You never know a man until you walk a mile in Yangshuo, China

December 29, 2009 at 1:45 pm Leave a comment

Having finished the Tiger Leaping Gorge in more or less one piece we decided to make our next stop a tamer, more low lying one. According to our trusty guidebook, Yangshuo was as tame as you could get, the kind of place where you handed over a few yuan at the front desk of your hostel and they did the rest – choosing and booking tours, organising a guide to walk you 100m to the bus station and hiring a motorbike to take you 5 minutes down the road to the Li river in time for your evening appointments.

In a word, it was everything we had spent the last two months trying to avoid but were just about ready to give in to. It also had the advantage of being pretty damn scenic, with karst rock formations jutting up between houses, looming over lakes and making what should have been a drab, flat town one of the most iconic locations in China. Add to that the fact that Dan and Ashley were heading that way too and were willing to let us leech off of their travel arrangements and we had a sure fire winner.

So we arrived at the Li river and dutifully booked two tours the second we landed in Flowers Hostel. The first up was a nighttime cormorant fishing excursion. Cormorant fishing is an ancient local practice whereby a savvy fisherman uses a flock of trained cormorant birds to do his work for him. The birds skim along the water beside the fisherman’s bamboo raft, diving below the surface occasionally to catch fish. Appetising as his catch probably is, the cormorant is unable to swallow his prize because the fisherman has placed a tie or ring around his neck. Instead, he hands it over to his master and in return, the fisherman allows him to eat one in every 7 fish.

At least that is the idea. The section of the Li around Yangshuo is now so over-fished and polluted that there are very few fish living there anymore, one-time cormorant fishermen now make their living through organised tours like ours although the practice is still widespread in central and southern China (I hear it is possible to hop onboard with a fisherman at Er Hai if you are really determined).

Not that that bothered us massively though – truth be told, you have to take every “authentic experience” with a pinch of salt in China when it comes in packaged tour form and nowhere is this more true than in Yangshuo. The cormorants however, were not so impressed by the developments. During our 50 minute punt about the river, they managed to come up with only one large fish between the six of them. Or so we thought. As it turned out, they were harvesting a dozen or so more between them, hidden in the depts of their bills and halfway down their throats in the hope that their master wouldn’t find them. No such luck, the shrewd old fisherman (who, with his withered but wistful face, bearded chin and faraway look was everything we were hoping for) eventually pulled in the boat, chased them down, grabbed hold of their feet and, holding them over his basket, expertly milked their throats like a cows teat.

Fruitless and commercial as it was, the trip left us in high spirits so the next day when the alarm went off to wake us for our second organised tour, we leaped out of bed in record time. This tour was to be an old-school trip down the Li river on an old-school bamboo raft. First though, we would have to get a bus to another town and a taxi to the boat followed by a 45 minute boat ride and then a three hour trip home on the bus. A little excessive perhaps but we had heard that the Li was wonderful, magical, not to be missed.

Of course it was wonderful and magical and we were glad we went but more to the point it was bitterly cold. Dressed in our thermals, hats and gloves we were still the coldest we had been in a long time and with the wind biting viciously at our still-sunburned faces, there was only so long that a pretty river was going to hold our attention. After we tired of discussing how absolutely lovely it was and what a wonderful time we were having we put an end to our charade, started shivering uncontrollably and, to take our minds off it, sang Christmas carols at the top of our lungs (much to the amusement of our boat driver and the other tourists punting their way downriver.) The best bit of the trip was when we got off the boat and our boatman (Tony) brought us to his beautiful village to meet his Mum, Dad and dog and to try some strange orange-like fruit.

Our final organised activity was definately our best – a Chinese cooking class in Cloud 9 restaurant. The lesson, taught by a 19 year old girl with fluent english and 4 years of full-time work experience under her belt, started out at the local food market shopping for ingredients (but thankfully not any of that nasty dead, rigermortis affected dog.) After explaining all of the products to us our pint-sized teacher brought us back to the restaurant where she taught us how to cook Gongbao Chicken, Sizzling Beef and Fried Noodles in a purpose built kitchen on the roof. She was a bit of a slave-driver, always shouting “Don’t cut your fingers off” this and “Watch that wok doesn’t go on fire” that but we had a lot of fun and, in the end, managed to whip up a pretty tasty three course dinner if we may say so ourselves. And we may because this is our blog.

There was something missing the whole time though and, try as we might, we just couldn’t shake that strange feeling of loss. Finally we put our finger on it though – since we were staying in different hostels and they were a day behind us, we hadn’t seen Dan and Ash in ages. Leaping into action we grabbed our bags and ran, falling over our own feet in our eagerness, to the hostel where we knew they were staying – Monkey Jane’s. True to form we found them drinking in the rooftop bar where a game of King’s Cup quickly ensued (we have been making it our mission to spread the word/intoxication).

On our last day in Yangshuo we helped Dan tick of the last box on his To Do In China list with a scenic cycle through the countryside which took in Moon Hill which – if you ever get to the top of the ridiculously long and steep stairs – you will see notice has a hole the shape of the moon in it. Technically you have to pay 15 yuen into the hill but, having gotten carried away at happy hour again the previous night, we were all pretty tapped so under Jay’s recommendation we opted for the “local route”. For 5 yuen a pretty old and harmless woman led us down a quiet street, shushing us all the way, over a wall embedded with shards of broken glass, through some dense bamboo trees, up a dirt track and finally, to the official route. As earnest as she was in urging quiet, it was pretty hard not to giggle at the sight of her stealthily hopping the wall and the image made the subsequent climb up the stairs a little easier.

As nice as Yangshuo was and as much fun as we had in Monkey Jane’s though, Yangshuo looked predictably overcast, overcrowded and overtouristed after the wide open spaces of Tiger Leaping Gorge so it was with a fond farewell but dry eyes that we said our goodbyes to mainland China and headed for Hong Kong. Next stop, Chungking Mansions.

More pictures from Yangshuo are available in the gallery

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The Towering Ladder of Death, Tiger Leaping Gorge (Day 2) View from the top, Hong Kong

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