Saturday, 19 September 1998
Lianshan, Guangdong, China
More travelling. We had to catch a 0600 bus to Lianzhou where we were hoping to get an onwards bus to somewhere else so that we could get to Yangshuo the day after. The locals traveling on the bus seemed unused to bus travel and within half an hour the first was throwing up. This was okay, it was the second person who was sitting in front of us that was the problem. Basically she was unaware that if she did not get her head right out it would blow back into the bus, which it did. It was only through foresight that we managed to avoid it, and we quickly changed seats. By the end of the five hour journey there were four or five people with their heads out of the windows - it was at this point that the bus driver decided to hose the outside of the bus down before we arrived at the main town.
The second bus was just as bad - one woman did not make it to the window etc. So when we finally got to somewhere we think was called Lianshan (but were not entirely sure since the name seemed to have been changed at some point) I was more than glad to stop travelling for the day. This was around two o'clock and after finding that the only hotel in town, despite being expensive, was actually quite luxurious we decided to remain locked in our room for the afternoon. It was a bit of a waste since the weather was quite nice but it really was a two horse town and the surrounding countryside not that interesting. Dinner was had at a pretty bad riverside restaurant where our attempts to explain what we wanted to eat attracted a crowd of twenty and where we were grossly overcharged - we really felt we were back in China again!
Sunday, 20 September 1998
Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Again an early-ish start followed by two long bus trips with copious amounts of vomit. This time we were well prepared and positioned ourselves well away from anyone that looked like they were a puker. The scenery did not improve until we got close to Yangshuo and the towns did not get any more interesting looking. I concluded that although it was a pretty good way to avoid a sleeper train ride there was little to recommend it, especially as the hotels along the way were not the cheap rural ones we had come to expect off the beaten track in other provinces.
Yangshuo is certainly very scenic. Domed rock pinnacles and hills rise steeply all around and it has retained at least a few of its original buildings. There were however more than a few tourists and virtually every other building is a restaurant. In fact it even tops Dali for western restaurant density - there was a slightly unauthentic looking Hard Rock Cafe, a frankly cheeky Hard Seat Cafe, a Planet Yangshuo and a host more. Everywhere people spoke English and the second sentence of every conversation was an attempt to sell you something. Mind you it has a pretty laid back atmosphere and was relatively free of goatee pot nerds and a better range of tie dyed wear is available. We had dinner, drunk Beck's and watched a video.
Monday, 21 September 1998
Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Okay I'll admit it, we slept in for the whole of the morning and over lunch my hangover got the best of me. So we missed the boat trips and did not feel up to cycling so we slobbed around all day reading books and writing diaries. Later on I caught up with my E-mail and we booked our boat cruise. Strangely the agent had a copy of the Rough Guide to Laos which I leafed through. It was a bit old and so I was unsure that the multitude of restrictions (at the time you could only go to Vientiene with any ease) still applied. Its funny but our one lapse in planning the trip was that we forgot that Vietnam and Thailand did not share a border and now no route between the two seemed better. We were faced with either a journey through a very unstable Cambodia, a part of Laos where the malaria is resistant to nearly all prophylactics or a dull Saigon-Bangkok plane trip.
Tuesday, 22 September 1998
Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
We had booked ourselves on a cruise of the Li River and woke up early to get breakfast in time for a 0930 departure. It all sounds a bit sad but by now it really was an effort to get up before 0800. Never mind what time you used to get up when you had a job but when you are travelling for months on end a 0930 ferry is am imposition and a 0630 bus a torture. Anyway we were down the ferry docks at the allotted time together with our bicycles, which were going to come into play for part of the return trip.
In retrospect it is easy to say that the scenery on our six hour cruise was stunning. At the time however the thing that occupied most of my thoughts was the river itself. To explain the river cuts through some pretty spectacular karst scenery which is only easily explained by photographs or ultimately going there. However if you read what they say about landscape photography or painting you know that as well as a good background you need a foreground. It is the same when you are simply looking at landscapes. It is not enough just to have an amazing backdrop of layers of sheer hills there has to be something of interest in the foreground to focus the attention.
The Li river provides more than its fair share of these, here a fisherman on a narrow bamboo raft, there a small riverside village or massive stands of bamboo. For classic scenes the Li river is hard to beat which explains its prominence in Chinese painting and poetry (and tourism). As usual the Chinese had taken it upon themselves to name all the hill formations. Some of the names were vaguely appropriate like the Seven Horses, a cliff face covered with roughly seven horse head shaped swirls of light rock.
About five hours into the trip we came to the turning point. We then positively zoomed back towards Yangshuo (the first five hours were upstream) to be dropped off midway at the village of Xingping. From here we cycled back to Yangshuo which took about an hour and a half. The cycle was a totally different experience, mainly because the river banks had been deserted apart from fishing villages whereas now we were travelling through golden rice fields. When we got back we were pretty tired so we faced the lottery of the western and westernised-chinese food presented by the dozens of cafes and then went to bed.
Wednesday, 23 September 1998
Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
So what do you do in Yangshuo after looking at the hills? The answer is you go and look at holes in hills, moon shaped holes to be exact. About eight km cycle ride out of town Moon Hill is a ridge with a semi-circular hole worn in it. A path leads up from the road, passing the obligatory entrance gate with fee, to the hole and beyond to the top of the hill allowing you to take great hills with a semi-circular frame shots and overall panoramas.
The thing that we found the most amusing was our arrival which was greeted quite literally by a tide of drink sellers all offering water and coke. Once they found out that we were not thirsty they started making us promise that we would buy drink from them when we came back down. To complete the saturation selling one girl actually started to follow us up the hill, a half hour walk. We got rid of her quite quickly after a little chat where we discussed the purpose of her transporting bottles if we were also porting a litre of our own water up the hill. We were quite lucky, the majority of people seemed to get followed up to the top by two people minimum.
The other strange thing was that in other places the mark up on a bottle of water usually grows exponentially as you ascend the tourist trap. Here the prices were so low they even undercut the price in town. We took it as a mark of how poor the locals were, they were prepared to walk up and down a hill all day for a few yuan profit. The ultimate indictment of this attitude came at the bottom of the hill on the way back, we were offered two yuan for a water and three for a coke. When we said no the seller replied "you don't buy for two?", we wanted to explain that their prices were good, we certainly paid a lot more for water that night, it was just that they were annoying us!!
The view from the top of the hill was predictably good but it was not a place to linger since it was so hot. So after a brief read we cycled back and attempted to "chill out" in Yangshuo for the remainder of the day. This met with minimal success, we ended up getting extremely bored since we had no interest whatsoever in chops, tie-dye and "antiques" aged using various processes.
Thursday, 24 September 1998
Longsheng, Guangxi, China
Finally it was time to leave Yangshuo. We could not quite get up the enthusiasm to cast western cuisine aside and had a hamburger breakfast. Then it was off to the first stop on our way back to Guiyang, Longsheng. We passed through Guilin very quickly, another average town with seemingly very little to offer in the way of a difference. We found a bus for Longsheng and then set off back into "real" China. The change in scenery over the two hour drive was dramatic we swapped the phallic karst hills for a much more normal mountainscape of deep valleys, rivers, pine trees and bamboo stands. The villages along the river seemed interesting but we had heard good things about Longsheng.
Sadly all the things we had seen and heard to do with Longsheng were about the area around, the town itself was a shit hole. All the villages around were of wood construction, here we were faced with white tiles and blue glass. The river which flowed through the town had dried up to a trickle and, since most of the town's sewage flowed into it, a none too clean trickle. The hotel was situated on the river which was as desirable a location as the banks of the Thames in the nineteenth century. We had a quick walk around which did not reveal any redeeming features and settled down for a beer at the riverside bar below the hotel, not because we were attracted by the smell but purely because it was the only outdoor venue. If we were to have remained in our plastic garden furniture chairs we would have been in for a rare treat, but more of that later....
We then moved back towards the hotel, over the river and ran into Longsheng's premier venue, a restaurant, well above the level of the river which cooked superb dumplings. We had a couple of steamers and then headed for bed. Unfortunately this was not a wish that was easily granted, the riverside "bar" we had been to earlier underwent a transformation into a karaoke bar just before we left. We thought that the under whelming number of customers was a good sign that they would not be keeping us up. We were wrong, the staff treated their job as a vocation and were not at all put out by the lack of an audience... it was hours before they finally shut up.
Friday, 25 September 1998
We had decided to forgo the various attractions around Longsheng because we did not want to use the town as a base. What we did miss were the apparently amazing terraced hills in Longji but we figure that spending the next three months in Asia we would probably catch up. The bus to Songjiang revealed that the river did indeed get more beautiful and within half an hour we were back in beautiful countryside, sadly within two more hours we were in Songjiang which although slightly better than Longsheng, was the same jarring mix of countryside meets a government's attempts to modernise. We were back on the road within half an hour bound for Chengyang .
Fortunately in Chengyang we finally found somewhere worth the extreme effort of getting there. The main attraction there was supposedly their "wind and rain bridge". In the Dong Culture the bridge is considered as something of a cultural and religious centre. In the middle of the three or four roofed pavilions of the bridge a shrine to the gods is built and the benches along the length of the bridge play host to a variety of gatherings. However when we got there the bridge seemed to have attracted an entrance fee, more than this it was populated entirely by people peddling dodgy local crafts. We dropped our bags and had lunch at the village hostel which was also playing host to a large group of Australians. We then set off on a walk to see if everything was as tourist friendly as it seemed.
The answer was fortunately a very definite no. We quickly got into territory we had failed to encounter since Langmusi. Real village life accompanied by pretty stark reality. It was very nice at first, we strolled through rice paddies accompanied by geese. We then came across a second wind and rain bridge, this time without entry fee and populated by children rather than salespeople. We stopped for a while to play with the children and continued on crossing a smaller decorative bridge over a tributary and walking through another village. This is when we encountered the third wind and rain bridge which had the same village green feeling to it as the second. Below this bridge we crossed the river as it was no more than a foot deep. We walked back along the road on the other side switching back to the bank the hotel was on at the second bridge. We then retraced our steps back to the hotel.
When we reached the "tourist" wind and rain bridge we decided to get our money's worth and cross it to examine a waterwheel on the other bank. The Dong irrigate paddies near the river using bamboo waterwheels which have paddles to turn the wheel and hollow bamboo tubes to act as buckets. Although a lot of water gets tipped all over the place they do manage to transport a fair volume up to the level of the paddies and with water being continually poured all over it the bamboo of the wheel turns black. However we noticed that the wheel opposite our hotel, below the bridge was a bit suspect. In fact ten metres away there was a small wooden shack which contained - a water pump which did the majority of the irrigation.
Back at the hotel we got talking to the Australians. It appeared that they were accompanied by a guide, an Australian girl with more experience of travelling in China but who spoke little more Chinese than us. It appeared that there was to be a Dong festival in the village that night and for just 300 yuan between us and the other ten people we could all attend. Well we had seen this sort of impromptu festival arrangement before in Bali but we thought that because of the numbers it would be our only opportunity to catch some Dong music. It turned out to be predictably lacklustre but some of the Lusheng pieces (as opposed to the singing) were good. The Lusheng is an instrument a bit like a portable organ, it has a number of pipes, six on some three on the bass instruments, and you direct the air that you blow into it a one end through a given pipe by blocking a small hole at the pipes base. They ranged in size from smaller high pitched ones to three metre bass efforts. After the gig we were pounced upon to buy one but we avoided this preferring the delights of a couple of ice beers sitting in the dark on the bridge with only bats for company.
Saturday, 26 September 1998
Dudong, Guangxi, China
We probably should have stayed for another day but according to our map there were seemingly endless numbers of Dong villages to visit in the region. So we caught the bus back to Sanjiang and then to Dudong, the most remote, with the plan to work our way back to the main road over a day or two. On the bus there we passed a whole host of Dong villages with accompanying wind and rain bridges and drum towers. The trouble was they all looked very similar. Dudong was an exception, being the capital of the sub-county it was graced with several white tile and blue glass buildings one of which luckily turned out to be a hotel. We dumped our stuff and went for a walk.
The disappointing thing about the area was the massive deforestation since they build everything from wood and presumably use it to keep warm in the winter, the Dong have stripped the hillsides almost clean of trees. This a pretty barren terrain and in some places, aided by the building of roads, has lead to erosion. We walked up to the top of a nearby hill and got a splendid view of the layers of blue mountains forming valleys hiding a seemingly infinite number of Dong villages. We then descended to a patch of trees just above the village, this seemed to form the local park and although the stroll through it only lasted ten minutes we got an idea of what the original forest must have been like and how amazing it would have been to come across smaller groups of wooden houses nestling in the trees many years ago.
When we got back we were in for a bit of a surprise, someone who spoke near perfect English. She was one of a group of art students who had been painting in the area. She sat down with us and told us a bit about what they had been doing and the area itself. It turned out that she had done an MBA in the states and thus had acquired her English. I asked her about the trees and she said it was a shame but thought that the government had launched a reforestation scheme. We also asked about their houses and it turned out that like us she had seen the curious amount of brick building going on and she also added that they were going to build a brick factory in Dudong - so the trend was set to continue. Eventually she went back to her colleagues and we had our dinner and went to sleep.
Sunday, 27 September 1998
Fulu, Guangxi, China
I woke very early to the sound of what must have been one hundred roosters preempting the sun's appearance by about two hours. This was not such a bad thing as it meant we could get the first bus back to Sanjiang. We had basically changed our mind about working our way down the valley, we had seen most of the villages the day before and had concluded that i was more of the same and there were very few trees anywhere. So we returned to Sanjiang and very luckily caught the bus to Fulu, on the Guizhou-Guangxi border, which left five minutes after our arrival.
I must explain that we were pretty much flying blind by this point, our guidebook having only two paragraphs on the route we were to take. The descriptions of the Dong villages had been a little too enthusiastic so I treated with skepticism their claim that the few people that had been there "raved" about the countryside west of Sanjiang. Strangely, although the bus journey times were completely wrong the rest of it turned out to be true. The Duilu river was a very clean, broad, blue stretch of water greatly enhanced in beauty by a fair number of white sand beaches. The valley was not dramatically deep but was quite steep sided, at some points we would be on the verge of a drop down to it, in others we would be separated by a small shelf of land. The villages were few and far between but were all composed of solely wooden buildings and all had retained a fair amount of the surrounding trees.
Fulu itself seemed a bit dull at first and we were a little upset when they told us to get off the bus. We were in front of a tatty, dusty market place and there seemed to be little of the beauty of the river that we had seen so far apparent in the place. We were guided towards the back streets when we asked for a hotel and with some doubts followed the directions. It turned out that the hotel was about what you would expect for such a place but its location was nice. At the end of the road was a set of stairs that went down to the pebble beach and at the edge of the beach was a concrete ferry quay - no huts, gangplanks etc. just a 20m long raised platform. The hotel was at the top of these stairs so it was a bit like a seaside B&B.
We had lunch at a place that looked dubious, centuries of cooking had stained the walls black, but served an excellent plate of noodles. Then we went to the beach, we basically walked along the river until we found a secluded cove of golden sand where we lay all afternoon waiting for the sun to come out and enjoying some well earned privacy. We liked the beach so much that we almost stayed another day but we foolishly decided that it would get better further on....
Monday, 28 September 1998
Rongjiang, Guizhou, China
We had been told that the ferry to Congjiang , our next way point, left at 0700. Anyway we boarded with the slight upset of the gangplank being a quite lengthy bit of slippery wood which neither of us was too keen on crossing. Inside it was fantastic, basically one of those river cargo boats which had a few planks laid crosswise in its interior for passengers to sit on. We were feeling quite at home when it set off in totally the wrong direction - for Sanjiang. We were a little miffed about this as it turned out that the woman at the hotel had given us a list of times and transport arrangements for Sanjiang rather than Congjiang and one of the ferry passengers had confirmed that the boat would be going there. Fortunately the crew seemed well-versed on the drill for dealing with wayward passengers and pulled in at a group of rocks a few metres down from our secluded cove and invited us to jump out. I nearly slipped doing this so they decided to take the boat even further in for Anna.
Again fortunately we had not scuppered our chances of getting to Congjiang. There was no ferry as far as we could work out, and from what we saw of the river later any would have had a tough time making it upstream, but the one bus a day went at 1000. We caught this and after a very dusty but scenic 2 hour ride arrived at Congjiang. Here we swiftly transferred to a Rongjiang bus -the next stage of our journey. Again it was river views galore with a climb into the mountains to bypass a particularly narrow part of the valley. This time the journey took three hours and when we finally caught sight of Rongjiang it was with some disappointment because it appeared to be the usual Chinese town, a set of white tile and blue glass three storey buildings wedged together to avoid any view of the surrounding countryside.
Here I must explain one of the pitfalls of travelling by bus in China, you travel through some amazing places but you never dare get out because you have no idea when the next bus will be and an extreme doubt that any of the remote villages have any form of accommodation. Number two pitfall is that you can never take any photos. We travelled through some very photogenic countryside and all I have to show for it is a picture of Anna on the beach at Fulu. Number three has to be the dust, in the dry autumn season the roads literally turn to dust which lasts you from all directions. Even if you can get the rattling windows to shut for two minutes you are coated via holes in the floor or ceiling. All in all we got a great taste for the countryside but were washed up every afternoon covered in dust in some nightmare town which could have been anywhere in China...
Take Rongjiang as an example. It is on the river but has no river front and no river views. It is basically composed of one two km long street with only one parallel. Peculiarly there seemed to be no market and thus no easy place to eat at, and worse than this the few businesses that did exist seemed to be banks. We checked into a room in a place which seemed to be a part of the government buildings but were kept awake by a rave in the building next door. We had contact with the police twice, once in connection with the form you fill in when you check in, secondly the ticket checker on the bus the next day was a policeman, we didn't argue - he had a gun. To top it all off the next day we saw about forty people cycling along the main street with blue suits, lipstick and rouge on. We assumed that it was for some sort of parade but to this day we will never be sure. In other words the place was weird - sort of like a Chinese Stepford.