Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guilin: Day 3

The ancient campus at Jingjiang Prince's City. 
I feel I should clarify a couple of things at this point that I should have mentioned earlier. When I said that after the bamboo presentation we had to walk through aisle after aisle of winding display of crappy gifts, and that we had to do this after leaving each tourist attraction, it should be duly noted. Not that you didn't believe me the first time, I just wanted re-emphasize. After each attraction, as we were spit out at the end of the designated pathway, we had to walk through winding aisles of souvenirs on sale, anything from seeds, spices, herbs, hot sauce, to jewelry, t-shirts, and more. The winding was clearly to maximize the amount of display area that could be used in each room, and sometimes it seemed everlasting. This is of no real importance to the attractions, but of course, it is essential to the experience. I guess that meaning, for-profit capitalism has found its way into China's natural tourism industry, ending in mixed results.

One other thing that happened, and sucked, also came to fruition the previous night (Day 2). The contract for the trip had mentioned some things were not included in the flat-rate price for the trip, such as the traditional boat ride on the off-shoot of the Li river, entrance to Banyan Tree Park, and I was informed I'd have to pay more to have my own room (which I was more than happy to pay to assure some peace and quiet). But it turns out there was more: I guess each one of these little tourist traps we visited in Yangshuo, the caves, the caveman village, etc., cost an additional fee. Our guide, Mr. Gong, assured me he had explained all this in the beginning of the trip, saying something to the effect of 'You don't have to go into each of these places. If you don't want to, you can hang out in the car and chat with me' in Chinese. So all these little places were adding up, about 100 yuan each. I actually did kind of figure this was the case, but I told myself, well, I'm here, I'll quite possibly never be here again... I have to go in, don't I? So I did, and in the end, I had racked up an additional cost of about 750 yuan to my trip, everything totaled. That's like and extra USD 125, which of course didn't make me feel that great spending, considering I hadn't really enjoyed myself that much, but the deal was done. After some awkward conversations with Mr. Gong, I told him I'd pay him as soon as we found an ATM that worked, which eventually I did after visiting several machines that were out of money first.

But hell, it wasn't too much money in the long run, and I was determined to not let it ruin the last day of my trip. I was excited to be back in Guilin, and tired of being a grouch. I'd seen some pretty great stuff, in retrospect, and today would be much better than yesterday.

Day 3

Frog-like statues (below left) and the water wheels at Liu San Jie Park.
The day started out with the usual wake-up, bad Chinese breakfast, and hopping on the bus to go God knows where. Our first stop had something to do with Liu San Jie, a famous movie in China about a woman from Guilin who sings. I wish I could tell you more than that, but that's about all I know. The movie is from the 1960s, and in Yangshuo there's even an 'impression', a cultural show based on the original film directed by Zhang Yimou which our tour group frequented the first night in Yangshuo, but I actually surpassed (I love Zhang Yimou, but I had already seen his 'Impression Lijiang' and just needed some time away from the tourist zone. Plus it too cost some significant extra money.)

We got to the Liu San Jie park and filed in, and were swept up in the usual touristy, fake attractions. Some statues here, a water wheel there (that was kind of cool), and we also got to bang on some Buddhist inspired drums. Soon, calls were being made for us to come quickly into an auditorium for a rehearsed cultural show. I vaguely remember it, and although the Chinese around me seemed to like it, I could not get into it.

I was relieved to be out to there, because after the typical lunch of poorly made Chinese food, we were dropped off for the rest of the afternoon in Jingjiang Prince's City in the center of Guilin. We were to get a guided tour, then fend for ourselves for the rest of the afternoon until the bus came back to pick us up at the designated rendez-vous point.

And I was just ecstatic to be there; it seemed like the romantic, historic Guilin I was all along hoping to see. It was picturesque and had lots of historical relevance, there were other foreigners there having a gander, and most of all, it was peaceful and serene, all while still being the home of a functioning Chinese university, Guangxi Normal University. It would be the zenith of my visit to Guilin, literally.

The obelisk statue in Prince's City. 
Me and the Canadians took a guided tour in Chinese, but I was not the only foreigner in the group. The others didn't seem that friendly, but it felt good to be back in a place that was at least internationally somewhat attractive (there were no foreigners in sight at most of the previous tourist traps in Yangshuo). We passed through a great gate, and into the courtyard-style campus with several temple structures inside. Meanwhile, current students of the university could be seen lounging on the quad, playing on volleyball and basketball courts nearby. I even found a group of guys sketching different buildings on campus. This functioning normality of the place put me at ease.

Prince's City or Prince's Palace has a history of over 600 years, dating back to the start of the Ming Dynasty. It was the home of the great-nephew, Zhu Shouqian, of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuan Zhang, and housed several royal Chinese families in its history. Prince's City also served as a school and examination hall for the finest minds in China, a sacred shrine for Buddhism in its grotto, and the birth place of poetry that extolled Guilin scenery. I believe I saw all these famous things along the way, and here's what I can recall:

Through the main gate, into the courtyard campus, and inside a central hall, we were led by one of those tour guides with the little portable mic. I didn't understand everything, of course, but the history here was great, as I already mentioned. Out the back of the central hall (which wasn't too grand, otherwise I would have elaborated) we found ourselves at the base of great karst tower. Behind the karst tower, on what was truly a moat (they're not just in Europe), were some ancient statues and a great obelisk-like structure. After snapping some photos there, we were led beneath the karst tower into the grotto cave, made into a Buddhist shrine over 600 years ago. Carved into the walls, there seemed to be a demigod or sage for each birth year to pray to. One was supposed to find their birth year and honor it, leading to good fortune, and leftover incense and flowers indicated that this was still a deeply religious place for many people even today.

Behind me the door to enter the grotto cave beneath the Prince's City karst. 
Leaving the cave beneath the karst, we went into the school part of the compound, and were a given a written test in Chinese to see who was the best student among us. (I couldn't read it, but I believe it asked test takers to fill in gaps in ancient poems and well known sayings.) I took a copy, went into one of the small, individual, test-taking cells, and scribbled on my paper with the small paintbrush and black paint provided. Some Chinese got a kick out of this, and wouldn't you know it? I didn't win the competition. But two people in our group actually did, and were honored for it. They won some prize or something. Great for them.

Honoring the winners of the 'test' at Prince's City. 
With that small gift giving presentation, our group tour ended, and we dispersed. Of course, I had my eye on climbing to the top of the karst, which me and the mom and daughter combo from Canada undertook with me. It wasn't a very tough climb at all, though some steps were steep, and the path was narrow. At the top was a sweeping view of Guilin, town and country where the Canadians assisted my in taking some photos while holding up a flier that said in Chinese I had reached the top of the karst. Perhaps I was assigning more meaning to the moment, but the beauty of the place finally hit me at the top. Beneath the layers of new founded tourism and industry, beneath the dust from construction, development, and expansion, this was truly an amazing place, with truly amazing scenery. The best in the world, so the Chinese poets had written 600 years ago. Perhaps they were, and are, right. 

At the top of the Prince's City karst. 
After the climb I treated myself to another Dove chocolate ice cream bar, and hit the streets to do some shopping and, my favorite, street food sampling. We still had a couple of hours to kill, and a central pedestrian artery was right down the way. 

I separated from the Canadians and did my own thing, getting some fried chicken and dough balls from a stand that appeared to be quite popular with the locals, judging by its line, and awkwardly fended off some Chinese guy who encouraged me to look at his art gallery (you may know from reading about my adventures in Beijing that this is a common scam on foreigners in China). The guy claimed he would be a visiting art professor at NYC soon. I mean, I know he's just trying to make a living, but sheesh, what American is really gonna believe that.

With some new small souvenirs in hand, I met up with the others for our bus trip out of there. Mr. Gong had changed clothes and looked refreshed. I envied him for this. He took us to another crappy Chinese meal, and then I was to head to the airport by myself in a taxi he prepaid. One of the Canadian Chinese girls asked me during the meal if I enjoyed myself on this trip. I thought about this for a while, and then said, "Yes, but I don't think I'll take a guided tour like this again". Ain't it the truth.

Mr. Gong and I said our fairvwells right after dinner, even though my flight wasn't till much later in the night. I couldn't really decide how I felt about the guy. I think he was a fine, honest guy, I just was never the right fit for a guided tour like this one.

On the way to the airport, we picked up another passenger, who was in an awful hurry, getting me to the airport even quicker when I didn't need to be there. But luckily they had an internet cafe that I was able to kill some time at, basking in the nourishing white glow of the information super highway. I listened to Radiohead, drank a bottle of water, and read Was it really so great to be back to civilization, to some degree? I guessed so, though I was unsure.

It being quite late (around 12:00 am by the time we finally boarded), I passed out on the plane ride home, even though we flew through an intense monsoon, and the lady friend was there to greet me in the airport when I landed in Shenzhen. She was a beautiful sight.

Well, I said to myself, I have done Guilin, for better or for worse. Glad to have seen it, and glad to be back.

Monday, July 2, 2012

At the Old State House in Boston, Mass

I must be the best, worst travel host on the net:

Guilin: Day 2

Day 2

In the morning I awoke, again, unrested and definitely not chomping at the bit to get out and hit more Chinese tourist attractions in Yangshuo. But I mumbled through breakfast and jumped in the mini-bus to push onward in this strange journey into China's growing world of natural tourist attractions. Where to next? I had no idea.

Our first stop was actually quite enjoyable and had me in a good mood. It is called Banyan Tree Park on the Jinbao River. With some grazing water buffalo, scenic rock formations along the river, and an enormous banyan tree that is over 1500 years old, I started to feel I was viewing some worthwhile attractions. The tree was planted in the Jin Dynasty and is the subject of some romantic legends told by the Chinese. So I gazed at it for a while with the sun on my shoulders and, if only for a moment, got a sense of wonder about all the events that have transpired around this tree in it's long life, from the Jin dynasty, to the 21st century. Now it was the object of countless tourists and their digital cameras.

I was brought down to earth by the sight of a man nearby the tree with two dressed monkeys for picture taking with tourists. I won't get all worked up about animal rights, as the monkeys seemed fine, though the man did yell at them and bat at them with small stick to make them climb up tourists' shoulders. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist, and paid the 5 yuan fee to have a photo op with the monkeys.

What followed after Banyan Tree Park is a bit of a blur, but I do recall the minibus made several stops at different tourist destinations outside of Yangshuo. They included two different caves, a cultural village with some more caves and an ethnic minority cultural show, and a very strange tourist village that was about 20% museum documenting the prehistorical peoples that lived in this area thousands of years ago, and 80% village recreation of how they may have lived, featuring lots of people dressed in cheap, fake leopard skin outfits chanting. I wanted dearly to take photos of this highly unusual scene, but alas, my camera had run out of batteries. While there, I couldn't help shake the feeling the place wasn't true to prehistory. I don't know what gave me that idea.

So here's a quick recap of my thoughts on it all: the caves could have been cool, especially the second, which truly did have some awesome and magnificent views of giant stalactites and sweeping, underground caverns. Of course it needed some light to be seen, but it's builders and organizers had chosen to cover it completely with rainbow colors, laser lights, and strobe lights. This did not feel so natural to me, and would have John Muir rolling in his grave. Of course I couldn't understand our tour guide, and even with fluent Mandarin I doubt I could have ciphered through the static of her loud megaphone-like contraption. I just put on my iPod, and tried to enjoy myself.

Next, the cultural village was just so-so at best. Its caves were minor in comparison to the other two, though it did have a cool draw-string bridge between two karst structures. And the cultural show was fine, small, but with pretty dresses, dancing, and drums. I'll give them the credit, as it was well rehearsed. Pictures afterward with the dancers were 10 yuan a pop, of which a little village girl got me for three. I felt a bit swindled, but she could use it more than me (though I have the funny feeling she just spend it on a Coke or something).

Finally, the pre-history cultural village was bizarre, beyond anything I've seen before. It's initial museum was actually pretty good, with lots of old artifacts dating back tens of thousands of years to the stone age, like needles made of bone, elementary hammers, and arrowheads. But with our guide, we mostly breezed through all that, and into the 'recreation' of the ancient village. As I mentioned, the villagers were wearing tacky leopard skin clothes that could have been out of an 80s glam-rock music video. Even the dumbest tourist would have to realize they weren't even trying to be the slightest bit accurate to what villagers at that time would have actually worn. Nevertheless, we proceeded onward, through the village where we observed actors recreating behavior of the ancient villagers, like making artifacts. We were also invited into a weird dancing circle, and were subsequently hip-thrust by the villagers (I was their most popular target). They also gave out souvenir skull necklaces, but then we had to quickly cough up 10 yuan for them, or return them. And as we were leaving, there was more dancing and even some fire-breathing, and actually a chained-up bear to take photos with. Gosh I felt weirded out. As the final act of dancing and fire-breathing went on, I just sat in the back and read the New York Times on my iPhone. I had done this while waiting for the earlier cultural show to start. I didn't mean to be an asshole, but this is where my attention had ended up. 

But the long, long day had finally ended in Yangshuo. The bus was to go take us back to Guilin, where we would finally have time to ourselves, and away from this tourist world. I wouldn't have been so dismayed with it all if I had just had someone with me to share in the lunacy, someone to laugh at it all with. But alas, I was alone. I don't think another westerner could be dragged on to such a tour.

In Guilin, we had dinner as a group, but first we had to sit through a presentation on the many wonders of bamboo (again, I read the news on my phone), and a mandatory walk through an extensive gift shop full of bamboo products (I should mention we had to make this walk at all destinations that day).

After a quick shower, me and the Canadians went into town for a bowl of noodles at a famous noodle shop, and a walk around the lake that held the famous Guilin pagodas. After some good noodles, a beer or two, and with an ice cream bar in hand, I was finally liking my trip to Guilin. Funny, that these were all it took, but unsurprisingly the food was favorite part.

When the breezing around the lake was done, we taxied home and went to bed, with still another day of activities awaiting us. I prayed for no more cheap, touristy crap, and my prayers were answered. Half of them, anyway.