Due to the manic travelling conditions witnessed during Chinese new year celebrations, up until now I’d bought all my train tickets ahead of schedule. This hadn‘t been possible for my onward journey from Guangzhou to Guilin, where I was hoping to spend new year in the nearby town of Yangshuo, famous for its other-worldly karst landscapes. Thanks to a group of ‘entrepreneurs,’ who bought hundreds of train tickets to re-sell at inflated prices, tickets for travel originating in Guangzhou could only be purchased here, not nationwide.
Arriving into Guangzhou, the main train station looked more like a refugee village than the city’s premiere transport hub. On the square outside the entrance thousands of people loitered. Others slept under tents on the hard concrete. Helpers handed out free food, water and chairs. Such images I’d expect in a region ravaged by famine or war, but never for a national holiday. I wasn’t surprised that onward trains towards Yangshuo were fully booked for days.
My only option now was public bus. Crossing the road to the adjacent bus station I’d resigned myself for failure. Upon enquiring though I was shocked to hear the cashier’s response. “What time bus do you want
tickets for?” she asked. I’d just assumed bus travel would be the same as train travel. It isn’t. The cheapness of train travel is far more popular. Not surprising when you consider the costs associated with Spring Festival and the donations expected to be handed out to other family members inside symbolic red envelopes.
I’d never travelled on a sleeper bus before, where seats are replaced with narrow bunk beds and anyone over the average Asian size will struggle to fit. As everybody was made to take their shoes off before entering the bus, my immediate thoughts of sophistication were short lived. By the time the bus pulled out of the station bodies littered the aisles and there was the pungent smell of cheesy, sweaty socks in the air. The driver’s assistant seemed less than amused as he tip-toed over people to hand out the complimentary plastic sick bag. Stopping at those with the biggest whiff, he handed out an extra two sick bags, ordering the passengers to place them over their feet and tie them tight. Most looked ashamed at their public mocking,. One man in a stained white vest though seemed genuinely bemused, never before realising his
Considering the beds were as comfortable as sleeping in a coffin going 80mph I slept soundly, awakening to impending peaks looming in every direction. Since leaving Benxi, I could count the number of foreigners seen on two hands. That all changed upon reaching Yangshuo, a long-time favourite on the backpacker trail. The old narrow streets bordering the Li River are jam-packed full of hostels, souvenir shops and Western restaurants, the workers of which all speak English. Even the wandering pensioners, hawking their bags of bananas, are bi-lingual.
Taking advantage of the postcard-perfect views, my days were spent hiking, cycling and exploring the local area, visiting Dragon Bridge, Moon Hill, Xinding and Yangdi. In every turn, on every road and path, inhabitants raced towards me and energetically enquired, “hello, bamboo boat?” until blue in the face. Offering these rickety modes of transport to tourists is a popular source of income for local residents. It’s also one of the guaranteed ways of getting fleeced of your money.
There is no denying the beauty of the area; huge peaks randomly rising towards the sky, horses galloping along exposed river banks, minute women with humpbacks pulling along cows and
water buffalos, rice paddies full of toiling farmers and playful piglets, graves covered in red paper (part of the ‘saluting the tomb’ tradition witnessed during Spring Festival) and fishermen with their working cormorants posing for photos. Sadly the last tradition of using cormorants to catch fish, which they later regurgitate into a basket for the fisherman, is only kept alive for tourists who are happy to pay for the privilege of witnessing it.
Following one of these fishermen down the Li River as darkness crept in, this experience felt hollow, passing under neon-lit bridges, hemmed in by new, expensive apartment blocks. When two of the cormorants started fighting over a clothes hanger dragged up from the depths of the murky water the sullen-looking fisherman wasted no time to smack them over the heads continuously until they dropped it and went back to searching for fish. Animal cruelty charities would have a field day with such antics.
After spending the days doing various forms of physical activity, I felt the need to indulge myself. This pampering came in the form of eating. In a country blessed with so many culinary delights, I don’t make a habit of over-dosing on
Western food often. Seeing bright, flashing signs offering various fast-food delights I gave in to temptation. I’ve had some embarrassing moments in my life. Getting beaten by a dwarf in the Berlin Marathon is one. My mother finding my stash of top-shelf magazines as a teenager is another. As I sat on my hostel bed though, dressed only in underpants and fingers covered in chicken grease from the empty KFC bucket beside me, similar shameful sentiments were felt. The smell is definitely better than the taste!
To try and snap out of this slump of guilt and cholesterol I signed up for a cookery class, learning step by step how to make famous indigenous dishes like ‘beer’ fish, stewed snails and stir-fried aubergine. As part of the learning experience, I was also taken to a local market to buy my ingredients fresh. I’ve visited many a local market in China before, but never have I seen such a variety of live meat available for sale. Cats, pigeons, rabbits and a variety of other smaller birds were stuffed into cramped cages. Most disturbing though was the butcher specializing in dog meat. A couple of freshly cooked dog carcases hung from
the front counter. Behind, live dogs cowered in cages. From the freshly slaughtered dog torsos lying across their cages, those still lucky enough to be alive were left with no doubt about their fate.
Time in Yangshuo passed quickly. Considering the speed of crossing China both east to west (and back) and north to south, nine days in Yangshuo came as a welcome break. When travelling so quickly, experiences and locations soon become a blur, as days merge into one another. One day impossible to forget though was Spring Festival.
Dancing dragons and beating drums marked the arrival of New Year’s Eve. After my experiences the previous year, I had high expectations. Many of the bars and hostels around town had parties planned. Not wanting to spend my last Chinese national holiday surrounded by fellow foreigners, my wife and I searched for a bar with local inhabitants. Finding one, we sat back with our cheap bottles of Qingdao beer and watched the variety performance on CCTV1, a Chinese institution on Spring Festival Eve.
An hour before midnight, something strange happened. The resident Chinese finished their drinks and left. Replacing them was a ragtag bunch of expat English
teachers, hell bent on intoxication and mayhem. I wondered how differently my experience of living in China would have been if I’d chosen a location like Yangshuo, where you are continuously surrounded by English language and culture.
As midnight struck, my wife and I downed our free shot of Jagermeister and rushed out of the bar towards Li River, hoping for a manic firework display. Unbelievably, there was nothing. Only silence. Disappointed, we trudged back towards our hostel, getting drawn in by the golden arches of McDonalds for a drunken Big Mac that we knew we’d regret the following morning. Our shameful behaviour was matched by most other foreigners residing in the town. We reached our hostel to find trails of blood leading to various corners of the building. The receptionist, with a face like thunder, informed us that two guests had to be taken to hospital for drunken injuries. We left her scrubbing the floor clean, while angrily mumbling to herself.
With my time in Yangshuo coming to an end, I caught a bus back to Guangzhou, from where we would continue onwards to Hong Kong. Even with Spring Festival finished, bus prices were still double the
normal price, costing $50 for a seven hour journey. Next time I’ll think about travelling in China during a quieter period.
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