Lazy, Hazy, Rainy Days

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Flag of China  , Guangxi Zhuang,
Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Our journey to Yangshuo was to be a boat trip down the Li River, everyone that we have spoken to has said that this is a beautiful journey and we could not wait to get somewhere away from the city for a while.

It was a lovely bright sunny day, but still a little foggy as every day in China seems to be. We got picked up and were soon on our way to the harbour.  We had booked the English speaking cruise so we had a guide pushing us in the right direction.  We got on the boat and it was quite luxurious, 2 levels with tables and chairs and a top viewing deck. We went straight out to get a spot on the deck to take in the views.  The Li River is absolutely stunning, just winding its way through the mountains.  What is so funny about this trip is that seemingly every tourist in Guilin gets on these boats so the river looks like something from Apocalypse Now with everyone trying to escape.  It was so funny to see a parade of tour boats in front and behind us, but it did not detract from the amazing views.  There were fishermen at the side of the river, water buffalo grazing and drinking and generally it felt like we were seeing a little touch of the real China.  Along the way the tour guide was pointing out particular mountains that have names, Five Fingers Hill, Snail Hill, The Painted Hill of Nine Horses to name a few.  Some of these were more impressive than others, but we could see one of two horses through the haze on the Painted Hill.  About half way along the river we reached one of the most iconic spots, this is the view that is on the 20RMB note.  Fortunately for us everyone had been rushed inside for their lunch so we positioned ourselves at the front of the boat ready with our note to get a shot of the view.  What we didn't realise was that the view was from the back of the boat, so we turned around to find everyone had reappeared and were poised with their notes and cameras, damn.  Nevertheless we got our shot and can add it to the 'been there done that’ list when we hand over any 20RMB notes in the future!  There were not so many notable mountains for the last hour or so of the boat but fortunately the sun was out so we just sat on the deck enjoying the view.  Our arrival in Yangshuo was chaos, most passengers on the boats just come here for a day trip, but we were here for a week so had our bags to lug from the harbour.  As we are clambering up the stone steps from the harbour rucksacks in hands the hawkers are swarming us trying to sell us everything from a book with photos of the Li River to a Chairman Mao watch with a waving hand.  We got through the commotion to face another market but we also got through that unscathed.  Having been in China for a few weeks we had got used to jumping in a taxi, producing our hotel/hostel booking form and being transported for just a few pounds to the door, we had no reason to believe that this wouldn’t work here.  Seemingly Yangshuo is largely pedestrianized and has all sorts of one way systems so the only taxi in the vicinity refused to take us to our hostel as it was ‘too far’ there was not even the usual negotiation of paying off the meter, this was just not going to happen.  Fortunately Tim had invested in a Chinese sim card so we fired up the internet on his phone and discovered that the hostel was a 10 minute walk.  This sounds perfect until you add in the 35 degree burning sun, and the cobbled streets which mean our rucksacks fall over every ten seconds.  Argghhh!  We made it to our hostel and typical we were on the 4th floor, this bag carrying malarkie has got to be doing us some good, if only we could cut out the chocolate and ice cream snacking we should be super models by now!

Our hostel had advertised a rooftop bar, so as the sun was shining we decided it would be rude not to investigate.  Oh what a view and for £10 a night for a double en-suite room we could not be happier, oh yes we could big beers were only 60p!  We took in the view and enjoyed a beer before venturing into the town to see what was going on.  The nice thing about Yangshuo is that no building can be more than 6 stories as they want to keep the charm of the river and the mountain views.  It is also a very small town with just one main pedestrianized street and a couple of smaller roads leading into it.  Yangshuo is a little bit like the Benidorm or St Malo of China, it is just there for tourists and so the streets are made up of shops, bars, restaurants and hawkers doing everything in their power to sell you a bamboo boat trip on the river.  The main street in Yangshuo where it all happens is West Street, this is just chaos especially at 2.30 in the afternoons when the boats have arrived.  Our first day we decided to stick with what we know and went to a Chinese restaurant that looked busy with people sat outside.  China had been so cheap up until now, suddenly you could tell that this was a town made for day trippers as the drinks were the most expensive in China, £3 for a small beer, ouch!  The food was nothing to write home about and it was only as we were leaving that we realised we were at the wrong restaurant and the busy one was actually next door, it just had the same furniture and table cloths, rookie error.  Sadly this rookie error came back to haunt me that night at 3am as I have my head down the toilet with food poisoning.  Seriously, how is it possible to get food poisoning from sweet and sour vegetables and rice!  I have never been more thankful for an en-suite bathroom and a western toilet in my life.  Thankfully the next day I seemed to be over the worst and after some bread and water and some more sleep I was ready to get back to touring.  The one problem now was that I had no desire to eat Chinese food ever again, this could be problematic with another 2 weeks to go until we leave.

Our favourite daily activity in Yangshou became going to the harbour each day to watch the boats arriving and the tourists looking dazed and confused being harassed by the hawkers.  As well as the hawkers at the harbour there were some old fishermen with their cormorants, for 50p you could take a picture holding the stick with the birds on, but the sneaky tourists (and Tim and I) would try and get some freebie shots much to the annoyance of the fishermen. One day when we were waiting for the boat to arrive a real old fisherman went past on his boat and parked up by us so we couldn’t resist paying up our 50p each for a photo with his birds.  He even let us stand on his raft and wear his hat, too much fun.  I even got to pat one of the birds and they are soft as silk.  We then decided that we definitely needed to book one of the cormorant fishing tours to see how they do it.

One of the main tourist attractions in Yangshuo is the Impression Sanje Liu light show, this is just like a son et lumiere in France, only it is on the river.  This show took 5 years to plan, was created by a team of 67 famous designers and has over 700 performers.  We were not sure what to expect but we got cheap tickets from our hostel so it had to be done.  The show was really quite cool, it had boats, buffalos, singing, dancing, cormorants and even light up costumes.  We are still not really too sure of the story line but some of the effects were brilliant and we were definitely glad we went.

The following day we decided to hire a moped to go out into the countryside to see some of the rice paddies and tea plantations around the mountains.  Most people cycle but with Tim’s knees and my inability to ride a bike a moped was definitely the only option.  We set off with a route map and had to be back before dark so away we went.  The first 10 minutes I squealed in Tim’s ears to slow down as the main road was manic, but once we hit the cycle path it was much more relaxing.  Along the way you could see people working in the fields, walking their water buffalo and just generally going about their days, this was a nice treat to the hustle of the city and even the tourist town.  Not long into the journey we felt a few spots of rain, but didn’t think anything of it…… we kept on going and followed our map and before long the nice cycle path had gone and we were back on a road.  Using our best navigational skills we followed the map and assumed we would be back on a cycle path in just a few minutes.  No, in a few minutes we were on a two lane motorway chugging along on our little moped.  We stopped a few times and looked at the map and took a few side roads and each time they just took us to dead ends in villages.  After a few failed attempts to find the path and with the weather getting windier and more rainy I finally lost my sense of humour and demanded that we head back the way we came.  Thank goodness I did as about 5 minutes after got back on the cycle path the heavens opened.  We were whizzing through the countryside in shorts and t-shirts in the soaking rain, heh heh, you have to laugh, at least we were not on a motorway headed to Vietnam.  We still had a few stops for photo opportunities along the way and took in the amazing smell of the tea being grown before we went back to the hostel to dry off and warm up.

Sadly this was just the beginning of the rain in Yangshuo, little did we know that Vietnam was being battered with typhoon Son-Tinh and we had the tail end of the storm passing over us.  The rain was unbelievable, just non-stop and torrential, but that was not going to stop us!

Our next tour was Night Cormorant Fishing, we had no idea what this entailed but it only cost £4 each so we didn’t really expect much.  This was the best value trip ever!  We walked to the harbour just opposite our hostel and we set off with a few other tourists on a bamboo raft in the pitch black, this was quite eerie with the rain and fog over the mountains.  As we headed upstream we could see a bright spotlight being flashed our way.  This was out cormorant fisherman.  He set sail alongside us standing on his tiny little bamboo raft which had a huge spotlight on the front and big basket.  He had at least 5 cormorants who were swimming in front of the boat.  As we set sail the cormorants where ducking and diving and when one came up with a fish in its mouth the fisherman would stick his oar under its feet and pluck it out of the water, he would then tip its head towards the basket and the fish would fall out of the cormorants gullet.  The cormorants have a string tied around their neck so they can only swallow the small fish that they catch.  We laughed whilst watching one of the cormorants fall behind just out of the sight of the spotlight trying to bite a fish in half to get it in its beak.  The fisherman was amazing at being able to tell which birds had swallowed fish as sometimes he would pluck one out and it would regurgitate 3 or 4 fish.  There are all sorts of horror stories on travel forums about the birds being badly treated but these birds looked pretty happy and there was nothing stopping them from swimming off.  After about 15 minutes of going down the river we pulled into the river bank and got to have a look at the catch and the birds more closely.  One of the women on the boat had her photo taken with the cormorant on her arm so I was next in line with my arm out ready to receive the cormorant.  But it would seem that the fisherman fancied having a laugh with me and stuck it on my shoulder, now I didn’t see that coming! 

Our next rain friendly tour was to a the Gold Water caves, we had to get the public bus here and our hostel had told us that this usually costs 30p but as it is raining they might try to charge us 50p each.  The first bus we asked tried to charge us £4.50 each, do we look like mugs?!  Finally we got our bus for 50p each and were on our way.  The Gold Water Caves are one of many caves in the Yangshuo, they were discovered in the eighties by some climbers.  When you arrived you are escorted through some amazing rock formations that look like they belong on a Hollywood movie set, what adds to the this is the muticolour lighting that has been added for effect.  As with most things in china the rocks have all been given names to reflect what they look like, the curtain, the mushroom, the elephant horse?!  But the colourful rocks were not really the main attraction for us here, the mud bath is!  We are 60 meters underground and we are about to spend 30 minutes swimming in mud!  Swimwear at the ready and we get right in.  luckily as it is raining and not peak tourist season there are only 2 other people in the mud so we have the best time splashing around and making full use of our underwater camera.  The mud was amazing as you can lie back and just float in it.  When we tried to swim we were like Olympians as we went at the speed of light.  After our 30 minutes were up our guide dragged us out of the mud, we could have quite happily stayed there but apparently we are only allowed 30 minutes.  Into the shower and onto the next adventure, the hot water springs.  Again fully lit with the gaudy lighting and we floated around in the hot spring getting rid of the final traces of mud.  Eventually we got so wrinkly we decided it was probably time to get out.  When we finally went back over ground the rain was as heavy as ever so it was back to the bus, only 30p for the return, result!

Our time in Yangshuo was so nice and relaxed it would have been a treat to have some sun but at least we had a couple of days in shorts and flip flops.  After my bout of food poisoning we made more of an effort to research our dinner options and found a row of Indian restaurants, each night we tried and different one and saved the best for last, voted no1 on Trip advisor so we had high hopes and boy was it good.  Vegetable Thali with all the trimming for just £5, amazing!

Our time in Yangshuo was over so it was time to get the bus to Guilin then our train to Shanghai, typically the day we have to go we wake up to beautiful red hot sunshine.  We head off to the bus station and for £1.50 we get a big golf cart to deliver us the 10 minute walk, so worth it.  When we get to the bus station, with hours to spare, we are rushed onto a bus that is about to depart.  We don’t really have much say in the matter as our bags were loaded and we were ushered onto the bus as soon as we said Guilin.  The problem with this is that as we got on the bus we quickly saw that it was totally full, save for the middle back seat which had no back to it?  There was  no chance of us getting off and getting our bags, I was shoved into the backless back seat and out of nowhere the ticket lady produced a small plastic childrens stool and plonked it in the aisle and told Tim to sit down. Did I mention that this bus is 90 minutes?  This was not the most comfortable journey but at least we made it in one piece, just about.

Once at Guilin, we found a little café at the train station and had some dinner ready for the overnighter to Shanghai.  At Guilin station we found the ‘Soft Seat Lounge’ apparently when you buy the expensive ticket like we had been doing there should be a nice comfortable lounge for you to wait in for your train.  Once the train was in, we were escorted to the platform, such a difference from the rugby tackle style we have been used to.  How can we only discover this on our last train.  When we get onto our carriage we have a middle aged Chinese couple who are getting settled.  The problem with this is that we are blocking the entire carriage with our bags but there is nowhere for us to move them until the couple let us into the carriage.  Chinese trains are really not made for backpackers as there is just nowhere to put luggage.  Our backpacks just about fit under the bottom bunk but this takes a great deal of impact maintenance.  Eventually the couple decided that they could delay putting on their slippers and within minutes we had our luggage stowed and were settled for the night.  The next morning we were woken by the second most terrible noise I have heard in China (the spitting being the first without exception), eating.  This couple had the most insane way of eating I have ever experience.  A bit like giving an annoying 5 year old a bowl of noodles, they were slurping them up, and as if that wasn’t bad enough when they ate something that needed chewing they were making noises like a Labrador with a bowl of icecream, literally accentuating every chew.  I literally felt sick so put my iphone on and hoped they didn’t have any more courses to go.  Luckily they got off after a few hours and we had the cabin to ourselves.  As the train had left 40 minutes late we assumed that we would arrive 40 minutes late.  Nope.  The train somehow managed to catch up by twenty minutes, thankfully Shanghai was the last stop otherwise we would probably have been in a bit of a predicament.

We were chased off the train by the conductor and there we were in Shanghai, our last stop in China and the end of our mammoth rail journey through China.  We are going to miss sleeper trains, they are just too cosy and convenient!
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