Biking through a painting

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Monday, April 23, 2007

He Said:

A Vietnamese train took us north out of Hanoi to the border town of Dong Dang where we went through all the usual passport formalities. We then boarded a luxurious Chinese train for another round of document checking and stamping and rode ten-hours further north to Guilin. Sharing our compartment was a wonderful couple that was making their way from Australia back home to England by using only ground transport. Other than a flight to get them from Australia to Indonesia (between which there is no public sea transport) they were only using boats, trains, and buses to travel the full width of Asia and most of Europe. What a great adventure! Hmmmm...might be a good idea for RTW part 2 in a decade or so!

On arriving in the bustling city of Guilin, we quickly caught a bus to Yangshuo, located one hour to the south. If I asked you to visualize a typical Chinese landscape, you'd probably think of a picture reproduced on countless kitschy souvenir scrolls and pottery vessels; a landscape of knobby but extraordinarily steep limestone mountains poking up from a bucolic countryside filled with rice paddies and meandering streams. That scene is a spitting image of area around Yangshuo, and it has been attracting people to see its dramatic karst topography for centuries. In fact, it has done such a good job of bringing in tourists that its main street has probably more signs and menus in English than the rest of China combined. Yangshuo is filled with guesthouses, pubs, shops, and tour agencies vending anything a traveler could possibly desire. Don't think that foreign tourists are the only visitors to Yangshuo. Day tripping hoards of Chinese tour groups (all wearing matching baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of their tour company) coming from Guilin follow their flag-toting guides through the streets to find the perfect souvenir or on to adventures floating down the Li River.

Although the town is set in a picturesque valley next to the river, the real beauty is out in the surrounding countryside and villages. We rented bicycles on two different days to explore a bit and burn off some of the calories from the marvelous homemade apple crumble we'd been consuming for dessert everyday. The rides were positively sublime. Once off the main roads, the traffic dwindles to mostly bikes and livestock. Flanking the road are rice paddies and fruit orchards being tended by peasants in a panorama that doesn't look like it has changed much in the last thousand years. Out in the distance the large karst formations enclose the countryside into a series of valleys winding along the ancient path of the river. Altogether the scene is breathtakingly gorgeous and ranks up there as one of the most beautiful places I've seen.

So tonight we head off on what will most likely be our last overnight train ride of the trip. It will be night #16 on a train for us, so I think we've both about had our fill of sleeping on the rails for a while. Although when to comes to overnight trains, soft-sleeper class on a Chinese train is pretty nice! We'll be heading east to the manufacturing boomtown of Shenzhen where hop on a local train for the short ride into Hong Kong.

She Said:

After some not-so-good train rides lately, our ride to China was like being in a rolling hotel! Our cabin had comfy beds, down comforters two pillows each, and even lacy curtains. Very luxurious! Once we got off the train in the town of Guilin, it quickly became obvious that only an extremely small minority speaks even a bit English. We tried to purchase onward train tickets at the station, and I communicated with the agent with a series of drawings, over-exaggerated pantomiming, and by trying to match up the Chinese characters in our guidebook with the ones on the train schedule. And it didn't work!! Amazingly enough, this is the first time on the entire trip when we haven't been able to get by with English! I guess we can't expect everyone else to be bilingual when we aren't!

We arrived in Yangshuo a few hours later, and we were instantly glad that we decided to travel through Southern China. The surrounding scenery is stunning, with giant rock formations jutting out of the ground and a pretty river running through the town. There are tons of shops selling name brand knock-off clothing for extremely inflated prices and all kinds of Chinese handicrafts. During our five days in Yangshuo, we probably walked up and down the main tourist street at least 30 times, each time passing a street artist known as the Chinese Picasso. He does caricatures in a traditional Chinese scroll style, and we finally decided to pose for one. We made quite the scene, and people kept stopping to stare at the painting in progress and then stare at us... particularly at my yellow hair and Todd's rosy cheeks and hot pink lips (on paper he looks ready for the prom!).

A few of the days we rented bikes. We got a bit overzealous one afternoon and ended up doing a 40-mile round trip ride on basically one-speed beach cruiser bikes. While we were completely beat when we got back, it was worth it to get off the beaten path a bit. Where else can you ride through miles of people working in rice paddies, through tiny little villages with children running out into the street to say "hello," and water buffalo and cows with bells around their necks being walked down the street on rope leashes!
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