Over breakfast I talk with the hotel to see if there is a camera store in town. Our biggest (and only) disappointment so far is that our camera died while hiking the Li River a few days ago. We’ve been taking pictures with our Nexus One phones, which are great cameras for phones but not as good as a real camera.
This is the second trip we’ve had a camera mishap, and I’m beginning to wonder if we need to start bringing two. The hotel staff are not optimstic about my chances of getting a good new camera in Yangshuo or even Guilin, the local city. We’ll have to wait for Xi’an or Beijing to buy a new one.
Moon Hill and water cave
This morning we are walking up Moon hill, a local mountain that has steep stairs to the top and an observation deck under a Karst formation that looks like a half moon. The ticket price to the park is 60 Yuen for the four of us. Nothin in China is terribly expensive, but nothing is free, especially for tourists.
As we pass through the gates, we are joined by two ladies carrying styrofoam cartons, which they open up to display the usual assortment of tourist beverages: Coca-cola, Coke Zero, some kind of not-very-tasty orange drink and boxed cold tea. “Coca Cola?” one asks. “Bu yao”, I reply, which is the official tourist ‘No’. In fact, Chinese doesn’t have a universal ‘No’ You say ‘no’ differently depending on the context. But ‘bu yao’ is what the phrase books says, and they get what we are saying.
“Coca-cola lei-dah. Coca-cola lei-dah” she says and keeps following us, pointing out the direction of the walking path which is already obvious. After a few dozen more steps she asks “Where you frum?” ‘USA’ I mumble, not really wanting to do this conversation right now. “AHH, meu guo,” she says with bright eyes. (I later check, and yes this is USA in Chinese.)
It’s obvious now they are going to follow us up the hill, which is a bit of a bummer because they keep trying to make conversation and sell us their drinks. But we deal with it, and they are amusing in a way. Anyway, if you came to over-populated China to be alone, you picked the wrong country.
The royal treatment
It’s blazing hot hiking up the 800 steep steps to the top, even though we are under the canopy of the jungle forest. The humidity makes it hard to get full breaths of air. Trish is particularly winded. Her body is still not 100% and the heat and humidity make it harder than Peru was.
The ladies pull out fans and begin to fan us. LOL! It’s really hard not to laugh. It’s never a good idea to accept a service from someone without negotiating the price in advance. At first we refuse but they are relentless, and eventually we just let them do it. It actually feels pretty good.
More photo, photo, photo
At the observation ‘deck’ which is actually an open area with an exposed limestone floor that looks like meteroites, we snap a few of our own photos. A group of young Chinese tourists ascends to the platform and begin to take group shots. We could have hurried out of there, but we didn’t and predictably, they want pictures with us.
8 or 10 poses later, we say “zai jian” and walk back down the 800 steps, which is a lot easier. At the bottom, I give the ladies 15 Yuen, and say thank you. They don’t seem upset at the amount, about $2.50 each.
The real water cave
In the shadow of Moon Hill is a little town that has the ticket office for the “Water Cave”, the next activity of the morning. There are at least 3 or 4 tourist caves in the area, but this is so close to Moon hill that it makes it a perfect half day trip.
We were told specifically to go into the town across the way and look for the Water Cave ticket shop, and to go to no other. A rumor at the guest house is that there are fake “water cave” ticket booths that take people to little sinkholes filled with tap water.
The ticket booth is a shack and the sales woman, remarquably tall, points at a board with lots of costs and options for tours, but then in good english cuts to the chase: it’s 120 Yuen each no matter what and there really are no choices. We wanted to do the whole thing anyway.
The bus leaves and heads down the road only to do a U-turn after the driver takes a mobile phone call. We pick up five more people and now have nine in a van that seats 7 plus the driver. The family that joins us says they are from Seattle but the parents have distinctly English accents. (What’s up with that?)
Into the Karsts
We arrive at the cave, which appears to be a combo cave tours/duck farm because there are at least two hundred ducks waddling outside the enterance. You can rent a towel, locker or plastic flip-flops and buy a bathing suit if you need one.
We do caves wherever we can, they almost never dissapoint. This one begins with a boat ride in shallow water about 500 feet to a cement platform. Emma and Lily go to the front of the group while Trish and I lag behind a little.
It’s not well lit, with only some fluorescent bulbs strung along at distant intervals. But that’s good too, because the over lit, colorful cheesy caves are annoying too. I bet it’s even more spectacular if they could get the lighting better.
The guide tells us the names of various stalagmites and formations, like Tiger, Mushroom, Big Flower etc… They all look lumpy. It’s a deep cave, and we go half a mile or so through narrow chambers and big open caverns. It’s not the most dramatic cave we’ve been in, but it’s good.
Queen of the mud pit
One of the advertised features of this cave is a mudpit, and indeed there is a vein of very wet clay that runs through a room with a pool of water. Voila – a mud pit. You can scrape more mud off the walls if you really want to get covered in the stuff but it’s mostly just cold muddy water.
There is a slide into the pit, formed of cement with a black plastic bag on the surface to eliminate friction. Lily is the first on and becomes a frequent flyer. She is also the last one out of the mud pit, floating around till the very last minute, looking like some kind of subterannean evil cherub.
Hot springs real or fake?
There are hot springs here too, and it was incredibly humid but they felt pretty good. I have my doubts that they are natural hot springs. They seems too perfectly designed and too hot compared to any I’ve been in. But maybe they are – who knows?
Back outside Emma and Lily play in the ultra cold, but refreshing pool. The Chinese boys gather around them and show off, each outdoing the next with their cannonball splash.
On the way back, the nine of us pile back into the van for seven, and the driver tries to fit two more people in. Everyone yells mixtures of bad Chinese and English. He gets the message and makes the young couple wait for the next one. The foreigners are much less accustomed to crowding.
Journey to Longsheng
The area north of Guilin, in northern Guangxi, is mountinous, and home to many of China’s major ethnic minorities like the Yao and the Zhao. It’s a three to four hour drive from Yangshuo, but our hotel has ordered a good van with air conditioning. It’s an easy ride.
Toward late afternoon, we climb up the side of the mountains and valleys with streams at the bottom and lots of rushing water. It’s cooler and we can shut off the AC. I’ve been talking on the phone with Hannah, the owner of the place we are headed tonight.
Her hotel is a little bit difficult to find and she wants to make sure we are on the right track. It can’t even be accessed by car. We’ll need hike almost an hour uphill before we get there. Porters will be there to carry bags, but we want to get up before nightfall and everyone is already tired.
More fees and squat toilets
We pull into a large parking lot, with a huge welcoming area that could easily accomodate a thousand people. But it’s completely empty. The driver holds up money to me and says things in Chinese that I don’t understand.
He calls the hotel to sort it out and they translate that we have to pay another 30 dollars for entrance to the longsheng rice field area. It’s sort of a regional entrance fee. (By now I”m tracking all these ‘minor’ costs in my notes because I want to know how much they add up to byt the end of the trip.)
In the bathroom, the girls groan at the squat toilets that are so popular here. Yes they are a little less comfortable, but they are also more hygenic. And when you have 1.3 billion people, I guess that’s a worthwhile.
The wrong tiny village
As we pull into another big parking lot, a whole bunch of ladies, not Han Chinese, but another ethnicity, dressed in traditional costume, surround the car and look for our bags. These are the porters, I presume and I say ‘Jintian! Jintian! our hotel’s name.
The bags come out of the trunk but nothing is really happening, so I say Jintian again. Something isn’t right so I call Hannah and hand the phone to the driver. Hannah speaks nearly fluent English and will help me sort it out.
After a few minutes of talking, he hands the phone back to me. Hanna says that we are in the wrong village. We have gone to Ping’an, which is the main village in the Longsheng rice terrace area, but Dazhai, which is where we want to go. Ping’an is slightly more touristy and popular with groups. Hannah says the driver wants me to stay in Ping’an becuase he was not paid to go to Dazhai.
Screw that, I think to myself. I’m not changing. Hannah was incredibly helpful via email in advance of the trip, and even if she hadn’t earned my loyalty that way, I’m too stubborn to let someone else’s mistake change my carefully selected itinerary. I chose Dazhai because it’s more rural, and less touristy and I gave the hotel maps and names when they booked this driver.
I have prepaid this fare and don’t have much leverage but my girls are getting sleepy and we need to get there before dark. The adrenaline starts flowing, and I prepare for battle. I think back to Luxor, Egypt a few years back, when we had to fight to get a really bad hotel changed. The driver calls the Giggling Tree, who booked this taxi, and get ready to fight.
But they are very reasonable, and agree it’s not my fault. I don’t know where the mistake was made, or how they sorted it out, but the driver talks with them a few more minutes and then waves us into the car.
Dazahi in the dark
It is dusk as we pull into our last big parking lot : Dazhai. The minivan door opens to the same kind of scene – ladies dressed in traditional dress. These are a clearly different ethnicity. There is an entrance to the village with a huge gate and lots of Chinese lettering in gold.
We head up to our hotel, passing first through Dazhai itself at the base of the mountain. It’s a tiny village with a few stores. The town square is a big rice paddy. The trail is paved with big stones but soon turns pretty steep and winds back and forth as we climb up the mountain. We did at least 2500 steps earlier in the day on Moon hill and
the water cave. This has to be another 2500.
Lily is crying softly. She’s exhausted. These trips are hardest on the youngest. I wish I could carry her, but I have 30 lbs of gear on my back already. She loses it completely when there is a snake in the path, and I carry her for a hundred yards over the ‘snake pit’.
It’s cool but humid and when we finally get to Jintian hotel, 45 minutes later, we are all soaked from sweat. Hannah is very warm and helpful on arrival. It appears that we are the only people in the hotel, so the spacious downstairs restaurant area is all ours. We order some food and prepare to go to bed.
I want to get up for sunrise to see the rice terraces. No matter how hard the day was, everything is okay again once you hit the sheets.