Cormorants and Karst Scenery

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Tuesday, May 3, 2005

May 2nd - 16th Guilin / Yangshuo
The train journey to Guilin from Kunming was one of the most, if not the most atmospheric we've experienced so far. This was due to a number of factors... the season, the time of day, and the scenery, all of which combined to create a unique and memorable journey.

The train left Kunming around 3:30pm in the afternoon which meant we passed through the most spectacular scenery around dusk. As the evening light began to dim the train rattled along the edge of a huge U shaped valley and around the middle of a large peak at its head. Dotted around the valley floor and part way up its steeply sloping sides we could see hundereds of flickering orange lights. They were created by farmers burning chaff and debris left from the recent harvest.
As night fell the train continued to hug the side of the valley for some 30 minutes or more providing us with a magnificent and continually changing vista more reminiscent of an arial view than that from a train. Massive Pawls of grey smoke were illuminated bright orange by the fires that had created them, thin clouds of drifting smoke filled the entire valley. Small villages could be glimpsed through the slowly moving vail of smoke like tiny models nestled on the valley floor.
This dramatic scene gradually disapeared into the night as the train made its way out of the valley and towards Guilin. A lasting mental picture and one of the unexpected highlights of our travels so far.

In the morning as we neared Guilin the scenery had transformed itself in to the architypal lush patchwork of paddy fields tended by farmworkers in conical hats and water buffalo plodding along dirt tracks. The sort of images that everyone visualises when they think of rural China. The weather had also changed from the pleasant english summer of Kunming to the opressive subtropical heat and humidity of the southerly province of Guangxi which borders northern Vietnam and contains our next planned stop, Yangshuo.

We transfered from train to local bus for the two hour (70Km) journey from Guilin to Yangshuo (10RMB each/ 70p)arriving around 2pm in search of our prebooked accommodation and just in time for a tropical downpour. As the bus pulled away it began to rain..and how! We got soaked, but at least it was warm rain!

Yangshuo is situated on the Li River smack in the heart of the most beautiful and dramatic Karst scenery. The enormous Limestone peaks rise up from the otherwise flat terrain and create a truly magical topography.
However the town itself has become a victim of it's own poularity and the main streets are full of bars and restaurants geared up to western and domestic tourists, travellers and the daily throng from the cruise boats that stop on their way back to Guilin. But this 'tourist trap' atmosphere can be easily escaped by getting out of the town centre and into the surrounding unspoilt countryside.

Yangshuo is a great place to use as a base for exploring and all manner of transport is available for hire, mountain bikes, bamboo rafts, motor boats, or you can simply walk, out amongst the towering pinnacles that dominate the area for as far as the eye can see.

We decided to explore the Li river first, but not by one of the large cruise boats (that start in Guilin) we opted for a small craft resembling a little barge or narrowboat and for a private cruise upriver lasting a couple or so hours it cost us 6GBP. The scenery is STUNNING and is reputedly the most beautiful in China and amongst some of the best in the world.

The Li river winds its way through the peaks and pinacles. Flanked by lush banks edged with thick green vegitation and large clumps of bamboo backed by farmland. We passed water buffalo wallowing in the waters and cattle grazing along the banks. All the time we were towered over by the everpresent limestone giants which cast huge 'shark fin' shadows across the surrounding countryside in the late afternoon.
Our mini cruise was over all too soon and as we chugged our way back to the small jetty we marvelled at the incredible scenery stretching out to the horizon. One trip wasn't going to be enough so we determined to go further up stream later in the week.

Our entire stay in Yangshuo was spent alternating between pure relaxation and exploration. The travelling we had done so far (ie from St Petersberg) had caught up with us and we felt we needed a 'Holiday' from travelling and what better place to relax than here! Apart that is... from the first few days in Yangshuo when it was packed with domestic tourists. The national 10 day 'spring' holiday was in full swing! (good job we had prebooked as everywhere was full and prices were high). The centre of town at night was heaving with holidaymakers intent on having a good time....loudly!

Once the national holiday was over the town was transformed and became relatively quiet so we could relax. With the crowds gone, we decided to Cycle into the countryside and catch a bamboo raft along the Dragon River which is a small tranquil waterway that snakes its way through some of the most picturesque karst peaks. This proved to be a brilliant day, and one of our best in China. We hired simple bikes (the ubiquitous 'flying pidgeons') no gears, and one big basket on the front, but only 75p each for the day! So we set off in search of the "dragon".
The sight of me on a bike with an ultra low seat(made for the average Chinese cyclist and I'm 1.96 meters tall!) had Jane in fits of laughter she said I looked like the boy from 'ET' as I pedalled furiously with my knees flashing past my ears. I caught sight of myself in a passing shop window and even I had to laugh...I looked ridiculous!

We passed through several villages along the way and we received shouts of encouragement and cheerful laughter from roadside pedestrians (NOTE this is my version of events and Jane insists that the shouts were hoots of derision and all the laughing was directly at me... as I made my ungainly and hilariously funny [apparently] attempt to cycle down the road). Eventually we reached the launching point for the rafts and having negotiated a good price we tentatively boarded our raft for the 4 hour punt down the river. (Our bikes would be transported to the finishing point for us on the back of a jeep although sometimes they are lashed to the back of your raft).

The rafts are around 12 feet in length and made of large bamboo poles lashed together.There are two 'chairs' in the middle and you are propelled by a man standing on the back section who Punts (see photos). VERY RELAXING, in the whole four hours we only saw three other occupied rafts (although hundereds could be seen stacked on the banks. It must get very busy in the high season).
As we drifted along we occasionally had to drop down small waterfalls, upto 4 feet in height, which usually ended with water squirting between the bamboo and soaking your bum.
On one such occasion we got stuck on top of a fall, grounded by the rocks, and a cow which was trying to ford the river climbed onto the back of our raft and attempted to join us in the seats! Much to the consternation of our captain who hurled abuse at the owner of the cow who was stood on the bank looking on in amazement. The cows efforts violently dislodged us and we shot over the falls so fast that the nose of the raft momentarily dug into the river bed, luckily the force of the waterfall released it and after much shouting (me), screaming (jane), and mooing (the cow), we were on our way again...we had narrowly escaped being trampled by a crazed cow on a bamboo raft! (The insurance report would have made interesting reading!!).

The surrounding river banks were very quiet with nothing but farm land and dirt paths, at one point we could see the famous 'Moon Hill' a large limestone peak with a circular hole right the way through it.The tranquil surroundings and mirror like calm waters between falls made for a fantastic experience and our camera cards were full by the time we reached our destination and the painful(for me)8Km ride back to town.

Later in the week we again arranged to travel along the Li river to see more of the incredible scenery. We caught a local bus along with 20 others, two massive tractor tyres, a washing machine, and a rotivator for the small fishing village of Xingping about an hours drive upstream from Yangshuo. This time we were not alone and a few domestic tourists from Kunming and Chengdu joined us on the little motor boat. Yet again we were stunned into silence by the beauty of the river and the karst scenery, almost entirely covered in vegetation and towering above us everywhere and into the distance, chains of 'triangular' silhouets against the skyline... Just fantastic!
After a couple of hours we made our way back and came across a few cormorant fishermen preparing their bamboo rafts for the nights work ahead. On arriving back in Xingping we explored some of the older backstreets which were brilliant just like stepping back in time...old houses fronted by workshops with wispy bearded old men sat inside playing cards or mahjong with framed posters of Mao, Stalin and Marx on the walls...incredible.

Despite the poor reputation that Guilin had (in our guide book) we decided to visit for a day and we were pleasantly surprised. A clean modern chinese city with canals running through it and a tree lined riverside promenade...much better than we had been led to believe. We saw Elephant island (another chance for the chinese to name a lump of rock) and had a pleasant day looking around the modern shopping centres which like all the ones we had visited so far were massively overstaffed. We counted 30-40 or more on each floor of a large store, most of whom were asleep behind the counter and had to be woken if you wanted to buy anything!

The remainder of our stay was spent wandering around the town and relaxing at our guest house. The park in the centre of town which had a pagoda set ontop of the adjacent peak was a peaceful place to wile away an afternoon, but the climb to the top was too energetic for our current mood.

Our accommodation in Yangshuo was towards the edge of town away from the busy centre. It was simple, basic but FANTASTIC! We stayed at the 'Culture House', run by Mr Wei the cost of a double room with private facilities and including three meals a day was only 4.70p per night!! He also offers the opportunity to take cooking, language or caligraphy lessons. It was more of a home-stay than a guest house. We lived and ate with wei his wife and son plus any other relatives that regularly dropped in. It is difficult to imagine a more friendly or helpful family. We had originally booked for three nights and ended up stopping for 14!

We became firm friends with Wei and his family and this lead to one of the more unusual experiences during our time in China. Having enjoyed our stay so much we wanted to buy a present for the family and along with other grateful guests Niccoletta, Kai and Cheryl we discovered that Wei was saving up for a fridge, large enough for everyone to use. So after a brief discussion the five of us snuck into town that night and bought a fridge.

Not as simple as it sounds.. trying to persuade a Chinese shopkeeper that YES you do REALLY want to buy a fridge and take it away with you NOW! We caused quite a stirr with more than a few heads turned and locals lining the side of the road staring in amazement as five foreigners loaded a large fridge freezer onto a cycle rickshaw and pushed / pedalled it through town at 11:30 at night to finally deliver it to Wei.
(The shopkeeper later admitted to Wei he thought we were drunk or just joking....what could WE possibly want to buy a fridge for?)

His face was a picture of shock and amazement as he set eyes on the fridge wedged on the back of our rickshaw. He couldn't believe it and wouldnt stop thanking us for the remaining two days of our stay. His wife, Sen, was so excited that she immediately went over the road to buy supplies to stock up the fridge. We expained that it had to stand for a day before it could be was like telling a child they can't play with their Christmas presents until boxingday!
All in all this proved to be a great way to end our stay in Yangshuo and as Wei and Sen walked us to the bus stop for our journey back to Guilin and finally waved us goodbye we both felt more than a little emotional and promised that we would certainly be back!

Our next stop will be Shenzhen the Chinese border town on our way to Hong Kong. We have decided to splurge a little and book a luxury (by our current standards) hotel overlooking the harbour front for our last few days in China .
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