Zhangjiajie to Guilin; In which the crazy people finally appear; Pagodas and ugly white people

China’s full of tourists, but very nearly all of them are Chinese themselves. Like Canada, it’s a huge territory with a lot of regional diversity. Unlike Canada, there’s a massively burgeoning nouveau-middle-class with the surplus time, money and interest to explore their own country. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks off the foreign tourist trail but very much on the domestic tourist circuit and I’ve become used once again to being the only foreign face around. So it was with a little surprise that we arrived in Guilin to find ourselves in a crowd of round eyes and hairy, sweaty, sunburnt skin. You know you’ve been in Asia for a while when you inwardly remark “hey, that man’s really ugly, what’s wrong with him?” and then realize that he’s not a hideous deformed albino, he’s just Caucasian.

Getting to Guilin from our last stop at Zhangjiajie had been interesting. We’d booked a sleeper train to Guilin from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, but hadn’t been able to book from Zhangjiajie to Changsha ahead of time. That meant we were stuck with third-class “standing” tickets for a six-hour trip. Not a lot of fun, but I figured we could manage if we got onto the train at the head of the stampede and succeeded in claiming some space for the packs on the overhead luggage racks. Needless to say we aren’t yet skilled enough (or vicious enough) with our elbows ever to hold a place at the front of the mob, and it was with a sinking feeling that I arrived to find our carriage already packed to the roof with a seething three-dimensional jigsaw-puzzle of human flesh and wheeled suitcases. But the conductor pointed us to the next car, which was nearly empty. We had seats for the whole trip and I had the luxury of not needing to kill myself lifting the heavy packs over my head. I don’t know why the extra carriage was there, or why they didn’t take half the people from the crowded carriage next door. I’m not complaining by any means, but I’ll never understand Chinese trains.

In Changsha we had a four-hour wait until our midnight sleeper to Guilin. We spent it sitting in the big public square outside the train station. It was very boring until all the crazies came out to play. I’d been wondering where they all were, to be honest - we’d been in the country for more than a month by this time and these were the first seriously mentally ill street-people we’d seen. Given the government’s dodgy human-rights stance, I admit I’d been unable to resist certain dark suspicions of secret roundups, purges and disappearances. But the reality was less sinister - they’re all in Jintai Square in Changsha. There was the demented armless woman with a plastic-wrapped photo hung around her neck on a string showing her pre-amputation with two black leprous arms; the man with no legs pushing himself along on his stomach on a little wheeled plank, face gone the grey-brown of road dirt; the vacuous maniacally grinning man with only two fang teeth; the annoying guy who just wouldn’t quit trying to sell us a stolen mobile phone; and the nice deaf kid who came around a few times to try and sell bracelets. We liked him - it was nice to escape for a moment the burden of guilt that comes with using sign-language and hand-waving instead of speaking the local language.

We’d been spoiled on our last sleeper train. We knew it at the time and appreciated it deeply, because we knew we’d pay for it on the next trip. This was that trip, and it was no fun. The train stopped for an hour and a half before even leaving Changsha, and later for another hour. Nobody was ever sure why, either time. The neighbours were loud and never really settled down; there were too many stops during the night and an Indian-style dispute over berths at every one. Between that and the pig-man one compartment over who snored, yelled and sang in his sleep, I was in a very foul mood by morning.

We’d arrived in Guilin an hour and a half late and it was incredibly hot even at ten o’clock. It’s easy to tell that we’re getting farther south. We’ve lost 15 degrees of latitude since Beijing and it was hot there. Following the directions from the hostel we’d booked, we rode the local bus nine stops from the train station, only to find no trace of the central square we were looking for.. It took us ages to figure out where we were even with a map and the help of some friendly residents. Somehow we’d ended up 3km short of the square. I’m not sure how we managed that - should have looked for landmarks instead of counting stops, I guess.

We were on the west bank of the Lijiang River, roughly at the edge of town. It’s calm and green, lined with trees and studded with islands. Houseboats and people swimming made the water sparkle with glittering splashes. A nice place, we thought; a nice day. Maybe we’ll walk to the hostel. Mistake. Too far, packs too heavy, and way too hot. We made it about three-quarters of a kilometre along the dusty riverside paths before we gave up. We thought briefly about getting back on the same bus but it was an easy rationalization to talk ourselves into a taxi (mistake number two, as it happens - we thought it would cost only one or two yuan more than the bus but taxis are a lot more expensive in Guilin).

After all the effort to reach it, Guilin wasn’t spectacular. It’s nice, clean and quiet, but it’s on the tour-bus circuit, and the flood of older package tourists has caused a plague of overpricing that makes it hard for budget travellers to survive. Prices are high here, especially in restaurants, and the streets are constantly patrolled by boat-tour hustlers with their laminated posters. Guilin is famous for the verdant limestone peaks that poke up through the city here and there. It’s pretty and it’s fine for those same elderly bus tourists, but compared to Wulingyuan, Guilin’s little hills are worth no more than a passing glance. But it’s a clean, nice place with plenty of shops for me to replace my worn-out clothes.

There’s a central park along the shores of four small interconnected lakes, lined with footpaths, trees and statues, and at the park’s eastern end at Shan Lake stand the Sun and Moon Pagodas. These were certainly worth seeing. Tall and elegant, they’re mirror-images save that one is bright gold and the other shining silver. The golden Sun Pagoda rises from the lake and the Moon Pagoda sits on the shore. Lit at night and reflecting in the rippling water, they make a striking sight.

We spent three days in Guilin without doing very much. There hadn’t been a chance to take a rest day since leaving Beijing two weeks earlier and we were both a bit worn out. It was good to have an opportunity to catch up on my notes and writing, and to have a decent internet connection for email and uploading photos. We slept in our rickety dorm beds, two of six in a stuffy mildewy third-floor room, and spent our days sweltering in front of the fans in the café downstairs. Only toward dusk when the temperature dropped a little did we really venture out.

In such a tourist town it was harder to find cheap food, but we’ve become experts by this time and managed to find good places for steamed buns - still the best dòushābāo (sweet red-bean-paste buns) I’ve ever had - and our beloved stick-food (deep-fried here in Guangxi and not as spicy as in Hunan). The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming up soon and so moon cakes are ubiquitous in the shops - dense, heavy pastries with different fillings. They’re the perfect food for travellers. Easy, recognizable, unsurprising and very filling - you could live on a few of them a day if necessary.

Another temptation was the string of shops selling imported booze. China has made me need a drink very badly almost every day, but we hadn’t been here in the country long before I realized that I’d better start thinking of my time here as a sort of detox exercise - there’s only weak, watery beer and the vile Chinese báijiǔ or “white liquor”. Báijiǔ, although cheap, is basically kerosene and even I can’t drink it. And anyway it’s all made from rice (yes, even the beer) and so Sheryl with her rice allergy can’t partake, which is no fun. I’d like to report that I was able to refrain from drinking myself into blessed numbness due to sheer moral fortitude, but in fact I refrained out of sheer tight-fistedness. There was no way I’d pay the inflated prices the shopkeepers were demanding, no matter how much I wanted a drink. Anyway the end result was the same so I’m still claiming it as a moral victory.


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2 Comments on this Dispatch:

July 16th, 2010

Moral victory??? Tee hee. I do recall that you were banned from drinking the terrifying cheap stuff in the room since it made my eyes water and I was terrified for your poor liver that was screaming “save me save me” :).

You did finally win and get me addicted to steamed buns though :). I prefer the coconut ones.

¬ Sheryl
May 26th, 2013

great blog! how did you get from zhangjiajie to guilin though?

¬ chris
May 27th, 2013

Hi, thanks! The train schedules have changed a bit, but I think it was probably the K534 from Zhianjiajie to Changsha and the K2165 from Changsha to Guilin.

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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