The Inner Mongolian China Brog

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part III

Guilin (of strange jutting hill/mountain-type formations and Li River fame) greeted us with what could only be described as truly crappy weather. It was overcast, if not raining, the entire time we spent there. That's not to say that its beauty was lost to us, however. It's most definitely a unique-looking city, though the actual city part is without question the least interesting aspect. Among the cool things we did (somewhat limited by the discouraging and chilly weather) were to climb Solitary Beauty Peak for a great 360-degree view of the city, and a visit to the Reed Flute Cave, which boasts cheesy and yet strangely enrapturing colored lights illuminating the amazing stalactites and stalagmites (if I spelled those words right I rule). It contains a vast open space, not unlike some sort of subterranean ballroom, which we learned was used to hide people during the "War Against Japanese Agression" (before it was disco-lit, of course). On our walk through the cave, we had to laugh a little, as there were names for some of the more unique formations, and I suspect that there may have been something lost (or added) in the English translation...though I doubt I could have come up with a better name for the "Centipede Frightened by Reflection in Magic Mirror."

If you visit Guilin, you'll find that basically every source of information (aka tourist trap) will tell you that if you do not take a Li River cruise, you might as well have not visited at all. Not to be considered inadequate tourists, Emma and I complied, though we didn't spring for the cruise with the English-speaking guide (it was quite a bit pricier). As a result, we found ourselves sequestered to a table in the corner of the boat's cabin with the only other foreigners on board: a Swiss couple, a man from Dubai, and his Chinese assistant. Seeing as the weather was not entirely inviting for the whole photographing of scenery thing, we attempted to make conversation with the Swiss couple, though we were periodically interrupted by the man from Dubai, who was of a certain age (no spring chicken) and incapable of talking about anything other than himself, his company/money, his children, and the fact that he "only eat fish" [dusting off of hands].

Several rather uncomfortable hours later, we arrived in Yangshuo, the rumored backpacker's paradise, and aside from the crappy weather, it was exactly that. The scenery, from what we could see, that is, was spectacular, unlike anything else I've ever seen. We stayed at a hostel at the center of "Foreigner's Street," as it's known to the locals. Never before in our Chinese experience had we been confronted with such a concentration of Western-friendly establishments: nearly every sign in English, and many boasting an offering of cappuccino, banana pancakes, burgers, pizza, and other such rarities. Needless to say, we gorged ourselves on a wide selection of our favorite Western foods, most of them surprisingly well done, and at very palatable (pun intended) prices.

Word on the street is that the thing to do in Yangshuo (other than experience the Li River: check) is to rent bikes and pedal through the picturesque countryside. The unspoken word on the street, of course, is to then go back to the aforementioned Western establishments and get schloshed. Well, we did neither, as it turns out. It's hard to be motivated to haul ass around China's landscape when it's cold and drizzly outside and there's delicious coffee and a used bookstore inside. Plus the shopping to be had in Yangshuo for souvenirs and local handicrafts was not to beat by any other of our destinations. Both Emma and I spent a couple more jiao than we'd intended. Other than that, I was amazed to find how content I was with the idea of just sitting in one of the town's many coffee shops and passing the time by people-watching and reading - there's a certain vibe about it that I haven't encountered anywhere else in China. The pace of life is slower; people seem happy, laid-back, interested, and interesting.

I would certainly go back in a heartbeat, if for nothing else than to see Yangshuo by sunlight, so you can imagine our reluctance to leave. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that it's a place where you can easily end up spending more time than you'd planned, and I can see why. Nonetheless, our next destination was the beach, so we didn't spend too very much time sulking.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part II

So, we arrived in Kunming several hours later than we'd planned, but in one piece. We stayed the night in the city, but didn't stick around the next day to sightsee (we consider ourselves fairly well-versed in generic-Chinese-big-city-ness). Instead, we hopped on a 5-hour busride to Dali, an itty-bitty ancient city nestled between mountains on one side and an "ear-shaped" lake on the other. A beautiful spot, needless to say. It's surrounded on all four sides by its original walls, more or less, and takes all of a half-hour to walk the length. We decided to stay slightly outside the city's walls in Jim's Tibetan Hotel, which was a great experience in itself. Jim is evidently an enterprising Tibetan who opened this hotel after finding his guesthouse within the city walls quite successful. So it's brand new with only 13 guestrooms, complete with hand-carved Tibetan furniture and painted walls - altogether a very authentic feeling site. We enjoyed our choice of accommodation thoroughly, including the yak goulash and Jim's No. 1 (a whiskey-based drink that's composed of visible stalks of herbs, rock sugar, and God-only-knows what else).

Dali and the surrounding area has plenty to offer in the way of great scenery, clear mountain air, delicious Yunnan coffee and banana pancakes. On our first afternoon in town, Emma and I sat down outside a cafe to enjoy the aforementioned qualities of Dali and were approached by no less than 3 or 4 old toothless Tibetan ladies proffering their handmade wares (embroidery, shoe insoles, etc.), all of which we turned down, at which point they would look around shiftily and then lean in and say "You wanna smoke?" Honestly, lady, what do we look like to you? Twenty-something backpackers?? Psh.

Among the attractions we took in during our short stay in Dali were the 3 Pagodas and Sha-ping Market (say that one out loud - it's punderful), which boasted everything from beautiful antiques to "beautiful antiques", spices, clothes, food, recently butchered livestock, and a roadside dentist displaying a decent selection of the "teeth" he would replace the problematic ones with. Emma and I didn't buy much of anything, but were happily taking it all in when one of the merchants plowed past us holding several chickens by the feet in each hand, basically colliding with Emma, much to our horror. They didn't mention that bird flu came free with a visit to the market.

Apart from that encounter, we enjoyed our time in Dali very much, and though the weather was fairly pleasant, you can see how it would be really spectacular there in the spring. We headed back to Kunming after 2 days to catch our train to Guilin. We had a couple of hours to kill first, though, so we went in search of a good meal before the long ride east. Well, a meal we found, but good it was not. Of course, I thought I was being a dutiful tourist by sampling the "across-the-bridge noodles," which is apparently one of Yunnan's local cuisines, and it tasted fine enough at the time, though 12 hours later it was distinctly less pleasant as it came back out of my mouth in the foul train lavatory amid excrement sloshing around the floor. Mama Fufu is definitely on my shit list.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part I

It's been a long time coming, but here it is: the tale of my magical 6-week odyssey across China and around the globe. In chapters. Give me a break; I've got 6 weeks' worth of material to work with here. Pretend it's The OC and get excited for the next episode. Though by "OC" of course I mean "Odd China."

My travelling companion, Emma, and I departed Tongliao on the evening of January 13, shortly after learning that Courtney and Jacob, who would accompany us as far as Beijing, would not be returning to Tongliao. Thrown for a loop yet again, we all headed for the train station with the knowledge that we'd return a still more-reduced group of foreigners. What exactly is my motivation again?

Our good (Chinese) friend, English-named Tibet, oversaw the ordeal of getting the 4 of us on the train to Beijing, enthusiastically attempting to mow down hordes of Chinese people so that we could get on the train as quickly as possible. Though we had only managed to get tickets for hard seats on the overnight train to Beijing, I didn't understand then what the big fat rush is to get on the train - we all have ticketed seats, so it's not like everyone's trying to get good seats. Well, after boarding the train from the tail-end of the queue, I realized what the chaos was about. Turns out the seats are reserved, but baggage space is not, which is a crying shame indeed when one has baggage enough for 6 weeks in tow. Luckily I packed light (for the first time in my life) and had only a backpack and "personal item" to deal with. Obviously, it was quite a different story for Courtney and Jacob, who were moving their entire lives. We were braced for the worst night of our lives when we found that their king-size suitcases would fit nowhere but in the aisle and that Jacob would have to lift them out of the way every time some person or the snack cart wanted to get by (which was all but constantly since all the space not occupied by seats was taken up by standing bodies). Our sardine-ish misery was short-lived, however, for the divine angel known as the bupiao lady came by and sold us upgrades to hard-sleepers, at which point we bulldozed our way 8 cars down to the sleeping cars and stretched out for the rest of the night. Praise be to Confucius.

We arrived in Beijing the next morning not too much worse for wear and hailed a couple of taxis straight to the airport, Emma and I bound for Kunming, Courtney and Jacob bound for, well...not Kunming. We enjoyed the last of our time together having breakfast in The Lucky Shamrock, Beijing Airport's answer to an Irish somethingorother. Emma and I eventually decided we ought to check in for our flight, so we headed for the counters, worked our way to the front of the line, and presented the ticket agent with our tickets, at which point she re-presented them right back to us and said, "I'm sorry but this flight is delayed." Dangit. "Well, what time will it be leaving?" says I. "No," says she. Shenme? I asked again, hoping she'd misunderstood, but the answer once again was, "no."

"You mean they haven't scheduled a departure time yet?"


I must have Mao's Curse. "So what should we do?"

I was answered with a brief blank stare, after which she attempted unsuccessfully to appear busy. Emma and I looked at each other, at the girl behind the desk, and back at each other. We figured patience was pretty much our only choice at that point, and we were loathe to give up our position at the front of this line, having heard over the loud speakers that all flights were in fact delayed due to heavy smog (which is of course the most laughable part of this entire situation, because if you know anything about Beijing, you know that it basically IS smog) and that they would start checking people in as soon as they had rescheduled the departure times. So we decided to wait a few minutes, basically staring at the ticket agent the entire time. An hour later we were still staring at her, when we began to detect movement among the ranks behind the check-in counters, and she asked for our tickets. FINALLY. And it was only another couple of hours before we were actually on a plane headed to Kunming.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which our heroine encounters heroin and other strange substances...