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Published: November 26th 2007
Preview on Impressions
Liu Sanjie's grand outdoor theater
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It really wasn't the intention to arrive in Yangshuo at 4:25 am. Believe us, it wasn't!
We had taken the first bus out of Zhuhai and that's just how it worked out. But now we had already covered 1.5 km on a totally unfamiliar road with no end in sight. The road had a sprinkling of street lights and a generous amount of stray dogs. Farmers chugged by in vehicles resembling bugs, ladies powered past us on bicycles with produce-laden sidecars and butchers had perfect halves of some pig whose time had come slung over the backseats of their motorcycles. Shivering in the morning cold, we cheered each other up by singing "Daylight come an' meh want go home" and other Caribbean folk songs. Ever so often we'd glance over our shoulders to ensure that we weren't being followed by anyone or worse, anything
We made an about-face when the street lights disappeared altogether. A little after 5 am we stumbled on a
bus stop with a sign showing 6 pm as the start time for the bus service. Propping our backpacks up against the bus stop, we plopped on the ground and prayed for the sun to rise. Ever so slowly the dark started to dissipate revealing the dreamlike scenery of Yangshuo.
Have you ever seen some painting or reprinted Chinese art piece with tall, narrow mountains thrusting skyward and wrapped in a ribbon of mystical mist? This was what the morning light revealed to us and these were precisely what we came to Yangshuo to see: karst peaks.
Karst, according to Wikipedia, is "...a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a soluble layer or layers of bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite". The dreamscape unfolded slow and surreal and unbelievably beautiful
. And suddenly every pothole which woke us up, the dirty rest stop and even the thick morning dew was all worth it for a moment like this. Varying in width, height and foliage, the freaky limestone phalluses could easily be the correct answer to the Jeopardy's category "What is a landscape you'd expect on another planet"
. And they were everywhere towering so high above that we
felt Lilliputian. We didn't notice the minutes ticking by and that it was bright until an auto-rickshaw driver propositioned us. RMB 10 was the fare and then we knew, by the direction the driver took, that we had been walking away from the city centre rather than to it. 😱
It was Golden Week in China - a week-long holiday for many to celebrate National Day. Hordes of Chinese tourists descend on every major tourist attraction in the country and Yangshuo was not excepted. And in keeping with Economics 101, as the demand outstripped supply, prices were astronomically driven up. The Garden Hotel, which normally charged RMB 40 now brazenly quoted us RMB 150
. We had no choice but eventually settled on RMB 130. The room was basic and right by the noisy roadside and with shared bathroom and toilet. The toilet was a 'squatter' - no more than a ceramic-ringed hole in the floor with a muloderous odor and a shower about about 3 small tiles away. We 'freshened' up (if it is at all possible to freshen up in a stinky room
) and hit the road.
From the moment we stepped out of the hotel we
became the center of attention. Men and women, boys, girls and toddlers unashamedly oggled us and giggled. Have you ever heard grown men giggle? We did. Our presence started conversations among people who were quietly chilling and stopped the conversations of conversing groups. They'd come right into our personal space and peer at our hair, clothes, skin and teeth. They'd point us out to their family and friends and snap pictures undercover with mobile phones. And giggle!! At first we were annoyed but soon our sense of humour kicked in and we embraced our 'celebrity'. Quickly disarming the toughest of them with a 'Ni hao'
(hello), we soon found ourselves posing non-stop for pictures with families, children and young ladies who sometimes pushed Shanna out of the way so that they would pose alone with Vibert. In almost every picture, we did the 'peace' sign. Chinese simply love the 'peace' sign.
We went up the steep, little hill overlooking the city 'Ni Hao'-ing and head bopping the people going up and coming down. From the summit we could see endless karst peaks like some giant stone fence surrounding Yangshuo. And although it was a bright day, thin fog still
wrapped parts of the awesome peaks. The Li River was a beaut. She flowed fast and was surprisingly clean for a Chinese river. She reflected the karst well in places and for this, attracted most of Yangshuo's tourists. The waterside was like a fairground. Flimsy, motorized rafts made from bamboo lashed togather shuttled tourists up and down stream, fishermen and their fishing cormorants offered picture opportunities for a fee and artists painted sketches of people on plain white tshirts. We boarded a raft and chugged down river for a spell. We'd like it better if it were not so loud and if so many people weren't on the river but, all-in-all, a chance to get upclose to and a different perspective of karst, was not to be missed. At night we strolled along West Street, a super-busy, everything-is-for-sale, walk-thru 'mall' where traditional Chinese cha (tea) houses rubbed up against western-style diners.
The next day we rented bikes and set out with no particular destination in mind. Along the way a young Chinese couple, Nakur and Ling, hailed out to us and we formed a riding quartet. We pedalled thru rice fields and down dead-end hills, thru old villages and
alongside karst, on bum-numbing backroads and across the main highway where a tunnel punctured the mountain. Swapping stories, jokes and laughs, we got lost and found for the better part of four wonderful hours and later lunched in a chinese restaurant accompanied by the crass lyrics of (gasp) Beenie Man's 'Wickedest Slam'.
Julia Lee, the manager of the tourist care center in central Yangshuo, managed to rustle up tickets for us to see a show by renowned Chinese producer Liu Sanjie. Dubbed 'Impressions', the show was a hot item as was the ticket prices. At RMB 200 a pop, they would be our largest extravagance. Both of us hung on for dear life to the back of the motorcycle Julia had arranged as we went flying without wings on the busiest road ever. No less than 300,000 patrons were stampeding thru the gates when we arrived. Julia was tense. She pushed us into a group led by a lady with a blue flag and advised us not to lose sight of
the flag. With an equal amount of pushing and shoving, we managed to keep up. The open-air auditorium could only be reached via a 15-minute walk thru
superbly manicured gardens and complimenting wooden Chinese temple-styled buildings. Our last-minute seats, they were near perfect: almost center and 12 rows from the front.
The sound of gongs signalled an on-time start and then powerful lights lit up 12 karst peaks in the background. The crowd roared its approval. We were totally unprepared for what happened next. The Li River came alive with about 100 fishermen 'walking' on water' and swirling red fabric with uncanny precision. Then came school-age children bedecked in the outfits of Chinese Minority groups singing hauntingly sweet, strange songs before hundreds of flaming torches ignited in the distance as sister groups, on the right and left, replied with joyous refrain. Local fishermen and their cormorants, healthy buffalo, bamboo rafts, beautiful female singers and muscled male labourers all bandied together to create a spectacle the likes of which we had never seen. The eternally poignant story of love and lost needed no translation and was perfectly executed, almost entirely on the Li River, by the 600-strong cast. For an hour we were transported to a place where equal parts of mystery and drama, romance and passion, music and mood lighting combined in perfect symphony to produce
a bewitching, beguiling masterpiece worthy of a place among the world's best performances.
Shanna (God bless her adventurous soul) decided to cut her hair at one of the many hairdressing outfits in town. At first, every one of the hair professionals balked at the idea. They had never touched hair with her texture. While they drew straws, Shanna was whisked upstairs for a body massage and hair wash (all regular precedents of a haircut). One lanky Chinese stylist with red, frizzy hair was appointed and his discomfort showed. Soon, sizeable gouges appeared in Shanna's crown. Vibert bit back his laughter. It wouldn't have been politically correct. This was time for 'support'. The entire shop stopped to watch. Calmly, Shanna guided the nervous stylist and, against the odds, they managed a decent cut. Vibert declined a cut offer.
With heavy hearts we said 'zaijian' to Yangshuo and spent the next 90 minutes to Guilin on cramped, inferior plastic stools in the aisle of the overcrowded 'normally'
bus. Guilin was nice but big city-ish. The China Post here, unlike its Yangshuo branch, had 'Guyana' in their system thereby allowing Vibert to send a gift home. That would be all we
did in Guilin before hopping on the 5 pm train heading for Kunming. This was a 'sleeper train' - an elongated rail version of the sleeper bus. Each compartment had 6 beds, 3 on each side, two small tables and a flask of hot water. There was an area for handwashing and toothbrushing and squatter toilets. Hitting bull's eye in the squatter of a moving train was a toughie and, from the looks of it, most people missed😞. Lights out was at 10 pm. Chinese elevator music and brights lights usually meant 7 am. Hot, self-made instant noodles went well with the rural scenery outside. Daylight showed off Chinese determination to remove obstacles as the train powered under mountains in numerous spectacular tunnels.
Kunming appeared around 11 am the next day. It was a modern city complete with tiled skyscrapers and an impressive 'houche zhan'
(train station). But it was not our cup of cha so into a bus we went for three hours to Shilin. Our research had indicated that Lunan was a smaller, more authentic village to hole up and explore this region. And so, in a flash, we jumped into yet another bus. This one was
insufferably slow and the roads equally bad causing a 10 km journey to take all of 60 minutes. But Lunan had changed. It was no longer a quaint market village. Now it had no authenticity and all the trimmings of a creeping tiled metropolis. But a lunch of potatoes and green peppers, eggs and tomatoes and rice went down well. Just before we jumped into the minibus to head back out to Shilin a man, without warning, grabbed Vibert's arm and started rubbing. Apparently he thought that Vibert was a coal miner and that the black would rub off. His jaw dropped. He was awestruck when we realized that he was looking at the real McCoy. nother 45 minutes put us at Jade Hotel in Shilin.
Are you counting? Let's run this again for effect!! 2
hours from Yangshuo to Guilin; 18
hours from Guilin to Kunming; 3
hours from Kunming to Shilin; 1
hour from Shilin to Lunan and 45
minutes back to Shilin. TOTAL NON-STOP TRAVEL TIME: 24 hours 45 minutes.
We should be dead tired right? Wrong! After a quick check-in and little after 5 pm, we were off to rendezvous with some 'Freaks
of Nature'. 😊
😊 Ling and Nakur, our new friends
😊 Liu Sanjie and the 'Impressions' troupe
😊 Julia Lee
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