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Travels: Guangxi Province, Guilin, China

Eroded landscape along Li River
The eroded landscapes around Guilin is one of those sceneries that one would think about when China comes to mind. The picture of many little karst hills in the countryside, and a calm river in the foreground with a lone fisherman. This is one of those areas I wanted to go before leaving China, and as famous as it is (meaning many tourists) I guess this is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. So then it is, I have managed to organize a trip to Guanxi province just after the Sichuan trip on the way back to Shanghai just to see it with my own eyes. Will be flying into Guilin directly from Chengdu.

20 November 2008: Landed in Guilin at 9 pm after an hour and a half from Chengdu. Small airport, obviously so compared to Chengdu and probably not a good comparison at all. Slept during the landing and since it was late at night, it was probably impossible to see anything. Temperature is a nice 13C at night. Balmy compared to Chengdu in the single digits.

Film used during the trip, including Sichuan Province

My luggage is one of the first to appear, good considering I was the last to check in! In 1 minute I was out of Guilin Liangjiang airport (yup, the official name) and into a Golden Dragon brand bus bound downtown. I’m not a guide book so I have no idea where this bus ends but it does go to Guilin Train Station and its where I am going. Dumped my backpack into the luggage hold and its time to wait 30 minutes. The cost of the bus to the train station from airport is 20 RMB. According to what people tell me, as long there is a flight arriving, there will be an airport bus.

Within 30 minutes the bus dropped me at Shanghai Road with a finger pointing to the direction of the train station, quite obvious it requires a bit of a walk. Looking at the GPS maps on my E71, I managed to find a signboard leading to the Flowers Youth Hostel in Guilin. I will have to walk through little alleys and small restaurants selling dodgy food (i’m sure it tastes good though) and mini travel agents. Hostel is on the second floor of a maze of buildings. No fanfare, I’d arrive, get the room, get a shower and do a little blogging and sleep to prepare for the next day to Yangshuo.

Locals load up anything and everything into the bus cargo hold

21 November 2008: Up at 8am today, taking my time this morning. After breakfast at the hostel, I make my way to the train station next door. Like any place popular with tourists, this place is teeming with a species of human called touts. They lead me to the next bus going to Yangshuo. Seems that all buses at a parking lot on the right when facing the railway station goes to Yangshuo. Tickets are bought on the bus and cost 17 RMB if I remember well. 1 hour later we are in Yangshuo. Both my GPS are running so that I don’t get tricked into getting off earlier and fleeced. They didn’t bother trying. Maybe they are looking for caucasians to try that trick.

Yangshuo Bus Station

In Yangshuo, the bus pulled up at the only bus station close to the famous West Street. Looks like touts live near bus stations as I am again greeted with them when getting of the bus, this time they seem to be part timers as they all have crocheting as their main work while waiting for the next bus to pull up. All of them!

Made my way to the hostel I have booked here and rested for a while. Yangshuo Backstreet Hostel has a nice location but takes sometime to locate. There is a free WEP locked Wifi at the hostel but when I was there connection was spotty.

Cycling around the Yangshuo countyside...

... and sometimes you encounter strange vehicles

The weather forecast has been wrong today. I was expecting sunny skies but what I got instead was cloudy and foggy day. The limestone hills are starting to be visible here in Yangshuo but no fine photo opportunities, unless you’re into taking limestone hills with mobile phone towers on them.

I then rented a mountain bike from the hostel and it was time to go out for a bicycling ride around the countryside. Thought I’d do the usual anti clockwise trip out where I came from on the road out to Guilin, and branching off to the left towards a small town called Yima and once hitting it turning left back towards Moon Water Cave and along the Yulong River. Sounds complicated but I guess this is quite a popular route so ask around in Yangshuo.

The bicycle I got was too low, but the seat was adjustable. The rear wheel seems tacoed as it wobbles. But as long as it holds up. There is no basket on it so I swing my tripod and camera pack around like rambo carrying ammo. Cycling was easy enough. Got lost a few times but asked the locals for Yima and got my bearing again. Fresh air. But scenery, although interest, did not make me whip out my camera all the time. Probably it was not possible to shoot with including some kind of telecommunication infrastructure into the photo. Which I detest. So I took it as a nice cycle in the countryside. Bought a small pomelo along the way and ate half of it on the spot while still on the bicycle and while chatting to the seller. Not as sweet as I expected, hearing that this area is famous for that fruit, but to be fair, perhaps its because I bought a younger small fruit. Will probably need to let it mature a few days.

Was expecting the cycle path to be country dusty road but it is very well paved with concrete. I would find out why on the way. There are many large tourist buses going this way as well as there is a bamboo rafting starting point in the middle of the way. Tourists would take the raft to the bridge back to Yangshuo, and tractors turned into transporters would haul the rafts back to the starting point. Saw many of those tractors hauling 2 boats each. I don’t bother with the river rafting. The scenery again looks interesting but no nice photoshoot. Disappointed really. Expected the countryside scene here to be phenomenal, but it was just soso. Maybe it was over expectation.

The cycling trip took 3 easy hours. I had a few kilos slung across my shoulder so I stopped often. No, not to chew on the pomelo but just to stretch. It is not exactly the same as my road bike back home. Not half as smooth. Considering what I paid to rent it I didn’t expect it to anyway. The way back from the bridge junction to Gaotian town and Yangshuo is a little long and boring. Couldn’t wait to get over that stretch and when I did get back to West Street, can’t wait to dive into a bowl of jiaozi dumplings. Tastes everybit worth the long trip.

After a short break, returned the bike and was out at the waterfront for a walk when an old lady came up to me offering a boat ride in her private skiff. Didn’t think too much of it so started to ask her plenty of questions. As it was starting to get late she offered a short 45 min ride upstream and back to Yangshuo for 30 RMB for a taster. Before long I arranged with her longer trips the next day, one from Yangshuo to Liugong and a second one from Xingping to the Fish Tail Peak and back. Took the short taster trip but nothing much to shout about. The peaks are a little more like normal hills and not as concentrated as a typical Guilin scenery.

Boat anchoring point next to the bridge

The next trip would start at 0730 hrs tomorrow morning.

At night Yangshuo starts to come alive. I’m guessing the tourists all come from the hundreds of tour boat from Guilin that make its way to Yangshuo every day. Maybe not. But there are definitely plenty of laowai and Cantonese speaking tourists here. Every shop on the west street happened to be a bar or some kind of foreign restaurant and it was not that easy looking for a simple local fare. Every shop seems to be selling beer fish, but according to the boat lady today they are all reared and doesn’t taste as good as the ones caught in the river.

Kitchen at breakfast place

22 November 2008: Woke up at 0600 hrs and before long I was up and about in the streets. Stumbled upon a small roadside stall and as a first customer of the day, and for 5 RMB I had a nice bowl of dumpling soup. Warms the body in a cold morning as today.

Weather today seems rather bad compared to yesterday. It is supposed to be ultra cloudy today and I will be lucky to see the sun. Looks like a day for black & white film, so I packed more this morning.

Walked to the pier and right at 0730 hrs the lady and her youngest son came with their motorized raft to pick me up. We would cruise to Fuli and then to Liugong and then cruise back to Fuli where I will catch a public bus to Xingping and her other son who covers Xingping will pick me up for the second leg of the trip. Sounds like a plan.

On the way to Fuli Town

The trip to Fuli was a little more scenic than what I have seen the day before. The river traffic at this time of the day means that there are significant waves on the river surface and the lack of colour means I was taking more photos with the film camera that dslr. The boat lady would tell me of the names of all the peaks next to the river and seriously I was not paying attention. So I cannot really recite them one after another. Just sat on the boat soaking in the atmosphere. What is clear is that once we got to Liugong, the hills start to get more normal looking and less of the Guilin look people came to look for. Before long it was time to turn back to Fuli.

When we got to Fuli I got to speak to her son for the first time as he was the one manning the boat. He told me he brings a lot of photographers on boat trips early in the morning and to take the quintessential Guilin photo of sunrise and a fisherman in the foreground. It will take a couple of days to get the right photo and summer is best. In fact he was supposed to take a Singaporean film crew tomorrow for a film shoot early in the morning.

I paid them 150 RMB for the leg. They walked me through Fuli old town to the bus stop. On this Saturday morning the town is bustling with vegetable sellers, street barbers, fish sellers, all reminding me of what a rural China of lore looks like. I took my Leica M6 and started wasting Tri-X film like there is no tomorrow. Along the way the boatman told me about some of the photographers with Large Format cameras and I was hooked. I took his phone number and told him I will be back in summer and he will bring me shooting to all his secret spots.

Workers repairing (or rebuilding!) a road in Fuli

Open air barber parlours in Fuli

Fuli wet market

Soon I got on a small mini bus. It was cramped to the roof, chinese style and I had to sit on a little stool on the floor, ok to sit, impossible to get up. All this while we wind fast through the Yangshuo countryside to Xingping. Looks like this might be a popular route.

Got to Xingping and there were dozens of ladies running after bus offering passengers private rafting trips. Sounds like this is the only reason to come to Xingping. I got fetched at the bus station by the brother of the boatman in Yangshuo after he bought a few packs of Guilin cigarettes. Has picture of the karst countryside on it. We took a 6 RMB cart ride to the pier, and there were tens of rafts there. This sure looks like a proper franchise and this place is surely a magnet for tourists. We passed many tourists on the way back from boat trips in the morning.

One of the commercial cruise boats on Li River

Locals crossing the river using small slim boats

The boatman showing me the scenery depicted at the back of the 20 RMB note

This is definitely a popular route. Going from Xingping to Yangdi. Not too sure everyone goes all the way to Yangdi, as my boatman tells me that halfway to Yangdi is the best time to go back as the scenery for the rest of the way is not too nice anymore. To give an idea what to expect, the first segment once you get on the raft and clearing the electrical wires, is the view on the rear of the chinese 20 RMB note. At the end of the halfway mark looking back at Xingping is a view usually seen on advertisements and my boatman showed me the same view on a cigarette pack. After the disappointment of yesterday, I feel a little redeemed the weather is hazy and water choppy because of the continuous stream of large tour boats from Guilin making its way to Yangshuo, all with kitchens at the rear and endless floating rafts, making it impossible at 11am, to shoot a picture of a serene river. I would hear of the many times the guy brought photographers in the wee hours to take photo. Every month the sun rises in a different spot and during summer it is supposed to be best. During the cold winter, there are water vapour in the morning before the wind sets in. In summer sometimes it is possible to see a thin film of mist at a certain altitude giving a nice atmosphere. But today I can only catch silhouetted shots as it is too late and not the ideal season. I have in my mind what I want to take in the future and will need to set appointments for them to take me here when the next time comes.

We then sailed the raft downstream back to Xingping while I sit relaxed on the bamboo chair thinking about the return trip next year, perhaps.

Poster of Chairman Mao still hangs on the walls in Xingping

We got off at the tourist raft landing area and proceeded to the old street that leads to the bus station. As usual, souvenir stalls abound near the jetty, and soon the street starts to have a nice old feel to it. Old people wearing mao era coats and I noticed every home seems to have a central mao propaganda poster still on. Genial. My leica went to work on surreptitious shots, no standard photo of smiling old people posing for camera for a sum of money for me, those are so stereotypical. They deserved to be shot in their environment. Off the hip shooting with Duffmeter is in order. After stopping for a quick lunch, I’m on the 2 pm mini bus back to Yangshuo. This time I managed to find a place to sit. Bus fare is 5.5 RMB from Xingping to Yangshuo. This compared to 4 RMB I paid from Fuli to Xingping earlier in the morning. Bus took a little less than an hour to get to the destination.

After a long day of boating and meeting the family of boaters and learning what to expect next time I come, it was time for a rest. Took a nap from 1500 hrs to 1800 hrs and then went out looking for cheap local Yangshuo eatery.

And then its an early night. Happy with the 4 rolls I shot with the leica today. The dslr saw some action but a lot less. Today is a day for b&w film. Used up 2 rolls of Tri-X and 2 rolls of Neopan 1600 for contrast play. I think I will do a couple more old towns tomorrow before leaving this town back to Guilin and Shanghai.

Gaotian: Truck full of live pigs

23 November 2008: So, a very late morning. Got out of the hostel at 10am this last day of my 2 week trip. Checked out and had two plates of dumplings before catching the small van to Gaotian town paying 2.5 RMB for the pleasure. Wandered around the streets of Gaotian and other than ingeniously improvised construction machinery moving about town, there are nothing much more to see. My leica and kodak Tri-X film went to work here. There are vans plying Yangshuo and Gaotian and stops anywhere in between every 8 minutes so I don’t worry.

Before leaving the hostel I took down names of 2 villages near Gaotian not more than 4 km away. The one on the way back to Yangshuo, located 3 km away from Gaotian looks like a good idea as I can catch the passing van to get back Yangshuo before 2 pm.

Taking the motorcycle taxi to Longtang Village

It is a nice half hour walk from Gaotian before I get to the moon hill entrance which is also where the entrance to longtang village. To take a shortcut, I took a motorcycle, riding pillion, into the village which is almost 2 km from the main road. Paid the driver 5 RMB which I think is a lot but the driver insists is the going rate.

Local Longtang Villager

Chicken coop

Longtang Village (N24.73056, E110.45011) is a normal village that happens to have a few old buildings. Few means my fingers can count them without resorting to my toes. And the fact that they had the balls to charge 30 RMB made this the number one most useless expense this trip. I have seen small villages like these and when they do charge that kind of entrance fee, they are usually a hundred times more impressive and do not smell too much of animal faeces all the way. Spent 30 minutes there and realised its time to get back to Yangshuo to have a sinful lunch before going back to Guilin airport.

Called Mr Li the motorcycle driver, as he hangs around the main road. In 5 minutes he is at the entrance and 5 RMB later I am on the main road flagging down a crowded local bus bound for Yangshuo. Costs 2.5 RMB for the trip.

Tractor carrier with exposed engine, very common in this part of rural China

That is unfortunately the last adventure for this trip. The rest of the afternoon is spent taking the bus back to Guilin and collecting my large backpack at the hostel there and going to the airport after a simple dinner. Got to remember not to have my leatherman tool on my belt pouch before going through the xray at the airport.

So ends my 2 week trip through the mountains of Sichuan province and worn limestone landscapes of Guangxi province. Forgot I’m just on a temporary holiday and felt as though I am a perpetual traveller.

Between the two provinces, no doubt I love Sichuan more than Guangxi. They are both joined by disasters in 2008, an unfortunate association with each other. Theres the great earthquake in Sichuan and it was interesting to see how things really were from all those that related it to me during my stay, and the recent november floods in Guangxi, again the people recalling vividly how it was.

Li River vista


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