Arrival to Guilin by nightfall. I meet 4 Air France flight attendants in my hotel reception, and we go for dinner together. I am very proud of how fluent – if a little bit rusty – my French is. I later walk around the city centre with a young Fin that I meet by the lake where we both try to take pictures of the kitsch waterfront. It is astonishing that after so little time in China, the fact that we’re both western is a good enough reason to start a conversation. It’s like: he/she will be able to put words into meaningful sentences in a language that we both understand. I don’t know, maybe it’s my mistake, maybe I should be able to speak Mandarin (but I do speak five languages, only mandarin doesn’t happen to be among them, so I don’t think I need to feel like an ignorant pretentious tourist who expects everyone to understand), but then it isn’t just the language per se, it’s their inability to put two and two together and lack of any willingness to help. Example: in one of the hotels, I asked the girl at the reception about the location of a post office. I had my postcards and was indicating the empty space where a stamp should be. Now, it’s not a difficult conclusion to arrive at, is it? And then she asked: “Do you want the address here?” No, I bloody hell don’t. Why on earth would I send a postcard to this God-forsaken place? Anyway, the city centre covered in one evening, I figure there is not much more to see in Guilin and concentrate on the attractions out of town. The hostel is very helpful in organizing tours and day trips. I sign up for a Li River cruise on the following day, and put my name to the list of people interested in trekking the rice terraces for the following days.
Travelling solo is great. Some people say I’m brave because I travel alone. Truth is, I am never alone, unless I want to be. And when I walk into the breakfast room in the morning, empty except for one very handsome man, I take my order to his table and ask with my brightest smile if I can sit at his table. I wouldn’t do this in London. Well, I probably would, but the outcome would not be the same. A Londoner faced with a long-legged young woman asking to share his table would be puzzled, frightened, he would refuse and he’d probably run. Here I get myself a breakfast date. Not that kind of breakfast date, unfortunately, but from small things….
I team up with a lovely American lady, Rosaline, who too is travelling solo in China (although unlike me, she has a job to go back to). We take a bus to wherever we board the bamboo raft – there are many piers in the area that offer cruises of various durations. My advice, opt for the raft for 4, the big cruise ship is boring and doesn’t have an open deck. The small bamboo vessel is shaded and pleasant enough even on this hot and humid day. The scenery is simply out of this world and if you are lucky, you can spot locals doing the traditional cormorant fishing (actually fishing, not just a show for tourists). Two chinese men join us on our raft, and they are actually really nice. Not only they try to communicate (although they don’t speak english), they also take us for lunch and for a short tuk tuk trip to a spot from where you get the same view that is depicted on 20 yuan note.
Later the tour bus takes us to Yangshuo. The ride is quite awkward, as the guide tries to sell some perfumes to the chinese part of the passengers. She also keeps speaking chinese for minutes and minutes, and then reassumes in about 30 seconds of english, so either there is something not quite right with her guiding, or they really are hard of understanding. In town we rent an electric bike. Only one, as I take Rosaline as a passenger, which is something I’ve never done before (to be quite fair, I have only ever ridden the scooter once before, but she doesn’t need to know that), and we tour the riverside, through rice fields and small villages. Two white women on a scooter must be quite an attraction around here and the locals keep shouting at us “Lady, you want bamboo?”. I wonder what can they possibly mean by that (or do I look that desperate?), but then we pass by one of the river cruise boarding piers. They are just trying to sell the trip, there actually isn’t a public house for ladies around here. Phew! When we return the bike in Yangshuo, the owner of the shop offers to take us to the bus station (as we need to get back to Guilin somehow), and he turns up on a motorcycle. I express some perplexity about three adults travelling on a single bike, but clearly he’s done it before. However, he does look rather proud of himself while parading through the town with two western women behind him. Good on him.
Longji rice terrace trek organized by the hostel. Well, organized not really, they just rent a minivan with a driver on our behalf. The drive takes about forever. Longji is a remote region in the mountains around the village of Longsheng, home to many local ethnic minorities, among which the Yao nation is the most famous, as their women never cut their hair, instead tie it around their head. What once may have been an interesting insight into local anthropology is today a freak show, as Yao women who are not part of the (obviously touristic) “hair show” assault westerners with constant offers to loosen their hair for a fee. Apart from that, the whole place is the perfect example of what the chinese do with the beautiful places they have. Just google “Longji rice terraces”. You will find hundreds of wonderful pictures of extensive steep rice fields, in all seasons, at sunrise, at sunset, in fog, just name it. Trouble is, those photos are either heavily photoshopped or at least 15 years old. Nowadays, there is a cable way (so that the Chinese don’t have to hike it) and construction everywhere. So yes, the place is beautiful, and when the sun comes out, the fields are of the greenest green, but do not expect an unspoilt landscape.
OK, I realise I’ve been bitching about this topic for quite a while and I don’t want to sound like I am the kind of traveller who expects to be the first westerner everywhere, and to be honest I quite dislike those who say they only travel to places that are not destroyed by mass tourism. Of course everywhere is going to be touristic. Especially if you don’t speak the language. (The language is always the key to understanding any culture; if you judge a country by the number of Starbucks coffee shops on one street, it doesn’t matter if you travel with an Osprey backpack or a set of Louis Vuitton suitcases, you are not a very bright person.) I don’t like package tours and resort stays, I don’t understand people who fly hours and hours to stay in an all-inclusive beach resort and never leave it to discover what’s around (why bother travelling then? But then again, some people don’t travel, they just move around), but I also think that “independent” travellers who frown upon places “spoilt” by international tourism are no better, or at least, their intellectual honesty is highly questionable. Spoilt? Really? What do people expect? Observing the locals living as if it was still the middle ages? How is it any different from going to a ZOO? Of course the locals want our money, of course they have (or want to have) “western” clothes and cars and smartphones, of course they want to develop (with the kind permission of their governments, which is not always the case), and maybe one day they would like to travel the way we do. It’s got nothing to do with globalization, it’s natural. Everyone wants to live better. They say “Once there is McDonald’s, it’s a bad sign”. Of what? Although I personally only go to McD when I am heavily intoxicated, I’ve never seen one that wasn’t crowded (OK, my sight may have been affected by inebriating substances, but I am sure you can see my point). What is happening in China, in my opinion, is different. They are investing insane amounts of money into developing internal tourism, but in the process they are destroying the reason(s) people (Chinese and foreigners alike) travel in the first place. Electric bus around the Stone Forest, cable car over the rice field, a giant glass bridge over Zhangjiajie canyon…really? Invest into a decent pair of shoes and go see for yourself, it’s much better than being led around like a flock of sheep. But then again, that’s what they are, what their government wants them to be and brings them up to be. “Seeing for oneself” has never agreed much with any totalitarian regime. End of rant.
September 18 – morning train to Guangzhou (Canton), where I don’t do anything at all, except for going out for a very nice dinner.
September 19 – leave China on a Hong Kong bound train early in the morning. The immigration officer scrutinizes my passport for a fair while, then informs me I must not attempt to re-enter, as I only have a single entry visa. Don’t worry, I have no intention to.