Sunday, October 17, 2010

China Part Five: Li River & Yangshuo

Greg says that the town of Yangshuo is like the Gatlinburg of China. While I think that’s a bit harsh (after all, Shanghai had Madame Tussaud’s!) it is not entirely inaccurate. For the entire length of West Street, from the Li River pier to the intersection with Pantao Road, there are shops selling everything from local handicrafts (carved wooden “fortune frogs“ were one of my favorites) to t-shirts with witty slogans in Chinese characters (“do not beg to me, I have no money”). Restaurants & bars offer English menus, cold drinks, happy hour, even Western food. Plus you are accosted nonstop by salesmen & women with watches, knitwear, postcards & picture books, and even old fishermen with their cormorants on a bamboo pole who expect you to give them 5CNY to take their photo. We saw more non-Asians in our first 10 minutes off the boat than we have seen in the past 2+ weeks!
West Street, Yangshuo
But let me backtrack. Our 4 hour trip down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo on 10/8 was scenic and mostly enjoyable. We were picked up at our hostel at 8am, driven to the Sheraton hotel near Elephant Trunk Hill Park where we transferred to a larger bus which was already filled with an assortment of foreigners, continued on to another hotel where we picked up a few more people, then finally reached Binjiang Lu Pier around 9:15. There we were herded through a shopping area where we had to wait briefly before boarding our boat. We were all made to sit on the lower level as we departed the busy pier but soon enough were allowed to roam freely around the tri-level boat.
following a convoy of tour boats down the Li River
Greg & I made the acquaintance of an Indian family who lives in Guangzhou and manages several restaurants there. They shared their masala chai and even gave us some snacks & tea packets as they were impressed by our RTW journey. After chatting with them for awhile, we climbed to the upper deck to experience 360 degree views of the surrounding limestone peaks. The weather was nice although still quite hazy and I enjoyed watching the water buffalo, fishermen (some with cormorants), ducks, butterflies & dragonflies.
the scenery in the background is featured on the Chinese 20 Yuan note
Soon enough it was time for lunch, served buffet-style. The food was passable considering we were on a boat and there was quite a variety of rice, noodles, meats & vegetables and even French fries, although the majority of dishes were fried. The boat staff also became more active trying to sell snake wine, cold drinks, plates of fried local specialties (small fish, crabs, snails) and even playing cards, post cards and picture books. For his part our guide Daniel was also pushing a 3 hour add-on tour of the Yulong River area near Yangshuo. As we had no way to reach our hotel until after 5pm (the road is apparently one way only until then) and the tour did seem like a good value based on my previous research, we eventually committed and forked over 200CNY each.
local delicacies
The remainder of the journey featured less limestone and more riverside activity. Greg & I lounged on the upper deck -- there were no seats installed anywhere outside so you had to sit directly on the metal floor -- until it was time to disembark in Yangshuo. There we made our way to the Buffalo Bar which is owned by the same people as our hotel. We stowed our bags then walked along West Street to the KFC, our designated meeting point for our afternoon tour. We had some spare time so we bought a couple of beers at a supermarket nearby and drank them while watching the local people attempt to sell their goods to wary tourists at inflated prices.
a beer break before our Yulong tour
Around 3pm our group boarded a bus for a 15 minute drive to the village of Yulong. There we split into 2 groups -- English-speaking & Chinese-speaking -- and walked around for about 30 minutes with our guides, learning about life in a traditional village and visiting the Dragon Bridge. Then we took the bus to another area where we transferred to something akin to motorized golf carts for a short trip to a small boat dock where we boarded 2-person bamboo rafts for a slow paddle down the Yulong River. We also got to watch cormorant fishing and even had a few minutes of “excitement” as our raft had to traverse 3 small dams.
cormorant fishing
Back on the golf carts, we got a close up look at a water buffalo tied up nearby then rode for about 10 minutes through farm land (mostly fruit trees, some rice and even some cotton) then another 10 minutes on a busy road where we were passed by all sorts of vehicles before we turned off to await the bus and the ride back into Yangshuo town. There Greg & I switched to a minivan which had been arranged by our guide, and circled back to the Buffalo Bar to pick up our backpacks, then made a quick stop at a supermarket for beer & instant noodles before heading down the riverside one lane street to the Li River Retreat.

We were cheerily greeted by the staff, all petite Asian women, who carried all of our "bigger than them" backpacks to our very large standard room. We settled in to drink some beer before venturing over to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed our very spicy Sichuan-style chicken, stir-fried vegetables, and steamed rice then returned to our room to shower and get some sleep.
our room at the Li River Retreat - by far the nicest place we stayed in China
We spent all day Saturday & Sunday working on our Turkey itinerary and even talked to Mom & Ronnie several times on Google Talk to try to confirm our plans. We only ventured from the hotel to take a nice walk further along the river (away from Yangshuo) to explore the countryside. We have even eaten “proper” breakfasts (eggs, bacon, toast, etc.) the past two mornings as the hotel caters to Western tourists. But we continue to order Chinese food for our evening meals.
hanging out at the Li River Retreat
We’ve both been sneezing a lot again lately and have runny noses as we seem to be allergic to some of the blooming trees. It doesn’t seem to help that we take Claritin every day. Last night Greg had one of his “sneezing attacks” that can last for hours, even if he takes Benadryl. So we were both awake most of the night and feeling exhausted when the alarm went off at 7:30 this morning. But we had to get up, pack, eat our instant noodles, and check out of the hotel as the van to Yangshuo Cooking School was picking us up at 9:30.

We met our instructor, Leo, at the market along with the rest of the “students” -- a young couple from Manchester, England, 4 women from Byron Bay, Australia, and a middle-aged couple from England. We walked through the indoor market with Leo explaining the uses of previously unidentifiable vegetables & fruits as well as meats, seafood, etc. The market was fascinating and not too busy so we could have a good luck around. Particularly noteworthy were the live frogs, fish, eels, snails, etc. as well as chickens, ducks, rabbits, and dogs. Yes, dogs! Leo mentioned the live animals before we went in that section of the market and some of the group opted to skip that part and wait outside. Always wanting to have the most “real” experience, I chose to walk over to the dog section and along the way, saw a chicken getting its neck wrung. Then to the dogs, which were all the same furry variety, similar in shape & size to a fox. There were still plenty alive, in small cages, but there were also many newly dead -- they are hit on the head with a piece of wood and after they die are put into a massive pot of boiling water which removes the fur, then the insides are removed (something I witnessed) and they are cut up like any other animal or roasted whole. I also saw a goat’s fur being scraped off with a knife. Not for the animal lover or faint of heart, but interesting nonetheless.
vegetables at the Yangshuo market (the link to the graphic animal photos is embedded in this post's title)
After we finished touring the market, we got in a small bus and rode about 15 minutes outside of town to the cooking school, which is located almost adjacent to a lodging called the Outside Inn. Only as we were leaving (after cooking & eating) did we find out the purpose of the China Health Inspection vehicle that was parked out front: there was an outbreak of stomach illness recently that caused the hotel to be temporarily shut down!

The cooking lesson consisted of Leo first demonstrating the proper preparation of each ingredient for each dish and then cooking it in front of us. We did not take notes nor have written instructions, but had to pay close attention so we could replicate everything he did on our own. There were two female assistants who could help with any task and Leo was constantly circling the room as we cooked offering his advice and feedback as well. Our first task was to make the stuffed vegetables. This involved mincing some green onion to mix with ground pork & oyster sauce. We prepped a mushroom, cherry tomato, eggplant slices, and tofu ball then stuffed those with the pork mixture and placed them in steamer baskets which were then stacked high on a water-filled wok and steamed for about 30 minutes.
We then chopped all the remaining vegetables, ginger & garlic, separating them according to the dish they would be cooked with. We made eggplant with oyster sauce first which we took a break and ate, then made all of the remaining dishes one-by-one: beer fish, chicken with cashew nuts, and sautéed green vegetables. We carried everything outside to eat, along with some steamed rice & our pork-stuffed vegetables. It was quite a feast! The whole process took about 2.5 hours. It was extremely humid today and the temp was about 30Cor 86F but the “feel-like“ temp was 38C or 100F. So you can imagine how hot it was in the un-air-conditioned room with 10 of us cooking! Still, we had a fantastic time despite Greg having to blow his nose constantly (which also prevented him from doing very much cooking). Thus I got LOTS of extra practice! Even better, the total cost of the class, including one way transport from our hotel then back into the city center, the market tour, the food and bottled water/coffee/tea was only 140CNY per person or US$21. Yangshuo Cooking School
Around 1:45pm, we were driven back into Yangshuo where our bags were waiting for us at the Buffalo Bar. Still having time to kill before our bus ride back to Guilin, Greg & I made a walking loop of central Yangshuo and were surprised how few tourists there were relative to just 3 days ago at the same time. We even stopped by the bus station to purchase our express bus ticket and to time the walk to the bar to see if it was feasible to do with our backpacks (yes -- about 15 minutes).

The past 24 hours are a bit of a blur now. We did walk to the Yangshuo bus station and, of course, it started raining shortly after we left the bar so we had to stop and put on our backpack covers. We made it to the bus station by 5:45 when it really starting pouring with thunder & lightning. After a quick pit stop -- where I encountered the most un-Western toilets of our journey so far: there was simply a concrete trough running along the floor on both sides of the women’s bathroom with 4 ft high cinderblock wall/dividers (no doors) every 5 ft so you just stepped into one of small areas and squatted over the common trough -- Greg & I boarded the 18:05 bus to Guilin. We sat in the forward-most seats and thus had a direct view of the horrible driving conditions: pouring rain, total darkness (no street lights), bumpy road, and plenty of slower vehicles to pass throughout the 2 hour journey. Oddly enough, about 30 minutes into the trip, the driver turned on the movie “Shooter” with Mark Wahlberg (in English with Chinese subtitles) but we had never heard of this movie and found it pretty lame although it did provide some distraction from the crazy driving.

When we disembarked at the bus station in Guilin we thought we might get a taxi because it was at least a 15 minute walk to the train station. However I wasn’t sure how to avoid getting taken advantage of by the taxi driver so I asked someone, who turned out to be from Nigeria, if they could help us and he actually escorted us on foot to the train station himself as he had plenty of time before his overnight bus left for Guangzhou, an 8 hour trip compared to our 11 hour train ride. Safely settled into the VIP lounge (for passengers booked in soft sleeper berths), we were able to relax and drink some hot tea and eat a snack before boarding our train.

The train left on time at 9:23PM. Our 4-bunk cabin was even smaller this time than the last, but this “T” train seemed to be in overall better condition than the “K” train we took from Shanghai to Guilin. Greg & I went to bed pretty soon after the train started moving, while our Chinese compartment-mates chose to stay up until very late although they were courteous enough to leave us alone in the cabin while they went somewhere else to hang out. We both got a decent nights sleep and I got up around 6:30AM and sat outside in the corridor with a cup of masala chai, observing the morning activities of all the Chinese people traveling in our car (lots of teeth brushing, face washing, tea drinking & loud talking). I eventually climbed back up on the top bunk and did some stretches while trying to stay cool (it was quite warm & humid throughout the train), waiting for Greg to wake up for our arrival in Guangzhou at 8:30.
soft sleeper berth on a "T" train
Upon exiting the Guangzhou train station it was not clear where to enter the subway so we got directions from a tourism information office just outside the station. Once in the subway, we had to wait in line to buy our tickets from the vending machines. Then we boarded a busy Line 2 train and rode for a few stops before switching to an even busier Line 1 train which terminated at East Station. There we had to go through security before buying our tickets to Hong Kong and then passed through Chinese customs & immigration before boarding our 09:50 train. We actually made the cutoff for this train with only a minute to spare but the trains run frequently (the next one was at 10:35 I think) so the wait wouldn’t have been too long. We even had time to buy bowls of instant noodles to eat as our breakfast/lunch on the train.

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