One of my courses at Sun-Yat-Sen University is "China Business Study". Foreign students were told it's a must take if interested in understanding how corporations and the country in general functions. So I enrolled.
During the last course our lecturer praised how great the country is, how it will overtake USA as the world's first economy (GDP), how good the high-tech industry is and so on. He also spoke quite a bit about the CRH: China Railway High-speed. So I gave it a try.
Although only starting in the early 90s, China will have 18 000 kilometers of high speed railways by the end of 2015 which makes up to over 60% of the whole world's high speed network (over 200 km/h). Quite impressive. On the other hand, the so praised high speed train itself was a disappointment. Chinese manufacturers started developing the technology but it was unsafe and there was a gap between the speed at which the State could develop the railway network thanks to huge investments and the speed at which the train technology itself was advancing. So the government made a public auction.
French, German and Japanese companies placed a bid and each won a share. Technological transfers were also part of the deal. They must have transferred scribbled notes from the bottom of dusty drawers. Although on a brand new ''green'' line allowing 200-299 km/h, we never exceeded 250 km/h. To compare, the French TGV cruises at 290 km/h since the 90s. But the prowess in China is elsewhere. It's the network: tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge. That's all there was in a straight 500 km line. It's like if they took a ruler and traced a straight line between Guangzhou and Guilin on a map (for what I saw): "This is the train's route ; STOMP." Where a hill blocks the way: tunnel. Between two hills: bridge.
So, enough of this train BS.
As I expected it to be, Guilin is just a big city and it didn't feel as if there was much to do there. It's a great starting point to go to many places nearby, particularly the Dragon's Backbone rice terraces, said to be the most beautiful in China. The city itself though is not somewhere you want to be staying, it's best to go straight to your destination upon arrival.
So after taking a first bus from GuilinBei (Northern train station, suited for CHR) to the main bus station, I caught an other going to Yangshuo.
Quite a contrast between the train and the bus ride. Although the train didn't meet my expectations in terms of technological prowess, the bus actually did meet my expectations as far as "Old China" goes.
The motor howled as the driver put the pedal to the metal. Everything was cracking and it felt as if the vehicle was about to fall apart as I bounced around in my uncomfortable seat for 2.5 hours. But at least the driver knew his thing. He blasted his horn all the way there as we flew past everyone. The road here was made of good size cement squares, about 4 meters by 4 meters. It seemed as if they were simply set on the soil. Years, rain and a few million tires misplaced the blocks and sent the road to Hell. So they are building a new one.
As soon as I got off the bus, taxis were all over the place offering me a ride to the middle of town, known as "West Street". I haven't mentioned it yet, but this short holiday took place from the 4th to the 7th of October, therefore during one of the two Chinese holidays. This period is also called the "Golden Week". Big money for all businesses ; prices skyrocket. There is no way you can get a taxi to use his meter. So I got ripped off, on every trip.
West street is the most busy neighborhood of Yangshuo. It concentrates all the restaurants, fancy westerner fashioned bars, hotels, clubs and so on. Needless to say, during this period it was crowded. The following pictures were taken with my phone as I didn't dare taking my DSLR out of its bag with the heavy rain. So the quality goes straight down the drain hole on these.
I booked one of the only still available & cheap hostels in town: the Yangshuo HL Garden Resort. When speaking of accommodation, price and location are more correlated then monkeys and bananas... So I was a bit out of town.
The hostel was gorgeous though, and offers mountain bike rentals for less than $2. It's a good call if the weather isn't nasty or if like me accommodation is not your priority.
In the vicinity of the hotel there is the Butterfly Spring park. So I gave it a go.
Unless you are sleeping in the same hotel under the same rainy conditions, don't got there. The cave is mostly artificial and lite up like a Christmas tree.
Overall, the butterflies are nowhere to be found besides in the gift shops, the swing bridge between two pinnacles spices up the tour for a mere 45 seconds and the "cultural show" is composed of horrendous dancing and singing. A tourist trap at its finest. There are several viewpoints worthwhile and the nature is beautiful but you can get these elsewhere for free.
As Yangshuo is quite a touristy place my travel companions and I searched for a rooftop terrace bar to spend some time & shoot the breeze. At the turn of a dirty street, we stumbled upon exactly what we were looking for.
The next morning I took a bus to Yangdi in order to take a "Bamboo Raft" down the river.
Don't be fooled ; the bamboo was PVC pipes and the raft had an engine. Enough criticism. It was splendid. The pictures speak for themselves.
By Chinese standards, this raft cruise down the river costed a fortune, at a whooping 118 Yuan per person. That's 472 Yuan for the four of us ; over $75 for hardly an hour.
Our skipper dropped us off at "9 Horse Mountain". There was no way to go all the way to Xingping on the Li River. It's like if there was a consortium between the skippers and the pilots as we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere except for the taxis, waiting and rubbing their hands. So we walked.
It took us around an hour to walk all the way to Xingping with only a few short stops. At some point I even regretted our decision. The scenery was worthwhile though.
By times the rain was annoying and did restrict us to less activities than I would have like to do, but for some reason it fitted the scenery, perfectly. It gave the mountains a mystical look as the clouds poured off the cliffs. Majestic.
You enter Xingping by crossing this bridge.
As it seems all the "white" tourists were packed in one hostel: "This Old Place Youth Hostel". As far as hostels go, it's quite nice. As far as hostels go in China, it's a dream place! Scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. You can't go wrong.
As I roamed around I bumped into a little girl selling these weird orange rocks. Next to it there was a huge one with what looked like a beehive all around it.
The young girl looked up at my and yelled "Honey honey!" When I grabbed my camera she started screaming "No photo!" So I bought a pack, half out of curiosity, half for copyrights to take a picture.
The sweetness is combined to a flower flavor and odor. A pleasant treat.
It was already quite late when I got to Xingping. It's truly a beautiful little town. Several pedestrian streets such as "Old Street" are made of cobble stones ; it took me back in time, even reminding me of old Prague. It's splendid at night.
With only a short morning left I decided to hike up the Bird's View Pavilion. Perched 220 meters above the town, the pavilion is situated on the Karst peak on the Southern end of the waterfront on the Li River. It offers a spectacular view of Xingping and the surrounding scenery. 1159 steps took me right to the top. The higher you go, the more challenging it gets.
Overall, the steps are uneven and poorly maintained giving the walk an authentic notch. At the bottom of the walk there is a small sign saying 30 minutes to reach the top. So I ran up like a goat in 18.
It's well worth the effort...
Here's a gallery with my best shots.
If you're only spending a day in Xingping, this is for sure not something you want to skip. I climbed up early and reached the top when it was still foggy. It gradually cleared up. Going later may be better if you want to avoid sitting around. Oh and one last thing: don't stop at the pavilion, go all the way up to the TV antenna tower behind it. The view is incomparable.
An other bumpy bus ride took me back to Guilin where I caught a bus "home" to Guangzhou: 7 hours. A quick anecdote worth mentioning: as we drove back on an empty highway, a man went to see the driver and asked for a toilet break after 4 hours straight. His young son mumbled and weeped in the back round as he negotiated for at least 5 minutes. At some point the driver pulled up at a gas station and we all got a break. Then it was time to go. He tooted his horn then counted the people on board. We were missing 2 passengers. He blew the horn once again and backed out, then slowly went towards the exit. Still no one. He had to exit the bus, scream in the parking, somehow recognize the 2 people and scold them back onto the bus. It was unreal. They were perhaps 30 and 45 years old and giggled like kids as they came back on the bus. One was smoking and the other was on the phone, 15 meters away from the bus. You'd expect the others to be pissed off for being delayed. For what I saw, not the slightest! They also laughed as the driver was now angry and cursing alone in the front. You don't want an angry bus driver ; that guy has your life in his hands. I wanted his driving to stay good... Whatever. I made it home safely and for once I was on time.
The taxi fare from the bus station to my apartment in Guangzhou costed me half as much as the previous bus trip. As I tried negotiating with one of the drivers, he laughed in my face and said "It's Golden week, this is like New Year." And so I paid...