On Thursday evening, Alyssa and I left behind the flashing neon lights of Shanghai for Guilin (pronounced “gway-leen”), the center of Guangxi province in the southern part of China. At the airport in Shanghai, we realized an important difference between American and Chinese airports – less food. We had been planning to eat dinner there, but Alyssa ended up settling for a scoop of ice cream and I had a limp chicken wrap. Worst meal in China by far. I also had my first “staring” experience. I was sitting in the waiting area, minding my own business, when the Chinese man across from me began a good 5-minute stare at me. He was pleasant enough, smiled at me when I looked up, and continued to stare until he’d had his fill of the waiguoren across from him. I hadn’t had this happen to me in Shanghai – which is a pretty international, diverse place – but it would become more and more common in the following days.
The flight to Guilin was delayed, and by the time we arrived it was after midnight. We had quite a time explaining to our cab driver where we needed to go, and the conversation ended up involving 4 other cigarette-smoking cab drivers who were milling about waiting for fares. They consulted one another; consulted my phone, where the hotel address was; consulted the hotel; consulted each other again; and finally we were off. By the time we got to the hotel, we were so exhausted, we slept like logs and woke at the luxurious (to us) hour of 8am. We planned to have a leisurely breakfast, plan out our day, explore Guilin, and then take a boat to Yangshuo around 4 or 5 to be able to catch the sunset on the river. All this we explained to the receptionist around 9am, who told us that the boat to Yangshuo (important word being THE) left at 9:30am. If we missed it we were welcome to take a bamboo raft at 10.
That was one of the moments in my trip where my American sensibilities did not serve me well. I just assumed that there were multiple boats and that we would have choice in when we took one. What do you mean there is ONE boat? And we’re about to miss it? Alyssa and I had plans to see Guilin before leaving, so we decided we’d get to Yangshuo some other way, and headed out to explore. The first sight we saw were Guilin’s Sun and Moon pagodas, set in a small lake near the city’s center. Sadly, the day was icky and gross, so the lighting is a bit funky, but the pagodas were lovely.
After that, we were at a bit of a loss. All we had was the map from the hotel – no guidebook, and precious little available to us in English. We decided to follow the map around to the various tourist attractions, hoping to come across some good ones. We started off by exploring the rivers, lakes, and bridges around center city Guilin. What impressed us the most, aside from the loveliness, was the number of older people out and about exercising – practicing tai chi, dancing, doing crunches on a park bench. Morning exercise was clearly part of these people’s routines, drilled into them from their youths, and they were not about to give it up in their golden years. Most impressive was a group of middle-aged ladies practicing some traditional fan dances by the lake – all they needed was their boombox and some fans and they were ready to go! Alyssa wondered aloud, “I wonder if this is like the Chinese version of a Zumba class?”
We continued on through our winding tour of the town. As we learned and tasted, the traditional flavor of the Guilin region is a delicious chile pepper and garlic combination – on the streets you will see purveyors of the paste bravely chopping the two together. The photo above is just of the chile pepper chopping, but trust me, garlic will be involved.
Guilin is a bustling, mid-sized (as far as I can tell) Chinese city, and as such it soon overwhelmed the senses of these two intrepid American travelers. The noise, the crowds, the advertisements – it bombarded every sense I had, and even one or two I wasn’t aware of. Everywhere we looked, something was being hawked, either on billboards or on the streets. In a country where the middle class is growing rapidly and people are looking for ways to spend their money, there was no shortage of options. We popped down into an underpass to cross a busy street (rather than risking the “frogger” game of attempting it above ground) and came across this nightclub-cum-arcade underground, with pumping dance music and flashing lights. I wanted to ask “Who…? What….? Why…?” But there was no one to ask, so I snapped a photo, shook my head, and moved on.
Over-stimulated by the bustle of center city, Alyssa and I moved to a side street and found ourselves at Jing Jiang Prince’s City. Built in the late 14th century (Ming dynasty), it housed 14 regional princes over 12 generations, until the Ming dynasty ended. Towering over the buildings and grounds looms Solitary Beauty Peak, with a beautiful temple and lookout on top. Of course, we climbed it – 80+ floors, according to my Fitbit! Which was interesting, considering Alyssa is not so great with heights.
Our workout complete for the day, we descended and scouted out a late lunch, which involved some Guilin rice noodles, a specialty of the region. On our walk back to the hotel, we purchased some sweets off the street – our bravest food purchase yet – and sampled them in the lobby of our hotel while we waited for our car to Yangshou – the easiest solution to our boat debacle.
And that is where my next post will pick up – off to Yangshuo!