|Guilin/ Yangshuo (September 16th - September 22, 2001)|
As soon as the airplane door opened in Guilin, we realized we had left the cool
comfort of Lijiang, Dali and Kunming behind. It was very hot and humid
Actually, most travelers head to Yangshuo, about an hour and a half south of Guilin. We had wanted to do that on arrival, but our flight ended up being so late that we stayed the night in Guilin. We found a nice hotel across the street from the bus and train station. It was not unreasonably priced but a bit more than we could have paid thanks to Chloe. She, remembering our Xi'an experience, insisted on going to see Hotels with Sarah and refused to allow her to consider a cheaper option.
We ran into a particularly skillful tout on the night we arrived in Guilin. A tout is a person who tries to get you to use a particular hotel or travel service. We were following our typical routine: Sarah heads off to find a suitable hotel and I hang around with the luggage and most of the kids in some central spot. After a while, Mark came back to get me... with this man following him. The man was very helpful and I assumed that he was from the hotel. He started to talk to Sarah when we were in the hotel and she assumed that he had come with me. Finally we both asked each other who this man was - and realized that he had just talked himself in between us.
He was actually offering a service that interested us - a boat ride to Yangshuo down the Lijiang River (not related in any way to the Lijiang that we just visited). This meant we would avoid a long hot mini bus ride and also do the river cruise (which we wanted to do). Our guide book said that cruises from Guilin to Yangshuo were expensive at Y500 ($100) per person - but he was going to charge us Y500 for all 5 of us. It all seemed quite reasonable, but it was still a lot of money and it was very late so we decided to sleep on it. He was supposed to call us the next morning (Sunday) at 9:00AM to talk to us some more and hear our decision.
At 8:30AM, I went out into the hallway to go check on the kid's room - and there was our tout waiting by our door. It was too strange for words and left both Sarah & I with a creepy feeling. We declined the boat trip. For the rest of the morning, he followed us around alternatively offering valuable advice and being quite useful, and then saying things that just made us want to run away.
We did end up buying our onward bus tickets to Shen Zen (the mainland China city that borders Hong Kong) from the Guilin mini bus station... which turned out to be the wrong thing to do as we found out later. (see below)
We took a mini bus to Yangshuo and were met by many touts. We pushed our luggage through the small group into the nearest restaurant and had lunch. The restaurant owner recommended Fawlty Towers (the hotel owner even calls himself Basil). It was just around the corner and turned out to be very nice. We took two big clean rooms with bathrooms at Y100 ($20) per night each.
Yangshuo is a favoured tourist destination for reasonably priced shopping, hotels and restaurants. While Lijiang and Dali visitors seemed to be predominantly Chinese tourists, Yangshuo seems to be filled with 'westerners' of all nationalities.
On our first night, we went to watch cormorant fishing. For the uninitiated, Cormorants are birds that can swim under water and catch fish - sort of like loons except they are slightly bigger and do not stay underwater as long. The fisherman ties a string around the neck of the bird so that it can catch fish but not swallow them. Whenever the birds catch a fish, the fisherman brings the bird back into the boat and gets the fish.
It was quite staged. About 20 of us got into about 5 bamboo rafts in the dark. A guide got into each raft and poled us around on the shallow river bottom.
The fisherman got on a separate bamboo raft and poled between all the tourist boats. He had a coleman lantern on his bow, so it was easy to see. The birds were well trained: they stayed with his bamboo raft wherever he poled. They did not catch many fish (what do you expect, it was dark and the fish would almost have to swim into the bird to get caught), but it was interesting to see them.
The next day we did schoolwork and general wondering around. The kids helped some locals pick snails off the rocks on the waterfront, and found some great skipping rocks to throw into the river. We also picked up some wooden flutes and whistles, and Mark bought a Nike hat to replace the Blue Jays hat he lost in Hiroshima. He's been trying to buy a Yankees hat for weeks but has not been able to find one. We have our eye on some bamboo umbrellas for about Y45 ($9) for the girls. These are full size versions of the little umbrellas you get in your cocktails.
The next day, we went on the Lijiang river cruise. Clara joined us while her parents had some time off. The cruise was different from what we would have got from our tout in Lijiang - we took the bumpiest mini bus ride ever to Xing Ping and then boarded a boat to take a 2.5 hour cruise over the most scenic part of the river between Xing Ping and Yangti and back. We had a quick look around the farmer's market in Xing Ping first. The nicest thing about farmers markets is that they leave us in peace to wander around - since we are unlikely to buy any produce, you do not get the "HELLO, HELLO" as you pass.
Having felt quite smug about paying Y100 for the five of us, we got onto the most crowded boat I have ever been on - about 40 or 50 fellow tourists got onto a boat that would comfortably fit about half that. Almost everyone we talked to afterwards said that boats typically had 20 passengers, so I think we were just unlucky. The scenery was incredible, but the boat ride was hot and sticky as the temperature remained above 30.
On our return, we had supper with the Berke's and then wandered around town with them. Of course, Mark immediately found the Yankees hat he had been looking for, so he now has two hats.
The next morning we said a leisurely goodbye over breakfast to Clara, Yves and Bénédicte. After comparing itineraries, we found will be visiting many of the same countries but in a slightly different order. Unfortunately, we will not cross paths with them again on this trip.
Sarah, who has been coming down with a cold, took the afternoon off to sleep while the kids and I did homework and journals. After seeing Clara's impressive journal, the kids were somewhat inspired!
The last morning in Yangshuo, I went for a walk before the others were up. It was market day, so I saw an interesting mix of fruit, vegetables, and spices. They also had a mini open air abattoir in the market - chickens, ducks, pigeons, pigs, dogs, and rabbits all waited their turns in the various cages. Luckily my battery ran out in the video camera, so I did not manage to take many pictures of it.
We did a final shop where we bought umbrellas for the kids (Y15 and Y20 after some haggling), and ate lunch at our favourite restaurant (the 'No Name Café') before leaving for Guilin by mini-bus.
Just before leaving Yangshuo, we bumped into two English university students who we had met on the boat cruise. They were returning to England via Hong Kong for another year of school, and were taking a sleeper bus too. They had bought their tickets for Y100 from a local agent. (almost everyone in Yangshuo is a local agent). They were supposed to be picked up in Yangshuo at 8:00PM.
Hmmmm. That couldn't be the same bus as us. We had purchased our tickets for Y150 and were promised a no-smoking luxury express sleeper bus. Perhaps we had a nicer bus... perhaps we were on an express bus... or perhaps we had just been 'had' by the ticket office in Guilin - except we thought we had purchased the tickets from the bona-fide bus terminal ticket window and surely we would have been charged the correct price there.
We took the hot mini bus for 1.5 hours back to Guilin. For some reason, the mini buses do not return to the Guilin mini-bus station where we had left from, so we had to walk about 4 blocks back. Once there, we showed them our tickets. The person behind the counter walked with us about another 4 blocks to the real bus station. Oh-oh...
Sleeper buses are about the same size as regular long distance buses. There are no seats - instead there are 'bunk beds' on each side of the centre aisle. Each upper and lower bunk is split into two beds, so the bus has 42 beds in total. There is very little headroom - I could not sit up, but lying down was relatively comfortable. The sleeper buses are very popular for long distance transportation in China, and take over the roads at night.
The bus was certainly one of the nicer sleeper buses we had seen. We managed to get the area at the very back of the bus which has 5 beds across and no aisle. It was very nice to be all together... but we soon found out why these particular beds were empty - they were over the engine and we were slowly fried on the warm beds.
Unlike what we had been told, it was a smoking bus. The very nice Local sitting right in front of us got the driver to tell everyone not to smoke - which thankfully was more or less followed by the other passengers. By the way, the Local said he had paid Y75 for his ticket from the driver... in this bus it is cheaper to buy tickets from the driver not agents or ticket windows.
We left on time at 6:00PM and pulled into Yangshuo exactly at 8:00 - just in time to pick up our two English friends, and an Israeli student who we had not met before.
The kids now know the definition of ironic. Between the high price and extra effort it took us to get to Guilin, I guess we would have been upset if it wasn't so funny.
But that wasn't the end of the sleeper bus story.
First, one of Chloe's loose teeth came out. Unfortunately the tooth fairy did not find us on the sleeper bus. Truth be known, the tooth fairy did find us but she only had Chinese money and she knew we were going to Hong Kong... so she waited a day.
Then at about 1:30AM, we stopped near a diesel mechanic to fix some unknown (to me anyway) problem. When I say diesel mechanic, you would be wrong to think of a well lit large gas station with garages and hydraulic lifts - this was more a small room set back from the road by about 20 feet, filled with tools and lit by a solitary fluorescent bulb. The work on the bus would be done outdoors on the dirt area between the room of tools and the road.
The discussion between bus and mechanic staff quickly turned into an argument (perhaps over price) which eventually turned into a fight complete with both sides threatening each other with pipes and sticks. Most passengers sat on the bus seemingly disinterested in what was going on outside. The police arrived shortly and everyone calmed down. We continued driving without having anything done to the bus, and then stopped about an hour later at another mechanic's - but he seemed too sleepy to be interested in helping us. Finally at 4:30AM, we stopped again and the driver came to an agreement with a third mechanic... to fix our flat tire. We had been driving for at least 3 hours on a flat tire! It was one of the double tires at the back of the bus - so I guess we were being supported by the one remaining good tire on that side.
The mechanic took about an hour to fix the tire with his amazing collection of hand tools. The impact wrench used to take off the lug nuts is normally driven by compressed air in North America - he had a small hand pump that provided the pressure to a cylinder. The mechanic would pump for a bit, then get the wrench to turn, then pump a bit more. He took the bus tire off the rim with a combination of hammers and tire irons. The only electric tool he had was a grinder which he used to gently rough up the inner tube before patching the hole (something I would have used sandpaper for).
We arrived in Shen Zen at about 10:00AM ending our 16 hour ordeal. All considered, we had slept relatively well - certainly better than in plane or regular bus seats. The bus let us off at a station in the suburbs, so we took a long public bus ride to the main border crossing. Finally at around 13:00, we had made it through the various passport check points, and entered Hong Kong at Lo Wu.
We said goodbye to our British and Israeli friends at the Lo Wu station. Its amazing how experiences like this make you fast friends with fellow travelers.
Fergus Wilmer and Jennifer Normand, with their two kids Morgan and Cameron (& dog Gaston), had kindly offered to put us up for a week at their house in Hong Kong (did they know what they were letting themselves in for?). We took the KCR train to Hung Hom where we were met by Fergus.
On to Hong Kong.