Published: August 30th 2010August 29th 2010
It was a sea of orange...Deep in the heart of rural China we had congregated with scores of Dutch to watch the World Cup Final. The anticipation had been building all day and we had helped Karst & Paulien, the Dutch owners, turn their living room into a tribute to Holland. Complete with flags, banners and even a pumpkin. Having watched with them from the Quarter Finals and extended our stay for the final, we had become honorary Dutch.
It had all started the evening we arrived. Holland had beaten Brazil to reach the Quarter Finals and we celebrated with the other Dutch guests. However, celebrating another country's triumph with rice wine is never a good idea and soon Han and I were cycling, in true Dutch style, to a mystery party out in the woods. It was past midnight and the sleepy Chinese village had no wild raves to offer us. So, rather disgruntled, we cycled back. On the way home I succumbed to my intoxication and the treacherous potholes by falling straight into a puddle of mud. Rice wine and cycling in the dark should never go together!
Despite our wine induced hangover and my badly bruised
hip we awoke to enjoy our unique surrounds. The Giggling Tree G.H, aptly named after the giant tree that sits in front of the terrace, is a restored farmhouse set amongst the limestone karsts and waving rice paddies of Aishanmen village, near Yangshuo.
The welcoming owners and engaging staff eased us into the giggling life as we admired the rustic french charm of this farmhouse with a distinct Chinese feel. Sat on the terrace we prayed for a breeze and ordered a Liquan Beer. But in this land locked part of Guangxi the beer always came before the breeze.
Each day, in order to escape the intense heat, we walked to the river Yulong to swim by the weir. The heat, let alone the river, lent itself to swimming and we went there with gusto, weaving through the fresh smelling rice paddies, past farmers who seemed happy we were enjoying the land that is everyday for them. The scene that we cooled in was so vivid it was almost tangible. In the quiet surround of late afternoon as we relaxed in the water, buffalo would cross the river that reflected the verdant karsts behind. All of this with
the purple and pink hues of the sunset sky to further massage our senses. What a place for us all to be together.
The Giggling Tree was a great facilitator of activity. From Cormorant Fishing to Mah Jong, they could sort it. However just cycling the bumpy country roads was activity enough. We had two rather differing biking excursions together, each time with Sas on a tandem. The first was a gentle peddle down river passing swimming holes and stopping for lunch and plenty of Liquan beer. The second was an epic.
Having set out in the cooler late afternoon we cycled up river towards the Dragon Bridge. It was a balmy evening as we navigated our way, with help from some locals, to a swimming locale on route to the bridge. Refreshed and ready to continue we soon came to the beginning of the bumpy, narrow paths and the work began. Although the terrain was harder to manage we were also cycling further into the rurality of this breathtaking area. The jutting limestone karsts parting just enough for the rice fields scatter. A community born to it's harvest. We were cycling through time in an area not
yet effected by the global age. Whether this simple yet, in many ways, enviable lifestyle continues, while the growth of tourism offers bigger pickings elsewhere, remains to be seen.
I had a growing sense as we cycled on that this was more about the journey than the getting there. Sas was laughing and singing on the back of the tandem as she peddled almost too fast at times for me to control the bike. Finally at the Dragon Bridge we rested our achey limbs before, back on the saddle, we made it past the temptation of touting bamboo boatmen offering to whisk us back down river. As the sun began to set and the paths got smaller we wandered whether we would ever make it back. On one particularly arduous trail William fell off his bicycle straight into a bush. It was unashamedly hilarious, so much so that I was randomly breaking out in laughter thinking about it for days after. However I couldn't really laugh having fallen off myself only days before.
The last half an hour of the ride was in total darkness and, although tired, we all had a great sense of achievement when we
arrived back at The Giggling Tree. That evening, having earned our garlic broccoli and white wine, we all buzzed with endorphins whilst shuffling for comfort on our rather sore posteriors.
Having cycled by the river it was time to float on it and so we organised a bamboo boat trip on the nearby Li River. We battled past the sellers at Yangdi town to get to our raft and the tranquility of the river, on which our captain gently motored. It was a beautiful two hour cruise to Xingping passing by awe inspiring limestone karsts that loomed over the river and into the distance. Buffalo waded in the river shore as the sun shone and life slowed down. We sipped our ice cold beers, collected from a restaurant on route, and enjoyed the changing scenes of this most revered part of China, depicted on the twenty Yuan note.
Although the area's natural beauty has created jobs for local villagers it has also created problems. Tourists flock to be taken on the river but as one man prospers the other is left behind. Envious eyes are cast at The Giggling Tree's rich stream of guests and one afternoon some
drunk local men vented their anger on the terrace as they saw a disparity in the distribution of the tourist money. It was a tricky situation for all to manage without damaging the owners relationship with the community. The village leader was called and poignant Chinese words said. The leader endeavours to spread the money from tourism evenly but in some cases the men just lack the ingenuity. It is their wives who are in the fields as they drink and wait for work. Perhaps the teething problems of a village that is beginning to lose sight of tradition.
The outburst on the terrace, although alarming, was a rare insight into the politics of Aishanmen village. Other than being the scene of a village dispute The Giggling Tree was a hive of social activity. The open terraces invited open conversations between like-minded guests as well as a place to shade from the forty degree heat. We read our books and drank Great Wall wine that chilled in the quickly melting ice bucket.
The Giggling Tree not only has the setting and scenery but the vibe to go with it, created by the mix of honest, friendly, ambitious owners
and a uniquely giggling staff. Luke spent an afternoon teaching us the traditional Chinese game of Mah Jong. Rabbit was shown how to use chopsticks to pin her hair into a bun by Mum; and Lucy, all using there preferred English names, spent hours cross-stitching with Sas and laughing with us. She epitomised the giggling nature of the guest house.
Having enjoyed the flavours and variety of food whilst in China we decided to learn some of the tricks. The Yangshuo cooking school came highly recommended and promptly picked us up at 8am to go to the market to buy our goods. It was an amazingly orderly market with fruit, vegetables, fish and meat laid out immaculately. Jenny, our chef/market guide, talked us through the different ingredients needed for Chinese cooking before rushing us past the dog section. Although pork is the main meat in China, dogs are also consumed. Unfortunately China, like most of Asia, does not have a notion of animal cruelty.
Back at our countryside cooking school we watched and learned as Jenny taught us some great Chinese dishes such as dumplings, stir fried lotus root, and garlic vegetables. Sas was my energetic assistant who
helped put the oil, salt and oyster sauce in each concoction. She liked the oyster sauce so much that she began eating it straight out of the pot. It was hot work at the wok but great fun, especially as we could compare each others attempts and spatula skills. After finishing our dishes we all convened at the outdoor table, in view of the karsts, to eat. It was an informative, fast paced two hours and we had all produced flavoursome, authentic Chinese food.
That evening we booked a trip on the Li river to watch the ancient Chinese tradition of cormorant fishing. For hundreds of years man has used the extraordinary fishing skills of cormorants to live, but the relationship has been reciprocal. Due to a small tie around the neck the birds are able to eat the little fish they catch while the big ones are plucked from the mouth by the owner. The fish filled rivers of southern China is where this dying art continues, because or perhaps despite of, tourism.
Stepping onto a boat with another ten tourists did not fill us with optimism but what followed was magical. We left the night skyline
of Yangshuo and motored ten minutes up stream where we were met by the cormorant boat. Lit against the dark surround, only by the light at the front, the wispy bearded Chinese man let his huge birds into the water where they eagerly hunted their slippery prey. Each time the fisherman saw his bird catch a big one he pulled it up on board and emptied the catch into a bucket. This rather unnatural process seemed to flow as easily as the moonlit river that passed under us.
Time moved in what seemed like motionless moments. Insects crazied the floodlit scene where the cormorants made their catch and we on board strained our cameras to flash. We all convened on a sandy bank to get a closer look at the hawk-like birds. The fisherman displayed his wares and invited us for pictures with his winged helpers. Tourism then caught up with tradition as the tip box toppled with more money than his fish were worth. However, the magical aura was not lost. The smiling owner beckoned Sas to come forward from the group for a picture. Upon which she would usually retire shyly, Sas stepped forward to this old
Chinese man in a mature and confident way that displayed her growing as a person the day before her 9th birthday.
We left the boat accepting of how tradition and tourism have joined. Man is now using man to help him and his cormorants live in modern China.
The morning of Saskia's birthday in China was spent opening presents in the air-conditioned cool of our room. We had put balloons up everywhere and she sprung about excitedly. On the terrace the lovely Dutch guests shook her hand and even gave her a mini pair of clogs tied to some orange balloons.
In the afternoon Karst & Paulien had sprung a surprise birthday party in their newly renovated courtyard. They had bought a huge cake and laid out a table full of food for us to enjoy with them and some staff. While Sas played with Karst and Paulien's son Pelle, we talked over a glass of wine about their lives, our lives and life in general. We sang Happy Birthday and cut the cake. It was an incredibly nice gesture.
After lunch we had arranged a calligraphy lesson for Sas, Mum, Hannah and I. The strong
strokes and hand held concentration created a wonderfully relaxed mood which William enjoyed with a glass of wine next to us. Sas was a natural as were Mum and Han, even I displayed some symbols that resembled the Chinese numbers we were taught.
As day drifted to evening and we sat for dinner in a steaming inner courtyard, Sas' birthday played out in style. Barney, a holidaying American, gave everyone an impromptu musical performance of amazing sorts. Knowing it was Sas' birthday the incredibly talented gutarist/performer started with a jazzed up version of 'Happy Birthday' before then playing a two hour set of favourites ranging from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley all with his own unique style. He was very crowd inclusive, talking and joking with guests as he went from song to song creating the atmosphere. Karst & Paulien were quite emotional at the scene of the courtyard they created full with music and their appreciative guests. We were in a special place at the perfect time.
So to the final. Amidst the sea of orange our adopted Dutch lost and it was time for us to go. It had been the most amazing ten days. Football,
like leaving, can be painful sometimes but at least we can say we were there!
There are more photos below