By David Rich
Everything I’d heard about China was wrong beginning with the best place to see it’s most famous scenery: the funny pointy hills soaring a thousand feet over misty waterways.
A paradise actually exists where fishermen float on five bamboo poles lashed together impersonating a raft, spearing fish through cone-shaped nets, red lanterns reflecting off perfectly still waters.
The waterways, rafts, conical nets and red lanterns are magical, but contrary to what I’d heard this spectacle was not best sampled from Guilin, a sprawling city of too many people, but from Yangshou, forty miles south.
Chinese tourists flocked for miles around to see the quaint village of Yanshou. Their animated conversation reeked of criticism as I imagined what they had to say about American visitors.
“Hey, look at the foreigners with the big noses and funny eyes sitting around those weird outdoor cafes sipping lattes and scarfing pizzas.”
Cameras snapped like strobelights, taking pictures of those who’d swarmed to the fabled scenery draped in funny pointy hills.
Thirty Page Menus
Foreigners will appreciate the dozens of sidewalk restaurants with thirty page menus in English, far more extensive than any menu in the States or Europe but with the same homesick cuisine; French, Mexican, Thai, Italian and much more, complemented by every type of coffee, liqueur and dessert. I never spent more than four dollars for a multi-course dinner, with the exception of La Votre, a big French restaurant run by two brothers from Paris; it cost me five dollars for three courses at the French joint.
To reach Yangshou, you must first go through Guilin, taking a bus 40 miles south. The fare is $.72, if you bargain; otherwise it could soar to $1.20. At the south edge of Guilin the bus driver gestured that I and three other gringos should get off, jerking his hand at the door, thumb extended. I just said NO and the other gringos nodded in vigorous agreement. Who wanted to walk forty miles? The bus driver scoured the bus with a caustic glare, spotting a quartet of Tibetans, forcing them off instead. He’d barely pulled away from the curb when a barricade looming ahead forced us to an abrupt stop.
A burly policeman meandered over, looking us up and down and appeared shocked that no one was standing. This wasn’t the typically overcrowded Chinese bus so the officer allowed the driver to continue on. Two blocks later the driver pulled over and parked until the Tibetans could catch up and get back on, SRO. To be on the safe side, it is best to avoid being thrown off. The driver may not be persuaded to stop again to wait for a foreigner.
Here’s why you want to skip Guilin and go directly to Yangshou. The famous Li River boat trips cost $60 from Guilin. From near Yangshou through the best part of the river it’s a measly $5, though the hour-long bus to get there from Yangshou to Xingping (Sheng-ping) admittedly costs another $1.25.
A bonus of the Yangshou/Xingping river trip was its salacious illegitimacy. The local Xingping tour boat collected us at an out of the way place that the cops, controlled by the big money tours out of Guilin, obviously didn’t know about to shut it down. Actually the cops were probably getting paid off twice.
As the boat briefly touched nine of us lept from the rocky shore onto the deck like hurdlers. We ogled and snapped pictures like the frenetic Chinese tourists in Yangshou, running to one side of the boat, chattering about the views, then rushing to the other side. We enjoyed two hours of aerobic workout, incredible reflections and unbelievable.
Uncle Bob to the Rescue
To finally drag myself away from Yangshou I hired Uncle Bob, icon of English-language guide books, a lantern-jawed Chinese, former physics teacher with decent English, wiry crew cut and intellectual glasses. Uncle Bob stood behind a counter in the hotel lobby, ever-present laptop pushed to the side, cupping his mouth as if to stifle bad breath or bad advice, excelling in the latter.
“You must ride the countryside, we’ll rent bicycles, see the wonderful sights, the lovely waters and gorgeous rivers, moon hill, the butterfly caves, the….” I waved him to a stop and he roped me into the obligatory cross-country bicycle ride.
That afternoon we rode past perfectly photogenic reflections of funny pointy hills, little old ladies hastily throwing on native costumes to extort money for pictures, rafts made from five bamboos poles. A raft could have been mine for $1 an hour. We passed more little old ladies swiftly towing water buffalo for more 25 cent pictures and there I yelled at Uncle Bob, “Stop,” and we screeched to a halt.
I waded through a cloud of flies to mount a nasty smelling water buffalo, squashing a squadron of ghastly black creatures as I reversed an over-mount, just like in the movies, swinging back onto the beast’s grody back after almost completely catapulting over the other side. Uncle Bob kindly snapped my picture.
I stayed in Yangshou, reluctant to execute Uncle Bob’s design for my disappearance, stomaching another evening at Minnie Mao’s, my favorite sidewalk café, slamming down spicy black skillet chicken and peanut stir fry for $2.25, ignoring the stares from the battalions of Chinese tourists while offering my best profile. After all they’d paid the big bucks (Yuan, worth $.12 each) to see classy foreigners such as myself at leisure in Yangshou.
I should have stayed. At 10 p.m. Uncle Bob put me on the crappiest bus in all China, non-functioning toilet, wall-to-wall movies pumped full blast all night long, non-reclining seats for eight hours to the Chinese border. A story to be saved for another time.
Activities: Yangshou is renowned for rock climbing, bike riding (bike rentals $1/day), water (actually mud) caving, the local and tourist markets, superb shopping, cormorant fishing and brilliant yellow-orange persimmons. Motorcycle sidecars will take you anywhere you want to go and further for $5 or $6 a day.