Saturday, June 30, 2007

Guilin and karsts


Is it possible to have 94% humidity and not be raining? In Guilin, it is. One of the warmest days of the year, so far, we are told. I am beginning to realize that finding the hotels and destination cities was straightforward, finding a way to get to the sights can be challenging. I have signed us up for the bus ride to the pier, where we will board a boat on a day cruise along the Li River.

It turns out the bus ride includes a local tour guide, trouble is, she only speaks Chinese. My translation capabilities......leaves a bit to be desired. Between my vocabulary and assistance from Robert, Jen, and Julia, we manage to figure out instructions and some basic introductory information, but have virtually no idea what she is rambling on about. Funny how language you don't understand sounds like squawking. We're taken on a traditional "gift shop" visit and encouraged to buy pearls. It is a busload of Chinese from various regions of the country. Our Li River boat has 2 seating levels and an upper deck. The view is spectacular from the top, but the air is also hot and muggy. Inside the air conditioned cabin, groups of Chinese people eat, drink tea, chit chat and sleep. About 20 minutes into the ride, the scenery changes and we see magnificent karst formations of many shapes and sizes. Boats pass on the river and we are served a simple lunch of rice, vegetables and a hot dog! I take way too many photos. Our day tour continues to a Buddhist temple of unknown name and history, to a huge banyan tree, and lastly, a ride on a bamboo raft. We float along, with the young girl encouraging us to sing folk songs with her. The small area on the river is full of tourist boats, and the banks are piled high with bamboo rafts. Part of this "tourist experience" is watching an elderly man with his 4 cormorants, whose necks are tied with a small string. They repeatedly dive into the water, coming up with a fish in their mouth. The man removes the fish, tosses it back in the river, and encourages his birds to go back in. We watch this process over and over.

I discover that Guilin sees too many tourists, and each and every person tries to make a buck off of you. We walk into the lobby after breakfast and are quite simply stalked by the wife of our taxi driver from the day before. She is determined to take us on a tour today and sits in the lobby, waiting for us to come back down. Her price is right, however, and I agree to have her take us to Longsheng, the terraced rice paddies that are so often photographed. It is a 2 hour ride to this area, and we debate for a long time whether we want to attempt this trip, or to spend our time walking around the city of Guilin. We decide to go. About an hour in to the drive, the skies turn gray, it begins to sprinkle, then the skies open up to torrential rains. Meanwhile, our driver is causing me to have hysterics in the front seat, as she passes truck after truck on the 2 lane winding road. The technique here is to honk, drive for as long as you need to in the oncoming lane and hope that no one is coming! In addition, they are reluctant to use headlights because they are "saving power", and this driver has her own ideas about how to, or how not to adjust the temperature inside the car. Temperature control, in her mind is AC on or AC off. I am ready to turn around and head back, after all, the skies are gray and as we climb higher up the mountain, we are shrouded in fog. I am not sure what we will see from the top, and walking around the area in the pouring rain does not sound like fun. From the window, I can see some small terraces, which don't look too impressive. Everyone else though, thinks we should take the chance and go up. I think it will be a waste of time.

After a nervewrecking 2 hour ride, we reach the parking lot of this scenic area. I could not believe my eyes- the clouds miraculously break up to reveal blue skies, the misty clouds float by and the air is crystal clear. The fields below are a bright jade green in the emerging sunlight. The contours of the terraced fields form unusual shapes and designs. It is a scene I cannot describe in words. The terraces rise thousands of feet in elevation and run for acres and acres. Rice plants are emerging from the murky waters and farmers with big straw hats tend the fields, some of which are only a couple of feet in depth. Paths run up and down the mountain and also crisscross the fields. We walk for hours, in awe as the sunlight reflects on the rice paddies, creating a rainbow of colors. We stroll through the small mountain village where women come up to us asking if we would like to see them comb their hair. In this minority group, women only cut their hair once in their lifetime, and their hair is longer than they are tall. They roll and wrap their long hair under a colorful turban. It is said that their glistening black hair is washed in water that has been used to wash rice. The small mountain village sits on a cliffside with a creek running through it. Wooden houses are constructed on stilts. Men carry loads on bamboo poles balanced on their shoulders. We feel very much like we have been transported back in time. In this remote and somewhat isolated village,
life is simple. The nearest town can only be reached by walking, yet these residents have seen tourists from all over the world who come to get a glimpse of their rice paddies. How fortunate we were to have been able to experience it.

Our driver takes us back to town and drops us off at a restaurant that she recommended. In all the years of travels, this was one time I felt really scammed, and didn't realize it until much later. We sat down to order and decided on a few dishes that seemed pretty simple. The waiter tells us that one of us must go with him to pick out the fish and the duck; obviously that was me. The little room off of the front door had some fish tanks and cages. He told me the prices of the fish ranging from $12-$30/kg and tried to get me to take the dead fish, telling me that type of fish normally swims upside down like that! I picked one of the cheapest ones, and then it was time to pick a duck. I told him to take a smaller one, so he grabs one, weights it and takes it to its death chamber. At this point, I am not eager to eat any duck that I have selected to end its life! After I go back to our table, it occurs to me that they probably take the animals back to their tank and cages. The duck they bring out is mostly bones. Both dishes turn out to be outrageously expensive.

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