Charmed by China’s countryside

The money shot (Li River - Guilin to Yangshuo)

Waking up on the train (not that we really slept all that deeply anyway) – it was another early morning, pulling into another new place. Difference was, this time it was China! Somewhere much talked about, but a place I never thought I’d see myself entering…something about non-democratic regimes just gives me the willies. And let’s face it – for an American mother, this isn’t exactly the best choice. But Chris was keenly interested, and after doing lots of reading on the place I must say I was coming around to the idea too. And anyway, here we were!

Guilin is a city in the province of Guangxi along China’s southern border with Vietnam.  It is a prime destination for Chinese tourists – known for its lush landscape and surrounds. Leaving the train, at the end of the platform we were approached by a nice enough looking woman who asked us if we were interested in tours of the area. Luckily, Chris had read that there was a reputable tour company in the station itself, and so we followed her to their office and a nice guy named David explained the two main tours – one to the famed rice terraces and one up river to Yangshuo. We’d already decided to go to Yangshou next – so booked them both for the very reasonable price of less than $20 each.

Let's play human Frogger!

Our next challenge was crossing the road to the taxi queue. Yes, there was a crosswalk – multiple in fact. And no, no one was paying any attention to it. It was like a real-life, and quite terrifying game of Frogger. We followed the locals and hauled buns as fast as we could with our heavy bags. I felt our taxi overcharged us, but he took us straight to our hostel – Backstreet – where we were greeted by three lovely Chinese girls, who all spoke English and offered us a nice breakfast. So far, China wasn’t so bad, I thought.

We took our usual nap, atop the world’s hardest mattress. It is like they took a regular soft mattress and placed a wooden board on top of it. Throughout our stay in China, we would come across this same type of sleeping torture device time and time again – it was a real Chinese specialty, this one. Once awake, we headed out to explore.

At least you know how it's been cooked, eh?

Our first friends in China

We were right next to the main pedestrianized shopping area and easily found a good, safe place to eat. A stand selling veggies on skewers – frying off any bad germs before serving it with a nice sauce. We carried on, making our way towards the Solitary Beauty Peak. I wanted to buy a bubble tea (milky tea with tapioca balls inside), and at the nearby shop we were enthusiastically greeted by a group of stylish teenage girls who seemed incredibly happy to see us.  They wanted their picture taken with me and offered to be our guides! I obliged on the photo, and also had Chris take one for me. They then helped Chris order a nice freshly pressed apple juice and sent us on our way – hydrated and with many smiles, giggles and waves goodbye.

Prince's mansion & Solitary Beauty Peak in the distance

Following the steps of royalty - and Mao !

Walking through small backstreets, we arrived at the Solitary Beauty Peak. Situated within a 14th century prince’s mansion from the Ming Dynasty – it was a sort of mini Forbidden City. We toured the palace, admiring the portraits of many stern, fierce-faced princes in incredibly intricate dress. The Peak stood behind the palace, protecting it from evil winds and attacks. We climbed the stairs 153m to the top for our first views of Guilin’s unique typography. Around the hill were two caves, one used for meditation and worship – the other used for composing poems and verse. Not a bad life, eh? It was all pretty magical, as we sat and sipped the juice from inside a coconut. But the scene was interrupted by a sea of Chinese students practicing some kind of pledge of allegiance and marching routines on the grounds, as many of the buildings were now part of the adeptly named ‘Guangxi Normal University.’

Atop Solitary Beauty Peak

He's a coconut, this guy!

Walking back to the hostel, we were surprised by the lack of Westerners. We seemed quite a novelty, as many people would shout “Hello” as we passed. We ventured out for dinner, and were hassled by a tout trying to get us to go to a restaurant of his choice. We smelled a scam in the making and managed to lose him. Playing it safe – as neither of our stomachs was at their best – we settled on a pizza-bar type place. We were the only ones eating in the joint. Though there was one large table of smoking men watching a big screen TV showing the World Athletics Championships being held in China. They were disappointed when their Chinese hurdler came in second place, but I was privately proud as an American came in first. Take that China! (Honorable mention, a Brit placed third – whoo-hoo!)

Next day, we awoke early and again enjoyed our breakfast of oats, peeled fruit and egg. We were picked-up by our tour van bound for the Longji Rice Terraces. There were 5 other English-speakers in the group: A Brit/Irish couple, a Canadian couple and a gal from Amsterdam. Our guide’s name was Harry, and I liked his very 1950s sense of humour. The 2hrs journey was our first real taste of the crazy Chinese driving – if you can call it that. It’s more like a game of chicken. Everyone drives very fast, and tries to pass everyone else like it’s a race. There are carts, animals, many variations of converted/repurposed motorcycles, semi-trucks and tourist vans like us. All this on a winding two-laned road. I was very, very nervous.

Fab hairstylings of the Red Yao people

We made it to the village of the Red Yao – known for their women who never cut their hair. Long hair means long life, you see. To get there we crossed a wobbly wooden suspension bridge that read ‘maximum 15 people’ which had at least double that on it, but hey! In the village I opted to watch their theatrical show which told the story and traditions of the village in song, narration and dance. It was good fun, especially when they re-enacted their one of a kind wedding ceremony with an old white guy from the audience. He had to carry the bride on his back, kneed a huge vat of dough with a long stick, sing an impromptu song acapella (he chose “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” – which left the largely Chinese audience dumbfounded) and dance whilst getting his butt pinched by the other girls. It was a riot! At the end the women all unveiled their hair from their intricate buns (different styles denoting married, unmarried or married with children). Chris took the opportunity to take photos around the village while everyone was at the show.

Letting down of the hair

Sundried !

We then had a pretty bad lunch at a local eatery. Actually, Chris and I ordered simple pumpkin and green beans which wasn’t too bad. But others had ordered more fancy items that were inedible. My advice: when in doubt, go vegetarian. At least you can recognise what you are eating, and it’s less likely to go horribly wrong.

Next the rice terraces, the main attraction – are a series of shelves carved into the side of mountains, 1900m above sea level. This technique allows for these rural areas to be farmed. Generations over 900 years have spent time creating these particular Longji Terraces, and the mountains have been named based on their shape – like: Two Dragons or Seven Stars. To reach them, we walked through the village – past old ladies selling shoes of made of twine and jade jewelry. We carried on up lots and lots of stairs in the blazing sun and heat to the top to get the best view of the terraces. A cool tea made from ginger and a local fruit awaited us at the top. I chatted to Harry, our young guide. Turns out, he does this same steep climb everyday, 6 days a week, year round. Lord knows what they pay him, but he said he likes meeting people from different parts of the world. And he did seem quite happy in his job.

One of these is 'snail hill'

You and me and a terrace makes three

Corn & underwear combo line

Sun and moon pagodas by night

We all slept I the van on the way back to town. I was feeling very hot, ill and headachy. I think I had slight heat exhaustion. Back at our very nice room, I took a cold shower, and ibuprofen and slept while Chris ventured out to buy our next set of train tickets. What a guy, that Chris! Chris’s tummy wasn’t so feeling so hot, and we just couldn’t bear the hunt for food, or the risk of eating anything else suspect. So we had chicken burgers at KFC. That’s right, good ole Colonel Sander’s to the rescue. We also took a walk to check out the nearby landscaped park.

That night, I thought about what we’d seen. I liked the homes of the Yao very much: huge three-floor wooden houses, surrounded by trees and rivers. I couldn’t help envying them a little. And there we were, paying just to get a peek of their lifestyle – living where they live where they do, close to things money can’t buy: nature, beauty and community. I got me thinking: who is really richer?

Guilin to Yangshuo

Next morning, we were collected in a bus along with 40 other tourists – mostly Chinese, with a few Westerners too. Nico, the guide was bi-lingual, but somehow the English commentary was 1/4 the length of the Chinese version. Funny that.

We arrived at the Li River and boarded bamboo rafts with small benches on them with a little awing overhead. On our boat was a family of father, daughter and two sons – the eldest of which seemed pretty pleased with himself – taking his shirt off to stand on the front of the boat like some sort of juvenile captain, and positioning his body in various ways to take photos with his fancy camera. The younger son was nice tho, offering us some sweets he’d brought along that tasted like Rice Krispies Squares.

A good transport option

But it wasn’t about the boat  – but the landscape that was otherworldly. Alongside each side of the wide river were huge green, stone pillar-like mountains that seemed to spring out of the earth, forming dramatic peaks that pierced into the sky. If you ever get ahold of China’s 20 yuan bill, the picture on the back is of this exact stretch of riverside scenery. Some mountains were also supposed to resemble animals like horses and more dragons, but I only spotted the one that looked like Hello Kitty. We also passed groups of water buffalo in keeping cool in the water.


It was a nice few hours on the river, and we stopped along the way for water and snacks, and two more groups of Chinese tourists asked to take photos with me, while another just did it sneakily from afar. Weird, huh? I mean, I wasn’t the only Westerner in the group – so why me? Chris thought it was because of the red curly hair. I thought maybe my hat made me look more quintessentially tourist-like, which I wasn’t that happy about. But when it comes down to it, guess I’d rather look slightly doofus-like than get sunburned.

Towards the end of the ride, I think people were getting bored and started using huge syringe-like tubes to spray water at passing boats. We witnessed several great soakings, but managed to avoid the water wars ourselves. I think it was down to our careful driver who saw the quality of the cameras being used onboard and steered well clear.


Another life-threatening crosswalk

We docked in a small town, took a motorcycle taxi for 4 (but squeezed in 6) to another bus that drove to Yangshuo. In need of cash – we made our way through Yangshuo’s backstreets to a main tourist drag and the local Bank of China branch – the only bank in the country where foreigners can withdraw cash. We had a late lunch next door at KFC, tho it wasn’t as exciting as the previous day’s meal – but we were too hungry to hunt around. Then we hopped a taxi to our guesthouse, The Giggling Tree – 20 minutes into the countryside.

The place was so lovely – set amid all the hills and mountains we’d seen from the boat. It was an old mud brick farm house, carefully converted into a guesthouse. It was painted an earthy peach colour, with sky blue accents. It felt a bit Mexican Hacienda-like to me, with a large central courtyard surrounded by the rooms on one side and a restaurant, reception and common-room on the other. The main thing that felt Chinese were the large red lanterns that lined the walls.

Giggling Tree Guesthouse from afar

We settled into our large room, and got ready (including dousing ourselves with copious amounts of mosquito repellent) for the show we’d booked that night – Impressions. 600 performers take to the water – with mountains as a stage. It was choreographed by the same team behind the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and so we were ready for greatness. The show definitely delivered! Depicting the ways of life of the local people, craftsmen and traditions – it was beautiful and all done on a grand scale – with music, dancing, singing, lights and movement. The bamboo boats were there, fishermen, the long-haired Yao ladies, water buffalo…it was a feast for the senses.

Hundreds of dancers ascending onto the water

The last few days really made me feel that nature and simple life is valued by the Chinese – but alongside they’re appalling environmental record and industrial boom – there is a paradox and disconnect that exist. What people seek on an individual level vs. a national level seem quite different. Why can’t both ethics and values be maintained within China’s future?

Our first full-day in Yangshou, Chris rose early to go for a walk. He walked around the area towards the Yulong River. He saw about 40 ducks cross the road, and there were dogs and chickens all around. The farmers in the surrounding village were already up and harvesting what we believe was rice. Then it started raining, and he came back to wake me up.

Chris' company on his morning walk

The food at our guesthouse was great – catering for Western tastes, with Chinese items available too. Everything deliciously fresh and hygienically prepared. With my back still kaput, Chris had to make do with exploring the area on foot – not by bike as we’d hoped. The field just across from our guesthouse was still busy cutting the rice, shearing-off the grains and then forming the stalks into little pyramid-shaped bundles – all by hand.  The road we were traveling on was dotted with lots of little villages – mostly farming communities. Some settlements were quite ancient too. Lots of people shouted, “hello” at us as we passed, some just stared.

Around Yangshuo

Fields of lotus flowers (they eat the root), corn and rice – divided into small plots. Mostly women were working in the fields and they actually wore the characteristic pointy round hats! But the men seemed to be sat in small restaurants playing card games on even smaller tables and chairs. The houses were all modest of mud brick or concrete and a bit worse for wear, but patched-up over time. Many didn’t have windows at all, and were open to the elements. We passed people along the road pulling carts or carrying huge bundles on their backs filled with grass for animals or freshly cut corn. Set against the backdrop of the pointed mountains everywhere we turned – it was like a picture postcard. The exact image you have in your mind when you close your eyes and think of old-world China, this was it.

I am a rock

Amid the calm, we came to a busy area filled with the bamboo boatmen eating noodles for lunch. Chris wanted to try it – but the idea made my stomach turn so we made do with our snacks that we’d brought along instead. We did get some green tea from a very old lady at a sort of shop. She was sipping a bowl wild rice soup that actually looked good to me, but sadly she didn’t seem to be selling it.

Getting lost in ancient towns

Inventive modes of transport

Our map was a bit crap, as it wasn’t to scale – but we are pretty sure we passed through the ancient village of Huang Tu. It did look old, with buildings even more rustic than before –  with funny vehicles with what looked like exposed lawnmower engines attached to horse carriages. We also saw some ‘taxis’ of a sort – packed with people, all carting their wares home from the nearby weekly market. One woman was holding a live chicken by its leg – just hanging out of the truck. It squawked as they passed us and we had to laugh. At least you know it’s fresh, I suppose.

We took a taxi of our own back to the guesthouse, a motorcycle/rickshaw hybrid thing. We had more great food, and I skyped with my sister and mom – which was really nice to do so far away from home.

My Chinese teacher and her little school (she specialises in calligraphy, as you can see!)

Next morning, Chris took to the bike on his own to check out ‘The Big Banyan Tree’ and ‘Moon Hill’. I had arranged for a 2-hour Chinese lesson, which was difficult due to the tonal nature of the language, but by the end I think I was getting the hang of it, and it did help me a lot later on as we traveled.

The 'Big Banyan Tree' as the locals call it

'Moon Hill' (another fittingly named local landmark)

Yangshou to Guilin to Nanning

That evening, we took a bus back to Guilin to catch our 5hr+ train to Nanning. At the bus station, I was treated to the second worse bathroom so far (after the one in the Bulgarian train station). It was basically a long trough that you hover over. I had to cover my nose with my tissue to stop from being sick from the smell. It was BAD!

Just what the locals eat on trains (Top Ramen/Pot Noodle), yum!

For this train, we were told it didn’t have a 1st class, and so were sat in an incredibly busy carriage filled with Chinese locals – all talking and eating and playing cards – LOUDLY. The lady next to us moved, maybe she was scared of us, I don’t know. But she was replaced by two guys who just stood, hanging over us, watching Chris write in his journal. I was creeped out – they were so close to us & silent. I decided to break the ice, and offered them a cookie, which thankfully they accepted and that made me feel slightly better like they were just curious and harmless. The main guy indicated he couldn’t read what we were writing and Chris thought maybe he’d simply never seen anyone write in Roman characters before.

Arriving in Nanning, it was late and very confusing outside the station. I thought our hotel was very close, and had the address written in pin yin, but not Chinese characters (pin yin are Roman characters that spell the sound of the Chinese word). Not one taxi driver could read it. In the end, a woman called the hotel on her mobile – and then charged us a huge amount to be driven there. We tried to get her down on price, but she just laughed at us, as it was obvious we were in no position to negotiate. The City Comfort Hotel reminded me of living in IKEA – which I was quite thankful for after the train journey and taxi kerfuffle.

Next day, the stomach cramps and pains had manifested themselves in liquid form. It was all wrong in the bathroom department – big time! It was incredibly hot and steamy as well, but we carried on to the Medicinal Botanical Gardens, the largest of their kind in China and the reason we braved coming to Nanning at all. The taxi ride was long, but interesting as we drove through dusty backstreets with busy markets and crowded neighbourhoods of this city of 2 million people.

Guangxi Medicinal Botanical Gardens (fan for ill people sold separately)

The garden itself was divine and nicely planned – housing areas devoted to various medicinal plants, many used in Chinese medicine but also herbal medicine in a wider sense. The plants were divided into sections such as trees & bark, herbs, and also specific recipes – like plants for digestion or colds, etc. It was a beautiful place, but as it was incredibly hot & steamy and I just had no energy with having to run to the bathroom every few minutes – so I’m afraid we didn’t get to enjoy it that much.

I corralled Chris into walking across to do an Indiana Jones pose...whaddya think?

We ventured out to the main road, had a simple lunch of corn, greens and rice nearby (chosen by pointing to some dishes our neighbor was eating) and then hailed a taxi so we could catch our plane bound for the place we were most looking forward to in the whole of China: the Yunnan Province!


About Jenn Connor

Californian in Somerset. Gardener of knowledge. Cyclist. Traveler. Professional communicator. Lover of all things green and growing.
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3 Responses to Charmed by China’s countryside

  1. Anonymous says:

    It sounds wonderful and strange and odd – I love the hills/mountains – so different – did I ever tell you about the Elroy Flecker (I think) poem of a small boy digging for china and he digs and digs and he’s on his knees with his head bent to the task and it’s a hot and sunny day and eventually he stops digging and raises his head and everything looks different and he “knows” that he’s succeeded in digging down to China. Your description is just as I would expect – everything just different. Looking forward to the next instalment, Hope your tummies improve – in readiness for India!!!

  2. Stephanie Hall says:

    Fab. Such a shame about the upset stomachs and effects of the heat making it harder to enjoy things, but very well done for keeping going so you managed to see so much. Loved the sound of the big show & the countryside looked beautiful and as you say, strange & just as you imagine old China.

  3. Janice says:

    It just sounds like you’re living a dream or in a movie with ups and downs, but over all… a wonderful experience. I love reading about it and seeing the great photos, Love you, Mom Janice

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