05.06.2010 - 17.06.2010 0 °C
The plane landed in Hong Kong and I walked out into the titanic space that made up Hong Kong's modern international airport. Having walked for a good couple of kilometres inside a building, I eventually emerged outside at the bus pick-up/drop-off point.
'Sorry, no change on the bus,' said the driver of A21 in a voice a little too harsh and definite for my liking. I was holding a HK$100 note for a HK$33 fare. He may as well said, No change, don't care, it all amounted to the same sentiment. I looked at his face, obviously unimpressed and strode off towards the ticket counter. I thought it an odd requirement for people who've just arrived in a new country with new currency to need change right away. This wouldn't be a good start to foreign relations if this was my first visit. I procured my ticket and briskly hovered back to the bus which was getting ready to close its doors. I began to walk much faster. I wasn't in a rush per se, I just didn't want to give the driver the satisfaction of driving off without me. Silently revelling in my little victory I sat for the hour-long ride back to Kowloon, looking into his rear-view mirror occasionally for a little 'one-up' eye-contact.
Around the Mong Kok area I surprised myself that I began to notice familiar street signs and intersections; I chose to hop off at exactly the right time and walked up towards Bute Street where I'd once again spend a few days with Elaine and her family. I punched in the security code on the downstairs keypad, nodded at the guy on the desk and went on up to the tenth floor. The familiar metallic coffin of a lift instantly made me feel like I'd never left and left me wondering if the last couple of weeks hadn't really happened. With a turn of the spare key I was back, and there was my friend sitting on the floor watching South Park, laughing to herself; I remember thinking it felt good to see a familiar face.
Another week in Hong Kong passed. A week of bubble tea, noodle soup, wedding receptions that served piglet's head with twinkling, heart-shaped decorations for eyes, eating food from small imitation toilets in loo-themed restaurants, late nights and visa preparations. Today I would be heading back in the direction of Guangzhou and on to Guilin and the beautiful mystique of Yangshuo. I was finally heading to China. A land of more than a billion souls, a rich and textured history, a land of emerging power. If I'm honest, it made me nervous.
Keen to save some Yuan, I had prearranged with a Yangshuo local named Odar to stay with one of his students during my stay in town, be it a couch, a mattress or bed, I would take anything. So, on the instructions of his receptionist, Jelly, I would rock-up in Yangshuo, call a guy named Vick and get myself picked-up from the bus station, after which I would sleep on his sofa for a few days and talk a bit of English with him. Not a confidence-inspiring plan as such, seeing as I knew virtually nothing about China or where I was going, but in the end I judged it was worth a shot nonetheless. You see, Odar was the Principle at Omeida English language college, and for the sake of English practice and cultural exchange he let English-speaking foreigners that were passing through town stay for a few days with his students. It was the first time I was facing this type of arrangement since Tom and Pavlina, way back in Teplice, Czech Republic.
I didn't know any Chinese, I had no idea about my transport connections, train or bus times, availability of tickets or arrival times. I was effectively saying, I don't speak your language, I don't know anything about you, I don't know when I'll arrive in your town, but can I stay in your house?
Right then, off we go.
It was with peculiar regularity that I would keep arriving and departing from Guangzhou train station, but never actually see any of the city. At the information desk, I came upon an immediate offer of transport. 'Hello, taxi,' bawled the woman behind a desk, which to my mind looked a little too commercial to be the train station's official ticketing counter. 'Bus ticket?' she bawled again. 'No, I want the train to Guilin,' I replied. 'Err, I think now, there is no train, bus only.' Immediate distrust expanded to fill the halls of my intellect. Perhaps detecting my scepticism, she lifted the handset of a nearby phone and made a call, then placed the handset down again with a confirmed look of inevitability, 'No, no ticket available. Train sixteen hours, bus only nine hours.' She was selling the bus ticket a little too industriously for my liking and I still didn't feel I could trust her. Meanwhile, three Americans were hovering in the vicinity, enquiring about an onward train. 'You have to go to the main train station for [the connection to] Guilin,' said the lady. 'Are you guys going to Guilin?' I asked. The female in the group turned to face me, revealing a surprisingly low-cut top and deep vertical line of fleshy cleavage. 'Yeah, but she says the train leaves from the main station, not this one.' I immediately decided it was worth a shot across town. 'I'm going that way too, do you want to split the cost of a taxi?' The girl shot a look back to her two male companions and then nodded in my direction with raised eyebrows to welcome me into their group for a while.
The supposed thirty minute taxi journey wilted down to a fifteen minute swift penetration of rush hour traffic, and surprise of surprises there were sleeper berth tickets available on the 19:47 to Guilin. The risk paid off, I wouldn't have to stay in a city I had no desire to see. Guangzhou was impressive enough in a new China kind of way; it just didn't tickle my taste buds. Getting rid of the driver was more of an effort than expected as he loitered around in hope of getting some commission on a ticket.
The term hard sleeper had connotations of the thinly padded sleeper bunks on one of India's dirty choo-choos, but I can tell you that this train at least, was nothing of the sort. Four berths to a cabin (I know – a cabin), clean surfaces, decadent ivory-coloured bed linen, soft pillows, food service (without the shouting) and super-polite uniformed staff. This was impressive – if not entirely thrifty value – at 367 Yuan (£35) for a twelve hour lolling journey. I ate, stretched out and slept; a grand introduction to Chinese train travel thank you very much.
Trusting in my ability to find Guilin's bus station without taking a taxi, I strolled up alongside Shay, Gary and 'the cleavage' on the arrival platform, and offered for them to follow me to it.
After another bus ride, we arrived in Yangshuo, and again they followed me into town. The three of them were looking for a hostel and if anything knew less about China than I did; the role-reversal felt strange. I watched in forced calm as the girl-whose-name-I-can't-remember-and-so-shall-keep-referring-to-by-her-monstrous-boobs fell down some slippery steps in the rain straight onto her ass. We all offered our embarrassed sympathies and stood around some more while they decided where to go, pretending not to remember the slip in mental replay and smile away in our minds. Eventually the three Americans departed for shelter and wished me well. I turned, laughed at a supermarket sign for Wan Ke Long Shopping Square and began wandering down a cobbled path for a coffee. It was eight-thirty on a Saturday morning. A little too early to call Vick; he was a student after all.
I stood around at the bus station, waiting for Vick to arrive and occasionally glancing at the limestone karsts that surrounded Yangshuo in a shroud of mist. After a few disorganised phone calls sounding something like: 'Where are you?'
'I'm standing here, where you told me to wait.'
'What are you wearing?'
'Green cargo trousers and a grey hoodie. Wait, is that you? Hey! Vick...Oh, no that's not you, I just yelled at a stranger.'
'OK, wait there I'll find you.' And that he did. We eventually crossed paths and walked back to his private student dorm room just across the street.
The large, smooth tiled floor, pine furniture and two double beds was beyond my expectation. I was half expecting to be on a bale of hay, although I'm not quite sure why. As Vick and I sat engaged in small talk, we were joined by Sophia, a fellow student and friend. As they sat there, Vick in his casual jeans and t-shirt and Sophia in jeans and a well-fitted, pink long sleeve cashmere jumper, they spoke in excellent English and left me wondering how on Earth I'd managed to arrive in such an ideal situation. Since they were students at Omeida English Language College, they were told to converse only in English for as much of the day as possible. Another student, Tiffany, came in from upstairs and sat on Vick's bed. I was beginning to feel like a centrepiece; a talking point amongst friends. Speaking English with the Briton was an opportunity to get some of the finer points of their second language up to scratch. Tiffany smiled politely and asked open questions with enthusiasm and slightly crooked-toothed smile. She wore a fashionable white top with blue stripes beneath a cute, black, circa 1960's style dress with wide shoulder straps and oversized black buttons. 'I would like to take a short rest,' she suggested, 'Maybe you can call to me before you go out and we can have lunch together?'
I was feeling impressed with the social openness of the students, and so after a meal together we headed down to the river and rented a bamboo raft. This is what Yangshuo was all about. One of the pictorial references of national pride on the 20 Yuan banknote is a spot just North of here in Xingping, on the same river, with the same karst scenery – an area of extraordinary beauty. So, sitting under the canopy, the four of us motored down the Li River and learned to appreciate the natural wonder of Yangshuo in its natural weather – rain and drizzle. I thought back to another stunning location of the world, presented in the same conditions – Milford Sound in the South fjord land of New Zealand. On a clear day it was spectacular, on any of the other 364 days of the year it was itself again. Wet and moody, but still beautiful.
The ethereal karsts of Yangshuo embedded themselves in cloud and mist, water buffalo bathed in the shallows, ducks waddled across the grassy banks and the strength of the current thrust us past it all downstream with considerable force; you wouldn't want to swim in this. I knew the boat ride was mostly for my benefit, but the others enjoyed finding themselves in this, a very fortunate and topographically blessed part of the world.
If Goldilocks arrived in Yangshuo, I think she'd find that something was just right about this town. I'd been to so many towns, and Yangshuo was a nice size. It had no towering buildings, there were so many authentic touches, lots of up-to-date fashion, an easygoing populace of students and it was surrounded on all sides by fantastic limestone peaks and clouds. Just like Goldilocks, I rested for a great night's sleep. Today, I took that rest knowing that I'd been blessed with good tidings.
To begin a day with a breakfast that costs only 7 Yuan, well, that's my kind of start. Three dishes, plenty of rice and tea. Myself, Vick and Tiffany tucked into the delicious food that didn't at all freak me out, as I thought real Chinese food might. Vick suggested that he and I take a couple of rented bicycles and go for a spin around the outskirts of town. It was only when the rental lady tried to hand me a pink bike that I became less enthused. That was the thing I loved about these countries, no man felt emasculated to walk in the rain with a woman's handbag-sized umbrella, just like no man would have been offended to take the pink bike. My hand veered towards the dark one and the lady caught my drift with an apologetic smile. I felt a little bad, and more than a little shallow.
At once, I was reminded at how much more effortless it was to roll around on a bike, and immediately regretted that I'd not hired one up until now in any town I visited on this trip. What had I been thinking? This is fantastic. So many years had passed since I sat astride a bicycle, but it was true that you never really forget. The rain began to fall from a greying sky. I, like so many others, pulled the hold-an-umbrella-while-cycling trick. Now I felt like I really fitted in. But as Chinese tourists passed they smiled like the pleasant folk they were, putting me back in my place as the white boy on a bike. It wasn't so bad.
Determined to take a couple of days off college, Vick offered to accompany me on a trip to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces in Dàzhài. So, more than happy to spend a couple more days with him, mostly due to his easygoing demeanour, and partly because he speaks Chinese, I said yes. Before long Vick and I were in Dàzhài, a Yao minority village set amongst a chocolate-box image of what was becoming a Yunnan speciality – freakishly gorgeous environs. China was just too good.
It had taken 1 ½ hours from Yangshuo to Guilin, 2 hours from Guilin to Lóngsheng and 1 hour from Lóngsheng to Dàzhài. I might have made it this far on three buses, with no English-speaking people and no solid route had I done it solo, but having Vick was proving useful.
I refused to let any of the Yao women carry my rucksack. They stood around the bus and then walked as we walked, the large bamboo-weave baskets bobbing on their backs, empty of my foreign accoutrements. The interesting thing about Yao women is that they never cut their hair, besides during pregnancy. It was a first for me to watch an old woman unravel the beehive on her head and see the long black strands of her life almost touch the ground, swaying beside her youthful calves – calves that had evolved to deal with the thousand steps that made up the footpaths of these hilly villages. I remember thinking those legs looked like they belonged to a Turkish power lifter rather than an old Chinese villager.
Puffing and sweating mildly, but reeling in personal victory, we placed our bags in the large wooden guesthouse situated in front of a shallow-tiered rice paddy and went for a walk; the room looked strangely like a sauna for all its wooden trimmings.
The higher village of Tiántóuzhài made the term glorious view sound like an understatement. The whole geographical area was one huge network of stepped green terraces; the dragon's backbone stretched long and far; the sounds of trickling water ever present and insistent clouds of misty fog a constant companion.
Sitting at a restaurant viewpoint, I spent more than a few minutes amusing myself with the spelling errors on the food menu. Of course, English spelling mistakes were a constant source of conversation fodder in a strange country; any traveller can relate to this one, and Asia seemed to have the best of them. Would I have the 'Fried eggplant with pook?' Or the 'Fried moodles with beef?' Tough choice.
Vick was a whiz with English, but will likely never have a full-comprehension of the complexities of lexicographical gymnastics, as with anyone whose first language is that of any other tongue. I enjoyed discovering that fact, and a few others too. 'The marrow is very nourishing,' said Vick, in a discussion about the benefit of cooking with bones; I was surprised and pleased that he knew such a word as nourishing. But what he flaunted in vocabulary, he then briefly lacked in ethical sense. 'If you break your leg, you should eat the tiger bone,' he declared. 'No, if you break your leg, you should go to the doctor,' I replied with a corrective tone. 'Tigers are endangered, Vick.'
'No you don't have to kill the tiger,' he perked up, 'You can buy it from the shop.' He seemed pleased that he'd avoided the issue of slaying the beast personally. 'And who do you think kills the tiger, illegally?' He laughed with a guttural screech, the kind of screech that comes from closing the back of your throat and breathing in; a sort of reverse laugh. 'It's not funny,' I said, 'There's only a small number left in the wild, what will you do when they're all gone? How about doing that now?' He slapped my thigh as if to say oh, Adam, and the bus trundled on to our destination while I hoped the point would sink in.
Still in the vicinity of the rice terraces, Píng'ān village appeared in the bus window. We disembarked and walked towards its purpose-built wooden structures that stood at the entrance, and were set up for souvenir-selling. Ordering an overpriced meal at a simple shack, we used the opportunity to leave my backpack in the chef's 'kitchen' and go for a wander up and into the clouds of fog-strewn pathways.
As we began walking, a quiet lingered in the air, just our footsteps beneath us. Up ahead, a small, thinly-wired cage sat on a bench outside a house, and inside, a black and yellow snake. Freshly snared and quietly indignant at its capture, it lay there, possessing enough venom to cause a man a few days of agony. These areas were full of snakes, but despite my efforts, I failed to find one slithering freely in the paddies. The stream by the pathway trickled day and night, providing a wonderfully harmonious sound to accompany the air of purity and peaceful serenity. White butterflies danced on the light breeze; grasshoppers sang. If I could have seen beyond thirty yards, the visual pampering would have topped it off, but a constant supply of new and drifting ivory mist encased me in my own space, revealing only curtain-gaps of clarity between the marching armies of fog.
Vick pointed a finger at the other side of an open hairpin bend on the pathway as we walked back, 'Look, they are building a house out of bricks, bricks and cemen [sic].' I looked at him strangely. 'You mean cement?'
'Yeah cemen,' he repeated. I blinked a few times before speaking. 'When you say cemen, it sounds like semen.' I carefully explained the meaning of semen, although by now we were way beyond the polite stage – he would lean on me like a Brother, and I'd often tap him on the arm with a closed fist out of jest. 'So, what is the name of the stuff that a woman makes?' he asked. 'Se-woman?' he proposed, falsely answering his own question. He was dead-pan serious. I had to laugh at the thought processes behind his logic, and when I was done laughing, I tried to explain what was what.
At that moment we were passed on the narrow pathway by two men, each carrying one end of a simple fabric stretcher; on the stretcher was a very large pig. It looked as though it had received a knock on the head. The pig's eyes were closed but its face made involuntary twitches like a hungover drunk. A procession of people followed, people carrying strange contraptions, water containers on bamboo sticks and several things that looked a little like Christmas decorations. Vick and I shuffled to the side to let the stream of people past. 'It's a fineral [sic],' he said. 'A funeral, you mean?' I asked. 'Yeah, a funeral,' he uttered. I pushed back the urge to laugh, lest I gargle in the face of the passing widow. You couldn't fault the logic on this one either, I thought.
Back down the winding road to Guilin, it became apparent that there had been a fair number of recent rock slides. Thousands of angular stones had fallen from the flanking rock face and lay in piles across one or both lanes, leaving only a little room to manoeuvre past. The driver seemed unfazed, as if it were a regular occurrence. One of those at the wrong time could knock this bus off the road and into the valley, was about all I could muster for enthusiasm.
Today was the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, otherwise known as Duānwǔ Jié in Mandarin-speaking parts of the world. It was a national holiday in remembrance of the rescue attempt on Qu Yuan's life, a scholar, who in 278 BC jumped into a river gripping a big stone, committing suicide after he was banished by Chinese royals for a few indiscretions that he may or may not have been privy to. These days, out of respect, people celebrated by eating zòngzi, a kind of tetrahedral-shaped glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in a banana leaf (linked by the fact that the Chinese thought if they threw wads of glutinous rice in the river then the fish wouldn't eat their beloved Qu Yuan's body, and he might be rescued). Secondly, some more energetic types went dragon boat racing, because, well, just because.
Back in Yangshuo, Vick and I rolled up to Omeida College for a zòngzi or two. I sat down at a table of half a dozen smiling Chinese English-language students and allowed Vick to introduce me. Therein followed a whole table conversation based around me as the celebrity in the pack, and although some were initially shy, they sought to converse in my direction and practice with the Englishman. My impression of Chinese youngsters went up another notch. The astonishing thing about Yangshuo, which was characterised by the people at this table, was that it was full of attractive, sweet and charming Chinese females and Chinese males that knew nothing of social bravado, only openness and affability; it was a young person's social heaven. My experience of China had begun auspiciously.
The next morning, I left Vick's apartment and slid the key under the door. I was catching the 11:10 to Huangyao.
It was time to see a little more of China.