We decided to take the local bus to Yangshuo, a small town of 300,000 souls, one hour south of Guilin, but this was almost the end of our travelling and the end of this journal.
We took a taxi the short distance to the bus station (Y10) and then purchased our tickets for the one-hour express trip (Y15) each. That should have told us something. The bus was due to leave the station at noon and we were impressed when it started backing up precisely at 12:00 pm. As we pulled out onto the main street a young man with a mobile phone boarded the bus and sat in a pull-down seat above the steps. He appeared to be scanning the crowds along the road and then we suddenly pulled over and a new passenger climbed on board. At first I thought he might be scamming the bus company by picking up extra passengers and splitting the proceeds with the driver and the conductor, but I noticed that the extra passengers were given receipts for the fare. As we drove slowly towards the outskirts of the city, I noticed people all along the route with luggage and packages scanning the traffic for the long-distance buses. This must be a regular way of operating. Unfortunately, it was at least an hour before the bus was deemed full enough to move on to Yangshuo. This meant that the one-hour trip actually took two-hours to complete. Not a big deal, but it would have been trouble if we had a deadline to meet.
As we left the city we moved out into the wonderful karst mountain landscape and I stuck my nose to the window and revelled in the beauty of the passing scenery. At this time of year there are a lot of low-level clouds so the mountains seemed enveloped in mist making them even more magical. We pulled into Yangshuo, a city wrapped around the base of several small mountains. The bus did not go into the station, so we got down a little far from the center of town and knew we had to make our way on our own. A young man was waiting for tourists arriving on the local buses and took us to see a couple of hotels nearby. We indulged him, but knew that we were most interested on staying on what has come to be known as “Foreigners’ Street”, in the heart of the city. We used the map in the Lonely Planet to find our way and selected a room at the Hotel Explorer. We were surprised to find that it cost one third of the price we paid for our room in Guilin. Great for our budget.
We’d read that for many people, the time in Yangshuo ranks as their premier experience in all of China. Plans for a two-day stay extend to a week or more. When we learned that the best way to see the landscape was to rent a bike and hire a guide, we knew we would be staying for a while. Our second night in town coincided with a small festival to honour the fishermen. There wasn’t a lot going on in the West Street area but we heard there would be fireworks and we wandered down to the river after dinner to see them. We almost didn’t go because it was rather cold that night, but we are so glad we did. When we saw the fireworks on the Washington Mall in 1976 (America’s Bicentennial), we thought we had seen the best there could ever be. Years later, we were in Vancouver for the International Fireworks Competition, and that was definitely a superior display. Now here we were in a small town in China, the land where fireworks were invented, and we were dumbstruck.
Dozens of bonfires were lit on the shore opposite and then the sky exploded in a blaze of light. The show went on and on with multiple bursts. Several times the sounds got almost overwhelming and we felt the finale was near. Yet, again and again, the sky exploded with more colour and sound. What made it truly memorable was the loud echo of each boom, reverberating from the mountain peaks in and around the town. I can’t imagine anything could outdo the show we saw that night. I know they will try at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, but it will be tough.
One evening we made plans to see the sound and light show called “Impressions Liu Sanjie”, directed by the world-famous moviemaker Zhang Yimou. You may know of him for his films Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He has developed a folk musical that is performed on the Li River. Twelve surrounding peaks are illuminated as six hundred people (many of them fishermen) sing, dance and mesmerize the audience. We passed on the parkas and padded cushions that could be rented for the show and were happy that the evening was relatively mild.
The highlight of our time in Yangshuo was the three days we spent touring the surrounding area on bicycles. I will let the pictures I’ve included tell the story. The two things that are not captured adequately in the photos were our bamboo raft ride on the Yulong River and the snake we almost ran over while cycling through a farmer’s field. What really made the rafting special was the fact that we had to “portage” over several stone barriers along the way because the river was so low. I tried taking a small video of another raft going over the barrier, I don’t know if you will be able to view it properly. This site allows users to upload small video clips and this is the first time I’ve tried doing so. If was harder for our boatman to maneuver our boat across because we were also carrying our two bikes on board. We had to get off each time as he struggled with the boat and then climb on board without getting muddy or wet. At the end of the raft ride, our guide, Esther was waiting for us to continue through the villages before returning to Yangshuo.
I should tell you a little about our guide, Esther. She approached us while we were walking on West Street and asked if we wanted to have a guide for cycling in the countryside. We knew it was best to hire someone, but had been warned that there were some disreputable guides in town. She had a small notebook where people could write comments about her skills and we found that dozens of people from all over the world had written glowing comments about her helpfulness and her honesty. She is a tough little woman and I am so happy we chose her as she listened to all our requests and made good on them. She took us off the beaten track and away from some of the congestion caused by tour groups on bikes. At times, we seemed to be the only people for miles around.
She told us that she had lost both her parents during the Cultural Revolution when she was only six years old. She was taken care of by her nine-year-old brother, but her two little brothers were given away to other families to raise. She is married, but her husband doesn’t work much and she works hard to raise and educate her three daughters. She tells us her husband was very unhappy that she presented him with three girls, but she shrugged and said they are in college and she is very proud of them. She helped us to arrange our plane tickets to Guangzhou and a taxi to the airport at prices we couldn’t have negotiated on our own. She asked that I pass her name on to friends who might travel to China, and I promised I would.
These were the best three days we’ve spent in China and greedy me, I’m already making plans to come back here in April on our way home. I would love to see the landscape when the fields are green with young growing rice. The rivers should be full of fresh flowing water, although the weather will be warmer and more humid. I hope we scared the snake more than he frightened us and that we won’t encounter another one in the spring. He was dramatically coloured and I thought of seeing if I could identify it on the internet, but decided against it because the thought of looking at a bunch of different snakes would probably give me nightmares.
Oh yes! I bet you though that another accident had befallen me on this leg of our journey and that was why I mentioned that this could have been the end of our travelling. The reason is that I fell in love with Yangshuo and told Anil I didn’t ever want to leave. He pointed out that I couldn’t decide this was my favorite place in the world, if I hadn’t seen it all. Time to move on once again!