April 07, 2016


Yangshuo is about an hour and a half southeast of Guilin, still in Guanxi province. Although Guilin (and hey, it's pronounced GWAY-lin) does have lovely karst mountains, the ones along the Li River in Yangshuo are so extraordinary, the image appears on the back of the Chinese currency.

not my photo
Of course we've seen this kind of landscape before -- in Halong Bay (Vietnam), back in November 2005, and in Tam Coc (Vietnam) last fall. In some ways it's not all that different: tall, craggy karst pillars jutting straight up out of the ground, and with water nearby. And yet in some way I cannot yet articulate, it is different. This is the landscape I've wanted to see since I was a very little girl, and I saw it in the encyclopedia. This was before I even had any idea of "China" beyond the idea of taking a spoon into the front yard and digging all the way down to China. I think this is a very common story American children have; I had it in Texas, and Marc had it in Chicago, when he was a boy.

So here we are, smack in the middle of these sometimes hairy looking giants. It's so easy to see how people imagined it as a dragon's back. While we've been here, the weather has been kind of dreary, overcast, often heavy clouds, occasional cloudbursts, never clear blue and sunny. I can imagine that presents a very different kind of beauty, but I actually enjoyed it exactly as we had it. The misty clouds clinging to the mountains made so much sense.

Our first afternoon, we took a taxi into Yangshuo, which is a small city with a highly (overly) developed tourist area marked by pedestrian-only streets. We saw the same kind of thing in Guilin, and we disliked it in Yangshuo to the same degree. Shops, restaurants, food stalls, street performers, and hordes of Chinese tourists jammed into the small streets. Unhelpfully, the street signs are in Chinese except for one English phrase: "Orderly Streets."

So we wandered around, felt the kind of despair we feel in places like this, and stopped for a bowl of noodles at a restaurant Marc had found ahead of time. Meh. It was OK. We'd had enough, and were a bit worried about the fact that we had three days here. Our hotel is away from the city, in a little rural area, and there are just small villages, homes, and gardens. What would we do?

Our hotel, the Mountain Nest, is just about as charming as it can be, and the women who work here, Erica and Kelly and two others whose English names I didn't get, are friendly and helpful and very kind.
waving from our fourth floor room

in addition to the shower in the bathroom, we had this big wooden
soaking tub.
beautiful view from our beautiful room.
On our first full day, we had Guilin noodles for breakfast and then started walking and rambling around. We knew we didn't need to go back into town for any reason, so we walked as far as we could, and took bikes that the hotel rents.

All the homes, fancy or humble, have banners alongside the front door. Many are red....
...and some are white.
We followed a paved path along the river -- a sign said, "no foreign vehicles" which
was a little confusing, since WE are foreign but our rented bicycles were not.
We left them at the bridge and walked, and passed one after another person riding,
including a couple of Western-looking people. Oh well...
That's a water irrigation wheel used for farming, to the left. Or at least a replica of one. We have no idea. 
All kinds of signs here and there -- usually poetic, like this, and usually
focused on what it means to be a good citizen. 
Marc came upon this set of tombs, being prepared for tomb sweeping.... 
....lots of people, family members we presume, sweeping and decorating and leaving gifts including fake paper
money, red pieces of paper, and lots and lots of firecrackers. Tomb Sweeping Day doesn't just last one day;
it's been quiet so far today, but we've heard it all the days we were here.
Just a random spot. Hard not to find extraordinary beauty here.

I wanted to spend some time trying to sketch the mountains out our windows, so while Marc took an afternoon walk, I made a little pot of tea and assembled my stuff on the long balcony. I may not have been happy with what I drew, but I sure was happy with the experience of sitting there looking so closely.

Green tea, almond kisses, my orange bag of pens and pencils, a moleskine Marnie gave me,
and a new tin of watercolor colored pencils. Quiet peace and happiness.
We'd been watching the weather, trying to figure out which day gave us the best odds of taking a bamboo raft trip without getting soaked to the skin, but the reported weather never matched what we were experiencing, so we didn't have a lot of confidence. The second full day, the day we'd decided to take our chances, started with a cloudburst. Ah well, maybe it would clear the air!

waiting it out
So here's the deal. Except for 'hello' and 'thank you,' we speak no Chinese. At all. Nor can we understand a word being said to us. The hotel would've arranged a bamboo raft trip for us, with transportation and the whole thing pre-arranged, but we decided to just try on our own. So the skies cleared and off we went on our pink street bikes with banana seats and baskets. Marc had scouted a possible location, so we headed in that direction.

As we pulled into the parking lot, a couple of older woman flocked to us, trying (we think) to sell us plastic raincoats. They pointed to us one at a time and held up two fingers, they opened a wallet and showed us some money, but we just had no idea what any of it meant. That much for one person? For both? For the raft trip, or for the raincoats? They kept insistently speaking to us in Chinese and we kept just as insistently speaking to them in English, of course, which was so silly. I pulled out my app to show them "I do not speak Chinese" and "I don't understand" -- the most obviously unnecessary sentences ever needed -- but they couldn't read the sentences printed in Mandarin. That left me with zero confidence in that app, I'm telling you.

I got overwhelmed by it, by the impossibility of understanding anything at all, and we drove off with them shouting at us. We stopped along the road and decided to go back and just try to make it work. I would've given up instantly, but thankfully Marc is persistent and less scared than me.

So tickets were purchased and we were given two orange plastic bags each -- the same kind we get in Chinatown when we buy something, funnily enough -- and escorted to a boatman. The bamboo rafts have seats attached near the back, and he stands behind and uses a long pole to navigate. There were two life saver ring things, and each had a strap which he wrapped around our waists. Later I noticed that ONLY WE had them attached to us. My most hopeful interpretation is that should something go wrong, since we obviously couldn't understand verbal commands at least we might be held up in the water or dragged to safety.

We figured out that the orange bags were meant to go over our shoes, so we tied them on and off we went.

unattractive, for sure, but they kept our feet dry!
The boatman did a good job of communicating with gestures, telling us when to raise our feet to avoid getting drenched when we went over or down a little dam-type thing.

I liked him a lot. He was friendly and quite kind.
So down the Li River we went, on an overcast, moody day in the Guanxi Province. Every single time we go to one of these places -- wherever we go -- I have this God's eye image of myself somewhere on this planet, there I am, look where I am, I never once thought I'd be here. There we are, walking around in China. In the mountains of north Vietnam. On an unnamed (as far as we knew) river in northern Laos. There we are. There I am, me, from where I'm from, me. Here. Unbelievable. I never fail to cry. But look! Wouldn't you cry, too?

Only Chinese people on the river this day, and us. They often smiled and waved and said Hello.
Many stood on the end of the raft for a picture. Not me, sister. Not me.

that's our raft.
it was hard to breathe, it was just so beautiful.
that's smoke in front of the mountain, from a big explosion of firecrackers -- Tomb Sweeping!

I just can't even.
This was ingenious! At first we thought the river alone drove this little escalator-ramp
thing that lifted us over the rise, but there was also an engine. After we crested the rise,
we had to lift our feet as the front of the raft went under the water a bit. I loved it.
A shaky start, maybe, but SUCH a great experience.
We biked back to our hotel afterwards and rested a bit, and then headed out on bikes to explore more of the countryside. Street bikes are rented for 20CNY and mountain bikes for 60CNY, and since we aren't planning on biking mountains we have been opting for the 20CNY bikes. But this time there weren't any, so we had to take mountain bikes -- and poor Marc's bike had one problem after another. The chain slipped, finally, and was jammed so tightly into a small spot (I don't know the lingo), so we pulled over and he turned it upside down. I found a stick, and he fought with it until he got it fixed. For a bit. That wasn't our most fun biking, I'm telling you, but still the countryside was just so beautiful.

Before dinner we decided NOT to get bikes, but instead to head out on foot, so we rambled along until we found a very small road that disappeared back into a lonely looking area, a small village. Everywhere there are orange trees in thick blossom, so the air nearly makes me dizzy with the fragrance. There are beautiful, orderly gardens everywhere, and fat, healthy chickens running around. Old grandmas hold and walk little infants. People were either working out in their gardens or sitting on the steps in front of their homes, talking. We were usually just ignored, unremarkable in any way, but often people said ni hao, hello, and on occasion they said hello in English. I tried to say it to people I passed if I could catch their eyes. Smiles were rare but the hellos were friendly.

LOTS of very healthy, fat chickens and roosters everywhere -- in this little village and everywhere else
This tomb is very near our hotel, and I heard the prolonged explosions of all these firecrackers.
Bits of red paper were spread quite far away from the tomb.
I thought I had a copy of The Woman Warrior with me on my Kindle and I had a huge craving to read it here, but I didn't have it after all. So the world is weird: because of China's firewall, I'm online from/via VPN through Hong Kong, through which I downloaded a copy of The Woman Warrior and started reading it five minutes later. It's hard to wrap my 20th century mind around this world, sometimes. I wanted to read the chapter specifically that tells the story of Fa Mu Lan. Once, a Chinese woman read my back to me in a sushi restaurant in Mahwah, New Jersey, and she told me that the first story Chinese children learn is of the man whose story is tattooed on his back. Maxine Hong Kingston adds that element to her version of the story of Fa Mu Lan, a girl who took her father's place in battle, enlarging that story to a profound mythic guide. And to me, of course, the story has a deep connection. I got my back tattooed when I was in graduate school as a personal response, in part, to that story. Ordinarily the tattoos are extremely private, even if they're showing, because no one can read the characters at home. (Except once, when I was in Chinatown in Manhattan, an old Chinese man shouted "Beautiful woman" at me, and it took me a second to realize he was reading the top tattoo.) Here, though, the words are immediately knowable to EVERYONE, and I feel too shy and private to let them been seen -- mostly because I couldn't possibly explain my connection to Fa Mu Lan in a proper way. And so I've been reading The Woman Warrior and wearing light scarves around my neck to keep my tattoos private. It's moving, reading these often dreadful stories of Chinese women's lives while interacting with such lovely Chinese women.

And so today, after a big thunderstorm with a crack of lightning, we're piddling around and repacking before we leave this afternoon. We fly to Kunming, where we'll just spend the night and leave the next morning for Dali, in Yunnan Province.

Ah, it's raining again. Still. Goodbye, Yangshuo, and xie xie.


  1. Lori,

    It sounds like you are having an extraordinary experience. China is such a curious mix of things. Beautiful places, pollution, friendly people, an incomprehensible language, translations on signs that make you laugh so hard you risk wetting your pants, people everywhere, the grace of people exercising in the parks, the modern next to the ancient. I hope the rest of your time there continues to be wonderful.

  2. Thank you for this comment, Kristie! You are so right about China, in every detail -- what a curious mix of things, and more impenetrable than I ever imagined. Maybe one day we'll go to S Korea, in which case I'll be asking you for advice!


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