I say Guilin is Gatlinburg-esque, because it’s a very touristy town in the middle of gorgeous mountains. The similarity ends there, however. Guilin is also on the Li River, which winds through the city, puddling into many lakes surrounded on all sides by landscaped parks. The parks and the river are lit at night with colored lights everywhere, and in the mornings, mist hangs over the huge, blobbish mountains that surround the city, and it’s lovely really. Except for all the tourists.  

Of course, I got there at 9 at night and didn’t see any of this. I swam through the usual crowd of touts, and ended up going with one especially persistent woman who quoted me a very low rate to a nearby hotel, which seemed dingy but fine, so I took it. Oh, but then there were roaches. So many roaches (but very small ones). And the toilet (which I’d tested) ceased to work as soon as I’d paid. I slept like the dead anyway, but I bailed at first light, after a roach crawled out of my gear. I relocated to a great hotel, where I have a big window overlooking the Li. This toilet doesn’t flush either, but I’ve only seen two roaches so far.

I took it pretty easy on Thursday. I walked around the city, and walked around a park (again, called Seven Star Park, but in Chinese, it’s Qixing). And I saw a panda! A panda!! It was just sleeping, but I got really excited about it. I had a couple minutes alone with it, in between Chinese tourist groups. When we heard the next one coming, the panda threw a paw over its eyes and blew a raspberry. I sympathized.

glass bridge

I’ve seen a lot of hilarious Chinglish signs, and there was one in the park I loved so much that I am going to reproduce it for you here:

Dear tourists: There are a group of wild monkeys accounting about 100 at large surrounding these hills, who frequently appear and disappear by the road and path. These lovely wild monkeys have become a natural scene of the park and have attracted broad tourists very much. But among the monkeys, some of them are bad tempered, sometime they attack on tourists casually. Therefore, please keep a certain distance whenever you meet the monkeys.

That night, I was walking back to my hotel, when a girl on a bike ‘hello’d’ me. I said hi, and she followed me along awhile. She lives in Guilin, her name is Wan Chai Ling (sp?), she wants (like everyone) to practice her English with foreigners. And so forth. I asked her what I should make sure to see in Guilin, and she said I had to take the Li River cruise. I said it was expensive for English people, and she said she’d go with me so they’d sell me a ticket for the Chinese tour, which is less. Well, I think we all see where this is going. I saw where it was going at the time, but yet…I got hosed, my friends. But not until the next day. Actually, she did get me a good price on the Li River thing (I knew what the ballpark should be), and I really did want to do that, so I started to trust her. She asked if I was going to hike up Solitary Beauty Peak, and I said actually I was going to do that the next day, and she said maybe she could come along. We arranged a meeting place, and she said she hoped I showed, but if I didn’t, she understood.

So I went, because I figured as long as we just went where I was going anyway, she couldn’t really trick me into buying anything. But as soon as we met up, she had to stop by the art gallery where she’s a student to drop off her bike. The art student scam is so old, it’s actually described in my guidebook…and I fell for it ANYWAY! The thing is, it’s social pressure. I refused to buy a painting, but she was so nice, and the gallery owner so eager, and then there were some for $10 U.S., so I just bought one to get out of there and resolved to shake her as soon as we were done seeing the peak. She gave me a tour of the park, and when we arrived at the base of the peak, she said she’d wait at the bottom for me. On the peak, I had to have my picture made with 19 Chinese tourists, and started talking to some similarly plagued kids from Ft. Lauderdale on a semester at sea, and lo and behold – they told me they’d met a Chinese girl who was giving them a tour and was waiting at the bottom for them right now! And she and Ling were hanging out when we got down.

I have to say, I was probably the most obstinate mark Ling has ever had the misfortune to choose. I didn’t want a massage, I didn’t want tea or a name chop or to go to the minority theatre or on a bamboo boat, I didn’t want lunch or to try some snake. But I did let her take me to an Internet cafe, where she got to watch me check my email and blog comments, and then I told her I was going to my hotel for a nap, but she said I was going to have some tea.

‘No, I’m going to my hotel to nap,’ I said.

‘Yes, to relax and cup of tea,’ she said. One thing about not speaking a language very well is you can often feign obtuseness to get what you want. I’ve done this myself.

‘I have to have tea to get away from you?’

‘What, my friend?’

So I went to a freaking tea shop. To my credit, I’d gone on the slight off chance that she really wanted to have a cup of tea at a cafe, and if it was a shop, I was going to walk right out. But when we got there, the Ft. Lauderdale kids were there having the Best Day Ever, and had just purchased hundreds of yuan worth of tea. And then the guy who poured Ling and me our tasting was really attractive and charismatic. I would have like to have been his friend, had his friendship not clearly been contingent on my buying his tea. Which I totally refused to do, over and over and over. But the social niceties had to be observed and even after the whole thing had turned sour, the tea guy, his manager, Ling and I all sat around and finished the tea and chatted stiffly, even though everyone really just wanted to get away from each other. It was much like being back home in the South. They charged me Y30 for the totally unwanted tasting. I should have refused to pay it, but I kept thinking of Richard Gere crawling into a tiny cage, and just wanted to get out of there. I actually ran into the tea shop guy later that night in the street. He tried to salvage things briefly by asking if I’d like to buy a ticket to the minority theatre, but we both knew it was never meant to be.

Ling and me

This is random, but one thing I really love (and also hate) about the Chinese is their ceaseless enthusiasm about everything. Jay told me that Chinese school kids go to class from 7:30 to noon, take two hours for lunch, have class again until 5:30, break for dinner, and have class again until 8:00. The adult work day is much the same. I would think that after a day like that, you’d be all in. Lord knows, Americans are totally beaten and resentful after 7 hours at a desk (at least, this American was). But the Chinese (of all ages) party all night, and at maximum volume; they never stop. They do not seem to require sleep. Maybe it’s all that tea. I saw a light and water show in Zhaoqing, where fountains sent jets of colored water high into the air. American teens would have stood around looking bored, but the Chinese ooh’d and aah’d and snapped photos, and screamed and ran every time it looked like the water would crash down on them. Every time. When movies play in buses and something funny happens, they squeal with laughter. Audibly. Every time. I absolutely love the raw displays of unguarded delight everywhere. It’s so refreshing.

My experiences are piling up faster than I can blog about them. I’m relocating to Yangshuo tomorrow morning, which is a small town in the mountains just an hour away, also on the Li. Yangshuo is also backpacker central – it’s also very touristy, but in a more low-key way, as it mostly caters to smelly, Western hippies trying to make a little money last forever. Guilin is to Gatlinburg as Yangshuo is to, I don’t know, the Old City? I should probably sleep.

(Click here for more pictures of Guilin.)

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