Guangxi (pop. 50 million)
Guangxi is in the far south of China bordering on Vietnam and the South China Sea.
The star attraction here is the karst scenery in Guilin and Yangshuo in the far north-east of the province. And that is where I went.
Some places I missed were 1. Detian Waterfall – Asia’s largest and the world’s second largest “transnational waterfall. Surrounded by karst peaks, the waterfall drops in three stages to create cascades and pools. It is on the Vietnamese border in the SW of the province. I imagine that at this of the year, there would be little water in it. 2. Huashan Cliff Murals – Near the village of Panlong in the SW are crudely drawn ancient people and animals on cliff faces up to 172m above the river. Over 2000 years old, the largest painted figure is 30m tall. 3. Mingshi Tianyuan – Scenic Zhuang settlements with nothing much to see except the karst scenery. All three are southwest of Nanning, the capital of the province.
History. In 214 BC, a Qin dynasty tried to assimilate the Zhuang people. Tribal uprisings in the 19th century, including the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) that began in Guiping became the bloodiest civil war in history. The province fell briefly to the Japanese in WWII. Today the Zhuang, China’s largest minority, make up 32% of the population of the province. The Miao, Yao and Dong people are also significant minorities.
The train from Kunming took 18 ¼ hours. There is little romantic about Chinese trains but they allow you to walk around and get a reasonable sleep.
Guilin (pop 830,000) is completely reliant on tourism, all here to see the karst scenery. Most seasoned travelers miss Guilin and head to Yangshuo, one hour by bus to the south. Upon arriving in Guilin, I was immediately accosted by a tout (a nice buy who spoke good English) who succeeded in selling me a 2½ hour boat ride down the Li River on the way to Yangshou for 280¥. The half hour bus ride turned into an hour and a half on pot-holed dirt roads and I thought I had been taken for a ride. But we eventually arrived at the river and climbed aboard the small bamboo boats – actually plastic that looked like bamboo. There were only 4 people per boat and we put-putted down the river at a snail’s pace through magnificent karst scenery of cliff faces, pinnacles and towers. The Chinese 20¥ bill has a scene from the river (the 10¥ bill has a scene from the Three Gorges). After the boat ride, we boarded 10-passenger golf carts to Xingping and then a bus to Yangshuo.
Yangshou (pop 310,000) lacks authenticity and is full of tourists, but the karst towers are much closer than in Guilin. I stayed near West Street, a huge pedestrian street area full of souvenir shops and restaurants – and people. My hostel was Wada Hostel. With a Hostelworld rating of 98%, it was very good and close to everything.
Cycling around Yangshou. Everyone you talk to spends a lot of time lost doing the mandatory cycling trip through the karst landscape. I rented a good mountain bike (50¥) and went to Moon Hill, a massive piece of karst with a perfect round hole forming a great arch. It is about 5 minutes riding time after the Yulong River Bridge and easily missed. I walked up the 800 steps to the “top”, the center of the arch and walked to the other side for more great views. I the went back to the bridge and turn left to go up the Yulong River. It is flat and tends to be away from the river. Continue past an intersection that leads back to Yangshou, a bridge and then turn left towards the river at the sign for Dragon Bridge. I missed this turnoff and continued north to Baisha town, a city on a main road but eventually crossed the Yulong on the large Jiniang Bridge, turned left and soon arrived at the Dragon Bridge and had lunch. The 600-year old stone, arched bridge is covered with ivy, has crooked steps and is quite lovely.
I then returned on the other side of the river for a great ride with no tourists through tiny villages with chickens, ducks, water buffalo and many old people. I made a few wrong turns detouring once through fields and tiny paths and the good paved road disappeared at one point becoming a single-track path. When you reach a Y in the road, take the acute left and arrive at a bridge to go back across the river. The river was full of hundreds of bamboo boats with 2 passengers each being poled up and down the river. Turn right to get to the intersection and the road back to Yangshou. It was a great 6 hour ride made at least an hour longer by my “extension’ through Baisha. This is certainly the best way to spend your cycling day in Yangshou. The karst scenery is magnificent, the tiny villages rural and cute, especially by returning on the east side of the river. There are several other cycling trips suggested in the area, but this is the only one I would do.
Yangshou has a large rock climbing community with locals and foreigners both active. There are also several caves to visit and white water rafting is available.
More observations on China.
Language. Trying to navigate your way through Mandarin and then the characters is virtually impossible unless you are willing to spend a lot of time – three months or so – that I don’t have. Being a tonal language, if you use the wrong tone, which is pretty easy, the word is pronounced incorrectly, and they don’t understand you. As English speakers, we are used to foreigners pronouncing words incorrectly and pronunciation is not that important in English – so we figure things out. But they don’t. Unlike many European languages that share several words with English, Mandarin shares none. If the language is hard, the writing is totally impossible. Recognizing the characters can sometimes be handy especially with buses where English signs are uncommon.
I have met two Europeans of Chinese/Cantonese heritage. Cantonese with six tones, does not translate at all into Mandarin and at times, just makes things worse.
Chinese Medicine. I met two optometry students from Boston doing a practicum in China. Optometrists (as in North America where they do primary eye care) don’t exist in China and ophthalmologists do all eye care and surgery. Because medical care is not free and thus expensive, most diseases they see are end-stage (diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, retinal disease) and the eyes are so far gone, vision is lost. This may translate to the rest of medicine – expensive so there is little preventative care or primary care. I would also doubt the quality of care outside large cities and in rural China. Traditional Chinese medicine is also popular, and other than acupuncture, is of dubious value.
Women dancing. Wherever you go, there are big groups of women doing Chinese “line dancing”. They have a leader, commonly a man, who provides the music, leads the dance, and charges a fee. Any space with some room will do.
1979 War between Vietnam and China. A curious thing that I saw in Yangshou and Sanjiang were old guys in old-fashioned green military uniforms with red epaulettes. They all sat in a long row with one on a box standing at attention. In front of each was a picture of themselves during the war. Videos of war scenes played. Whenever anyone gave a donation, they would all stand at attention and salute. They were all veterans of a war that China badly lost. Probably with no pensions, this is how they make a living?
Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.
I caught the bus to Guilin, took a city bus (buses #2, 12, 32, 20 or 91) to the Qintan Bus Station catching the bus to Longsheng but getting off at Heping, then a bus to the bottom of Ping’an turnoff, and then hitchhiked the 6km up the hill in the back of a truck carrying freshly cut wood with a great aroma. The ticket to the rice terrace area cost 100¥. Direct buses to the villages can also be arranged through individual hotels and leave between 08:00-09:00 from the Guilin train station. The people here are Zhuang, all with the last name of Liao. The women wear pink or blue towels as extravagant hats and simple black tops with embroidered sleeves and black pants. It was then a long walk up the hill to the International Youth Hostel. Mules are the beasts of burdens in the non-car access town.
In the neighboring towns live the Yao; the women dress traditionally – the hair-do is fascinating – the apparently floor length hair is wrapped tightly concentrically around their head and brought to the front in a bun and then covered with a turban – like black cloth, Heavy silver earrings stretch the hole and greatly lengthening the lobe. The rest of their clothing is black with a pink and blue embroidered top with colorful sash, black skirt and leggings. They are old, short and very cute. The terraces rise up to 1000m high surrounding Ping’an and are a major engineering feat. The irrigation system is intriguing. Tiny cement canals carry most of the water in the terraces.
The next morning at 7:30 I left with a daypack to do the wonderful 4-hour hike through the rice terraces passing through the minority villages of Zhongliu and Tiantouzhal, before arriving at Dazhai. The hike starts uphill to the Seven Stars with the Moon viewpoint, and crosses the top of the terraces to the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers viewpoint. It then turns left and meets a cement road. Turn left following the road uphill. It becomes rough gravel, goes over a small dam and eventually turns into a path that goes through a cemetery and some rice paddies. The graves are randomly built into the banks and have an elaborate lintel over a small stone door covered in characters. I presume they tell the life story of the deceased (very nice). Eventually the path climbs up to a viewpoint where one can see the route ahead. I could see it meandering through rice terraces then the roof tops of Zhonglu village before going over a small pass towards Dazhai.
For many reasons, I decided to turn around. The schematic map was not to scale and I knew I would have difficulties with the logistics of getting a bus to the Ping’an turnoff and then the 6km road up the mountainside, walking up to the hostel to get my pack, walking down and then getting to the road again at the bottom. It was going to take all day and when it started to rain, it was an easy decision. On my way back, I met a group of 30 Chinese teenagers and a tour group doing the walk. The logistics of doing everything would have been dealt with making it much more attractive.
With my pack, I started to walk down the 6km road, put my thumb out and got a ride from an old guy on a motorcycle. At the bottom, I gave him 20¥ and asked if he was going all the way down to Heping. In Heping, I gave him another 10¥, he gave a big smile and patted his gas tank. We were both very happy. The best 5 bucks I have ever spent! While waiting for the bus to Longsheng, I put my thumb our again and almost immediately got picked up by a young couple with just enough English to make it fun. They dropped me off at the Longsheng bus station and I got the bus to Sanjiang waiting only 25 minutes. Sangiang is on the border with Hunan province to the north.
Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge. 19kms from Sangiang in the village of Maan, this 78m long bridge is the grandest of more than 100 nail-less bridges in the area built by the Dong people (they are renowned carpenters) at the turn of the last century. Built from fir logs, it took 12 years to knock together and is a picture of poetic engineering. The bridge has 5 typical Chinese buildings joined by covered walkways, have some walls and benches, and so give good protection against the elements. There are 8 Dong villages, 5 Dong wind and rain bridges, 8 drum towers and traditional Dong homes in the area to visit. Very near the ‘big’ bridge is another small one with a great bamboo water wheel. It costs 60¥ to enter the area.
I caught the 00:20 train in Sanjiang to Jishou, Hunan Province arriving at 06:00. A nice fellow had negotiated the destination and hard sleeper/middle bed choice with the non-English speaking ticket agent. During the long wait, I went down to a small restaurant and was invited to eat with 3 Chinese people, one with some English. We had great fun for two hours using my Mandarin/English Phrase Book, Lonely Planet and map of China. I helped their English and they my Mandarin pronunciation. After arriving I checked my luggage at the train station and caught the bus to Dahang to see more karst scenery.