Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Flashback 02: Yangshuo

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 2
I am still in little Yangshuo, a place to melt the senses. My lasting memory from this small corner of China will be perched on the top of a huge limestone stack called "Moon Hill", sweat pouring from the climb and catching breath, staring out over a panorama of countless more green-clad limestone hills with only a few rivers, small villages, padi fields and a soft mist filling up the gaps. The sweltering, fantastical scene is embellished by the reflections of the hills in the water of the padi fields. Water, reflects earth, reflects sky. A confounding symmetry of beauty.

This place ranks with any natural wonder I have ever seen or perhaps ever will see. I honestly am thinking about coming back here if I take a year out and teaching for months. A place to share with those you love.
Yesterday, with a simply excruciating hangover (made far worse by the bumpy road to the jetty), we were able to slowly sink in the scenery as we floated down the Li river on a bamboo boat. Serious relaxation. The bird life was fantastic. Cranes and other water birds abound. In the evening we took a little boat out to watch the fishermen catch dozens of fish with cormorants. An ingenious activity where in return for the birds diving in, catching fish after fish and bringing them back to the boat, the fishermen give them back one in seven or so. The catch, so to speak, is that the birds have rings around their necks to stop them eating the first six and are on lines to stop them escaping.


By far and away the most adventurous part of our stay involved a cave and a lesson in Chinese health and safety standards, or rather the severe lack thereof. As is the way with a landscape of limestone, beneath our feet, water has scoured out a contortious network of caves and a mini-industry has sprung up showing tourists these wonders. After a bit of searching around and negotiation we went with a guy who had his own private cave, hidden away amongst the hills. When I say hidden I am not exaggerating. We hitched a ride on a mobile tractor type device to the proper countryside some way from Yangshuo. We then jumped off and criss-crossed a series of mosquito infected padi-fields while the guide looked round to check no one was following. Protecting his assets. After some time and a lot of bites we arrived at a pond at the base of a limestone stack. In said pond was a water buffalo munching away. Nice scene and all, but on asking where the cave was, our guide just pointed to the pond. Oh dear.
We spotting a small narrow opening in the hill at the far side of the pond. Asked him if he was serious. He was. We shrugged our shoulders and slipped into the sludge of the water and waded over to the opening passed the bemused looking cow. Torches on, we were urged on through the opening and, feet on tiptoes, scurried along holding our heads as high as we could to stay above water. The air gap narrowed to a matter of inches, but we persevered just about keeping our faces above the murky water stretching our chins to the ceiling. As the sunlight dimmed and then disappeared, the ceiling thankfully rose, the water shallowed and we found ourselves in a limestone cavern. As you would imagine, stalactites and mites abounded. We spent the next hour or so climbing up, over and through passages which ranged from large halls of stone, to small gaps we could barely fit through. When our dim torches punctured the pitch black, they showed an undulating and twisting scenery coloured dirty beige. Time for a slightly homoerotic mud fight and then, perhaps a kilometer down the passage we made it to the waterfall. Some 15 meters high and wide, cascading from above us down to a pool below.. Quite a sight deep below the ground. What to do? Wide open eyes, deep breath and dive from high above into the cool gushing pool. Bashed by the torrent and awesome relief. Quite an experience.
Apart from a few bumps and bruises, the only thing that concerned me at the time was our torches periodically stopping working. Not a great idea to have to be knocking your tacky Chinese torches over and again to light your way deep below the earth. It was only after we re-emerged and went for a beer that it dawned on me that this was wet season, the caves were prone to flooding and what we did may have been rather stupid. Awesome fun though.


The most comical part of our stay was an interlude in an otherwise serene day cycling though the fabled countryside. As seems to be his way, conveniently in the middle of nowhere Felix's stomach gave way. That sharp pain of travellers guts gone wrong built and built until toilet time was obligatory with immediate effect. By chance we had just passed the small dwellings of a farmer and his family. Faced between that and a padi field complete with bity things aplenty, I walked and Felix waddled up to the house.

We knocked and the family were in. Hurray for Felix! Or it would have been had we spoken the correct Chinese dialect (or perhaps any dialect) to explain our need. "Toilet" and "WC" got us nowhere, so in his desperation Felix resorted to more and more explicit hand signals until, finally and with a little shock, the family understood. While Felix sauntered into their out house making strange noises the family and I burst out laughing. Who needs a common language to share a joke!


Once the sun sets our time here has largely focused around seriously cheap local beer at what works out as less than 30p a pint (for god-sake our room only costs us about 80p per night each!), and loads of cool people. Our favourite bar is the "Green Lotus" where we have befriended most of the people who work here and in particular one of the local guys we knew as "Kevin" (those working around the touristy industry have largely supplemented their proper names with English ones given by various travellers who have passed through), and the earliest we have made it home on any night here is 3am. I mean they're open till we drop or, at least in one instance, until we hitch a home on a wobbling motorbike at first light.
Tonight is our big last night here. We will soon get to leave our mark on this part of China on the walls of the Green Lotus. Not sure what I will write, but will think of something.

Tomorrow we embark in sequence on a one hour minibus journey back to Guilin, a six plus hour bus journey to Nanning, and then a daunting seventeen plus plus hour hard-sleeper (even more uncomfortable than it sounds) train journey to Kunming in Yunnan province. That is well over 1000 km in just over 24 hours. Should all though be worth it as Kunming is our staging post for the more interesting part of Yunnan. We plan to head to Lijiang and the mountainous north-west of Yunnan. The foothills of the Himalayas and reportedly the only place in China that can match the beauty of where I am now. Can not wait!
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