Xmas and New Years in China
24.12.2009 - 01.01.2009 10 °C
I'm going to try and make this blog entry more about photos, mostly because the scenery has finally come alive for me in China, but also because I'm feeling lazy.
An hour and a half after leaving rainy Guilin by bus on xmas eve, I arrived in sunny Yangshuo to some amazing views, it is also in the Guangxi province. I thought Guilin's limestone hills were dazzling, but in Yangshuo they are even more spectacular. Yangshuo is a much smaller city and the entire sky line is dominated by towering limestone hills. It is supposed to have a population of 300,000 but they must all be hiding in caves or under rocks because it has the appearance of a small town of less of than 50,000. Sure it's touristy, the main walking street, called West St, is a testament to this with all the bars, restaurants and souvenier shops, but I didn't care, it was relatively clean and a great escape from the noisy, dusty and congested Guilin. It didn't take long for me to find my hostel, hidden away in a small alley behind the main street only about 50 meters from the Li River and almost directly beneath one of the limestone hills called Green Lotus Peak. The hostel claims to have the best view in town from their roof top bar, and they weren't kidding. Soon after checking in, I ventured upstairs to gaze at the view.
The view from the bar at my hostel in Yangshuo, pity my panoramic photos don't appear correctly on this blog because a single frame does not capture the reality.
The view of Yangshuo from the roof top bar at my hostel, the neon lights show you where West St is
The entrance of my hostel down the small alley by night
Since I was staying in Yangshuo for about nine days to chill out over xmas and new years, I stayed in my own room instead of a dorm room. They didn't have a single room so I had to book a double and it was huge. It had two double beds and if I wanted to there was still plenty of room left for me to do some jazzercise. Pity the inviting beds were a disappointment just like all the other beds I've had in China. They tend to use the base of a bed and forget all about the top mattress, sometimes I wonder if they ever test the beds out themselves, or whether perhaps they find it comfortable to sleep on concrete.
The hostel provided some nice sporty brand name flip-flops from ...er NKIE?
It was great relaxing around Yangshuo over the next few days. Most nights the staff would put on a Chinese barbaque with lots of meat and vegetables. My favourite were the really tasty skewered mushrooms. Xmas day came and went, and I hardly even noticed it, neither did anyone else at the hostel really. Even though there weren't many people staying there (once again, it's the low season) I still met lots of really interesting people from all over the world, Germany, England, the US, Singapore, Argentina and Spain to name a few. Unfortunately, I didn't really get photos of most people because our activities over my first few days consisted mostly of hanging out at the hostel bar or going out to eat at various restaurants and I usually forgot my camera.
The barwoman JC at the hostel was also very friendly and she lets the hostel guests select whatever music they want to listen to, she also didn't complain when we stayed at the bar talking and drinking until 3 or 4 in the morning. She would call everything she liked "cute", even things like food or the warmth of the coal fire.
My "Beer Pong" opponents, Harald and Ulf (both from Germany) ...they won.
Because Yangshuo is a backpacker tourist mecca, the town has adapted to make it as comfortable for tourists as possible, and hence make as much money as possible. There are restaurants and cafes everywhere, most of them offering Western food as well as Chinese. West St is lined end to end with various bars and stores offering touristy souveniers like t-shirts, fabrics, jewelery, children's toys, chop sticks and anything else you can think of.
West St by night, it runs from one end of town to the other.
On one of the days, I decided to rent an electric scooter and take a ride about 15 kms out of town to see the surrounding countryside. I rode along the main road taking little detours now and then when I saw an interesting sight down a side road. The scooter's battery supposedly only had about 30 kms worth of juice so I didn't venture too far but it was quite a fun ride and the roads were really quiet so I didn't have to fear for my life.
My trusty electric scooter - top speed about 40 km/h though with the bumpy roads my average speed was probably about 25 km/h.
The sights were quite amazing along the road too, there were plenty of tourist spots like caves, strange shaped hills and of course rivers which you could take tours on bamboo rafts.
Bridge over Li River, this area appeared to be one of the main bamboo raft launching points
Moon Hill, apparently you can climb up to the top but I was feeling too lazy to do by the time I had reached it
A small farmer's shed and the beautiful scenery
A local farmer carrying vegetables
By the time I was on the main road again on the way back to the city, I had become like one of the locals, freely tooting my horn to let people know I was coming. I had learnt whilst being a pedestrian that people just pull out whenever they want and the only way they stop is if you sound your horn to let them know you're coming. Strangely, when I got back to the hostel several hours later, the battery indicator was still showing full so I'm glad I didn't rely on it to tell me when I should turn back.
The view along the "main" road just nearing the edge of Yangshuo
The same night after my scooter ride I met a couple from Singapore, Tim and Angeline (Tim being originally from Germany) as well as a guy from Argentina, Miguel who works in China for a US company. Over the course of a few friendly beers at the roof top bar we agreed to rent some mountain bikes the next day and take a tour together along a well known trail beside the Li River.
Luckily the weather was pretty good the next day, which happend to be new years eve, and before heading off we decided to have breakfast in noodle restaurant that was quite popular with the locals. Although delicious, my noodles were quite spicy which I think contributed to my first funny-tummy of this trip. Usually I love spicy food and don't have a problem with it so it may have been something else but who knows. Luckily it never got so bad that I had to deal with constant trips to the bathroom which is definitely a good thing when you're on a bicycle the whole day.
The scenery along our bike ride was quite amazing and even though we were cycling through a well established bike route, we were passing alongside farms and through small villages with houses built from mud bricks. The roadway varied from flat concrete to bumpy dirt paths often covered with puddles and thick mud. We were somewhere in between the real rural China and a well trodden tourist trail. We only saw three or four other groups on bikes the whole time, but I can imagine in summer this place would be like the peleton in the Tour of France.
The very start of the cycle trail, it was a good example of what was to come. It was so quiet you could hear your heart beating.
Some of the amazing views along our bicycle tour
We stopped by for lunch in a remote cafe/hostel called the Giggling Tree which is run by a Dutch couple, apparently it's mentioned in the Lonely Planet and has good reviews in hostelworld.com. This was despite one of the locals trying to mislead us in to going to a completely different restaurant on the other side of the river which would have required us to cross with our bikes on small bamboo rafts, for a small fee of course. We were using a pretty vague and badly scaled map of the area, but we were quite sure we didn't have to cross the river. This guy was being very persistent and way too helpful and it wasn't long before we all became suspicious. Once we decided to ignore the guy and head back to the last fork on the road that we had passed, he gave himself away completely by swearing at Angeline in Mandarin and taking off on his motorcycle. After asking another local where the cafe was, she pointed down a different road and we discovered that someone had twisted the sign for the cafe to point in the wrong direction leading people towards the river, it was easy to guess who the culprit was.
Angeline, Me and Tim on our cycle tour not far from the Giggling Tree cafe & hostel, Miguel was the photgrapher
One of our aims was to get to a really old beautiful bridge on the Li River that was supposed to offer some really amazing views, but unfortunately none of the roads or tracks had any sign posts and even though Angeline spoke Mandarin, it was difficult to get good directions from the locals. Our problems were compounded with the fact the roads in and around the villages all became one huge maze. It wasn't long before we completely lost our bearings and the only thing that kept us going in the right general direction was the river. Due to all the confusion and the impending darkness, we never did make it to the old bridge, but we did find another bridge, which although itself was not particularly spectacular, it did offer some of the best views of the day.
View of Li River from one of the many small bridges
Me on bridge of Li River
After arriving back in Yangshuo, we all had a couple of hours rest before heading up to the roof top bar of the hostel for some beers, a barbaque and a few games of pool. We didn't really pay much attention to the time until Tim looked at his watch and pointed out it was fifteen minutes to midnight. Although I had been told that there was going to be a fireworks display put on by the local authorities, the rumour had now changed to no fireworks, pity because the roof top bar would have been a fireworks spectator's paradise.
So a small group of about six of us from the hostel rushed down stairs and on to the main street so we could get a countdown in one of the local bars. Most bars were playing terrible music (as they did every night) and we had to search for a while before we found a place that was actually going to have a countdown (this was China after all). By the time we were inside, it was about one minute to midnight and we were herded off to a small table in the "foreigners" section, then before we could all even order a drink, the DJ started a countdown, it was midnight, we all cheered, looked down at the expensive drinks menu, looked at each other, shook our heads and basically walked out. I can still see the shocked look on our barmaid's face as we walked out without even ordering a single drink. We all headed back to the hostel for a few more cheap beers, better music and some games of beer pong.
Despite it being quite a subdued new years, I was not at all disappointed and it just ended up being another fun night at the hostel bar.
Seconds before new years countdown in seedly little club in Yangshuo, I think we were there less than five minutes
The next morning (I say morning but it was actually around noon) I got up and headed out for breakfast with Tim, Angeline and Miguel before they all left for Guilin. I had already planned to stay another night in Yangshuo just so I could recover from a predictable hangover. We had breakfast at another noodle place, though I didn't actually eat anything myself, mostly because I didn't want to push my luck again with spicy noodles and also because I don't usually have a huge appetite in the morning after a night of drinking. We followed breakfast by a coffee from McDonalds which I have to admit, is a pretty reliable, cheap and consistent source of caffeine in China.
Two cute little girls having a noodle breakfast on new years day, this photo made my morning.
After saying our goodbyes, I spent the rest of the day napping and watching DVDs at the hostel, a perfect start to the new year.
One of the things I liked best about Yangshuo, apart from the amazing scenery of course, was that it is so small you can easily walk from one side to the other, this means there are no noisy, poluting cars or buses, at least not in the main part of town. Another thing that I enjoyed, was that even when you are eating Chinese food, you can almost guarantee that the restaurant will have menus in English and staff there will speak at least a little bit of English. Of course that's not an expectation I have of China, that would be pretty arrogant, it's just that finding places to eat where I know what I'm ordering and trying to communicate with restaurant staff are definitely the hardest things about travelling here, not that it's a huge problem because where there's a hunger there's a way.
So that was it for the south of China (and 2009), heading north from now on and temperatures are going to plummet.
Happy new year!