Thursday, October 1, 2009

China Lite

The night bus to Yangshuo is expensive but luxurious - with plenty of space and leather seats. This turns out to be problematic when wearing polyester trousers - I have to use the seat belt (seat belt!) to hold myself in my seat. Yangshuo, in Guangxi, is possibly as touristy as it gets in China, although as one friend has pointed out, where isn't touristy in China? Famed for its fabulous karst landscape and river views, as featured on the 20 yuan note, Yangshuo attracts both foreign and Chinese tourists by the bus and boat load. We are greeted by an English-speaking tout at the bus station who invites us to look at his hostel. Sleepy and dazed, we ignore our wealth of experience and wander off with him. He seems put out when we go and have a look at another hostel on route, and insists on entering the place before us. Our alarm bells finally ring, and we ask him to leave us alone. In fact, we don't want to look at his hostel. He turns apoplectic and starts demonstrating a familiar knowledge of the English vernacular. His face turns purple and his hands become fists. I get angry but stay calm, and invite him to 'have a go'. I don't know why I do this but thankfully he just goes off in a huff. We walk back the way we have come and meet a woman who speaks no English. She has a cheap comfortable room with bathroom and a/c in her guesthouse. Ideal. We take it.

This place is a great introduction to China for us. There's plenty to see and do, there are locals who speak English and restaurants with English menus. On the other hand, this is a terrible introduction to China. Although there's plenty to see and do, the locals all speak English and the restaurants all have English menus. We hire bicycles and ride out of town and along the rivers, getting lost, going in circles, saying hello to farmers in their conical hats, haggling with ferry boat drivers to take us across to the other side. There are lots of other tourists doing the same thing but it's not overcrowded. In fact it feels quite sociable. On one day we decide to hike a stretch of river that is popular with cruise boats. We meet a young Chinese woman, Yun Fei, who is doing the same. She stands out a mile in tartan cords, a dayglo pink baseball cap and a pudding-bowl haircut. And she's only five foot tall. As we trek along the river bank and through fields of orange trees and rice and vegtables, she tells us that last year she cycled from her hometown in Chengdu to Lhasa on a cheap bike. She fuels our craving to cycle here. Along the way we are greeted with calls of "Hello! Bamboo?" by locals who have built bamboo rafts with an outboard motor to ferry tourists around. Yun Fei chats to everyone and at the end of the day we remark on how friendly everyone is. "Yes and no", she replies. "They just want our money, really. It's too touristy here." Another cruise boat drifts by, a loudhailer echoes off the limestone crags that jut above the riverside.

In Xinping we try and find the old part of the town to photograph. But the stone-paved narrow streets are full of shops, cafes and restaurants. It reminds me of the towns in the Lake District. Groups of Chinese tourists are carried past in small electric buses, to save them walking anywhere. In the new part of town the buildings are uniformly concrete and painted white. The place is tidy and clean and the electric motorbikes are great - no noise and no exhaust fumes. Now it reminds me of those new parts of towns in Spanish Andalusia. Even the Chinese tourists don't look Chinese. Where are the suits and the dull haircuts? Everyone's in bright polo shirts and shorts, trainers or sandals, although there's also an unfortunate frilliness about the women's clothes. I guess these tourists are China's lucky ones - they have money and time for holidays. In Guangzhou Eli told us that most migrant factory workers get one week a year off work and maybe one day a month. No weekends unless they work in a well-regulated city. At least the peasant farmers meet my expectations - dark blue clothes, conical hats, a bit dour and always as thin as reeds.

We stay a while in Yangshuo, lulled by the comforts of an easy environment, and plot our route north to Xi'an. On October 1st China celebrates 60 years of its totalitarian dictatorship. There should be some good fireworks. Mao t-shirts are selling like hotcakes. The country will stop for a week and travel promises to be difficult. Mmm. Things are about to get interesting.

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