2016

China:  Trials of a tourist.

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Dawn. It split sky from ground with a rent of fire across the horizon. The plane I was in was over China and there was a river down there. Judging by the map marking the plane’s progress on the seat in front of me and the river’s course it could just be the one running through the scenic region I’d come to China for. Geographically it had looked a cinch: southern China before north Vietnam looked like an easy objective after the far flung foray last year to the Komodo Dragon islands before going on to the Philippines and Thailand. It wasn’t though, politically and culturally. The visa was horrendously expensive and there were likely to be few English speaking people in mainland China.

The journey so far? The blonde walking away when I’d sat down a few bar stools from her at the airport hotel had been equalled by an American blonde seeking directions in Heathrow Airport and a conversation. That was soon after I’d barked “You’ve dropped something!” to stop a hurrying man, before observing with naïve curiousity “Oh. It’s a passport”. If he hadn’t grinned a joke and fled in embarassment I could have told him I hoped for similar support if making – highly likely – the same kind of mistake.

Then there was Stockholm. A stopover with little time to change planes. So of course not only was the plane late but there was something blocking where one disembarked, according to the pilot. “Never mind we’ve enough time to wait”. (No that’s just what we don’t have! Time!) And of course my seat was to the rear, extending the time I had to wait for eveyone to get organised and get off the plane. After hurrying through the airport against hope I found to my relief that my plane was taking off much later than I thought.

Cloud banks flexing shadows with sunrise parted to reveal an industrial region creeping by below, judging by the smoke and haze from factories and population.

Rivers became coastlines and a road snaked over the sea in a never ending bridge it seemed.

The plane descended past clouds dazzling with the sun, over mountainous islands and skyscraper studded shores. It was flying over Hong Kong.

I’d been to Hong Kong 6 years ago on a 1 night stopover but this time I had a free day there after today. The airport was the same as I remembered: massive and space age. That’s what I like about air travel. It’s the closest one can get to interplanetary travel, complete with spaceports and strange new worlds.

Time to try out my very basic Chinese at an enquiry desk in the right part of the airport. “Neih hou, haih bindouh”/”No need to speak that we all speak English here”. So much for that but it was later confirmed that at least I’d picked the right Chinese, Canton, instead of Mandarin which was spoken in the north. I was on the wrong level of course for the train.

The trip into the city was uneventful, likewise the minibus I was to pick up afterwards, though I got a good look at the city: modern and traditional mixed up in a frenetic jungle of architecture plus a jungle of street signs in Chinese characters.

Trouble was the bus went nowhere near the hotel I was making for which meant a fair hike. The trouble with that was I had a lot of luggage on this trip: a tripod in a big backpack plus a medium pack and heavy camera bag. One reason why I’d been exercising a lot. The bus drove up a narrow ramp to a plush hotel entrance which meant I had to find my way back down to street level. Once on that the junction of the road I wanted was supposed to be close, but the map I had was defective and it was as far as the distance I had to walk up the other road. A long way in the summer heat. In south China. So by the time I got to the hotel I was really done in and in sore need of a shower. Thank God my room was available at that time.

The room – like last time – was tiny but it had the essentials. I got a good shower and slept to make up for being put through the wringer by that hike and the night journey on the plane. In late afternoon/evening I checked out the neighbourhood for a laundry, currency exchange and the metro. The city where I was – Kowloon – looked like a downmarket version of New York invaded by China. I tried a bit of television before bed and was surprised to find ‘The X Files’.

One reason for checking out the metro was so it could be used on the free day to get down to Hong Kong Island and up a mountain there so I could get some pictures of a panorama. When I got there I emerged into a forest of gleaming 21st century architecture. It took some time to navigate through this city, a shopping centre and up an escalator.

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There was supposed to be a cable car at the other end of a park and zoo. The park was beautifully laid out with subtropical vegetation, fountains, waterways and pools with fish and terrapins basking on rocks, but the zoo was minimalist in animal population and variety and when I saw the cable car terminus: forget it! A queue there had grown large enough to congeal into a mass of tourists virtually stationary. Hell to endure in Hong Kong heat.

A compensation was 4 Filipina girls I’d encountered near the zoo. Cleaning girls having a picnic, taking a break from working in the city. They welcomed me with chocolate cake, drinks and raucous flirting. Why wasn’t I married and so on. Talk about the opposite extreme from what I was used to at home. I wouldn’t be seeing them again but it was fun at the time.

There was self inflicted crisis though caused by different currencies in Hong Kong and mainland China. When I returned to the hotel I realised I’d left myself too short for getting up to the mainline station in China tomorrow! I could hardly believe I was making this kind of mistake this soon! Only an emotional meltdown causing the reception girl to have pity on me and exchange some money got me out of it.

Up early the following day. The route to the railway station was going to be a challenge: several changes of metro train and one of the tougher borders in this world to get through before getting there, then language problems and large queues to cope with. I’d been advised to spare an extra few hours for this and I spared a few more than that. First a short hike and descent into Sham Shui Po station.

Only one stop. Change at Prince Edward.

Not far from Prince Edward change again at Kowloon Tong, luggage and all.

Kowloon Tong is back on the surface but the line goes under a mountain on a much longer journey up to the border emerging through an upmarket suburb, along the shore of a sea inlet, through more suburbs of tower blocks and satellite towns, through a plain with mountains beyond, to Lok Ma Chau station. Not that I could see much standing all the way.

At this station a river has come up on the right with a wall of buildings beyond. This is the Chinese border. A big covered bridge across the river gives a panoramic view of all this and the first big challenge of the land journey I’m approaching.

Everything’s enclosed and controlled on the other side at customs. I’m turned back but only to fill in a small form which is half that and half card. Managing that I’m back at the customs booth. After a regulatory perusal I’m motioned through and even manage to raise a smile from the customs girl by saying thank you in Chinese. If you can do that on that kind of border you know you’re being welcomed! If it wasn’t for the luggage I’d feel like James Bond. Cool and in complete control of a tricky international adventure. I’d made it into mainland China.

Another subterranean train journey. When the line emerged from a hillside we were at Shenzen station. Objective achieved with military precision for the train journey too.

The surroundings were impressively futuristic.  The gleaming metro station was set high in Shenzen station so one had a view out from under the roof with a cinema sized screen to one side displaying holiday landscapes. Out there was a plaza of grandiose scale not seen in Britain, with the city beyond. There were belts of trees and a sunken area which could have been a shopping centre overlooked by a monumental spherical sculpture.

Time for a break & snack before tackling the station which was just about the biggest I’d seen. The place I wound up at had a menu in Chinese of course so I chose something looking fairly crisp judging by the pictures. It turned out to be almost a soup with noodles and meaty things in it, that one was supposed to eat only with chopsticks. The first thing I managed to fish out was a birds foot! That turned out to be chicken and I persevered but this meal seemed to specialise in the boniest bits of chicken. I gave up half way through to get on with the station.

It was vast. Over 500 feet across I’ve found on Google Earth and I was only in the front part of it. The rest was cut off by waist high steel barriers. And I had to traverse 500ft to make sense of it, with luggage like that carried by a marine, because the large immobile queues for tickets I was warned about were at either end. By the way because it was completely open at the front there was no air conditioning; so no let up from the heat when lugging luggage to the maximum sweaty distance. It got worse. As expected the station directions consisted of Chinese characters but although I’d seen a little English where I’d alighted there was nothing of use down in the main station. There seemed to be no enquiry desk in the accessible part either and I could see no language solution in the form of a western face amidst the masses of oriental ones. So I tried my luck with my embryonic Chinese, interesting one young guy who knew about as much English and took me straight to the front of a queue. He was descended upon by a hawk faced official sporting an ostentatious blue uniform reminding me of the one worn by Anders Brevik, the Norwegian terrorist mass murderer. No we couldn’t stay here but were to go to – and he led us – to a machine. Just what I wanted to avoid! My instructions were to present paperwork to get the ticket and this official misdirection  also demotivated the young guy who couldn’t help me anymore. Nothing for it but to try my poor Chinese skills anywhere.

No joy. Was the journey going to founder at this hurdle? Things looked bad!

Then there was another young man at my elbow who could speak English! He was from Hong Kong which explained that, had sensed I was in trouble and had some time to help thank fortune! He took me to what should be the right queue. It was the slowest queue I’d been in. Took ages. My friend ran out of time when we were near the front. Had he rescued the mission or was I in for more incomprehension and disaster?

I reached the front and the long awaited response – while I held my breath – seemed to indicate the paperwork was in order. I had the ticket! Still had to get through the sort of security system one finds in airports though.

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At last I was through all obstacles into an even bigger space: with an enquiry desk when I no longer needed it, waiting areas, platform directions, shops and eateries. There were more on upper levels on both sides. What has stayed in my mind about these levels was a McDonald’s on one and a KFC on the other at diagonally opposite corners. The distance between looked like ¼ mile and probably was. At least I could relax for there was still plenty of time and – not wanting to risk another birds nest soup – chose the KFC. Battered invertebrates were included in the menu tasting like prawns but that was more palatable anyway. There was no air conditioning here either and the heat rose, making the upper levels more uncomfortable.

After being driven by this down to the masses of waiting Chinese I was finally in a queue again, but I knew what I was doing this time, being able to follow the platform numbers.

Eventually we were allowed through more tubular steel barriers, down to the platform where I found myself at the end of the train with what looked like an aerodynamic looking engine. My seat was in it! Along with seats taken by a family from the mainland of Europe, the first Europeans I’d seen. The burden of heat had left me for the air seemed more breathable too, being air conditioned.

The same industrial plain flew past that I’d seen from the plane. This train was really moving, scenery flashing by as we left the plain. It reminded me of the French TGV’s. Mountains came up and when the train went through them half of that seemed tunnel as the railway just sliced straight through this terrain. An engineering marvel. The in between views became spectacular. And weird. Hills extended into squat towers and steep sided domes, the foliage smothering them occasionally revealing a sheer pale rock face: limestone. This was karst limestone scenery. Like another world out there.

The train reached Guilin; the southern Chinese city that was my destination and I had to find transport to the hotel. At the end of a subway a man offered a taxi for twice as much as I’d been told it would be – it always is here we go again – and I had to haggle. 2 reasons why I tend to avoid taxis. I got him down from 100 to 60 but he retaliated by offering a motorbike! I didn’t need this tricky tiring hassle! What about the luggage?

Do you really think we could fit all that on a motorbike?” I remonstrated.

It’s an.. interesting motorbike,” was the lame response I could hardly believe.

Oh do me a favour this was farcical! I made off through the heat for some buses.

The buses looked not unlike the ones at home, maybe because they were red. I’d seen ones at Hong Kong airport that were like the ones I’d travelled in when a child and adolescent in London and in Berkshire. Maybe they were left over from the empire. Anyway I managed to get enough info for the right bus and destination. People on the bus were really helpful though they spoke hardly any English. More people got on all the time and I hadn’t paid the driver, couldn’t see outside much either since I was standing, though I had the impression of a never ending urban road full of traffic.

Finally we were there and it was a relief to get off although my first step away took me into the path of an oncoming scooter, there was a lane for them down the middle of the pavement! The next thing was the bus driving off just as I drew level to pay the driver. Oh well…what about my surroundings? I was on a main street of grandiose buildings, as though cinemas had been crossed with department stores; some of them were. Later I would learn that the scooters here were sneaky since many could run soundlessly for some reason: as though they’d been given a hard push and had just kept going.

Anyway the map indicated the hotel was across the road on the other side of a park and there it was: the absence of buildings. Must be a sunken park for I couldn’t see much as I got closer. It was actually a river which meant I was on the other side of the hotel, so follow the river round and I should find a side street there.

But as I lugged myself through the dense heat I felt all was not well. The river was the wrong shape according to the map and there was no side street. Edging my way between a car on the pavement and ducks quacking reproachfully at me from cages seemed a signal to me from the local culture of developing fiasco. Eventually I got away from the river and found a hotel, sweat pouring off me by then, but it was alright, they’d know where my hotel was. Most people have ipads and the hotel staff got me to translate what I wanted on them. The response was a hand drawn map. Turn left at the first crossroads which I’d seen entering the hotel, soon be there! Except it wasn’t: it was a bend instead! Which kept on bending, on and on until I was back on the main drag in the hot weather. Complete with luggage and soaked in sweat, I was now having to cope with my glasses continually sliding off my nose. I thought I might be going mad when I threw them down shouting “Pull yourself together!” like an outraged officer to a malingering trooper in an army dying in the desert. That was what I felt I might as well be and had to exert that kind of discipline to keep going now. I was having a headache which could be a sign of dehydration though I kept supplying myself with bottled water: more vital than food on this journey. On the other side of the street I got a clue that the hotel was definitely off to the right when I was assured it was down the first turning. After a long hike down there I still couldn’t find it. Back in the horrendous heat to the main street. I was going to have to fight this battle to the last dregs of my will to go on.

The peace of the smallish but sumptious foyer of the Sapphire Hotel was interrupted by a dishevelled foreigner staggering up to reception shedding luggage when he got near it. Then he couldn’t speak the right language but judging by his name he was actually expected. Yes it was like that when I finally found it in the last stages of exhaustion and reserves of sweat; literally melting on to the glossy reception counter with pools of it! Ipad translations saved the day again and my tickets for the train out of China were there – there was concern that they wouldn’t be – although they looked a bit sparse. There was though a last exasperating hurdle to do with money. I was so near yet so far from survival and recovery until I realised what they wanted was a deposit.

The room was one of dark furnished oriental elegance, in contrast to the survivor who entered dumping his clutter everywhere, managing to undress and shower without a heart attack. After that it was the life saving luxury of bed. To hell with any food.

Air conditioned hotel rooms became life support habitats on this trip. Habitation domes on a planet with a semi breathable atmosphere, higher gravity – it was an effort to move through the heat – and temperatures higher than those comfortable for life as we know it.

So, being booked in for 2 nights I only made the odd foray for food on the spare day, spending most of the time in the hotel taking stock: outside my hotel window in total contrast to the room was a pit of squalor where a few tropical plants grew against the odds posed by barred tenements on 3 sides. Television seemed to be wholly in Chinese, predictably. The map I’d relied on yesterday was crap;- the hotel was in the wrong place and I’d been looking at the wrong river, 2 actually crossed the town. I also found that I’d gone right past the hotel when I was lost! Outside the hotel was the surprise of a sign in English directing one to ‘Public Toilets’ in splendid isolation amidst all the Chinese. Within the hotel an office off the foyer had just what I was hoping to do tomorrow: a boat down a river to Yangshuo, the next town I was going to! I got all the luggage I didn’t need into security for I’d be back here in a week, ascertained that I’d be picked up tomorrow morning without checking the time which seemed too much effort with the language problem. As long as I put the alarm on for 7am I should be okay.

I became awake. It was just before 7. Just then the phone rang and whoever it was on the other end could only speak Chinese but I knew: they were here already! Thank God I’d packed everything last night! Or so I thought; in the rush to assure the speaker in the right tone I’d be down soon, dressing and then doing so I forgot a partially read ‘Time’ magazine and a shower scrubber. The first casualties in this campaign.

The minibus I found myself in didn’t go to the river at first. After a trawl though the industrial suburbs of Guilin it crawled in 2nd gear it seemed, down a virtually empty motorway though as though in respect for the strip of formal mown grass and garden down the middle. I don’t know why it was going slowly, obscure communist rule perhaps.

At last the river. Security again though. When the rigmarole was over and the time was right I found the boat. It was identical to many others going down the river all the time: enclosed passenger seating – just about all Chinese – down its length but there was access to the hot metal hull of the upper deck. I was up there for most of the journey.

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The Li River winds through some of the most beautiful and bizarre scenery in China. Mile after mile of jungled limestone towers 1,000ft high and higher, riverside woods of giant bamboo the size of respectable trees. What with this feathery vegetation, towers and pinnacles it was like scenery on a science fiction world. This was why I’d come to China.

Under the Chinese characters a notice on the boat put the sentiment in broken English: ‘Let hearts beas beautifulos the lan dscape add to the brilliance of Li River with service.”

The river wound on through what I’ve described, 200 to 400 feet wide, leaving behind the throngs of pleasure seekers and their boats on the banks.  Geese and water buffalo too.  More and more precipitous vegetated natural limestone sculptures spread out from the horizon and hemmed us in. Despite boats like the one I was on racing each other one got the feeling one could get lost in scenery like this; or least I did. It’s what I wanted.

This ‘karst’ landscape was formed from very old Devonian limestone; which was laid down from around 400 to 360 million years ago on the other side of the Carboniferous period or ‘Coal Age’. Sea levels then were higher than they are today and early fishes populated the oceans, one species being the Coelacanth, although rare still existing today! Meanwhile plants were colonising the land and the worlds first trees were helping to scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and produce more oxygen.

When India collided with Asia this limestone was uplifted and eroded over millions of years, much of that by a monsoon climate. The older the limestone the harder the rock it is and the more spectacular the landforms may be, such as this landscape.

The river wound on, skirting sandbanks, past a small town, past a cave, through a lot of wilderness. Towering cliffs displayed the limestone: streaked with dark deposits. The kind of China I was hoping to find.

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People including me were on the roof much of the time taking photos of all this, despite being fried. We actually had the worst conditions for photography short of unrelenting rain. I was hoping for clearer weather but the heat haze spread out and flattened the light. And yet… these hills featured a lot in Chinese art as misty watercolours, landscapes of misty mystery in fact, so why not aim for that with the photography? I’ve had some fun on Photoshop with the masses I took since returning home.

Speaking of photography: a surprising number of younger Chinese who had a surprising command of basic English asked if they could have their photo taken with me. Was this the novelty of seeing a Westerner? It seemed that along with the limestone landscape I was becoming another tourist attraction! Moreover these Chinese tended to be girls or young women, it could be hard to tell age with orientals. Finally one young lady told me I was “very handsome”. (And you’re underage!) I wasn’t used to this at all but was chuffed despite my inhibitions.

We passed a beautiful waterfall, towering pinnacles. Mountain masses of them well over 1,000ft by now it appeared. I was shown a Chinese bank note sporting this landscape but I haven’t been able to work out where it is on the river.

The landscape began to broaden out with attempts at cultivation. Should be approaching Yangshuo but on and on we travelled past more limestone towers, feathery stretches of giant bamboo and the odd house, farm or local canoe.

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There it was back of a bend in the river. Broad lengths of steps along the riverside, another waterfall, walls and more tiers of steps leading up to an arch with a pagoda roof on top: the entrance to Yangshuo like an entrance to a hidden kingdom.

Now I had the task of finding the hotel having little idea of where it was apart from – according to the map – just north of the arch near the river. But the map was most likely more innacurate than it looked and it would be another sweat ridden endurance march.  Up under the arch anyway and along a thriving market selling exotic clothes. Frankly I was enjoying this despite the discomfort. Why not If you’ve a spirit of adventure and you’re on your own savouring a town belonging to an ancient culture in a strange country without knowing where you’re going?/Hang on! I was in front of a grandiose styled entrance looming over me complete with gold dragons, the classic Chinese kind of entrance that seems to symbolise an inn awaiting heroes and the name looked familiar, couldn’t be?…

But it was! Delighted at having found it so quickly I entered in triumph. Yes I was expected and the man on the left who knew a little English would answer questions. To the rear was an enclosed space like that in the Bradbury Building in Blade Runner; except there were tables at the bottom and just one long flight of stairs instead of a lift. The room was along a gallery and round the side just over a thriving alley full of small businesses and teeming people: beyond was one of the karst mountains. Later I found it was ‘Green Lotus Peak’ for it’s shape was like that flower when it was budding. There didn’t seem to be much soundproofing in the room but the important amenities were there like a shower and air conditioning. Last but not least I dropped off the laundry: vital to deal with this logistic at any opportunity when travelling, but especially in this kind of climate.

Yangshuo was more or less down at the other end of the karst region from Guilin. I started to wander round a vegetated part of it in the late afternoon – like a cross between a hothouse and a town – next to the hotel. Spread out amongst several karst hills/mini mountains/towers its centre was by the river and my hotel was on the edge of it. I liked this place more than Guilin which was more of a communist showcase city. Yangshuo was Chinese in the ethnic sense.

Not that there wasn’t nightlife. As daylight faded into night the lights of bars and eateries of all sorts glowed, many of the tables & chairs being outside. For some reason there were many German hostelries around. I later learned a German company had bought a whole street though not why they did that deep inside China? Anyway it was a good town for backpackers like me with inns, small hotels and downmarket accomodation of all sorts. Shops of all sorts seemed to stay open through the evening too. Another enterprise was a massage place where tanks of tiny fish awaited feet being put in amongst them so they could nibble away dead skin. Just the job after a walk through this kind of climate: cold water and a tingling sensation as these fish ate you!

After sampling this this I returned to my room, surfed TV then turned the light out. Just before a salesman with a mike cut loose from a place opposite and below in the alley. Why did he need that volume in a narrow alley cramped with people? HG Wells writes of the curse of the excessively loud ‘Babble Machine’ of the future in ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ and before sleeping I was reminded of that: “YAHAHAH, YAHA, YAP! YAHA!” until nearly midnight! Thats what it sounded like in Chinese and I gave way to fantasising about the place being hit by terrorists; ashamed of this later, especially as it turned out to be the marketing of an ‘Arts Academy’ and I’m normally in favour of artistic enterprises, but many of the paintings there were of the lurid school style, found back home in places like Woolworths when it existed.

I had a choice: move to a room where the view was wonderful but where there was more expense, or stay out through most of the marketing row; eating a long evening meal, drinking, conversing where one could and taking refuge in the massage parlour. I chose the latter. It was hard to tell what was better but at least I didn’t miss out on food, drink and conversation. Such as with a friendly waiter who was a Filipino with high blood pressure despite being in his early 30’s and feeling isolated since his wife was away working on a cruise ship.

Back in my room I found a TV channel where English was spoken, based in Beijing. China was having a heatwave, especially the Yangtze Valley well to the north of where I was. And I had been hoping it would be the coolest part of this adventure since everywhere I was going to lay to the south, nearer the equator. I began to wonder if I was on the wrong side of the border too? I was aware of China’s bellicose stance over invading the Spratley Islands, an archipelago of reefs near the Philippine island of Palawan, which I’d partially explored. The UN and America didn’t like it. There were frequent reviews of Chinese armed forces and how ready they were to defend ‘sovereignity’. Sabre rattling at its worst. I felt relieved that Obama was president of the USA and not Trump.

There were scenic attractions out of town. How about ‘Shangri La’? Perhaps a wander in a park setting amidst the fantastic limestone towers with gardens and a temple or 2. The transport took the group I was with up a road through a dust storm caused by construction vehicles and excavations, but hadn’t those travellers battled through a snowstorm to the fabled valley in the film? But when I saw the tourism edifice complete with steel barriers and turnstiles my heart sank. Beyond was an artificial lake overlooked by a housing development: the last thing I’d associate with Shangri La. No, instead it was a boat ride past that, a made up grotto and made up savages we were supposed to cheer. They’d Disneyfied the whole thing. The closest thing to Shangri La were blossoms I’d never seen before. The tall limestone hills remained remote.

In the late afternoon when the shadows lengthened I found more of a Shangri La back at Yangshuo. The light was right for photography and I got many good ones of people bathing in the river and relaxing on its edge on those magnificent long tiers of steps, with the spectacular scenery beyond.

Naively I looked forward to a ride in a bamboo raft up a side river; but on the other side of another turnstile monstrosity there was no secluded river journey through the wonders of exotic oriental nature but a stream dammed into a small lake crowded with rafts like water insects and bisected by an artificial rapid for a quick thrill. The boatman took a dislike to me when I dared to take a photo before getting on his craft, took me back to the turnstile to ban me on the basis of being too old and was talked out of it by the tour guide. On the way back I let him have it: “What’s the matter with you? Get on with it!” Then I gave him both barrels with another mouthful for delaying a hapless youth I’d been paired off with. It didn’t matter that he knew no English, my tone spoke volumes and the cunning hostility gave way to fawning submission. The ‘voyage’ itself? The light was bad but I got a few good photos that could be passed off as some tribal festival. The youth had brought along a portable water cannon but luckily we didn’t get close to his friends. There was a constant racket on the bank where trucks drove up and away again: no peace here.

I persisted with these explorations to attractions outside Yangshuo with a one day grand tour hoping to find something decent. It began memorably when I was told to wait by a tree up the road and the tree turned out to be a whole row of them. Westerners were thin on the ground here especially early in the morning so I thought I would still be easy enough to spot. A coach turned up at the other end of the row and picked up a lot of Chinese. It was only after nothing had turned up for me for a long time that I went back to the tour office and found that I should have got on it! I caught up with it and a diminutive tour guide girl on the back of a motorbike, one of the riskier things I did on this trip. Yangshuo could be a freaky place where one might see a vehicle with a bare engine in front not covered by a bonnet and part of the road being a gulley that could swallow stuff on 2 wheels.

The Big Banyan Tree wasn’t bad. They’re spectacular trees. Set in a meadow it was hard to believe the roots growing down to the ground from the massive branches weren’t stilts, being of a different colour. A science fiction writer – Brian Aldiss – once told me he was inspired by one of these trees to write a story about a far future Earth where the sun is growing bigger and the hot climate has resulted in one of these trees forming a planetwide jungle, inhabited by mobile vegetable monsters and green skinned shrunken humans. Across a river was a limestone arch with locals and boats: the sort of thing one might hope to see in the interior of a foreign continent.

The next experience though was an object lesson as to how the commercial world can be given a new and nasty twist from communism. There’s a place called Moon Hill composed of a natural arch through a hill. I thought one might be able to stroll to the bottom of it after the coach had threaded its way through a narrow village to a car park with a distant view of the hill; but everyone was ushered into a cross between a museum and mausoleum, it was windowless. Within were glassed over exhibits of stones that were supposed to be precious and desirable. The ushuring continued into … a bare classroom really. The back row seats were against the wall so I headed there. A middle aged Chinese man who’d befriended me headed the same way, laying his head on his hands in snooze style as though reading my thoughts. We were a pair of naughty overgrown schoolboys dozing without paying attention at the back of the class, while a nervous young lady tried to interest everyone amidst whispered messages from another employee. It was impossible to doze when the cause of the concern – another older woman – took over. Excessively dressed and made up like a doll she resembled an evil android or a clone of an evil emperors’ wife. She was definitely The Business. Her voice was strident and a decibel louder than it should be: a sure sign of a career in sales. One was told what the purpose of ones holiday was regardless of what language one spoke. You were on holiday or had travelled from afar not to explore a wonder of nature but to satisfy her career with ‘a shopping experience’. The sort of experience I avoided as much as possible and I was scornful of this kind of sentiment on the most fundamental level. No this was not the purpose of my life or journey, nor should it be compulsory for anyone else, but it was so bad it was entertaining as a masterpiece: the arrogant blinkered assertions of the commercial world in excess, that values everyone in terms of whether they are making money for whatever hallowed vested interest is perpetrating this view. In this case backed up by the overorganisation of the communist way of doing things. One aspect of the way of life here was becoming clear to me now in everything from commerce to barrier strewn stations and tourist attractions to foreign policy.

Outside was a mock up of some idyllic mount with flowers and columns and Moon Hill in the background; but I wasn’t to be left in peace even up there taking a few photos. A young man with a face contorted by attitude hurried up, agressively pestering me in Chinese and displaying his photos of where we were at. Oh I get it: this was his pitch, his patch and why was I muscling in on his territory? I must have been worn down by the evil android clone for I didn’t tell him to piss off but just concentrated on getting away from him. This was reversed though by another young guy who was part of the tour group witn his wife and charming little daughter. He casually got rid of the pest and – speaking enough English for me to just about understand him – assured me it would be okay, backing up that by taking photos of me with the hill in the background. He also ascertained that the older Chinese man and I were almost the same age. For a moment we formed a circle of friends and I shook the older fellows’ hand. Well why not? He’d been good to me although I was virtually clueless about his language and culture. Later the pest approached me again but this time I was prepared and marshalled my limited Chinese into a resounding “M HAI!” (NO in English.) That put paid to his chances of selling me anything which was an obvious bad bet when he could see I had a camera anyway.

There were plenty of caves around Yangshuo and ‘Assembling Dragon Cave’ was the last stop. ‘In order to grow flowers and trees please consciously love’ proclaimed an English translation of a notice in the landscaped verdure near the entrance. Now that was more the sort of thing I was after, comical maybe but also maybe a window into a different way of thinking in a different culture. Walkways across a pond with a red columned pagoda structure at the centre continued the feeling that this was more of a magical place. Then there were the unearthly jungled limestone mountains around the cave from which the name was derived. Within was plenty of variety, one got on a boat to cross a stretch of dark water, then there were some broad steps to ascend like those in an Indiana Jones film set, only to have ones compulsory photo taken at the top between 2 girls: not so good perhaps. There were also large tortoises eating cucumbers in a wooden pen with coloured decorations around their shells with banknotes beside them: no idea what the significance was here. Most of all though there were the stalactite and stalagmite formations artificially lit with all kinds of colours. Garishly interfering with nature or spectacular according to ones mood. A notice in green neon ‘Electric Shock Risk’ considerately reminded tourists of the dangers of this way of doing things. Another place where I was in 2 minds was a ‘palace’ of coloured glowing chunks of stalagmite arrayed in a hall of glass cases when leaving the cave. Spectacular or environmentally ruinous? Then there was a level of merchandising. And another level of merchandising. And another level of merchandising. I bought some water at the last exit.

The trip back to Yangshuo was marked – or marred – by the diminutive tour girl losing her temper with one of the customers. In an extraordinary tirade she berated him at length. I think he might have been guilty of flogging or giving away some token we were given but I could be wrong. A clue as to how differently people were treated here perhaps.

We were dropped of in a part of town I didn’t know but I was told the part I did was not far away. I walked part of the way through a wooded park to escape the sun. It extended into the distance and maybe I should have explored it for just around the corner after leaving it was the part of Yangshuo I knew.

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This feeling continued the following day for I checked out the park near the arch by the river that extended up the side of Green Lotus Peak. After going through another bloody turnstile of course. After that though the kind of tourism I’d endured was left behind as I explored this place of peace. Walking, climbing up paths through woods on the side of a mountain – even though the sweat was pouring off me – was idyllic compared to much of the last few days. Plants and peace everywhere, a lady below with a parasol, a pagoda, an ancient carving on a much more ancient rock face, through the leaves of the trees fantastic views of the river and limestone mountains, the marvel that I was on the opposite side of the planet from where I lived actually doing this. I’m a philosopher and explorer at heart, the kind of person who is not annoyed at finding a perverse Confucius type wisdom in ‘he who strives nobly up difficult path may find locked gate’ which happened too. So this was the kind of place that appealed to me: all annoyance and stress existing in the world below.

© D Angus 10 16