After the rigors of our bus rides to and and from Jiuzhaigou (just say the word and Chinese people sigh), we didn’t feel we could handle two days and three train rides to get to Guilin in the southeast. So we committed the backpacker’s ultimate offense: we flew. It’s good we’re not really backpackers, although we think we are when we’re staying in hostels, because we like flying…a lot. As is true in many countries including our own, traveling by air is a world apart from ground transportation. Train and bus stations are breeding grounds for dirt, criminals, and infectious diseases while airports are relatively calm, clean, and quiet. Airplanes magically deliver you to other clean, calm destinations in a matter of a few hours while trains and busses belch you forth onto crowded platforms and city streets after extended exercises in physical and mental torture. Nowhere was this more true than Chengdu where the bus driver screeched to an abrupt halt on a busy street adjacent to the station, screamed at us to exit, and then tried to drive off with our bags still in the undercarriage. We fought back (I yelled at him to wait and Tom practically dented the bus pounding on the cargo door), but in the frenzy we came away lighter one long john top (McKane’s) and one copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Dax’s). Someday soon I’ll post my entry on everything we’ve lost…an impressive accomplishment to say the least.
Anyway, I had read enough cautions against tourist traps and scheisters in Guilin that we decided to take the safest, hassle free route possible, though it would cost us dearly: airplane to Sheraton van to hotel. We arrived at 11:30 pm and didn’t want to deal with duplicitous taxi drivers who might or might not actually take us to our hotel since it is not uncommon for them to tell you your hotel has closed or “mistakenly” drive you to another where they get a commission. So, a few pain-free hours after our departure from Chengdu (that was another story in and of itself), we were safely ensconced in the Sheraton in Guilin. We spent the next morning reading travelogues bashing Guilin, criticizing its attractions, and lamenting its existence. Duly warned, we emerged in the early afternoon ready to fight off aggressive touts and and haggle over prices at restaurants.
As it turned out, we found Guilin quite lovely. There were touts, of course. There always are. But they went away when we asked them to and took no for an answer. Chinese visitors outnumbered Westerners by at least 50 to 1 and prices were posted at most restaurants. The oscanthus trees were in bloom and their heavenly scent made the picturesque walkways along the Li River a delight to stroll. Even so, we stayed in Guilin only long enough to catch our breath before heading to Yangshou, which countless guidebooks, travelogues, and American expats had cited as far more beautiful, laid back, and authentic than Guilin. One of China’s original backpacker hamlets, it is reputed as a sleepy town waking from obscurity but poised for potential exploitation. The consensus among the non-Chinese travel community is that you’d better get to Yangshou while it’s still an idyllic retreat.
After 24 hours in Yangshou, we’ve decided that according to the Andrus Guide to China, this town is not all its cracked up to be. We’re staying in the Fawlty Towers Hotel, named after the John Cleese sitcom, in two triple rooms for a whopping total of $23/night. We had read decent reviews of the place and decided to give it a try when a nice Swedish couple recommended it at the bus station. It’s a good value but the proprietor keeps trying to force us to take a steeply priced bamboo rafting trip that we don’t want to take. We did sign up for the river cruise today and though he gave us a good price, he neglected to tell us we had to cough up our own bus fare until we were on the bus. He told us our clothes, which we paid him $10 to wash (they weighed 8 kilos–that’s 16+ pounds), would be ready by 6 pm, but when 6:00 came, the lady who washed them told us they were hanging up on the roof and might be dry by TOMORROW. We’ve declined more tours, although I’m still interested in the rice terraces a few hours away, and instead will be teaching English tomorrow at a rural middle school.
The town is ok, but the touts, salespeople, and beggars here are more aggressive. The food is overpriced and geared exclusively to tourists, and all the attractions are just as packaged if not more so than those of other locations. While the famous karst formations are beautiful, our cruise was crowded and short and we were forced to sit on toddler-sized chairs. Even though we booked it here, in the more enlightened and authentic Yangshuo, it included the obligatory stop at riverside souvenir booths where pushy old women tried to coerce us to buy wooden ducks and stone turtles. We were glad to have gone despite these annoyances, but the return bus ride tried our patience and reinforced why we’re not big fans of this place…at least yet. Our hotelier had warned us more fervently than usual about the need to watch out for pickpockets in this supposedly quaint town. We saw a few shady characters last night but managed to return to our rooms without incident. Our guard was only up partially today when a man sat next to Tom on the bus. He thought it odd that the guy would do so when there were empty rows of seats ahead but didn’t do anything to deter him. The bus came to a stop and in one of his now habitual pocket checks, Tom noticed the guy had pressed a little too close against his leg for comfort. When Tom reached for his pocket, the guy popped out of his seat and exited the bus. Putting 2 and 2 together, Tom quickly looked down and saw that he now had a hole in his pants courtesy of his recently departed seatmate. The guy had razored his pants but been unable to extract the iPod in his pocket. Fortunately his wallet had been on the other side out of the pickpocket’s reach. Tom jumped off the bus primed to pick the little guy up by the collar and give him a good what for, but the criminal had made a speedy retreat down a side street.
We had a lot of fun tonight eating pizza, shooting hoops, and dancing in the streets (a post waiting to happen), but unless we want to spend more days teaching, we’re going to hightail it back to Guilin and spend our last few days in China there. It’s not perfect, but it’s no Yangshou!