Saturday I took my Li River cruise. Before we got on the boat, we had to take a bus to the loading place and once we arrived, the bus unloaded into an absolute swarm of Chinese tourists (sprinkled with Westerners) and I promptly lost sight of everyone in my group. I found them again inside a sort of mall thing, featuring a lot of little jade Buddhas on strings (those are HUGE here), and some Korean businessmen, who didn’t really speak Chinese either, explained to me that we were meant to walk around and shop for an hour, and then we’d be sent to the boats. When that time finally came, the tour guide told me to follow this really spastic girl in a white tracksuit, who managed to get us to the right boat, but only after a whole lot of flapping around and checking and rechecking our tickets and pointing violently in all directions.
The boats were glassed in on the bottom level, and we all sat at tables and had tea. I ran up on top as soon as I could, which was much nicer, except that Chinese girls carry umbrellas around to guard themselves from the sun, so the view is always obscured, plus they aren’t at all careful about jabbing out the eyes of everyone around them. The Li River lived up to its rep – it’s broad and flat and placid, and surrounded on all sides by those great mountains, and filled with fishermen on bamboo boats and water buffalo and little white ducks and naked Chinese boys.
I met a guy (whose name I just can’t even come close to getting) who’s going on much the same Chinese tour as me. He was nice, but his English was bad, and it gets really tiresome after awhile to communicate across a language barrier, not the least because you can’t joke or be sarcastic at all, and I find constant sincerity to be utterly exhausting. Plus, you can never rise above, ‘So pretty!’ ‘Yes, pretty!’ ‘Beautiful country!’ ‘You go to Chengdu?’ ‘I hope to.’ ‘What?’ ‘Yes. Later.’
For some reason I expected Yangshuo to be a pretty, quaint little mountain town with a lot of backpackers. It’s not. It’s the most touristy place I’ve been so far. It’s in a gorgeous area, but you can’t see the mountains for the shopping. Just tons and tons of crap everywhere. Silk pashminas and wooden bracelets and woven purses and those freaking green Buddhas. I walked around in a really foul mood for awhile. I just hate shopping so much, and there’s just so much crap everywhere! But on the other hand, one thing I’ve found problematic in China is that there is nowhere to just camp out for awhile – there are no Borders, and the Starbucks don’t work the same way. You can’t just sit somewhere public for hours and read, especially at night (because in daytime, there are the parks). Well, in Yangshuo all you do is sit on patios and read and have a beer and watch the tourists flow by. Which is really pretty nice. Also, there’s a great deal of eye candy here, of the tattooed, shirtless climber variety. And all the restaurants have giant, IHOP-like menus with a page for Western breakfast, a page for traditional Irish breakfast, a page for Mexican food, a page for Italian food, and so forth, with all the usual noodles at the back. And everything here is in English. And there’s so much coffee!
I invited myself to dinner with three people sitting across from me: two of them are girls from Chicago, and one was even involved with Plasticene Theatre – small world. They’re on the first leg of a five-month round-the-world, and were with a Portuguese navy guy who’d been traveling with them for a couple days. We traded war stories, and they gave me some good advice.
I had to take the bus back to Guilin Saturday night, and return here yesterday morning, because for some stupid reason, I’d taken my hotel in Guilin for another night. When I got here yesterday, the bus dropped me off outside of town. I hate that. I was trying to read my map and ignore everybody, but one guy who runs a hostel kept after me to come look at a room, and since it would get me into town, I took one of the little motor cars up there with him. He showed me the room, and I knew I didn’t want it; we started going back down the stairs, and I told him I’d look around and maybe come back. He began to bargain with me, and stood right in my path. I told him to let me by, and he said no, and I tried to shove past him, and he pushed me! So, I wailed on him, employing many elbows, and shoved my way past. There were a lot of people all around, so I wasn’t really frightened, but it was certainly not a pleasant experience.
I ended up staying in my first dorm. It’s not really a dorm – there are only four beds in the room, and only two other people currently staying there, and I really like the companionship. I think I will stay in dorms from now on. One of my roomates is an Australian girl named Emily who’s working her way home after spending three months working in some program in Kazakstan. She’s very cool. We had a beer and got massages, and then met up with the kids from the night before for dinner. I could get used to Yangshuo.
The only problem is, this ain’t China. It is a nice break, though. Nothing’s difficult here, and it’s so easy to meet people. But it’s not really what I came here to experience. I keep torturing myself with the idea that I’m not backpacking “correctly.” I feel like a real traveler (as opposed to a tourist) would have hopped off the bus at one of those tiny, dusty farm villages, won over the locals with sheer enthusiasm and perhaps impromptu renditions of local pop tunes, and been tilling those rice fields alongside the people by noon the next day. I am not that traveler. But then I tell myself, I have only been at this for a week and a half and, you know, baby steps. Plus, I am a woman, and thus can never take any risks or do anything fun at all ever. But another nice thing about Yangshuo is that there are many, many seasoned backpackers here for me to learn from, and I’m picking up a lot from their tips and their general attitudes. I still payed way too much for a very ugly pair of shorts last night, but I’m learning. I’m learning.
I have a major problem on the horizon: National Week is the week of October 1st. That week, all Chinese tourists take to the road, prices shoot up, and rooms are scarce. Everyone (Chinese and Western alike) has told me it’s nightmarish. I can’t figure out whether to go somewhere and camp out for the week, and just pay too much and bear the crowds, or if there’s some way to avoid it. Suggestions?