China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 5 (v.1) - Yangshuo Guilin

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 239

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Guilin/Yangshuo
The only thing worse than not getting what you want, Oscar Wilde, once noted, is getting what you want. I saw the truth of this when I went from the gleaming new China airport to the wretched old China bus station in Guilin. This was the ‘real’ China I thought I had wanted to see. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to leave it.
Let me paint you a picture. Each of my five senses is assaulted in a different way. It’s the sound of Chinese bus stations that really gets to me: The roar of men hawking phlegm from all sides; that 30-second guttural throat cleaning; that demonic sound; that sound no human should be physically capable of creating. If there is a Hell, I will be sure to find Beelzebub himself waiting for me there and beckoning me closer, hawking phlegm.
And then there is the cacophony of noise produced by the hoards of other travellers; chaotically milling to and fro, as if war had just been declared and there was 10 minutes to flee for their lives before the enemy arrived. Sometimes one sound becomes so loud it temporarily deafens the others: the barking tour guides; the extended families of a million; the honking bus drivers trying to clear a path through the melee.
The most unpleasant sound of all is my own pigeon Chinese (“qing-mai piao-na li”/ please-buy-ticket-where”); which usually gets a raucous laugh from the unhelpful staff, who can’t or won’t understand me.
Visually it all feels very oppressive as well. Men, unlike women, try to make sense of the world they find themselves in by focusing on one thing and then another, but we find it difficult to take in everything at once. In sight, as in so much else, man is sequential and cannot multi-task the way a woman can.
If you don’t believe me, faithful reader, notice how differently a man and a woman’s eye movements are when they enter a room, or even when they sit in a group: men stare at one thing at a time, and women take short glances at everything.
Encumbered with a man’s vision, I’m not having any luck finding the ticket booth. My eyes stare at signs, from one indecipherable Chinese character to another; peering at them, apparently oblivious to the fact that I cannot read a single Chinese character.
My eyes are also kept busy in staring contests with other men; another maladaptive male trait that leaves the male of the species so blind and helpless in situations like these. We do it instinctively, staring out other men, like dogs growling at each other.
Sandra had also warned me to ‘keep an eye on the bags’ in the bus station, further complicating matters, and adding more tasks to my already overworked eyeballs.
Protecting our luggage brought out the warrior in me; determined to defend my homestead against all aggressors; temporarily unaware that I could no more fight than I could ski.
The sense that was most active, I know realise, was not hearing or sight, or any of the five senses. It was the sense of fear that was awakened. I was a stranger in a strange land, and the only white face for miles. I stood out from the crowd and was a centre of attention. While I sometimes find this intoxicating, I sometimes find it terrifying.
I felt like I was being watched by some very disreputable characters; gangs from some kind of Dickensian fable, all singing the Chinese version of Fagan’s ‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two, gov.’ . I felt people eyeing up my bags, wondering what Western delights lay inside; waiting on me to let my guard down for a moment; like vultures waiting for a moment of weakness before swooping down to carry off a young calf. I should stress the word ‘felt’ here. I didn’t see it: I felt it. Or more probably, I simply imagined it.
With one eye in a staring contest with a particularly suspicious looking type, one eye guarding our bags, one ear focused on some hawking and the other listening to an old women breaking the sound barrier, I was quite shocked to suddenly find the filthiest of begging bowls stuffed under my nose. I wondered where it had come from. A wily, crippled octogenarian had apparently sneaked up on me and appeared from nowhere.
He wanted money, but when I said no, he agreed to be bargained down to three cigarettes, but this act of carcinogenic generosity attracted beggars from all sides; all wanting to sample my foreign cigarettes, and each one filthier than the last.
I was reverting to growling and snarling, a primitive state I enter in times of acute stress, both real and imagined, probably caused by spending too much time in the company of canines as a child. Fortunately, Sandra recognised that I was about to go into Rantis Extremis and made the executive decision to get a taxi.
Like so many taxi drivers in China, he dreamt of being able to take the rest of the week off by charging an ignorant foreigner like me the most outrageous of fares, but we bargained him down to only triple the appropriate fare, skilled bargainers that we are.
This rather long introduction to Yangshuo is simply to point out that there are many negative aspects to travelling. Some claim the best part of any trip is the journey, but if bus stations were the best part of any trip, I’d never leave home!
The 30 minutes we spent in the bus station also seem to occupy a disturbingly large part of my notes for the day, so it must have seemed important to me at the time. However, rewriting this travel diary years after the event, I can’t help wondering what on Earth I had got so worked up about. Perhaps I’m more used to travelling in the developing world now, and can’t see why a grotty bus station left me so shaken. Or perhaps I’m simply growing up.
Anyway, we eventually found ourselves in Yangshuo, which my guide book described as ‘legendary’. The reason for its mythic status is its ‘karst rock formations’, a great deal more beautiful than they sound.
Yangshuo contains countless odd undulating mountains; the kind of scenery one always associates with China, but rarely actually finds there. To me, the mountains and hills of Yangshuo looked like a thousand Bell curves, worn away and left slightly jagged by rain and wind. The entire region was once underwater, and the landscape does look strangely subterranean, or even moon-like; or rather what the oceans or the moon would look like if they were covered in a thin layer of green vegetation.
We were lucky that the mist and cloud cleared for once and we could see the hills in all their undulating glory. We took a short river trip down the River Li on a tiny boat and tried to take it all in.
CCTV9, the government run English language TV station in China, which I found my self watching a lot through lack of any alternative, waxes very lyrical about this place, and often shows pretty young westerners being hypnotised by its scenic spiritual beauty, and then deciding to spend the rest of their lives here. Personally, I found three days to be enough. Geological features, I’ve always found, lose their appeal quite quickly. In a way, everything loses it appeal, or should I say its novelty value, quite quickly. We get used to things and stop noticing them. We are designed that way. Otherwise we’d never progress.
Nevertheless, the mountains are certainly beautiful, especially if you get to see them on foot or on a bike. However, my troublesome left foot, Sandra’s stomach pains, and the ever-present threat of rain, meant that serious hiking was out of the question. We did just about manage to haul our creaking frames onto a pair of mountain bikes for a few hours.
In order to avoid the hassle of having to read a map, something I’ve never really been able to do properly, we took a local guide with us. It was only 5 dollars for a half day, but I’m sure I could have bargained him down to a third that figure, if only I didn’t hate bargaining so much. I’ve always disliked guides too, I must admit, but it was too ‘fang bien’ (convenient) to resist.
I have two problems with guides: one, they cannot be silent; and two, they want to milk you for every Yuan you’ve got. So, despite my grumpy lack of interest, there was a lot of the usual guide stuff, like trying to pressure me into buying unwanted tours and providing me with redundant information, such as:
“This-rice field”
“This-buffalo”
“This-farmer”
“This-new department store-I have friend there-you want good Chinese silk?-I get you cheap price-big discount-you want?”
Nevertheless, every so often my steely contemptuous looks would make him shut up long enough to take in some of the scenery, which was, as they say, breathtaking. There are about 20,000 of these karst hill things, and they can leave you dizzy, or perhaps that was the lack of oxygen going to my brain, since it had been about five years since I was last on a bike.
You had to keep your eyes on the dirt road too, or you could find yourself sliding into a muddy ditch, or crashing into a rock and going head-over-heels off your bike and inadvertently head butting a mournful water buffalo.
The town of Yangshuo is, in itself, an anomaly. I’m writing this in a cafin the town’s centre, on Xie Jie, West Street. It’s a pedestrian zone lined by many cafes, with names like, ‘Minnie Mao’, ‘Drifters’, ‘Wild West’, and my personal favourite, ‘Co-Co’, which used to be called Coca Cola, until the long arm of the omnipotent Coca Cola corporation threatened them with a libel suit.
All of these cafes offer not only English menus, but also reasonably authentic Western food, a welcome rest bite from authentic Chinese food, which is all beginning to seem like fried vegetables covered in white slime.
Even a Chinese curry here actually tastes like the Chinese curry I used to have in Ireland, and not like a Chinese one! And yes, I am aware that one really shouldn’t go to China to experience authentic Western food, or inauthentic Chinese food, and even suggesting such a thing is a crass example of Western Imperialism, and who am I to criticise Chinese cuisine etc etc.
Yes, I know all of this, but I just don’t like Chinese food enough to want it seven days a week. I’m sorry-I just don’t like it that much!
The street also feeds a repetitive array of souvenir stalls. I’ve always been curious as to why stalls, especially souvenir stalls, always seem to be selling the same thing. Couldn’t they each specialise in something different? Imagine if supermarkets had aisles all selling the same thing.
I decided not to raise this issue with the stall holder and instead I bought a copy of Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book.’ An amazing six billion copies of the Little Red Book were published in Mao’s lifetime, making it perhaps the most published book of all time.
However, a cynic might note that failing to have a copy of the book on you at all times during the latter half of the Cultural Revolution could result in arrest or worse. Work Units throughout the country even used to have group study meetings of Mao Zedong Thought, in the belief that after being enlightened by the words of Mao, the workers’ efficient and output would inevitably increase. Rarely has a book held such power.
It is not, as one might imagine, the stunning work of literature its sales figures might suggest. It is not on a par with Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’. In fact, it is not even a real book. It is just a series of quotations Mao and his cronies could use to justify oppressing whatever person or group they suspected of disloyalty.
In some of his quotations, he warns about the dangers of altering, even slightly, the centrally planned economy, arguing that even a tiny loosening of the communist controlled system would snowball out of control, and allow the ‘capitalist roaders’ and ‘rightists’ to create an economic system based on greed, and this would destroy the socialist nature of the state within twenty years. I wondered what he’d make of today’s China, as near as damn it to naked capitalism, red in tooth and claw.
Yangshuo has more than its fair share of touts, and none of them are touting communism, let me assure you. Readers of my travel writings in India (all five of you!) will already know of the bitter war I am forced to wage against touts, enemies of the people, and the undisguised contempt I hold them in. Indeed, some of you may sigh in the knowledge that I am about to start ranting again about the exploiters of the proletarian tourist by the yolk of the tout oppressors.
But I will try to maintain a sense of dignified objectivity in my analysis of the problem. Firstly, let us look at the causes of touts in this region. As these karst rock formations are unfarmable, the land here being quite poor, there’s nothing much for the locals to live off except tourists, and because I was there in low season, there were quite a lot of locals trying to feed off a very limited number of tourists.
Bloated ‘Foreign Devils’ are especially appealing to the Vampire Touts of Yangshuo, and no crucifix will protect you from them. I toyed with the idea of using Mao’s Little Red Book instead, and denouncing them as ‘Rightists’, but thankfully sanity prevailed.
The never ending requests to clean my trainers began to fray my admittedly limited temper quite quickly, and the postcard touts, who seem to be genetically incapable of understanding the word “NO!!!” almost sent me into a homicidal rage on many occasions.
Luckily, Sandra had the foresight to warn me that repeatedly trying to sell someone a postcard he didn’t want was not justifiable cause for homicide in China.
The hotel touts were the worst. They are tenacious little devils, and they follow the weary and bewildered travellers from the bus station, and drag them to their hotels and guesthouses, wearing their resistance down, like dripping water will wear down a rock, given enough time.
I shouldn’t complain too much because for only 6 dollars a night we got a really nice room. In France, if I ever had the money to travel, which I don’t, I would need 60 Euro for a mediocre room, so I really shouldn’t complain.
I’ll try to resist the temptation to whine about the fact that you couldn’t ‘make a deposit’ in the bathroom without blocking the toilet. Instead, I will like to take you on a brief detour to the fascinating world of Chinese toilets. I’m sure you’ve been very anxious to know where I stand on this issue.
Chinese toilets are best described as ‘functional’, in that they just about perform all the functions they were designed for. However, Chinese efficiency has led to the elimination of certain unnecessary western features.
Why bother with a toilet seat, for example, when you can just squat over a hole in the floor and drop your stool like a bombardier, and enjoy the innocent fun of listening to it come to a squelchy stop from a height? I am reliably informed that since women lack a certain piece of anatomy considered standard in males, a certain, shall we say, ‘directable hose’, that even urination must be conducted in this same awkward squatting position in Chinese toilets. I shudder to think how difficult this must be and thank God for my directable hose.
And to take things one step further and to maximise the minimalism of a Chinese bathroom, why bother separating the toilet from the shower when you can combine the two by simply placing a drain in the floor?
In fact, if you really wanted to save time in a Chinese bathroom, you could conceivably defecate, shave, brush your teeth, and shower all at the same time! Think of all the time you’ve wasted in my life by not performing these morning ablutions simultaneously.
Anxious to move away from the bathroom, which was blocked again, we went to see what the sign outside described as “Guilin’s Magical Caves-a Natural Wonderland and Heavenly Sight Transposed on Earth.” People come from all over China to see them, and as I hadn’t been in a cave since I was knee high to a stalagmite, I was looking forward to it.
They were impressive, I admit, but hardly my idea of Heaven. Indeed, if Heaven is a stygian cave, then what must Hell be like? The caves had been lit up in a kaleidoscopic array of colours to make them look more spooky and surreal, but it also had the effect of making them look like something out of Disneyland.
As so often with Chinese tourist attractions, they had attempted to improve on nature, but in doing so, they had ruined it. However, I seemed to be alone in this opinion, as I am alone in so many of my opinions, and the Chinese tourists in the flock of sheep we were being shepherded in ‘oohed’ and ‘ahed’ right on cue.
There were an awful lot of named rocks, like the ‘1000 Buddha’s Rock,’ the ‘Chicken Rock,’ or the ‘Golden Key Rock’. In the world of ‘Rocks that Look Like Something Else’, there was some prize specimens here.
It was just after the ‘Golden Key Rock,’ that Sandra started rummaging in my shoulder bag, gasping for some reason, and mumbling something about a plastic bag, which she seemed to be very keen on obtaining immediately. As my shoulder bag was on my back at the time, Sandra was mumbling these plastic bag incantations to my back and pawing her way though the bag in the near total darkness. I felt confused.
Even though we were at the back of the flock, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to try to steal the ‘Golden Key Rock’. For one thing, it was technically theft, and for another, the rock was about a metre long, and it wouldn’t fit in a plastic bag. It would also bring us way over our weight allowance on the flight home.
However, she wanted the bag for an entirely different purpose. Just after getting the plastic bag out of my backpack, she projected some multicoloured vomit straight into it. If there hadn’t been a bag, she would have had to add some more colours of her own on a nearby green stalactite.
It might have become a tourist attraction in its own right to future flocks of tour groups-‘The Lumpy Psychedelic Stalactite of 2005,’ perhaps. We hung back from the rest of our group for the remainder of the tour, and thankfully the tour guide’s megaphone dampened the occasional retching noises from Sandra as her plastic bag filled with last night’s ‘fried vegetable delights’.
Fortunately, Sandra made a full recovery, and that very night we went to see another attraction so beloved of Chinese tour groups in Guilin, the ‘Light Show.’ It has a cast of hundreds and takes place on a man-made lake. The actors use pontoons to move around the lake, but it looks like they’re floating on water. It’s like an opera on water with a light show thrown in.
The choreography, lighting and timing were truly amazing, and I made a mental note not to miss the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. When it comes to choreographed spectacles, the Chinese are unbeatable.
Our time in Yangshuo and Guilin had come to an end. The next day we would be heading deeper into the Chinese interior, further into the great unknown, deeper into the Dragon’s cave. We sat in a bar on Yangshuo’s ‘West Street’, and thought about what we had learned. American TV has taught me that you should always think about what you have learned at the end of an episode.
I had learned some Mao quotations, become an expert on karst rock formations, and developed a revolutionary time-saving way to exploit Chinese toilets. Sandra had learned how useless I was in a bus station, and the importance of bringing plastic bags to all future outings.
China held no fear for us. Let the Dragon do what she may; we were ready for her.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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