More wandering in Fenghuang. Down at the steps along the riverfront, women sit side by side, washing clothes and washing vegetables in the murky blue-green water. There are even fewer tourists here today, although I actually met two Germans today.
Restaurants have headless unplucked pheasants, and drying fish and flattened pig faces (really!) hanging out front, and countless little shops sell dried fruit, cigarettes, firecrackers, and lots of crossbows. I don’t know what these people have about crossbows.
Also went to the new part of town. Less scenic, and there is car traffic that is almost absent in the old downtown, but they do make sure that the architecture doesn’t descend into bland modernism like in other towns. They have a covered market too that is noticeably cleaner and less smelly than other such places elsewhere; people have lunch there on long tables. Bought excellent Dim Sum in a plastic bag from a street vendor. Outside there is a T-shirt shop where Osama Bin Laden and Harry Potter peacefully hang side by side.
Also did the museum circuit of Fenghuang. A number of pretty temples and homes of important people, and a collection of fossils, but no must-sees there.
Actually I wasn’t interested in Huaihua, it was just too late to continue. My destination was Fenghuang, and today I took a bus there. It’s only 40km as the crane flies, but takes two and a half hours because the road is almost never straight and goes through one gut-wrenching curve or switchback to the next.
I had been unable to reserve a hotel because the two numbers given by the Lonely Planet did not reach someone who speaks any English. So I just walked around in Fenghuang until I find a hotel I like, and check in. Of course, no English at the reception, but they have an Internet PC and we discuss the rooms using the Yahoo translator. Cool. They also have a talking calculator that chirped a cheery comment in Chinese on every key press. The Flowers Procumbens Hotel – who comes up with these names? – is modern, very uncharacteristically stylish for China, and generally pleasant.
Fenghuang is a beautiful old town on both sides of a river. The waterfront with its old but renovated wooden houses is exceedingly scenic in the evening sun. I really love the place and will stay here for a few days. There are tourists but not many, although I bet that it’s completely packed during holiday seasons. They are all Chinese, again no Westeners in evidence today. I am standing out so much that Chinese tourists ask me if they can take pictures of me.
It took a while to find a restaurant because of the language barrier. In the first I asked for a chicken dish by pointing at a huge chicken in a coop outside, and all seemed fine, until the cook grabbed the chicken and carried it to the kitchen before I could stop the impending massacre… The strategy works at another place, and I get my chicken. Preparation is easy: they simply chop it into rectangular pieces, bones at all, and fry it in a wok; I wolf it down with chopsticks except the head and the feet, couldn’t find any meat on those.
This Internet Cafe in Fenghuang has well-maintained Windows PCs that don’t put a virus on my flash card, and I type this into blogspot.com and not into a Google search box before cut-and-pasting it into a mailer with a maximum lifetime of 30 seconds between crashes. Even picture uploads work without sending IE south, so I added a few to previous posts.
In the morning, the fog is so dense that I can’t see more than 10 meters. I take the bus to Longshen, then another to Sanjiang. Both towns are modern and unremarkable. The road is scenic between along a river valley, but many of the occasional small rice terraces look neglected and overgrown, and the villages are dilapidated, with leaning wooden buildings and rusty satellite dishes.
The theory was that I’d find a bus north from Sanjiang, but no such luck. Nobody speaks any English except a machine that says that the bus to [unintelligible] is cancelled. The lady at the counter suggests a complicated route that *may* go where I want, but I can’t read her instructions and don’t risk it. When trying to pattern-match the names with the schedule, I am soon surrounded by friendly people trying to help, in Chinese of course. Finally they agree with my conclusion that I should take the train, give me a time I know is wrong, and send me off. Nice people, too bad we couldn’t communicate…
Trouble is, the train leaves seven hours later and arrives in Huaihua (pronounced why-wah) at midnight. So I while away the time walking to two nearby villages, where people look at me with astonishment, watch people in the station, and with train-spotting. Relaxing, but it’s cold. People in the waiting hall smoke, spit on the floor, and drop peanut shells and orange peels on the floor. They do this in buses too.
The Huaihua Great Hotel (that’s its name) is modern and very comfortable. Of course, nobody speaks English. In the room, the minibar includes underwear, two kinds of condoms, lubricants, and aphrodisiacs. Figures, I was wondering about the tenacity of the hookers outside, although the hotel itself is a straight business hotel.
Didn’t see a Westerner all day.
This Windows XP computer, too, is so slow, buggy, virus-infested, and generally unusable that it takes me forever to post to my blog. If this is what nonprofessionals have to deal with, it's a miracle that Windows users aren't jumping off high buildings all the time. What a disaster.
More walking among rice terraces. They have pretty much carved up most of the mountains around Ping’an. Most rice paddies are less than a meter wide. Like the fields, the path follows the contours of the mountain, and is mostly paved with slippery stones. Fog rolls over the hills all the time, sometimes I can’t see anything and sometimes a vista opens up, and changes again a few minutes later.
At strategic points, local women in colorful dresses and hairdresses, carrying baskets of souvenirs, waylay tourists. But like elsewhere in China so far, they are friendly and never tenacious.
There are no streets in Ping’an, just narrow winding paths between the wooden houses. Most of the time, the paths are stairs. There is much new construction, but fortunately using wood and traditional designs, using concrete only for foundations.
Took another local bus to Longsheng. Quite crowded. The first nine kilometers went through Guilin’s urban sprawl, no less ugly than downtown Guilin, just highrise concrete boxes that hide the peaks behind them.
The scenery improves after Guilin, first rolling hills and soon the road winds its way up to 630m, then back down to 250. There is a burnt smell, and the driver stops and cools his brakes with a water hose; steam rises. At one point the driver looks at me, asks Ping’an?, and when I nod, he stops and I get oiff and catch a bus stopped on the other side of the road. After numerous switchbacks, the new bus reaches the small hill village of Ping’an at 825m.
It’s a marvellous view – many old ornamented wooden houses cling to the side of the mountain on stilts, with every bit of space used. I am staying at the Countryside Inn, all wood, slightly creaky and unheated (it’s fairly cold up here) but very nicely renovated with friendly English-speaking staff.
People come here not only for the village, but for the rice terraces. They cling to the side of the mountains, following its contours, just like the village itself. They are huge – dozens and dozens of terraces, usually no wider than one or two meters, and some as narrow as 30cm, separated by artificial walls and an ingenious irrigation system. There are several paths that climb up to over 1000m and allow fantastic views over the endless terraces. Wisps of fog add atmosphere. In the evening, the fog creeps up from the valley until it’s difficult to see.
Took a local bus to Guilin, the other end of the usual Li River cruises. This town is totally different from Yangshuo – lots of traffic, asphalt, concrete, modern Chinese architecture that is supposed to impress but only manages to depress with its mindless rows of bland office buildings. They have narrow green strips along the rivers that escaped destruction. Maybe Guilin was once a nice town but no more. I went to the Seven Star Scenic Area, a tired park with a few monuments and low peaks.
I’ll be charitable and post a nice picture from the park.
The Internet PCs I am finding on this route become slower, more virus-infested, with broken browser installations. I hope this post makes it. No more pictures.
In the morning, I went out on a bicycle and with a guide, David Wong, the manager of the Hongfu Palace Hotel. He speaks English well. It took a while to find a bicycle that was large enough for me. David used an electric scooter because he was afraid that I’d outrun him, and in fact I did a few times because he was faster only uphill on smooth asphalt.
First we went to Moon Hill, a peak with a large crescent-shaped hole. I took a minivan ride up to Dragon Cave. The road is terrible and the van shook pitifully. Where other drivers keep car wash coins, he kept a collection of rusty bolts. The cave is huge, with a long convoluted path cut through its many caverns. The first leg is by boat. Later some sections are under water too, with Indiana Jones bridges complete with broken logs (but at least they weren’t suspended high up with ropes). The path was only a meter high in some places. My guides pointed out several dozen rock formations with flowery names like “dog rides golden lion”. They knew all the places where I should take pictures and wouldn’t continue until I did so. They spoke no English at all, and could only point at names on an English/Chinese map.
After returning from the cave, we continued by bicycle through the most marvelous scenery, through a valley of farm land, along Yulong River, surrounded by Yangshuo’s trademark sugarcone peaks. The road quickly turned into a narrow trail through the fields and small villages, most of which cannot be reached by a regular road. Eventually we reached Jiuxian, a historic village that really looked like it hadn’t been touched in centuries. We had excellent steamed fish there, caught the previous evening. The last stop was the Dragon bridge, an ancient stone arch in another old village. But what made this ride so fantastic was the scenery around us, not the monuments.
Addendum to Monday’s entry: at night I went to the Impressions Liu Sanjie, which is an enormous ballet of 600 actors that uses an entire lake and the mountains behind it. They use floats with little palaces on them that look like snowflakes, long floating platforms spanning the lake, lots of boats, long colored ribbons, and very sophisticated illumination. Dancers seem to walk on water, glitter, change color, while boats with lights were swirling around like fireflies. I had a good seat and got some surprisingly good pictures despite a handheld camera at full 400mm.
Took a local bus to Yang Di where I had reserved a private boat on the Li River. The boat is made from bamboo and the bamboo is made from plastic.
The scenery on the Li River is magical. It’s slightly hazy, and we glide on the
river between the huge overgrown stone pillars, forming a jagged skyline all around us. Some are in sunlight, others recede in the mist. There are few other boats, and when the motor is off, I can hear only the wind, the birds, and the voices of other boatmen echoing off the cliffs.
The scenery is so fantastic that it’s shown on the 20 Yuan note, and my boatman’s cigarette pack; he stopped in both locations to show me.
The water level is very low, so there are gravel banks along the shores and in the middle of the river. People have set up tents there and sell food, mostly crawly things with way too many legs on skewers.
After reaching the Xing Ping, we took a minibus to the center of this smart little harbor village. I spent some time wandering about before returning to Yangshuo by bus. This was a grand day out!
The bus from Guangzhou to Yangshuo takes eight hours, but there is so much to see that it’s never boring. All the long-distance buses are reasonably modern and comfortable, and unlike other buses I have used in Asia, quiet (both the engine and due to the absence of soap operas on the TV set). It makes three rest stops. Before one is allowed to enter the bus, the baggage gets x-rayed, as always.
At first, the towns we passed through were all well-maintained sterile concrete affairs with wide boulevards with flower beds in the middle, without any sign of the seediness one can find in Guangzhou. A bit like Wolfsburg with flowers. But later on, towns look like Asian towns are supposed to look like – a little run down, busy, alive with merchants and cyclists and animals and shopkeepers going about their trade. The freeway is new, wide, and smooth, except in a few places where construction isn’t finished.
About an hour before reaching Yangshuo, the karst mountains begin. They consist of countless conical pillars of rock that form a violently jagged skyline all around the road. Yangshuo itself is nestled in between of several karst pillars. It’s a busy little town that caters mainly to tourists, but manages to preserve its soul. The main street is Xi Jie, or “Western Street” as it confusingly shown on signs even though there is very little English signage in this town. It’s a pedestrianized street lined with modern shops and restaurants, in old two-story or houses. It’s sort of pleasant despite all the glowing ads and tourists. Virtually all the tourists are Chinese, I saw perhaps a dozen Westerners all evening.
My hotel is the Hongfu Palace Hotel. The rooms are a little cheerless despite the wooden floors, stucco, and old furniture, but the building is in is a magnificent 400-year old guild hall. Most of the other hotels are either backpacker hostels or sterile Chinese tourist hotels. And as it’s off-season, I haggled the price down to less than half the rack rate with little effort. But, no WLAN.
Using the express train to Guangzhou (a.k.a. Canton) is easy. Bags are x-rayed, visa are checked, and exit and entry cards are needed, but everything is much faster than the same procedures in Macau. At the station, the candy store sells palm-sized chocolate coins, but only ancient Chinese motifs and Dutch 2-Euro coins. The train is roomy and comfortable; the car attendant stands to attention as we board. The very slowly scrolling LED display in the car shows instructions for sneezing properly.
I am staying at the Elan hotel. Trendy, modern, clean, and bright, much better than the hotel in Hong Kong. Oddly, they want a deposit of 350 Yuan…
In Guangzhou, there is much less English. Street signs and the metro show English, but there was a lengthy notice in the train station in which the only English word was “notice” at the top (very helpful guys), and the long-distance bus terminal where I bought my ticket to Yangshuo for the next day had no English signage whatever and the ticket agents didn’t speak english either. I got my ticket by pattern-matching the Chinese characters, and pronouncing “Yangshuo” until there was rapport. No problem.
Large sections of Guangzhou are ugly concrete and chipped paint and glass towers separated by a maelstrom of traffic and endless asphalt. So I went to Yuexio Park close to the hotel; the park is very large and contains hills, ponds, lots of banyan trees, a waterfall, flowers, and a few shrines. Very relaxing. I then took the underground to Shamian, a small island just beyond a tangle of freeways and highrise construction. Shamian is a quiet refuge of colonial charm, with lots of trees and a narrow park down the central avenue. Finally I walked for a few hours in the western part of Guangzhou, which is still untouched by rampant modernization and has shady tree-lined streets, old buildings, and traditional shops open to the street with people working.
Macau is an island 65km off of Hong Kong. Both are part of China. But in order to travel from one to the other, you have to go through an immigration procedure
that requires a passport and entry and exit declarations. The immigration hall in Macau is very large and was packed with people; it took nearly an hour to get in. Oddly I was a head taller than almost everyone else there.
Gambling is legal in Macau, and only in Macau. So I took the shuttle bus to the
Venetian Casino to see Venice first-hand, like a friend who was there a few weeks earlier (hi Martin). It’s a giant mall with facades inspired by Venetian architecture, two Canals, lots of bridges, a copy of St. Marcus square, a campanile, the works, under a blue artificial sky. A little artistic freedom made the buildings all look like buildings in a mall, and the Canal Grande was about four meters wide and smelled like chlorine instead of you know what. But they had gondolas and a Chinese gondoliere who belted out O Sole Mio at the top of her voice. Incredibly cheesy and bizarre but you have to admire the effort.
Ok, to the real Macau. It was a Portuguese colony and you can still see that. Around the main square, Largo do Senado, the colonial architecture was preserved perfectly, but it’s packed with tourist, like the surrounding shopping streets. But walk a little further and there are little crooked alleys, only old buildings (all in desperate need of fresh paint), the characteristic tiny balconies that look like bird cages, little Chinese shops and people going about their work, and little traffic except in the few thoroughfares. Macau is wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable after Hong Kong and Kowloon. It seems that Macau was able to preserve its authenticity and its soul, apart from a few tourist watering holes. And the eastern edge of town, which is a loud and soulless modern town.
One of those is the church of St. Paul, built by Jesuits in the seventeenth century and burned down in the eighteenth, leaving only the front facade standing. It is quite ornate, and has become Macau’s main landmark. There is also an old fort next to it. I enjoyed Macau quite a bit, if I hadn’t bought a ticket to Guangzhou and made a reservation there I might have stayed there overnight.
Took the Star Ferry to Kowloon. While Hong Kong island, where I am staying, is a long thin half-moon of a city stretching along the bay waterfront, Kowloon is the peninsula across the bay. There is a Cultural Center with some rather uninspired architecture at the ferry landing, but with a fantastic view of the curved Hong Kong island skyline and the mountains behind it. There is a sign “beware of the pedestrians”.
Kowloon is much friendlier than Hong Kong island – the traffic isn’t quite as murderous, the waterfront is accessible and not a tangle of freeways, they have trees and a very nice park with fragrant flower gardens, ponds with koi and turtles, a little hedge maze, flamingos, and an aviary. A great place to while away a few hours. The main shopping street is Nathan Road, lined with old trees. It has the same luxury chain stores as any other major shopping street on the planet. What the others don’t have is sleazy operators every ten meters who whisper “copy watch?” in youir ear. One was offering a “girl market”.
I tried to get food at Knutsfort terraces, a narrow street known for its restaurants, but it’s mostly Italian places that sell pizza and “braised spaghetti”. I can have that at home. I found a small Chinese restaurant not overrun with tour groups, but I am afraid I can get that better at home too… I like meat well-prepared, not by cutting an animals into ribbons and serving the shreds with skin, bone pieces, and tendons still hanging off of it.
They drive on the wrong side in all of Hong Kong. But like other places where thy drive on the left, there is no clear rule whether you walk on the left too, or on the right. I’d say 2/3 of the time they walk on the right. The up escalator or stairs marked “up” are sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right. I saw a large outdoor pool with lanes marked off with ropes, and everyone swam in nice orderly lines in each lane, like ants, to avoid colliding with oncoming traffic – and in about 2/3 of the many lanes, at random, people swam on the right… Weird.
Arrived in Hong Kong. Places are hard to find here – there are very few street signs, had to ask locals to find the hotel. To encourage me, there is a sign in the elevator saying that the hotel is illegal becaus the building is residential only. But who would want to live in such a tiny apartment?
Hong Kong looks like someone wanted to build Los Angeles but only had Kaliningrad to work with. There are the shiny skyscrapers, but most of the buildings and towers are slightly dilapidated chicken coops with fading paint and, judging by the floor space and symmetry, tiny apartments. Little air conditioning units grow on the sides like fungus. Hong Kong is large but not as large as you’d think with its population of 6.9 million.
There are 7-Eleven convenience stores everywhere. They don’t have very much that one would want to buy. They do have Minute Maid orange juice whole list of ingredients includes “fish products”. Yuck. Had good Dim Sum today in Sheung Wan, which is supposed to be something like a traditional downtown and actually has a few pleasant temples and gardens tucked away between those residential towers that make the skyline look a little like tooth decay. Wasn’t as good as Cafe Aroma in Berlin though.