Wednesday, June 27, 2012
A few months ago I took a much anticipated trip to Guilin, in Guanxi Province, China. Guilin has been hailed as a 'backpacker's dream city', with its famous karst rock formations creating the picture-perfect surroundings, and the village-like (or perhaps it was once village-like) feel of Yangshuo, just down the river from Guilin, and an essential stop for every visitor to Guilin. It was a place one could do on a budget, also something that appeals to me, and not too far from Shenzhen, my home base at the time.
A Chinese friend, well, more than a friend, but we'll leave it at that, recommended I take a Chinese tour that they could find for me on the cheap. Everything would be in Chinese, including the guide, other tourists, etc., but it would be nice and cheap, almost all expenses paid in an initial fee, and I could be immersed in the language and have a great chance to practice my Chinese. So I said, fuck it, let's dive in and do it.
As you can see, I was excited, but I did know going in that it would be a challenging trip, being immersed and being on my own. But I'm used to traveling on my own, and I like a travel challenge, immersion, all that, and this was to be it. Anyway, it was only three days.
And here's how it went: the trip did not start out good. Nor did it continue that good. And nor in the end did I feel like it was really worth the money, but shucks me brains. Traveling is about taking a risk, and sometimes it pays off, and sometimes not.
The First Night Fly Out
To first get to Guilin with this tour group, I was to arrive at the Shenzhen airport on my own, and meet my tour guide who would take us all on the plane and to the airport in Guilin. It was a late flight, we'd touch down, be picked up, and hit the hay, getting up early the next morning for a cruise down the famous Li River (or at least I thought so, remember, all the instructions on the trip were in Chinese, and I'm only competent, not fluent).
I got to the airport on time like a good little boy, and yet the time ticked by, and I was still not seeing my tour leader or tour group. I was supposed to look for a little yellow flag and a group of people, but I saw none of these things. So I called them, and after faking my way through a couple of phone conversations in Chinese, and with the help of my Chinese friend also calling them, did I finally gather that I was the only one traveling by plane. All the others (and their were only about 12 total) had opted for taking the train, the cheaper option. It would have been awfully nice if they had simply told me that. But no. Finally, some Chinese kid showed up and helped me check in for my flight, then sent me off, saying there would be someone in the Guilin Airport with a sign with my name on it to pick me up, all of which took a grand total of about 4 minutes. I thanked him, but for Christsake, I'm fully capable of checking in to my own flight had they just given me the boarding info.
Anyway, a weird start, but I was still optimistic, and boarded my late night flight to Guilin (which, by the way, was a delayed for a while, as Chinese flights almost always are).
I arrive in Guilin and the driver was there as they said he'd be, and took me the hotel in a pretty big mini-bus that I had all to myself. I was to get up for breakfast in the morning at 8:00am, and find the same bus. And the hotel lodgings weren't bad at all, but they didn't seem very central, way outside what appeared to be the center of Guilin with the Moon Towers on the lake (we'll get to that later). And it was great to have a room to myself, but they assured me before the trip, if I was to stay alone, I would have to pay extra for it which I was willing to do for some peace and quiet at the end of each long day of traveling.
In the morning I awoke, dreary-eyed and unrested, as I wasn't used to getting up so early. One quick travel tip if it hasn't already occurred to you: don't try to go sightseeing when exhausted, it just sucks. When traveling, one needs to get all the rest they can. Go at your own pace. That's why I had the sudden feeling that this tour group was not going to work out.
I showered and went downstairs to stuff down a Chinese breakfast of fried noodles, juice, hard boiled eggs, and some plain white buns. Chinese breakfast does not resemble western at all (just one thing to note if you love a big, country breakfast like I do). I then found our bus, and was introduced to Mr. Gong. I had heard about him over the phone, that he was to be the Guilin based leader. He introduced himself, spoke a very standard Mandarin which I could understand about 70% of, and seemed to be a pretty honest guy, so that was a relief (you gotta watch out for people scamming you, in all places, but definitely China).
As we drove out to the dock of the Li River, I met the others in our motley crowd of tourists, a young couple, only in their early 20s, some old people, and a group of Chinese Canadians (a mom and two daughters, one of whom had a Chinese national fiancee she had met on the internet). Anyway, they weren't a rockin' spring break party, but they were other young people who at least spoke English for me to mingle with at times. But naturally, I usually tried to speak to them in Mandarin to show off.
We got to the dock at the Li River, and if you don't know it, the Li River is truly a major, international tourist attraction. Heaps of people were getting on boats down the river. But it seemed there were boats for internationals, and boats for Chinese. I got on the boat for Chinese and was proud to. Stupid European/Canadian/American tourists. I bet I paid significantly less for my boat ride than you did.
The boat took off, and soon we were steeped in the towering rock steeples of the famous Guilin countryside and the Li River. The water was clean, the air was damp and smelled of earth, rice farmers and their water buffalo watched us go by, and the karst seemed never ending. Sometimes it's hard to reify why we travel, and what we're looking for when we do. But on this cruise, I did feel a sense of elation to be there, if only for a short while, and the sense that I was looking at something that had been appreciated for millenia, and was truly a world wonder.
But, as the cruise wore on, I got a bit bored with the endless rocks, and I occupied my time chatting up an enormous German on board (the only other westerner) there with his Chinese wife and half-blood kid.
When we got to Yangshuo, I was excited to get off the boat. But as soon as we did, it started pouring rain. We had to wait in the underside of some brick viaduct for the rain to stop, making us ample prey for the old women who sell knick knacks to tourists right off the boat. After some coaxing, I finally caved and bought a poncho and set of postcards. Total amount paid for the two? About $1.50.
In the interest of rain, we took small, golf-cart like cars to our hotel, on the far side of Yangshuo. Yangshuo had a similar feel to that a lot of small Chinese towns have: lots building and bustling, but still with a long way to go. But the karst formations jutting out from the earth here and there gave it more Chinese romance, and I could get used to that. It's no wonder a lot of westerners like to come here. It just seems to look at feel like China, at least the 'China' in the minds of western folk.
That afternoon we continued the planned tour, and went out to ride on small, old-fashioned bamboo boats, just as Chinese cormorant fisherman had done for ages past. But this turned out to be no more than just a cheap, Chinese tourist trap, where for about 17 bucks American, some guy took us out on a small boat for an hour, while people around us sprayed each other with squirt guns. I was paired with an older woman, traveling alone. I would have enjoyed this more with friends, spraying each other with squirt guns in our swimming suits and swimming in the water. But it was no means a romantic taste of old China. Just a glimpse at the cultural oddity of domestic tourism in China today.
In the evening, me and the young couple went to Xi Jie, or West Street, the cultural hub of Yangshuo. There were bars, clubs, western food, and plenty of westerners to be found. It was a cool little market street, with loud music, and endless shops to buy souvenirs. But I had seen plenty of these cobble stoned, Chinese marketplaces in my time in China before, from Lijiang to Xi'an, Beijing, and even Shenzhen's Dongmen. This one in particular did not blow me away. So we just had a beer at a quiet, second-floor cafe, and went home and went to bed, knowing the next day had plenty more touring to be done.
I passed out quickly that evening and felt a longing to be with someone I knew and could make sense of this odd trip with. But I still had 48 hours to go in Guilin, on a trip what was so far a mediocre trip that was about to get exhaustingly even tackier.
Posted by Big D/D-Train at 2:27 PM
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
For the past 16 months, I lived in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, PR China. It was many things, though never boring, and never slow. I have since returned home to the United States, now with the chance to reflect on my experience.
I find that most Americans are far more interested in Japan, visiting Japan, or learning about Japan than they are in China. It's no surprise, really. Japan is a developed country, a massive economy, and churns out plenty of good culture, from movies, to comic books, to video games, to porn. Sounds a lot like the US, doesn't it, and I think that is at the core of what westerners are looking for in Japan.
Since 1945, Japan has been under the wing of the US, which has no doubt deeply affected its society, from economy to consumer culture. People want an abroad experience that, while I'm not saying Japan is exactly like the US or the West, offers all the amenities and comforts and consumerism that is prevalent in the West. Like what a lot of vacationers are seeking: something different and removed, yet still very much the same as home. China in comparison is a developing country with virtually totalitarian regime. Why in the world would I want to leave the US to go there?
Why do I start this way, on Japan and not Shenzhen? Because in a sense, I hoped that Shenzhen would fuse these two travel desires into one for me: having the amenities of a consumer culture, and yet being off the beaten path and out of the American sphere of influence. Perhaps no corner of this earth is 'out of the American sphere of influence', at least not in the communication age we live in. Well, maybe North Korea, or a place like Syria, but that's another discussion for another day. In Shenzhen, I found a modern city, brand new, shining, and grand; a symbol of the progress of new China. And yet it was still unknown to most in the West, still developing its character, and still controlled by the Beijing government, who as you probably know, doesn't champion things like freedom of speech, and other freedoms American rhetoric holds so dear.
And that's why I went. Because it was different. And because I hoped it would be very much the same. And also because that's where I could live in a major city and teach adults, and not have to expand heaps of energy corralling little children as I tried to teach them English. Japan's economy and market for English teachers is not what it was, and it's difficult to stay-afloat working in a major city there. South Korea has more opportunity and a better exchange rate, but I've already been there. It's a small country and there's not a lot to see, and it too, is definitely a nation within the American sphere of influence if there ever was one.
So I came to Shenzhen. Hoping to experience something different, yet also living well. And, to an extent, I was able to do just that, as I lived at a western standard, while also venturing into the deeper realms of the Shenzhen under-belly to see what native life was like. But in the end, I was mostly just in an office, working a job with hours greater than a full-time work week in the US. I did my best to make the most of my time abroad, mostly by traveling to place in the general pacific vicinity as Shenzhen, and such travels were great. But I decided if I was going to just work in an office all the time, I may as well make more money (I don't mean to complain so much about the money in China, but the yuan is not that strong and that's the way the Chinese like it) and closer to my family. I wasn't getting out much, I was tired on weekends, and I was not improving my Chinese.
So I left, and I'm back. And with the wisdom I've gathered on my fateful trips into the East, I hope to at least be able to tell you some good stories, and some damn good places to eat should be in Shenzhen (or Hong Kong, for that matter). Because I truly believe that life is about the experience, it's about the journey, and most importantly, it's about the food. Try everything you can and see if you enjoy it. (Or am I still talking about food?)
Posted by Big D/D-Train at 10:49 PM