When building a city, planners, designers, urban developers – all must cope with varying topography, marshlands, pockets of gas, rivers, etc.* Those responsible for developing the city of Guilin instead had a unique problem; one instantly visually apparent along some of Guilin’s major streets. Passing by in our taxi, we see hotel, hotel, hotel, huge near-vertical mountain several hundred metres tall, hotel, hotel, slightly bigger vertical mountain, etc. It’s a slightly bizarre but beautiful landscape, with vegetation on every exposed mountain surface (those that aren’t completely vertical) resulting in a lush, green backdrop in just about any direction you would care to look. Shanghai attempts to do the same, but replaces green mountains with huge skyscrapers of concrete and glass.
Bron and I have had many adventures or activities that could lazily be described as ‘random’ whilst in China; this trip was always going to be a little strange since we’d had absolutely no visibility of any plans for the weekend other than our outbound and return flights. We’d joined Anny on a trip to Guilin, coinciding with her 10 year graduation reunion from the city’s university. So Anny’s former classmates had the somewhat incongruous addition of a couple of Brits for most of the weekend.
We landed in Guilin’s airport late on Thursday night (as another contrast with Shanghai, the roads leading from Liangjiang airport into the main city area of Guilin are lined with hedges and trees – from Pudong airport to the main areas of Shanghai they’re lined with little more than concrete and apartment complexes), met by a couple of Anny’s classmates. What we thought was our hotel stop turned out to be a rice-noodle stop – a delicacy apparently not often found elsewhere in China. I’ll try and do this process justice – a lady behind a glass window adds rice noodles** into a metal bowl for you. You choose your meat from a selection of miscellaneous offerings on display; this is added to your bowl. You then have free reign to add your own vegetables, chillies and finally the steaming hot soup from a huge vat. Soup which when added to the metal bowl causes the bowl to heat up quickly, causing its owner (well, me) to drop half the contents into the vat of soup in an attempt to avoid third degree finger tip burns.
One of Anny’s friends had arranged for us to have access to a private driver for the day on Friday, allowing Bron and I to see the sights of Guilin whilst Anny joined her classmates in a visit to their old university (and some of their old lecturers). A true magical mystery tour (but maybe more confusing than magical) with our driver setting off with neither instruction nor indication of where he was heading. He took us to three of Guilin’s star attractions: To Guilin Princes’ City, a historical site over 600 years old (older than Beijing’s Forbidden City); to the Reed Flute cave which I’m afraid trumps Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset for its sheer size and weirdly shaped growths; and finally, to the Li River Folk Custom Centre.
I’m in danger of overusing the word ‘bizarre’; instead I’ll just state that our stop at the Custom Centre probably required a tour guide to fully explain what was going on. In fact, as Bron and I seemed to be the only people not visiting as part of a larger group, it seems a guide was standard practice. So, as confused tourists, we watched a lady singing the same 20 second segment of a song at 1 minute intervals; we saw a performance by two ladies with long hair explaining how they wash and style their hair; we saw what looked strangely like Chinese Morris dancers; we missed the cock-fighting show despite the poster claiming we could participate if required. The highlight was undoubtedly an hour long Chinese cultural performance. Imagine an American at a pantomime*** and you’ll have some idea how Bron and I felt as the audience participated in mass-singalongs of Chinese folk songs whilst other audience members were hauled onstage to dance or sing along with the main performers. I think I’ve said before that the Chinese always seem to be in a hurry apart from walking along any street. Whilst the performers were onstage doing their grand finale, the side doors opened to allow the audience members to leave when it had finished. But nobody waited until it had finished. Doors open, audience go. Performers carry on but nobody is watching, instead everyone is making sure they’re not last out. Like I say, we were Americans at a pantomime.
We met back up with Anny and her classmates for dinner, and of course, KTV (karaoke) with ‘Hey Jude’ being my addition to the evening.
On Saturday we took the slow boat down the Li river, taking in the spectacular scenery on our 5 hour journey to Yangshuo. Normally famous for its ‘crystal clear’ waters, our trip followed a few days of heavy rain, leaving the river’s waters a distinctly Shanghai-esque brown colour (but caused by mud, not pollution). Our route through the valley carved between the mountains gave us views not accessible by any other means of transport – a beautiful, relaxing journey down to Yangshuo.
Any tranquility experienced was immediately dispelled upon our arrival, with Yangshuo proving an extremely popular destination for tourists (far more so than Guilin). A town seemingly built entirely for tourists, offering a microcosm of Chinese style buildings, shops and restaurants all within walking distance. For those of us getting a little overfamiliar with Qingdao beer, the ‘London Tavern’ offered a respite with London Pride available on draft.
On Saturday evening we joined Anny and her classmates for an evening meal overlooking the river. Dinner for me consisted of a plethora of Chinese dishes; dinner for the mosquitos consisted of me.
Sunday’s bus journey back to Guilin didn’t offer quite the same picturesque views as our boat trip but did offer about a shorter route to get there. What the Chinese (lazy stereotyping warning) sometimes lack in planning, they more than make up for with spontaneity. We arrived in Guilin mid-afternoon, back once more at the same hotel we’d originally stayed at, but this time without reservations since we were not staying the night. Bron and I still have no idea why we all met up there once again, but no matter – Anny negotiates an hourly rate for a room; it promptly becomes the defacto storage and meeting point for all.
Spring airlines: I know it’s not only your company that uses the excuse ‘Your flight is delayed due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft‘, but you do seem to use it more often than other airlines. Unfortunately, it’s an excuse about as valid as claiming ‘This year’s spring has been delayed due to the late arrival of daffodils****’. 4.30am we arrived home on Monday morning. This with the alarm set for 8.30am to get up for our trip to Beijing. Thanks Spring.
This is the last of our trips we’ll make with Anny. Over the last few months Anny has shown us aspects of Chinese life we’d never have otherwise encountered, taken us to some amazing places and introduced us to family members and friends who have all made us feel incredibly welcome. We will miss this aspect of our time in China more than most others.
*As is evident, I hold no geographic qualifications.
**I did ask how rice noodles are made. Apparently nobody knows.
***If you’re an American reading this and have no idea what a pantomime is, make it top of your cultural activities list to do next time you’re in the UK near Christmas.
****As in, the former is related to but does not directly cause nor explain the latter.