We are in Wutaishan. Mount Wutai in Shanxi province is China’s holiest place, a mountaintop of five plateaus that has been an important monastic location for some 1500 years.

We’re here because our friends Ron and Gillian suggested we visit. They were here in October last year and told us it was a special place. They were right! We love it. It’s cold, they are tearing the place up with road construction, we have not found a single person who speaks English, and there are no restaurants catering to English-speakers… but we love it. It’s a really special place, indeed. Beautiful. But more on Wutaishan in a moment…

Following our last post, after several fruitless days trying to figure out how to book a train ticket, we decided to get some help organizing our transfers and hotels.

Fortunately, Ian Fordie of China-Journeys.com had returned to Yangshuo 30 minutes before we emailed him. He’d been away on business elsewhere in China. We met him for coffee. And thanks to Ian, we’ve made some good decisions on how to move ahead with our trip across China.

We extended our stay in Yangshuo until March 20th. This bought us some organizing time. At the end of the day, we decided to scrap the train and fly from Guilin to Taiyuan, and worked with Ian to book the rest of our hotels and transfers (i.e., car and driver) to get us from Taiyuan to Wutaishan, then a couple of days in Datong before making our way to Beijing by train.

After a few days in Beijing we’ll embark on our 44-hour train journey across China to Lhasa where we begin a week-long tour of Tibet. Of course, this is assuming nothing goes awry regarding the opening of Tibet to foreigners (scheduled for April 1st). But we will see how that goes. There is much talk that the political situation in Tibet may affect our ability to travel through the region. But for now, we are focused on today, and we will deal with a closed Tibet when and if that day comes.

The last few days have been very interesting. We are learning a lot about China. And, of course, we continue to discover much about ourselves, too.

One thing we love about travel is meeting other people on the way. We always learn a lot from other people sharing tips and experience. But since nearly every traveler in Yangshuo seemed to be from China, meeting English-speakers is a rarer occasion. But then we met Josh and Valerie, two splendid Americans from Michigan on a two-week trip through China. Karen met Valerie the night they arrived at Li River Retreat from Hong Kong. The next day, we ran into them at the top of Moon Hill – (see previous blog post) and shared a nice lunch together.

We couldn’t have met two nicer people. They definitely represent the best of America. Super kind, open-hearted, generous, and progressive. We liked them instantly. They were thinking about taking a bamboo raft down the Li river the following day and asked us if we wanted to come with them.

Actually, starving for company, and a little chicken-hearted about doing something like this ourselves, we might have invited ourselves on their tour… But they were kind enough to agree to take us along. It was just what we needed, a little companionship to help us get back into our travel groove while enjoying some excellent conversation along the way.

We set off at 1:00 PM after Josh set up car travel and boat arrangements based on information he had learned from a guide they used a few days before. As often happens in China, there was conflicting and changing information about what was possible and how much this would cost.

In the West, we like Black and White. Things either are or they aren’t. They can’t be both. There is little tolerance for ambiguity. But ambiguity thrives in China. Things are always shades of grey. We’ve lived with this before, in India. But it’s more complicated by culture and language in China than in India, where English is an official language.

Josh persevered with the help of Jenny from the hotel and we landed on a plan to take a car to a small town called Yangdi, where we would get a boat and raft down river a few kilometres through some of the most scenic stretches of the Li river. We’d land at a place known in English as Nine Horses Fresco Hill and walk a few kilometres to an historic village called Xingping. From there we’d figure out how to get back to Yangshuo… It turned out we took the public bus, which we found with the help of a friendly woman police officer in Xingping.

It was a terrific day. The photos tell the story much better than words.

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The next day, we said goodbye to Valerie and Josh as they set off for Shanghai and Beijing. We were left refreshed and excited about travel.

Another day, we rented bikes and peddled ourselves out into the countryside around Yangshuo.

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Very soon it was time to make our way to Taiyuan. We took a taxi from our hotel in Yangshuo to the airport in Guilin, about an hour and a half away. The airport, like everything else, was almost entirely in Chinese, but somehow we found where to check in and got through security. Like many things in China, the airport was very fast and efficient.

Our next three hours would be spent on China Southern Airlines. Flying in China was quite an experience. Again, we were the only foreigners on this trip, so there were many “hellos” from our fellow passengers, as well as a few stares from others.

As we said before, things can be “grey” in China. All the usual rules of air travel that pertain elsewhere in the world are also in place in China. It’s just that no one cares. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 4:00 PM. In our experience, China is punctual, especially when it comes to transportation. But this is likely the first time we ever took a flight that left EARLY. By the time our scheduled departure time rolled around, we’d already been in the air 15 minutes and the attendants were beginning to hand out buns and drinks. We guessed that since all passengers we already on board there was no point in hanging around, so everyone decided to just leave the gate and get on with it.

Before boarding, Scott said, “let’s go get on the plane.” There hadn’t been any announcement and Karen didn’t want to do that. But we’re learning. Scott said, “Let’s just go and get on.” We pushed our way over to a small line up of people who looked as though they were about to board the plane. We went up to the front and sure enough, they just ripped off our ticket stubs and we went on the plane. We were seated in different rows, but asked an attendant if we could sit together.

The flight attendants were like army generals, shouting orders, and sometimes just shoving people into their seats. There’s all this chaos with people pushing, hanging around in the aisle, chatting or trying to figure out where their seats are. The announcers kept instructing them on where to look for their seat numbers, in both English and Chinese, but the attendants just went at people like line backers. They shouted at men and women to move out of the way, “You! Get in that seat, there! You! Don’t sit there… sit there! Gimme that bag, I’ll put it away. Just sit down!” It was amazing. She told the woman who had paid to sit in the seat next to Scott that she wasn’t sitting there. She was sitting “THERE!” pointing at another seat. The woman just accepted it and quietly obeyed. We thanked her for moving things around. She smiled briefly before throwing herself at another pack of passengers.

Despite the chaos, the plane taxied out of the gate 15 minutes early, with most passengers not bothering to fasten their seatbelts or turn off cell phones… or for that matter to bother extinguishing cigarettes. At first, we were like, “What a weird smell… what is that?” Then we realized it was cigarette smoke. Not something we’ve smelled on a plane for many, many years. It’s not that smoking is allowed, or that there are smoking sections — it isn’t and there aren’t. It’s just that people go to the bathroom and light up… or something. We couldn’t figure it out. We read later that it might have been the pilots…

Scott’s seat mates were a cute elderly couple. The man was not putting on his seat belt, so Scott tapped him on the shoulder and told him to put it on. He sort of made like he was pulling at it from one side and playing with the buckle on the other. Then Scott realised he didn’t know how it worked (BTW the exact same safety demonstration is given on Chinese flights as everywhere else, but like everywhere else, no one pays attention). So Scott put the belt on for him. He was very amused by that and smiled a big “xie, xie” to Scott. The he pulled out the barf bag. Oh, oh. His wife instructed him how to use it by slapping his hand and snatching it away from him. She yelled at him in Chinese and gave it back to him. He grunted, then tore it open. Then he began a big horking production before spitting into the bag. Super. This carried on for the whole flight until near the end when he sort of tired of the whole charade and just spat on the floor. Like everyone else. Oh, well. Things are different here. They spit. A lot.

People also seem to have no fear of flying. We went through some patches of incredible turbulence, at times so bad it felt like you’d float out of your seat if you weren’t belted down. But we know now that you won’t float. How? Because almost no one was wearing their seat belt, and they weren’t coming out of their seats… Although their milk teas and dinners were flying around a bit. But despite the cabin crew suspending service and strapping themselves in to weather out the storm, a bunch of people decided they wanted to stretch their legs, go chat to a buddy at the other end of the plane, or go to the bathroom (perhaps it was time for a smoke). They would try to walk down the aisle, lurching from passenger to passenger, grabbing on to shoulders, seats, the ceiling, whatever kept them on the floor. And they would laugh.

We kept our iPods in, mostly because the in-flight “entertainment” doesn’t use headphones. It’s shared very loudly out of speakers for everyone’s enjoyment. All of this was pretty funny.

Air travel in China is really safe. The planes are very well maintained and spotlessly clean, actually. But the passengers are still learning about the nuances of air travel.

The plane descended and approached Taiyuan airport, with people walking up and down the aisles, texting their friends in other seats, etc. Fun. For Karen this was particularly entertaining given the fact that she loves flying. Loves it. Not.

In Taiyuan, our driver met us at the airport, took us to our hotel, where he helped us check in and made sure we got to our room. Again, no one spoke English, including our driver, but with the help of a pen and paper we made arrangements for him to meet us in the lobby at 8:00 AM the next day for our four-hour drive into the mountains to Wutaishan.

Wutaishan is amazing. We’ve been here a day and a half, wandering around the dozens of temples here that dot the mountain-side, getting our bearings and planning our next couple of outings. The maps here are terrible, but Scott is a great navigator. The photos speak louder than anything we can describe.

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