China -- Yunnan & Guanxi (Part 2)
May 6-24, 2001

-- Qiaotou & Zhongdian
-- Yangshuo & Guilin


Qiaotou was a small town and waypoint for those headed to Tiger Leaping Gorge. although you could walk through the town in under 10 minutes, it was interesting to see the traditional Yi minority people at the market with their large black square-top hats. However, other than the gorge and following the townspeople around in the small market, i am not sure what else there was to see. the gorge itself was pretty breathtaking. and it was amazing to see fields worked right up the sides of near cliffs, no matter how steep they were. but after the first hour or so, the effect wore off on me. so on the first day that we trekked 30 kilometers or so along the easier low road, i kept thinking, we could have much more efficiently driven this route and stopped for pictures along the way! i'd rather have seen other more interesting things. yet, the views and snow capped peaks were very pretty.

from qiaotou, we drove north towards the Tibetan border on and off the new highway that was being constructed from Qiaotou to Zhongdian. driving over a mix of old roads and old roads under construction made the journey more than a little bumpy and challenging on our stomachs. however, approaching the outskirts to Zhongdian made it seem worth it. it was like being in another country -- the wide expanses of plains, the cold blowing wind, the large two story Tibetan lodge styled houses, large drying racks for the wheat like crops, and the deep blue sky stretching over the horizon. the city itself seemed representative of what a northern chinese border town should be -- the ordered layout and wide avenues (like Kunming, except a fraction of the size), raw concrete block construction, a lot more dusty side roads, and the blowing cold wind. visiting the 300 year old Songzanlin monestary (from the 5th Dalia Lama) was a good prelude of what i would be seeing in tibet. and after dinner, i could say that i had eaten yak meat -- it really wasn't that bad, just a lot more chewy and tough than i was used to. our hotel was ok except that there was limited hot water, and no heat except for a small electric blanket. and it was really cold at night. after the last week with little heat and hot water, it felt good to arrive at zhongdian's surprisingly modern airport, and to board a sparkling new 737 on our way back to Kunming and on to Guilin.


thankfully, arriving 8 hours late in Guilin at 1am under a heavy fog and two hours away from our hotel in Yangshuo, would not be the ill omen of my time in Guanxi that it may have seemed like at the time. On our way to Guilin, we had had a few hours in the morning to kill in Kunming. i spent a little time wandering around the Yunnan Daxue university area, had a great lunch at the French Cafe and a good snack at the Bluebird Cafe (a beautiful cozy new restaurant in what had been an old house of a Guomintang official), and arrived back at the airport early (for once!). at the airport, our plane was delayed a few times because of bad weather in Guangzhou. the first 4 or 5 hours really weren't that bad. the airline even served us real food brought by friendly attendants -- rice, chinese sausage, soup, and vegetables (which of course i didn't eat).

but the next few hours were a little more trying. we were sent to the airport hotel to wait, and paired with other passengers. mine must have just quit smoking, because he couldn't stop. i paid to get my own room instead. but even then we were told we couldn't leave because the plane could arrive at any moment. on the other hand, i thought, the plane might not arrive at all. after talking to about a dozen people in my butchered putonghua (chinese, or literally 'normal speak'), i figured that i might have time to go back into town and at least visit that Mongolian hotpot place I enjoyed the last time I had been here. but i would also risk missing my plane. and so i waited in the hotel like a sheep. finally at 11pm, we were summoned to the airport in the rain. thankfully, the staff was incredibly efficient once the plane did arrive. the other passengers deplaned and we boarded in less than 15 minutes!

we arrived in guilin around 1am, and the airport was basically closed. getting a car to take us the one and a half hours to Yangshuo took a little bargaining, but luckily, we got one. we spent the next twenty minutes getting into guilin, the next twenty minutes after that looking for a car that the husband of the driver of our bus from the airport would use to take us to Yangshuo, and then a good hour and a half to get to Yangshuo. that was a long drive. especially as we had been up in zhongdian since 6am. especially since our new driver seemed just as tired as we were. and especially, since we were traveling very fast in a thick fog that made it incredibly hard for us or for anyone else on that road to see. i spent the next hour and a half trying to stay awake myself while trying to engage the driver in the little chinese i knew to make sure he wouldn't fall asleep and to make sure we wouldn't end up crashing into a truck or into the trees that lined the road. needless to say, the two of us that had traveled from zhongdian were very relieved to arrive safely in yangshuo. i just worried then that our driver wouldn't get into an accident on the way back. i offered him a room, but he seemed set to drive back the hour and a half in the fog back to guilin. and about ten minutes later i was fast asleep.

yangshuo was like a much bigger Dali, but with the most breathtaking scenery. after the fog lifted the next morning, i walked out into a town nestled among dozens of the most beautiful and sharply rising karst peaks. Yangshuo was like Dali in its western backpacker styled comforts and cafes, and most especially in its laid back feel. it didn't take long to make friends. and most of the people in the cafes and shops spoke some english. some, like the local 'chinese picasso' named Forrest, the climbers from beijing, and the waitresses at the Blue Lotus, spoke near fluent english. after a day in town i knew i was going to like it here, and as the group i was with was only going to escort me to a boat in Guangzhou that would take me back to Hong Kong, i decided to leave the group and spend a few extra days in Yangshuo. i am so glad i did. over the next few days with several of the new friends i had made, i visited a few families in a local farming village, experienced a traditional chinese funeral procession in the pouring rain at 6am, took a boat up the Li river that went through the best area of karst peaks, went rock climbing on one of the peaks with the climbers from beijing, helped out in one of Forrest's english classes, danced to pretty good music in the local disco, and relaxed in the comforts of XiJie (the foreigner street, or literally 'west street').

understandably, i didn't want to leave. however, the longer i stayed in yangshuo, the more i began to see the less pretty aspects of life and what many people had to do to survive. even though Yangshuo as a town was burgeoning, there still signs of poverty everywhere, from the old women beggars to the children in dirty clothes that ran through the markets and sat on the streets outside the small hotels waiting for the tourists to be merciful. and one couldn't be friends to everybody, right? i felt an old thought -- compassion was a slippery slope. and so perhaps it was good to leave.

[Yangshuo images]

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