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The first destination in China we visited on our trip 15 years ago was the Guilin region, famous for its stunning limestone cliffs that climb straight up to dizzying heights along the beautiful Li River. We discovered the quaint town of Yangshuo back then and extended our stay by a week to explore the area because we were so enchanted. This time, I wanted to return and share the landscape with my children. The description of Yangshuo today, however, paints a much different picture of the sleepy backwater village it once was.., “the town, once peaceful, is now a messy smoggy collage of Chinese tour groups, bewildered Westerners, discos, pole-dancing bars, bad traffic and the glue that binds any tourist hot spot together – touts.” – I think I’ll pass!

So instead, we found an off the beaten path airbnb in a small Chinese village that seemed like it might offer a more authentic experience – and it delivered in spades. LaoJia is an old Qing dynasty home in a small village nestled at the base of the cliffs right on the river. An American and Dutchman have spent the better part of the last 1.5 years restoring the home and they have recently started to rent out rooms to recover their investment. There are no restaurants, no shops, no hotels and no cars as the village is accessible only by boat and most of the villagers are farmers. Sounds perfect!

Due to the epic rains, the river had swollen to near record levels and the short 15-minute crossing was exhilarating as we got our first glimpse of the scenery, which was simply stunning. The men navigated our little bamboo boat (not really bamboo, more like lashed together PVC piping with benches on top) across the treacherous waters and we docked. After meandering through a few tiny alleyways, we opened the door to the courtyard of our new home. The guys had restored it beautifully, keeping the old architecture in place and just adding some (necessary) modern amenities (like a toilet!). They had stripped the wood back down to its original glory, but because the rooms were simply appointed with just a bed, you really got a sense for what it would have been like to live in the house circa 1800 as one of the many Chinese concubines of the merchant who owned the complex.

One of the villagers, who they lovingly call “goat man”, immediately took a liking to the kids and wanted to show them his goats — Alright, let’s go! We hiked through the majestic mountains – which took 1.5 hours instead of the usual 30 minutes because it was super slippery due to the mud all over the rocks. Kailani and Mike then descended into the jungle to locate the goats and put them in their ramshackle hut for the night. We were dripping in sweat, covered in mud and our shoes were filthy – it was great! After showering up, we joined the other guests for a communal meal that their Ah-yee prepares every night – all fresh vegetables from the farm sauteed beautifully with a side of rice (they don’t serve meat because it got complicated with the needs of different guests).

Every night, the villagers would come round the house after dinner for a cup of tea and a chat – we would stay up with the other guests trying our hand at Chinese, or just playing games – you really get a sense for the slow pace of village life. The next day, the river was closed to tourists because it was too dangerous to navigate, so we relaxed, took a hike, strolled around the village and played on the banks of the river. The following day we got a boat to take us down river to the larger town of Xingping. You had to try really hard to romanticize the experience – romantically you are floating down river like Tom Sawyer, gazing at peaks that rise upwards of 600 feet above you, Comorant fisherman floating passed, and the water lapping against the bamboo boat. In reality, you’re listening to the ear deafening putter of an engine, getting sprayed with water guns by throngs of Chinese tourists, floating down a chocolate brown river and sitting on a wooden bench. But with the right imagination, it was a pretty fun sight to behold.

On our last day, we wandered around the village some more and took a short stroll with Maarten to “the cave” – the water source for the entire village, and something the villagers are immensely proud of. It was crystal clear, cold and delicious. “Where does this water go?” Mike asked, as we watched it cascading down the mountain making a small waterfall. “Can we swim in it?” – “I don’t know, let’s find out!” said Maarten. Further down river was a series of pools, shaded by pomelo orchards. We were baking in 103 degrees with 98% humidity. The pools were a cool 65 degrees — aaaaahhhhh, glorious! We spent the remainder of the day scrambling around the rocks and immersed in the blue-green waters, gazing out at the karst limestone cliffs beyond – it felt like we had just found the garden of eden – don’t eat the apples!

We regretfully said our goodbyes to Eric and Maarten and the rest of the villagers we had befriended, hugged Goat Man and proceeded on a 15 minute boat ride to a 2 hour car ride to a 20 hour train journey followed by another 8 hour train journey to a 20 minute taxi ride to our next destination – Dali. Lijiang and Shangri-la were our original destinations, but we couldn’t stomach the hoards of Chinese tour groups we had read about that had invaded the towns. There was also a recent fire that destroyed all of the old part of Shangri-la, so visiting a disaster area did not sound fun. Instead we chose Lijiangs little sister, Dali. After 4 days in a small Chinese village, Dali with its Western food and quaint cafes was a welcome reprieve. We rented tandem bikes with ridiculous red and white awnings over them and cruised all over the markets, souvenir stalls and ancient Chinese gates. That night it poured rain for the first time in months and the Chinese got a real kick out of watching these crazy westerners bike through town getting soaked. Glad we were able to provide the entertainment that evening.

Something happens when you enter the backwaters of China, a more approachable and kinder dragon appears. Is it the big crazy cities that change the people into the corrupt and harsh golems or do the cities just attract those people?

For our final days in China, we kicked it up a notch, and booked rooms at the famous Linden Centre in Xizhou. An American couple restored on old mansion built by a merchant before the war. The merchant was only able to occupy it for one year after it was built when he had to flee and it was taken over by the communists in 1949. After the war it was a Kindergarten for a little while before the Lindens rented it from the government and restored it to its original glory. It is more than a hotel, in that they stress interaction with other guests, the staff and above all the culture around you.

The rooms and buildings were amazing! It was like sleeping in the Asian Art Museum with no glass or ropes to keep you back. The owner was and still is an Asian art dealer, so the place was not shy on décor. The food was simple and made exceptionally well; Mike even got to hang out in the kitchen to learn how to make some of the dishes. We were able to do calligraphy and cooking while at the centre, and hear about the globalization of Burning Man. Yes, that’s right, we heard a talk on how Burning Man is now all over the world and hear stories and see photos of its first incarnation in China (near Shanghai). Fascinating stuff. We could have spent hours that night on the terrace above the rice paddies pontificating man’s basic human need to connect and how Burning Man is getting translated across the globe.

The Centre loaned us a couple of tandem bikes and we put them to good use. We rode all day along the Erhai lake to a small city where they still hand produce tie-dyes. We randomly found a family that had a small production in their courtyard and was willing to show us how to make them (we were afraid this was gonna be some lame tourist crap but it turned out to be just hanging out with this minority family teaching us to make tie-dyes – stoker!). Creating the intricate patterns is a very labor-intensive process, it was a better part of an hour or two for Kai and Soleil to produce their leafs. As we set off the rain started to fall. “At a certain point you can’t get any wetter” was our motto for the ride home. A good hour and a half of pedaling as fast as we could, the lake to one side, rice paddies stretching to the massive mountains on the other, clouds of all shapes and colors in the sky, dumping buckets, singing with your kids – another unforgettable moment.

When we got back, we must have looked like wet cats. As we jumped in the hot shower, the hotel sent us up Ginger Tea (the best damn tea I have ever had, a must to recreate at home this winter!). The next few days we enjoyed walking around the little town and in and out of the rice field paths. The final day we had bright blue skies, the first time in a week, the sky reminded us that we were at 7,000+ feet, the deep blue and the powerful white clouds that moved so very fast.

Reluctantly, we boarded our last overnight train ride back down to Kunming, where we would say goodbye to China and Malaysia welcomed us like a warm hug.

Top 10 questions from China left unanswered (warning — some are borderline rants):

  1. What is up with Chinese toilets? Why do they have to be so gross? Don’t get me wrong, I am a friend of the pit toilet. I appreciate that your body doesn’t touch anything in the bathroom. But that doesn’t mean it has to be disgusting. China could use a serious overhaul in the design of public restrooms – that’s all I’m sayin.
  2. Why with the yelling into megaphones and only traveling in groups? Raise of hands — who finds that fun?
  3. What do the Chinese have against napkins and toilet paper? Isn’t it “made” in china? Just a couple of squares to spare?
  4. How do Chinese women manage to stay impeccably clean in white rayon and heels, with so much rubble and garbage and trash everywhere?
  5. With billions of Chinese people riding trains all across China every single day, why is the only available food RAMEN? How about some hawker stalls at each station that could fry up some fresh noodles or steam up some fresh Baozi? Is ramen really the best we can do? Some entrepreneurial hawker empire could make a killing.
  6. What happens when the kids no longer want to wear minority or tribal outfits? What happens when they no longer learn to speak the many dialects? Will China lose a lot of its individual heritage that makes it so wonderfully interesting?
  7. Can’t we use our inside voices when talking on a phone? Why are they yelling?
  8. Not sure I love the shower over pit toilet combo. Okay, that’s not a question.
  9. Do I need to ask?
  10. What does the China 20 years from now look like? What direction are we headed?