It’s pretty likely that you’ve come to Guilin and Yangshuo because you’re a tourist. It’s one of those places that silly people who don’t like “tourism” avoid. But since you’ve come all this way, you might as well go all out and check out a performance of Impression of Sanjie Liu. Instead of a stage, this huge performance is played in open air, on the water of the Li river, with the natural islands and erosion carved karst cliffs in the background.
I could tell you all about the Zhang Yimou’s efforts to create this amazing performance, but you can read about that all over the web. You may recognize Zhang Yimou from the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. He tried out his ideas of thousands of performers adorned with lights performing in sequence from this play, which he continues to work on and change, so that on your second and third trip to China, you can check it out again and see how it’s changed.
Instead of rehashing the amazing performance, though, I’d like to tell you what you’re likely to face as a tourist on your way there.
When you buy tickets, most tourist agencies in Guilin or Yangshuo are going to describe three zones for you. The “A”, “B”, and “C”, zones represent the ‘blankets and newspaper seats in the front:’ “A”, the comfortable seats further back and higher up with a broad view of the whole show: “B”, and the luxurious seats in the “C” with lounges and roofs in case of rain. What you are not told, at least if you don’t speak Mandarin, is that each of these sections is divided further. You aren’t shown pictures of the seats or given a clear idea where they are, so you’re going to guess. I guessed “B”.
Since you’ve likely bought your tickets at a tourist agency, you’ll also be offered a 20 RMB ride to the show, only about a mile from town. Of course you could walk there, although walking back might be a bit scary on the poorly lit streets with all the traffic leaving at the same time. It’s only a mile, so clearly 20 RMB is a ripoff, but the problem you face is that you don’t likely know where, exactly to walk. Is it worth your time to do reconnaissance before the show and figure this out? I knew I was paying too much, but I decided to spend my time elsewhere and cough up the cash.
You gather early and drive to a few hotels to collect a few more tourists and then, following another panda flag “Go Pandas!” you’re lead to theater gates. It’s crowded. This place must be huge. There are thousands of people here. In attempt not to lose anyone, the guide makes line up in neat straight lines like we’re in grade school. It’s hard to be embarrassed; all the locals are being forced to do the same. Giggling like the school children we look like, we’re counted multiple times and then the guide barks some orders at the polite Laotians at the head of our line because they look like the speak Chinese. They don’t and have no idea what we’re supposed to do next, but we are eventually allowed inside.
Inside is another waiting area. Here an attractively lit giant pagoda styled gazebo has an array of numbered and lettered exits which a Chinese speaker would, no doubt, understand how to associate with the ticket he is holding. Occasionally groups start pushing in one direction or another, and together, our little group of Pandas (our guide is now outside; we’re on our own) tries to figure out which exit is ours and when we should push through it.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter much. The crowds movement swells and becomes unmistakeable. We are funneled through one of the exits and head on a pleasant walk past a few souvenir stands and onto the natural amphitheater. When we are almost there, ushers finally look at our tickets and we discover that we’ve been heading nearly the right way all along.
“A” seats are just fine. They’re not newspaper on the ground; but rather reasonable, if not terribly comfortable looking, plastic chairs. Being ‘too’ close is hardly a huge tragedy either. You might miss a few things, but honestly, I thought it would be nice to be closer many times. I broke out my telephoto lens to get a closer view of the cute little farmer girls and the fisherman’s costumes. One complaint I heard from some fellow tourists when we regrouped was that the Chinese can be a pretty noisy lot. Fellow westerners noticed that locals weren’t terribly interesed in the details of the play and were busy eating the food they brought with them while arguing about who should have the cashew chicken. Very distracting.
“C” seats seem pretty silly. Apparently neither tourists nor locals were convinced to buy any on the night I saw the play. They were nearly completely empty. You’ll feel very special a few feet behind the “B” seats, and servers will bring you drinks, but you won’t have any better view and you’ll need an even longer telephoto to appreciate the costumes.
“B” seats seemed just right in terms of decorum of others in attendance and the distance from the performance. A couple of groups of tourists, including some Pandas, were ushered to our “B”-Deluxe classy whicker like plastic chairs and a free bottle of cold water. Our nearly empty section was a head above the rows in front of us and had a commanding view of the performance, if a bit far from the action. However, just in front of us, in only slightly less attractive plastic chairs, was the “B”-Standard section, a bit more than half of our price with no serious disadvantage and, indeed, the front of this section would be perfect.
I have no idea how you get a seat in this section. It was never offered to me, but perhaps just knowing about it might help you. All the local Chinese were sitting there and nearly every seat in that section was full. It’s the best option.
Information about the show explains that cameras are not allowed, and neither are bags or much of anything, but none of these rules is enforced, and I didn’t even realize the camera wasn’t allowed until reading about it later. The better seats come with a free bottle of water, and you can buy a poncho if it rains lightly (which it often does.) Come thinking it will be cheesy, that way, even though technically it is cheesy, you’ll be even more amazed at how much you’ll love it.
After the show we follow the happy, wide eyed, crowds passed the lake, along the river, the pagoda/gazebo and finally out the gates where our guide should be waiting for us. She’s not, so we’re off to find the 20 RMB shuttle we’ve paid for instead of just hiring a golf cart shuttle. You’ll want to stick with your little group of Pandas here, because together, you’ll probably be able to piece together the lefts and rights it took to get from the van to the entrance. Eventually. If you make it in a reasonable time, you’ll still be able to have a drink in downtown Yangshuo.
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122 USD: plane from Wuhan to Guilin
9 RMB: bottled water in the airport
8 RMB: ice cream (the airport is boring, food relieves the boredom)
5 RMB: giant bowl of ramen noodles. The locals love these, it’s about time we try some.
120 RMB: hostel in Guilin
720 RMB: Li river cruise, and Yangshou river show
The tourist bus which will take us to the river boats picks us up directly from the hostel. Not too surprising as the hostel is directly across from the Sheraton hotel, but convenient none the less. I wonder if this makes the hostel classier or brings down the prices at the Sheraton. Either way, no one from the fine hotel appears to be joining us and we’re off to pick up other tourists at other hotels in Guilin. As we collect them, we begin interviewing each other on where we’re from and how long we’ll be in China for. I know this is tired and entirely cliché, but I rather like this process. I am fascinated to learn about the demographics of our fellow tourists and what brings them to this destination. Is it a vacation or a wedding? Are they personally paying for this trip or is a business footing the bill. Is this budget travel, adventure travel, luxury travel? In five minutes I’d met all of those possibilities.
The Li river cruise is the absolute height of package tour, big sight, tourism. But the scenery here is so obviously outstanding and special, that there is no reason to expect otherwise and it simply can’t be missed. You’re about the glide on a river boat passed the scenery pictured on the back of a an 20 Yuan note, for Mao’s sake! The next few days of the trip was both incredibly touristy, but also a chance to enjoy a relaxing intimacy with China and the land, and all on a quick paced tour. But first, the cruise.
Before we leave the bus we are treated to brief comments about Guilin by our guide, Xiao Ping. She explains how Guilin means ‘osmanthus forest.’ The osmanthus trees, with tiny sweet yellow flowers, were actually in bloom as we visited. Later, during the cruise, we were offered osmanthus tea and osmanthus wine (for an extra cost.) Xiao Ping also tells us that it will be easy to remember her name as it sounds like “shopping” (she’s right!) She introduces us to our bus driver, who’s name isn’t nearly so memorable, and, best of all, we learn that we too will finally have our own standard to follow! We are issued panda stickers which to identify us in case we get lost and our stickers perfectly match our our panda flag which we are meant to follow at all times! It’s exciting to finally have a flag to follow like the legions of Chinese tourists, even if we weren’t issued matching hats.
We arrive to at the mostly identical river-cruise boats, lined up next to each other and moored together at the dock. We follow our Panda flag hopping from one boat to the next until we arrive at a three deck river boat. We’re led first to the bottom deck and explained when lunch will be served and then introduced to Elvis, our new guide. The Chinese often pick English names and Elvis explains that he chose his because he really likes the famous American singer. It’s easy to imagine Chinese Elvis, and his slicked black hair, as an impersonator crooning into a microphone, swiveling his hips, and pointing triumphantly at the sky. He’s young, but it’s still late career, Las Vegas, Elvis.
The boats leave, one after another, and the river is suddenly filled with a string of cruise ships stretching for miles in front and behind us. Our boat is peopled by western tourists (it’s an English tour), but that also means that are only about 20 or 30 of us total and while we likely had to pay a bit more (actually, a Chinese speaking American traveling with us had already checked that out and it wasn’t very much more at all) it is nearly empty, while other boats in the queue are quite full.
It’s a hazy day and hardly made for great photos, but the scenery is everything it’s been promised to be and Elvis explains the names and stories of each of the formations as we pass slowly by them. Here are 9 riders “do you see them?” there is the monk and lady “see her, there, on the top of that cliff?” and so on. We usually don’t see them, or maybe we do, but it doesn’t seem to leave much impression on the tourists, even if we do look and point excitedly each time Elvis points out another feature.
Bamboo pirate raft.
A merchant on a long, bamboo raft is suddenly chasing our boat and then, waving a giant fan in one hand and managing the tiller and several jade-like statues, rides up along side like a pirate and ties to our boat as if he is about to board us, all the while we continue steaming down the river. Indeed, he is successful selling a couple of green statues to some of the tourists on the boat. Along the river shores we pass by a few villages and rice fields. We pass some farmers tending to water buffalo and a some older men with their fishing cormorants resting before for their night’s work. The big moment finally arrives when we round a bend and Elvis points excitedly to beautiful cliff formations holding up a 20 Yuan bill to compare. This is the very point depicted on the back of the currency. It’s difficult to make out exactly the same configurations of cliffs, but it’s easy to see how this beautiful spot would earn the honor of being on the back of the money even if I can’t see just where the artist stood.
Finally, the cliffs on either side of the river spread out and the announcements of scenery become less frequent. We are left to enjoy the cruise on the sunny deck, or below in the lounge as we gently continue down the river for another hour to Yangshuo. Xiao Ping (Shopping) has been negotiating with tourists trying to discover what they have already agreed to buy and offering them other opportunities for sight seeing. I disappoint her a bit by adding nothing further to our schedule and only asking how we will get the tickets to the show that we’ve already paid for, even though we haven’t booked a hotel. “No problem, we find you.”
When we arrive in Yangshuo each of the tourists is handed off to yet another tour guide based on their choices for the rest of day. There are the city tours, the deluxe hotels, and bike tours. This is our third tour guide of the day. Division of tourist labor is clear and each person has only a limited time to build a relationship and earn a few tourist dollars. It’s yet another economic puzzle. Is this more or less efficient then one guide who builds trust with a disparate group of tourists?
We are shown a hotel or two, but then still ask to see one that is recommended in the Lonely Planet guide book. Indeed, it’s quite a bit more to our taste and for less money to boot. And “Susan,” our new guide seems to have no hard feelings and hopes we’ll consider a city tour with her later. She’ll collect us tomorrow for the show, now that she knows where we’ll be staying. She hands us our card (“call me if you have any problems.”—of course, we have no phone, but thanks) and we’re free of our panda flag with plenty of time to enjoy the charming village of Yangshuo before the play later on tonight.
2.50 RMB: breakfast in the hostel
3 RMB: more bottled water
37 RMB: fancy dinner
100 RMB: Yangshuo hotel
5 RMB: local map
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Thanks to Mr. Hu, we’ve already got a night-bus ticket out of Huangshan city. When we arrived and discovered that the trains to Guilin were booked up days in advance, Mr. Hu had suggested a bus to the large city of Wuhan where there would surely be connections. The upshot is that there is a limited time to get off the mountain and back to town to catch the bus. We made surprisingly good time but the bus transfer could still be 20 minutes, or an hour, or something else in Chinese that I couldn’t make out.
My partner had a brilliant idea I wish I could take credit for. Two young Chinese tourists were wandering around deciphering the bus problem. But would they be willing to share a taxi with us? A bold introduction and yes! With their help we negotiated a fair price back to town and right back to Mr. Hu’s restaurant. During the ride we asked each other questions about our travels. They were on their way to more sacred mountains and generally seeing their beautiful country, just like college students tour Europe or follow Jack Kerouac’s trail.
With time to spare, we enjoyed another meal from Mrs. Hu and entered our own positive review of Mr. Hu into his note book of recommendations. While writing it, one thought did occur to me though. We’re assuming all of his suggestions are good ones, including our pending trip to Wuhan, but it’s not likely we’ll come back and tell him what happened.
This is what happened. He brought us to the bus station, really the lobby/restaurant of another hotel further up the street, and told us someone would come get us when the bus arrived. After another half hour, a bus had stopped outside, blocking much of the traffic on the narrow village streets, and a person rushed in and gathered us.
We rabbited across the street and shuffled our belongings into those we’d take on the bus and those that would go under it. Entering the bus, the driver demanded we remove our shoes and gave us plastic bags to put them in. The bus was lined with three rows, each three high, of sleeping bunks. The narrow beds were mostly already occupied with reclined Chinese in white sheets and blankets in various states of wakefulness. The bunks were slightly inclined at the head, making enough room for a pocket large enough for the feet of the passenger behind you.
We selected bunks and tried to settle in as the bus drove off. Mine wasn’t the best choice, broken and bouncing so that I ended up moving to another further back in the bus. This time it reclined fully and I no longer spent much of my time pushing my feet against the round end of the pocket trying not slide down further. My bunk in the back had it’s own problems, being right over the engine, it was noisy and hot. All the same, the vigorous hike made me tired enough to sleep.
We arrived, confused and bleary, at 2 am in Wuhan. Wuhan is a huge city, actually made up of three cities that have grown into each other. The bus driver wanted to know where we meant to stop. We kept trying to translate train station, but it wasn’t getting through. The problem is probably that there is more than one. Eventually he dropped us off with a taxi driver who had the same problem with us. Another driver eventually decided to take us to a train station, trying to warn us about no trains. The station was, indeed, closed.
It’s now around 3 am. We found a ticket office and the kind clerk had to go and wake up an even more bleary eyed clerk who could understand us enough to explain that all the sleeper cars to Guilin are sold out for days.
In the middle of the night, noodle carts owners are cutting vegetables and starting their pots boiling. One even offers us a steaming breakfast, maybe he’ll get an early customer! There is almost no one around and the few that are, don’t exactly look like the best China has to offer. We stop at a Super 8 (yes, Super 8!) hotel for information and, as luck with have it, they have a public computer there. We log on and check for flights to Guilin. It’s after 4 am by the time we’ve found something. Lacking sleep, we foolishly decide that it seems a shame to stay in a hotel for a few hours before the flight that afternoon. We’ll just go to the airport and wait there. It will be clean, and they’ll have toilets to wash up. Let me just admit that there is no logic at all to this conclusion. How is sitting in the airport going to be better than a few hours of sleep? I’m a budget traveler, true, but this seems like a good time to spend $40.
The airport is not actually open until 6 am, which I am sure the cab driver was trying to tell us when he shrugged and gave up. We wait outside as a few tourist groups slowly arrive and step out of busses in matching red baseball caps or yellow bucket hats. I wonder briefly if there is going to be a rumble, but the two tourist armies seem to be at truce. We eventually get inside for an aimless 10 hour wait in an airport, but, even though the plane is delayed, we do arrive, exhausted in Guilin. In our weakened state, even the tourist agencies in the airport are able to sell us something and before we know it, we’ve got a ticket on the boat cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, a ticket to the huge performance and the friendly agent has even helped us book the night in the youth hostel we’re planning on staying in, along with a bus to get us there.
What a day. It’s time for some noodles and a sleep. We’ve got to get up early tomorrow for the cruise. It wasn’t really Mr. Hu’s fault that getting out of Wuhan wasn’t nearly as easy as he thought, and no one who reads his notebooks will ever know.
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After stuffing ourselves, fueling up and trying to get our money’s worth at the hotel breakfast buffet, it’s time to shoulder the backpacks and hike down the west side of Huangshan. The maps are no more reliable today than they were yesterday, so the biggest concern is making sure we find the correct way down.
60 RMB: breakfast buffet
5 RMB: bottled water
44 RMB: groceries (snacks for the hike)
20 RMB: more snacks
In pretty short order we hike past yesterday’s sunrise spot and into unexplored territory and new views. We’re not alone. Tourists are stuffing the trails and bumping around snapping pictures and following their megaphone-toting flag-bearers. The wide trails are not enough for all the people and it’s slow going as people navigate the uneven stairs in dress shoes.
At each junction we consult the signs and maps and try to snap a few more pictures of the views, but we’ve got a long hike ahead so we don’t dilly-dally too much. As we begin the real descent the views open up more. Ahead are trails snaking straight down into the canyon and straight back up the peaks. The first peak we pass, Lotus peak, is closed. That’s one dilemma down, at least: we don’t feel obligated to climb it.
Here at the junction of the trails, crowds gather to catch their breath and snap more pictures. One of the most popular subjects are western tourists. Frequently a boy or a girl will surreptitiously sit next to one of us and someone else will fire off a shot.
Sometimes, they’ll even ask us if it’s OK and then they put their arms around us and flash a peace sign and a huge grin at the camera. We ask them why they want to take pictures of two middle aged Americans and get various answers including “because we’re just so happy….” Mostly it’s young people, but at one point an overly charming group of seniors who we’ve just greeted calls us back and asks stand for a picture with them. The same giddy and embarrassed laughter ensues, same grins; the only difference is no one flashes a peace sign this time. It happens so frequently that it gets annoying sometimes and it’s easy to feel like a monkey in a zoo, but it’s pretty nice how excited the Chinese are to see western tourists in their country.
In spite of the long queues on the steep sections, we’re making pretty good time by the time we reach the Yung Ke, or Welcome Pine. We eventually identify which is the famous pine among the hundreds and hundreds of tourists as the one that an entrepreneur is charging to take pictures in front of. But where is the trail to continue down?
We explore every possible exit from the square, gift shop, bathroom, and restaurant at Welcome Pine and push through dense throngs of tourists, but the trail is no where to be found. Parents of children blocking our view of the map sign finally notice and ask them to move and reveal the sign. It points to Welcome Pine, just a few steps down, where we’ve just been.
Enough of being lost! With bulky backpacks we decide to push right into the crowd of photo snapping tourists and lo and behold, here is the trail. No one minds us stepping right in front of their photos and jostling them to get to trail and even more surprising is how excellent the view of Welcome Pine actually is once we’ve pressed passed.
There is no reason for them to be crowding around above; the view and photo is just as easy to make from here, perhaps they’ll never now. The hiking is quicker now that we’ve made it passed the bulk of the crowd. We continue our steep descent into steep granite canyons and gorgeous views. Ahead of us, I can see Celestial Peak and a trail of ladder-like stairs going impossibly up the side of the mountain. A trail of Chinese ants with cameras around their necks seems to be making their way up the mountain. Near the foot of the peak, and less than half way down to the busses, we meet a breathless group of Japanese men who point to the peak and exclaim how wonderful the views are from the top. We must go, they insist. Only 20 minutes to the top. “Even with backpacks?” we inquire, but they just go on about how amazing it is.
Stupid tourists. Of course we’re convinced, and suddenly we’re sweating up the just shy of vertical carved stairs and nooks in the side of the mountain. Colorado-strong, we make it up to the narrows, a one person at a time ledge, exposed on both sides, with a low, swinging, chain fence as likely for safety but also an obstacle to trip over, in the promised 20 minutes. At the end of the short, don’t-look-down stretch a woman tries to stop us—to take a picture with us!
Fortunately the pressing crowd has the sense to convince her this is a bad idea as we press off the ledge to finish our ascent. The incredible views and the buzzing of a man engraving names of our fellow achievers onto medals that everyone is wearing are enough to convince us to cough up 20 RMB for a our own personalized memento.
As steep as it is going up, it’s no wonder there aren’t many people continuing their hike and going down the back side. Less dramatic, the trail now passes through slots so tight I remove my backpack and drag it behind me trying to get it through. There are foot holds chipped into walls of the mountain and pockets carved out at just the right spot for hands, but the constant straight down plunging is wearing on our thighs. There’s no way to know, now, if we’re making good time and will be able to get to our night bus to Wuhan in time or not, so,on we fall down Huangshan mountain, one step at a time.
Until we rejoin the main trail, there are no crowds, just an occasional group of scared tourists wondering how they got on this trail. Looking back, it’s not so bad, but managing all the exposed stairs with tired legs and a backpack was a frightening ordeal, even for an experienced Colorado hiker. The main trail is wider and we merge with the flow of tourists and realize that we’re actually going to make it down the mountain with time to spare. All we have to do is find the bus!
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