OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One minute the air was sweet and the grounds kept, people smiled and seemed to have a positive outlook, an assurance about themselves and their surroundings. Then we crossed the border and stepped into the ashtray. The smoke is the first thing that hits you, then it’s long faces that stare like ghosts, the whole place is like a film negative and we just crossed onto the negative. In all fairness, train stations in China have to be the worst places on earth, with a slight second to bus stations.

Kimberly’s perspective: I have a different perspective on this topic. The train stations are wildly improved from years ago. No one is smoking in the stations and there are seats in the waiting rooms with signs in English directing you where to go – a great improvement for the western traveler. Fifteen years ago, traveling through China, I was a spectacle pretty much everywhere we went – people stared in disbelief as if an alien was walking down the street. Now, most people barely notice me, and when they do stare, I feel a tinge of disdain. As if “why are you in our country, foreigner?” Back then it felt like the only people traveling around were other foreigners, so everyone you came in contact with wanted to chat you up. Conversations felt like a genuine exchange of information and ideas between people from two different cultures. Now, it feels like, “Spend your money and keep moving lady”. Most travelers are Chinese tourists, now seeing different parts of their country for the first time. They are developing a sense of pride and nationalism that didn’t exist before. This sounds at first like a good thing. But without the perspective of traveling to other countries (most Chinese travelers still cannot get a visa to leave the country), this nationalism could taint an otherwise balanced perspective. Apparently in Lijiang (a popular destination in Yunnan) there are already many eating and hotel establishments with signs that say “No Foreigners!” because they wish to cater exclusively to Chinese tourists. I wonder what this wave of nationalism will lead to?

I noticed in Hong Kong there were a lot of campaign signs in the subways and malls declaring “what person are you?” followed by a nice gentleman giving up a seat for an elderly lady. Cartoon figures of people washing their hands, sneezing into their sleeves and not spitting nor smoking. I remember growing up in the 70’s and a commercial with an American Indian floating down the river in a canoe and he slowly was surrounded by more and more trash, a big “don’t litter” campaign. I also recall the no spitting and don’t throw your McDonalds out the window campaigns. I guess each society has its growing pains. I just hope China learns quickly from its little sister HK.

We boarded the train from Shenzhen to Guilin armed with fruit, milk, juices, ramens, snacks, cookies and some KFC, let us not forget 10 vias from Starbucks. The train ride was just as we prepared for. Crappy bathrooms, hot water at the ready and our own private room to watch China roll by. After watching an episode of Master Chef (our latest family addiction) and a few cartoons, which I downloaded in HK, we went to bed. The swaying of the train and the white noise of the carriages is like a sleeping heaven. The only reason I woke up was the ticket collector came in around 5:30am. Damn why did he have to do that? Maybe a shift change? We were not due to arrive in Guilin until 9:30am. That is what I read on the ticket 9 (Chinese character) 30 (Chinese character).

We arrived at 6:30 am sharp! The train pulled into the station, two totally asleep kids and me just dreamy and pasty. Kimberly said, “the signs say Guilin Railway Station!” What the… how could we arrive 3 hours early? I can’t believe I did not realize we were also on car 9 and I had bunk 30. Duh.

We had arranged for a driver to take us to a guesthouse in the Longsheng mountain region amongst the rice terraces. They call the area the Dragons Backbone because the rice terraces that cover the mountains look like dragon scales reflecting the skies above. The ride through Guilin was comical. First off it was morning so there were not many cars or trucks on the roads, but lots of motorcycles and scooters. We are now in the south of China and it rains, so people adapt. I have never seen an umbrella for a motorcycle before nor have I seen ponchos that are built to cover the driver, the headlight and little arms to cover the rearview mirrors. In China they have adopted the unwritten rule that 2 wheels, motorized or not, should occupy the same patch of pavement. So they drive on the sidewalks, bike lanes, car lanes and don’t stop for any traffic lights. They even come up the road on the wrong side of the street. It was like being in an undersea world when the little fish just wake up.

After about 2 hours we started to ascend into the mountains. The road was narrow with one side along a cliff and the other along a river, sometimes with a big drop below. It reminded me of the road into Yosemite Valley, only much more lush, green and narrow. We passed several rock slides, a few that would have surely closed the road in California, but not here! Tour buses managed to squeak by without falling off the soft shoulders. On any parts of the earth that were not straight up and down in the valleys were covered with massive bamboo. Strangely, the other major plant seemed to be pine trees — the climate here goes from tropical to snow so I guess that makes sense.

We passed a few villages on the way up and felt like we were entering some magical kingdom where dragons might be real. Finally stopping in a town to see the blank stares of the minority people. I always feel awkward when you go to a village to see the locals on display, even worse when you go to watch a dance performance. Luckily we were there so early that they were not ready to dance, nor sell us any trinkets. It was nice to walk through the cobbled alleys and across 2 wood suspension bridges.

We finally arrived in Dazhai. Our hotel was the Wisdom Inn, not to be confused with the other Wisdom Inn two buildings down. Our hotel was the first one in this area and did very good for many years, now there is a glut of hotels and to try to get more customers someone named their hotel Wisdom Inn. “China is a world of copycats” said our host. We were the only guests in the entire place and the rooms felt like a pine cabin in Tahoe.

Kimberly’s comment on the hotel: While the Wisdom Inn is sparkling clean and the lady is reasonably polite, I would not recommend this place. We booked a room for 4 guests, and when we arrived, there was only 1 bed that would never fit all 4 of us, so she offered another room across the hall (which required us to pay another $60/night). She also charges for breakfast, $4 for a cup of coffee and $2 for butter. Really? Butter? Today I saw that she does have a family suite with 4 beds in it, but didn’t offer it to us because she knew she could make more money by having us take two rooms. Quite a racket – expensive and nickel and diming us on top of that. I suppose she has to make a living somehow. I’ve written it off to one of the many lessons in travel – clarify, always clarify.

The landscape around Dazhai is truly stunning. Dazhai is the central village surrounded by several smaller hamlets throughout the valley separated by quaint cobblestone paths. Each hamlet is a steep 30-45 minute walk to the next. We took several big hikes around Dazhai, all but one required us to start by marching up lots and lots of stone steps (for one day we took a cable car up to a hill top). All led to little villages where we were greeted by happy faces looking out of windows, doing daily work or sitting behind makeshift kiosks selling trinkets and cold drinks. The people are mainly of the Yao minority and the women are distinct in that they never cut their hair. They wrap it up vey nicely into what looks like a Turkish hat. They all have a very similar smile and gentle way about them. The scenery is amazing! The water management systems are outstanding. Water flows from the top tier down through so many tiers of rice plantings and none are clogged or overflowing. It must take a ton of work to keep the water slowly moving. We were there for 3 massive days of rain, which swelled the many creeks causing waterfalls everywhere. From the hotel room to every place you walk or hike, there are constant sounds of water rushing, falling or trickling.

A funny site to see here is the local Yao women, average age being 50-60. They have a very lucrative employment — carrying tourist luggage from the park entrance up to their hotels. All day you see old women with wicker baskets strapped to their backs and inside is wheeled luggage, with a tourist a few steps behind. These women obviously grew up in these hills and have walked them countless times, but I still marveled at how effortlessly they bounced up the paths carrying big loads of other peoples crap. (There is no way I could walk guilt-free behind a 60 year old woman carrying my crap, but it was amusing to watch others do it.)

Kimberly’s comment on village life: The government has come in to this region in the last 8-10 years and developed tourism infrastructure, but is not sharing it with the local people. I guess this is pissing them off, so, in protest, they have been known to stop flooding the rice terraces so they look like a muddy mountain. The village people are pretty uninterested in tourists and immediately ask if you want to buy some of their trinkets. There isn’t much of an exchange between the tourists and the local village people other than the paper kind. This is a shame, as it creates a somewhat soul-less place with little faith in anything other than the almighty Yuan. I suppose some of the blame lies with me, in that I don’t speak the language and therefore can only truly observe this perspective, rather than understand it.

One thing we both are still amazed at is the number of Chinese tourists and the lack of western tourists. The sheer volume of the Chinese tourists is staggering. Wherever there are Chinese tourists there are thousands! And they all seem to want to do the same thing and then get back on the bus. I think we have seen about 12 western tourists in total during our entire trip in China so far. It is funny to see the Chinese tourists because tourism is so new to them and they all seem a bit awkward. It seems like they are going to places just to get the photo then get back on the bus, not for the experience or the understanding of the different culture or environment. Interestingly, as Kimberly noted above, this means far less gawking than when we visited 15 years ago. But it also means far less attention in general. They seem to know that western tourists are uninterested in their trinkets and doo-dads so the touts seem less aggressive than in years passed, since they know a hoard of Chinese tourists are coming up the path, why bother with the stingy westerners?

After three days in the mountains, we arranged for a car to pick us up and drive us four hours south to a little town on the Li river called Langshi. It is only accessible by boat and thus keeps it pretty remote. Remember it rained big time for three days? Well the roads that were already terrible were now much worse. It was a harrowing descent out of the Longsheng mountains. I will hopefully post some videos later, but we actually drove under a waterfall at one point!

Want to see more photos of our trip (go to http://bymichaelwang.com/china/dazai)

Advertisements