5- 19 November 2014
Greetings from Yangshuo China.
My love affair with the fantastic Karst geological structures of Southeast Asia began just a little over twenty years ago during an extended exploration of Eastern China. That trip in August of 1994 included brief visits to Kunming, Guilin, Yongshuo and Wuzhou. The highlights of that trip included an amazing boat trip down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo surrounded on every side by extraordinarily surrealistic sky-scraper skinny hills jutting abruptly like crocodile teeth out of the flat plain and reaching hundreds of feet above our river vantage point.
Eight years later in November of 2002 I visited Hanoi with a day trip over to Halong Bay for a quick boat cruise to see the Karst formations visible above the surface of the bay. A year later in March of 2003 I visited the Thailand examples in Krabi and Phang-Nga on the west coast of southern Thailand. By now you might have guessed I find these unique geological features more than fascinating.
For years I have hoped to return to the region on a more leisurely schedule to fully enjoy the magical geological creations Nature has provided. This current expedition is that long hoped for return: first to Halong Bay down in Vietnam and now in the Guilin-Yangshuo area along the Li River in China.
The compact tourist village of Yangshuo has a charm of its own beyond its remarkable setting in the Karst fairyland stone pillar forest. My earlier visit two decades ago allowed only a couple of hours to look around before the return bus whisked us back up to Guilin following the boat ride down the Li River. The village then consisted of only a few square blocks of roads near the boat docks, some unpaved with board walks in front of a few inexpensive hotels and restaurants catering mostly to the younger backpacker crowd. My few photos from that trip show a copycat "Hard Rock Cafe" and the golden arches of a Mac Donald's. What I remember most were the amazing sky scraper mountains surrounding the few tourist facilities which even then were over crowded by foreign visitors and local youths looking for opportunities to practice their English.
One pair of high school age boys cornered me during that first visit for a lesson in the way democracy works in America. Over Cokes I presented an hypothetical village disagreement and walked them through the way the dispute would be settled democratically... pretty basic stuff, but apparently mind boggling for the boys. I've often wondered what might have become of those boys; could our conversation have led to a career in politics or government? Could one of them now be in a leadership position?
Today, it is hard to imagine the dirt roads and mud of two decades ago. Everything now is paved and structures occupy most of the old open spaces. The focus of the contemporary village is West Street with its "pedestrians only" mall-like walk way through an endless chain of gift shops, mango bars, select your live fish restaurants, radio controlled aerial drone shops, a wax museum and a dozen other unique places of business guaranteed to keep anyone pleasurably distracted for many days. Street vendors clutter the walkways with their wares displayed on ground cloths making a stroll down the path a game of hop-scotch. Motorbikes still sneak up and down the mall violating the pedestrians only rule! Even in the midst of so many exotic dining possibilities I still found myself drawn frequently to the popular KFC and Mac Donald's restaurants for something quick and familiar.
Huge tour buses from Guilin belch out their loads of hyper active Chinese visitors periodically throughout the day and for a while all is chaos as the crowds ebb and flow around a flag waving leader moving down West Street past the numerous little side streets toward the "curios" street running parallel to the river. The "Ugly American" has been replaced by the ugly Chinese: loud, boisterous, pushy, smoking and inconsiderate individuals make every new tour group something to be avoided if possible.
It has been a while since I seriously studied the phenomenon but as I recall, newly affluent middle class people out in the larger world for the first time without the social constraints of their old, familiar communities loose all inhibitions and demonstrate their worst behavior with impunity... giddy and overwhelmed by a new sense of unlimited possibilities they forget they are sharing the planet with other people. China has an explosively growing middle class and they are using their new wealth to see the world... just as the Americans did a century ago.
Again I have jumped ahead in my story. While the sights of south east China are spectacular and easily take my mind off more mundane subject like computer problems, never the less I have been preoccupied by some devastatingly irksome technology challenges. Disaster struck the minute I entered the People's Republic of China Tuesday, 4 November 2014. The government has blocked most access to Gmail (and Dropbox which I use to process photographs taken with my Android based phone/camera). That means I am currently prevented from sending any email "postcards" as my address book resides in my unavailable Gmail account.
I'm looking into a variety of work-around tactics and may be able to use another email services like Hotmail or Yahoo... if I can figure out a way to get all the many email addresses copied over from Gmail. Presently, I am able to modify the website where the postcards eventually end up and it remains accessible to those who know how reach it. Now on with the main story...
I left Sapa Vietnam on the deluxe Sapa Express Bus for Hanoi Monday morning, 3 November 2014 and stayed that night in the Hang Ho Hotel to be close to the adjacent Nanning bus departure point the next morning at 07:30. The bus left on time and reached the border in four hours. Then totally expedient formalities got us through both the Vietnamese and Chinese immigration processes in about a half hour. Our bus company provided shuttle "golf carts" both between the two countries immigration posts and once through the Chinese post onward to the pickup point for the Chinese bus that would take us the rest of the way into Nanning. The entire trip took about eight hours and we arrived in the center of Nanning around 15:30.
Standing around the bus after arriving, another English speaking Finnish couple and I struck up a conversation as we shared our confusion about onward transportation to Guilin. Yoyo, who also had been a passenger on our Hanoi bus overheard our efforts and rushed forward to be of assistance. Taking each of our concerns in order, she first walked us over to a nearby ATM machine for some local currency.
Yoyo is a Chinese tour guide with a perfect command of English who leads cultural tours in Halong Bay back in Vietnam. Truly an angel, Saint Serendipity intervened and Yoyo patiently explained all of the transportation possibilities, finally noting she always took the high speed "bullet train" between Nanning and Guilin as the luxury train made the trip in only two and a half hours compared to the four or five hours required by the regular slow trains, finally adding that she already had tickets for herself and her uncle on the next fast train.
Soon, all three of us neophytes agreed with her logic and followed her to the crowded ticket line to purchase tickets with her assistance. Unfortunately, all seats on the next fast train had been sold out, but she learned there still were a few standing tickets available. With hardly a swallow, we all agreed to standing on the fast train instead of starting a nighttime hotel hunt in this strange city clearly would be preferable. Tickets in hand we started the hour and a half wait for the 19:30 departure time.
"Aren't you hungry?" our angel inquired. As we all were, she hustled us over to one of her favorite Chinese fast food restaurants near the train station, a joint not totally unlike a Burger King or Mac Donald's. All transactions needing to be conducted in Chinese, she asked each of us what we liked to eat so she could place the orders, offering simple suggestions.
Reflecting on the reality that Yoyo had been so generous with her time and local knowledge and the two recently married Finnish kids, no doubt traveled on tightly restricted budgets, I decided this would be my chance to make a partial compensatory repayment to Saint Serendipity and discretely mentioned my desire to pay for the meals. Yoyo would hear none of it, despite my aggressive insistence that she allow me to handle the financial side while she focused on the Chinese communications and logistics.
As we all boarded the train Yoyo sticking closely by my side confided that she had purchased her tickets in advance and had actual assigned seats for herself and her uncle, but that she wanted to move around for the early part of the trip and insisted, firmly that I should take her seat for the first half hour. With great reluctance I succumbed to her entreaties and bumbled over two passengers closer to the isle to reach the window seat she had "temporarily" relinquished.
Promptly at 19:30 the ultra-modern sleek white train accelerated slowly into motion, eventually attaining speeds of 230km/hr according to the display in our car. For the first hour I kept looking to Yoyo motioning she should reclaim her seat so generously shared. Each time she found a new plausible reason to keep me in her comfortable seat while she wandered around the car talking to people. I ended up riding the entire two and a half hours.
Once in Guilin Yoyo again became "mother hen" and inquired about our lodging plans. The young Finish couple needed a minimal budget lodge, while I had determined to treat myself to some deluxe accommodations for this my first night in the country. As our intermingling conversations became confused I changed my stated preferences to more closely match what Yoyo described as available in the area. We arrived at the hotel Yoyo suggested for me first and I went in to inspect the room while the others waited in the lobby. The room, far from deluxe was cheap, but adequate so I took it to simplify the complicated task Yoyo had assumed for herself.
Back in the lobby the Fins asked what I thought of the room and then the price. Yoyo interrupted with her mispronunciation of the thirty dollar room rate. The kids heard thirteen and looked interested, but when I corrected Yoyo's mispronunciation, the kids blanched and informed us their budget required cheaper accommodations. Yoyo didn't miss a beat, bid me a genuinely warm ado and led the Fins out towards a really cheap, but "quite good hostel" she assured us all.
My $30 room in the Home Hotel turned out to be just barely adequate and the noodle breakfast the next morning failed my finicky taste test completely. After breakfast with a drizzle dampening everything, I started my hotel shopping walk of exploration around the area near the train and close by bus stations. Finding nothing, I made the snap decision to immediately go on down to my ultimate destination; Yangshuo. Buses leave from the #3 dock every twenty minutes or so and the trip takes about 90 minutes through some of the most beautiful Karst mountain scenery in the world.
Arriving in an unknown location on the outskirts of the sprawling town I had no idea which way to walk, but asking around finally settled on a direction... which fortunately turned out to be right. Carrying the increasingly heavy backpack and hungry I admired a tiny noodle shop and greeted the young waitress in English. She responded in understandable English and I decided it made sense to eat some noodles in a place where someone might be able to offer lodging advice I could understand. She turned out to be most helpful and provided directions and a slip of paper with the Chinese characters for the name of the "best hotel" in town, a five star lodge "quite some distance" away... without ever pronouncing the name.
Off I started toward the promised deluxe hotel, the name of which I only had written on the slip of paper in Chinese... though people along the way usually recognized it and pointed the way onward. Hotels in China usually have two names: the real name in Chinese and one in the Roman alphabet for the convenience of foreigners who can't read the Chinese characters. The pronunciations of the two names are always totally different and most local people never use the Westernized names!
Still drizzling, I walked several kilometers checking a half dozen promising hotels, none of which matched my hope for first night deluxe lodging. Eventually, tired, discouraged and wet I stumbled on the five star Green Lotus Hotel and slinked in to inquire about availability and rates. Yep, they had rooms STARTING at 1300 RMB or about $212 and up! Fidgeting while considering my options, the receptionist noted those were the rack rates, but that she could offer me a standard room starting at ONLY $120 including breakfast. In no mood for more hotel shopping and having resolved to treat myself this first night in the popular tourist town of Yangshuo in any case, I asked to see a room.
The bellman in that sprawling hotel gets plenty of exercise because the room he showed me must have been at least a block from the lobby at the very end of a long corridor in building #3 on the periphery of the property. Tastefully furnished with a view of the green tangle growing on a cliff face not more than a few meters outside the window, the rest of the features turned out to be nearly five star quality, so I agree to take the room for one night.
Back at the reception desk the conversation continued as the breakfast add-on offered two choices: Chinese at 70 RMB or "Western" at 150RMB. Misunderstanding the receptionist's explanations I chose to add the cheaper option for breakfast. The next morning when I arrived at the Western dining room the hostess informed me my prepayment only covered the Chinese choice, but for an additional 80 RMB I would be welcome to take the "Western breakfast." That turned out to be a poor choice because the chef in the Green Lotus obviously knows little about western food preferences and $25 for the meager selection seemed grossly over priced to me.
After one night in the luxurious $130 Green Lotus Hotel (which turned out to be the one with the Chinese name written on that slip of paper the noodle shop girl had provided) I moved back down the street several blocks to the $33 Super 8 Hotel featuring a big eighth floor balcony with a great view and swing glider. Unfortunately, it rained everyday and the balcony looked unappealing in the torrents plus, the several block walk to find something to eat everyday dampened my enthusiasm for the property. There is a Chinese Restaurant within the same building occupied by the hotel, but the one meal I ordered turned out to be designed for a party of four or more... in both quantity and price! So, after only two nights of a planned week stay I moved into the village to be closer to restaurants (including a KFC and a Mac Donald's!).
The Inn Of Flowers is a small $30 hotel without breakfast, but a working coffee roasting machine and $5 a cup brewed gourmet coffee in the lobby! After only one night fighting the cantankerous Internet connection and a shower over the toilet I moved across the street to the $33 Jinding Hotel with better Internet connections and an enclosed shower stall for two nights. Most hotels I've checked in this town do not include breakfast in their room rates, nor even have dining rooms! In between downpours I renewed my search for better lodging.
After five days of hotel shopping/hopping I finally found a house without any apparent compromise, the Starway Hotel or Xin Fu An in Chinese. At 220 RMB or about $36 with a Chinese breakfast, it is the best value discovered so far in Yangshuo. After checking in I learned there is a Western breakfast option for an additional $6 and adjusted my reservation for 4 days to take advantage of that upgrade. Thoroughly modern, I have found no compromises in the layout or furnishings in the room itself and housekeeping has been thorough and consistent. There also is a desktop computer in the room for use by guests, but a Chinese version of Windows XP means it is nearly useless to me. The fifth floor room is high enough that much of the village is visible below and numerous Karst formations create a magical fairyland scene from the large picture window.
When I questioned hotel travel agent Jenny, who assists with English speaking guests at reception why my fifth floor room is labeled #8525 instead of just #525 she informed me the Chinese consider "8" an auspicious number, so it is often prefixed to important designations like hotel rooms. I saw the same strange practice in the hotel I used in Guilin, but didn't think to ask anyone about the peculiarity. Now aware of the significance of the number "8" I see it everywhere promoters want to convey the idea of prosperity.
Slowly I am finding ways to work around the severe limitations on my writing and recording occasioned by the politically inspired Chinese government restrictions on Internet use. Dropbox photo transfer capability can be replaced by direct USB photo transfer between the camera and computer. My website is installed on the netbook so "offline" updates are practical with occasional cut and paste operations to update the online version at Netfirms (Keeping my fingers crossed as my web host has been error free for a long while now!).
Postcards are another matter as I cannot reach the Gmail address book for my email broadcasts of new postcards, though I am still receiving messages in that account and can read them on my Android devices. One of my other email accounts might be an alternative, but first I'll need to find a way to get all the Gmail address book entries copied over. There must be a way, but I haven't yet discovered it.
It has rained everyday since entering China, some days almost continuously. A cheap $1.50 plastic poncho solved the immediate portable shelter problem, but a few days ago I saw a splendidly colorful umbrella and negotiated a $4 purchase. Thinking the rainbow design unique, imagine my chagrin when a tour group of twenty or so passed by my breakfast table with everyone carrying the identical "unique" umbrella! Crestfallen, I remembered the Buddhist admonition to shun all forms of attachment and rejoiced instead that so many of us had been so blessed by Saint Serendipity!
The government still has a monopoly on tobacco sales in the country and people smoke everywhere with impunity... mostly men as far as I can tell. Imagine my startled surprise when the waiter at breakfast delivered some bananas with a smoldering cigarette dangling between fingers holding the plate.
I will never again take sidewalks for granted in America. Real uncluttered walkways are the exception in most other parts of the world, even here in modern China.
On 19 November I returned to Guilin to plan the next leg of this adventure. Uncertain of my onward plans I located the airport shuttle bus and went out to the airport to get some idea about the possibilities of staying at or near the terminal. The lone nearby hotel did not look appealing, so I returned to the city and booked a room in the $32 Aviation Guilin Hotel conveniently next door to the airport bus departure point. As I expected to be in the hotel only a single night I found the layout, Internet Ethernet connection and bedding more than adequate. While it is not a many star house, everything I'd expect in a four star hotel is available, though clearly aging. After getting settled in the hotel I took a walk and found the truly 4 star Oriental Pearl Hotel only a few blocks west on Shanghai Road at the astounding rate of $23!
For my next destination I'm heading to Hainan Island on Flight ZH9145 today (11/21) at 10:25. Once there onward decisions will depend on serendipity, though I'm beginning to see the virtues of heading south into warmer climates. The Internet is full of hype about this tropical paradise off the southeast coast of mainland China, so it may be worth a look! More when I know more.
Fred L Bellomy
Yangshuo China 2014: Karst geological formations like these began showing up along the road shortly after crossing the Chinese border on our way to Nanning.
Yangshuo China 2014: Because it rains so much, cyclists have adopted various ways of dealing with the downpours. Here are a couple solutions used. Some simply hold an umbrella as they ride, but much more elaborate and permanent techniques are used, some quite elegant.
Yangshuo China 2014: This is hotel travel agent "Jenny," who assists with English speaking guests at reception in the excellent value $33 Starway Hotel (Xin Fu An Hotel) where I finally found acceptable accommodations. She speaks English like a native and answered many of my questions about her city.
Yangshuo China 2014: The lady in this little food stand on Chengzhong Road next to those famous golden arches makes a fast food some call the Xi'an burger. People snapped them up as fast as she could make them. Notice the sign in front of her stand. Anti-Japanese sentiments still run high in China; one informant guessed as high as 70%! It has now been more than 80 years since the Japanese atrocities occurred and Japan has officially apologized many times; still the official Chinese position is anti-Japanese catalyzing the widespread public sentiment.
|Reference photo August 2002|