It was time to once again make the most of our multiple entry visa into China before expiry in April, so we headed off on a weekend adventure to the limestone karst area around Guilin.
Louise was voted number one travel agent, so it was up to her to research where to go, and how to get there! She decided on Guilin, as she knew about the magnificent karst landscape and had been hankering to get there for a while. Overnight trains run from Shenzhen to Guilin (train # T38) so we decided to try out China Rails’ sleeper trains. For the outward journey we bought tickets via China Travel Service, who of course charge you an extra HKD$100 for privilege, but as we were booking overnight sleepers we decided to be safe rather than sorry.
After catching separate MTR trains to the border (Merrin could not leave work too early) Louise was tasked with securing tickets for the overnight train back on Sunday evening from Guilin to Guangzhou. She was very proud of being persistent in the face of severe provocation. The ticket office lady trying to book the late train, (T40 leaving at 21:23 that actually goes through to Shenzhen) but Louise had done her homework and knew there was an earlier train, the K38, departing Guilin at 18:28 arriving Guangzhou at 6am, which Louise insisted on booking. From Guangzhou we could catch a fast intercity train to Shenzhen (but not all the way to Hung Hom as trains direct to Hong Kong leave from Guangzhou East railway station and we were at Guangzhou Railway Station). This would then allow Merrin to be at work at a reasonable hour on Monday morning. The moral of this story is that it is easy to book your own tickets in spite of a total lack of Putonghua and the ticket office staff having very little English! But, it is best that you do know in advance the train number and departure time!
There are two types of sleeper carriages on Chinese trains. We had booked the “soft sleepers”, which are four berth cabins shared with whoever. We were lucky that the train was not full so had no other people in our cabin. We have to say that we would hate to know what the hard sleepers are like. These so-called soft sleepers were hard enough! The hard sleepers are 6 berth cabins with no cabin doors. They all open directly to the carriage corridor and they certainly look to have very thin beds! We spoke to an English couple on our way back who had taken the plunge and traveled on the hard sleepers. They said they got absolutely no sleep, as their four other cabin mates were up and down the beds, holding loud conversations, with lights going on and off all night! They were certainly a good advertisement for not taking the hard sleepers as they looked absolutely shattered!!
We arrived in Guilin after a reasonable sleep on Friday 3 Dec. Well, Merrin, who can sleep anywhere of course had a wonderful nights rest. Louise found sleeping on the train rather like camping … every time there was a need to roll over she woke with a stiff back that was hauled into a new position, which was potentially meant to be more comfy, but the reality was, it wasn’t! It was also absolutely freezing in our cabin so even as we sat and ate our railway meal consisting of rice and a variety of pickled and stir-fried dishes, we were totally wrapped in the bedding.
It was a lovely crisp morning in Guilin. The front of the railway station was buzzing with food hawker stalls and travel touts. We were immediately approached by several touts all offering a ride in “their” bus to Yangshuo. We decided to take up an offer of 18 RMB and set off after a few minutes. With the distance of 67km between Guilin and Yangshuo we estimated it would take just over an hour to get there! What we didn’t bank on was that we would do a slow crawl through town with the “conductor” hanging out the door touting for more business. At the first stop (still outside the station) as we waited for about 15 minutes for prospective passengers, we watched a lady making some sort of egg pancake. Merrin decided to get off and buy one … it was delicious – a pancake filled with egg and a pickled cabbage mixture. We limped our way out of the city continuing to stop for more passengers and in one instance, for the driver to buy his lunch to eat while driving. It eventually took us an hour just to get to the outskirts of Guilin and just under two hours to Yangshuo!!!
Along the way we passed between the limestone hills marching off into the distance and along side the road, an ever-ending procession of white tree trunks. Instead of road markers the lower trunks of the trees were all painted white! Once in Yangshuo, we decided that we would walk the 5kms to our accommodation – The Giggling Tree, run by a young Dutch couple and nestled in the Yangshuo countryside. Armed with a computer printout map (not to scale) from The Giggling Tree’s website and a small town map photocopied from an old Lonely Planet guide we set off. In the wrong direction! Yes, the surveyor and the cartographer could not find their way. In our defense, it was a bit silly trying to navigate by two entirely different “not to scale” maps. After getting some guidance from locals (about 5kms out of town in the wrong direction) we turned back and found a cab!
The detour did offer a few gems, like the table on the side of the road laid out with false teeth and orthodontic aids, complete with customers having their dental work attended to on the footpath, and outside the doctors surgery 3 patients happily sitting on chairs attached to a drip to their hands or feet (goodness knows what for)! Also passed an ancient shed where a man and woman were making noodles using a hand roller through which they were feeding the “wet” dough then adding the dry dough as they went. The resulting noodles were hanging on bamboo poles in the yard with a fan blowing at them to dry them off.
The Giggling Tree (http://www.gigglingtree.com/) is in the Yangshuo countryside surrounded by the famous karst landscape - everywhere you look. The guesthouse is in converted old traditional farm buildings built of yellow clay bricks. We stayed in an upstairs room overlooking the sunny courtyard costing only 210 Yuan per night (off peak season). Once we had settled in we went out to the courtyard to order lunch and sit and enjoy the afternoon sun. (Both of us were a little tired after our wee walk in the countryside on the other side of town). After our snooze in the sun we set off on foot to explore the village and surrounding area.
We wandered towards the Yulong River. As we neared the river we could her chatter and commotion. It turned out that this was one of the main areas for launching the bamboo rafts, which you can hire to take you down river with bikes on the back, so that you can cycle back up the valley. Naturally the locals were very keen for us to go for a jaunt. We declined and sat with a beer to watch them going about their daily business which seemed to feature a lot of laughter over gambling games etc as there are not too many tourists around because the high season has finished. We then wandered off up the river and watched a man wash his buffalo in the river, and another plowing his field with his buffalo. It is a very simple way of life here and it was really great to be staying in the countryside rather than in the busy touristy town to witness the Chinese lifestyle of old. Like when we stopped for a cold drink at a roadside shop which had the butcher next to it cutting up “things”, across the street was a fish farmer chopping up fish as people ordered them and kids riding and walking home from school.
That night we had cocktails on the terrace overlooking the stunning Yangshuo countryside followed by a lovely dinner in the restaurant. Although the day temperatures were in the early twenties at night it was quite cool so we adjourned to the common room for a very yummy Dutch Apple Pie dessert by the fire and chatted to other travelers.
The next morning we set off early (7am) on hired bikes in order to take in the early morning scenery. Great idea, but boy was it cold out and about at this time of the morning. Our hands were absolutely freezing as we cycled along. The scenery was magnificent, in the early morning misty light though. We cycled along rough tracks between rice paddies, through villages, one of which had a funeral procession complete with firecrackers and on to the Dragon Bridge to cross the river and cycle back the other side. It was a great ride and because we left early there were very few other tourists about.
Back at the Giggling Tree we tucked into some breaky before heading off on the bikes along the river in the other direction. We made it back to civilization aka the main road and cycled along to Moon Hill. This is one of the few limestone hills that you can climb in the area (for a fee of course) and despite all the tourist information saying that climbing to the top was not allowed there was a 69 year old lady pointing you up the side track to the top, hoping that that you will buy a cold drink from her on the way back down. It is an arch shape (hence the name) and the views from top were wonderful.
From there we cycled along the main road and into Yangshuo town for a late lunch. Cycling along the city streets avoiding other bikes, 3 wheeler taxi bikes, cars and buses was fun, as was experiencing the tourist chaos that is Xi Lu or West St – a cobbled street full of restaurants and shops that is the main tourist part of town.
We cycled back to the Giggling Tree and met up with a British couple, Karen and Paul with whom we planned to go the famous Li River Light Show near Yangshuo town. We all jumped in a taxi and headed off to the show. It is on every night (sometimes twice a night) and was absolutely packed when we got there. The show is set on the Li River and has 600 locals as part of the cast. It is a re-enactment of village life in the area with lights popping up around the vast stage that comprises of the river bank and boats or platforms on the river. The show was choreographed by the guy who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. It was pretty amazing, especially with the back drop of karst mountains lit up as part of the show.
After the hour long show we headed to town for dinner. Chose a BBQ restaurant where you get to choose your ingredients from a table at the front. Not easy when none of the bamboo skewers of meat are recognizable! We chose a plateful of prawn, meat, tofu and veggie skewers and off they went to the BBQ out back to be cooked with a spicy marinade. The result was not bad although the meat we thought was chicken did not taste or resemble chicken on the plate. Who knows what it was!
The next day (Sunday) we chilled out at the Giggling Tree for the morning and then as something different ordered one of the 3 wheeled taxi bikes to take us to the bus station to go back to Guilin. It was fun bouncing along in the open cab over the rough dirt road then whizzing along the paved roads into the town. He dropped us off at Xi Lu and we wandered off to find some lunch. Had some very yummy fried pork balls served around a plate of omelet and another fried dish that we thought was veggie but turned out to be pork based as well. Sat on a street corner table and watched the restaurant owner’s wee boy playing with a bubble maker in the street. Actually Louise was watching and photographing while Merrin was joining in the game!
We set off to the bus stop and in a repeat of the in ward journey, it took about an hour to leave town, which was a surprise as when we left the bus station all the seats were already full. But where there is money to be made by carrying more people it will be! We cruised the streets heading out of town picking up more and more people who were given small plastic stools to sit on in the isle, so that by the time we were heading up the highway there was more than a full load on the bus and a very happy bus conductor counting his stash of Yuan! The other amusing part of this bus journey was that while Merrin happily occupied the front seat next to the driver, Louise, sitting a couple of rows back got to watch King Kong on the video screen. Very bizarre , the Chinese guy in the next seat and Louise chuckling away in tandem at the ridiculous antics that had been filmed in NZ but with the white actors speaking Chinese!
We had an hour and half to spare once we got to Guilin so we wandered the streets briefly taking in some of the sights of this city of 1.3 million people. Rather than eat the train food we bought hawker food from outside the station and beers to take on the train with us. Once again we were reacquainted with the hard “soft” sleepers. Actually the sleeper trains are really not that bad and a good way to travel long distances in China. This time we had one other cabin mate get in at a station down the line to sleep on the top bunk. At 5:30am we had the wake up call from the guard to ensure we were ready to leave the train in Guangzhou. Bought our tickets for the next train to Shenzhen (which might actually be the first one of the day at 7am) then had a brief walk around outside the station before boarding for the just over one hour long journey to Shenzhen which gets up to 200 kph. At Shenzhen we walked straight across the border and on to the MTR in Hong Kong, for Merrin to head to work and for Louise to head to Fuel Espresso in IFC for a coffee fix before heading home on the Lantau Ferry.