Our long-distance sleeper bus from the Hong Kong border dropped us off at a gas station on the highway at 5 AM this morning. We’re in Yangshuo at our guest house on the Yulong river – The Li River Retreat. It’s utterly spectacular here. Imagine one of those classic Chinese silk paintings, a mysterious landscape of sharp razor back mountains shrouded in mist, a cormorant fisher in the foreground wearing a conical hat. We’re standing in front of that landscape. It’s breathtaking.

Our internet fears have proved accurate. China hates Google. The Great (Fire) Wall prevents us from accessing our blog or email in the regular way.  Scott has found a way to get around some of this challenge using a VPN service. We’ll see how long it works.

How did we get here?

We left Hong Kong on the MTR (metro) from Hung Hum station in Kowloon and rode it all the way to Lo Wu, which is the Hong Kong side of the border with Mainland China. We walked out of the station and right into Hong Kong Immigration (to hand over our debarkation cards), then on to Chinese Immigration. It all went very smoothly. There was one border official who looked like the Chinese version of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster. He was a huge wall of a man with a very large, stocky head. His face was totally inscrutable. We approached his counter when it was our turn and he put up a hand and very firmly stated, “One at a time!” Karen backed off and waited for him to scrutinize Scott’s passport and Visa. Then motioned for her to approach. He allowed Scott to stand off to the side and wait. He didn’t ask any questions, didn’t change his facial expression, and looked utterly unamused. Then, suddenly he handed back Karen’s passport and pulling the corners of his lips upward with what seemed to take a huge effort at an official “warm smile” he said very carefully, “Welcome to China.”  Then he waved us both through. It was quite a change from five years earlier and it appears that there’s been some training for officials on appearing warm and friendly. We appreciated the effort, though they may still need to practice a little….

We left the Immigration Hall and emerged outside into a large covered square. An official-looking man in a greenish-brown uniform immediately approached Karen and asked, “Yangshuo?” Puzzled, we both thought, “How did he know? Did some record of our destination plan get sent over to guards in the square? Were we going to be checked again? it was so sudden and so random. Karen replied yes, and he asked to see our bus tickets. The problem was we didn’t have bus tickets. We had planned to buy them after crossing the border. Was that a mistake? Growing very stern and official, he told us to follow him. So we did. Having just come through several layers of officialdom inside Hong Kong and Chinese Immigration, being met with another official, guard-looking character made us ripe for obedience. He walked a few paces ahead of us and Scott began to look closely at him. His clothes were ill-fitting, as though they were a couple of sizes too big. He was wearing these bulky sneakers instead of the black polished boots the other officials all wore. Something didn’t seem right. Scott whispered that he thought we were being led to some travel agent, but we decided to keep following, just to make sure.

He led us across the square into a side street, then down an alley and then left again. Where the hell was were going? THen we saw it. He had led us straight into the front door of a travel agent, who shouted and waved us over us as soon as he saw the three of us, “Yangshuo, Yangshuo!” Travel agent scam. Our ‘guard’ was just fishing. We just turned around and retraced our steps  back to where we knew we were supposed to go: the local bus station where we managed to navigate the purchase of our sleeper bus tickets to Yangshuo.

It was challenging because no one (NO ONE) speaks any English. The ticket booths are all marked only in Chinese, and the ticket agent just stared ut Scott blankly as he tried pathetically to buy two tickets to Yangshuo. She looked at the fingers he held up indicating “two” and just furrowed her brow. Luckily for us a security guard standing there watching our foolish spectacle felt pity and managed enough English to tell us which booth for Guilin (Yangshuo is on the way to Guilin). By ‘managing’ enough English I mean he approached us with a quizzical look and Scott said, “Yangshuo.” He said something in Mandarin and pointed us toward the right booth. The ticket lady knew enough English to say “Yangshuo,” “Guilin,” and “sleeping” bus. She showed us the price on her calculator because of course we don’t understand even basic Mandarin, like numbers and such. Boy, don’t we feel stupid.

She sold us two tickets for an 8:30 PM departure. Scott knew this because there are only two departures from this bus terminal, one at 7:30 PM and the other at 8:30 PM. Our ticket (see photos below) was in Chinese characters, except for the following: 2012:03:12 and 20:30. Other than that, it was all Greek (or Chinese) to us, lol.

We were a little apprehensive. This is a stressful way to travel, plunging in where you are suddenly blind and dumb to the usual language cues that guide us. We neither speak nor read the language, but as we go along, we’ve learned there is always a lot of people looking out for you.

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After being in the waiting area of this small terminal for several hours, we realized we were going to be the only foreigners coming through here today. And we began to attract a bit of attention. But it was the good, caring kind of attention you hope for in a strange land. A young couple started off by saying, “hello” and starting a conversation with us in English (very good English). They were from Nanning. Next, the young man who operated the x-ray machine came over to show us his Tiger Map (Chinese equivalent to Google Maps) showing us where we were and where we were going. He spoke not a word of English, but clearly wanted in on the conversation. There was also the older station guard who kept checking our ticket with bus drivers to make sure we wouldn’t miss our bus to Yangshuo.

All of this care meant we got on our sleeper bus with no problems. All that worry for nothing! Hard lesson to learn, though. Fear is a habit.

We’ve done a sleeper bus before, in 2007, from Hong Kong to Nanning on our way to Hanoi, Vietnam. This was much the same but we had better (floor-level) bunks. These bunks are easier to stay in when the bus bucks and sways. Karen remembered earplugs and eye covers, so we both slept a few hours. Our journey was uneventful.

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We arrived in Yangshuo and much to Scott’s worry we were dropped off at 5:00 AM at a gas station. We didn’t know where we were or where to go, but a taxi driver appeared out of nowhere and in 30 seconds we were on our way to our hotel after showing him the piece of paper we had printed with the name of the hotel in Chinese (Karen’s great idea). The hotel had told us the taxi ride should cost no more than 30 Yuan, and warned us the taxis at this time of night would try to charge as much as they could get away with, but we were both a little shocked when our driver balked at the 20 Yuan note Scott handed him and demanded a hundred. We didn’t have a ten so Scott just handed him another 20, said “xie, xie” (thanks!) and invited him to come up to the hotel if he had a problem with the amount… He shook his head and said, “Nooo!” (actually it didn’t sound like that, but it was basically what he meant).

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We made it! We’re here now having lunch at our hotel, trying to shake off our headaches and sleepiness. And we’ll head out for a walk into town this afternoon. Overlooking the terrace we can see why this is rated one of the most beautiful places in China. Our hotel looks out on the Yulong River. Spectacular!

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