Justin and I have finally made it to our last vacation destination. I’ll admit, I was more than just a little sad to be heading back across the border into mainland China after enjoying western culture for a few weeks. The bus that we took from Hong Kong drove us to the border and instructed us to go through the customs building there. When we arrived on the other side, a mainland China bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way. Of course, the entire way to our destination, the bus driver was swerving in and out of the lanes, slamming on his brakes so hard people were sliding out of their chairs, honking at everyone, and doing everything possible to make his passengers feel queasy (I actually did see a girl throw up on the sidewalk after we arrived)—Welcome back to China!
Guilin is renowned to be the most scenic place in China—in fact, a picture of a Guilin mountain range is featured on the back of the twenty Yuan bill (I’ll include a picture of it eventually, but the browser at our hostel here is too slow). You may recall me writing that one *silly* reason I wanted to visit Guilin is because I saw Big Bird taking a bamboo boat ride on a river winding through the mountains of Guilin in a movie I used to watch over and over when I was little—Big Bird in China.
So obviously, the first tour we signed up for was a bamboo boat ride through the mountains. The mountains here are unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. In America, I’ve seen mountains that are steep and rocky, and also mountains that are shorter, rounder, and covered in green. Somehow, the mountains in Guilin are a combination of both—rocky and steep, but also round and green. Beautiful!
The city of Guilin is actually a lot like Huzhou. There are busy city streets, taxis and city buses, and loads of places to shop and eat. It’s not a giant metropolis like Shanghai, but it’s not the little country bumpkin place that I was expecting, either (the Big Bird movie was so deceiving!). However, when we went on our river tour, we had to take a bus that took us about two hours away, outside the city and into the countryside that I had been hoping for. We were driving around winding mountain roads that reminded me a lot of North Carolina. In fact, at one point our bus driver had to stop in the middle of the street because a lone cow was crossing the road—just to give you an idea of how country it was. The tour guide told us that we were heading to a town called Yangshou, a place with just as much beautiful scenery as Guilin, but not as much city development. As soon as our tour bus stopped at the river docks to allow us to board the bamboo boats, these little old ladies (many of them had no teeth!) all swarmed around the door to try to sell us their wares as we exited the bus. This one white-haired lady looked to be about ninety years old and had a hunchback, but that didn’t stop her from hobbling as fast as she could after Justin to try to sell him a bag of oranges. He told her, “Meiyou qian,” (in English, “Don’t have money”), and she looked pretty mad. I don’t think she believed him. She followed us all the way down to the boat and even stepped onto the boats to continue trying to sell oranges to the tourists sitting on the boats waiting to leave the docks! We almost bought her oranges just because we were so impressed by her efforts!
The slow cruise down the river was breathtaking! Just like in Hong Kong, we felt like we were on the set of the movie Jurassic Park because it was just unreal. Though the last few minutes of our river cruise were less enjoyable, because they were interrupted by our tour guide relentlessly trying to goad us into signing up for a second equally expensive tour once we arrived in Yangshou. He lowered his price three times, but we had no interest in seeing the local ladies put on a “Long Hair Show” (literally, these village ladies have ridiculously long hair and I guess they have a show where you watch them let their hair down and swing it around or something), and we had no interest in riding a real live water buffalo (“May I ask you why you do not like these things?” the tour guide persisted). Eventually, he realized that we were a lost cause and he jumped onto the next boat to give the other tourists his sales pitch.
We got out of the boats and stopped at a little town for lunch on the way to Yangshuo, and we ended up taking another mini-bus the rest of the way. I was laughing and laughing at a German guy (about our age) who we met on the bus and the funny conversation he had with Justin. When everyone was finding their seats on the bus, the German guy kept asking loudly, “Vill this bus ve taking a very long time? Because I am needing to vuse the vrestroom! And I cannot be quick—I vill need a long time in vere, you know?” He told us that he was from Bavaria, the part of Germany where they wear lederhosen and drink beer by the liter. He was on a three-month trip to different countries around the world (he’ll be visiting the United States soon!) and had only been speaking English for a very short time. Many Chinese people make the mistake of seeing a white person and assuming that they speak English, so eventually he just had to try to learn a little. He sounded like he was lonely for some German company—it had been awhile since he had been able to speak his native language to anyone. He told us that he thought it was a very nice idea for us to be travelling together so that we wouldn’t get so lonely. I couldn’t agree more! I would never be able to do this trip alone.
When we arrived in Yangshou, a few of us hopped off the bus and left behind the suckers other travelers who signed up for the second tour. We didn’t have an exact plan for the rest of the afternoon; we just knew that we didn’t want it to involve water buffalo. We saw a sign advertising bike rental, and we thought it would be a nice idea to have a bike ride around the town, so we went and asked about it. The price was reasonable, and the girl working there could speak some English, and she showed us a map of the scenic bike route through the country. They had two-seater bicycles available, and we thought that might be fun! But we tried riding it just around the parking lot and it was very tricky (it really requires a lot of teamwork!), and we didn’t think we could handle that for the two-hour scenic tour.
Once we paid for the bikes, we headed out onto the main street into the heavy traffic—what was I thinking renting a bicycle? There were taxis swerving in and out of their lanes, giant tour buses barreling down behind me, honking at me to move out of the way, and motor bikes driving down the wrong side of the road, heading straight towards me! Riding a bike in America is much different than riding one in China! But fortunately, we got off the beaten path pretty quickly and made our way into the countryside.
But after we got into the countryside, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Maybe you already guessed it—we got lost (a few times). It seemed like we were always reaching a fork in the road that wasn’t marked on the map and there were no English street signs (and oftentimes, there were no signs at all). At one point we were riding down a dirt road that had flooded from the last rain and was filled with mud (and I was wearing my new Christmas boots)! We had to brake for chickens crossing the road, and we passed by groups of Chinese men sitting in the street playing card games. We had no idea where we were. At one point, we had stopped in the road to examine the map, and all of the sudden Justin said, “Rachel! Watch out! There’s a bull heading straight for us!” Justin took off running, and I looked up to see a little baby cow running down the road towards me. I laughed and said, “Justin, it’s only a baby—“ and then I saw the full grown bull behind it, barreling down the street chasing after its young. I jumped out of the way just in time!
Finally, we rode past some ladies who were sitting on the edge of a field peeling fruit and putting it into baskets. We had arrived at another unmarked fork in the road, so Justin used his Chinese to ask these ladies for directions. One lady thought that we were heading for the bamboo boats, and she pointed down the road that we should take. We told her that we didn’t want the bamboo boats, and we started riding in the opposite direction. After a couple of minutes, we were surprised to see her running behind us, waving her arms and shouting, “HELLO! HELLO!” We stopped, and she indicated that we were going the wrong way. She ended up taking us to a river where some men (one of them, I suspect, was her husband) were transporting people and things across the narrow stream using bamboo rafts. She apparently wanted us to pay some Yuan to stand on a raft with our bikes and cross the river, Huck Finn-style. Justin was getting really frustrated with her, saying, “I told you, ‘Buyao (don’t want) bamboo!’ Buyao!” But she kept acting like that was the only way to get to our destination! Finally, she relented and pointed us in the right direction, but as we rode away, she shouted something again about the bamboo (maybe in case we were to change our minds).
Eventually, just like in the Big Bird movie, we made it to our destination, the Big Banyan Tree. We shouldn’t have been surprised that unlike Big Bird, we had to pay a hefty admission fee to get into the park to take a look at it!
Once we arrived back to the town center and returned our bicycles, we caught a bus heading back to Guilin. However, we had some bus trouble on the way home. The engine of our bus kept stalling out every time the driver hit the brakes, and everything would power off. He would have to turn the ignition and it would chug and chug and take many tries to get started again. At one point I thought we were going to be trapped on the side of the road all night! But once he managed to get the engine started, he just booked it down the winding mountain roads as fast as he could, and he managed to go most of the two-hour trip without even using his brakes! We were pretty frightened impressed by the bus driver’s skills!
All in all, I enjoyed our adventure in Yangshou and I was really awed by the scenery throughout the entire day. However, not all of our trip in Guilin was that enjoyable—stay tuned for my next blog entry entitled “The Worst of Guilin.”