Published: July 13th 2012July 1st 2012
When I woke up it was around 0700h. I found out the train was slightly delayed, so I'd arrive in Guilin at around 1100h, making it a 22 hour train ride. Since I've slept for about 17 hours, I felt extremely rested, ready for the new day. I made myself a cup of instant coffee (sadly, without any milk) and sat by the window to watch the passing scenery, nomming my 7/11 muffins.
I think, for the first time in my life, I saw rice paddies up close. I was finally able to see straw hats in action. Straw hat figures, ankle deep in water, caring for the fragile rice plants; straw hat figures working the fields, accompanied by water buffaloes; and then just straw hats sticking out above tall grass. I doubt Chinese farmers ever get proper rest. From my train window, it seemed everyone was constantly working on something. I can't imagine caring for rice paddies... I don't even know the first thing about rice! Well maybe apart from the fact that it comes in different colours and sizes.
Along the way, I also saw some new train tracks being built, which I instantly assumed must be for the high speed railway. That would be great! In the future, it wouldn't take 20 something hours to get from Shanghai to Guilin, but maybe around 7. My high speed railway experience has been great so far. The trains are much cleaner and comfier than the regular ones, and most importantly faster! On the other hand they would probably be more expensive and could equal the prices of Spring Airlines, at times, so I'm not sure it would be a good budget travel option. But then again, 'time is money'. Either way, not my concern at this point in time! :)
Another thing I noticed were the houses in Guangxi province. Somehow, their simple, rather square shapes, reminded me of many houses and small buildings I saw in Malaysia, Tunisia and the UAE. I started wondering why do they appear so similar, and I primitively concluded that perhaps simplicity, in many rural areas of the world, comes down to the same principles. Or maybe it's rural areas with similar climate conditions? Who knows, I'm no expert!
Watching the outside world made time speed up somehow and, before I knew it, I was stepping off the train onto Guilin soil. I considered myself quite lucky - this particular train ride was smell free! Due to my previous China Railway experiences, I was already quite accustomed to being surrounded by swarms of locals and the odours of their shower-omitting existences... But not this time! However, no matter how lucky you are avoiding poisonous fumes, you will not be able to avoid the crowds of touts that lurk around any and every train and bus station in China. The best thing to do is to spot the closest bus stop and leg it!
Thanks to my basic knowledge of the Chinese language I was able to find my way to a hcentre lose to all the main attractions in town, The Ming Palace International Youth Hostel (their dorm rooms are really cozy, and there is a nice terrace on the 5th floor). As soon as I arrived, all my worries about travelling alone instantly vanished. The moment I walked into the dorm room I met a really nice kid from the States, and we set out to conquer the city!
The first place we hit up was Folded Brocade Hill (Diecai Shan 叠彩山). It was an insanely hot day and I don't remember breaking such a sweat while climbing such a tiny hill (chinese edition, of course, with stairs!). On the way to the top we stopped to feed some poor peacocks in a badly managed bird enclosure. The only nice thing about it was the shade. A little bit higher, there was an amazing breeze passing through the Wind Cave (Feng Dong 风洞), what a relief... After a rather sweaty while, we reached the top and instead of sitting down to enjoy the views, we were greeted by a bunch of Chinese tourists, photo session included. When they finally left (to take more photos of stuff, I'm sure), we were able to see the city and its surrounding karst scenery. Beautiful view, and definitely a rewarding one, especially after a 30 minute climb on a hot day!
My companion suggested earlier that we could go see some caves on the outskirts of the city. I was very reluctant at first, since I've already seen quite a few beautiful caves in my life, like Postojnska Jama in Slovenia, and I wasn't really interested in seeing a smaller 'copy' filled with kitschy lights. The heat of the day, though, is what persuaded me to go. I thought, seeing another cave would be more pleasant than visiting the millionth pagoda/temple in a row (plenty of those around Guilin). After a while of living in China, the latter has become monotone and I no longer see the diffence between this temple and that... To be less ignorant, I'd probably have to take a course in ancient Chinese architecture, which at the moment, isn't too high on my list! ;)
To escape the heat, we caught a bus and headed for Reed Flute Cave (Ludi Gongyuan 芦笛公园). It was sooooo nice and cool inside, however, we had to stick close to a Chinese tour group because as soon as they left an area, the lights would go out! Following the group, but still keeping our distance to avoid more photo shoot opportunities, we admired the stalagmites and stalactites. The most impressive bit, I thoght, was the Crystal Palace of the Dragon King - a huge grotto within RFC. It's so huge it can fit more than a thousand people! Along the way, I guess I got used to all the kitschy lights and I even thought that they're rather tastefully done! In some smaller chamber we saw a huge tortoise trapped in a tiny pool of water (that poor thing). The Chinese tour guides assured us its over a 1000 years old... While wikipedia assured us tortoises don't live past 200... Maybe it was the Dragon King! :P
The rest of the day passed fairly quickly. Between the search for dinner and meeating more independent travellers, I realised, despite being on the road, that I already feel very much at home :)