The final leg of our 20 hour train ride from Chongqing to Guilin took us through the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of Guangxi. This is arguably China’s most picturesque province, and it is no coincidence that a stretch of the Li River adorns the back of the 20 Yuan note. This is instantly familiar to even the most unaccomplished of armchair travellers – wall hangings in Chinese restaurants the world over depict its towering limestone “kast” hills, shrouded in mist and rising sentry-like from an otherwise flat landscape of meandering river and paddy fields.
After the subdued look of most of China’s other countryside, it was a refreshing change to see such untamed nature. Not even the Chinese could extend their rice terraces up the vertical sides of the great limestone towers, which were crowned with lush but inaccessible vegetation.
Guilin itself is very touristy, and, if you’re short of time the easiest place to organise what the hotels call a “bamboo raft” down the Li River. In fact, most of these rafts departing downstream from Guilin are now made from fibreglass, and equipped with spluttering outboard motors. They bob along one behind the other like mechanical ducklings, carrying their cargo of camera totting tourists. We decided to pass.
That evening we took a walk around the Schanhu Lake. As the sun set, we were treated to a beautiful view of the Sun and Moon Pagodas floodlit against the backdrop of the well-manicured promenade. One of these pagodas was still open, offering the chance to climb its steps and then drink tea at the top, for 60 Yuan each (£6). Indeed, according to the prominent sign next to it, “your life will not be complete until you have done this.” We passed again.
The next morning, against the strongest protestations of our hotel owner, we decided to take the bus downstream to Yangshuo (75p each) rather than the bamboo/fibre glass raft/motorboat option (£40 each). We knew there would be better opportunities ahead.
With only 300,000 inhabitants, Yangshuo is a mere village by Chinese standards. Nevertheless, to maximise our rural experience, we chose to stay a few kilometres away (at the excellent *Yangshuo Outside Inn*) in a decidedly remote spot surrounded by paddy fields, tired eyed water buffalo and mosquitos. It was at this point that John unhelpfully speculated that we might be close enough to Vietnam for malaria to be a threat (on the train we had passed within 150 miles of the border). The guidebook was suitably vague on this but the staff at Outside Inn assured us that the malaria mosquitos stick to the Vietnam side of the border. Clearly the Chinese border control is even tighter than we thought.
It was the next day, while hiking a 16km trail along the Li River that we first experienced one of the minor but irritating scams that are so common in this area – a few kilometres into the walk, an old lady said hello, pointed out some flowers and then tagged along a few paces behind us until we reached the first of three river crossings we had to make. Arriving at the jetty, she suddenly became animated and told the boat man that she had guided us to him. The boatman then added 50% onto the price of our tickets, which he said was necessary to pay to her! With no choice but to pay up, we arrived at the far river bank only to be met almost immediately by another old lady who began to tag along behind us. Fortunately this one was more decrepit than the first and we were able to outpace her over the next few kilometres. Arriving at our destination of Yangdi, we had an excellent lunch of fresh catfish - so fresh that its gills still laboured hopelessly as it was gutted alive.
Back at Outside Inn we had an interesting chat with the Dutch owner about the Chinese generally. He said that when they check in to his quiet eco-hotel they often complain about the no-smoking policy and lack of TV. We liked it. We also asked him about the apparent increasing nationalism in China and the continued obsession with Mao. We speculated that this is partly the result of the very blinkered educational system in China and the overwhelmingly secular nature of Chinese society – with little religious framework to unite them, they idolise powerful political characters from their history. Despite his warped policies, Mao’s renowned charisma and unwavering dedication to the cause made him a suitable candidate for nationalist figurehead.
From here we cycled the incredibly scenic route through lush farmland to Dragonback Bridge on the Yulong River. It is here that the “genuine” bamboo rafts are poled downstream to Yangshuo. Our negotiations bottomed out at 360 Yuan (£38) for us and our bikes. As we set off the sky looked dark with rain and layers of mist clung to the sides of the kast hills. There was only one other raft on this section of the river at the same time as us, and it was a totally different experience from the crowded Li River.
Every kilometre or so, on what is otherwise a virtually flat stretch of river, there are what look like mini rapids, the placid waters suddenly dropping about 2 feet down a 45 degree ramp. This gave us quite a surprise the first time. By means of this series of “steps” in the river, the Chinese have made it navigable in both directions for rafts. The going up-stream bit is the clever part – at each ramp a conveyor belt near the bank hauls each raft up and onto the next flat section. True mastery of nature. After a very relaxing one and a half hours, we approached our drop off point and at this point the usual tourist frenzy resumed. Pontoons were anchored mid-stream, packed with computers, printers and the tangle of car batteries and electric cables that powered them. Here you are photographed as you approach and by the time you arrive at the pontoon your photo can be printed and handed to you as you drift by. Assuming, of course, that you are equally efficient at handing over your money.
Two days later we moved on to the *Yangshuo Village Inn* about 10 km away and opposite the famous Moon Hill mountain. Our final activities in Guanxi were a cookery course and a trek up Moon Hill. The former was a lot of fun and after a visit to the local market, we learnt to cook five traditional dishes. The common denominator in all of these recipes is ample soya bean oil super-heated in a wok until smoke billows from it – “no smoking, no cooking!” was the instruction we heard the most. This is a good way of cooking in the open air, but no doubt a recipe for disaster if we were to replicate it in our small London flat!
A trek up Moon Hill took only 20 minutes but provided a good viewpoint through the incredible crescent shaped hole in the mountain – the feature from which it derives its name.