked for us by the tourist agency in the train station. Of course we were ripped off by local standards, but we were so wrecked that it was of little importance. It was Saturday night so after a brief rest we head out to one of the local discos. It is a bizarre experience consisting of blaring electro-pop music, flashing lights and too many lasers and loads of Chinese teenagers bopping around wasted and drinking beer out of shot glasses. There were two other western faced people there, so we were attracting attention. After they smoked all our cigarettes, we decided to leave.

The next day we spent sightseeing and looking around the shops. Everything is so huge in this city - the buildings, the shops... After a while we stop and I take a few pictures. Noticing that two Chinese guys are also taking pictures, I suggest to Nuria that we should move out of the way. However they motion for us to move back, and it dawns on me that they are actually yaking photographs of us!! We then oblige and let them have their pictures taken with us. Quite a bizarre scene. Anyway, afterwards we head for the highest peak in the city, a pinnacle with a lot of monasteries and museums around it. We climb to the top in the sweltering heat and admire the stunning views. The topography is similar to Halong Bay, but without the water. After wards we go and check out the padogas by the lake and stroll around as the sun fades. The food is nice and cheap and good quality. What is not good quality are the products. Nuria finds a nice pair of shoes for around €2 and eagerly buys them to wear. They don't even make it the 250m back to the hotel before breaking! Chinese quality, which will be the butt of many jokes to come.

The next morning we get up and take the local bus 3 hours to Yangshuo, the classic backpacker hang out. There is a lot to do there, so we let a Chimese dude rip us off for some tours, but manage to get the accomodation at a fairly reasonable price. The first evening is spent looking around the place and going for dinner. We stumble across an underground market selling all sorts of fake designer brands. I make the fatal mistake of asking the price of a T-shirt and am told it is €90. After laughing and saying that i'm completely not interested, she then wants to give me a 'serious' price. €20 and it's mine because I am the lucky customer, she needs my business and blah blah blah. Nuria starts laughing and the woman scoldingly questions 'are you laughing at me?', to which Nuria replies that she is actually laughing at me. I try to leave but the saleswoman blocks my way out and grabs me by the arm pulling me back into the shop - quite the heavy handed sales techniques. I manage to get out of the shop and the price is now down to €5. She screams at me to come back 'where are you going? Come back you crazy guy! €2! Are you crazy or what???' We were shocked at the display and it is the worst I have experienced in Asia to date...

The next day we decide to hire some bikes and go on a self designed tour. We head off out of teh city along the river and go exploring the surrounding countryside. After several hours it becomes too hot in the midday sun and we have to head back with headaches and tiredness. After some rest we get ready for our next excursion. From the dodgy tour guide (whom we never saw again), we had arranged tickets and transport to the famous 'Light Show'. A man arrived to pick us up in a cyclo and took us there in a trailer on the back of his bike, which took ages but at least we got there. The Light Show was a local show portraying how people had lived in the area several hundred years ago. The stage was the water and the mountainous backdrop was superbly lit up, and about 500 people and even some water buffalo were involved. We had heard great things, but our expectations were way surpassed by the beauty and the emotion behind this show.

The next day we had organised a cycle and rafting tour to go to the Black Budda caves for a mud bath. The tour guide organised us bicycles while he himself followed us on a motorbike. We were joined by two Italian filmakers (who were not making a film that day). We headed off and after about 1h we arrived at the river banks where we boarded a bamboo raft and placed the bikes on the back. We floated downstream with a 'captain' at the helm steering through weirs, which was very relaxing. After persuading the guy to take us for lunch we took a break near the caves and got ready. This was pretty scary as we climbed steeply down into the bowels of the earth banging our heads and limbs in the tight spaces, but at least it was cooler than outside which by this point in the day was like an oven. After quite some time we reached the mud pools and lay down in the cold mud. It was pretty disgusting, but supposedly healthy so we had to just grin and bear it. After trying to wash some of it off we continued with the guide to another part of the cave. After some clambering around we realised that the small chinese people in front of us were trying to squeeze through a hole about 40cm high and 40cm wide. No way we thought...we are never going get through that!! We truned around only to find that the guide had absconded and basically we were left to our own devices. However, it was just a matter of backtracking and finding our way out. We buy some pictures they have taked of us in the mud pools and make our way back to Yangshuo on the mountain bikes.

After the day trip we head into the town and grab a bite to eat with the Italians before making our way back to the hotel. That night we go into the town to experience the nightlife and meet a group of Chinese who are up for a party. Needless to say it gets pretty messy. One of them explains to us that we should consider going to Chengdu to see the pandas, because he is from there and seems very proud of the place. Our plan was to head to Xi'an, but let's see what happens. At this stage we are pretty much open to go anywhere.