Things I learned while reading the China Daily newspaper they handed out on the plane from Xi'an to Guilin:
- Jihadists really, really hate Manchester United.
- The reason why Chinese cinemas are so full of Western films right now is to clear the decks for a batch of local movies being released in the autumn, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the formation of the People's Republic.
- On a related note, Transformers 2 has just become the highest ever grossing film in China, taking 400 million yuan in just 19 days.
- A man in Beijing has been throwing bricks at cars that jump red lights. The Belated Birthday Girl approves.
- And finally, your headline of the day is this: Man Eats Fish Gall Bladders To Improve Vision, Faints.
It was a two hour flight with Hainan Airlines to Guilin, one of two destinations on the Li River for this section of the tour. Even on the approach to the airport, we could see what we were in for: the fabulous misty mountains all along the river, with the added bonuses of an aerial view and the sun going down behind them. The BBG noted that when you see Chinese landscape paintings, you tend to assume that a lot of poetic license is being taken: the Li River is where it becomes apparent that they're painting from life.
Most of the areas on this tour are ones I visited back in 1993, but the Li River is the one where I got to do something different. On my first tour, we spent two nights in Guilin, with a very short visit in Yangshuo just to hit the market. This time round, the focus was reversed - our visit to Guilin was just an overnight stopover before a day or so in Yangshuo, then back to Guilin again for the airport.
I have fond memories of Guilin from 1993: and so did Richard Nixon, who declared it to be the most beautiful city on the planet after he went there in the 1970s. (To quote our local guide Ling, "for once he was telling the truth.") But if I'm honest, most of my fondest memories come from one of the standard cliches of tourism in China: the boat ride along the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo. I posted the video of my '93 cruise on YouTube recently, and even accounting for my inability to get it to display in 4:3 it still looks rather lovely.
As I've cleaned up the soundtrack on that YouTube clip, you can't hear the sound of me burning to a crisp off camera under the blazing sun. This time round, the weather wasn't nearly as nice: generally overcast, with the occasional brief shower of rain. That wasn't a problem - it made standing on a boat deck more comfortable, and the scenery all round is magnificent enough to not require bright sunlight. I'd forgotten that during the four hour cruise, it's the middle two hours that have the best views: so if you decide to go for yourself, try not to spunk away all your camera battery and memory card on the first hour. You may find it hard to believe at the time, but it gets even better.
Once we'd checked into the Guilin Osmanthus Hotel, one of the few things we had time to do apart from sleeping and breakfast was grabbing our complimentary drink at the bar. It was during that session that tour leader D came in for some good-natured ribbing from the rest of us. Basically, we were complaining about what good value the tour was so far - D's found lots of things for us to do in every town we've visited, and has laid on a huge array of optional excursions and events, even cramming in a couple that weren't on the original schedule when we had the odd hour or two to fill. As she described an activity she'd planned for 7am prior to breakfast, there was at least one cry of "but we're supposed to be on holiday..."
We all love D really. These are all optional excursions she's organising (the word 'optional' is threatening to become the tour catchphrase). Nobody has to do any of the options, and I think only one couple so far has managed to go on every single one. The BBG and I have been happy to go with the group for virtually everything so far, but in Yangshuo we decided to skip a couple of options and grab some downtime in the midpoint of the tour. And Yangshuo is certainly the best place for that: The BBG spent some time there back in 1997 when it was a backpacker haven, and to this day it's still one of the most foreigner-friendly places I've ever encountered in China.
'Foreigner-friendly' means, of course, lots of opportunities to sell you stuff. Our Yangshuo base at the Li River Hotel was within easy walking distance of the market area and the tourist tat shops that take up all of West Street. It's fun seeing the peculiar things that are on offer to travellers, most of them in t-shirt form. You can be horrible to your mates and get them a shirt with an untranslated Chinese slogan like I AM MENTAL. Alternatively, the caricaturists who do celebrity portraits on the streets in most world cities display their work on shirts here, which is perfect if you know someone who'd like a Hitler or Bin Laden t-shirt as a souvenir.
Yangshuo's reputation with travellers also ensures there are a large number of cafes and restaurants around. The cafes are funky and witty - I saw one calling itself The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, while the most famous revels in the name of Minnie Mao's. (The latter recently had to move to new premises, as its scenic location has been taken over by a sodding ugly McDonalds.) Virtually all of the cafes offer free wi-fi, though the two I visited (Back Street and Minnie Mao's) were a bit slow, and access to Typepad was blocked, stopping me from posting blog updates here. That thing I said last time about 'Great Firewall, my arse'? Starting to regret that now.
There are also restaurants offering both Western and Chinese food. Cloud 9 is a pretty good example of the latter, and does a nifty business on the side offering Chinese cookery lessons to tour groups (one of the options we skipped, preferring someone else to do the cooking for us). Looking through the menu, I decided to be adventurous and go for a dish I'd never heard of before, Ning Meng Flavour Chicken. I found out far too late that 'ning meng' is in fact the Chinese for 'lemon'. Still, it was pretty good as lemon chicken goes, and The BBG's prawns were equally fine. But be warned that the service at Cloud 9 can be a tad erratic, particularly when two pairs of similar-looking foreigners are sitting at adjacent tables.
I don't want you to think that The BBG and I avoided all optional activities just to go eating and shopping. We've tended to skip the more strenuous ones - D has come to realise that when we hear the word 'bicycle' we reach for our metaphorical revolvers. However, we don't have any problem with the less active activities, and it turned out that Yangshuo in particular has plenty of those, available to most of the tour groups that pass through.
Henry is a perfect example of private enterprise at work in Yangshuo: he runs a tai chi school, teaches Chinese painting, and gives English language lessons in his spare time. Only two of those three really apply to an English tour group. The tai chi practice - which was the pre-breakfast activity I mentioned earlier - had a dozen or so of us in the local park attempting to follow Henry through a few simple forms. You couldn't do much in 45 minutes, but it's easy to see how with time and muscle memory this could feel like the most natural way to start the day. An hour later, Henry was introducing us to his painting sifu Forest, who took us step-by-step though a couple of brush-and-ink paintings of fish and bamboo. As someone who was regularly ridiculed by art teachers throughout secondary school, I'm ludicrously proud of the effort you see here. Stop bloody laughing.
In Guilin, your options for additional excursions are a little more limited. One of the standard ones most tours do is a visit to the Reed Flute Caves, but that wasn't on offer here: instead, we were bussed to the Guilin Hospital Of Sino-Western Medicine for an hour's worth of foot massage and propaganda for Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM as everyone calls it now. (Not to be confused with that TV channel that used to show Get Carter seven times a month.) The BBG wanted to get all Ben Goldacre on their asses, but I always say you should try everything once except incest and folk dancing. (Hello to my sister if she's reading, by the way.) I don't buy any of the wild claims being made for the various treatments on offer, but at least it's a fairly soft sell, made while your feet are being washed in tea, covered in cream and tweaked like crazy. It's quite relaxing, though the main thing I discovered for the first time was just how ticklish my knees are.
I'm glad that I managed to get through a whole paragraph about Asian massage without using the phrase 'happy finish', because the real happy finish to our time on the Li River came the previous evening. It was an option advertised as 'an amazing sound and light show,' which made me assume it'd be one of those tacky son et lumiere things small towns put on to give the tourists something to do in the evening. My interest was cranked up a little when D mentioned that it was directed by one of the guys who worked on the opening ceremony for last year's Beijing Olympics. And my interest went through the roof when I found out it wasn't one of the guys, it was the guy: superstar movie director Zhang Yimou, who spent the first four years of the 21st century assembling a show that ended up becoming his job application for the Beijing gig.
Liu San Jie, which has played nightly in Yangshuo since 2004, is a smaller version of the spectacle that wowed the world in August 2008. Based loosely around a popular folk tale, its sheer scale is mind-boggling - over six hundred performers are involved, in an open-air arena that covers a huge swathe of the Li River. It must be wild being a director and having the power to give directions like "for this section, I need that mountain range over there to be lit up suddenly. See to it." The result is an hour of gigantic visual images: a navy of boatmen stretching red banners across the full width of the river, a dancer skipping gaily across the surface of a floating crescent moon, specially lit costumes making it look like a 600-strong parade of stickmen is crossing the river. A DVD of the show is available for a measly few quid, but no projection system on earth could replicate the impact of the real thing. With luck, Liu San Jie will be the second most visually spectacular thing we see all holiday.
Speaking of which: downtime over. Time to shift up a gear.