The rest of the afternoon played out slowly. I poked around the business district a bit. Glass, steel, designer brand names, gweilo faces.
A world apart from the side alleys lined with old guys with stalls selling hand carved chops (personal seals). It would be cool to have one, but I’ve spent nearly all my money. I want to take the star ferry for a last time and cross to tsim Sha tsai, and sit among tourists watching boats cross the harbour. I feel a little empty and sadness is creeping. Having spent an hour there, I cross back with the ferry and pick up my bag at fortress hill. My timing is good and fortuitous, the airport bus stops in front of the hostel and takes me through high rise causeway bay, admiralty and centre before sweeping through the tunnel under the harbour, coming up in Kowloon, crossing 2 massive suspension bridges and onto Lantau and the airport. Here I meet Kk, who has taken several hours out of work to see me off. We eat at a Japanese fusion restaurant and I give him the weird Chinese combination lock I got in the antique market, and a dice to help him take risks and arrive at decisions! It’s quite an emotional goodbye. We have done a lot together in the last few months and it’s strange to bring it to a halt until we don’t know when. He videos me as a pass through immigration. It’s like his departure from Brighton -it’s only farewell till the next time. We will meet again soon. That’s for sure.
Yesterday was a day of wandering alone. It rained most of the day. I took the tram to its terminus in shau kei wan and explored the market. Rain blowing through the window at the front of the tram heading west again. Kids in all white uniforms leaving school. Late lunch of wonton soup in veg 6 which feels quite upmarket. Afternoon in wan chai, more market, pal Tai temple and watching football on a flooded bright green pitch.
Meet Kk at 5.45 at tsim Sha tsai. He’s had a hair cut and is very tired from working a 36 shift. We watch dusk from the star gallery and he gives me a gift from his grandfather’s coin collection. One from the time of emperor kanxi (300 years old), the other from the grandson’s era. What a nice sentimental and historical gift.
We meet tom for an Indian dinner at woodlands restaurant. Food isn’t bad. Tom talks a lot about politics. I’m tired and don’t take it all in.
Today is my last day. Kk is working so he’s going to meet me st the airport for a farewell dinner. I’ve spent the day revisiting a few areas, including central and soho. I had lunch at an overpriced health food cafe, then went back to the incense heavy air of man mo temple. Everything is more pricey, more international and faster here. This is the business zone. I browse the antique stalls near the temple and buy myself a souvenir and a gift for Kk. In case he’s reading I won’t divulge the details yet. I’m in a strange head space. Not excited about going back. Feel there is more to explore here. Feel like I’m leaving a part of me here.
A day of travel in various forms. Bus 100 to Guilin north station. 3 hour train journey to Guangzhou south, the city being shrouded by a heavy grey sky and electric storm, making it even more dystopian. A gamble that I can get to Guangzhou east in 2 hours and get on a train even though I haven’t booked in advance pays off, though is slightly stressful with 40 minutes of rammed underground trains, and disorientation at east station. I think my least favourite thing in China is trying to cope with these huge stations. Anyway I’m now on the Hong Kong train. Feels like I’m going home. Certainly I’m back in a “more developed” society. This means everyone is on their phone, looks tired, weary and is indifferent and unfriendly. I’ve come a long way in one day or so.
Here is some fruit from Guilin, forming most of my lunch.
3 more metros and after 9 hours of travel I’m back in Hong Kong at fortress hill again. This time I’m in the main hostel block and the room has more character and even a view. Vege buffet just around the corner 😀
All is not as progressive as the Chinese might have us believe. Close experience with infrastructure development reveals directionless unplanned mess. The road from yangshuo all the way to Guilin (40 miles) is torn up in readiness for a new and wider carriageway. Rather than doing it in sections the idea seems to be to smash up all of the road, leaving bumpy unsurfaced aggregate as the main road. It’s a dust bowl, chaotic, no markings, full of potholes, cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, even a brave cyclist weaving in and out and seizing right of way from sounding their horns. Our bus bumped a truck. This didn’t even wake the guy in the mirrored shades sprawled in the seat behind me. Passengers flag down buses from rudimentary central reservations. The only work I see is manual labouring, cementing kerb stones together, and diggers smashing up Tarmac. There is very very little progress. The guy I met a few days ago on the Dazhai bus told me this is a normal state of affairs in China. We pass through towns which have been bulldozed leaving piles of rubble reassembling a battlefield. The journey takes an age.
Toilets. In my mind the standard of these says a lot about a civilisation. The Guilin bus station ones were horrendous. Squalid squat and shit holes with no privacy. Guys actually using them to do their business whilst playing games on their phones. The toilet at the temple yesterday was even worse. Basically an open gutter in a shed with no flushing facilities. Hold your breath.
Anyway I’m back in Guilin and I time to get to the temple restaurant for another wonderful buffet. I am also able to finally put in some less dirty clothes (having travelled very light to Dazhai and Xingping. At the lake there are various groups of people dancing to recorded music In the glow of the green and red illuminations. One set of folk are female and are practising Chinese classical dance, but not all on time. The others are dressed in black and do some rock and roll jiving then a rhumba. Here and there I catch line older men singing to themselves in the semi darkness by the shore. On the river are small illuminated rafts, each holds the silhouette of a man with a long pole and sitting beside him are 2 or 3 large birds. I summise these are cormorants and these are the fishermen who use them to catch their fish (the birds throats are restricted by a rope so they do not swallow any fish). But they don’t seem to be fishing. A strange thing is that whenever a pleasure boat passes, the guys lift a bird high on their poles. Why is this? To offer a pose for photos? But why do this? What could they gain from this?
A pitch black walk up very steep precarious steps aided by a flashlight took me to a dreamy view of fairy tale peaks and clouds. The only soul there for a while then joined by 2 other photographers to contemplate in awed silence. A great start to the day. Not much more to report as I prepare to leave and begin my slow return journey: Guilin: Guangzhou: HK: UK.
After breakfast with the Germans. I meet up with Echo who works at the hostel for our planned hike. First we have to get across the river li by ferry and the ferryman tries to charge me 5rmb when the local rate is 2. He doesn’t really have a leg to stand on when Echo has just paid 2, but still complains and argues for 10 minutes as we are waiting to depart. On the opposite bank we are met by her friend (and this girl’s friend, plus a puppy) who works in a guest house next to the limestone mountains, surrounded by a peaceful garden where they grow all their vegetables. She gives us a lift in an electric motorbike 3-wheeler with a flat bed trailer. It’s a very bumpy ride and we have to get out and push the flimsy vehicle out of a puddle. After dropping off our transport we begin the walk through farms and orchards of huge pomeloes, towel gourds, golden oranges (these smaller than a ping pong ball, green skin, orange flesh), past pig sties and chicken houses, farmers driving cows. It’s very local, slow and quiet on this side of the river. We are hailed by younger girl of about 17 on a bicycle with her 3 year old brother. She tells us that they are making ginger toffee. This involves boiling up sugar and ginger to make a sticky paste which the gnarly old guy stretches and pulls and twists on a bench. It’s then pulled into strips and as it quickly hardens is snipped into bite size pieces by the family. They also make sweets from their own sesame seeds and peanuts. The walk is hot and eventually the path peters out in front of a sheer cliff face. In spite of Echo’s calls and reference pics sent to the colleague back at the hostel we cannot find the right way and have no choice but to descend. It’s amazing the little boy has made it this far completely willing and untiring, the only problem being his losing his tiny blue flipflop which keeps slipping off and needs to be retrieved. At the bottom we become 3 and adopt a backup plan which is to walk along the river to an evocative cave temple. The cave in question having no illumination save for 3 oil lights at an altar. My friends immediate reaction is to use the flashlight on their phones to guide them, but I insist we enter and acclimatise. It is so still and quiet in there. We take a rest and eat some noodles at Echo’s friend’s ghostly guesthouse then head back before 3 when I go to bed for a few hours. Exhausted from the head, and probably our exertions.
The old quarter, which consists of 4 streets, packs up early evening as the tourists have all gone home. The streets are returned to the residents. Loud shrieking kids running up and down. Families, doors open having dinner. Each house has a plain concrete or stone floor with the living room at the front, revealed through open wooden doors. Each contains simple low stools, a table and a huge tv. This is on in every house usually with the sound turned down. I guess it serves as wallpaper. Nobody is actually watching it. I’m glad the TVs are turned down. The chatter of countless TVs from open doors would be hideous. Some houses display a poster of Mao on their wall. Older people sit in the darkness on their front steps, bare chested men chat in hushed voices.
I can’t accept that guy’s views on meritocracy, and if this is the reality, so much for so-called communism. Even though his father is a cook, his mum does the cooking at home. Makes no sense really. There is a noticeable division of labour in Xingping. The women man (how did this verb originate) the handicraft stalls and sell the vegetables, fruit, chickens. The men are the delivery and tuk tuk drivers. They are the ones who sit in the shade smoking and playing cards. I’ve taken a lot of pics of kids. It’s just occurred that kids are much more visible here than in the uk. Is that a consequence of climate, perceptions of safety among strangers- it’s interesting that mothers are quite into me taking pics of their little ones, even though they might personally turn their head away. Could you imagine that in uk? Imagine the protests, anger and controversy. It’s also nice to see that mobile culture hasn’t permeated society here, and there is definitely no Pokemon go.
The town is lovely and still at 7am. In fact I almost tiptoe through the alleys as people are waking up and throwing open their wooden doors. As I have breakfast I notice a sudden change. Enter the groups of colour coded baseball caps, at their head is a guide carrying a same coloured little pennant. This how the Chinese do tourism. Straight to the river, maybe snapping pics of guesthouse a on the way, ignoring the locals, getting a generic boat trip, buying a generic souvenir, group lunch then back on the bus.
My morning is spent poking around the market again. Here’s a sight from there.
It’s a bright sunny morning and I’m in a bit of a rush, having had an uncomfortable stomach over night. A bowl of yoghurt and fruit sorts me out, before my final walk down the mountain and into Dazhai where the hard sunshine casts an atmospheric light on old women cooking corn in open fires or spreading red chilliscro dry on their verandas.
Strangely the bus leaves a few minutes early. The journey to yangshuo is windy, slow and towards the end incredibly bumpy as the bus traverses an unmade road. Even in this pretty rural enclave of China nothing stops progress, as mountains are sliced open and scarred by machinery as it is becoming more accessible to the outside world, which requires speed and direct straight roads, which unfortunately will increase the volume of traffic exponentially. Out bus makes several pit stops, at one, the driver hoses down the bus. The Chinese boy behind me strikes up conversation. I say boy as it is hard to guess his age accurately. He looks about 18 but turns out to be 26. On the bus with his parents and 2 sisters scattered around the bus. He is sitting alone at the back. He is from shangsha and works in Beijing for a small construction firm. His dream is to build a huge bridge that will carry his name and be his legacy. As he says nobody remembers who built a tower block. There is a piece in the news today about a glass bridge in zhangjiajie, iconic and making a statement about Chinese technology, which is having to close after a couple of weeks due to high volumes. I show the guy a photo of Clifton suspension bridge and explain its importance in terms of engineering. He is distinctly unimpressed and insists that although this type of structure may have been invented in uk it is China that has developed and progressed it. There seems to be a lot of symbolism in architecture and a certain sense of status in terms of communicating to the world what a society is capable of. He reveals that in Beijing any new development must be at least 6 storeys high otherwise it will not get planning percent. As he says China has too many people. I know this is a mistranslation but an apt one, as “a lot of” and “too” are both communicated by “tai”. That’s an interesting linguistic proposition. Does this mean that a large number is always neutral in connotation? Or the converse?
Language is certainly an inhibitor in trying to accomplish some of what I’m curious about. I have an idea of what my rather privileged Chinese students believe and value (though avian their language isn’t sophisticated enough to really communicate their thoughts), but what about the average and less well to do Chinese? My friend on the bus makes a good attempt to discuss many issues. He has not been to university and travels by bus, so it is apparent he is less well off, however his family are middle class, with his sister working in advertising, and his father a cook. I want to know what he feels about media control. He trots out a line familiar to me that the Chinese government protects its people from “bad information” by censoring the Internet. My friend fails to understand my argument that these restrictions undermine the intelligence of a people, and I fact present them with a controlled view of the world. This guy is a living paradox, as whilst he had no issue with state controlled media he uses a vpn to access Facebook and sees this as beneficial. I see this as dual standards and hypercritical. But this is China. Having your cake and eating it. Dogmatic conforming yet self-interested. A communist state in name but a burgeoning consumer society. As I’m reading about the endemic struggles that women have in Chinese society I ask him about gender roles, and I’m not surprised to hear him support the line that men and women are not equal in skills or abilities and that it is natural that men dominate society. He refers to ability, I hope he means possibility, but the more I hear the surer I am that he means the former. There is no room for debate. He sees things as black and white, is not aware of a world I change and the needs to address traditions that stigmatise and oppress. If I were to challenge him he would retort with “you don’t understand China”. Of course this is true, but one of the frustrating things about the Chinese is this catch-all escape clause, which basically circumvents any critical discussion. I see this in my students too. It’s kind of depressing that these views are so unquestionably held and that people such as this guy are not keen to look at other cultures and see there is something to be learnt from them.
Arrival in Xingping is disorientating and in a not very convenient location. I walk about 30 mins along the highway I construction, past numerous builders suppliers, through a tunnel that penetrates one of the hundreds of pointed limestone peaks that make this area so unique. A little local bus takes me north up the river li to the small town of Xingping. Popular with Chinese day trippers, or half-day trippers, who come for a bamboo rafting experience, the departure point of which is directly in front of my window. There is a cluster of hutong with bars and tourist shops, which, although geared up for making money do not seem exploitative. The more interesting area is where the locals are. At dusk, a couple play ping pong on a full size outdoor table, elderly people with their wooden doors open play cards or gaze onto the streets, children play on bikes, the bustling market is winding up, but the live poultry area is still active. Some of the sights here are quite unpleasant, birds being plucked, others squeezed into transporting cages, off for someone’s dinner.
Sunset from the roof of the hostel is pretty. Once the day trippers have gone the hostel area settles down to a slow intimate rhythm and after a wood fired oven pizza (really), an odd experience in China, which doesn’t quite work, as this is a dish that is simple and requires the best quality simple ingredients, and China is not known for tomatoes or mozzarella, I have s lengthy talk with Agnes and Christian from Stuttgart. This covers brexit, the meaning of travelling, the changed nature of dreams when we travel, the philosophy and function of photography.
This feels relaxing here. I’m enjoying this trip a lot.
I’ve had a lot of exercise here walking up and down stone stepped paths between the rice terraces getting lost, sweating buckets, passing through tiny wooden housed Yao villages, searching out view points.
Today I woke up to rain and atmospheric must shrouding the moutains. This meant I shelved the walk to ping an. As the rain eased I went for what was intended as a stroll which took me up to view point 2 (music from paradise) where I watched a duck furraging in the paddy for grubs, forgetting the drizzle until a passing Chinese stopped and held her umbrella over me as I took pictures. I like rain. I like watching people trying to cope with the weather. Tourists are particularly funny in their brightly coloured rain ponchos, umbrellas and ubiquitous selfie sticks, carrying on regardless. The locals are much more canny. No building work today, nobody tending the rice, no Yao women trying to sell you postcards. When I start walking I find it hard to stop and today I went on to,”seven stars chase the moon” then to “thousand layers to the heaven”, down to zhuangjie village, where I got lost but eventually came down on top of Dazhai. I had a lunch of spicy tofu and rice, which was enormous. Fortified I tackled the climb to the highest point, seen directly from the terrace at my hostel, “golden Buddha peak”. A nice path that climbs alongside a bubbling stream, fir trees, ferns, colourful flowers, butterflies, one type the size of my hand. There are a lot of people coming down the mountain. Girls in dresses, some in flip flops. Evidently they took the cable car up and expect an easy descent. There is a massive multi-layered viewing terrace at the top. An orgy of photo activities: dressing in ethnic costumes, touching a massive unhappy tortoise, some holy wood with an inscription. Yao women weaving and attempting to sell their wastes. It’s not raining but the low cloud drifts across the valleys. I’m now very familiar with the geography here and can make out everywhere I’ve been in the last few days. I’m looking for a cut across to tiantouzhai on the way down. This is the path I wanted to take yesterday, but once again I couldn’t find it. So I’m back in Dazhai to do the 40 minute climb back to tiantouzhai for the third day in a row. It’s interesting retracing a familiar path where there is do much life and noticing the small differences. The horse tethered by the building site is not there today. The 2 groups of card players are there again. This must be a daily activity at this time. The men clearing a site for probably a new guest house are not there today. The man cooking bamboo filled with rice on the first slope of my village is not cooking today. It’s a sweaty climb home and it feels wonderful to get back and relax.
Tiantouzhai is to the left of the centre of the picture.