- Day 3: FULL-ON CITY
- Day 4: A THOUSAND GRANDMAS
- Day 5: ALL ABOUT SHANSUI ON THE LIJIANG
- Day 6: BACK TO GUILIN
Day 3: FULL-ON CITY
We didn’t arrive in the Guilin vicinity from Hong Kong until about 5:30pm. Contrasting the continuous rains and gloomy skies from Hong Kong, Guilin seemed to have fine weather.
But after meeting our tour guide Linda, we learned from her that this fine weather was preceded by several days of heavy rains even as late as noon today. I guess we could consider ourselves lucky that we happened to arrive when the storms had passed.
As we were making our way from the airport to Guilin city, we could see right away that this place was a far cry from the rural imagery we were led to believe prior to this trip. All those photographs and descriptions kind of built up our expectations that this place was somehow laid back and naturesque, and that it would be a blast from the past of old China. In fact, Julie even exclaimed that this wasn’t what was “sold” to us in the literature prior to the trip.
But I guess what else could we have expected in a country that is the most populous in the world and developing at breakneck speed?
While we were coming to terms with the disconnect between our preconceptions versus the reality of what was right in front of us, the guide tried to sell us hard on the reflexology treatments. We were a little surprised by this, but we decided that instead of going for it right off the bat, we decided to make that decision after tomorrow.
After checking in and getting settled, it was night time and we were looking for something to eat for dinner. Since we were eager to try some authentic local Chinese food, we decided to stroll around the city when we stumbled upon some walking street that unassumingly began as some alleyway not far from our hotel.
As we walked deeper into the shopping district, the walkways resembled something more like what we might be familiar with at 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA or the French Quarter in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Except this time, all the signs were in simplified Chinese characters and the vast majority of tourists seemed to be Chinese people. We certainly couldn’t tell which ones were local to Guilin and which ones were from elsewhere in China.
We had a little bit of trouble trying to figure out where to eat as there was no shortage of eating places. But we soon realized that there was a lack of english menus in a lot of these restaurants, and that got us a bit worried about where we were to eat. While I tried to study simplified Chinese characters prior to this trip, I was nowhere near the proficiency I needed to get anywhere with these menus.
Well, at least I knew enough simplified Chinese characters to identify that some places were selling horse meat.
We finally settled on some soup place. The menu was completely in Chinese so we pretty much asked the waitress what the most famous dish here was and just went with her recommendations.
“In Japan, we’re going to be in trouble,” said Julie. “At least here, we could get by with our Chinese, but in Japan, we can’t speak or read Japanese.”
Of course that thought did cross my mind, but I figured this was all part of the adventure, right?
Eventually at around 8:30am, we got back to the hotel. Sure it was getting busier and busier in this shopping plaza we stumbled upon, and we wanted to be part of the atmosphere here. But we were tired and decided to crash at the hotel. We’ll see what tomorrow brings…
Day 4: A THOUSAND GRANDMAS
After waking up and having a quick Western-style breakfast, we met up with Linda and Mr. Deng (the driver) at 8am and made our way out of Guilin City. Of course, getting out the city wasn’t easy because there were lots of cars, scooters (not so many bicycles), and people everywhere.
Linda was lamenting that of the four major bridges in the city, at least three of them have some kind of construction being done to them which was further adding to the gridlock.
Now this was the Guilin that sold both Julie and I on coming here as opposed to the urban chaos from last night and this morning. Further adding to the allure of the scenery was that today was a beautifully clear and sunny day.
Linda said that today we were getting the north wind so that kept the mist away. There were also several consecutive days of heavy rains before we arrived so we noticed lots of water in those rice paddies and street gutters.
It wasn’t until around 9:30am that we arrived at the car park for the Crown Jewel Cave. While there, we could see across the Li River more karst peaks backing the scenery as well as the many tourist boats making the obligatory journey from Guilin to Yangshuo. Apparently, that’s going to be us on one of those cruises tomorrow.
At first, we walked along a paved walkway that was flanked by some kind of Disneyland Autopia-like self-driving “rollercoaster” tracks. We thought that was a bit of a strange juxtaposition, but I guess different strokes for different folks.
After getting to the end of this straight walk, we took an entrance that required a real quick boat ride into a quiet entrance after climbing up a few stairs. Apparently, Linda wanted us to take this entrance and walk in a direction opposite the ubiquitous big group tours, which we knew the Chinese are notorious for.
Just before we entered the cave, we looked back at the karstic scene one last time as we simply couldn’t get enough of that stark juxtaposition of sharply rising bush-clad peaks with a wide river fronting it all. This all whetted our appetite for the Lijiang River Cruise we were to do tomorrow so we were hoping the weather would stay cooperative.
Inside the dark cave, it was immediately apparent that there were lots of “bells and whistles” per se inside to add a little spice to the tourist experience. I guess you could argue that any cave with lighting has to have some unnatural manmade element (e.g. the artificial lighting) to it or else you couldn’t see a thing.
The thing with this cave was that this “necessary evil” was taken another step further given that the lighting scheme used was of the rather fancy colored lighting variety complemented with sound effects accentuating some of the stories and signs being pitched within.
Deep inside the cave, there was even a row boat ride through some real dark parts of the cave. It definitely lasted longer than our Waitomo Caves experience in New Zealand a long time ago. Too bad this cave didn’t have any of those glowworms though.
On the other side of the boat ride, we immediately started to hear the loud roar of a waterfall. So we descended down even more ramps and stairs until we eventually got to an apparent ticket stand right in front of the entranceway to the underground waterfall. I guess our entrance admission didn’t include the waterfall and we had to pay another 5 yuan each to go further and experience the very reason why we went to the Crown Jewel Cave in the first place.
I guess getting nickeled and dimed wasn’t new as we saw how there were condoms, extra toothbrushes, and other amenities for a fee in our hotel bathroom in Universal Guilin Hotel in Guilin City.
Anyways, we took what photos we can with the tripod without getting too much mist on the camera lens. But when Julie and I tried to take couple shots of ourselves before the falls, a large group of Chinese tourists came in and a pair of women walked right in front of our photo and insisted on staying there.
Even after Linda and later Julie tried to get them to move (and this was after we let them take their photos), they seemingly weren’t very responsive to their requests so we just took what compromised photos we could and continued on with our tour.
We’ve come across rude Chinese tourists before even in Yellowstone, but I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, when you have 1.25 billion people, sometimes survival requires a little bit of insistence at the expense of courtesy.
I recalled how my grandma (coming from a poor rural area in Sichuan province) exhibited similar behavior, and my mom warned me that China was like a thousand grandmas where we had better expect this kind of behavior and act accordingly, or else… So we considered ourselves warned.
Next, we drove towards the Gudong Waterfall not far from here.
The plan was to beat the tour groups and have our lunch first. We’d visit the waterfall later.
After arriving at the car park, we walked further into the area, where we crossed a bridge and continued walking alongside some kind of “lake”. The walk was entertaining because there was a lady on a raft singing some Chinese songs (sounding somewhat like some of those Chinese operas) to anyone who’d listen on the walking path. Some Chinese tourists even recognized some of the songs and sang along.
The lunch consisted of catfish with some familiar cooked green spinach-like vegetables, some kind of Chinese egg omelette, soup, and white rice. It really reminded us of the types of home cooked meals we had growing up. And after overeating in Hong Kong, we didn’t mind this more “organic” homey meal while limiting our portions.
After the lunch, Linda, Julie, and I proceeded to walk to the Gudong Waterfall. The well-developed concrete path went right through some pretty dense jungle. It definitely felt pretty naturesque so far with the exception of the concrete beneath our feet, but then when we got to the first waterfall, we could see that bolts were put in to facilitate climbing from paying customers for the waterfall climb with their gear.
In actuality, this waterfall was more like a series of limestone waterfalls. It was very reminiscent of our Erawan Waterfall experience in Thailand as there was one waterfall after another the higher up you go.
The difference with this waterfall was that there was a waterway path where you actually walk in the creek and up the waterfalls all the way through. We took the dry path since we’re more interested in getting a flavor of the place and we didn’t want to risk damaging our camera as well as other valuables. Besides, we had a busy day today.
Now as I was mentioning earlier about the initial part of the walk being somewhat quiet and naturesque, we could definitely see that the waterfalls were more for that thrill-seeking experience of climbing up the waterfalls directly with the aid of rope and the bolts.
Beyond this first waterfall, we were then starting to see one waterfall after another. Most of them were pretty tiny, and they really felt more like play waterfalls than the kind to look at. Pretty much all in pockets, we saw long queues of people in helmets waiting their turn to go up the next ascent.
So we meandered about getting decent exercise for ourselves as well as for the camera.
We also noticed that some modifications were made to waterfalls to facilitate the climbing. Typically the modifications involved putting in footholds and bolts to latch rope onto. We also couldn’t tell, but we swore that some of the walls appeared to be reinforced and not genuine walls though we couldn’t be sure.
Eventually, we got to the last waterfall, which had some burning incense sticks right in front of it. I don’t think I had ever seen a waterfall juxtaposed with incense sticks before. So that was kind of weird yet strangely appropriate.
Anyways, this quiet jaunt into the forest area was pretty soothing for the mind and body. We explained to Linda that this was why we like waterfalls so much.
But that relative peace and tranquility was quickly dashed on our way out as large Chinese tour groups with tour guides speaking through bullhorns once again invaded the premises (apparently they were done with lunch by now). And it got worse as we went closer to the entrance. In fact, that entrance area was totally crowded with people from multiple tour groups with multiple bullhorned tour guides blaring their lectures and instructions all at the same time. We were quite glad that we had our lunch first and then toured afterwards.
At this point, we headed back to Guilin City. Surrounded by karst peaks in the clear skies under the sunny weather, I wished we could take some time to try to take photographs showing the idyllic scenery. But we were supposed to be doing those kind of shots anyways on the Li River Cruise tomorrow – supposing the weather cooperates, knock on wood.
The shady spots at this place was quite cool and provided some welcome relief from the humidity. But the really cool thing about this place were the Buddha statues and other figurines either carved into alcoves in the caves or were figurines perched within the elevated alcoves.
When we looked out towards the river, we could see more of that classic karst scenery juxtaposed with the urban developments of the city. I guess if there had to be a scenic spot amongst the concrete jungle, then a place like this would fit the bill.
Not long thereafter, we drove to the Reed Flute Cave. We got there at a little after 3pm so it was getting a little late in the day and we had to make sure that we not only saw this place but also spent some time at the Elephant Trunk Hill as well before the day was over.
What made this particular cave stand out was that it felt more cavernous than the Crown Jewel Cave. However, it also featured some moody cool lighting as well, which added a bit to the atmosphere (even though we knew some of it was contrived).
We didn’t have to walk far to get from the entrance to where the path seemed to stop. All the while we were seeing colorful lighting feature the normal stalactites and stalagmites typical in just about all caves as well as some reflective ponds.
But the claim to fame of this particular cave was a particularly large amphitheater area where there was a pair of pools containing reflections of lit up stalactites and stalagmites while having periodic light and music shows in that very chamber.
We easily spent several minutes here as one tour group after another would go in and out of this area. The gasps of delight upon first seeing this place were definitely audibly on a periodic basis. I guess the reaction to this place was pretty common from one group to the next.
By 4pm, we got to the very busy attraction. The Elephant Trunk Hill was a pretty neat natural arch carved out by the Li River. But getting close to this attraction seemed to require a boat ride. We were content to just take photos of this attraction while listening to Linda tell some stories and tidbits about the natural arch.
A pleasant surprise of the area was a nice panoramic view near a distinctly Chinese arched footbridge towards the landscape behind Elephant Trunk Hill. What made this panorama a big deal was the presence of another giant natural arch called Tunnel Hill. Too bad I didn’t bring my telephoto lens to reel in the Tunnel Hill closer to us.
Afterwards, we made a brief walk along a canal surrounded by fragrant trees. I think Linda said something to the effect that these trees are more prevalent in Hong Kong, and I’m betting that this is the fragrance of the “Fragrant Harbor” which is what Hong Kong literally means (in Cantonese; Xianggang in Mandarin).
At 5pm, we returned to the Universal Guilin Hotel.
We turned down offers to go for reflexology treatments as well as pearls and silk factory visits (after experiencing Egypt, we knew we were getting the sell on, but at least she didn’t push any further). Instead, we just wanted to unwind a little bit before heading into the happening part of Guilin at night once again.
When 7pm rolled around, we walked into that happening part again and this time snacked on a handful of very spicy skewers of chicken, lamb, and squid, as well an interesting tiny Chinese version of the Sloppy Joe.
Julie and I opted not to go for a sit down restaurant.
After reading the best I could of some of the simplified Chinese signs from the restaurants within the happening district, I couldn’t help but notice this one place that was actually selling horsemeat! I guess learning to read Chinese prior to the trip had its benefits on this day. Of course I still had a long way to go on getting anywhere close to functional with the world’s oldest active written language.
It was interesting watching locals and nonlocals walking out and about in this happening part of town. Many of the Chinese women here were dressed as if they were going clubbing, but I couldn’t tell if they really were going clubbing or if that’s just the way Chinese women dress when going out. Of course, Linda warned us that it’s hard to tell who’s the local and who’s merely Chinese tourists from other parts of the country. And she was right!
Eventually at about 8:30pm, we were back at our room. And so ended a pretty eventful day in Guilin. We’re hoping for the best for tomorrow as the wind was forecast to shift from the North Wind to the South Wind, which was said to mean we might have to expect fog and overcast skies.
So we’ll see what comes next…
Day 5: ALL ABOUT SHANSUI ON THE LIJIANG
The morning started off uneventfully as we got packed and shared the breakfast dining hall with a large German tour group.
By 8:40am, we left the Universal Guilin Hotel, braved the morning rush hour traffic, and then finally got to the foreigners’ wharf at 9:30am where we promptly walked through the diesel fumes (from the boats getting ready to leave) and boarded our cruise boat.
The seating was a bit cramped as we had to sit with strangers. There really wasn’t a whole lot of room to maneuver or put our day packs away under the seat. The boat itself was pretty crowded with tourists that were of obvious non-Chinese descent as well as other Chinese people choosing to take this particular tour instead of the dedicated Chinese one.
Right off the bat as the tour boat headed down the Li River (Lijiang), there was those classic karst peaks rising above the river and immediate surroundings. It was as if the Chinese landscape paintings on scrolls were brought to life on this sunny but hazy day.
I spent most of my time at the very top deck of the boat along with hordes of other tourists. Julie spent most of her time reading her Stephenie Meyer books in the comfort of the air-conditioned dining area.
She also explained to me the Chinese word for landscape – “shan shui.” It was literally “mountain water” but I knew with the Chinese language than literal translations seldomly work, and the metaphor of this word combination would surely stick.
Eventually, at a little after 11:15am, we got to a point where Linda said was the landscape on the back of the 20 yuan note. It was strange that this was also the same time when people were summoned downstairs for the buffet lunch.
But in any case, we seized this moment and took what photos we could of the scene before us, which really reminded us of Milford Sound in New Zealand as there was a towering conical peak adjacent to the river in much the same way Mitre Peak towered over the fjord in Milford Sound.
It was quite hot and humid down here and Julie and I swore it must’ve muggier than it was back in Guilin.
In any case, we walked the next 15 minutes to our hotel. At least this one seemd to have a functional air conditioner in our room and was pretty clean. I’m not sure we could say that about our last place we stayed at in downtown Guilin.
During the walk back, Julie was concerned with the amount of vehicular traffic on the main road. The original itinerary called for us to be self-renting a bicycle to go the next 10km or so to the arch at Moon Hill. But after seeing the chaotic traffic in this charming little “town,” she talked Linda and I into just going for a car ride to Moon Hill (for an extra fee of course).
Linda exlained that as you look at this giant natural arch at different angles, you could actually see the opening in various “phases” just like the phases of the moon. No wonder why this was called Moon Hill.
We didn’t linger here for too long and decided to leave the area and head back to the city. But before we made it all the way there, we had the driver stop at a bridge letting us get some real attractive views of a town fronting karst peaks with the river cutting through all this.
In a way, it seemed that this area was probably what Guilin was like. It definitely had less development, but we are concerned in the future whether Yangshuo will lose its charm and become the urban chaos like Guilin City was.
Nevertheless, we felt Yangshuo was indeed prettier than Guilin and we could only hope that this place can still retain that piece of romanticism communicated in the Chinese watercolor landscape paintings we had frequently seen while growing up.
After this brief stop, we had Linda and Mr. Deng drop us off at the Green Lotus Hotel so we could snap a few photographs of the landscae behind the property. From there, we’d walk all the way back to our hotel. But in the mean time, we got to check out more of the attractive scenery and soak in some of the atmosphere of Yangshuo.
A particularly attractive part we noticed while revisiting West Road was a garden-like pond area in front of the Paradesa Hotel. Apparently, we were supposed to stay there, but they ran out of space when we booked so we ended up with a hotel another 10-15 minutes walk further.
A particularly annoying (yet familiar) part of our wanderings in Yangshuo was the prevalence of hawkers (looking for someone willing to buy whatever was being presented and collect some commission on it) and beggars (lookin for handouts). Sure the aggressiveness was a bit more severe in places like Egypt and this really wasn’t anything new to us so we just took it in stride and tried not to give any attention to them.
Certainly this was indicative of the amount of poverty in the area.
Eventually at around 3:30pm, we got some relief from the heat and humidity of high noon in a semi-tropical area. There, we had somewhat of a brief siesta before we went looking for a quick dinner before our booked 7am meeting to get whisked away on some kind of Li River light and dance show.
So at around 5:30pm, we headed back out and braved the maze of aggressive people trying to steer you into their restaurant or local shop.
We also had to be careful when crossing any street with vehicular traffic since no one yields to pedestrian traffic. It’s basically cross with caution because the onus is on the pedestrian (not the driver) to get out of the way.
There we took a few photographs from their 2nd floor balcony while waiting for our food. From up at this level, we could see the bustling West Rd scene with both karst peaks in the background of this charming town with its mixture of chaotic traffic and bustling foot traffic.
The food was seemingly local stuff that we probably grew up on at one point or another though in this case, it was eggplant with some kind of spicy mabo sauce along with white rice.
Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel just in time to be picked up by our guide and driver to go to some kind of Li River Light and Dance Show.
It seemed like the entire town of Yangshuo was headed there as there was a ridiculous amount of traffic at the road leading to the theater. We eventually decided to leave Mr. Deng at the car and walk our way to the entrance.
Once at our outdoor seats, we could see the view was facing some kind of body of water backed by silhouettes of very shapely karst peaks. I’d swear that if this wasn’t in a theater, this would’ve been a postcard landscape photo op during the day.
Anyways, my suspicions that the whole town of Yangshuo came here to see the show was founded as the nearly 2000-seat outdoor amphitheater was pretty full.
The show was supposedly directed and choreographed by the same guy who organized the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the Bird’s Nest, which Julie and I only saw glimpses of after the fact. But my parents swore it was a moving and riveting show so when we learned about the correlation between that and this show, we expected something with lots of grandeur and dramatic music mixed with plenty of light fantastic moments.
I’m sure it’d have more meaning to Chinese people since all of the lyrics and signs were in Chinese. And even though I could pick up bits and pieces of the words, I probably knew as much about what was going on as any other foreigner who didn’t speak a word of Chinese.
But the show did lose its luster based on the inability of some people in the crowd to follow rules and exercise a little courtesy. Throughout the performance, there were people having side conversations, talking on their cellphones, and even smoking when the signs clearly indicated “No Burning.”
After getting out of the crowded theater area, we had plenty of time to talk to Linda about the show as our vehicle was boxed in. That was when we learned quite a bit about the meaning of the show and how much we missed by not being able to follow some of the background and the Chinese.
That was also when we learned that the body of water in which the performance took place was actually on the Lijiang (Li River) itself! No wonder why this show would be so weather dependent because if the river was in flood, those performers would be in serious danger.
She further explained to us that the “li” in the name is derived from the word “li kai” which means to separate or leave. But in this case, this river is on the south fork of a larger body of water shared with another river that eventually feeds into the Yangzi River (the same one that is held up by the Three Gorges Dam).
Indeed, it seemed like the entire day was affiliated with the Lijiang in one way or another. But this pretty cool show was like the nightcap of what the river revealed.
We eventually got back to the hotel at around 9:30pm. There, I saw that West Rd was even busier than it was during the day. It must’ve been an electric scene possibly reminiscent of something we had experienced in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but we wouldn’t take part in it as Julie was dead tired.
Day 6: BACK TO GUILIN
We had ourselves a Western style brekkie at our hotel in Yangshuo at 8am. We didn’t think too highly of it, but it wasn’t at all surprising considering the Chinese making Western food is like a guy from Oklahoma making Chinese food.
It wasn’t until we saw Linda coming out and greeting us but not eating with us did we realize that she went into the Chinese breakfast side. So we followed her in and found a bounty of familiar Chinese foods from mantous to baozis to chao mien and more… Needless to say, we had a second breakfast before we checked out and left.
At 9:30am, we left Yangshuo and left for Guilin.
The roadside trip was quite scenic and different from the boat ride on the Lijiang. But much of the scenery was idyllic with rice paddies and other crop growing fields fronting the familiar rounded karst mountains crowding the backdrop like a thousand fingers pointing to the sky.
There wasn’t really a decent place to stop and take photographs so I only had the memory of what was seen on this car ride.
As we passed through a few toll roads and returned to the familiar highway leading back into Guilin, we couldn’t help but notice how much hazier it was today even though the sun was out.
Linda warned us that the South Wind arrived yesterday and continued today. So the visibility was quite reduced from say the first day we toured in Guilin when much of the landscape was quite clear.
At 11am, we were pretty much back in town.
We made a quick stop at the Bank of China to exchange some more money. We had expected this to be quick, but apparently this branch didn’t seem to deal with foreign exchanges very much as it took forever (compared so say when you do the exchange at the airport).
In any case, it was done and we continued onwards to the Seven Stars Park. There, we joined hordes of tour groups with tour leaders yapping into loudspeakers.
We checked out the Camel Hill before going to a more peaceful part of the park to get a quick gemology lesson by the local gemologist. After taking a look at some of the displays and learning a little bit about where they came from, we gradually got to a point where some of these gems started having price tags.
I knew where this was going.
Anyways, towards the end of this particular visit, we were getting the sell on put on us. At least it’s not anything pushy like in Egypt or Southern Africa, but it could’ve been annoying had it not been at the very end of the sightseeing in Guilin after seeing all the important sights first.
Before we knew it, we rushed to see a manmade waterfall (not) in a garden-like area before it was time to go. At that point, we headed back to the car and made a beeline for the busy Guilin Train Station to make it to our train ride to Nanning.
It was quite crowded and the train was quite packed. It wasn’t easy trying to put our luggage in place without being a fire hazard since there really wasn’t any room for them. And so we proceeded onwards to the next leg of our Chinese journey wondering how we’ll deal with train rides later on in this trip…
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