17.12.2009 - 23.12.2009 12 °C
Initially, when I was planning my journey through China, I thought perhaps a Yangtze river cruise via the Three Gorges Dam would have been really interesting, but I was struggling to find a tour that was operating during December, let alone one that didn't cost a small fortune. So, I left the decision on what I should do for "later". By the time I had arrived in China, I still didn't have a plan on where to go after Shanghai or any time during the xmas and new year's period so I spent a whole evening doing research using the super slow internet connection at the hostel. After lots of searching and reading news of a bitterly cold winter blast headed from the north, I decided to head south to Guilin in the Guangxi province. Guilin city and the surrounding towns are known in China and supposedly around the world for the beautiful scenery and the area has become a popular tourist destination, and all I had to do was take a mere 22 hour train ride to get there, so really, the decision was simple.
Having purchased my ticket a few days in advance, all I had to do was turn up at the Shanghai South train station and wait.
One of the waiting areas in the Shanghai South train station - The building is the first circular shaped train station in the world, it's one huge building.
At this point, an unfortunate coincidence resulted in a great deal of confusion. To cut a long story short, all the writing on the train ticket was in Chinese except for the origin, destination and some numbers. The coincidence was that the time of departure together with my allocated departure lounge matched exactly the number of my train carridge together with my seat number. So the items on the ticket which I thought were the departure time and waiting lounge, actually told me which carridge and seat I was allocated. I wanted to double check, but surprise surprise, the one and only tourist information desk at the train station was completely deserted.
I think I was the only westerner in the entire station and although I was used to being stared at while walking through the streets of Shanghai, it's different when you are in a large and croweded waiting lounge. I could see every pair of eyes in my vicinity following me around as I searched for a seat. It was as if they hadn't seen a foreigner before because they didn't just glance at me, they just continued staring as if they were a bunch of kittens following a piece of string around the room.
Finally the train started boarding and I ended up having to show my ticket to half of the grumpy train door attendants until one of them finally pointed to their carridge door. Then I did the same thing inside the carridge but with the passengers until someone pointed to the berth next to them. I felt like an idiot once I figured out that the ticket was quite clear and specific on where I had to go.
Again, nobody on the train appeared to speak English. The man in the bed adjacent to me was wearing reasonably nice clothes and looked like a business man, however, even though I said "Nin hao" to him as I sat down, he didn't reply and we ended up not speaking a single word to eachother for the entire 22 hour journey. Not only this but my nickname for him ended up being the "Farty-burpy-snorry Man", he performed each of the aforementioned actions regularly and without a hint of restraint, not so great when you are only about two feet away from eachother. Some younger Chinese passeners were on the bunk beds above me, but they were travelling in a large group so they hung out with their friends a couple of berths down, so it ended up being one of those silent journeys, this was the point when I truly appreciated my ipod.
Unfortunately, most of the windows on the train were dirty and because it was dark for most of the journey, I didn't really get to see much. What I did see was quite a bleak winter landscape with old worn down houses and factories nestled amongst misty brown hills. There was little greenery to speak of, most of the hills were covered with depressed leafless trees. One of the carridge attendants was a nice woman who didn't speak English, but she did her best to be friendly by smiling at me a lot. As I left the train, she smiled, put her hand on my shoulder and said "Bye bye, bye bye".
So I finally arrived in Guilin, and although it doesn't have the appearance of a big city, it has a population 1.34 million (big by NZ standards). The buildings themselves aren't very pretty and the traffic is crazy just like in Shanghai but a little more chaotic. People cut eachother off everywhere, indicators and road rules appear to be optional. Everyone is on their horns all the time and there are buses, trucks, scooters and motorcycles everywhere. I've noticed most of the scooters in China are electric, this means they are almost silent which is not the best thing when you are trying to cross the road and there are swarms of them everywhere. There are plenty of pedestrian crossings with zebra lines painted on the road, but without crossing lights which means everyone has to resort to j-walking. Most of the time I waited on the side of the road for a reasonable gap so I didn't feel like I was going to get run over, meanwhile dozens of people had already made their way across by stopping at strategic points on the road in between the imaginary lanes. It's like a giant version of the old Atari arcade game "frogger" (now I'm really showing my age). However, what makes up for all of this chaos, is the amazing surroundings and the peace and tranquilty you find in the parks. The city of Guilin is located on the banks of the Li River, it's also nestled within countless karst formations which are tall, steep limestone hills.
The limestone hills around Guilin
From the right locations, the distant views are amazing. The limestone hills appear to go on forever and only gradually disappear behind distant misty curtains. Because winter is also the dry season, the hills aren't lush and green like in the photos I've seen and the cold temperatures mean a heavy mist sits over them throughout the day, but they are still quite impressive. The best thing is, you could be walking down a main road, and right in front of you, a huge hill is extending up into the sky from behind some buildings.
Limestone hills right in the middle of the city
On my first full day, I only ventured to the botanical gardens a short walk from my hostel. The park is nice to walk through, it is obviously well cared for and a nice escape from the hectic streets. Right next to the park, there's a huge shopping mall with four levels containing a supermarket, various stores and an entire level dedicated to small restaurants. Once again, I was stared at constantly while walking around the area, which is surprising because this is supposed to be a semi-popular tourist destination. I still have my hair cut short so perhaps they think I look like Bruce Willis like the chef did at the Udon restaurant I went to in Fukuoka, Japan. That was quite funny actually, when I walked in and sat down in the udon restaurant, the chef looked at me then whispered something to the waitress in Japanese before they both giggled, then she turned to me and said, "He think you look like Bluce Willis".
The next day I went to Elephant Hill Park. This park is right next to the Li River and its main attraction is a limestone hill at the edge of the river with a cave through it which is supposed to look like an elephant drinking water from the river. Unfotunately it's the dry season and the river levels are so low that when I was there, it was more like an elephant sniffing rocks.
Elephant Hill in park, Guilin
I climbed all the way to the top of the hill and got some nice views, although again the mist seemed to limit visibility somewhat.
The stairway leading to the top of Elephant Hill passed through some gates and alongside some caves
Me at the top of Elephant Hill
A murual near the entry gate of Elephant Hill Park - I took the photo more because of the flags, it reminded me I was in China
After Elephant Hill Park, I walked to the center of town and came across a tall and long stone wall that turned out to be the rim of the Prince City Scenic area. Inside there were several Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings as well as a single solitary limestone hill, aptly named Solitary Beauty Peak. The area inside the walls also included several residential streets as well as a women's university. I walked to the top of the hill and also entered one of the caves underneath it. To be honest, this park was a bit disappointing and it happend to be the most expensive that I went to in Guilin. Perhaps it would have been prettier if it wasn't the middle of winter.
Funny sign in Prince City - I've told you a thousand times before, no trombones! (Actually I was told later this meant "No car horn honking")
A better park that I visited a couple of days later, was the Seven Star Scenic Area. It is named so because it is surrounded by seven distinct limestone hills. Within it there are several attractions like caves, small lakes and waterfalls, a zoo and at least one temple.
The Qixia Temple in Seven Star Park
The Buddha statue in Qixia Temple, Seven Star Park
I took a tour of the Seven Star Cave which ran under one of the hills behind the Qixia temple. A path has been built inside it which meanders around several interesting rock formations. They've added a coloured light show to try and make it more interesting.
Statues near entrance to Seven Star Cave, Guilin
Although a few rock formations did look amazing when they used one or two colours, the vast majority were completely over done with lights from every colour of the rainbow.
Amazing looking rock formations in Seven Star Cave, Guilin
Over the top and totally cheesy light show on rock formations in Seven Star Cave, Guilin
You had to walk through with a tour guide so they could turn the lights on as you walked along. The guide also pointed at certain rock formations with her torch and explained how they bore some resemblance to some animal, groups of animals, a building or even a person. Let's just say, I wasn't too upset that she was only speaking in Chinese because it seemed a little bit cheesy. Most of the other people taking the tour would all go "Ooooh, Aaaah" when she would reveal what the rocks were supposed to look like. The only reason I knew what was going on was because these formations were also sign posted in English and I had been through a similar cave tour when I travelled through Mexico.
The descriptions on some of the formations were really starting to reach. I could just picture a couple of guys shining torches around in the cave, and one of them would say something like, "I think this one could be 'Lion Looking back at the Camel', what do you think Li?"
A rock formation sign inside Seven Star Cave - The sign says "A Lion Looking Back at the Camel"
After the cave, I ventured over to the zoo and I actually got to see a panda in China, not that I'm that interested in pandas, it's just that people go on and on about them because they are so rare. There's a reason they are so rare and that's because they are absolutely terrible at reproducing and they only eat bamboo. I'm actually quite surprised they've managed to cheat evolution for so long. Unfortunately it was inside snacking on bamboo leaves at the time, but I did get to see it through one of the windows.
Panda in zoo at Seven Star Park
As I was making my way out of the zoo, I walked past a group of young girls sitting on the grass. They all yelled out "Hello!" and one of them asked me if she could have her photo taken with me. Of course I thought it was a little strange but figured it was merely the novelty of me being a foreigner so I agreed and as soon as that photo was taken, one by one, the rest of them ran up and stood by me to have theirs taken individually. I felt like a Santa in a shopping mall (minus the sitting on the knee). They were quite sweet though and very friendly, after all that I though it was only fitting that I got to take their photo.
Highschool girls in Seven Star Park, Guilin
The funniest part came later on when I was looking at the views from the top of one of the hills. Four girls from the same group turned up and started chatting with me again in English. They were absolutely amazed at how I could be travelling around the world by myself. After a while, we walked down the steps together and just before they went their own way, one of them slipped me her telephone number, how cute is that! (I just hope she wasn't too heartbroken when I didn't call).
The view from the top of one of the hills in Seven Star Park, Guilin
A large restaurnat nestled beneath one of the peaks in Seven Star Park
By the time I left the park it was getting dark and I decided to walk half way back to my hostel. I decided the city itself is much pretier after dark.
Bridge over Li River, Guilin
This excursion ended up being my last in Guilin because the rain really set in over the following two days and it would have been absolutely terrible to go out sight seeing. So I relaxed back at the hostel and let my sore feet recover from all the walking I had done during the previous few days. Unfortunately, because the bar and outdoor areas of my hostel were being renovated, together with the fact there were only one or two other travellers staying at the same time, meant that I didn't really get to meet other people there except for the staff which were really friendly and helpful. When I checked out (on xmas eve) they even gave me a small present and I was refunded half of what I had paid for the room because the bar had been closed the whole time I was there! I hadn't even complained about it so I was really impressed. And to top it off, because it was pouring rain outside when I checked out, one of them walked with me to the bus stop with an umbrella and she showed me which bus I needed to catch to go to Yangshuo.
A hand made present from the staff at Wada Hostel in Guilin - I was told the Chinese character basically means "Safe Travels".
So, that was Guilin. The city itself wasn't that pretty, but the surrounding parks were and the people were definitely much friendlier than in Shanghai.
Next stop, Yangshuo!