We hop on the night bus from Guangzhou to Guilin, in order to make way to Longshen’s rice terraces. Decided to spend the last days allotted by our month-long visa visiting some more rural settings more in tune with the postcard-induced imaginary Orient, including the sprawling paddies of Longshen and the romantic karst mountains of Yangshuo.
Plastic bags for shoes are dutifully handed out as passengers board the bus, in what may seem an atypical concern for cleanliness (a royal aversion for feet’s muck already witnessed in trains). The bus is surprisingly decent, what with bluely neon-lit floors and cushy, albeit cramped, bunks.
After slipping into another local bus, and oozing into a black cab at the entrance of the site – no more than a driver passing by who sniffed an opportunity for easy yuan, past rocky river beds and gravel roads, up, up the grassy hills, sinewing past the makeshift planks of villages in construction, we land at the entrance of Longshen, where four women in typical attire idle on a bench.
What was once a remote rice-farming village tucked in the nook of peaceful hills is quickly becoming a tourist resort, complete with entrance fee and bus tours. Trinket shops have appeared on the paved road and everywhere construction workers are hammering planks and tin roofs; tomorrow’s hotels growing fungus-like on the mountainside.
The women’s garb, pink and black dress and headwrap, is still worn in the typical manner – but they are quick to ask for money or a postcard purchase in exchange for their picture.
One may wonder how much they – or how many amongst them – actually benefit from the building spree, whilst oily government officials from the comfort of their desks plunderingly convert these awing, remote wonders into farcical tourist traps.
The viewpoints of the terraces are themselves remarkable, though mostly shrouded in the mist of April as the clouds tirelessly slither up and down the slopes.
We slip away from the village in the afternoon, haggle a tour operator into letting us join the other tourists on his coach back to Guilin, saving us much time, leaving me to ponder upon what will become a redundant theme during the Asia travels…
After another bus from Guilin to Yangshuo – the day has been punctuated by our hike, otherwise spent in transport, we arrive late night in the fabled riverside town, welcomed by the show of lights painted on the silhouettes of the karst mountains.
We wander the streets in search of a hotel, discovering the town’s peculiarly internationalized atmosphere of Xi street (West st): reggae-themed bars, exotic-dancing clubs, artsily decorated cafés… two Mc Donalds within a hundred yards.
At no time during our Chinese travels have we encountered such an affluence of foreign tourists, of all colors and tides, roaming through the neon lights, American franchises and street peddlers selling gem-like blocks of unrefined sugar.
Tucked into the dark corners of a sidestreet, beckoned by a sign boasting the oft-untrue claim of ‘highest rooftop bar’, we find an acceptable hostel within minutes, whose rooftop terrace does in fact offer a breathtaking panorama.
I awake at dawn and slip away on the paved road, walking along the river bank past families doing their laundry, through the empty market stalls, into the receding woods of the China of yore.
Early-rising villagers hoist their produce on the road to town, lumbering through the leafy lights of gravel paths bordering the river; a landfill steadily sloping into the river serves as a reminder of where (when) we are now…
On my way back, a very old lady squints as she buckles under the load of two fruit baskets. I offer my help and she watches amusedly as I struggle to lift the uncannily heavy load. After less than a hundred yards, I set the fruits down, trickling, suspiciously eyeing her slender, bony frame and the age-tested wrinkles of her face.
We take turns back to the market; the locals have a good laugh too as they watch us go by. I too watch her, amazed, as she tugs along, heaving the equivalent of her body weight – and this, day by day, year after year…
Later that morning. We hop onto one of the available raftboats, after bartering with a boatman met that morning. This enables us to skip the tourist line and get a good price for a one-way stint down the river – we’re not sure to where though.
The engine hums and just a few feet away, a familiar silhouette paddles towards us. The cormorant fisher, shaded by his coolie (Chinese) hat, has been featured in just about every postcard or photo ever taken in the area: as he rows past us, his aviary friend and fishing buddy spreads its wings; contrast of the once-traditional set against the backdrop of modern ferry boats.
Our initial ride is short-lasted. For reasons that remain obscure, a police patrol boat sounds its horn, and our driver nervously orders:
“Put your life-jackets on.”
We’re pulled over to the side and the driver is taken in for some questioning, while another driver takes his place. We look guiltily as the boat ripples away from the jetty –it’s not clear whether we had any part in this (for ‘cutting the line,’ or for our belatedly putting on our life vests).
But soon Yangshuo’s karst mountains surround us, leaving sad thoughts behind. Ten minutes in, receding curiosity and awe are soon having us wonder: “where are we headed though?”
We’re dropped off at a destination unknown, and wander around decrepit village streets. In the matter of minutes we’re plunged once more in the China of the past, one that may have been left aside – for the time being – by the country’s rush towards industrial modernization. Old ladies play cards on the sleepy village square, a barber reclines in his chair for his afternoon nap, a tractor rolls by, a slain pig awaits further transformation, its dried blood painted on the cart that supports it.
A local bus charters us to another friendly village, site of the panorama featured on the 20-yuan bill.
A painter and his apprentice have set canvas on the rocky riverbed, watched by the admiring eyes of a few students. A photographer walks by, shooting away at the painting painter and his colored canvas. Curious mise-en-abyme of the real, the depiction of the real, and the depiction… you get the picture. Again, the old and the new…
Another bus and it’s evening time in Yangshuo, where we enjoy the local specialty, fish and beer, at one of the less crowded restaurants. Already it’s time.
We hop onto the night bus, the second one of the last three nights. And we surrender to sleep, as we drift through the night, mere inches from the rumble of thousands of oncoming trucks.
Find out more about travel tips to Longshen and Yangshuo on Rollingcoconut.com!