It’s been quite a while since I’ve last written; I can’t say I’ve been “busy”, but I’ve kept myself active and this week my active lifestyle – always doing something each day, not sleeping more than 6 hours a night, etc – caught up with me, and I found myself napping during every spare moment I had.
Last week’s trip to Guilin and Yangshuo was a lot of fun. Guilin is a 19 hour train ride away, so James, Adriana, and I bought “soft sleeper” train tickets, which basically means we were in a room with four beds, as opposed to being in the hard sleeper I was in for the Huangshan trip. The train trip was largely uneventful, although I had a conversation with a girl that was about 8 (her mom was in the fourth bed in our room), and I was surprised to find we could understand each other quite well. She was complaining to me about how her mom made her wear a dress on that particular day, and we also talked about our trips to Guilin; we were both there to visit. She was quite cute, although a little shy to talk to a foreigner, I think.
Guilin is a city in Guangxi province, which is an autonomous region in southern China. Needless to say, it was quite hot during the trip, although it doesn’t compare to the heat that Shanghai is currently experiencing (about 100 degrees every day!). Like many of the other cities I’ve traveled to on the weekends, Guilin is so much more laid back than Shanghai, Beijing, or Tianjin. Most of the citizens were eager to help us find our way as we struggled to find our hostel, which ended up being located in a small crevice of a street.
We mainly spent the first day exploring the city. There were a few large hills we climbed up (although too short to be called a mountain, they were big hills, I assure you), and we enjoyed seeing the sunset from one of the highest points. The geography of this area is very peculiar, and I’ve seen nothing like it before. Apparently it’s very similar to the geography in Vietnam, which makes sense because the province borders Vietnam. The hills and mountains are such an odd shape though, as if more hills poke out of the original hills; it’s hard to describe, but very beautiful. The city of Guilin is wrapped around some of these small mountains, and it was quite interesting to see a mass spread of buildings, with mountains occasionally poking up out of the array of apartments and towers.
The following morning, we took a bus and then a small boat (with just the three of us on it, plus the driver) to Yangshuo. It was a fun ride, on this little raft that was so simple I could probably manage to make it. As we rode down the river, we were able to see larger versions of the peculiar hills I described before – these ones probably deserve to be called mountains – and stopped at a few places to take some great pictures.
We eventually arrived in Yangshuo, which is without a doubt designed for tourists since it’s increased popularity in the 1980’s. Each street has something to cater to tourists – knickknacks, tourist guide booths, food, you name it – but unlike most other touristy areas in China, the citizens were probably the nicest people I’ve talked to in China. We were once again struggling to find our hostel (these things are really hard to find) and spoke to several people very eager to help us. One man wanted to drive us there, although I think his willingness to help was more due to the fact that he wanted foreign friends, and another woman practically walked us to the road our hostel was on, pointing us in the right direction. I’ve honestly never seen that in China…you’re usually lucky if someone is patient enough to try to understand the question you’re asking and give you a detailed answer.
Yangshuo is a beautiful town, and although it has several different tourist attractions, it’s most well-known for its great bike paths. We weren’t as interested in doing any of the other activities, so we rented bikes for the day and a half that we were there. The first day, we attempted to find one path to explore, but ended up passing it. We ended up on a very back road, not really meant for tourists, but we rode on it for a little while, passing a few houses and a lot of fields. Several people were in the fields or tending to their animals, and it was great to see a snippet of life of some of these people. We biked around for most of the second day, too, and we must have biked for 30 or 40 kilometers, or for about 6 hours. It was exhausting, but a lot of fun!
We traveled back to Guilin that same night, and the following morning we went to another small town, about a 2.5 hour drive away, to see the rice terraces. This was absolutely amazing, and also something hard to put into words – be sure to look at the pictures! These terraces seem to stretch on for miles, and are the accumulated work of 700 years…so many generations, so much hard work! We spent most of the day hiking up and down the terraces, which were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. This area is also known for its large minority population, and we were able to see many members of the Yao minority. The women of this group grow their hair to a very long length, and wear it wrapped around their heads in a beautiful fashion. Many of the elderly women that we passed during our hike in the terraces (who were either sitting down together weaving or carrying baskets of food somewhere) were traditionally dressed, however most of the younger women didn’t seem to follow the tradition, unless they weren’t even Yao. We often asked these elderly women if we were on the right path, and they seemed so nice and happy to help us. Again, I was quite surprised at this, especially since most of them probably don’t speak much Mandarin. Nonetheless, they happily pointed us in the right direction each time.
Overall, it was quite a fun trip and I was able to see a lot of cool things and unique geography that I’ve never seen before. However, although most foreigners come to China and travel out of Beijing and Shanghai to see “true China”, it’s becoming more and more clear that “true China” doesn’t really exist in the way that travelers seem to want it to. There’s no one place you can go – touristy or not – where you can experience China in its truest form. There’s nothing like that. China’s way too big. Each province, even each area, has its own tastes and history and subculture. Each province has developed cities and undeveloped areas, wealthier people and poorer people, kind and helpful people and grumpy people…everything. The only way one can ever experience “China” is to travel all over, go to all of the provinces, talk to people and learn from them. Seeing tourist attractions, studying the history, or looking out the window while on the train just isn’t enough.