MAGNIFICENT MEN, GORILLAS AND WINNIPEG
02.11.2010 - 22.11.2010 18 °C
MAGNIFICENT MEN, GORILLAS AND WINNIPEG
The train was cool. Shenzhen to Guilin. Around 24 quid. Top berths in the hard sleeper. Great. But fall off there and its a long way down. You'll break your spine for sure. In the next compartment was a gang of Ferrang lads all bawling at the tops of their voices about Vietnam. Normally I'd have gone down and quizzed them about what they knew about Guilin and its environs. But this mob were having one of those conversations that was actually a competition to see who could impress the others the best with action man tales of derring do. Awesome was the preferred term to describe anything I noticed and I soon got bored of all the yawping. Whilst waiting for the toilet I struck up a conversation with a man who told me he was from Guilin. Perhaps he could tell me something useful about the place. No he couldn't. His English was limited to “I'm from Guilin.” All I knew about the destination was that it was in the direction of the karst mountains that was everywhere in traditional Chinese art. And the famous Longshen rice terraces and limestone caves too. I was hoping the hostel I'd got ear marked would give me some onward hints regarding quiet spots to head for. Impressed with the comfort and cleanliness of my berth I stuck my ear plugs in and got my head down. We were due to arrive at 6am.
The Wada hostel was only ten minutes walk from the station. I'd got a map drawn off Hostel Bookers website. Looked totally simple stuff. Do a right, left up Shanghai road and there we are. As we emerged from the station we were harangued by folks shouting a place name, something I couldn't quite make out. I passed the throng steamboats and WATCH OUT!!!!!! Ruddy ada. What's this with motorbikes and pushbikes on the trottoir?? Yes. In Guilin pedestrians run the risk of being ploughed down by the two wheelers coming at you from all angles especially on the pavements. So keep your eyes peeled. I started asking folks for Huanchengxi Road. Blank looks. Showed them the map. Wada Hostel? Blank looks multiplied by 20. I navigated myself using the map's instructions yet after ten minutes and more besides no sign of this road. We met a kid with a proper map who spoke great English. He confessed to also being completely mystified and that no one here around knew anything about the place he wanted either. I'd actually got bus info but wasn't sure which direction the bus we needed went or where to get it from either. No sign of a bus stop only the mob of tourist buses at the train station.
After half an hour of total frustration we approached a taxi. I said “Wada Hostel.” He said “I know, I know” and we hared off. In the totally wrong direction. He took us to some tourist hot spot instead. No one spoke English there either and it was a tourist place! Maybe those folks who'd forewarned us about the language problem were right. Shenzhen was a paradise because it was en suite to Hong Kong but venture further afield and you're fucked.
We were now at least two miles away from the station and even further away from this elusive Wada. Ludo was wailing he'd had no sleep. Someone made a loud and lengthy phone call at three am, the rude cow, and woke him up. Then some kid roused him to ask him to be his friend at 4am. Plus a baby had been howling for at least an hour and the mother, the horrid wench should have given it the teet to shut it up.
“Well I need a coffee before anything else,” he announced petulantly and went marching off in the direction of a well positioned MaccerD. When all those people start whining on about the shortcomings of this establishment I tell them that there have been the odd occasion when I've been unbelievably grateful to their shite food and not bad actually coffee in a strange land. This was one such moment.
Once we were fed and watered with some filthy fare I pointed out to Ludo that this was exactly the reason why forward planning was totally necessary. I'd planned and here I was buggered whilst he'd just sat about twirling his hair. He got stroppy, had a poofy hissy fit and accused me of blaming him for our misfortune which of course I wasn't. I was just making a valid point that was centrifugal to the forthcoming education he was going to be receiving regarding transglobal meandering. I'd have to have a word with him about tantrum throwing as well but this certainly wasn't the time.
I decided to fall back and regroup at the station. Start again. The bus back there was easy. It was written in lovely English at the bus stop that the number 306 went to the station. Pointing to the correct symbol in ludo's phrase book, our destination was verified by the driver. Hurraaahh!!!!!! We'd got somewhere. On the way back we passed Huancheng something Road but that same something urged me to stay on the bus. I didn't give a shit about this road any more. Or the Wada Hostel and their daft piss take of a map. I found out afterwards that this road had a north, a south and west part and that it was one of the longest roads in the city. Yet no one five minutes away from it had ever heard of it and it wasn't on that kids map either. So its true. In China the language is an enormous problem as is finding your way about. BE PREPARED with directions stuff written in Chinese and then some. Get the phone number of your destination and call them if you're lost. I had no phone number as I had no phone.
I met a local kid at the station who spoke English. He told me that there was nish in Guilin anyway and to go to Yangshou. This was the name of the place the throng pertaining to the tourist buses were shouting out. This seemed to be my destiny. There was no way out. Totally touristy venue here I come but anywhere was better than here. I got on a bus. £1.50 after a piss easy haggle. On the way there the words of my China travel advisor yet infortunately psychotic friend came back at me with bells on.
"Go to Yangshoo Toni. Whatever you do don't miss Yangshoo."
No other details and no directions either.
"You'll find it after Hong Kong", was about it. I realised that this was the place he'd been on about. He might be a certified and registered nutter but he knows his onions when it comes to globetrotting. Just pronounced the place name with a Coventry accent. Plus a vague recollection from Wikitravel came back to me too. This was all meant to be. I was happy. Ludo was asleep.
Trundling through the Guangxi province environs I have to say that it didn't really cut the mustard. If this was supposed to be a staggeringly beautiful landscape I'd seen better in Coventry. Had that photo on Wikitravel been a figment of my imagination? The karst mountains started to appear but none of it had the wow factor. Little townships had been built with not much thought given to town planning in relation to the surrounding environment. Bog standard blocks, functional concrete and probably fairly new. Life seemed to be going on at a fairly slow pace. Like the bus, in fact. I've spent a lot of time in India and whatever people say, I can't help comparing everywhere else I go in Asia to India. India has colour and energy, bustling life and character. Plus a lot of spiritual influence from their 330 million gods. There simply wasn't any of that in evidence here. However, it was far cleaner, the roads in better condition and no one asked me what country I was from or what I thought about the cricket.
On arrival in Yangshou, a kid approached us at the bus stop and asked us if we wanted a room. Upshot was we got a room with a view, cheap and cheerful. We ended up staying here for three weeks. We both had six month visas and wanted to chill out somewhere before traversing the rest of south China. We weren't going North as the only research Ludo had done regarding this trip was about temperatures. He reckoned it would be minus 13 in Beijing and I wasn't up for the fluid in my eye balls freezing. However, with hindsight I wish I'd come earlier, flown to Beijing and come down here later.
Now Yangshou revealed itself fairly rapidly to be the totally touristic hot spot I normally avoid. Macdonalds and a KFC blotted the landscape. Loads of shops selling overpriced tourist tat. Women hanging about asking you to rent a bike or go on a bamboo boat. The Chinese are kind of just discovering mass tourism as part of this whole new Consumerist Communist stuff. If you speak to them on this matter they will tell you that it's extremely difficult for them to go out of China and anyway, they want to see their own country first. On this score they're intensely proud of China. On the other hand they haven't got much choice have they?
Therefore droves of tourist buses arrive every day, spill their load into the streets of Yangshou with a flag waving guide at the helm of the herd. Oftentimes, the herd guide will have a microphone through which they give a robotic, mechanical running commentary of the sights the herd are privy to. I've since met a Chinese lad who is studying tourism and he was totally bemused when I told him the Euros don't do like that. In fact we take the piss out of the flag stuff. He was also gobsmacked when I told him we might arrive in a tourist bus but generally get off and do our own independent thing. The herd here don't do independent. They tend to keep to a route which is good to know as you can avoid that route like the plague if you want a bit of peace. However, when you consider the amount of people who show up, especially at weekends, the vibe still remains calm.
This lot aren't anything to do with the millions of rural peasant Chinese living on a dollar a day. Oh no. This lot have got top of the range cameras with long lenses taking pictures of each other standing next to some vile tourist geegaw performing the Paul Macartney/Winston Churchill victory V sign. They may load themselves into giant golf carts and whizz electronically round the town intrigued by it all. They may take a trip on a bamboo boat. These boats are powered by an engine that sounds like an oversized mosquito and they plague the tranquillity of the beautiful river. When, on closer inspection, you take a look at these boats, you'll see that they're not made of bamboo at all. They're cunningly made out of plastic drainpipes. The question here is; is it recycled plastic? If so, very good. Uses up old plastic and saves bamboo. Although bamboo is hardly an endangered species. And on that note, I will also say that Yangshou was very clean too. Not on a par with Hong Kong mind you. Look a bit closely and you'll see plenty of litter strewn down the sides of walls or in bushes. The HK cleanliness Fascists would have had their guts for garters over that crime. Bicycles loaded up with cardboard and plastic for recycling were everywhere. There were even spots for restaurants to leave leftovers for folks to avail themselves of, I presume for animal fodder. Or tramp fodder. I saw one sadly afflicted individual perched over the pig bin one day with a pair of chopsticks having himself a gourmet feast. And on that note I'll add that begging was very thin on the ground here. Yangshou is rich. Tourism here has ensured prosperity. Parts of China will grow thanks to the billions their own people are spending on it. The local villagers are all getting themselves new homes and new cars on the proceeds. And why shouldn't they indeed?
They call Yangshou Heaven on Earth. The River Li is a beautiful deep blue/green in colour, clean and surrounded by those famed karst mountains. Hang about down by the river, over the other side from the main event and the bamboo boat hawkers, and you can indulge in a bit of going back in time. The old style boats are anchored there with people living on them. Fisherman use cormorants to fish with. They tie a thread around their neck to prevent them from swallowing the the fish then give them one as a reward after a mornings work. You can see the birds sitting on bamboo boats waiting for action. Or a fisherman gently punting back to base with his cormorant standing proudly at the helm of the bamboo plastic boat. Nice. Really nice. Yangshou oldsters occasionally happen by wearing the old Mao jackets and pyjamas complete with the bamboo hat the Chinese are famous for. They're called Dolly hats. Do li actually but I've anglicised it. No one will ask you if you want to go on a plastic drainpipe bamboo boat ride even though this is the place where they make them. Wander off into the blue beyond behind and friendly villagers, if you even see any of them, will give you no bother at all.
The trip to the Longshen rice terraces was shelved when I found out that the rice was harvested and therefore not an aesthetically pleasingly good time to go. Also you need to pay to go there which is a bit of a piss take as the locals get none of the spoils ripped off the tourists. The trip to the caves were shelved when I discovered that it was a minimum of £8 to go to a cave. £30 to go on a tour complete with mud bath. Photos showed the innards of the “natural” caves were lit up with fluorescent lights and other day glo colours. So here's my question. Is it a cave or is it Blackpool illuminations? And on that note, of an evening the whole town lights up like with a light show which could compete with Hong Kong's record breaking light and laser show thus thwarting anyone who seeks the purely natural chancing a glimpse of the stars.
With regard to the prices of Chinese tourist hot spot destinations, the starting price for even the most pathetic garden with a pagoda in it can be around £7. If you delve into the world of economics there is a thing called conspicuous consumption. This means that people will concur to pay a certain price for a product; too little means its crap, too much means its a rip off. In the world of Chinese tourism there is a thing called the Idiot Price scheme. Only an idiot would pay £8 to see a gaudily lit cave. Or a new to tourism Chinaman who's bright eyed and bushy tailed, got a very long lens on his brand new camera and has nothing else in the world whatsoever to compare it with. I've seen karst limestone caves like these in Laos and its a case of seen one seen 'em all. I've been in the caves of Cappadoccia in Turkey which are more than incredible and all free to explore. I've paid to go into Ancient Buddhist caves in India wherein I spent the whole day at the site and felt like I'd learned something historical and spiritual from the visits as well as experienced the wow factor. Or I happened upon caves in their totally natural state where no one whatsoever was exploiting them. I'd no need to get involved with flag wavers, herds and idiot prices here.
I therefore spent most of my time getting away from the crowds into the villages on foot or a hired bike. If I saw a sign pointing somewhere I went the other way as what was to be found in the direction of any sign at all was an overpriced cafe, a herd, plastic bamboo boat trips and very little of real interest. One of the best places I found was Liu Gong. It was supposed to be an ancient village and it was one of the oldest I found around these parts. Not very much to it though. Just some old stuff that had escaped being bashed down like so much of old China has been. It was on the river Li and there was a temple in the middle of it that was not at all touristic. A woman showed me the way to it and left me to my own devices. You can get there by two different routes on a bike. The road way or the river way. The river way brings you back through really rural China and in the right light the truly stunning landscape takes your breath away. Makes you feel that maybe it is heaven on earth after all.
In Liu Gong you can find the three colours ponds. There is a battered sign in the village path which shows you its off to the left as you enter the village. These three ponds are bright blue in colour and you'll probably have them to yourself. Nice little natural spot to marvel at how wonderful the world can be without concrete and highrise blocks. You can get fed and watered in Liu Gong at the inevitable overpriced caff.
I'll say this again and again. The Chinese are some of the best people on the planet. Harmless, inoffensive, humble, polite, respectful, good sense of humour, disciplined, friendly, hospitable, non complaining, non cheating and with no hidden agenda in the mix. Maybe this doesn't go for the Tibet thwarting apparatchiks but certainly the general populace at large.
I made a real effort to learn Chinese so's I could communicate with the locals but I can tell you its not that easy. You have to get the tone and the sound exactly right otherwise they really don't have a clue what the hell you're on about. I got a Chinese lesson on my MP3 which helped me out a treat especially in the restaurant. I found a good place to eat. Choose your own meat and veg from selection and they'll cook it up for you with rice or noodles for under a quid. If you don't want MSG be sure to tell them Bu Yow Way Ching, or they'll load it in. The girl who worked there was called Li. She was one of the sweetest people I ever met in my life. Li helped me learn a little bit of Chinese every day and slowly, very slowly I was getting the hang of the tones. Sugar and soup are both called tang. But you sing the soup version and the sugar one is lower. I can tell you, we had a right laugh over the tangs.
Other stuff to do in Yangshou besides chilling out? Get on a bike and get off in to the sticks is about it. There are some tombs round the back of the village you may find if you go exploring. They still bury their people in the side of the mountain then seal up the door forever. There's plenty of overpriced bars if you want a beer but well cheap in the supermarkets. The Chinese aren't heavy duty boozers so don't get pissed and make an arse of yourself here as its not really cricket. There is a People's Park in the town centre which is a great place for people watching and an enormous indoor market for cheap fruit and veg. Be very careful in this place. If you are an animal lover you will not want to go in there or what you see may spoil your trip. Live rabbits, cats and dogs all caged up waiting to be inhumanely slaughtered then cooked up. I was privy to one such horror and it fair buckled my knees. The details of this horror I have never spoken of as it was so awful and I can not even bring myself to write on the subject either.
Not much else to do here really. There is an ex pat community I'm sure you can insinuate yourself into if you have a mind to and some ferrang run restaurants that will no doubt play decent music and do western nosh. Be warned that if you want to chill out here bring your own supply of books. A very nice man has a good second hand bookshop in the town but it is preposterously overpriced. Like everything in Yangshou except the accommo which is really cheap at less than £3 a night for a dorm and maybe £7 for a double. You can find for less and I'm sure you can stay out of the town more if its peace and quiet you want.
So what about Ludo and his foray into the world of globetrotting. Well first of all I think he sabotaged his laptop. Whenever he went on Wikitravel something happened to it. i.e. The text went enormous. The page could not be displayed. The internet went off. etc etc. But on top of that Ludo was still calling it Winnipeg. After a week of being here I asked him the name of the place we were in and he didn't know it was called Yangshou. It was clear he had a problem. Either that or he was simply as thick as pig shit. I persisted. I told him to get on Yunnan province and see what he thought of that as a possible next destination. After ten minutes of deliberately titting about, I felt, he finally got on it. Only to tell me that it was really boring as it was all writing and no pictures. This happened on a day when he'd followed me aimlessly round the town whistling Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines through his teeth. You know, that fucking tune is still stuck in my head weeks later. It was becoming very hard not to scream.
I showed him how Google maps worked but he had similar problems largely of his own inept making. Couldn't get on with the zooming system so gave up at this first hurdle. Conversation over dinner became somehow increasingly surreal. One evening I was talking about the art on the Berlin wall.
“Why is it called the Berlin Wall?” Ludo asked me. I looked at him in disbelief.
“Because its in Utoxeter,” I told him, OK, I admit with a larruping of sarcasm.
“But it was built by the Russians,” he wailed. On another occasion he almost fell of his seat when I mentioned that it would be interesting to know about the effects of the Chinese one child policy. I thought the whole world knew about this infringement on the Chinese peoples right to breed. Not Ludo. In fact he didn't even believe me. Had to get back up confirmation off our hostel manager. Only a day later he asked me about Communism in South America by way of confusing Cuba with Panama. Thought Castro had been the dictator of the latter. We got onto Banana Republics and Guerilla warfare. But after about five minutes he said, not without a look of feigned interest about his visage,
“I didn't realise they had so many gorillas in South America.” Yes. He thought I'd been talking about ape style creatures and the bananas were what they ate.
“Please tell me you're taking the piss.” I hoped against hope. He wasn't actually and he told me quite seriously that nobody in his world would have heard about this other khaki clad, jungle dwelling, rebel rousing guerilla that went about bawling 'Viva Communista' either. I started to hallucinate and the whole world went into slow motion. It was like trying to communicate with an ageing aunt in the premature stages of senile dementia. I would simply have to put an end to all this before my hair fell out.
I started looking at Shanghai as I was keen to go there for some serious culture and urban perusal. Hopefully meet some other wayfarers who could converse like normal people. I'm on Couch Surfing. I thought that I could liaise with some fellow CSers and get some useful info about Shangers. But hey. Guess what? There were loads of ex pats living and working in Shanghai who were well up for entertaining some passing wayfarers. This would be great and we could save some dosh on accommo into the bargain. Once again I was presented with the problem of Ludo. He wasn't on CS. After untold problems with getting him registered on the site; wouldn't accept his home address, wouldn't accept his password, couldn't upload a profile picture, we finally got round to doing his profile. Once he'd finished he asked me to give it the once over. He'd basically babbled bollocks about being five foot nine with blue/green eyes and grey hair and that he wanted to travel and meet people I really lost my patience.
“It's not a fucking Miss World contest Ludo”, I bellowed, to the bemusement of our lodging's cleaning staff. “You're supposed to say what's interesting about you and things you've done. Swam with sharks in Mexico or climbed pissing Everest for example.” It hit me that he'd got nothing to say here as he took so little interest in anything except ogling men and only ever laid in the sun as an activity. How the fucking hell had I got myself embroiled with this nitwit?
During these moments a Finnish lesbian showed up fairly fresh from the Shanghai Gay Pride. Said it was wild and one of the best events she'd been to. I was slightly miffed that as Ludo is gay he hadn't known about this shindig for his number. I'm hetero myself but like a bit of homosexual partying in a foreign land. He really was useless on the research front even for things he'd surely be interested in. Although part of me felt very sorry for this man, baffled by a totally new concept of human gorilla, deleting him from the agenda became paramount before he drove me up the wall. How to do it though without being a thoroughly cruel bitch? I needed intelligent conversation desperately. And my own space for Christ's sake. This became my dilemma.
Now luckily I found a lovely French girl on CS who kindly said we could both stay with her. We were to be her first ever surfers. She had spare rooms (plural) and lived in a great area. Fucking A! I started Googling the art scene in Shanghai and looking forward to being in a big city after this rural backwater. I turned to Ludo who was twirling his hair and chewing gum nonchalantly on his bed.
“Get on Gay Romeo Ludo and start arranging some queenie rendezvous in Shanghai. Its about time you branched out.” Funny enough he never had one peep of trouble out of the Gay Romeo website.
POST SCRIPT: The train price quoted earlier in this blog has now gone up to around 35 quid for a hard sleeper on the Shenzhen to Guilin train. And hey you Mr Chinese government man. That's a fairly steep increase to be implementing overnight on the general populace of China. Are you increasing their wages at the same time?????. Be aware that China is getting very expensive and inflation is running away with itself at the moment. Trains in the south of China have gone up in price due to the removal of the old trains. In other words a whole system of old style train has simply disappeared and been replaced with the high speed bullet train. In fact what existed last week now doesn't. Incredible to see such a rapid development literally day by day. The old style ticket pricing has gone too meaning that if you're a budget traveller, prices are more Euro than Asian here now. I never heard any Chinese people complaining about this price rise but then again they never complain about anything. They say no one would listen and they are scared of repercussions anyhow. I would imagine that very soon the sleeper trains of old will be replaced by far more expensive bullet trains as part of Chinas quest to catch up or overtake the rest of the world. But hey China. You're not impressing me much with all this development. It cold and clinical, lacks personality, colour or essence. All the high speed bullet train stations I've been in made me feel like I was in some kind of frigid dystopia that was depressing to the extreme. Too bloody big mate! Made me want to leave China pronto actually and get to a world where there is expression, nature and some kind of reign on size of the architecture. Bigger doesn't mean better you know. More on that later.