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?
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.