China – Guilin

Highly touted as one of China’s most scenic locales, Guilin boasts a handsome town with a meandering river flanked by spectacular limestone crops. Nearby, the Lijiang River has been described as the soul of Guilin scenery, flowing like a jade ribbon from Guilin to Yangshuo. Boating on the Li River is one of the region’s highlights, because of the phenomenal views of the undulating hills and rugged peaks on both sides of the river. Other highlights included a bicycle jaunt out into Yangshuo’s countryside, which is the heart of backpacker country due to this small, laid back town’s immense popularity with adventure seekers. Our tour culminated with a visit to Guilin’s Elephant Trunk Hill, Seven Star Park, and Reed Flute Cave (an impressive karst cave with uniquely shaped stalactites and stalagmites). We were pleasantly surprised by the warm winter temperatures experienced here, and learned that this area is located in China’s subtropical zone. Hence, Guilin and Yangshuo enjoy a pleasant climate throughout the year.

28 Nov 07: Checking into our flight to Guilin was a breeze until the baggage inspection personnel flagged Robby’s vodka bottle in his hand carry luggage. Since it was a glass bottle larger than 1 Liter, he had to check it in and wasn’t allowed to hand carry it on the plane. Interestingly enough, our plastic water bottles were OK to hand carry. Our flight was uneventful flight, and we met Angel, our Guilin tour guide upon our arrival at 1645. Angel’s grandmother was Vietnamese, so she had a slightly exotic look to her. We quickly found her to be very easygoing and funny. Especially when she mentioned she was a beer lover and could probably out drink us on any given day. We checked into the Guilin Brave Hotel where 2 weddings were going on. Angel told us that the banquet hall on the first floor was extremely popular for weddings, and we found that to be true as the next evening, another wedding party was taking place at the hotel.

The Guilin Brave Hotel had free internet, so we logged on to check in with family and process Robby’s new job offer. Since we still had a few minutes to spare before dinner, we walked around the nearby lakefront, which was getting crammed with pedestrians enjoying the day’s last light. Dinner was at the hotel’s banquet hall, with the wedding party occupying the far corner of the room, raising a lively ruckus. Sitting across from us were a French lady with her French/American son. Both of them were vegetarians, which is something the staff evidently couldn’t comprehend. The Frenchie kept kicking her meat dishes back, and asking for salad or vegetables. It took several attempts, but eventually the staff caught on.

Angel grabbed us after dinner and shuttled us into our awaiting van for a short ride out to the Li Jiang Theatre. Tonight, we were treated to a minority cultural show. This hour long extravaganza was pretty cool, although we weren’t allowed to take photos during the performance. The performers did stay for a short while after the show for photo ops, although it was hard to capture how colorful their costumes were with the dim lighting. The movie “Sahara” was playing on the TV when we returned back to the hotel, and we spent some time getting completely caught up with email. Amazing how much email accumulates in our inbox after a week on the road!

29 Nov 07 –Guilin – Yangshuo – Guilin: “Enduring memories are created today as you cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo”. These words from our daily itinerary tantalized us, and we had absolutely no idea of what to expect from today. Except that we were pretty sure the day was going to be amazing. The limestone peaks we had seen on the previous day’s short drive from the airport to our hotel were spectacular, and we already knew that our short 2 days in Guilin/Yangshuo weren’t going to be enough time for us to completely enjoy this corner of China. After eating an early breakfast, we departed the hotel at 0800 for an hour drive down towards Yangshuo. This morning’s activities included lounging on a scenic Li River cruise. At the arrival dock, there were tons of vendors busy hawking their wares. A savvy “fisherman” posed conveniently along the footpath with his cormorants in tow, setting the perfect stage for a scenic photo. And of course there were tourists who just couldn’t resist snapping away. Immediately afterwards, they were accosted to pay a photo fee for the privilege! This is pretty much standard procedure almost everywhere we’ve traveled. A perfectly “staged” photo is never free…nevertheless, there were still some stingy tourists who took his photo and refused to pay. What bad manners…it’s not like they didn’t realize he was going to ask for compensation for his time, effort, and energy!

The views of the Li River from the top deck of our cruise really were gorgeous. With the morning lighting, it seemed that all the photos we took came out magically. Vistas of the limestone peaks and pinnacles were spectacular, and we spent all of our time up in the front bow taking photos and enjoying the scenery. Our trip itinerary advised us that the lunch today was nothing to write home about, but we found it was OK. Savvy entrepreneurs rowed their wooden rafts and attached them directly to our boat in hopes of selling trinkets and souvenirs. As soon as one of them would tire from the sales pitch and unattach their raft from our boat, another would slide into place and start hawking their ware. The water level in the Li River was quite low, and we were really amazed that our boat could successfully navigate the shallow waters.

At the turnaround point, there were two fishermen with their cormorants, and we watched in amusement as the cormorants would hunt for fish. Poor birds…once they caught a fish, the fishermen would yank them back up to their raft and force the fish out of their beaks. The birds had a tight ring placed around their willowy necks, and they couldn’t swallow the fish even if they tried. It looked inhumane the way the fishermen would grab the cormorants by the neck (roughly), but the birds seemed used to this kind of treatment. The fishermen with cormorant photo op proved extremely popular, and everyone snapped away in excitement. Thankfully, no one objected to paying the fishermen, who raised these thin fishing nets up to the top deck, and lowered it once it was filled with bills and coins. Robby laughed hysterically when one of the cormorants made a brief break for freedom (the bird actually succeeded in escaping from the fisherman), and the fisherman was frantic in his efforts to recapture the bird. His photos of the brief escape and frantic chase had us rolling for days afterwards.

On board the Li cruise, we met a fellow American who was Indonesian-American, working for Raffles International in the travel industry. He was vacationing with his mother, and both of them had booked their tour with TravelChinaGuide as well. We were quite keen to learn of their impressions thus far, and were happy to learn that they had been thrilled with their level of service to date. We picked his brain for ideas of what to see and do in Indonesia, before parting ways.

After our lunch break, we had to wait around for a boat that got stuck to be dug out by a nearby bulldozer. The Li River was precariously shallow and it was a matter of time before some vessel hit bottom! An hour later, the vessel was finally dislodged, and we were able to continue our return journey. We had even more spectacular views on the return journey, but were saddened to see the locals lining the bank begging for money with their fishing nets. We were saddened even more to see fellow tourists giving them money because this promotes begging. It would have been better just to buy a souvenir or service, rather than giving out free money for the heck of it. Our driver was waiting for us once we disembarked from the cruise, so we headed off towards Yangshuo where we rented bikes and rode out into the country for about an hour. It was great…nice views and friendly locals. We could have spent days riding around the countryside, and vowed we’d have to come back to Yangshuo so we could spend more time here. On our ride, we finally saw how our bacon is made, with huge hunks of dried meat hanging on lines, getting hardened by the sun. Farmers were toiling in the fields, babies were strapped to ladies’ backs, and birds were chirping in the air. Pure bliss!

On our ride back into town, we paid a short visit with a local family. The elder couple had lived in their house for over 70 years together, and they both had selected and bought their coffins already. The woman proudly showcased off her future home for the afterlife, and we wondered how she felt so comfortable about death. This tiny old grandma force fed us sweet grapefruit, and we couldn’t decline. After eating way too much grapefruit, we thanked our host and bid her farewell. Yup, you could definitely say that our bike ride was too short but definitely memorable. Angel told us that we missed out on a Yangshuo notable, one that we should make every effort to attend our next time in this area. She suggested that we watch a show called the “Impressions of Sister Liu”, which is set in an outdoor setting and a must see! We chalked that up to memory, and transferred back to Guilin where we were on our own for the night.

First things first. We had to scan Robby’s new job acceptance letter, so we wandered the streets of Guilin until we found a photocopying shop. After a bit of broken Chinese and a lot of hand gestures, we were in business as the owner finally understood what we were after. Afterwards, we walked out to the night market, and ate at McDonalds where we discovered that the spicy Chicken sandwich in China is no freaking joke. It truly is “super spicy”, and Robby later claimed that it tore his stomach up! At the night market, we ran into Francis and his mom, where we learned that his guide had tried to overcharge them for a Li River cruise. So Francis and his entire tour group boycotted the cruise and spent their day exploring Guilin on their own. Their guide tried to terrorize them about the dangers of the night market, claiming that pickpockets were rampant and bringing cameras should be avoided! We laughed about this, because Angel hadn’t advised us on any of Guilin’s dangers, and we felt extremely comfortable walking around the city, camera in tow. Guilin at night is really pretty…we walked around the lake, drank some sugarcane juice, browsed through the night market, and called it a day. Overall this was our best day yet! We ended up watching “Must Love Dogs” before crashing for the evening.

30 Nov 07 –Guilin – Xian: With a late checkout, we were able to sleep in this morning. After a late breakfast, we took a stroll around Banyan Lake and watched as families enjoyed the park and soaked in the sun. Some people were practicing tai chi, while others engaged in vigorous martial arts activities. Banyan Lake is a magnet for all sorts of outdoor activities, and we enjoyed people watching the entire time. After checking out of the hotel at noon, we went to Elephant Trunk Hill where we saw stone statue elephants (these are normally covered in water in the summer time, and serve as a kiddies pool playground. Since the water level was so low in the winter, adults had overtaken the playground, and we hopped up on the elephants in various poses). The “highlight” of Elephant Trunk Hill was a natural cave that looked like an elephant that was dipping its trunk into the lake.

Lunch was at the excellent YiYuan (“One Yuan”) Restaurant where we had spicy Sichuan food. Angel recommended the spicy chili fish dish, green beans with healthy chunks of garlic, sizzling beef platter, fried rice and beer. Topped off with watermelon for desert. We discovered that spicy Sichuan is our favorite Chinese style food, and were even more impressed with the restaurant’s really reasonable prices! After stuffing ourselves silly for lunch we stopped by the Seven Star Park in time for the 1445 panda feeding. The female panda was being lazy (she didn’t even wake up at feeding time, which normally is the only time she gets exercise when she is “forced” to crawl about 10 feet away to get her bamboo shoots), but the younger male panda thrilled the eager crowd. The only other animals to make our hearts race were the wild monkeys, who were furiously chasing each other (several baby monkeys were hanging onto their mother’s backs for dear life). It was nearly impossible to take a decent photo of them because they were in full speed action the entire time. We were wondering about the Disney inspired statues and displays strewn throughout the entire park, and Angel explained that Seven Star Park is primarily a kid’s park. School kids and senior citizens have free access to the park, so that explained the number of old men and women playing cards in the shade.

Our last stop of the day was a visit to the Reed Flute Cave, a short drive out of town. Inside the cave chamber, we got to see some cool stuff, including a “futuristic” looking space city. We have been inside numerous caves showcasing stalactites and stalagmites, but we’ve never seen visitors have such free reign as they did here at the Reed Flute Cave. Silly girls in high heels hopped in between ancient limestone stalagmites (the ones growing from the ground), and it was horrifying watching them balance their weight on painfully thin heels as they roughly bumped, collapsed and fell over onto these ancient formations. (We doubt many of the rock formations are still growing and forming since they are particularly sensitive to skin oils…and people were touching the rock buildups all over the place!) After leaving the cave, we saw three Tibetan dogs chained to the fence. Angel told us that the owners make a fortune breeding these highly aggressive guard dogs.

We still had some time to kill before catching our evening flight into Xi’an. So we stopped by a painting gallery that was run by a bunch of students. The art work was nice, but we passed on buying anything. At this point in our tour, we were already overloaded with a bunch of souvenirs, and just didn’t feel like lugging any extra ones around! We told Angel we could get dropped off at the airport early, so we headed straight there from the optional painting shop. With over 2 hours to kill before our flight, we watched a couple episodes of “Heroes” before boarding our 2000 flight.

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