Our jetlag management isn’t working as well as I hoped. Lily and I are up at 4 am, which is bound to catch up with us later. But we will sort that out when we need to. It’s just great to be here in China and I’m excited to see the Li River.
Lily and I share a Luna bar (chocolate peanut butter) to stave off the early morning hunger. Breakfast at the Giggling tree, our hotel, doesn’t open till 7am. I spend the hours before breakfast working on an alternative system to blog posting because Picasa Web and Facebook, which I use extensively, are both blocked here.
The Li River area of Guangxi
We’re in Guangxi province near the town of Yangshuo on the Li River. Guangxi, which means Guang-west, has been a part of China for centuries, but has always been a distant and sometimes strange place because of it’s remoteness, mountainous topography and density of minority ethnicities liek Zhuang, and Yao. Guangdong, to the east is Guang ‘east’ and the two are known as the Two Guangs although they are very, very different.
Guangxi is principally a farming area, and remains one of China’s poorest provinces per capita. It was hit very hard by the Great Leap forward, when new agricultural policies caused widespread famine in China. As many as 30 million people may have died as a result of the famine, many in this province.
Crazy fact – almost all of the worlds star anise is grown here. Most of the star-anise crops go to the creation of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, which is derived principly from that spice.
Tourism in Yangshuo
Guangxi is, however, one of the most touristed areas of China, especially the Li River area near the town of Yangshuo. Yangshuo sits at the juncture of the Yulong (dragon) and Li rivers, and serves as the starting point for millions of Chinese and international tourists visiting the region, which is known for its karst topography. Karsts are everywhere on the globe, but in few places has it produced the fantastical scenery like the Yangshuo area.
Karsts are surface layers of easily dissolved rock like limestone that have been eroded by ground water. Many caves are created by karsts, but in this area, the groundwater was so prevalent that the surface collapsed long ago, leaving the sides of the caves intact as vertical mini-mountains that cover the otehrwise perfectly flat landscape. Farther south, the same kind of formations make Halong bay in Vietnam also world famous.
The effect is other-worldly, and stunningly beautiful. The scenery, combined with hot weather, a bucolic culture, two great rivers that can be easily navigated, and dozens of caves to explore, has become one of the great tourist destinations in China. The Li River is a place Chinese consider a must-visit place, much like the Great wall.
Hiking the Li River
The cloudy weather looks ok for a long hike (overcast is good in this heat) so we arrange for a taxi ride to a a town called Yang Di about 30 miles north. It’s the traditional starting point for the most beautiful section of the Li River.
Our plan today is to hike 5 or 6 hours along the Li, through farmland and river banks, splashing in the river to cool off every few hours. Lonely Planet says the trip is well marked and there are small villages to buy water and snacks along the way. We pack lightly and head out.
As we get close to the drop-off, we are stopped by some cattle in the road. The town of Yang Di is nothing much more than a boat pier with hawkers and carts. We aren’t even out of the car and a dozen old women knock on the windows. “Hullo, hullo, hullo Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo!” they each yell.
Trisha and the girls get out of the van as I pay Lisa our driver, and are swarmed and poked to buy wreaths of flowers, bottled water and bamboo raft rides. We aren’t interested, but they don’t leave us. It’s our first experience with the aggressiveness of China, and Trish is a little surprised, especially when she was repeatedly poked. Guidebooks always tell you to expect this, but it is another thing to experience it.
Lisa points to the other side and says ‘walking, walking’, by which I assume she means we need to cross the river to begin our trek. I see a ferry, but the old women are pushing hard for us to charter a boat. They say 100 yuen. I say 30, and one of the women laughs and makes a swimming motion at me, which I chuckle at. I assume they are ridiculing my low ball offer.
But I know the ferry will be cheap. They leave and we pay 30 yuen for the 4 of us and travel with the local villagers.
Walking the Li river.
It’s hot. 100 degrees Farenheit and 101% humidity. We all strip down to our bathing suits. We’re not even 20 minutes into this hike and I’m not sure how long we can go in the heat. People along the path are very friendly, saying ‘nihao’. One follows us and says ‘bamboo, bamboo, bamboo’ She shuffles behind us to the first town and tries to say (insistently) we should cross the river there, although our map says we continue on.
We point to our water bottle and she sort of shrugs, pointing at a locked little store. We’re already a little thirsty and I regret trusting the guidebook and not bringing water ourselves. But we get our energy back after our first dip in the river, which is cool and shallow and not very fast moving. She watches us swim in the river a while and eventually leaves.
We continue our journey for another hour, looking for bottled water, but staying close to the river because it’s so georgous. There are little farms everywhere and the karsts are endless. Eventually the trail ends, and we are perplexed about where to go, although we are not lost either because we are on the river. We ‘hail’ a bamboo boat and pay 20 yuen for the crossing to the other side where we are able to pick up a better trail.
But we still need water. Just as we are beginning to panic about our water situation, we turn a corner and see a grandma sitting on the trail with a box of bottled waters. Unfortunately, the tops look very dirty as if they have been used before. Guidebooks say it’s not uncommon for people to resell tap water in used bottles.
She seems to understand what we are thinking, and points out that the bottles are in their original box, which is somewhat comforting. We buy a bunch that seem to have intact seals, although it’s a little hard to tell, and gulp them down hoping we don’t get anything nasty. (We don’t.)
We lose the trail again and stumble into a farm field of corn near a grazing water buffalo. There is an old man is trying to cut down some bamboo. He points us back in the right direction along the river, but 100 feet beyond, we are stopped by a 4 foot murky stream that we need to cross. The only bridge is this contraption being built (pictured below) which we are not willing to cross.
I try to step into it but it’s pretty deep and very muddy. My foot sinks deeply in the muddy sand and I have to scramble to pull it out. Studying the situation, I take a standing broad jump across and spash onto the other side. My feet sink down about 8 or 10 inches and are covered in sandy mud. This is quicksand! I can barely move.
Fortunately, quicksand is not the danger one would believe from the action movies of the 70’s, but it is pretty freaky stuff and very difficult to walk in. You sink when you move even though it looks completely, or nearly solid on the surface.
I search the forest for a large piece of bamboo, and stick it in middle of the stream. It’s an 8 foot piece of wood, and it sinks halfway in to the mud. Holding on to the bamboo, I pull Lily and Emma across with some difficulty. They sink into the slippery mud to the other side squealing with delight and a little fear.
Trish prepares to make her leap, and hesitates as some people behind us laugh out loud. They yell, in english, that there is a bridge farther upstream and they come to help us through the quicksand. On some level, we knew there was a bridge somewhere, but trying to cross quicksand is a lot more fun. Trish splashes and sinks into the swirling sand but stays upright.
Down the river on ‘bamboo’
We’ve been going for 3 hours now and the quicksand was exciting but tiring. We agree to find a boat at the next village to Xingping, our destination. Nearby there is a trail that goes down the steep embankment back to the river.
And at the base, we stumble on one of the many little photo and food stands that locals have set up. They keep grilled chicken hot on the fire and run a small computer photo system that they use to print river photos for tourists.
We ask for a ride (“Bamboo, Xingping?”) and settle on 100 yuen, which is too high, but lower than their asking price. I can at least ask how much and do numbers in Chinese, an essential element for bargaining which must be done at every transaction.
It takes them a few minutes to clean the bamboo raft, which isn’t really bamboo, but PVC with a small motor on board. But we are shortly one our way and again enjoying the scenery and views of the area.
The traditional end of this great trek is the small town of Xingping, which is best known in China for being the location of the scenery drawn on the 20 Yuan note. Unlike the note, however, there is not one bamboo fisherman, but hundreds of PVC boats taking Chinese tourists up and down the river from this spot.
Our boat drops us off among the hundreds of other watercraft and we wind through stands of food and beer for hungry tourists. We follow some Chinese and get on an open air minibus, which takes us into the town of Xingping. The staff at the Giggling Tree told us that the bus to Yangshuo would leave as soon as it fills up. We are fortunate to get on just as it is leaving, but the only seats are small stools in the aisle.
The bus drops us off in Yangshuo, and it’s about 3:30pm. We haven’t had lunch and find a place in town that is reccomended called Kelly’s place. It’s very good, although again the Chinese food is unremarkable. I’m sure we aren’t finding the authentic places. But the girls enjoy the pizza.
Back at the Giggling tree, our bodies collapse from the long day and we all pass out at 6pm, which is the worst time to take a nap. We get up at 8:30 and try to eat but our bodies are all confused and no one is really hungry. I try to make us stay up until at least 10pm, but Lily doesn’t make it and falls asleep playing a game on my phone. The rest of us follow right behind. It’s been a great first day.