Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Picture That Started It All

Back in 2003, when our plan to travel to China was first taking shape, Desi and Julie bought Z and me a few books about China, so we could begin learning about what we were in for.

One of these books, a National Geographic publication, had this incredible two page photo of a place, Yangshuo, we had never heard of. Julie and I, in particular, fell in love with this picture, and decided together that we would do whatever it took to find our way to the very place where the picture was taken.

In 2004, we were partially successful in making this happen. We pressed our traveling partners hard to make sure a trip to the Guilin area would be included in our itinerary. And so we had the chance to lay our own eyes on the limestone peaks that had captivated our imaginations.

But, we were told at that time by our guides, you cannot climb up to the top of the peaks. We didn't really believe this at the time, given that we were holding a photo that had obviously been taken from some particularly scenic summit. But, as they say in China, mei banfa. We had no choice, as we were on a tight schedule that is characteristic of domestic tours.

This time around, having the chance to experience Yangshuo on our own terms, we made sure to make time for a trip up to the top of Moon Hill (yes, you can climb to the summit!), where we had the sneaking suspicion that the picture in question had been taken.

Sure enough, Julie and I, all these years later, had finally made it to the very spot we had had in mind. We even climbed up onto this craggy rock where we determined that the original photograph had been taken.

Sure, we were there on a rainy day, while National Geographic highlighted the beauty of the place all bathed in sunlight. It was, nevertheless, as gorgeous as we had always imagined.

Our new pact? Let's get back to that spot together again, some time down the line. Right, Julie!?

~Steve

Why Did I Have To Buy That Soda!?

Arriving at the base of Moon Hill, we were greeted by what one guide book describes as a "gaggle" of drink sellers. Imagine the scenario. We pedal up to the entrance, and are quickly surrounded by half a dozen or so older women, each with a styrofoam cooler strapped over her shoulders.

Three of these women decided to make the ascent up to the summit with us. The others, for their part, chose to stay behind, presumably to wait for the next group of unsuspecting waiguoren.

All went smoothly, until we reached a resting point near the summit about twenty minutes later. At that point, the coolers opened up, and out came three cans of Coke. Our escorts, of course, wanted to know if we would buy these drinks from them. Duo shao qian?, I inquired. Shi kuai qian, came the answer.

"Not bad," I thought. Ten renminbi for three cans of Coke. "OK...I'll take 'em!"

WRONG ANSWER!

Turns out it was ten kuai for ONE can of Coke. Having already drawn out a ten kuai note, I plopped it down and grabbed one of the cans.

SECOND MISTAKE!

This action set off a furious debate among the women over whose soda I had just purchased. I'm not kidding when I say that the next half hour epitomized the China of today. On the one hand, you had the beauty and culture that comes with thousands of years of human experience and thought. (The Yangshuo area is really one of the most scenic and historic places we have ever been.) On the other hand, you had the noise and chaos of the ever emerging market economy. (In this case, a fight over the equivalent of a dollar fifty.)

I'd like to say I learned some lesson...But, as you'll see later, this was not the last "street fight" I caused with my good intentions...

~Steve

Return To Moon Hill

In 2004, on our tour to Moon Hill, our bus stopped across the street so we could all take pictures. The picture we took came out great, and has been a legend to us. Since we were back at Moon Hill, we decided to look for the spot.

As we biked along, we decided to turn off on a familiar looking road. Eventually, we got to the tour buses and groups. There were shops, restaurants, and bleachers for pictures.

We got off our bikes at a bleacher that had an angle like our picture from '04. The woman who owned the bleacher saw us and made us pay one yuan. Then we went to a really familiar looking stand and paid five yuan for a picture. These people even took a professional picture, but we didn't want it.

Here are the two pictures. Tell us what you think. Are they at the same spot?

~Z

A Tandem And Two Solos

Probably the best way to explore the limestone peaks outside of Yangshuo is to jump on a bicycle and pedal away. (It doesn't hurt that an entire day's worth of rentals runs you about three dollars a person! Finally...A good deal in Yangshuo!)

Desi and Julie opted to ride a tandem together, while Z and I pedaled on our own (much to the chagrin of our resident overprotective mom!).

This riding opened up an entire world that was really kind of schizophrenic. As you'll see in subsequent posts, the area immediately surrounding Yangshuo has really been built up around the tourism industry. It is absolutely crawling with visitors, mostly the new middle class in China that is, for the first time, able to spend time and money traveling around the country. It sort of reminds us of the main spot at the south rim of the Grand Canyon...Remarkable natural beauty that can be enjoyed shoulder to shoulder with a million of your closest friends.

If, however, you bike just a few kilometers further out of town, you get to see the other side of Guangxi...Farming villages with dirt roads and no running water. Our aim that day, in the rain and then the sun, was to experience both sides of this indescribable region...

~Steve

Pijiu Yu

One of the supposed specialty dishes in Yangshuo is pijiu yu, fish cooked in beer. I decided to have a go at it, and am here to report that, much like cormorant fishing, it is somewhat overrated, overpriced, and gimmicky.

The dish aside, I had ordered a bottle of the local beer, as is my custom whenever we hit a new part of the country. (Frankly, it is hard to tell the difference. I'm more and more convinced that it is all the same beer, just with a different label in each region.)

Now, sitting next to us were two rowdy tables of young people (from Guangzhou, as it turned out). I had the sneaking suspicion that, eventually, one of them would be drunk enough to get up the courage to ask the waiguoren to ganbei (down a glass together). So, planning for this contingency, I milked my bottle very slowly.

Sure enough, the expected moment came, and I was ready. I had even saved enough beer to return the favor a few minutes later.

Everybody happy, we sauntered out into the Yangshuo night, finding it hard to believe that, just a few hours before, we had woken up in a hotel in Guilin. What a day!

~Steve

Cormorant Fishing...Kinda Cool, Kinda Cheesy

After arriving in Yangshuo, our guide (aka, the guy who hooked us up with that great jaunt down the Li River) felt the need to escort us safely to our hotel...But not without a quick stop first...At a local tour agency.

As you can probably guess from our previous posts, we're just not that into tours. We have actually been enjoying China on our own terms very much. Yet, for some experiences, there is no choice in the matter. And so, when the list of optional tours around Yangshuo emerged, one did leap off the page...Spend an evening with a cormorant fisherman and his famous birds.

Cool!

So we paid the hefty fifty kuai per person fee, and were told to return at seven p.m.

At seven, we made our way back, and were escorted to a dock on the river. There we boarded a long, noisy, flat-bottomed boat (loaded with waiguoren!), and ventured in the dark toward a light glowing in the middle of the river. There he was, standing on a bamboo raft, with his cormorants, ready to push downstream to catch dinner, literally...Eighty year old Bai Xiansheng.

And so we followed alongside his raft, as he propelled it with a bamboo pole. His cormorants, diving into the water, swam furiously and grabbed fish as they passed by. Small ones, they were allowed to eat. Large ones were collected from them by Mr. Bai and thrown into a basket.

So how exactly does a cormorant determine which fish are the appropriate size for a snack? A just question, with a rather unsavory answer...They have a rope tied around their necks, to allow only tiny fish to be swallowed. (Despite how interesting it looked, I'm not so sure how I feel about this...)

Anyways, at the end of the ride, both the boat and the raft pulled onto a small island, and everyone disembarked. Then Bai Xiansheng offered to take pictures (for a small fee), and to allow his birds to sit on your shoulder. In an uncharacteristic move, we took him up on both offers. (Nine hundred ninety kuai less than holding a baby panda, I might add!)

In the end, an hour-long excursion with a man who has obviously practiced this ancient form of fishing for many moons was very cool, in that we were able to watch first-hand the techniques used and the beauty of these swimming birds. On the other hand, it was a bit gimmicky (aka, cheesy) for our tastes. Geared toward foreigners, and including a story of how Mr. Bai was the actual fisherman who took Bill Clinton cormorant fishing during his visit in 1998, and significantly overpriced, this was definitely a one-shot deal for the Ballas.

~Desi

Riding The Sanlunche

When we arrived at the small town of Xingping, our float down the Li River was over. We still had to get to our final destination of Yangshuo, however. This is how the journey went...

We said goodbye to PVC, and scampered up the river bank, luggage in hand. Arriving at the top, there were plenty of sanlunche (three-wheeled vehicles) waiting, and so we hopped on to make the short trip into Xingping proper.

Given that it had just rained, the road was muddy...Not to mention really narrow. At one point, a military vehicle approached from the other direction, and we had to squeeze over to the side. I was waiting for the whole cliff to collapse under our weight, but somehow the mud held, and we were soon enjoying a meal served to us by a local family, complete with a taste of their own homemade red wine. (I took a pass at buying any.)

It was then off to find the bus that would carry us from Xingping to Yangshuo. The ayi's sole aim appeared to be to cram as many fares onto the bus as possible. Eventually, every single seat was filled, and so it appeared as if the time had come for us to depart. Wrong again, Ballas! Ayi kept finding additional passengers, whom she did not hesitate to welcome on board. Specifically, she pulled tiny plastic stools out from under a bunch of seats, placed them in the center aisle, and beckoned the new arrivals to take a load off. Even when there were no more stools to be had, ayi managed to add a few standing passengers to the mix...And, then, finally, off we went.

Once we pulled into the bus depot in Yangshuo, we still had one last task in front of us...Getting our luggage up the hill to our hotel, about half a mile away. With a little help from Wang Bin (who goes by Forrest in English), we managed to stow our bags on a little, old-fashioned sanlunche. Julie and Z jumped on the back and off they went.

As for Desi and me? It was onto the back of motoche (motorcycles). No, I don't have any pictures of this part of the journey! Desi reports, though, that she grabbed onto her driver so hard that her fingernails likely inflicted serious wounds on his abdomen.

And, no, we weren't wearing helmets for any of this...

~Steve

Rain on Li Jiang...

...Makes for some pretty surreal landscapes. No wonder this place has inspired poets for thousands of years...

~Steve

Nine Horse Painting Hill

Many of the limestone peaks on the Li River have names. These names tell what you are supposed to see on their faces. My favorite one is Nine Horse Painting Hill. Many hills' pictures aren't clear, but on this one I can see all nine horses. Mom, Julie, and Dad, though, can't see them all. This is the Big Boy Challenge...Can you see them all?

~Z

What Is The Main Advantage Of PVC Pipe Boats?

You can hang your feet off into the Li River, of course!

~Steve

Everybody Has A Water Buffalo

Have you ever seen a water buffalo? I have! On the Li River, water buffalo are as common as squirrels. In the water, on land, by themselves, with a band...They are everywhere!

The coolest place we saw them was on an island where our boat stopped. Two little girls has brought out a herd to eat. We got so close to them, and even walked among them!

Another cool thing we did on the island (well, I did!) was beach combing. I found some really cool rocks, and realized that little frogs, one centimeter by one centimeter, roamed the island. It was hard not to step on them, but they moved fast.

I wrote a poem about the island, too...

Above the limestone peaks soar
Below the waters of the Li River roar
But in between, what lies but me
Happily walking along the shore.


~Z

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Limestone Peaks

The soft rain drops sprinkle,
They make the surface wrinkle,
The water ripples away,
Toward the shores each day.

Above the clouds disappear,
The sun comes out completely clear,
Rays shine upon the face,
Of each peak's knobby base.

The Li River waters show,
As the people upon it row,
What lies to the left and right,
It reflects in the golden light.

The mist on each hill's peak,
Fades as we speak,
To reveal the colors majestically,
That were hidden away so carefully.

Now visible is the beauty,
That so many long to see,
These limestone mountains scattered lie,
As if thrown down from the sky.

The greens the whites the yellows,
They make the mind so mellow,
Each craggy summit gazes,
Upon the river's mazes.

This place is but one jewel,
That sits on one side of the world,
And if everyone could see its majesty,
Then no one would leave this pot of gold.


~Julie

Escape From the Waiguoren Boat

Upon arriving in Guilin, our first move was to jump on a boat and cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo, where we were planning to stay for a couple of nights. Five years ago, this did not present us with any trouble, as we were on a domestic Chinese tour with the Kangs and company. This time around, though, the trip required a little more thought and effort.

You see, the Li River powers-that-be sort waiguoren onto different boats than tourists from the mainland. Foreigners are also charged more than their domestic counterparts, paying as much as double the price for the same basic excursion.

Our aim, as you probably can imagine, was to avoid all of this segregation and extortion. So I headed down to the lobby of our hotel (a cheap, Motel 6-like place where the staff don't speak much English).

At first, I was told by the receptionist that all Chinese tour boats for the day had already left, and that we would have no choice but to jump on a foreigner boat. Not going for this, I pressed a bit harder. "We want a boat where the speaking is in Chinese, where there is no lunch served, and where we don't have to buy a return trip ticket to Guilin."

Xiao deng, came the response. As instructed, I waited for a few minutes, while the receptionist made a couple of phone calls. Then came the good news...For about half the price of the waiguoren boats, she had located a way for us to get down the river.

And so it was that an hour later, a small van pulled up in front of the hotel. A driver and a guide jumped out, and moments later we were on our way to the dock.

But this was not the main dock where the big boats launch from. Our dock entailed scampering down a hill in this little village to the water's edge, and then literally jumping onto a raft that was made up of PVC pipes lassoed together. There were a couple of small benches on the pipes, so we made ourselves at home and settled in.

For the next three hours, it was the four of us, two Chinese guys, and the beauty of the limestone peaks. Somehow, we had gotten exactly what we wanted...

~Steve

The Tallest Man In The World!

The other day, we had quite a surprise in the Beijing airport. We were in a noodle restaurant, waiting for our flight to Guilin, which had been delayed. All of a sudden, Dad said, "Look! There's the tallest man in the world!"

Julie and I immediately looked up. Mom, on the other hand, didn't believe us until she saw him.

He was huge! He walked next to an average sized man, and was double his height! He also was followed by a group of people taking pictures of him.

The funniest part was when he went to the bathroom. People gathered by the door of the men's room, with cameras out.

At one point, we sat alone with him. He was talking to his escort. His voice was really low! He even took his shoes off. They were really huge!

Then he went to his flight, and we went to ours.

Yes, he is the world's tallest man from the Guinness Book of World Records.

~Z

Editor's note: Click here to find out more about Bao Xishun, the world's tallest man...

We're Baaack!

I know you all have been wondering where we have been lately (yeah, right!). It seems as if (now there's a euphemism!) blogspot.com and blogger.com have been blocked here in China. Here's our rampant speculation...The twentieth anniversary of June 4, 1989 is quickly approaching, and the government is taking steps to ensure that the occasion passes quietly, both on the streets and in cyberspace.

For now, at least, we have managed to find our way around the "Great Firewall of China." (I'm not really good at this kind of thing, so who knows how long it will last....) Stay tuned, gentle listeners (just channeling my internal Ken Carroll with that phrase), for a resumption of mundane stories about the everyday lives of this little American family.

~Steve