Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yangshou and the Karst Mountains

26 October: I tried to book an early flight to Guilin but the airlines changed their schedules from a summer to fall schedule, which meant an evening flight. This gave us more time in Chengdu, however, with our late checkout at the hotel (Priority club member), we didn't have time to do a lot. We packed the night before and after a few minutes on the Internet; we took a taxi to Jinli Street. The taxi driver dropped us off in front of the Wuhou Memorial temple, which we visited. I hate to say this, but we really got tired of all the temples. They became a blur, as we couldn't remember which one was which. We walked along Jinli Street and checked out the various shops and food stalls. The street is narrow so it made it a little difficult to stroll along the way with everyone packed in. Both of us bought a couple of small items, including a cute panda key chain.

Back at the hotel and after checking out, I told one person at the door that we needed a taxi to the bus station to catch the airport shuttle bus. She explained that a taxi directly to the airport would be much better for us and less of a hassle with our luggage. I agreed, but told her that we had bad experiences with taxi drivers taking us to airports, that they overcharged us. I knew the approximate price to the Chengdu airport and told her so. She assured me we would not be overcharged, and in fact, it was a few RMB less even though the driver stopped to fill his car with gas and that took almost 10 minutes!

Got to the airport early enough to have a beer in the bar. We had a nice flight, arriving in Guilin around 9:30pm. I had the owner at the Li River Retreat arrange for a taxi to pick us up. A woman with my name on a sign was waiting for us outside. It was such a nice treat to be able to walk out and hop into a car without waiting in line and fighting with the illegal taxi drivers.

Our drive took about 1 hour, 40 minutes in the dark. It began on a dirt road! I was surprised to see buses leave the airport in one direction and our car in another direction. Both of us were tired, so it was a quite ride to Yangshuo. Not long before arriving, I could see in the dark the outlines of some karst mountains and my heart skipped a beat! Reenie told me the Great Wall would be the highlight of her trip; Yangshuo would be mine. I couldn't wait for daylight to see the scenery of Yangshuo! We could see the mountains that surrounded the town, some lit up with different colored lights.

The Li River Retreat is located along the river, about a mile north of the town. We drove on a narrow street that had no lights and through the woods. We arrived before midnight where two people were waiting for us. A man whisked our luggage up two flights of stairs and we checked into room 302, which our view and balcony faced the town. In the distance we could see the largest peak lit up. We were both thrilled with our room and views! Our room had two beds, one a double and the other a queen. No tv, no telephone, but for a place like this, who needs the outside world? The bathroom was tiled with a lovely round sink that "sat" on top of the counter. I had to borrow the community hair dryer each morning from the front desk. The A/C worked very well, as it was pretty humid. The Retreat does not provide room slippers but plastic slippers, which we had no desire to use. Fortunately we both had a pair from another hotel. We didn't unpack but showered and jumped into bed.

27 October: I arranged for a guide to take us around Yangshuo for three days. Expecting to meet Lijingfeng, the guide I hired, she sent her niece Juan instead. Juan was a wonderful guide who spoke English very well. I imagine it was due to all the English-speaking tourists visiting Yangshuo. She's been a guide for a few years now and we enjoyed her services. From my research, all the guides charge 100RMB per day per couple.

We rented two bikes, one a tandem for Reenie and the guide, and rode our bikes all around Yangshuo and into the countryside. I was in heaven stopping every few minutes to take pictures. We had semi-blue skies and the air wasn’t really polluted. I apologized to Juan for all the stops I was making but hey, it was my money and my vacation. We saw farmers in the fields, oxen tied up eating grass, and lots of other bikers and hikers. At some point, we rode along the Yulong River.

We stopped to tour a farmer's home and gave them a small donation. Reenie and I were fascinated in how they lived. Two old women and man showed us where they cooked and slept, and showed us their hand water pump. On display in another room were to coffins, which one woman gestured sleep with her hands. In the courtyard the old man lifted a large stone that had a carved out handle. I couldn't figure out what it was until he lifted it and started using it as a weight. Exercise! I tried to lift one, but it was too heavy. Throughout my trip I was astonished to see so many people still working hard into his or her 80/90s. The Chinese have a hard life, but they are hard workers. This is especially true for the farmers who break their backs bending over to plant and pick rice, wheat, etc. I saw old women carrying their grandchild and others carrying large poles over their shoulders balancing baskets that were filled with food.

After biking a few hours, we stopped at a small place for lunch. There were about 8 other bikers taking a break. Juan knew the owners, as she walked into the kitchen and started chatting with the cooks. We ordered noodles with chicken, pork with vegetables and some battered-fried taro root, which was sweet and crunchy, and some steamed local green leafy vegetables.

Continuing on, we biked another few hours before stopping at Moon hill. Juan stayed behind with our bikes and bags while Reenie and I hiked to the top, a total of 800 steps! We were definitely not in shape and stopped to rest many times. It took about 40 minutes to get to the top, while the more fit took less time. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the countryside and the mountains. In the distance I saw villages tucked between the karst mountains. It was hazy in the distance, but still a spectacular sight to see. Our 800-step hike was well worth it. During our hike to the top, two older women tailed us with containers of sodas. I had read about these women bugging people to buy their drinks as they hiked to the top. They didn’t try with us, but kept following us. Maybe it was because we had our bottled water with us. No sale from us. Other hikers managed to hike up alone.

By the time we got back down, we were both getting pretty tired. My tush was really hurting by then, as I had not ridden a bike in years (a 30-minute gym bike doesn’t count). It actually became painful to sit. I had asked Juan how long it would take to get back to Yangshuo town and she said, “About 50 minutes.” I about died! I didn’t think I could make it back so Juan and I ended up switching bikes and I led Reenie home on the tandem bike, as it had a slightly wider seat (although not any more comfortable). I made the mistake of selecting a mountain bike thinking the wider wheels would be best for countryside dirt roads. I’ll tell you, I was sore the rest of the trip and it was difficult getting out of chairs. To this day, I’m still sore and use a donut shaped cushion so that I don’t sit on the bruised spot. I really bruised the tailbone area and I know it can take many weeks to heal.

Back in town (still stopping along the way to take photographs), we ran into a couple we met on one of our flights, Lucy and Mark, a cute couple. We were all surprised to see each other, especially running into someone in such a huge country. They were staying at a “home stay” and loved their room. After 10 minutes, we continued on to return our bikes and collapse at the Retreat.

No night in town, we had picked up a bottle of wine after talking to Lucy and Mark, and had dinner on the terrace enjoying a local dish: Beer fish along with fried rice with an egg on top, and mixed vegetables with fried tofu. One of the young women working at the retreat, and serving our food, practiced her English, which Reenie and I helped. She was a little embarrassed but we both thought she did very well.

28 October: Another long day of sightseeing. We met up with Mary and Gan, who I corresponded with on Fodors. Gan’s sister was sick in bed (ate something bad) and missed out on seeing Yangshuo. I invited Mary and Gan to join us as we took a local bus to the town of Fuli for their market day, followed by a bamboo boat ride. The bus ride took about 20 minutes. It was a prettier day with blue skies but hot and humid!

Touring the market, we saw all sorts of fruits, vegetables, clothing, bags of rice, an old man selling honey (Juan bought some saying he had the best in town), etc. I even saw a vendor at a little stand selling false teeth. I have to say many of the Chinese have horrible teeth. I did see some puppies, but was told they were for pets. I hoped so! We were in an area where dog is a typical menu item, something I had no desire to try. Of course I understood the differences of our cultures.

We took a bus back to Yangshuo and then a taxi to the north end of the Yulong River for our bamboo raft ride. We let Gan do the negotiations, as he spoke Mandarin. There is one “boss” of the boat “drivers” and he controls the price After 10 minutes of back and forth negotiations, Gan was able to get tickets down from 200 to 150 RMB per couple.

What a wonderful boat ride we had along the river! With blue skies and green mountains, it was picture perfect. Our ride began with a lunch break for our “drivers” (each couple in their own boat with a colorful umbrella to keep the sun off of us) just minutes after leaving the dock. We floated while they quickly downed their food before getting back to work. We moved along the river snapping pictures and taking in the unique scenery. It made me wish I had planned for more countryside touring and less of the bigger cities.

Along the way, we encountered about 4 “drops” in the lake, where we had to put up our feet while we plunged over the edge. These drops ranged from a couple of feet to one where we had to get out of the boat, cross over a narrow road and continue on.

At the end of our ride, Juan and the taxi driver was waiting for us. We had negotiated a fair price for him to wait for us rather than him returning empty-handed.

Back in town and after a cold soda at the Buffalo Bar (Li River Retreat Alf owns the place), Reenie and I met up with a person for our cooking class. We made plans to join Mary and Gan later in the evening at the Retreat.

I arranged for us to take a cooking class that I found on the Internet last year. For 120 RMB (about $17.50) per person, it sounded like a good deal. Our cooking instructor first, along with a solo traveler, Jody, took us to the market in town. It consisted of two very large halls with the foods sectioned off. The instructor showed us the various local produce and which products we would be using in our class. She did ask if we were squeamish about any food, and I mentioned I didn’t want to see dog. Reenie didn’t want to see snake. Jody didn’t care. I had read that the back of the market is where dog meat had been sold, but didn’t think about it as we moved to the second hall. Walking through, we saw pork meat, beef, chicken, and, when looking left, a dog carcass hanging. Well, I saw it and just turned away. At least it didn’t look cute and cuddly, but one that I had typically seen in town.

Done with the market, we jumped into a car and drove to the countryside to the village of Chao Long for our class. We drove along the same route as our biking day, but it was lovely as the sun was going down. I could have jumped out to take more pictures!

The classroom is large with about 14 wok stations. It was nice to have such a small group. The food was already in place when we arrived. Going through all the ingredients, the instructor told us what we would be making. For each dish, she would have a demonstration and we would taste the results, deciding if we wanted to add more oyster sauce or spicy sauce to our dish. It was a lot of fun, but the first dish wasn’t easy: Egg wrapped dumplings, which consisted of pork filling and seasonings. After placing a spoonful (Chinese soup spoon) of egg batter into the wok, we had to quickly place a dollop of pork filling and fold over the egg, pan frying till golden brown and crispy. Two came out perfect but the rest were a little lopsided. Still, it was delicious. Other items we made: Steamed chicken with mushrooms and red wolf berries, eggplant with soy and oyster sauce, sliced pork with vegetables, and green vegetables with garlic. We all enjoyed our dinner with rice and tea on the terrace.

While eating, our instructor told us we would be taken back to town and dropped off. That was not the agreement and I told her so. The web site states transportation to and from the hotel and even though we were picked up in town, I expected to be dropped off at the hotel – it wasn’t much further. She ran off to talk to the owner, Pam, and came back with “okay.”

Full from dinner, we sat with Mary and Gan at the Retreat while they had theirs. Reenie and I had some red wine and we spent a couple of hours talking.

Another great day in China!

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