We’ve had a few days Yangshuo, a very beautiful place in Guanxi Province. Walking around, exploring the nearby countryside, China is the only place we could be. The tall, pointed karst hills that dominate the landscape and that hug the Lijiang and Yulong rivers that converge near here, make this the quintessential Chinese landscape.
Karen did a wonderful job picking a great hotel: the Li River Retreat. The hotel is located about 2km out from the main town. One of our guidebooks stated being outside the main town is desirable, to get a break from the frenetic and loud goings-on in town. We had no idea just how important this would be to us, until we got here.
The population of Yangshuo is about 300,000. In Canada, that’s a mid-size city. In China a mid-size city is 14 million. So Yangshuo is tiny by Chinese standards, but you cannot believe how dense it is. And how busy. The city is quite noisy and crowded. And since it is a major tourist destination, there are easily several thousand more people coming and going both as visitors (the vast majority of which are Chinese) and people hawking various trinkets, or tours, etc to tourists. We’re fortunate to escape the noise, the hustle and bustle, and the pollution by staying in this lovely little hotel out in the countryside, surrounded by farms. It’s a tranquil and scenic place.
However, our first week in China hasn’t been all peace and calm…
We learned something very important about ourselves on our last adventure abroad. We can take a little while to adjust and feel comfortable when first we land somewhere new. Our first trip in 2006/07 was a kind of circuit breaker in our lives. We wanted to get away and figure things out. We had been together for seven years and had never taken a vacation. Our work in politics was always more important. But there was no balance in our lives. So, we were pressing the reset button, leaving our careers and starting over with a view to doing something different.
This time, we’re not running away from unbalanced and unhealthy lifestyles. We love our home in Toronto and adore our friends there. We both found new, satisfying careers. We feel lucky that we found the jobs and colleagues we did.
But we also know that with radical change comes growth and learning. You don’t realize just how attached you get to your material life; to your job, house, routine, and all the stuff we collect as we go along living. Giving it up for a constantly changing milieu is very hard. Exciting but also difficult. The romantic notion of wandering around from place to place meets the reality of never resting for very long, not speaking the language and having to re-orient yourself to unfamiliar surroundings several times a month. Luckily we have the means to do this comfortably and safely.
So we’re trying to lean in to the uncomfortable feelings that come with uncertainty and change. We definitely had some romantic notions of what travel in China would mean. Other places we’ve traveled were challenging but you could with relative ease move from place to place. China is very different.
We arrived in Yangshuo on March 13th after successfully finding our way from Hong Kong, crossing the border, and getting here. But once we arrived, we were struck by how difficult it seemed to organize the next leg of our trip. We quickly established that we may have underestimated the logistical and cultural challenges we’d face. We overestimated our ability to purchase transportation and get directions to our next destination.
First thing we are learning? As foreign tourists, we’re irrelevant. The vast majority of tourists here are domestic Chinese. Wednesday was very rainy and wet and foggy with near zero visibility of the surrounding hills. So we booked a bus tour to the Silver Caves, a vast underground cavern system that runs through ten or fifteen local mountains. They have developed a park out of a two km stretch of caves nearby. Sounds super!
After booking the English tour through our hotel, we went to the agency in town for the bus pick up. The bus came and we got on. The tour guide started explaining things as the bus went through Yangshuo on its way to pick up other tourists. The monologue was entirely in Mandarin. We looked around the bus and realized our hotel had booked us on a Chinese tour. Oh, well. We wouldn’t miss too much… Except maybe instructions, directions, the local history, the context, etc.
So there we were, Karen and Scott from Canada, on a Chinese tour bus listening to Chinese descriptions of the surrounding sites. We laughed to ourselves several times. We were invisible to the guide and to the other tourists.
We arrived at the Silver Caves, one tour bus among literally a couple of dozen others. The place was jammed with tour buses. We followed everyone else off our bus. We then followed them up the entrance steps. At the top, our guide stopped the two of us and sort of used her fingers and the word “time” to tell us we should be back at the bus at 4:00 o’clock. Or Scott guessed she meant 4:00. Could’ve been something else entirely, actually.
We got in line and followed our comrades into the cave entrance. We very quickly understood something: The problem wasn’t that our hotel booked us a Chinese tour instead of an English one. There isn’t an English tour. Or tours in any other language. Among the many hundreds of tourists visiting the Silver Caves, we were the only foreigners. The entire tour was in Chinese.
We all think countries orient their tourism industries around foreign (and mainly English-speaking) visitors. Nope. In China, the biggest tourism market is domestic. No need to speak English here. Or have English tours, or English-speaking guides. So that was a little isolating. But also kind of fun and interesting.
On the way back, we made an unexpected stop at some factory that makes everything out of bamboo… towels, crackers, socks, lamps, art… everything. We had no idea there were other stops on the Silver Caves tour. Karen must have looked a little worried, so a Taiwanese couple who spoke English explained we were stopping for about 30 minutes before returning to Yangshuo. So we got off the bus and again just followed everyone else. But the guide stopped the two of us at a certain point before going into the factory, pointed down some stairs and said, “bus.” Everyone else filed around us and into the factory tour. We just obeyed and went out to the parking lot to wait by the bus. It took about 5 minutes though to get through the “gift” shop of bamboo treasures before finding our way back to the bus. Everyone else went on a tour… we think. Then we were dropped off back in Yangshuo from where we walked home.
The next day we resumed our efforts to organize our next leg. We were starting to move past frustration to genuine anxiety. For two days, we tried unsuccessfully to get train tickets from Guilin to Chengdu to Emei Shan. Our hotel couldn’t book train tickets but couldn’t explain why not. Instead, they would call an agent in town and then send us there. We we got to the agent, we couldn’t tell which was the hotel registration and which the travel desk. The woman at the hotel counter spoke no English. No matter. We went back later in the afternoon to try again, hoping this time someone would understand what we wanted. Same deal. This time we said, “train tickets” and the woman motioned to her computer. Success! We said “Emei Shan,” using the pronunciation Scott was taught at our hotel. She just stared at us. Scott then said, “Chengdu?” She stared blankly, looking a bit uncomfortable, then shrugged politely and walked away. We just said, “xie xie” (thank you), and left. Back at our hotel, we told the staff what happened. They were very helpful, suggesting a different place to try but warned us they wouldn’t speak English, either. So we gave it a shot but we got nowhere. There were only two places to buy train tickets in town and we couldn’t get anywhere with either place.
Now, with our time in Yangshuo ticking down and still nowhere to go next we began to think this might be a little more difficult than it was in Vietnam, Cambodia or India.
We thought we better extend our stay to buy us a couple of days for organizing. We decided to try to book our hotels in other places, and we’d figure out the transportation after. But we found some hotels listed in the 2012 Rough Guide were already no longer in business. And then there were the online queries from other travellers trying to get hold of hotels by fax or phone to no avail. No one would respond to our email inquiries at hotels.
Worry was setting in. We speak no Chinese. Can’t seem to book trains. An online English translation of train schedules, with an explanation of how the ticketing works, runs to almost 300 pages(!). And now it seemed even hotels may be a challenge. Wow. We didn’t plan for this.
When we first arrived, Karen had made a little joke. She was reading the hotel leaflet and noticed a listing for a travel agency that specialized in China travel. She made up ad copy for it: “Worried about travel in China? Terrified because you can’t seem to book a way out of here? Feeling trapped? We can help. Contact China-Journeys.com…” Ha ha ha, we laughed and laughed that first night.
But now, our faces white and hands trembling, we picked up that same leaflet and sent an email, asking for advice about how to book transfers in China from place to place, explaining we were having a little trouble. We like and trust our hotel. They can’t help with some things, but we know they are sincere and it’s a very good place. We felt comfortable taking their recommendation for an agent.
The travel agency is based in the UK and it turns out the British expat who runs it actually lives here in Yangshuo. He emailed back and suggested we have coffee.
Ian Fordie is his name. He was very helpful. He explained that in China, even the Chinese find the train booking system baffling. Add the fact that there is a separate booking system for foreigners that requires passport scans, etc., and we realized just why it was we were having trouble. Time to recalibrate. China isn’t like other places. Doing things here without the aid of guides or pre-booked itineraries is probably doable without speaking Mandarin, but it would be very time consuming and likely more expensive. We only have 30 days (21 actually, considering we are supposed to spend nine days on tour in Tibet).
So, with the help of Ian we now have a revised itinerary that includes pre-planned transfers. It means we’ll fly to Taiyuan, skipping Emei Shan and the Great Buddha at Dafo (bummer…) but we’ll get in more days in Wutaishan and Beijing with a stop in Datong. We’ll do this basically within our original budget and in time to catch our train to Lhasa (fingers’ crossed).
We feel much better knowing we have a plan that is practical. Spending extra days in Yangshuo is not hard. It is quiet and peaceful and there’s lots to see.
The last couple of days we’ve spent walking the countryside, exploring town, and walking to Moon Hill.