Thursday, 31 March 2011

Yangshuo, Sunshine and Bicycles, 29 - 4 February 2011

Gulp... Another cup of Tsing Tao beer down the gullet of our wincing opponent as Matt executed a precision shot landing the ping pong ball directly inside the cup and sinking to the bottom like a seasoned professional. It is well known that Matt travelled to Oregon a few years ago for an intensive training course with the indigenous people to improve his skill in Beer Pong. I had, however, never played the sport before that evening on the roof top bar above the infamous Monkey Jane's hostel and was pleasantly surprised by my natural skill as we won and arguable became champions of the evening, only succumbing to Monkey Jane herself. The bar was good fun, full of life and was the only place in town for backpackers to party. However, we strategically made the decision not to stay in the hostel as we agreed it was best to stay in a quiet place and drink elsewhere.

Earlier that day we left Guilin on the local bus to Yangshuo which was an absolute joy. The weather was overcast but dry and the bus steamed its way through the city and out into the countryside playing chicken with oncoming vehicles and practically forcing cyclists off the road. Whilst waiting for the bus we met a Vietnamese gentleman who was studying and working in China and he smugly informed us that he visited the rice terraces the day after we did and retrieved his camera to show us photos of the fantastic sun drenched scenery that was beneath him. It's surprising what a difference one day can make!

Nestled amongst karst outcrops and hugging the shore of the Li River, Yangshuo is to all extent a tourist town. The main street, West Street, is full of shops selling tourist memorabilia, restaurants, bars and crammed with Chinese tourists on their Spring Festival holiday. It was a pleasant place and I immediately felt much more relaxed than I had been for many weeks in the busier cities of Chinese. Of course, with every tourist town in the world there comes touts trying to sell you tours, accommodation or trying to coerce you inside their restaurants and bars. A walk down by the river incurs many offers to take you out on a bamboo raft down the river, however, it was so cold when we arrived it would have been hard to agree to any of these.

Our first full day was a special day, it was Sunday and we all know it means dim sum day! However, when we asked they had no idea what we meant and directed us to a bakery. We later discovered that dim sum is a local speciality of the Cantonese regions of Honk Kong and Guangdong province so we abandoned our search and settled for a well deserved normal everyday Chinese meal to celebrate our Beer Pong victory the previous night. Whilst looking through the menu, Matt's obsession for choosing the most obscure item was not repressed and he chose frog but was disappointed when they returned to tell him he couldn't have it so he had to settle with pig intestines. The restaurant was absolutely awful as we were served after many people who came in later than us. Matt's food came out, mine came about ten minutes later after many attempts to get the attention of the waiter and then the rice arrived as we finished the meat dish. Needless to say we never ate there again and we discouraged anyone else from going there too.

Following our rubbish meal we planned to head out on a bicycle ride around the surrounding countryside despite the grey sky above and the cold which forced Matt to buy a genu-ine Gucci hat and a pair of Thinsulate gloves. There is not much you can say about Yanghsuo apart from absolutely beautiful. Cycling around the small country villages that hugged the awe inspiring karst landscape is truly amazing. Many times, Matt and I were speechless as we stopped to take in the fairytale landscape the likes of which neither of us had seen before. I think in this circumstance, pictures say more than words... so here's two....

Cooking Chicka-de-Chinese-de-Chinese-Chicken

Two of our dishes
Considering our horrid meal the previous day we thought we would take matters into our own hands and attend a cooking lesson. We were picked up from our guest house in the morning and taken to the local food market where we were shown different fruits, vegetables and herbs and taught how to prepare them. The sound of the market will haunt me for a long time, chickens clucking and dogs barking followed by the constant sound of meat cleavers powerfully cutting through flesh, bone and coming to rest on chopping boards. The sight of skinned dogs hanging up off hooks with their teeth showing their painful ends as they were taken out of their cramp confinement and beaten to death. With that image singed into our minds, we all hopped in the minibus and headed to the kitchen.

There were a good group of us standing in front of our gas stoves and the ingredients that would make our five different dishes. One notable dish was the local speciality of Beer Fish! I don't know why, but that's the only one I can fully remember. Back in November, whilst Matt and I were in Tallinn, Matt put a song in my head, well not an entire song but the one line that is repeated in The Killers' 'All the Things that I've Done'... “I've got soul but I'm not a soldier. I've got soul but I'm not a soldier...”. Today was no different from the previous ninety days, the lyrics were circling my head, round and round, it broke the surface and became audible infecting the rest of the group. We all cooked along to the sweet sounds of The Killers being hummed around the room.

I always knew that Chinese food wasn't the most healthy food but whilst preparing the dishes the tutor kept saying “Now put in half oil and one salt.”. I'm not sure how much oil and salt went into the dishes but I know it wasn't a healthy amount! Whilst in the preparation stage, the kitchen was filled with frantic foreigners trying to keep up with what the tutor was saying as she didn't stop for breath in between instructions, so fast I can't remember anything I had been taught. I was impressed by the way she was wielding her kitchen knife like a true professional compared to me, on the other side of the spectrum, concerned about cutting my fingertips off with every slice. We all got through it without any blood loss and after each dish was made we all abandoned the kitchen and sampled the results of our toils on the terrace overlooking the river. Although there is very little to go wrong when stir frying, I was surprised by my exceedingly good culinary skills and enjoyed each one of my dishes.

That evening was our last evening in the Charming Inn and we decided not to extend our stay as it was so freaking freezing in the room. Still not overly keen on heading to Monkey Jane's to stay, we were on the look out for another place to stay, and two girls that were in our cookery class invited us to have a look round Showbiz Inn where they were staying. The rooms had air conditioning unit making them luxuriously warm and with its own rooftop bar convinced us that we should hoist our stuff out of the coldness and across the road. Our last night in Charming Inn was terrible, I was in my thermals and physically and violently trembling with the cold. My gut was wrenching for some reason and I expelled the contents of my stomach. I didn't understand why, I didn't drink that evening and I the only thing I ate was what I made at at the cookery course...

Not all bikes are good bikes

Feeling stupid and unhealthy I sent a burst of energy to the muscles in my legs and ordered the small pink bicycle to ascend the hill. In a bid to save money, Matt and I had gone for the cheaper option when it came to hiring bikes and it's true when they say 'you get what you pay for'. These single geared bikes are only good enough for an elderly person who needed to cycle to the corner shop and back but not the 12km round trip through the rolling road to Fúlí. On a mountain bike, the ride wouldn't take long at all but on these, it seemed to be a never ending assault of long steady ascents, burning calves and aural attacks from crazy bus driver's horns. However long the ascents were, we remained determined and remembered that those ascents will become declines on the way back. Fúlí is a bustling market town and the day we were there was even busier as it was the eve of Chinese New Year meaning people were out buying food to prepare a feast for their families. We strolled through the market with our bikes in tow and emerged out on the other side where the dusty roads were progressively turning red with the wrappers of spent firecrackers that were being blown up outside people's homes and shops. Matt and I leisurely cycled through the streets and came out on the riverbank where several buffaloes where munching their way through the grass. After reaching the river we turned back and returned to Yangshuo in preparation for the evenings festivities.

Chinese New Year, mostly known to Chinese as Spring Festival, is the most important holiday and celebration of the year. The beginning of this year's festival started on 3 February and saw the passing of the year of the dog and welcomed in the year of the rabbit. We sat on the rooftop bar eating a hot pot the hostel organised and listened to the barrage of fireworks exploding all around. I later went down to see what was going on and left the rest in the bar as they were complaining about the cold. The streets were empty, everybody was obviously with their families or in restaurants eating. The riverbank was bursting with life, lots of people congregating to set off fireworks which encouraged me to go and find some. A shop on the front was selling a table full of fireworks and I chose the biggest there. With the fireworks in hand I convinced the others to come out a set them off with me. I thought they were going to be awesome but they turned out to be silly little flares that streamed out of the tube. After we finished setting those off, a very excitable, probably drunk on rice wine came down to the bank screaming with a huge reel of firecrackers in his hand. I had never heard such intense noise in my life and that marked the end of the evening.

Feeling ridiculed from the previous day's bike, we decided that we were going to hire mountain bikes this time and explore more of the area we cycled on the first day but go further as we had more time. So we set off, Matt on his man's bike and me having to settle for a woman's bike. The ride was absolutely stunning as the sun had penetrated the clouds shining on the karst landscape and relieving us from our hat, gloves and jackets. Along the way we joined up with another group who were cycling the same track on Dragon bridge and ate lunch together on a floating restaurant. The sun was absolutely gorgeous and I had high hopes for the new year! As we were cycling through the small villages I was shocked by the small children playing with firecrackers, some couldn't have been older than 4 years old. This wouldn't happen in the West at all.

Matt squeezed in the back.
Our last day in Yangshuo was another beautiful sunny day and a fantastic day to visit the neighbouring town of Xingping which is a quaint village on the other side of the river between Yangshuo and Guilin. After some egg tarts at the bakery with Fen from the hostel, we boarded a cramp bus towards Yangshuo. I'm not entirely sure Matt enjoyed the journey as his length surely presents issues on Asian buses. The scenery around Xingping is breathtaking and is made even more famous by the 20 Yuan note and walking around the river you can see why it is such a national icon. This day trip was our last in Yangshuo as we had booked our sleeper bus tickets to Guangzhou that evening.  It was a shame to leave Yangshuo as it was by far one of the most beautiful places I have visited yet.

Matt and I in Xingping
Streets of Xingping

Next Time, Guangzhou

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