Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yangshuo (Part 1)

After spending two days in Guilin, I decided to spend the last three days of my trip in Yangshuo. Yangshuo is about a two hour bus ride from Guilin, so I took off in the early morning so I would have plenty of time to see some sites my first day there. Upon arriving in Yangshuo, it was immediately obvious that the scenery and mountains were more spectacular there than in Guilin. While the main street, Xi Jie, is very touristy, at least the prices in general seemed to be a bit lower. For example, my hostel was about $4/night, so not too expensive at all. For the tourist sites, though, the prices in Yangshuo were much, much cheaper. "Xi Jie," or West Street, also seemed to have almost a majority of western cafes, restaurants, and other food, which was a bit of a disappointment. It was possible, though, to find some good Chinese food. There were, of course, a ton of shops selling souvenirs, paintings, fake clothing brands, and the other usual fare.
Xi Jie (West Street)
West Street with Mountains Yangshuo with Li River
Mountains Close Up
The best things to do in Yangshuo are mostly outdoor in nature, which makes it a perfect place to stay for me. I was able to spend my whole day riding a bike, hiking, or other things outside. It also isn't as conducive to the packs of large tour groups that are so common in most tourist places in China, which makes it a bit easier to get off the beaten path. I think that's why it's almost a de facto base camp for a lot of westerners who want to do biking, hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities. However, because there are so many westerners there, it's not really a great place to see Chinese culture sometimes, but most people go there to see the scenery anyway. After checking into my hostel, I took some advice from the Dutch guy I met earlier and rented a bike to cruise around the countryside. I ended up biking everyday because it's really the best way to get around. There are a few good maps that show a lot of the biking trails around, although they are not always clear cut. I started heading out towards a famous mountain the area and was struck by the constant beauty of the area. It was really refreshing to get on a bike and go wherever I pleased without many people around. On my way, I came across the Yulong River, which had some beautiful views.
Yulong River
Yulong River
I was heading to Moon Hill, which is a hill that has basically a donut hole in the middle.
Moon Hill
It's possible to hike up to the very top of the mountain, although most people just hike up to the bottom of the arch. The last stretch isn't an established path of stairs like the lower part, but it's not that difficult and the views from the top are worth going all the way. You can see nearly all the mountains in the area. Unfortunately, like most days on my trip it was a bit foggy and there were short rains, but that's the risk you take traveling during winter time. The views were still good even with the fog.
Moon Hill from the Top
View from the Top of Moon Hill
View from the Top of Moon Hill
View from the Top of Moon Hill
View from the Top of Moon Hill
As I was coming down from the hill, I ran into the Korean guys that I had met the previous day when I went to the rice terraces. It was pretty random, but it was nice to see them and we planned to meet up again the next day to take a cruise on the Li River. After I finished at Moon Hill, I spent the rest of the day biking along a stretch of the Yulong River. I've never really seen mountains like the ones in Guilin and Yangshuo before. In the past, I have mainly seen mountains that are a connected, continuous range roughly following a line. The mountains in this area, though, see to be random dots and all the peaks are not connected together. Instead, almost all the peaks seem to rise independently and go all the way from the valley to the peak. It was really nice riding through the small side roads and through some of the small villages. For the most part, there were still a lot of people living and farming in the villages.
Riding Through Country Road
Village and Mountains
Near the Yulong River
Farmland near the Mountains
Farmland near the Mountains
By the time I got back to my hostel, I was pretty tired since I had biked for several hours and my body wasn't really used to it. Since my hostel was right on West Street, at night it was pretty noisy since there were a lot of clubs around. It was a bit funny because most of the clubs would have two or three people standing out front and dancing to techno music to draw people in. However, it was good that I was pretty tired and I was able to sleep without too much trouble. The next day I got up and met the Korean guys to go on the river cruise. Taking a shorter river cruise on a stretch of the Li River near Yangshuo was much cheaper than going from Guilin and is supposed to be the most beautiful part of the river. There are a few different options for a boat, but we took a bamboo boat because it might be a little more fun than being in a big cruise boat. While a lot of these pictures might blur together and seem similar, when you're actually there it's so beautiful and difficult to resist taking a lot of pictures. Everywhere you look there are beautiful views of the mountains, rivers, and countryside.
Cruising on Li River
Bamboo Boat
Li River and Mountains
Cruising with the Koreans
Li River and Mountains
The cruise we took went for about an hour or so up the river against the flow, then took us back to where we started. They stopped in the middle at a place where we could sample some fish, tea, or other food. We also saw some guys who put on displays of some traditional farming methods. They have these birds that they train to catch fish for them, but they put a band around the birds' throats so they can't swallow the big ones. These days I think mostly it's just a tourist attraction, but it's pretty interesting to see.
Some Local Wares The So Called Nine Horses Mountain
Cruising on the River
More Mountains
Man Fishing with Birds
Since this post is getting long, I will split it into two parts. After this, the posts for my Chinese New Year travels will be done. I hope no one has gotten tired of reading about travel stories, but that's all the kind of stories I have right now, so you have no other choice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Longsheng - Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

There are two main day trips to do from Guilin. The most famous and popular is taking a cruise down the Li River. The views down the Li River are some of the best the area has to offer and are normally ranked as one of the top 5 sites to see in China. However, the locals know this and charge an arm and a leg to take one of the cruises, especially by China standards. To take a cruise is normally 400 - 600 RMB (~$70-$90). Luckily, when I met the guy from the Netherlands on the train to Guilin, he advised me to take a shorter cruise around the Yangshuo area that is much cheaper and shows the most beautiful part of the river anyway. He said that the cruise from Guilin can actually get a little boring since it lasts around five hours and the scenery is pretty much the same throughout the cruise. In light of this information, I decided to postpone my river cruise until I went to Yangshuo. The second main day trip from Guilin is to the Longsheng (or Dragon's Backbone) Rice Terraces. In Longsheng County all the mountains and hills are carved up into rice terraces, so it's not really a single hill, but an entire region. They have been that way for over 500 years and during certain seasons offer some spectacular views. It is interesting to see such a feat of engineering side by side with traditional methods of farming, but then again you'll see rural farmers using cell phones as well, so I'll leave it up to you to decide which is more surprising.
A Picture of the Rice Terraces I Did Not Take
Since some traditional villages and cultures still exist in the area, it is also possible to see some local life, although they have been bastardized to a certain extent because of the tourist trade. Our tour guide told us that the government pays the villagers money to stay there and live, otherwise most of the young people would bolt for the big cities, as happens pretty much everywhere else in China. I think since the village life there is unique and proves to be a good tourist draw, it's worth the money. I decided to do the Longsheng day trip and booked a tour through my hostel. That is really the only way to be safe, as a lot of these touristy cities are rife with fake travel agents and many a foreigner has been bamboozled into paying for a fake ticket. The trip takes all day and they normally show you a couple villages where you get a see a performance, eat some lunch, and see some of the buildings there. The first place we went to was the Yao village. This village is famous for the women who live there. All the women have really long hair and are only allowed to cut it one time in their lives, when they are 18 years old. Before the girls get married, they can't show their hair to any men, since their husbands should naturally be the first ones to see their flowing locks. Because of this rule and also the logistics of having hair that is nearly as long as the girls are tall, most of them have their hair done up into a hat/head scarf type thing. The village itself is nestled into the side of a hill and near a river, so it was very picturesque, especially with the surrounding fog on the rainy day I went there.
Yao Village Women
Yao Village
Yao Village
Yao Village
Yao Men and Smoked Meat
At the Yao Village, there was a performance where the girls did some singing and they had a short wedding ceremony with four men from the audience. While there were a few other foreigners there, I was conspicuously the only young white guy, so of course they chose me to participate. Our tour guide had told us beforehand that they would want volunteers, which normally I strongly prefer avoiding, but they chose me against my will.
Outside the Performance Hall
Yao Girls Singing Married Women Showing Long Hair
When they took us backstage, they told us that each of us would have to sing a short part of some kind of love song to the girls we were getting married to. At this point, my heart dropped and I began getting extremely nervous, since singing in front of a crowd is a pretty scary idea to me. They said we could sing a few lines of any love song we knew and at this point, my mind went completely blank. Before I could think of any ideas, they made us dress up in the traditional marriage attire and led the four of us out on stage. There were four parts to the ceremony, which was of course in an express mode for the performance. The first part is to make rice cakes by mashing a big bowl of rice. Each of the four couples took a turn.
The Four Couples
The Rice Cakes
The whole time this was going on, though, my mind was searching for something to sing. I've never had my mind completely go blank like that before. However, at the last minute, I remembered some of the words to the old Elvis song "Only Fools Rush In". When it came time to sing, they of course picked me to sing first and I most likely butchered the song, but at least I got through it. Needless to say, I am not a performer by nature.
This Man is Not a Natural
The rest of the ceremony including some exchanging of rice wine and giving a gift. During the ceremony, all the other village girls were pinching my and the other guys' butts as part of the custom. I am not sure why, but I will say that they were not holding back at all and were pinching quite hard. At the end of the wedding, all the men had to carry the girls off on our backs. All in all it was pretty fun and I have to admit it is a relief to finally be off the market. I never thought this was the way I'd get married, but marriage is a sacred bond that lasts for life and I cannot betray it.
After the Yao Village, we went to the second and final village where we could hike up to see a view of the terraces. I had met some Korean MBA students on this trip and hiked up with them. They were also kind enough to take some pictures of me during the wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, the weather was rainy this day and by the time we reached the top it was too foggy to see. It was also winter, so the terraces weren't green like in the spring or yellow like in the fall, when the rice is ready to be harvested. Those are the risks you take traveling during the winter, though, and for the most part it was still worth going.
Hiking to Terraces through Village
View at the Top
View at the Top
View from Lower Terraces
View from Lower Terraces
Korean Friends
It might be nice someday to go back to the Longsheng terraces in the spring or fall, but then they might be a lot more crowded and expensive than when I went. There are always tradeoffs traveling, but no matter what the experience was fun. If you want to see more pictures, check out: