After Hong Kong, we decided to head for Yangshuo. We made it to Guangzhou in one day. At that point, my travelling companions saw that they had basically run out of money and got a train back to Beijing. I, on the other hand, had enough to keep me going for a couple of more weeks, so I went to Yangshuo solo.
Yangshuo is this Dali/Lijiang-like city near the famed hills of Guilin. By Dali/Lijiang-like, I mean that's directly aimed towards the budget backpacking Westerner, where you can go days with eating granola, pizzas, and banana pancakes while watching Hollywood movies or reading English books in some doozy of a cafe. And it's in the middle of some crazy good scenery and villages. Unfortunately, for the next two weeks, I saw nothing but rain and clouds so the scenery was mostly obscured.
For the first couple of days, I just lounged around reading Sherlock Holmes stories and short stories by Ethan Coen. Finally, I got off my arse and did this day long tour with a local villager who approached me in a cafe, where I got to see some cool shit. She was your typical nongmin, so I got to see and talk with her about how 800 million people of the world live like. How the one child policy (two children if you're a farmer and your first is a female or if you're an ethnic minority) fucks them over since you really do need as many hands on the capital-deficient farm as you can get, and how once you get too old to work, you want to be able to have as many kids as possible to rely on. Another interesting thing was that she was the first person that I've talked with who actually liked Mao Zedong. Sure, from the Western point of view, you can see how he really fucked things up, from his ill-conceived Great Leap Forward agricultural policies (like having Tibet, at 5000 meters and low precipitation, grow grain) to his Cultural Revolution policies of trying to kill anything that stank of culture (imprisoning intellectuals, forcing Muslims to eat pork). But it's easy to forget that before the commies took over, the vast majority of the farmers lived much like the sharecroppers of post-Civil War America (i.e. not owning any land and thus having to give most of what you farm to the landlord) and that it was communism that redistributed the land. I actually got to see the former house of a landlord (landlord until they took him out back and shot him for his class background) and even though it was in shambles, you could see how it dominated over all the other little shacks nearby. But there was all kinds of writing on it, warning the revolutionaries to beware the reactionary bourgeoisie, etc.
Besides the village, I went to this Buddha cave, which involved half-assed spelunking through a cave whose stalagmites were supposed to resemble little Buddhas (a group of sarcastic tourists from Liuzhou didn't agree.)
From Yangshou, I busted through Guilin and into Longsheng. I'll mention Guilin only as probably the biggest tourist trap in all of the world. I heard a story about how a couple of Chinese people went to a karaoke bar and agreed beforehand to 200 yuan for a couple of hours; the bill turned out to be 600 yuan with one pot of green tea (usually free in restaurants) accounting for the $US 50 difference. Suffice to say, I had to viciously bargain down the bus ride from 3 times what the locals paid to twice what the locals paid to go through there.
Longsheng is famous for its rice terraces, which are supposed to be a breathtaking sight. I supposedly since after I paid the admission fee and hiked up a steep hill for a half hour, I saw that there was so much fog that you couldn't see anything at all. Furthermore, I had hired a "guide," who was this 70 year old Yao woman, to carry my backpack and make sure I didn't get lost along the clearly marked steps. She tried to sell a lot of crap I didn't want along the whole way. When I got back down, I saw that the last bus back to town had already left. I was pissed off to say the least.
However, this lady offered to put me up in her house for the night, which turned out to be pretty darn cool. I met her entire extended family. I got to see her daughter unwind her hair, which these crazy Yao women grow out until it touches the ground but are normally kept done up in some crazy elaborate wrap. She also cooked me a late lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next day, all of which consisted unknown pork bits fried in lard, cabbage fried in lard, and this drink that's brewed from two types of rice (easily the dirtiest, most hideous liquor I've ever drunk). After dinner, I watched TV with the family. A rather bizarre image: sitting near a coal fire with enough pork hanging over it to last the family for a year, in this dingy room with only one fluorescent light, watching some personality-less Guangxi anchor rattling off agriculture output figures while the mother tries to comb the hair of her impatient 5 year old daughter. That night, I was invited to this village "dance," which was pretty darn cool. Done for Chinese New Year's, it was mostly just the kids from the village school doing a whole bunch of self-choreographed dances. It started off with these pre-teens doing this traditional Chinese opera number. After a couple of numbers like that, it devolved into a bunch of teens doing dorky dances to soda commercial jingles. It was fun. It seemed like the entire village was there; it was the first time that I've seen anything approaching community in China (having spent so much time in big cities and tourist places). It was like walking into the Chinese equivalent of the local Xmas pageant. There were groups of older teens hanging back, smoking, and trying to look cool; fathers who were drunkenly but good-naturedly heckling the dances; mothers running on to the stage and giving the performers hongbao's (red envelopes with money inside); grandmothers who were carrying infants in these backpack-like babyholders; a couple of random people banging out old school Chinese music on cymbals and a erhu; and just about everyone setting off crazy amounts of firecrackers. When the one speaker being used fused out, people were scrambling all around trying to fix it. Overall, the people were very friendly. At first, I got the aggressive "Hello" but then they would slap me on the back, offer me a Chinese cigarette, and be all chummy with me.
The next village I went to was Sanjiang. The claim to fame of the hostel that I stayed at was that it's next to the largest Dong (random ethnic group) style bridge. Whoopie. The owner of the hostel that I was staying at was a real cheery guy who liked to brag that since his hostel was the only one mentioned in the LP, that foreigners skip all of the nearby hostels. He concluded with "Swedes are my friends! Americans are my friends!" Walking around the village, I saw all sorts of crazy things like all of these slogans painted on walls in order to discourage drug use, births. Also, I saw in the main square a chalkboard that listed every family that has had a child in the past few years and what that brought their total to. I also saw a lot of "traditional Dong-style" architecture, which simply means houses made of wood. Although they had more character than your typical Han cement monstrosity, half of these wooden houses are pretty poorly made, with the floorboards squeaking with every step you take, or the doors squeaking when you open it, or simply being unable to open the windows. Also saw a surprising number of satellite dishes atop these houses. One night there, in the middle of East Bumblefuck, China, I got to see a pirated version of Titanic. Again.
After Sanjiang, I took a bus towards Zhaoqing. I had to get off at one point since the bus went in the other direction and hence I was stuck at the middle of an intersection with literally a noodle stand being the only building in a 5 km radius. I was stuck there for about despairing four hours, wondering if I'll ever get out of there when a bus finally passed by going in the right direction. On the bus was a French guy and a Swedish couple, neither of whom could speak Chinese, and thus were immensely grateful to make my acquaintance. Zhaoqing had more crazy festival shit going on. This time I saw this random procession down the main street. It was led by a bunch of men setting enough fireworks to level a major metropolitan, followed by two columns of women carrying large pots, followed by four men carrying this gigantic pig that was still alive and trussed up. They went to this large tower where they ceremoniously chopped off the pig's head, after which the local kids ran up to the pig and kicked its poor corpse until it stopped squirming. Then all of the men started to do this crazy courtship singing ceremony with all of the women. Finally, they resumed the parade out of the town center, this time carrying the pig's head trussed up. It was very Lord of the Flies.
This particular village is "famous" for its wind-and-rain towers, which are big veranda-like things with a big fireplace underneath, where I saw the vast majority of the village's men sit around doing nothing while the women were out in the field picking radishes. There was some pretty non-traditional paintings on the inside of these towers. One was a depiction of a rather popular type of TV show (ones that literally every farmer in rural China watches every night) which usually involve a bunch of Shaolin monks who get involved in General Hospital-style relationships with the ladies while having random fights with baddies in the Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger aesthetic. These shows are particularly disturbing because there is this very saccharine elevator-music song that plays through the show continuously. The show depicted on the bridge is especially disturbing because the main character is a guy in a monkey mask. Another non-traditional painting I saw was a depiction of the People's Liberation Army invading a random country by sea Normandy Beach-style, with rosy-cheeked comrades rushing forth to liberate the proletarian masses. I'm not a world history buff, but I think I missed that war.
Had some more interesting conversations with the people out here. For instance, one with a guy whose friend had broken the one-child policy (he was a minority and had a third kid) and was fined 10,000 yuan, which is roughly $1100 and which is about what he would make in three years. I was constantly questioned about money: how much did my shoes cost, or my backpack, or my camera. I was well aware of the fact that the value of the contents of my daypack was more than they would earn in a year. They also asked me a lot about America, like if they eat mantou's (steamed buns) or miantiao (boiled noodles) there, if they had family planning as well, etc.
From here, I started to slowly make my way to civilization. Started one day at 7:00 AM by bus to Liping (random industrial town) by 11:00, rest for an hour, and then on a bus to Kaili until 10:30 PM. Here are some numbers: Liping to Kaili, 289 km, 10.5 hours. Do the math. The only event of the day besides the moderately interesting scenery was that the woman next to me fed her baby some canned congee (bean gruel), who fifteen minutes later puked it directly onto me. Lucky for the baby, I have developed a vast reservoir of self-restraint which barely, just barely, kept me from ripping off his head and shoving it down the mother's throat. The ironic thing was that before the ride began, she was joking with all of the other passengers about how she had the misfortune to sit next to a laowai.
Kaili had the first decent hotel in a long while. It had been a week since I had seen such luxuries as a TV, a soft bed with clean sheets, a shower, and a mirror. However, the next morning I found that I had a very disturbing case of diarrhea (skip this paragraph to avoid the following graphic description of my condition). I'm not talking about that sort of inconvenient soft shit that leaves embarrassing skidmarks at the end of the day. I'm talking about hot, light brown water spurting out of my ass every ten minutes. I had to lay in bed motionless, fearing that any sudden movement might cause my ass to let loose. I was very concerned that I had some sort of amoebal infection, like giardia, and that I needed semi-immediate medical attention. Furthermore, I got there on a Saturday without enough yuan to buy a train ticket back home, hence I would have to wait until Monday to exchange some money and then buy a train ticket, meaning the earliest I could get back and get some help would be Wednesday. So I dared not move from the hotel that day so I sat and tried to find out what I could about my condition, both in the Health section of my LP and in this little book in my first-aid kit. Here's what they said. LP: "Yogurt is a basic staple for diarrhea patients...keep away from fruits and vegetables." First-aid book: "Bananas and potatoes are good supplements to oral hydration solutions...dairy products should be avoided." So whom should I trust: a couple of hippies or an assistant professor at the Stanford medical school? I sat for most of the day eating bananas and drinking salt water while watching a channel with the most bizarre Hong Kong movies involving triad members millions of dollars in debt.
By the next day, thankfully, my la duzi had gone away completely. I had planned on getting to Guiyang that day, but unfortunately that fell apart. I went to the train station in the afternoon and waited a half-hour in line. When it was my turn, I explicitly told her, "Guiyang. One hard seat ticket," and handed her some money. She handed me my change, a ticket, and said "mei you zuowei" i.e. it was a standing ticket. The standard operating procedure for a standing ticket is this: You buy a ticket, get on the platform right before the train arrives, and push as hard as you can as soon as they let passengers on board (or try to climb through the window if you can.) The ensuing fracas makes the fire at the Coconut Grove look like a walk in the park, because if you don't squeeze on to the train, you're stuck there. I figured that I wouldn't bother with all of that only to be able to stand in a cloud of Chinese cigarette smoke for seven hours as the train stops in every bumfuck little town. So I hung out in Kaili another day.
My dinner that night: four spicy lamb kebabs, two fried potato kebabs, a slice of cake, and a half kilo of excellent peanut butter cookies. Cost altogether: about 80 cents. Fuck, I love developing countries.
So I took a 6:00 AM bus Monday morning to Guiyang. In true Chinese fashion, it leaves at 7:30 since the driver waits for the bus to fill up with passengers. No heat either. I arrive at about 1:30 after being delayed for about an hour because of landslides. (These Chinese civil engineers don't seem to realize if you try to build a road by just dynamiting the side of a mountain and bulldozing it flat, that what's left of the mountain is going to collapse on to the road.) My mission when I arrive: exchange money, buy train ticket so I don't get stuck in Guiyang for the night. I don't know when the train departs, but my gut feeling is sometime in the afternoon. I ask one person where the Bank of China is, he points down the road. I find a branch, they don't change money, try the branch 1 km down the road. I find that branch, they don't exchange traveler's checks. I ask where I can do that, she points to an unmarked place on the map that is literally on the other side of the city. I ask what bus I can take, she says the No. 2. I board the No. 2, but when it finishes its route, I realize that I took it in the wrong direction. I get off, board a random bus in the other direction. I realize I don't have change (this is the only bus system in China I've been on where they don't give you change), so I buy a cookie, wait 20 minutes for the next one. Frustration builds when I see it's 3:00. Somehow, the bus miraculously has a stop named Bank of China, where I get off. I go in, ask one teller, she points to a teller across the room. I go to that teller, she points upstairs. As I run up the escalator, I clearly remember thinking that I wanted to turn China's population problem from one of overpopulation to one of underpopulation. Finally, I found the counter and hand over the checks and my passport. According to ancient Chinese bureaucratic customs, a total of five people count the checks ("1, 2, 3, 4! That's right, fuckers! I gave you four checks!!!") and while examining my passport, ask which country I'm from. While I'm waiting for my money, some old woman, holding what looks like a check for $1000 from her family in the States and clearly forgetting that she isn't fighting for rations like she used to back in the day, pushes in front of me and begins jabbering to my clerk. Before he looks up, ready to drop my stuff and help her, I nearly scream at her, "What the fuck are you doing?" (Actually, it was only "Ni gan ma!?" but I still sounded lihai.) I finally got my money and took a bus to the train station. I saw a student line (twice as long as the others) and start waiting in it. What I thought was a second miracle: the security sees a big nose waiting in line, asks me where I'm going, bypasses the entire line and tries to get a ticket for me. Thankfully she did this because "student tickets" were all sold out. When I start to go to the regular line, she pulls me away and refuses to let me buy a Chinese-priced ticket in line but instead brings me to this waiting room. She tells me I have to give her a big wad of cash and my passport. I extremely reluctantly do this, since there's a possibility that she might be some sort of scam artist, and if I were to lose those things, I would be royally fucked. Fifteen minutes later, she does come back with a ticket for a 10 PM train that night at what looks like a generous 30% foreigner markup. At that point, I didn't care.
So I had some time to leisurely stroll around Guiyang, the capital of one of the poorest provinces of China, and I was surprised by how developed it was. On one hand, there were a bunch of professional children beggars who would literally cling to your leg until you gave them money or they got bored of it. The only way that I could get them off was to literally do a little pick and roll with the telephone polls, etc. (now for those of you who think I'm being some asshole Scrooge, any money that I would have given would have directly gone to the dad's "Bottle of baijiu for the night" fund.) There were even a couple of prostitutes soliciting near the railway station, which is a very rare sight in China. But besides that, it was as nearly developed as Beijing. Literally a third of the women I saw walking on the street had dyed their hair light brown. And there was of course plenty of people yelling into their cell phones. (Even goofier looking are the few people who have heard that rumor concerning cell phones and brain cancer, so they talk through this mini-earphone/microphone combo that you can plug into your cell phone. It really just makes them look like they're resisting the voices inside their head telling them to kill, kill, kill.)
I hung out with a couple of street vendors from Xinjiang. Those Uighurs can cook a mean lamb kebab and have rather tasty green raisins. For those of you not in the know, Xinjiang is this huge "self-autonomous region" in the northwest. Much like Tibet is a "self-autonomous region." Also much like Tibet, Xinjiang culturally has nothing to do with China. Uighurs, which is what the ethnic group from Xinjiang is called, are basically Turks i.e. they're white! Moreover, they're Muslim, which doesn't really fit into China either (admittedly, despite Pat Robertson's claims, Islam is actually the largest organized religion in China.) Yet China uses whatever self-serving excuse to call this region a part of China, mostly probably because there are supposedly vast natural resources there, and because the territory is so large that it makes China look bigger on a map (paging Dr. Freud, you've got an insecure patient in the lobby.) What annoys me about this situation is that so many people know about Tibet but so few about Xinjiang. Both are having their native cultures destroyed (but there's even some justification for this for Tibet because pre-invasion Tibet was a pretty repressive theocracy.) But why do so few know about Xinjiang? One reason is because Xinjiang doesn't have an exiled leader whose friends with the Beastie Boys. The other reason is because Buddhism is tres chic now with the hippie crowd since it allows for spiritualism without the moral edicts. That is to say, you'll never find your local bleeding-heart co-ed devoutly studying the Koran simply because Muslims aren't allowed to smoke pot, and whatever religion that has such fascist decrees is a worthless religion indeed. Ranting aside, if my plans work out right, Xinjiang is the place I hope to go travelling in after the semester's over.
That night I ate dinner at this Chinese imitation of a KFC. It was rather funny. The name of the restaurant mai te ji borrows not only the C from KFC, but the Mc from McDonald's. Needless to say, the decor ranged from a glass chandelier to four TVs playing Cantonese music videos, to "My Heart Will Go On" spraypainted on one wall.
And that's it. I got on the train that night and finally got back to miserable old Beijing a couple of days later.