Guanxi, China

Last I left you, we were very nervously awaiting our first overnight train in China. Luckily, we lined up as soon as we saw people starting to get ready to board the train, as in the sleeper rooms (we had a hard sleeper, which I guess you could consider second class – first class would be the soft sleeper and third would be the hard seats), you are assigned only a room, rather than a specific bed. Whereas the soft sleepers sleep four to a room (two sets of bunk beds), the hard sleepers sleep 6 (two triple decker bunk beds). Since we had gotten in line early, we were the first one to our room and were able to secure ourselves the bottom bunk, the table between the two bottom bunks, and also the prime luggage space. This was most important first, because we had the table, we were able to watch a movie and second, because our beds were the only ones with enough room to sit up. We also got lucky with our roommates. As soon as we sat down we began praying for other couples our age, rather than older people or worst of all… children (especially the ones we’d been sitting next to in the train station with their screaming, staring and water bottle fighting). Other people began trickling into our room, all seemingly suitable roommates. We were happy with our neighbors for the next 12 hours, though I think they were all pretty shocked to see us when they entered.

All in all, the whole experience was very comfortable and better than expected. The rooms, though small, were clean and had enough room for our stuff. The beds were also clean and surprisingly comfortable. I can’t say that the bathrooms would have been “Linda approvedJ” but they were ok. For me, the only real problem was that I could smell smoke from people smoking near the doors of the train (I never saw it happen, but could smell when it did – though Dave said he didn’t notice it). They did though have a cart lady walking through with lots of food and snacks, which we took note of for our next trip (we obviously came thoroughly stocked with food and alcy for our 1st trip).

As it was already 7pm when we left and we’d already eaten dinner, Dave and I tucked in for a movie as soon as we got settled, went to sleep early (after the lights went off at around 10pm), and by the time we woke up (though we were awakened several times throughout the night at the different stops when people got on and off the train and they turned on the lights), we were in Guilin. As I’m writing this next blog, I’m sitting on our second overnight train. This one, from Guilin to Kunming, is 18 hours long and by the time we tried to get our tickets (still about 5 days early), the sleepers were already sold out, and so we’re sitting in seats rather than beds.  The seats don’t go back and we’re sharing our row with another guy, with three others sitting opposite us, with a table in between. Not sure this ride will be quite as comfortable as the last, but at least like the last train, we got ideal “seatmates” for the night (a group of college graduates going on their “post graduate trip” who all speak relatively good English).

YANGSHUO:

We arrived in Guilin early and from the train station, we took a bus to a bus station and then hopped on another bus to Yangshuo, about two hours away. We arrived in Yangshuo by 8:30am, were at our guesthouse by 9 and were ready to hit the road, but then we checked our email and got some very sad news. Dave received an email from his best friend telling him that his dad had passed away, which was unexpected and obviously very hard news for Dave to receive. His friend had been very supportive when Dave’s own dad passed away (flying in from Atlanta on a day’s notice to be at the funeral/shiva) and all Dave wanted was to be able to be there for him as well. We spent the next few hours looking into possible flights home and thought about our options and whether or not we could be there for the funeral. But ultimately, because we’d just left the bigger cities and were now in one of the more rural parts of the country, there was no way we’d be able to get back in time. As great as living in Asia has been for us, something like this happening is of course one of the major drawbacks, as it’s very hard for us to not be there for our friends and family in bad times and also good. We’ve missed many weddings, bat mitzvahs, birthdays, anniversaries, and (thankfully not as many) funerals, all times that we wish we could have shared with the people we love.  But such is the life we’ve chosen, and at least for now, we’re sticking with it.

By noon or so, we’d done everything we could do for the time being in regards to maybe flying home (we were waiting to hear back from Dave’s friend regarding the funeral details), so we decided to get out and see some of the city that we’d just spent about 22 hours traveling to. We got lunch (cold spicy noodles and wonton soup- at about 20 yuen total, or $3, probably our cheapest lunch in China so far – and it was delicious) and then rented bikes for the 4 hour, 20 km ride to the Dragon Bridge, a popular tourist spot in Yangshuo. We got lost about 10 times before we finally got onto the right path (this would be a common theme over the next couple of days), but the ride was gorgeous, through rice fields with the famous Yangshuo karsts (aka mountains) in the background. Before we actually got started onto the official path, we had to take a bamboo raft (a very popular mode of transport in Yangshuo) across the river, with our bikes. Ours was a short ride, but throughout the next couple of days we’d see hundreds of people taking rides down the river on these.  We’d thought about doing a longer version of this ride the following day, but after seeing how crowded all the rivers were with people bamboo rafting (plus the fact that the hour and a half ride would cost us about $50), we decided against it. After a great and beautiful ride, we made it to the Dragon Bridge. This is definitely one instance where the journey was much more impressive than the destination, as the bridge itself wasn’t anything special, but the whole ride had been really nice and a great activity for the afternoon.

We made it back to town, and after dropping our bikes off, it was time to explore West Street, the main pedestrian street in Yangshuo. This street was filled with restaurants, food stalls, shops, bars, and people. Similar to the area (Ximen) that we stayed in in Taipei, no matter what time of day or day of the week, West Street was always packed. Throughout the day, vendors changed the type of food they were selling and later into the night, the stores closed and the bars and clubs open. It was a really fun and energetic scene and I already knew (just after our first afternoon) that this would probably be one of my favorite towns we visited in China.

After spending all day talking about what we would do for the next week and whether we could make the trip home work, that night, we drank to Dave’s friend’s dad (and to his friend). We found a great restaurant off of West Street serving the two local specialties that we wanted to try: beer fish and stuffed snails. I’d never had snails before so that, in and of itself, was exciting for me. The whole meal though, was great (aside from the fried deer, which looked much better in the picture than it tasted). We loved the beer fish and snails though, which was the local specialty. Then, just as we were heading home, we noticed that there were all these bars/clubs that had opened, and were packed. We were amazed at the transformation West Street had made in just a matter of hours. One of the clubs looked fun, so we went in for a while to dance with some of the locals, who seemed thrilled about having some Americans to hang out with (one guy even took his shirt off and started lapping around a stripper pole). Finally, after a long day and night before on the train, we were ready to call it a night.

Our plan for our second day in Yangshuo was to head to a very popular village about an hour away called Xinping. There were a few different ways we could get there, one which involved a boat (though we’d already eliminated that option), one a bus (or a few buses), and one a 5 hour hike (from another town called Yangdi; the hike was supposed to be beautiful).  We ended up with a completely different mode of transport, thanks to a funny sales lady named Wendy, who found us as were discussing our options over coffee and a breakfast sandwich at McDonalds (coffee is pretty hard to come by outside of the big cities, and at McD’s you can pretty much get a bfast sandwich for free – 50 cents – when you order a coffee. So, no brainer). She asked us if we wanted a motorbike and since we’d spent the morning video chatting and figuring out if we’d be able to make it back to the States in time for the funeral (which we concluded we couldn’t), we didn’t quite have time for the 5 hour hike anymore, this sounded like the best option.

Wendy was a tough bargainer but we finally made a deal on the bike for the day and we hit the road. It was about an hour ride on the bike, again through beautiful scenery (though this day was a little cloudy), until we reached Xinping, which I’d call more of a town than a village. It was a very cute town though. The first thing we did, was go to see the main attraction in the town, the scenic spot from the 20 yuan bill. There were tons of Chinese tourists getting their photos taken (for guess how much, 20 yuan!). We snapped some photos from the side of the line and then went to get another great noodle lunch (that’s what we spent our 20 yuan on!). After lunch, we walked around the town through the surprisingly trendy Old Street, which was filled with lots of wi-fi coffee shops, and then to the local market (not trendy at all), where vendors were selling fruits, veggies, meat, live chicken, and… pet turtles (which we were very temped to buy). Once we were digested a little bit from lunch and done checking out the town, we did a short 30 minute hike to a viewpoint overlooking the town. The view was nice, but would have been better if the weather had been clearer. Then, we made our way back (I even got to drive for a little, until we needed to make a u-turn, which my motorbike driving skills do not yet allow) to Yangshuo, making a couple stops on the way for pictures.

That night, we ate around West Street again, but this time we wanted to give the food from all of the street stalls a try. We got a “Chinese burger” (slices of beef and veggies stuffed into a bun), a frog burger (same as the Chinese burger but with frog instead of beef), a pork sandwich, and a noodle dish (the famous Guilin noodles, which considering we were an hour from Guilin, we had to try). We took our spoils back to our guesthouse and ate outside at their cute rooftop bar.

We’d feared that once we left the big cities of China, things may get more difficult for us in terms of the language barrier and getting around, but after our first stop in Yangshuo, we were just as pleasantly surprised as we’d been for the first two weeks of our trip.

We took the bus back to Guilin first thing in the morning and had to make a choice about where we’d spend that night. We knew that we wanted to go to the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, a three hour ride from Guilin, the opposite direction of Yangshuo, but we weren’t sure exactly when we should go. There is a popular hike in the rice terraces that goes from one town to another, so we needed to figure out something to do with our luggage. We’d read about a good hostel in Guilin, so we decided to head there as soon as we got in, in the hopes that they would help us with the logistics. Either we could stay there that night while we figured out our plan for the rice terraces the next day, or we could drop our bags and go straight to the terraces and book a room for the following night.

Our book says that if you want to sleep in the rice terraces, you MUST book a place and a bus in advance, but also says this can only be done through a guesthouse in Guilin. We later found some hostel information that we could have used to make our bookings in advance (I’ll include this at the bottom of this post), but either way, upon arriving in Guilin, we knew we needed help figuring out our plan. Luckily, the place we’d decided to stay (Guilin Central Hostel) was amazing and so helpful. We got in, told the woman working there what we wanted to do and literally within 30 minutes, we were out the door again with bus tickets, a hotel reservation in the rice terraces for that night, and a room in Guilin for the following night. It all happened very fast (including the repacking job we had to do before leaving all of our stuff), but before we knew it we were in a taxi and on our way to the bus station.

DRAGON BACKBONE RICE TERRACES:

Exactly three hours from the time we left Guilin again, we were in Dazhai. We got in at 3pm, and instead of staying in that village at the base of the terraces (we originally thought we’d stay/start our hike either there or Ping’An, on the other side), the guesthouse we booked was in another village (Tian Tou Zhai), a 40 minute hike into our 5 hour trek for the next day. This worked out well, as it was still early enough for us to hike a little and would also give us more time the following afternoon to spend in Guilin when we returned. Just as they’d been in the Philippines, the rice terraces here were beautiful. Unlike the trek we did in the Philippines, however, where we’d stayed in someone’s home in a very local village (and had participated in the full killing and cooking of a live chicken – the only one in the village – for dinner), this village was full of guesthouses and restaurants. Ours (Dragon’s Den Hostel) was as nice as any hostel we’ve stayed in, complete with a huge lounge area (with games, tables/couches, flat screen TVs, and most unbelievably…great wifi), and a really nice room with a perfect view of the rice terraces below us. We thought it’d be impossible to beat our view the first night in Batad (in the PH), where we had dinner overlooking the rice terraces, but with an equally amazing view from our room, it was a real toss up.

After a quick look around the rest of the village (it was raining and we didn’t want our shoes to be wet for the next  day’s hike), we bunkered down in our place for the night where we played some chess (Dave won, of course, though I thought I put up a good fight), had a nice dinner (the most vegetarian meal we’ve maybe ever had together – pumpkin, taro, and (beef, though very little) noodle soup – and then did some more video chatting.

After talking to another couple who had just done the same hike we’d be doing the following day (from Dazhai to Ping’An), we were a little nervous for the next day, as they told us the trail had not been marked at all, and there were many forks along the way, despite our guidebook saying the trek was very well signed and a guide was unnecessary. We got some tips from them and hoped that we’d see a lot of people around the next day to ask for directions and help if we got lost.

We started our hike at 6:30am at the main viewpoint around Dazhai, which overlooked all of the rice terraces. It was a beautiful view and definitely worth the extra half hour or so. From there, we got off to a rocky start. Before we’d even gotten started, we had gone in a big 20 minute circle and ended up right back at the entrance to the viewpoint. If the rest of the day went like this, we didn’t know if we’d ever even make it to Ping’An. Luckily, we finally got on track and though there were lots of times where we had no idea where to go, there were plenty of locals around who were happy to point us in the right direction (though several tried to sell us whatever they were selling in exchange for the vital info). For anyone planning to ever do this trek, I’ll now do my best to explain the route. Just keep in mind that at every fork in the road, just because something looks like it’s the right path, doesn’t mean it is. That was our biggest mistake when getting started. The best advice I can give you is to ask if you’re headed the right way even if you’re remotely unsure. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry (my favorite motto!).

IF YOU NEVER WANT TO TREK THE DRAGON BACKBONE RICE TERRACES, SKIP THIS PART:

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Ok, here goes: From Dazhai to Tian Tou Zhai, we had directions from our hostel’s brochure on how to get there. Even these were confusing. But, when you get to the parking lot in Dazhai, walk along the path and continue left. There will be a sign pointing to Dazhai village, so follow that until you get to a big gate (the entrance of the village). When you get through the gate, walk on the left side (there’s a fork in the road) and follow that, past some shops and restaurants, until you reach a bridge. Go on the furthest right part of the bridge, which takes you into the middle of the village. You’ll see a staircase on your left a few feet ahead. Take this up and up and up and then follow the signs to Tiantou village. You should be able to get the rest of the way pretty easily. The hardest part for us was the beginning. From Tiantou, head up into the village, and you’ll find yourself at a sign pointing to Ping’An, which is to the left. If you’re short on time, head that way, but if you have some extra time, go the other way first and follow the signs to the Music of Paradise viewpoint. It’s a little out of the way, but it’s worth it. Anyway, whether or not you go to the viewpoint, you’ll have to get back to the point where you see the sign to Ping’An. Turn left and head up. There you’ll see your first fork in the road (go right), but don’t worry, even if you screw up, the fork to the left is a dead end. Walk up the fork to the right and after a short while (just a few minutes), you will see another fork. The way to the right looks like it should be the path, whereas the way to the left looks like a weird dirt road. GO LEFT. This is where we made our big mistake, which took us right back to the viewpoint. If a few minutes after you get started, you reach another village, you have gone the wrong way. Turn around. Take that fork on the left and it will take you into the rice terraces. Here, you won’t be sure if you’ve gone the right way, because it doesn’t look like a real path, but it is. You will have to make a choice once you reach the rice terrace path of whether to turn right or left. Turn right.

Ok, now you’re in the rice terraces for a while. There’s really nothing you can do wrong here, so take a breath and enjoy the scenery. You’ll be walking through the terraces for an hour or so (this is a very rough estimate). Finally, you’ll reach a second village. An old lady will probably try to get you to eat lunch but you’re likely not hungry after just eating breakfast an hour or so ago when you started the trek. At the end of this village (and maybe you can’t even call it a real village, just a few houses), there will be a fork. Take the bottom right. Then you walk and walk with no real problems until you reach a third and final village (before Ping’An). There you will have to ask around for directions because you really need to weave in and out of there. After that, you’re pretty much home free. There are two more little forks. Take the right side for both of them. Then, another hour or so, (maybe if you’re lucky like us, you’ll find a cute little local lady who will walk behind you and help you along; we bought a very nice shawl from her at the end for a mere $2.50), you’ll reach a white paved road. This means you’re close. About 20 more minutes (past a pond with hundreds of ducks) and you’ll be in Ping’An.

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OK, START READING AGAIN.

The hike took us about 3 and a half hours from the village we stayed in (our guide book says 4-5 hours from Dazhai but we’re typically fast). There was beautiful scenery all along the way and it was a really nice hike, and despite all the confusing forks in the road and the ground being a little slippery, it was pretty easy. We ended at the top of Ping’An at the most popular viewpoint there, and then walked down and through the village to the parking lot, where we just got on the 11am bus back to Guilin (this one though, was not direct. We stopped in Heping on the way, and because we didn’t have reserved seats like on the way there, we had to sit on tiny plastic stools in the middle of the aisle ). We would have liked a little more time to explore Ping’An (it’s the biggest of all the villages in the rice terrace area), but we thought it was more important to get back to Guilin earlier so we’d have enough time for that.

GUILIN:

Three hours later, and we were back in Guilin for the third time, and this time, we were finally ready to see it. Our book says that Guilin is skipable, but we still wanted to check it out, and I’m very glad we did. We had our taxi from the bus station drop us off at the Elephant Hill Scenic Area, one of the several popular park areas in the city. After seeing the entry price of a whopping 75 yuan pp ($12.50, for a park!), we opted out and headed to Shan Lake to see the famous Sun and Moon Pagodas. Entry for these was a lot too (60 yuan pp) so we skipped going in them and just walked around the lake and back to our area, which was very nearby (instead we opted to spend $5 on a venti  Starbucks frappe, which we had been sorely needing after no coffee for two days and a very hot climate).

Guilin has about 4 main attractions, 3 of which are parks/scenic areas, and the last of which is the lake and pagodas. All of the parks charge at least 75 yuan pp and up to 130 yuan pp entry fee. Dave and I rarely spend this much on any attraction, let alone a park, which at the very most we think should be $5 (though I really think they should be free). We found it almost laughable that they were charging so much for the city’s only attractions and even more crazy that there were people lined up willing to pay this outrageous fee. To us, an $80 trip to what should be a public park (think  Central Park or Millennium Park in Chicago; no rides or attractions, just green space and maybe some temples) for a family of 4 seems pretty crazy. Our book mentions these outrageous fees and says that some of the places we’re headed next (namely Shangrila) are even worse, and also uses the word “laughable” to describe the fees.

Anyway, we skipped the parks and the fees and instead headed to the free attraction in the city: The pedestrian area near our hostel. Whereas most of the cities we’ve visited in China have one main pedestrian street (ie, no cars allowed), this one has a whole area filled with shops, restaurants, food streets, vendors, and more. We walked around for a while, mostly scoping out potential dinner spots. We quickly realized that our guesthouse had pretty much the best location ever, right on the “Western food” street, and sandwiched in between the street food street (though filled with mostly tiny outdoor restaurants rather than typical food stalls) and the live seafood restaurant street. After our exploration, we were feeling very good about our dinner options.

We went back to our guesthouse (to our very nice room with very good wifi!!) to shower and catch up on email, neither of which we’d done in about 24 hours. It was glorious! When we were finally ready for dinner, we decided on the street food street (after asking our trusty hotel workers who’d done so well by us for our trip to the rice terraces). We sat down at a restaurant we liked, checked to make sure it was ok to bring food from a couple of other places, and then placed our order.  We got a chicken/rice/veggie bucket (the chicken was the worst part mostly because it was boned), a bamboo rice with bacon (a popular dish here, rice cooked and served inside a piece of bamboo), a couple squid skewers and a couple dumplings. It was a good meal and we were happy to go home early and watch a movie (or more accurately, finish a couple of movies we’d started earlier in the trip but couldn’t finish due to poor internet connection).

We weren’t quite sure what to do the following day, as we weren’t leaving on our overnight train until about 3pm but we had to checkout at noon and didn’t want to get really hot and sweaty in between. We went for a nice run in the morning and thought about going to one of the expensive parks for a second, but then decided against it.  Instead, we got a nice Western breakfast (our Thai Island usual: an American breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast) and a club sandwich), and then explored a couple areas we hadn’t seen. We restocked our snack bag for the train (dried fruit and beef jerky), relaxed at our guesthouse and checked email for a little, and before we knew it, it was time to head out.

Our first experience outside of the big cities in China was everything we’d hoped for and more. We finally got to see the other side of China (literally and figuratively) and were equally as pleasantly surprised as we were for the first two weeks of our trip. As the time goes on, my worries about seeing a side of China that we hate are slowly subsiding. More and more, I’m starting to think that my worst fears about China will never come to fruition (hopefully I’m not jinxing myself by saying this). But, we still have two and a half more weeks and a few provinces to go (and about 16 more hours of this overnight train!!!), so you never know. Next up, 10 days in Yunnan, which our book describes by saying that if you only have time for one province in China, this should be the one you see. Should be great (I hope, but somehow I’m still a little nervous).

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GUESTHOUSE INFORMATION FOR THE DRAGON BONE RICE TERRACES:

Dragon’s Den Hostel (this is where we stayed in Tian Tou Zhai village, about an hour from Dazhai. It was about $25/night and a really nice guesthouse overlooking the rice terraces):

Phone: +86 773 7585780 or +86 18278387610

Email: 3dhostel@gmail.com

Jinkeng International Youth Hostel (didn’t stay here or see it but also in Tian Tou Zhai village):

Phone: 0773-7585689

Email: yha-jinkeng@qq.com

Longji International Youth Hostel (in Ping’An village. Didn’t stay here but saw the lounge area, which was nice):

Phone: 0773 – 7583265

Email: yha-longji@qq.com

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