I arrived in Guilin by plane and immediately met some Germans and a solo traveler from Malaysia on the shuttle. The air was think with fog and there were continuous bouts of down pours which made my first view of the city almost impossible to see.
I decided to spend the day climbing peaks, where at least if the view was not available then I could spend the day in quiet jungle solitude. One thing I did learn about Guilin is that every place costs money. From the parks, to the peaks and viewing spots be prepared to pay some cash to explore this city.
First stop, Solitary Beauty Peak, which is surrounded by a Ming Prince’s mansion. Now home to a University, the peak lies in the center and gives some views to the city. Mostly buildings that lead to the peak, in the past the peak was only attainable by prestigious members of society. This peak is probably most famous for it’s famous visitors, most important was Sun Yet San during the revolution.
Although the price has been raised from 15 quay to a large 70 quay, I think passing this peak up and heading to Folded Brocade Hill which gives more better views and a wider variety of sights, peaks and caves. Within this area one can climb three peaks, visit a cave, a lake and a bird sanctuary. Climbing one of the peaks I was completely alone with my thoughts as I descended the worn rock steps and pushed my way through overgrowth in this lesser traveled path, weak, sweaty and covered in mud.
I headed back to central to recharge with some food. Always a sucker for street food, i couldn’t help but notice the cart that was surrounded by locals. The made a dough mixed with meat and green onions, flattened into a thick bread and then deep fried in oil.
Afterward, I was given the option of brushing it down with hot chili oil. The locals all took an interest in me and were surprised that I would actually try this treat of theirs. Apparently the other foreigners didn’t come visit the cart. As I became the topic of conversation I practiced my bad mandarin and tried to make conversation, but that only lasted so long. I did however have four new prospective students.
A little less hungry, but still but still wanting to rest my feet, I ran into a local tea house owner who was planning to move to Santa Barbara in the fall to study. We chatted in the shop with his sister while sipping on Osmanthus tea, a tree only found in Guilin.
To the south of the city lies Elephant Trunk Hill, with a park built all around it. There are two hills within Guilin that both resemble the shape of elephant heads.
No night walk in Guilin is complete without a night walk around the lake and a visit to the pagodas. The sun and moon twin towers sit in Shan lake and are connected by an underwater tunnel. The sun tower is taller than the moon tower and is the largest copper pagoda in the world.
I slept at Backstreet youth hostel which was cheap and the staff very friendly. I took a dorm room, but soon realized that I enjoyed the privacy of a single room.
The next morning I had a good breakfast and headed out by 8am to the docks. I really wanted to take a boat tour down to Yangshuo to catchall the scenery on the Li river between the two cities. I didn’t really know what to expect from the tour except my prior knowledge of chinese tourism. I was surprised of the amount of boats on the water and the volume of the chinese loud speakers. The boat ride took three hours and included a typical chinese lunch with tea and beer. The top deck was open though supplied no seating. It was a beautiful ride even with the noise and boats.
Riding as a solo traveler can be tricky sometimes especially when the group switches boats without informing you. Luckily, realizing I had missed the boat I was able to get the boat to slow and get me onto the opposite boat with my tour. Two Belgian ladies and a couple from Australia also noticed my desertion and once back on the other boat we chatted over lunch about travels throughout China.
Arriving in Yangshuo was not what I had expected, although my knowledge of the city was very little before I left. We exited off the boat to the main tourist shopping street, West street, which is large, plentiful, overwhelming and sells most things found in China. I ventured through the street for a bit but wasn’t feeling much in the mood for shopping so I popped into a local coffee joint. One thing I will say, is the coffee here is good and has quite a variety to offer.
I met up with the group once more and we headed about 10km upstream along the Yulong river to dragon bridge, which is about 600 years old and is connected to an old village. Here we walked through the village, visited the bridge and took a bamboo raft complete with chairs and umbrella that sat two, out to visit the farmers and their water buffalos.
I paired up with another solo traveler from Sweden and we became partners for the rest of the day. He, like me was also living and working in China, but he worked in the hotel business in Xian. We discussed our towns, our experiences and our thoughts and conclusions on chinese culture. We seemed to share many of the same ideas and both equally enjoyed living in China.
One thing I will say about China is, they love to make tourist spots. We stopped just past the bridge to the edge of the rice fields where farmers brought out their water buffalos to be fed and to provide opportune photo shoots. After seeing the quality of the Li river due to gas boats and piles of tourist trash, it was refreshing to see that only human powered machines were allowed along the Yulong river. Able to see the bottom of the river, the village relies completely on bamboo boats for transportation and fishing, as well as water buffalo for all their farming tool needs.
After descending back into the river, we were given a tutorial on fishing with birds. Cormorants have been used for centuries to fish. STanding atop a bamboo raft with three birds, the fisherman grabs the bird and throws it into the river. Using certain sounds and gestures he communicates with the birds telling them to dive under, reappear to the surface and bring the fish back. By jumping up and down on the raft he can communicate with the birds using the movement of the water. The birds are quick and resourceful and upon retrieving a bird they quickly return it to their owner on the raft. The fisherman then forces the fish from the birds mouth where it lands safely in a basket. I think my father would love it! The end of the ride is where some cheesy tourism comes in. We are sent over a one foot waterfall on our raft with our feet in the air while someone across the way on another raft takes our photo. Also on this raft is a computer and printer set up where you can buy your photo of the great river adventure.
Back to the town I grabbed my luggage, sunburned and sweaty and caught a cab to my converted farmhouse hostel, the giggling tree, about 5km out of town. With a beautiful courtyard an over friendly staff, a beautiful view of the farm and mountains and delicious food this was a relaxing home away from home.
I woke early, excited for a bike ride. The hostel provides a variety of bicycles for 20 quay a day. I had been dying for some time on a non-stationary bike and also some time away from the cities.
First stop was Rockin Grill, a pleasant hostel and restaurant located downtown Yangshuo right across the street from the government building. Nathan and Angie had recommended tis great breakfast spot and it gave me an excuse to take an extra bike ride into town before starting my day. The rain was hard, the hostel empty and the restaurant was surrounded by a thick greenery that hid the city from view. Along with only one other guest I slowly enjoyed my salmon benedict while delving into Oracle Bones and the refreshing breeze wafted through the large open windows.
After breakfast I headed to Moon Hill. It was another quiet and long bike ride down a new road. On a major road of many Yangshuo attractions I was passed by endless speeding tour buses and many fellow cyclists. The scenery was spectacular as I flipped my umbrella up and down from various spurts of rain.
Upon reaching Moon Hill I was greeted by a tiny older woman from the local village who insisted on escorting me to the top of the mountain. While changing my Holga film before hitting the top, I was surrounded by 15 curious chinese teenagers who were curious and interested in my camera. Up the mountain I went, friend in tow. It was a nice climb, 800 steps, wet and humid but beautiful greenery. Of course I was wearing hiking boots which ended up being the worst match for the slick wet rock steps.
After the trip down the hill I headed to the 1500 year old Big Banyan Tree, which again my friend insisted on taking me to. Upon leaving the moon hill though, I realized that I had a flat tire and conveniently there was a bike repair man on the side of the road. (Later I found out that most people leaving Moon Hill receive flat tires, but I got off with a 10 quay bill, where others receive a 100 quay bill.)
The tree was another tourist trap, but luckily the tree itself was protected from outsiders. The park itself included everything from costumed monkeys and horses, bamboo boats that could be driven by visitors, a bee farm that provided honey, pollen and other herbs and large surrounding park area.
I decided to take the remote ride back through the mountains. Although marked off as a bike path, I was ran off the road by many oversized vehicles from time to time, but I was still given plenty of peace throughout my country ride. The ride is spectacular and can not be shown all its glory through my camera lens. Along the ride I ran into a solo rider who was also on tour, alone and came from Nanjing. He shared his Yangmei with me, which was a berry I had been dying to try and I showed him the road back to Yangshuo.
Still early in the day I decided to take in some hostel scenery and have some beers with a really nice australian couple i had met who were living life to the fullest. Along with one of the workers on break we shared stories and laughs while taking in farm views and greeting travelers who came and went along the front road.
As the sky began to darken i decided to head to town one last time and get some local Guilin rice noodles. 5 quay for a hearty bowl of goodness. Of course on the way back I had to supply myself with a head lamp as there were no street lights and the roads were dark. Perhaps a bit adventurous I was wanting to try out my navigational skills in rural China by night. Though a bit hard on the rocky dirt paths, I made it back and fell asleep immediately.
I had originally decided to spend three nights in Yangshuo but I made a last minute decision to visit the rice terraces which was more easily accessible through Guilin. I set out for one last ride before I left and first I had to go back for seconds at Rockin Grill for breakfast and then take a quick walking tour of the central city. Yangshuo was definitely a place I could see myself spending a great deal of time. The city is quite touristy but beautiful. The other joy is that everything is reasonably priced, meaning food and necessities.
I grabbed a quick local bus back to Guilin for 12 quay that took 1 1/2 hours. On the way back I used my time to search out and contact new hostels. I chose Xiaoyanglou International Youth Hostel which was triple the price but well worth the price. A private room and bath, cozy common room with plenty of necessities (food, beer, wii, dvd player, games, pool, etc.) It was a nice place to settle down and they helped me book my tour to the rice terraces. For my free night I took advantage of the low priced and experienced massage parlors and cuppings. I had a really sweet masseuse who spoke no english but we carried out some basic conversation while he gave me a great foot massage. For the full massage and the cupping the total came to 50 quay.
I arranged the Dragons Backbone Rice Terraces for early the next morning and headed out on the 2 hour drive to the scenic area. Starting in a Yao village we were given a performance by the long haired women of Yao.
Never cutting their hair but once, the hair represents their long life. They cut their hair once and only once and keep the hair with them at all times. There is 3 parts to their hair: the hair on their head, their first hair cut and any hair that has fallen from the head along the way. All of this hair remains with them at all times wrapped within each other. The hair is only to be washed with the rice water and no other materials or substance can be used. There are also 3 distinct hairstyles among the women. The young and unmarried wear a hat that covers their hair and the first person allowed to see the hair is the husband. The second, where the hair is wrapped in a snail like twist represents women who are married with no children. The third, women married with children, tie their hair in a point at the front of their head before wrapping the rest in a twist upon their head.
Also at the village we were given a display of a traditional wedding ceremony that takes place in the village. When a man finds a women attractive, he steps on her foot.When a women finds a man attractive she pinches his butt. The ceremony begins and ends with fermented sweet rice wine.
After the show and a short lunch we headed to the terraces of the Dazhai Yao village where ancient minority villages are built up 1000 metre cliffs along with beautifully crafted rice terraces. In the high rain season of summer, when the suns breaks through it can create a mirror to the sky.
A steep climb along small stone walkways passing beautiful crafted wooden houses, the village is bustling with work and peaceful with long hard patient work. Animals, mostly puppies and chickens, occupy the bottom floor of the houses, while the second floor contains the common space and kitchen and the top floor is where the children and women sleep. We were given two hours to explore which was barely enough time to reach the top and return to the bottom.
Long bus ride home I arrived back to Guilin around 630 p.m. and the sun was shining for the first time since I had arrived. To take advantage of the sun and the last few hours of daylight I rushed back to Elephant hill to take some photos of the city in the sun at sunset.