David Rich 1100 Words
F u n n y P o i n t y H i l l s
Everything we'd heard about China was wrong starting with the best place to see its most famous scenery, the funny pointy hills soaring a thousand feet over misty waterways. This paradise actually exists where fishermen float on five bamboo poles lashed to impersonate a raft, spearing fish through cone-shaped nets, red lanterns reflecting off perfectly still waters. The waterways, rafts, conical nets and red lanterns were magical, but contrary to what we'd heard, this spectacle wasn't best sampled from Guilin, a sprawling city of too many people, but from Yangshou, forty miles south.
Yangshou was a compact village with a mile-long foreigner's street that Chinese tourists flocked from thousands of miles around to see. I could practically translate their excited patter, "Hey, look at the foreigners with the big noses and funny eyes sitting around those weird outdoor cafés sipping lattes and eating pizzas." Chinese cameras snapped like a busload of Japanese tourists, taking pictures of those who'd swarmed to the fabled scenery of the funny pointy hills.
We appreciated the dozens of sidewalk restaurants with thirty-page menus in English, far more extensive than any menu in the States or Europe, but with the same homesick cuisine; French, Mexican, Thai, Italian, and more, complemented by every kind of coffee, liqueur, and dessert, cheap like all of China outside Beijing and Shanghai. We never spent more than four bucks for a multi-course, scrumptious dinner, except at La Votre, the big French restaurant run by two brothers from Paris; it cost five bucks for three courses at the French joint.
You must go through Guilin to reach Yangshou, taking a bus forty miles south. The fare is seventy-two cents if you bargain; otherwise it could soar to a dollar-twenty. At the south edge of Guilin the bus driver gestured that we and two other gringos should get off, jerking his hand at the door, thumb extended. We just chorused "no," and the other gringos nodded in vigorous agreement. Who wanted to walk forty miles? The bus driver scoured the bus with a caustic glare, spotting a quartet of Tibetans, forcing them off instead. He'd barely pulled from the curb when a barricade loomed abruptly in front of us and he glided smoothly to a stop. A burly policeman meandered on, looked us over, and appeared shocked that no one was standing up. This wasn't the typically overcrowded Chinese bus, so the officer told the driver to go on and get out of the way. Two blocks later the driver pulled over and parked until the Tibetans could catch up and get back on, SRO. Just say no when the bus driver tells you to get off, because he might not wait for a foreigner being as how Tibetans are now officially Chinese.
Here's why you want to skip Guilin and go directly to Yangshou. The famous Li River boat trips cost sixty dollars from Guilin. From near Yangshou through the best part of the river it's a measly five dollars, though the hour-long bus to get there from Yangshou to Xingping (Sheng-ping) admittedly costs another a dollar-twenty-five. Adventure awaits every bus ride in China. When we took the Xingping bus, it abruptly slithered to a halt, allowing the passengers half an hour to supervise a crane lifting a broken-down tractor out of the narrow roadway so we could pass.
A bonus of the Yangshou/Xingping river trip was its salacious illegitimacy. The local Xingping tour boat collected us at an out-of-the-way place that the cops, controlled by the big money tours out of Guilin, obviously didn't know about to shut it down. Actually, I'd guess the cops were probably getting paid off twice.
As the boat briefly touched the shore, nine of us leaped onto the deck like hurdlers and immediately began to gawk. We ogled and snapped pictures like the frenetic Chinese tourists in Yangshou, running to one side of the boat, chattering about the views, rushing to the other side. We did two hours of aerobic workouts, incredible reflections, and pictures I couldn't believe.
The guy with the most cameras tired of my puzzled prattle and asked, "What is your problem?"
I sniffed and said, "I can't figure out why the pictures are so strange yet splendid. Over that way it's a misty menagerie. When I take a shot of the opposite direction it's a reflection to die for, funny pointy hills marching down the river, above and below the water line."
He shook his head, amazed at my density. "It's the light and the mist, which way the sun's shining when you point the camera." Technical stuff, good to know.
To finally drag us away from Yangshou we hired Uncle Bob, icon of English-language guidebooks, a lantern-jawed, Chinese, former physics teacher with decent English, wiry crew cut, and intellectual glasses. Uncle Bob always stood behind the counter in our hotel lobby, ever-present laptop pushed to the side, cupping his mouth as if to stifle bad breath or bad advice, excelling in the latter.
He said, "You must ride the countryside, we'll rent bicycles, see the wonderful sights, the lovely waters and gorgeous rivers, moon hill, the butterfly caves, the...." I waved him to a stop, and he roped us into the obligatory cross-country bicycle ride.
That afternoon we rode past perfectly photogenic reflections of funny pointy hills, little old ladies hastily throwing on native costumes to extort money for pictures, rafts made from five bamboos poles. A raft could have been mine for one dollar an hour. We passed more little old ladies swiftly towing a water buffalo for more twenty-five-cent pictures, and there I yelled at Uncle Bob, "Stop!" and we screeched to a halt.
I waded through a cloud of flies to mount a nasty smelling water buffalo, squashing a squadron of ghastly black creatures as I belatedly reversed an over-mount, just like in the movies, swinging back onto the beast's grungy back after almost completely catapulting over the other side. Uncle Bob kindly snapped my picture.
We stayed in Yangshou, reluctant to execute Uncle Bob's design for our disappearance, stomaching another evening at Minnie Mao's, my favorite sidewalk café, slamming down spicy black skillet chicken and peanut stir fry for $2.25, ignoring the stares from the battalions of Chinese tourists while offering our best profiles. After all they'd paid the big bucks, or yuan, to see classy foreigners such as us at leisure in Yangshou.
We should have stayed in Yangshou. At 10 p.m. Uncle Bob put us on the crappiest bus in all China, non-functioning toilet, wall-to-wall movies pumped full blast all night long, non-reclining seats for eight hours to the Chinese border with Macau, which is another whole story from the funny pointy hills.