The morning has a refreshing breeze and my corner room with Windows on 2 sides is a relaxing place to read Xinran’s “Good women of China”, a revealing investigation by a radio broadcaster into the role of women in Chinese society, through the eyes of those who are oppressed and forced to conform.
Busy sounds and voices permeate the air, butterflies flutter over the rice stalks near my window. Later on the terrace I observe how business is conducted here with locals calling by with baskets on their backs plying their produce. One man has fresh white and red speckled bamboo shoots. A woman in local dress has a pole on her shoulder, a sack on one end containing a primitive balance, the one at the opposing end is full of an orange bark. She encourages me to chew a sliver. It has a spicy sharp taste like cinnamon. The girl at reception tells me it’s used in traditional medicine. Most of the stuff consumed up here is brought up on people’s backs apparently.
I chat with her for a while. She is from Fujin province and majored in business English. Never been out of China, found the job here by Internet, believe it or not.
The peaceful atmosphere is shattered by an obnoxious Chinese girl who checks in, laughs at me for asking if there is meat in the dumplings on the menu, then walks onto the terrace conducting a loud video chat that goes on for 15 minutes. She can’t talk quietly, has no sense of others’ space, no appreciation of the location and succeeds in driving me inside. She kind of encapsulates many of the negative characteristics I’ve noticed in a certain demographic 0f modern young Chinese. Loud, rude, phone obsessed and selfish. I wonder if she has read Xinran. I wonder what her perceptions of modern woman in China are. I will never find out. She has now walked into the lounge and sits at the bar carrying on her conversation oblivious to the receptionist 1 metre away and me again. Is she going to spend the whole of her stay doing this? Now she is giving whoever the bloody guy on the other end a video tour. If they miss each other so much, why not come here together? I have to go for a walk and get away from this abomination.
I thought cockerels only cocksdoodledoo at day break, not throughout the night. It makes it kind of confusing knowing when to wake up. As nature’s alarm clock is inaccurate I let my phone get me up. It is still dark and very very quiet as I tiptoe out of the hostel to climb 40 minutes to scenic spot 1 to await sunrise. The walk on a rug get stone path takes you out of the tiny village and over a couple of hills, each crowned by a new guest house under construction, with convenient unfinished concrete platforms abutting the hillside which serve as convenient viewing platforms. They remove the rural charm, but you have to accept that although the rice terraces is an ancient landscape it is also man made, and the locals inevitably are moving with the times, and tourism is a cash cow. I see Yao women with stretched earlobes from which hang heavy silver ear rings, with bright blue or pink sm0cks, black skirt and leggings, brightly coloured dash round the waist, hair hidden under a black head scarf, brown weathered skin, breaking soil with hoes, selling bags of dried mushrooms, or carrying tourists’ luggage in round baskets strapped to their backs. The men are more conventionally dressed with no obvious ethnic dress. The construction workers sleep in the structures they are working on. Bags of cement are transported up the mountain by horses. It’s a miracle that there is so much development in such a place so inaccessible by road.
The sunrise was wonderful. More pictures will appear here in time.
This is the view from my window in dragons den hostel, a 4o minute climb up through the longji rice terraces from Dazhai. The night sky is impenetrably black. The air is fresh. Shrill Voices, men Ealing by and snorting and spitting in that quintessentially Chinese way, canned music, insects and scraping noises from the building of an extension to the guesthouse next door mean the night is not exactly still. Nevertheless it’s peaceful here and a world away from my usual life.
I met a western boy and girl and a Belgian later, who lives in Beijing. You have to be independently minded and a little determined to get here so the westerners you meet in these places tend to be cool. The place is amazing, and only pictures(coming later) will do it justice.
Well it’s a tourist town with a busy main drag that crosses numerous bridges and a couple of islands. There no acres of tower blocks and life is quite informal. Motorbikes seem to have priority over pedestrians on the pavements, a lot of hoiking and spitting. Motor cycle taxis. Thousands of Chinese tourists, hardly any English signage, abundance of fruit stalls. I can’t deal with the Chinese only train station to book my tickets for next week, and it’s just as well as I change my plans later in the morning when I check whether Kk will be free next week or not. Guilin is quite disorientating, I don’t seem to find anything easily even with a map and gps. I do manage to get to the most glorious nengren temple vege buffet restaurant. It’s quite well appointed and busy with large groups of quite old Chinese sitting around communal round tables. It’s a bargain at 28 rmb, and the food is so amazing that I have to fit my plans around getting there again.
I’m not sure if this is a river or one of the lakes. Under the shade of trees on the banks elderly play cards, younger men are sleeping by their motorbikes. Now I’ve found the rong lake. This would have been idyllic with villas on the banks and Qing era painters and writers drawing inspiration from the waters and the karst peaks in the near distance. Little bridges and pavilions on the water proliferate. At night these and the trees on the shores are lit red green blue green. It’s actually not too gaudy. At the second lake there are some anglers. Standing proud in the lake are the twin pagoda towers of the moon and the sun. A spectacular tourist sight indeed. I’m accosted by a local guy who offers me a cigarette, then asks me how much my watch cost. He wants to show me his, which has a window on its reverse that shows its mechanism. Our conversation goes nowhere. I would like to speak to people but I want to know their political views and perceptions of society, and not to ask how old are you and where are you from. This will never be possible. Soon I’m joined on a bench by liu tang, who has faltering English but is engaging. He turns out to be master painter who has travelled China painting and teaches at uni. I let him take me to his and his friend, Robert, little gallery stall. His work is exquisite and very atmospheric. He paints in s traditional style, water colour landscapes. Liu has to excuse himself as his wife needs him. I spend a long time with Robert talking about art. He tells me that Liu is quite famous and very respected. He has work in the Sheraton hotel and in the national museum. Robert’s paintings are figurative and not nearly as evocative. He tells me that they sell their work here to raise money for orphaned kids. He shows me some antique calligraphy and illustrative paintings, some textiles from various minority groups, and tells me how he is influenced by wild swans, which is banned in China. He has it there hidden under a pile of stuff. He tells me he is keen for foreigners to appreciate and share his culture. There is no pressure, and we hit it off, and so I have bought one of liu’s works.Walking back a guy chats to me as I’m trying to cross the road. He tells me he has studied tea production..and is very informative about my destination tomorrow, and suggests things I might be interested in. But I don’t want to go on a group trip to the rice terraces, or go to the theatre.
Sunset over the lake is pretty, and the coloured lights somehow enhance it. Over the lake from the pagodas some out of tune singing comes from a little open air performance area. Nearby a woman plays a triangular ceramic pipe. On one of the bridges a threesome of boys of about 20 play very well performed melodic rock. Next door is the pitiful sight of an old man with a grey whispy beard in a wheelchair, crooning over some old Chinese pop playing from a crackly portable speaker. The Chinese listen exclusively to Chinese music. Strolling along the river both young and old play music through the tinny speakers of their phone. This apparent inability to enjoy the pleasures of being outside reminds me of the phenomenon I witnessed each Sunday in Italy of men walking the countryside or standing ion street corners with little transistor radios clammed to an ear, listening to a live soccer match.
The express train
We are now doing 236 kph. In a tunnel so it could be any speed. It doesn’t feel fast. It’s rising to 244
Guangzhou sprawls with a horizon of layer upon layer of the crenellations of groups of towers. A vast scrapyard full of motorbikes. Vast waterways with container ships. The sprawling suburbs give way to the grids of fish farms divided by low green dykes. Elevated roads on stilts that stretch above the city as far as the eye sees. Concrete. Concrete that eventually gives way to the mountains north west, hence the tunnel. It’s become countryside at last. The other side of the mountains is less planned, less urban, picturesque!
Guangzhou south station was like an air terminal. 26 platforms for ultra fast trains with thousands of passengers waiting, some playing chess on the floor. Numerous departure boards, lacking in consistency and clarity. Another screaming 5 year old, wrestling with his mother in the queue at the ticket gate.
The train takes us over a fertile plain full of paddies and small low rise towns with people gardening. Kids play on the ruined pillars of a former road bridge on a river. As we approach he zhou the surrounding landscape becomes an awesome dusky series of majestic pointed limestone peaks, like a drawing from a fairy tale book, the pale oranges streaks of sunset fading now. Like halong bay on land.
The following hour is played out by soaring music like “there there” by radiohead and “transeurope express” by kraftwerk in my headphones, as we plunge through dark tunnels emerging onto more water and paddies and now the bright orange disc of the sun cutting shards of gold over the lakes and rivers. What an amazing rail trip.
I think I’m doing well when I get straight on the recommended bus in Guilin but panic a bit and lose my bearings, getting off too soon and have to walk 40 minutes down Zhongshan road, partially accompanied by a local who calls me his teacher. The hostel is, as the name riverside hostel would suggest, right at the rivers edge. There is a peaceful terrace that steps you out into a walkway lot by coloured lights. The city is certainly a tourist Mecca. A street market selling jade, calligraphy, paintings, lucky stones, durian. It’s quite low intensity and very different from Guangzhou.
Sunday morning liu rong Buddhist temple.
Chinese toddlers are quite rowdy and sometimes badly behaved. There’s always one screaming somewhere, in a temple, on a subway, in a restaurant. Mothers are not very soothing, fathers look mildly indifferent. They play with scissors in shops, and crawl along the parapet to the lake. Parents exasperation is the closest there is to prevention or chastising. Bottles of baby milk are favoured. Push chairs aren’t common, with babies often carried lolloping, over a parental shoulder or dangling sleeping out of their arms.
In general kids seem to be cute-sy and it’s definitely a distinct identity that they have. They wear cartoon character- like clothes, run around shouting and are needy of their parents. British kids from an early age are styled like young adults with groomed hair, piercings and sexualised clothing.
As I make these observations my mood softens. Maybe it’s the herbal infusion in the temple garden, the wafting recording of a chant, the refreshing breeze and the rustling trees, or the general civilised calm of visitors incense burning, bowing and wandering from hall to hall.
It seems to be ritual day. Flocks at the temple and church. I don’t know about the mosque, but I passed it anyway. Burning of whole sacks of fake money in braziers. Behind a double barred gate young children are marching and drumming and enacting a flag raising ceremony.
Outside McDonald’s are queues of blind buskers. An old lady has emaciated kittens on sale outside the metro in a cage and shoes away from my camera. Anxious people sit in front of an illuminated board with people’s lottery numbers. At the counter of a shop a shopkeeper holds her 8 year struggling daughter firm as she attempts to cut her fringe. I our corner cookies lie in their carts, seemingly given up on being hired. One even has a little girl and wife with him. Feels like visitors day at the prison. The wizened little men with their buckets and trowels and tools of their manual trade sit impassive on the kerbs.
The li wan hu park. I’m feeling existential.
Little girl peeing in the bushes. Lily pond pavilion closed almost derelict. Man takes off shirt paces up the gangplank swinging and clapping his hands. He does this warm up several times then proceeds to place his stretched leg on the 1.5m high rail and then bend from the waist so god head meets his foot. Impressive. Flanked by tower blocks but neighboured by pitiful almost slums. Chicken cages and suspicious locals sitting on their steps. Leading up to the park I’ve encountered much more friendly locals who wave as I take their pics. Clusters of men playing cards, smoking, laughter and noisy banter, seated on sheets of newspaper. Old men reading, yes reading. A small boy on a skateboard that had single wheels. Some kind of youth volunteer group cheering and doing a photo call. Cantonese music coming from somewhere. The drone of the traffic. Sulphurous smelling lake. Banyan trees with dangling roots. Some kind of colourful diarama floating in the middle of the lake. A man in a conical hat on a canoe frisking out weed with a net on a pole. A jogger bare chested, green shorts, bouncing rather than running. An dropped black and white baseball cap with roxy in blue and red letters. A father kicks it, his 3 year old son stamps on it. Passers by regard it, walk deliberately step over it but avoid picking it up, as if it is a dead pigeon or something one cannot engage with. Touching it means having to decide what to do with it. It’s someone else’s property. Maybe picking it up is the beginning of theft. Kids on bikes with stabilisers. Middle aged women with Chinese style permed hair. Bright patterned smock like blouses which neither flatter nor provoke. Couples who do not hold hands. Dusk and the twittering of hidden birds. Finally a 2 year old picks up the cap, but when admonished by his 14 year old brother tosses it high over his head and runs after him. This cap fascinates me. Scores of people have passed it by. I have decided to at least give the cap dignity by setting it on the bin. Perhaps the owner will find it again. Red traditional lanterns are lit up on the brown wooden restaurant pavilions by the water. Some kind of squelchy squwak from the bushes. A duck? Fish and lily light sculptures on the water. Tiny yellow leaves are falling on my head. Airliners, car horns, sounds of a train perhaps. The smell of the water, or is it the air is noxious.
A sign reads “love flowers, do not pull down”.
Two rather sad robotic claw machines branded with Mickey Mouse but the toys imprisoned in the glass box are minions rip ifs and Paddington bear type things. The music is quite haunting. The 3 toy story machines next door ate battered, empty of toys, and just contain pieces of polystyrene. The lights are off. Maybe these once gave children joy. A woman on a baseball hat branded with the word black sits nearby reading her phone. She has been here for a while. She must dream this music. There is a whiff of melancholy here. The gangplank to the sedentary pleasure boats with their plastic flower covered roofs is made of old finger signs to locations around the park.
Three girls and 2 boys are attracted to the machines and jiggle the joysticks. The one in the stripes feeds in a coin but drops it under the machine. He goes off to get his mums handbag and rummages for some coins in vain. He asks me for some change, but I can’t help. They are excitable and friendly. He playfully kicks the machine. The mothers come along and chorus hello then bye bye. They don’t manage to work the machine and drift off.
In a pleasant square in the fading light under some shady trees groups of young adults play badminton and hacky sack. Men with small dogs sit in the approaching gloom.