Yangshou, Guangxi, China
I wasn't going to write you all again so soon, but I thought I'd recount the story of my arrival here in Yangshou.
Yesterday morning I went out to the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau, Hong Kong. The Buddha was indeed very impressive (apparently the head alone weighs over 5 tons!), and the monastery was very nice. The drive was great too, because it went through winding roads and very green, lush hills. It rained, though, and when I came down from the Buddha, it was so foggy I couldn't see the Buddha anymore! It was quite impressive really.
Anyway, Ming Ming's mom (and btw, for those who don't know, Ming Ming was my roommate all four years of college and remains a good friend) met me in the afternoon and wrote out some essential phrases for me in Chinese characters ("I need a bus ticket to Guilin," etc). Then I got on a bus to the border, where the crossing wasn't too bad. The funny part was that you had to check off a list of symptoms you might be having on the arrival card, including cough, fever, diarrhea, venereal diseases, AIDS, and pyschosis, among others. And at the border crossing they had doctors - or at least people in white lab coats - waiting in case you were lying and showed visible symptoms, I guess.
On the other side, I soon realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Gone were the people who spoke English, the English signs, or even any sign of pinyin, the transliteration of Mandarin that is an official way of writing it for those of us who haven't learned characters. I was soon approached by a guy who spoke English, and since I didn't seem to have another option, I asked him. He said that there were no buses to Guilin from there and we had to go somewhere else... we started leaving the bus station and I made him turn back and asked a couple people if there were buses to Guilin. No one had any idea, but one said there were none from the bus terminal. So he took me down the street to a storefront where they promised me a sleeper bus. I gave them a third of the price and went back to the "mall" to wait the next three hours. "no p'oble'..."
Shenzhen, the Chinese border town, is a "special economic zone" and full of people from HK who come over for the day to buy tons of stuff on the cheap. Also full of western tourists doing the same thing. Lots of upscale tourists and businessmen. I got a lot of funny looks as I sat on the bench and ate my sandwich that I had brought from HK.
At 7:30 I went back to the bus store and sat down to wait. I got a lot of attention, as there were no other western people anywhere in sight. I had a whole conversation with a woman who squatted down next to me, using a mixture of Mandarin, hand gestures, and my phrasebook. I am SO thankful that I took those Mandarin classes - I've used everything I can remember from them, and wish that I had reviewed more, since they were over a year ago.
Anyway, no one had any idea what was going on, or at least they didn't tell me, and at 8:20 (the bus was at 8:30) they told me to pay the rest of the money and get in a van with two men. Well, by then I had watched many other passengers go and the woman I was talking to was clearly traveling too, so I knew they were at least somewhat legitimate. And they did take me to another bus station across town, where they put me on a real bus - and they only charged me an extra 70 yuan (about $8.50) for arranging the whole thing. Frankly it was worth it cause I never would have found the other station on my own.
The funny thing was they made me take my shoes off when I got in the bus, because it was full of beds! Three rows of bunk beds, in which I was just small enough to fit. I got the best seat in the house - top bunk in the front, right in front of the window. What an experience - that was definitely something I had never seen before! And they played music videos for the first half hour or so on the TV... did you all know Jackie Chan is a recording artist over here? At least, I'm pretty sure it was him - and his music videos are so cheesy!
The ride was 12 and a half hours, so I was glad to have a bed. I awoke to a beautiful pink sunrise over jutting hills and green countryside. Rural China looks a LOT different from what I've been seeing so far. People walking huge pigs down the street, bicycles carrying baskets full of chickens, men in cone shaped hats tending to the fields and the rice paddies...
But finally they dropped me in Yangshou, which is unfortunately quite touristy. I got a good deal on my hotel but got totally taken for a ride (literally, I guess) on the river tour down the Li River. I think it was inevitable - everyone has to get taken advantage of a few times when they get somewhere new, and now I have learned my lesson. The tour was nice though... this region is famous for the karst rock formations that jut out everywhere. They are quite impressive and the scenery is all very beautiful. The town is laid back, and in the surrounding areas it's definitely still the way it has been for a long, long time. And also I was able to talk to other travelers who have been here a while and get some useful advice, which made me feel a lot better.
So anyway, China so far seems to be quite varied. It's much more developed than I had realized, though fortunately still quite cheap. This area is completely different from what I saw yesterday and from Hong Kong, and I'm very curious to see how much more it will change over the coming days. Don't have a plan yet, but I'll be here in Yangshou at least one more day.
sorry if I'm clogging your inboxes, but hopefully most of you are entertained. keep in touch...