Upon arrival in Guilin, I met my new guide, Nicky, a nice young man with a real passion for his part of the country and he is from one of China’s many minority peoples. I was informed it was best to have some dinner in the airport (the aeroplane sandwich looked disgusting), so we found the only restaurant and went there to order some noodles. They seem determined to chop up all meat with a clever and leave all bones in, leaving you picking off small pieces of meat from shattered bones, not the most pleasant way to enjoy a meal with the extra work and increased risk of a broken tooth! From the dentist I happened to see in Yangshou performing his trade through an open doorway, I am glad that I didn’t require any dental treatment.
We had to travel during the night to Yangshou by minibus over some pretty rubbish roads, but we made it within about two hours without mishap for which I was thankful. Night driving on China’s rural roads is not for the faint hearted with many trucks, motorbikes, bicycles and cars all jostling for the best route and fastest journey. We made it safely and arrived at a very nice hotel with a great view over the Li River, which they light up at night, including the bridge, in sycadellic flashing colours.
Amazingly, the internet worked first time I plugged it in, which was the first chance I had to check emails, after all, this is a working holiday! Time for bed, Jackie, my guide in Shanghai, had told me to enjoy the soft beds at the Paradise Hotel. I now know why. Having got into bed, I can only describe the mattress as being akin to a sheet of plywood with one blanket covering it, how could I sleep on this. I have many years experience in my younger days of dossing on friends floors, a piece of soft carpet would have been a godsend! A quick room search revealed two duvets which when folded in half and both tucked under the sheet, gave me four extra layers of softer bed cushioning, absolute luxury. A good nights sleep then and ready for my tour the next day.
The next morning it was breakfast first, a bit of a fiasco, I was told last night that I am the only foreigner in the hotel and they regretted they couldn’t offer me a European breakfast, I said that is good as I haven’t come to China to eat a Full English! Next morning on arrival at breakfast, I was whisked away to another part of the hotel to another restaurant, clearly closed and under refurbishment along with half the hotel, to where a table was set for one in the freezing cold. Here I was presented with an English menu and a choice of American or Continental breakfast along with several hotel staff hovering about. After a few minutes of contemplating a boring breakfast in this freezing room, I stood up and announced to everyone I was going for the Chinese style breakfast in the other restaurant, thank goodness, even the staff looked relieved. So, I was then able to try all the local Chinese breakfast dished, which are a bit odd but generally delicious, and even for the staunch Full English advocate, you could still have done well with fried eggs, various meats and stale bread. AND the room was nice and warm… perfect.
A little shop next door rents bicycles, a favourite way to explore the “small town” (according to Nicky of 300,000 people) and surrounding countryside. We set off for a foggy two hour cycle through the amazing limestone hills that just seem to rise up neatly out of the ground, all very surreal and picturesque! We managed to get out of town and explore some narrow country paths and see many rice paddies. We were lucky to visit an old traditional house in the countryside of a local family who were very friendly and let us watch them cooking and allowed us into their home. They had just picked a heap of small mandarins the day before and insisted on us eating several and also taking some away, they were delicious. I also learnt much about the local traditions, plants and daily lives of the rural population.
On arrival back to the town, we set off for a walk to the local markets and more touristy area of the town. The markets, as always, I find the most fascinating in any country I visit. All the hustle and bustle of the selling, buying and transporting the fresh produce always lets you see the real side of a country and its people as they go about their daily lives. We saw many interesting items for sale in the markets, many vegetables I have never seen before and large amounts of fresh live fish for sale.
Do not read this paragraph if you love dogs. The most striking and shocking was to see in real life what we all believe or don’t believe to be the case, the eating of DOG! I was a bit taken aback at first as I wasn’t sure what was hanging up like the other carcasses of geese, ducks and chickens, but Nicky informed me it was dog and he was going no closer as he hates the thought of it. My curiosity took over and I went up to the two shops that dealt purely with the slaughter and butchering of dogs. The first stall had two full dogs hanging up out front and a partially butchered one. I took a photo from a distance but it was blurred, and I wasn’t game to take one any closer as the locals are a bit camera shy and I didn’t want to be chased out of the market! I went up to the front of the stall and a man was on the floor butchering a carcass on the floor inside with a meat clever with a cage of maybe six nice looking dogs you would have in your house all looking on, that image has stuck in my head and makes me fell ill every time I think of it. So I can confirm that eating dog does still exist but apparently only on special occasions and with special friends or family gatherings. Justin, my Beijing guide informed that eating dog in Beijing has been banned from the 90’s… Maybe it will eventually change in all of China, I hope so, it just doesn’t seem right to me.
The Chinese love shopping like no other nation on earth it seems. On exploring the rest of the tourist area, the sheer amount of tack that can be sold is astounding, mostly to Chinese tourists who make up by far the largest portion of tourists visiting their own country. I find it wise to always eat at clean modern looking restaurants, especially on short visits where you especially don’t want Delhi Belly. So in keeping with that, I chose a nice place for lunch and somehow managed to get sort of what I wanted by pointing and mumbling. Luckily, even the Chinese find their language a bit tricky and most menus and dishes are accompanied by a photo and perhaps a Chinglish translation of what to expect. The trouble arises when that item is not on the menu and you have a clue what they are saying, never mind, I haven’t managed to starve, quite the opposite, as I have found the food to be excellent in most places.
The cleaners have left my soft bed intact, off to a good night’s sleep again!
The following morning started with a “Full Chinese” breakfast then off to the Dragon Back mountains on the other side of Guilin, around a three hour drive away. I always find it interesting to see the street life pass you by as you drive through these countries. I love just looking at how people live their daily lives with everything from construction, transport, children and people walking the streets, service stations, toll booths, roadworks, the whole lot.
The Dragon Back Mountains are in part of the minority population and they are trying to preserve the ancient way of life of the people who still live in their traditional villages, although they are clearly letting tourists in to wander around and invade their privacy. The mountains are on a series of amazing rice terraces the cover the whole sides of a massive mountain. They also have an intricate series of water ducts to keep the paddies flooded and in the middle of all this are their traditional villages with intricately made wooden houses, some new and many dating back hundreds of years. It was interesting watching them build some new houses out of timber, all with no nails and still in the traditional methods handed down over the centuries.
Back to Guilin for the night. The construction all over China simply astounds me, there are highrise buildings going up everywhere, especially on the outskirts of the towns, mostly they are apartments it seems. The shear logistics of all the building materials and workers to finish these projects leaves me in awe of the Chinese ability to fuel growth not just in China, but the rest of the world.
Nicky checked me into the hotel and gave me directions to the centre of town, a 15 minute walk away. “Look out for the glass pyramids that look like the one at the Louvre in Paris” I was told. They are slightly prominent but far less inspiring than the Parisian version! This is the town square which is full of markets getting ready for the Spring Festival that coincides with Chinese New Year. This seems to be the prominent thought for all Chinese leading up to their most important annual festive season, much like Christmas is for most of the Western world. Luckily it happens in a few weeks time when I will be already back in London. I had a good look around town and was accosted by a local English speaking man trying to offer me local guide and tourist services who I took a friendly approach to and got chatting about various aspects of Chinese life. My only concession was to visit his friend’s tea shop, a nice Chinese lady who spent four years studying the profession. 50p or 75 cents for a tasting session and some insight into the many different types of tea available in China, yes I did buy some tea, so yes I am a sucker!