Yangshuo and the River Li; Stone and Water

On the back of the Chinese 20 yuan banknote is an etching of the wide, tranquil River Li with its picturesque limestone peaks rising from the mist-shrouded water. A cormorant fisherman poles his little boat along the water. It’s the iconic ancient Chinese scene. Probably if you look with a magnifying glass you’ll see tiny bald white-bearded sages meditating on the mountaintops.

Today the place is a zoo. The town of Yangshuo is only an hour away from Guilin by bus. Swarms of women in pointy hats lurk at the bus station waiting to push hotels on disembarking passengers. The town is bursting at the seams with Chinese tourists and Westerners - sightseers, backpackers and pretty-boy rock-climbers strutting around with their helmets and chalk-bags dangling pretentiously from their little knapsacks. There are touts and hustlers everywhere - you can’t take ten steps without being hit up for something. Every restaurant has a woman standing outside shrilly importuning passersby. Crappy souvenir shops outnumber everything except the hotels. Most of the restaurants serve Western food at enormous prices. I wouldn’t eat at any of them, but it’s obscurely comforting to know that I could get pizza or “Chicken Gordon Blue” if I wanted to. Yangshuo’s signature dish is Beer Fish. I never bothered to try it, suspecting that the name said it all and that it would be beery-tasting fish, which I can imagine well enough without needing to taste it.

Prices for everything in Yangshuo are at least half again what they are even in already-expensive Guilin, and often even higher. I wasn’t happy about that. I was even less happy that we hadn’t booked accommodations ahead, since it was Saturday and rooms were very scarce. Yangshuo is probably the only place in China where that matters. I left Sheryl sitting on the packs and went out to try and find somewhere to stay. Full. Full. Full. Expensive. Full. Et cetera. Yangshuo is an easy place to get lost in - none of the streets are straight - but at least you’ll always come back to one of the same half-dozen places even if you’re not sure how. After an hour of fruitless searching I gave in when I somehow found myself standing in front of Sheryl again. Naturally she’d gotten us a room at the place right in front of her, without needing to take a single step. Why I go through the motions, I’m sometimes not sure.

Our first night in Yangshuo was no fun at all. Our hotel shared a wall with a loud bar (I think all buildings in Yangshuo share a wall with a loud bar) and the room shook until the wee hours, so not much sleep for us. The noise and the need for food drove us out into the crammed streets. The town was unbelievably loud and crowded. The main road is pedestrianised - nice during the day but superfluous that night since there were so many people it wasn’t possible to walk, only to shuffle along at the pace of the crowd. A pickpocket’s dream.

In the afternoon and the early evening the river is genuinely lovely, though. The water is shallow and fast. People swim or wade, looking for crabs and crayfish. On the far bank the limestone peaks rise all crazily twisted and pointy and swathed in greenery. Huge furry stands of bamboo bend under their own weight and sway in the breeze. From a distance in the hazy air, they look like giant cycads or tree ferns and the misty peaks like gently smoking volcanoes. I daydreamed that I’d been transported back in time to the late Cretaceous Period or that I was Professor Challenger gazing at Conan Doyle’s Lost World. The illusion was so convincing that the sudden noise of a boat engine made me jump, thinking it was the roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

At night the river is a different story. Big dinner-cruise boats covered in furiously blinking and flashing lights and blinding, multi-coloured searchlight beams drifted downstream blaring thunderous karaoke. The peaks were all lit with a hideously tacky light show. It was a kilometre away around the bend of the river, but we could hear it and see the illumination on the hills. It’s supposedly choreographed by the man who did the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. I never saw them but it must have been scary. Tickets for this show were laughably expensive - something like ¥600 per person (C$92). I couldn’t really see how they could prevent us from taking a boat or hiking up into the hills to see it for free, if we’d really wanted to inflict that on ourselves. Indeed, later we saw a sign ominously warning that it was illegal to follow “local guides” to see the show outside the Designated Area (which I didn’t believe for a second) and also that all “local guides” are evil criminals who will knock you on the head and steal your money if you’re lucky (which was only slightly more credible). At any rate the notice was clearly just fear-mongering meant to scare tourists and only served to confirm my suspicion that there must be a thriving local business in sneaking people into the show.

Our second day in town was a write-off; Sheryl was feeling poorly and we were both short of sleep - but at least the downtime gave me a chance to finish post-processing my terrible photos from Wulingyuan. On the third day we’d recovered enough to rent bikes and ride out into the countryside. Our goal was the so-called Dragon Bridge. Neither of us expected much from the bridge itself but it was a good excuse to get out of town.

The paved road out of Yangshuo soon turned to gravel, then to dirt and rocks. Our hands, arms and bums were soon aching from the pounding as we rattled and jolted over the rocky road. The trail wound between the limestone peaks through villages, fields and violently green rice-paddies. The bright white light filtered down through the hazy air, casting no shadows. The path occasionally followed the riverbank - not the River Li but its tributary the Yulong - and cries of “Bamboo! Bamboo!” would go up whenever we were spotted. There’s a local industry involved in ferrying tourists and their bikes upriver to a waterfall and back down again on bamboo rafts. The rafts are neat - made of bamboo poles lashed together and curved up at both ends - but we just weren’t interested and the constant pestering calls got annoying after a while.

Another low-grade annoyance was the local guy dawdling along the trail on his rickety bike who attached himself to us. He pestered us with “Bamboo!” and “Go! My home! Eat!” and tried on the guide routine, pointing out the turnings of the path to the bridge (already clearly marked with red spray-painted arrows). We tried the usual slower-faster tricks to get rid of him but he stuck like glue until we reached a straightaway where we could power past him. He showed up at the bridge five minutes after we did and pointed triumphantly at it announcing “Dragon Bridge!” as if he’d guided us for weeks through perilous adventures. But he’d missed his chance to demand money for his dubious “services” and all three of us knew it.

We sat by the stone arch of the bridge for an hour or so, dozing, soaking our feet in the cool water and watching the little fish and the rafts. It’s claimed that the river is 7m deep under the bridge, but I watched as the raftmen dipped their poles to the end and leaned on them to push off the bottom, and those poles are about 3m long. So just more hyperbole in a country rife with it. It doesn’t pay to take anything much literally here in China, I’ve found.

We were nicely sunburned and overheated by the time we got back to town and had to flake out in the air-conditioning for a couple of hours (we normally never pay for rooms with air-conditioning but it was all that had been available and we were grateful for it at that moment). We went out again in the late afternoon with the aim of seeing the Great Banyan Tree and Moon Hill (a natural stone arch) but had no luck - just as we got to the site of the tree a few kilometres from town a gigantic rainstorm began. We waited out the storm under an awning (more or less pointless, we were already soaked to the skin). My cheap shoes from Beijing are really going to start falling apart in earnest now - they don’t do well with water.

But shoes are the least of my worries. I found out when we were nearly back to Yangshuo that my camera’s lens is broken again. I bought it used in Cape Town for more than I’d wanted to spend, and had to have it repaired four months later in Kathmandu (again, for more than I was comfortable with). This time it won’t autofocus when zoomed under 30mm, and it locks up the camera if I take a photo using manual focus. I have, effectively, a 30-85mm zoom lens that makes my camera freeze up sometimes. It makes me feel sick whenever something goes wrong with my camera. I’m afraid of how much this is going to cost me.

But it was a nice ride back to town after the rain stopped. There was a rainbow and we got to watch the rich people taking their hot-air-balloon rides over the peaks. And that night on the river we saw a cormorant fisherman on his boat, his funny-looking black birds all beady-eyed and bobbing their heads in unison with the ripples of the water. They took turns diving into the river and sometimes they’d come back with a fish in their neck-pouches that they’d retch up on to the deck. It was a quirky and strangely charming thing to watch.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

July 16th, 2010

Timing is everything…. Unfortunately we suck :).
The place was beautiful though, and I liked the bamboo rafts.
Your poor shoes were barely keeping it together and I don’t want to remember about the camera lense messing up again. ARG!!!
You forgot to mention the two bus loads of domestic tourists taking photos of the the drown rats trying to hide from the rain :).

¬ Sheryl
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