Friday, October 20, 2006

Did you see the bathroom?!?

October 2005

“Did you see the bathroom?” was the cry at the last hotel on our trip to Guizhou province. Now this might have been because it was a fancy Balinese bathroom, but, as you may have guessed, the reaction was for the opposite reason. We were staying at a Chinese standard 3 star hotel – it did, after all, have TV, air-con, hot water (though we never did test that), a restaurant and “clean” rooms. Located in a Zhuang village, accessible only by foot and surrounded by 700 year old rice terraces, we should have been thankful for running water. Nonetheless Douglas was unimpressed by the bathroom equal to shower stall (after all it’s easier to hose down that way) and squat toilet. Not to mention that the showerhead was missing, so it was really just a hose hanging from the wall. I have to say though, that I was quite impressed by the portable toilet seat that was in the bathroom (see picture). We all did have a ponder of the ramification of various substances falling from a height of the toilet seat into the toilet, and well, … enough said. It was only one night, an interesting location (see rice terrace picture) and Tim and I have definitely seen worse!

Our first venture around China was an experiment in travel planning and testing the conventional wisdom about travel during one of China’s “golden weeks”. Quick aside, to promote travel domestically and to allow people the opportunity to return to their home province, national holidays are scheduled into 3 “golden weeks”. Generally there are 3 official holidays and the remaining 2 days of the week are then also taken off by office/manufacturing businesses, with the following Saturday and Sunday worked. With (theoretically) 1.35 billion people off work, there can be a lot of crowding on busses, trains, and tourist spots. The good news is that we really only encountered the effects of the heightened travel with one traffic jam. Myth busted? Or were we just lucky??

The key learning from this tour was never, never, never cede control of the food arrangements and food budget to the tour company. The first arranged lunch was a buffet, designed for western tour groups at a hotel. Location was great. Ambience was minimal. The food, in compromising between Chinese and western, got neither even close to correct. The dinner that night was abysmal – held in a large hotel (3 Chinese stars) ballroom/restaurant, chicken with bones, horrible lukewarm soup, poor meat, low quality rice and to add insult to injury, included green tea only, no water, and we had to pay for beer and soda. Knowing that Chinese food is generally quite cheap, local beer (apart from Tsing Tao) is cheaper than bottled water, and we’re paying a lot in land costs, something wasn’t right. By the time we got to the next dinner, it was clear that reaching some accommodation with us was our tour guide’s instruction. If we ultimately complained to the Shanghai travel agent, they wouldn’t pay the local travel agent and our tour guide would not get paid. So, we picked the restaurant and the menu, and in the process learned that in the “country” towns, our dinner budget was a whopping 100 RMB for the 3 of us – that about US$12. Since we were paying daily land costs of about $200, and the hotel rooms averaged $60 (with breakfast), we’re still interested in knowing who was getting how much out of this, as it wasn’t the tour guide or driver! We’re guessing that not only was the tour company in Shanghai taking their cut, but in translating the tour spec to the local guide, the local tour company was shaving some more off the top. Alas, we’ll never know as we did ultimately find a balance between keeping us happy and staying close to budget, and took away a lesson for the future.

Think of the classic Chinese landscape scroll painting filled with limestone karsts (Merriam-Webster definition: an irregular limestone region with sinks, underground streams, and caverns). That is the area we visited that ranges between Guilin and Yangshuo. In Guilin, we went to a show on the origins of the area that was a combination of dance and acrobatics. It was very well done, but included none of the safety harnesses we’ve become accustomed to. As people swirled about the stage holding on by one hand, Tim and I couldn’t help but cringe. And as an acrobat balanced higher and higher and higher on a stack of chairs, all I could see was them (and him) coming crashing straight down at me. So great show, but I wasn’t quite relaxed sitting near the front of the theatre.

During a boat cruise of the lakes in Guilin, we were given a demonstration of cormorant fishing. Bamboo bent to shape and tied together makes the raft used by the fishermen. As in other parts of the world, the cormorant throat is constricted, here with rope, so they can’t swallow the fish. I’m not sure I’m fond of the idea of eating a rather large fish that has been regurgitated out of the bird’s throat, but then we’ll likely never know which fish were caught that way!

The Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo was packed with tourist boats winding their way down the shallow river way between limestone formations. Water buffalo, small farms, people doing laundry, fishing, all constituted the life along the river. The riverbank festooned with Phoenix tail bamboo – a bamboo that grows in circle, reaching 25 feet or more in height and spreading like a tail. The 4 hour boat ride included lunch – another bad meal, but that’s to be expected on those boats. Didn’t want to look in the kitchen when it was being prepared on-board, and didn’t want to experience the bathrooms by the time the trip was over.

Yangshuo, described by Lonely Planet as “that legendary backpacker hang-out”, seems to have been found by travelers about 10 years ago and settled by a number of them. The main drag is now known as "West Street" lined with cafes, bars, backpacker inns and shops. Took Tim and I back to our days of traveling, though now you can get a (sometimes) decent cappuccino along with your banana pancake! Douglas was thrilled to be able to have one dinner that wasn’t Chinese food.

While the western tourists headed to “West Street” for dinner, the locals and visiting Chinese went to where the real action was. Outside of our hotel, nightfall finds the parking lot turned into a whole slew of outdoor restaurants. A gas cylinder and wok, a table to display the food choices (we particularly liked the skinned rabbits and dangling chicken legs), and folding tables and chairs, and you have a restaurant. The first night we walked back through the area, now wet and covered in who knows what, tripping over a dead rat, and trying not to look too closely at the food choices. On the second night, Douglas had had enough – let’s get out of here, so we left Tim to document with photos.

The thing to do in Yangshuo is rent a bike and ride out to the Yulong River, possibly stopping at various caves, parks and tourist spots. We bypassed all of those and went up a dirt road along the river (still sharing the road with cars and busses, but now inhaling the dust along with the fumes) to find a wharf for the bamboo rafting. For an inordinately high price (this being a tourist spot), we hired 2 rafts, loaded the bikes on, and were poled down the river for about an hour. As you can see from the pictures, this was a popular activity, but enjoyable even with all of the crowds.

Yangshuo hosts the show with the world’s “largest stage”; that is, they do a show on the Li River south of town. A truly phenomenal number of fishermen, minorities from villages over 3 hours away, and others perform. The use of fire, lighting, and bamboo rafts was truly awesome, particularly with the backdrop of the limestone hills. Unfortunately, no pictures to share of this.

Finally, we ended our trip in Longji, the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. These terraces were built up over 600 to 800 years and reach up a string of 800 m peaks. Accommodations raised the cry from Douglas noted above, but were well worth the visit. The only way into the village is by foot, so we had the option of hiring local ladies to carry our bags up - $1.20 per lady – carried in the baskets on their backs. They made sure to be back at 6 AM the next morning to carry the bags back down the hill.

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