16 April 2012
Kit has proved that nine-year-olds can make top travelling companions. He and I are back in China, having left Tibet with heavy hearts. We arrived in our Guilin hostel at midnight. Fresh from a land of Buddhist chants and heady yak-butter candles, it was a rude awakening to walk in on party-central. Reception was doubling as a bar and we had to work our way through a handful of high-octane backpackers, drunk as skunks and belligerent. So-far-so-normal for backpacker-land in the 21st century – except as Kit pointed out they were “old”.
Despite, our exhaustion, both of us sharpened up when a hippy-cum-bank manager nuzzled up and asked drunkenly for our room number. The room, when we found it, turned out to be a concrete cube with a fluorescent light-strip. Ever-resourceful, Kit shoved a chair against the door-handle and balanced one of our Tibetan walking sticks on it “as an alarm”. We were shattered – even the brawling we could hear downstairs couldn’t keep us from sleep. This place is a spiritual wet blanket after Tibet.
In the sparkling light of day, the hostel didn’t seem so bad – maybe because Kit and I were the only people who were up for breakfast.
We were aiming to reach Yangshuo on the Li River, and decided to travel there by boat. The hostel owner wrote down some directions for us but, needless to say, the journey wasn’t as glittering as the bright idea. To get to the jetty, we had to lug our backpacks into town and then spend a couple of hours in a dusty bus. It soon became so crowded that Kit sat on my knee so we could offer another passenger his seat. This proved too generous of me as Kit may only be nine but he’s 5ft 5 – and weighs a ton.
The boat turned out to be a flimsy looking plastic raft, manned by a brusque old-timer, but we didn’t care. Clutching our backpacks, we drifted along the stupendously beautiful Li River for the next two hours, winding through the magical sharp-peaked karst limestone mountains.
This joy was somewhat short-lived, however. Thanks to my lack of the lingo, it turned out that the boatman wasn’t taking us to Yangshuo at all. Instead we were dropped back close to where we started and had to catch another two jam-packed buses before eventually arriving at the swirling chaos of Yangshuo bus station.
Our journey was still not over as we had to get to Moon Village, where I’d heard there was a small eco-lodge.
But how to get there?
As always when travelling independently, your saviour finds you. While Kit wriggled through the melee to retrieve our backpacks from the bus, a tiny man jumped in front of me shaking his keys and repeating the word “taxi”.
I showed him the address of the eco-lodge written in Chinese, grabbed my backpack, grabbed Kit and tried to keep up as the man darted through the crowds. We both stopped expectantly at a relatively unbattered car, but the man dodged round it, beckoning us on.
Kit’s face broke out into an enormous grin. Parked on the other side, was a small open-air flat-bed trailer attached to a scooter. And that was where we perched with our luggage for the next 40 minutes. It was great. Wind in our hair, flies in our teeth and dust in our mouths. As we hit the highway, it was about as safe as cycling along the M25. Nevertheless, we felt invincible. Even the lodge-owner seemed happy as we were dropped off, grimy and grey with dust, at her shiny front door.
Long hot showers, clean clothes a few sniffs of the heady jasmine in the garden and then Kit and I tackled his scrap book.
We slept late, but we were still exhausted when we got up. Breakfast was on the roof looking over at Moon Hill, which gets its name from a vast hole that has worn through it… like a triangular polo mint.
It had rained and stormed in the night but it was warm, so we hired bicycles and meandered along stony tracks through the lush green paddy fields.
I will keep saying this, but I can’t believe how much China has changed since my last visit in 1989. I was here for the several months’ build-up to Tiananmen Square and back then everyone wore grey or blue Mao suits and rode around on bicycles. It was like being on the set of a black and white silent movie. Now, nearly everyone wears Western clothes and the serene paddy fields are bisected by frantically busy roads carrying huge lorries.
The other notable difference is that the Chinese people now go on holiday. It feels as if 1.2 billion people have turned into tourists. Kit and I swerved the crowds by sticking to the stunning scenery and leaving the masses to head for the touristy caves and tacky shops in town.
Back in our village we found ourselves lured into what I thought was a restaurant, but might have been a family home because there was only one table in a large empty room. The friendly lady of the house served us delicious fried eggs, tomatoes and rice, which took me back to the China of 1989 again, except she charged us 1 yuan each for a sterilised bowl and chopsticks wrapped in plastic bags. This conspicuous hygiene conflicted with the fact I’d just watched her wash some vegetables in the puddle outside.
I almost packed our bags for home after a chilling evening. Took Kit to see the cormorant fishing, which meant travelling back into town to catch a boat. The boat was as sturdy as a tin can and the boatman had a dangerous temper. More horrifically, we saw the results of a fatal scooter crash on the drive home. The authorities were there, but nobody was trying to free the body, and there was no attempt to give the dead man any privacy. Ten seconds too late, I clapped my hands over Kit’s eyes.
Massive electric storm overnight. This morning we watched the swollen, brown Yulong River pulse past the guest house and decided to delay our planned cycle ride. Went into Yangshuo and then paid 3 Yuan each for a bus to Fuli, a small town famous for its painted fans.
The driver shooed us off the bus in a non-descript muddy high street of Fuli New Town – along with five Chinese university students. Neither their guide book nor ours gave proper directions on how to reach the quaint old Fuli district, but they insisted that we stick with them. I was puzzled that they wouldn’t ask any locals – presumably, a face-saving thing. Anyway, we all floundered in and out of alleyways together. In the end, Kit’s suggested route proved the right one.
They were lovely company. It turned out they were architecture students and without their kindness we would not have found the deserted back streets where ancient talismans protected doorways, nor the hidden courtyards with uncovered sunken wells. And we also wouldn’t have understood that the old lady making exquisite paper fans in a doorway was telling us that she had survived the Cultural Revolution, bringing the secret of her skill with her. After a few hours of wandering, Kit and I parted ways with the guys and caught a bus back to Yangshuo.
Personally, I wish I’d given Yangshuo a miss this time around. When I was last here some 23 years ago I remember it as a quiet, charming village where all you could buy were padded Mao jackets to keep out the chill at night – or more disturbingly for a Westerner, haggle for day-old chicks and the odd owl for supper. Now the whole town simply panders to the worst of tourist bling – tacky T-shirts, plastic mugs, cheap souvenirs.
Needless to say, Kit loves it.
There were a few ups and downs today. We rented our bikes early and set off for Dragon’s Bridge, several miles further down the Yulong River. After 20 minutes we came to a river crossing where an old couple demanded an eye-watering 20 yuan to take us and our bikes across on a narrow, sinking raft. It was tricky fitting both us and our bikes on, but fortunately Kit likes sorting that type of thing out.
It was even trickier getting off without falling in, but eventually we pedalled away through the glistening paddy fields. The sun was warm, the karst mountains were magnificent and the few ancient villages we cycled through were unspoilt and pretty.
The map, however, was all over the place. After a slight detour we eventually arrived at the small stone Dragon’s Bridge. Here, we watched a few English guys jump off into spine-crushingly shallow water.
Just as I was boring Kit with why that was so dangerous, a local woman tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to our mouths and beckoned for us to follow her.
We were hungry, so we followed her trustingly through a warren of lanes and ended up at the idyllic Bamboo restaurant downriver. Most of the tables were perched on floating rafts lashed to the bank, so we tottered on board and ordered yet more fried eggs, tomatoes and rice.
Unfortunately, all my chilled sense of well-being was undone on the journey home. Disdaining the beaten path, we decided to cross Dragon Bridge and follow the path on the other side. At first, it was beautiful bowling down jasmine-scented tracks and orange groves, but we saw not another soul. In less than an hour it was clear we were lost – and alone.
We pressed on and eventually spotted a distant highway bridge soaring over the paddy fields. Kit had the inspired idea of using my telephoto camera lens to photograph the signpost, then to enhance it to see if we were at least going in the right direction. Great idea in principle, but none of the destinations made sense.
By now I was starting to feel seriously worried. It would be dark in two hours and the prospect of Kit and I having to spend the night in the mountains seemed nightmarishly likely. As stormy looking clouds gathered in the distance I began to feel panic. An uneasy silence fell between Kit and I.
“Do you want me to look at the map, Mum?” he asked.
For a nine-year-old, his map-reading attempts weren’t bad – but neither were they much better than mine. Back on our bikes, we suddenly came out of the trees into a row of sleepy farmhouses. No-one in sight, but they must have been watching us because on our third cycle-past a young woman with a friendly open face came out of her house.
She didn’t speak English, but I showed her the Chinese name for Jima, a small town near our guesthouse. She nodded and then, bewilderingly, pointed through her house and then up in the air.
“She means up that mountain behind the house,” said Kit.
I was incredulous. “What? Up mountain? Other side of mountain?” I enunciated loudly, pointing upwards and no doubt sounding like a stereotypical “Brit-speaking-to-foreigner”.
She smiled, then gesticulated for us to follow her through her house with our bikes. For a nano-second I feared we would be kidnapped or robbed, but this woman’s kindness shone through. As we emerged out into a yard, she pointed down a tiny overgrown track and then made more ominous upward signs. It was our best hope.
Back on our bikes, we found ourselves in the most stunning scenery yet. The rich-red tracks took us through bushes of purple flowers and deep, glossy green leaves. There was a gentle incline over a pass in the soaring mountains and then in the distance the tiny town of Jima gleamed.
Hurrah! We freewheeled down the tracks, light of heart and then Kit screeched to a halt. Wham! We were completely cut off by a flooded tributary. The current in the centre was strong from the rains and I had no idea how deep it might be.
Just as I was starting to agree with Kit that we might have to ditch the bikes and swim, we heard the buzz of an engine. Two men on a battered scooter appeared through the trees and whooping and laughing splashed round the bend, waved at us and made the crossing safely. Kit and I hopped on our bikes and followed in their wake.
Five minutes after hitting dry land, we found the river crossing and were waylaid by the same raft-owners from the morning.
“Forty yuan now,” said the woman, ignorant of the fact we’d become battle-hardened in the few hours since we’d last seen her. Kit snorted.
“We paid 20 on the way out,” I said stonily.
We won. Back on the other side, we sped back to the guest house. Later, we sat on the veranda in the gloaming as rain fell – me with an ice-cold Tsingdao beer and Kit with a banana lassi, both of us tucking into a pile of hot vegetable spring rolls.
There are times when travelling with a child forces you to have the sort of exhilarating experiences you might otherwise have avoided.
Today was Sunday and Sunday is white water rafting day in these parts. Kit was already outside watching streams of people on wooden rafts plunging down the rapids on the swollen river. I was wary but, as he said: “It’s once in a lifetime, Mum.” So we did it.
The next day, I rented a tandem. Brilliant fun when we got the hang of it. Cycled along the Li River, which is much mightier than the Yulong and ate omelets in the Seventh Heaven Cafe. Later, we found a beautiful artist’s studio in bamboo woods on a cliff overlooking the Li River – the Drum Café – I’d recommend it. We were the only guests there except for a Chinese family, who waved us off on our tandem when we left.
We’re in a rougher backpacker haunt tonight, so I played pool and cards with Kit before hunkering down. I can’t sleep, though, as one guy has been yelling into his computer on Skype for several hours now. The backpacker world has certainly advanced. But not in a good way.