China Travelogue-13: Guilin river cruise

Posted in Travel at 10:14 by RjZ

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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