03.11.2009 - 10.11.2009 25 °C
With a hectic final few days in London, arriving at our hotel in Hong Kong proved a welcome respite: it came well recommended on the internet and was nice and smart; high up with a stunning view over the harbour.
Hong Kong is a strange mix of sights and smells: alongside a beautifully run state-of-the-art subway system, charming trams from a bygone era ply the old town, while the smell of the dried fish for sale in shop fronts in the old town takes some getting used to, as did seeing so many varieties of sea creatures (and sometimes other creatures too) preserved for eating by drying.
So many new experiences: delicious dumplings from the north ('pot-stickers') for lunch in a restaurant popular with the locals; a steep ride on the historic peak tram, or funnicular to the Victoria peak which, although rather spoiled by the commercial little shopping centre at the top, offered amazing, albeit polluted, views over the city and harbour; the lush tropical botanic gardens, banyan trees abound; dim sum with tea for breakfast (yum cha) - love the green tea; the magnificent old-fashioned very very smart Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, I dined on a curry there, I mean in Kowloon unfortunately not at the Peninsula! There's a huge Indian settlement in Kowloon, apparently the best curries in town. Though I think Jaipur in Harare, Zimbabwe could give them a run for their money.
Crossing the border from HK to mainland China was as easy as hopping on the MTR (metro), this met up with the KCR East Rail train in Kowloon which terminated at Lo Wu and the border at Shenzhen 45 minutes later.
There we were lucky to get probably the last 2 hard-sleeper train tickets, all that was left, from Shenzhen to Guilin, the junction for our destination, Yangshuo. We had especially woken at dawn to get to the border and the Shenzhen train station to buy our train tickets as in China they have a rather unwieldy system where you're only able to buy train tickets from your departure point (or pay almost double to a travel agent to do it for you), no such thing as a national computerised system, it seems! Anyway, we got them - bonus!
Since we had arrived in Shenzhen EARLY, we passed the time waiting for the overnight train at the Shenzhen Museum which has a large (approx 20 000) collection of jade, porcelain and bronze artefacts. Eye-opening! For example, I didn`t realise the Qing Dynasty started as late as the 17th Century. Quite an extensive sample of everything seen below:
And now to the trains: besides the seat section on the overnight trains in China (and Vietnam, I believe), there are what are called 'hard-sleepers' and 'soft sleepers'. We were only able, at our late date, to get a hard-sleeper ticket. These are nicer than they sound - they are 6-bunk (3 above each other on each side) doorless compartments served by side-on seats and little tables in the passage running alongside the compartments. Each bunk comes with an undersheet, pillow and duvet. The worst fate, which was ours, is to be allocated the top bunks, which are slightly claustrophobic and have very little headroom. I suppose you can take comfort from being able to sleep flat all night unlike economy class on a plane. These hard-sleepers have net curtains, each compartment is supplied with a large flask to get boiling water from a tap at the end of the carriage. Anyway, it was lovely sleeping to the rhythm of the train and the far-away sound of its horn.
After a 12-hour train journey, we arrived just after dawn in Guilin where we quickly bought train tickets for three days later for the next leg of our journey to Kunming, to the west in Yunnan. We then set off by bus to Yangshuo 65 kms south of Guilin, a laid-back small town on the River Li surrounded by karst limestone hills - ethereal.
Yangshuo is a bit of a hippy holiday destination and so has become touristy but it's in a lovely area visually with lots to do on the Rivers Li and Yulong and there's a range of accommodation available.
After settling in and discovering Yangshuo the first day, and also trying to avoid eating snake, rat, raccoon, wild cat, pangolin, mostly endangered, which are delicacies in this part of China - not quite that adventurous an eater yet - the following day we set off on a hectic journey in a minibus often careening on the wrong side of the road, hooting at oncoming traffic to get out of the way - I have come to learn to get used to the sound of constant hooting here in China - to Xingping, a small town about 20 kms north and going more into the wilder karst hills area. We passed such lovely rural villages, it was stirring to see the industrious farmers working the fields, a cow standing nearby, chickens scurrying among the grit, scrawny dogs guarding the homesteads, cats sleeping in the sun.
We were so excited walking down a backstreet of Xingping as it seemed to be much more of old China, a real little village, not spoiled yet by the modernisation and westernisation so prevalent in larger towns and cities: it seems to be a trend in China to knock down older characterful buildings and replace them with concrete blocks, very sad!
We wanted to go to Wave Stone View on a bamboo raft, apparently it is lovely there and truly fairytale with the karst hills landscape ever wilder. However, we were so pestered by touts as soon as we arrived at the bus stop right up to the river so that we eventually found it too unpleasant and turned back for Yangshuo. Sad, and maybe we should have joined a tour. You live and learn.
We realised we'd allocated too short a time here and were sad when our last day arrived. In the morning, we walked along a shady avenue out of town to the Li River Retreat where we had breakfast, then we wandered among the fields and orchards of the little villages close to Yangshuo, so peaceful, so rural.
To finish I quote Paul Theroux in his 'Riding the Iron Rooster' by train through China, where he calls these hills here '....the most Chinese, because these are the hills that are depicted in every Chinese scroll. It is almost a sacred landscape ....it is all the landscape of the Chinese classical paintings.'
It's taken me ages to get this first entry up as I've been limited to internet cafes and trying to decipher computers set to the Chinese language (quite a challenge!). Also, I believe there was a bad fire in an internet cafe a couple of years ago and so loads of internet cafes were closed down at the time. Luckily some hotels/hostels give you access. I can't get onto Facebook or Twitter at all in China though, so apologies for the sudden silence on those.