Published: December 21st 2008December 18th 2008
Every time the bus struggles to a reasonable start, the driver crunches around in a vain attempt to change gear, and we whimper to a halt. One too many for some of the passengers, who’ve been pleading with the driver to let them off for the last fifteen minutes, and are now practically forcing the door open.
After depositing them on the side of the road, the bus staggers on up the hill, the driver claiming that once we reach the pass our troubles will be over. A bus approaches from behind, tempting more passengers to jump ship. Just as we reach the crest the other bus overtakes us.
The driver charges down the other side of the mountain quickly catching the bus’ bumper, in an effort to purge us of our collective anxiety, as passengers lean into the aisles to view our attempts at passing. He pulls off a risky and very cathartic overtaking maneuver and suddenly we’re the fastest thing on four wheels... until we reach our next challenge: an effortlessly flat section of road. Groans fill the bus, and everyone gets out at the next town.
Our visa expires today and we need to get
to Guilin’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) before it closes at 6pm. But with only around 30 miles left to travel we’re not panicking. We’ve allowed plenty of time to complete the journey, having limited our time in both Chengyang and Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces to a night each so that we’d hit Guilin with unsullied passports in hand.
We finally reach Guilin with about an hour left on our visas. The bus station is jam-packed, in two days begins National day and the start of Golden Week. Waiting taxi drivers refuse to take our custom unless we’re heading out of town on a juicy fared mission. So we force our way out through the crowds and onto the street to hail down a passing taxi.
Luckily we bag one immediately and show him the Chinese character key for our destination in the guidebook. He drops us at a big administrative building. I look a little apprehensively at it and get out checking if it is the PSB. A large lock is wrapped around the glass doors fronting the building. Someone gestures for me to go round the back, and confident that this is it, we unload our bags.
But this isn’t it. This is Guilin’s main police station, and after some confusion, a friendly officer hails us another cab and orders the driver, in no uncertain terms, where he’ll be taking us.
The clock is ticking more urgently now, and when we arrive at a much smaller building with “Public Security Bureau” written in English on a sign to the right of the door, we breathe a sigh of relief. The doors are locked however, so I peer through the window and see rows of desks and waiting room, empty.
I begin pounding on the door, and a baffled neighbor comes over to aid us, banging on the door and bellowing his ‘Ni hao’s’. We try around the side, but to no avail. We persuade our taxi driver to phone the number on the front of the door. But nobody answers.
Conceding defeat, the driver delivers us to our hostel, where the friendly girls inform us that Golden Week for government offices this year started two days earlier i.e. TODAY. Furthermore they’ll be closed for the next seven days!
The institution I despise the most has me trapped in its bureaucratic grip. With a fine
payable for every day we overstay our visa (currently $73 a day multiplied by three [babies need visas too!]); Golden Week has deflated the festive vibe.
We decide our best course of action is to take the Sunday evening express train to Beijing, arriving Monday morning, where we can hit the PSB first thing. The receptionist at our hostel thinks the prospects of us finding a train ticket going anywhere this week are slim. Our only chance is to try and buy one through a travel agency.
This luxury results in a $5 surcharge per ticket; during Golden Week, the charge is doubled. Touts buy up all the tickets, creating a shortage, meaning the only place these tickets are available is through these agencies. This practice is allegedly illegal, though since it is so widely known, used and flouted, I doubt much is done by the authorities to police it.
I enquired at several agents, some could and some couldn’t get tickets for our day of departure. But feeling thoroughly complicit in a system I had nothing but derision for, I had decided to brave the queues, and stand in line with rest of the proletariat. One
Wind and Rain Bridge
Chengyang; Built in 1916, it is 64.4 meters (73.43 yards) long. Constructed with wood and stones and no nails!
look at the Golden Sh-tstorm chaos inside Guilin Train Station’s ticketing hall, though, and I turned on my heels.
I had an instant surge of relief at being able to buy my way out of a little hardship; tinged with more than a little culpability, so I about turned, back into the melee, where thousands of people were squeezed into dozens of lines in one enormous ticketing hall.
I spent the first fifteen minutes fretting that none of the queues was actually moving; people would flit in and out of the queue; others would attempt a charge at the front to squeeze in on the side. A few pathetically outnumbered cops patrolled the lines to try and keep things in order. The inevitable Olympic Games re-runs were playing on flat screen TVs hung from the ceiling.
The communal burden of anxiety that filled the hall seemed to have a therapeutic effect on my mood. The faces of those returning from the front with tickets in hand were inspirational. An hour and a half later, as I closed in on the goal, I was energized. That is, until the girl in front of me ordered 62 tickets, and
then the ticket women informed me the Sunday train was sold out, as was the one for the day after.
With a trillion eager people pressing up behind me I couldn’t dillydally, and I wasn’t about to leave with nothing!
In 2007, 120 million Chinese travelled during this week, which is double the amount of people who travel in the United States over Christmas. What makes it worse is that those Christmas commutes are spread fairly evenly throughout the nation. In China everybody heads towards the holiday spots; “Eulogised in fantastic terms by Chinese tourist literature and hyped into superstardom by an advertising machine that magnifies its each and every charm, Guilin takes its position among the aristocracy of China’s top sights…”
LONELY PLANET, China’s Southwest.
It usually takes me 4 to 6 weeks to really get back into travel mode after a break. We’d just entered the groove after our time in Yunnan and Guizhou, and were now forced to knuckle down against our will. I tried to convince myself that this next week could be used as a rest period before hitting it hard again, but the notion of relaxing during Golden sh-tstorm week was
The chaos inside the hostel was bad enough with tourists queuing up at reception only to be turned away. And we were forced outside into the battle as Kiva was low on baby food and diapers; and tomorrow was National Day.
I also needed to hit The Bank of China to change up some money, but was told by the lady who greets customers, that I couldn’t change the amount I wanted to, as the maximum during the holidays was $300. I then asked the teller if I could change some Korean Won I had left over, which amounted to a little over $7. He said they didn’t take it and I might want to try in Beijing.
Then the greeting lady asked me if I was in a hurry to change it and led me outside where three female moneychangers sat on mopeds directly outside the bank. I made the point I wasn’t much bothered about the rate. But the greeting woman brokered a deal for me, and even checked the authenticity of each note during the transaction.
The Bank of China is a state owned bank and money changing is illegal in
China. I guess this is an example of another capitalist black market practice allowed to flourish unfettered in this communist nation. Walking away I realized the moneychanger had switched a 5Yuan note for a 0.5 note during the transaction, thus outfoxing both me and my broker. It is possible she was in on it too, and they split the 60cents between them; either way I was grinning from ear to ear.
The next day we made our way onto a bus down to the small town of Yangdi, approximately 45kms from Guilin. When we were dropped off at the intersection, to where our next bus would take us the final few kilometers to the river, there were groups of local people mixed in with domestic tourists and some extremely loud and brash ladies, who were clearly touts for boat trips down the river. The fact that none of them really spoke much English didn’t putter them from their pitch.
A small fire in front of the building behind us ignited a tree and spread very rapidly. Before anybody had really taken it seriously, a roof had also caught fire and all of a sudden the buckets of water
arriving at the scene didn’t seem anywhere near adequate.
People began running out of the gates to a courtyard that fronted the building, carrying baskets, which contained tightly packed dogs. In Korea predominantly one type of dog is eaten. In China they eat them all, including German shepherds it would appear; the fire wouldn’t be setting them free.
The fire quickly ran its natural course, with nothing but vegetation and brickwork left to feast on. The dogs were returned. I didn’t allow myself to contemplate their fate, I eat meat, and I’m a hypocrite. The bus arrived and everyone squeezed aboard, and we left them to it.
Down by the river the husbands and associates of the female touts loaded passengers into bamboo boats and floated off down the river. The raft trips from here are for two to four people, going down the Li River to Xingping. Getting from there to Yangshuo was pretty straightforward, but returning all the way to Guilin was a tad trickier. The fact that it was Golden Week turned the prospect into an epic. So we weren’t in the market for a trip.
Then we got talking to an English
speaking Chinese couple who were hoping to hire a raft to take them half way to Xingping before returning here, as they had arrived in their own car.
After they’d negotiated there price I enquired to the driver how much it would cost plus two (and a half). He of course quoted double (halves go free). But after some negotiating, we were able to tag along for little over the original price, so we offered to split the total cost with the couple and thus hopefully cement our lift home in their car when it came time to leave.
We stopped by at his village for a look around, set in some of the most spectacular riverside scenery you’re ever likely to see. Yet even here it was impossible to escape Golden Weeks chaos.
Most tourists who visit Guilin take ferry boat trips down the river to Yangshuo, from where they are bused back to Guilin. This late in the afternoon we’d assumed they’d all have passed on by as they leave Guilin in the morning. What we hadn’t anticipated was the boats returning back up the river empty; and there were hundreds of them, struggling
along against the current, as we floated by.
Following the flotilla back up river was infinitely worse since we were only slightly faster, and for much of the journey, we were in a traffic jam of diesel belching ships. However, it was made infinitely more bearable by the sun’s light show silhouetting the beauty of the magnificent karst setting.
As the raft puttered into the wharf it was pitch black. We dropped a hint by asking the driver if there was any transport at this time to the main road, to which he replied we may be able to get a motorbike taxi. Fortunately our fellow passengers saw the folly and invited us to join them in their Volvo hire car with less than a thousand kms on the clock and gadgets I thought hadn’t even been conceived yet.
After the car’s GPS had safely delivered us the 6 or so kilometers down the single road to the junction we all exited the vehicle in an attempt to find us a ride back to Guilin as, tragically, our friends had a hotel in Yangshuo. Fifteen minutes we stood at the side of the road futilely attempting to
flag down a passing bus. This may not sound like a long time and admittedly it isn’t but during it we were passed by easily a hundred coaches and a dozen buses, all obviously delivering those ship passengers from the flotilla, seen out on the river, back to Guilin.
But we got one, we said our goodbyes, squeezed into the aisle, located a few inches of spare butt space, and got em home. Tomorrow was our turn to sample the delights of Yangshuo.
Yangshuo is a lot smaller than Guilin. It’s located right in the heart of the area’s spectacular action amongst the towering green Karsts. It is historically the most backpacker touristy place in all China and is said to represent nothing of the spirit and culture of ‘real’ China, with Pizza, Mexican food, English breakfasts and perhaps more remarkable for China: English Speakers!
When we arrived the place was heeeaaaaving with Chinese tourists; all the banana pancakes in the world couldn’t lure enough backpackers here to reclaim this town as their own during this week. The guy on reception at our hotel spoke not a solitary word of English, but with English breakfasts on the
menu in virtually every restaurant, I for one wasn’t complaining. The sheer choice of restaurants on offer already had me in a panicked pickle about which to pick and which to decline in the four short days we were to be here.
A smaller river runs near to Yangshuo, which has all the scenery of The Li without the flotillas. After being approached by countless guides throughout the day (they must ship them in from surrounding provinces) offering to help us “escape the crowds” on a bike trip along the river, we crossed that option off the list. We decided instead to bus it out there a little later in the day when hopefully things had quieted down a little, and then walk it.
It’s hard to fathom whether our plan hard worked or not because when we got to Dragon’s Bridge, the starting point for our walk, again the place was heaving, but had it been heeeaaaaving hours earlier? By the time we got a late lunch and navigated our way out of the village we’d heard the word “bamboo?” at least 40,000 times and we were already creeping into that time of day when the sun
starts flirting with the camera lens.
The scenery down here is sublime; a fairy fantasy land backdrop instilling a comforting awe, somewhere between the dreamy idyll of that perfect white sand beach, and the soaring mountains which enthrall with their magnanimity. The sun didn’t wait around for us that day, and with a large section of our trip left unexplored we hitched a ride on the back of a motorbike, and were home in time for happy hour sunset cocktails on the roof of Monkey Jane’s Guesthouse.
The area around Yangshuo would take weeks to explore in any great detail and I doubt I’d ever tire of its beauty. But we didn’t have weeks, and back in Guilin on d-day morning we were first through the door with our strategy at the ready. We’d select a woman if at all possible and let Kiva’s charm go to work. It was decided that Jennifer would lead the charge as our family spokesperson, with the chances of me boiling over quite high.
It was one of those take a number and wait your turn deals. When ours came up, fate paired us with the young male bureaucrat at desk
number 9. He listened to our story intently as we laid out our defense complete with exhibits A thru P; which included hotel receipts, train tickets, and visas for subsequent countries. He said he’d ask his superior if we could receive our extension the next day instead of next week, as the 5-business-day processing time would require. Meanwhile we’d be next door having our pictures taken. I was still skeptical, I was still hopeful.
When we returned a rather portly middle-aged female ‘superior’ was waiting. She was able to look like she was frowning without moving her eyebrows and perhaps more impressive; she was able to talk to us without acknowledging the existence of Kiva who was bouncing off my knee. We showed our train tickets, handed over our outdated passports, explained our story. She was emotionless, nodded her approval and granted us everything we’d come for!
Still giddy with shock we took a taxi straight to McDonald's to celebrate with Bacon and Egg McMuffins!
The next day the family went back to collect their passports. They weren’t ready. A bureaucratic mix up had meant they were in the ‘5 working days’ pile with everybody else’s. The
Dragaons Backbone Rice Terraces
smoke from village fires drifts through the terraces at dawn.
man they had spoken to at Desk#9 the previous day wasn’t there, and neither was his superior. Their train was to leave in two hours and they hadn’t packed yet. After explaining their story again, this time to the young lady at desk#1.The superior was summoned and emotionlessly nodded her approval, and the women at desk#1 disappeared. They waited perhaps twenty minutes before their passports returned. But only Jennifer’s and Kiva’s passports came back. Female bureaucrat at desk#1 gave a short queried look, before the realisation dawned, and she disappeared again.
The last time they were seen, Jennifer had jumped in a taxi back to the hostel in an attempt to pack their bags in time for their departure. Jason had abandoned all hope of containing Kiva’s restlessness, and in a subconscious attempt at appeasing his own anxiety, allowed Kiva to tear into the girly magazine that the Bureaucrat at desk#1 had been reading before setting the tiny tot loose on the marble floor to explore amongst the forest of legs.
There are more photos below