Guilin: Postcard from the Present Past

Have you ever planned to go somewhere for a while and it kept being put off and then you finally get round to booking it and then you wait another week and when the day comes you have to pinch yourself it really is the date on your ticket and this is it. Next comes the mild panic as you’re leaving and half way up the garden path or such like that you hope you shut your front door, turned off the electric, and took out the mosquito killing devices that for some reason need plugging in to work. In my case the added panic comes as I have gotten up slightly ahead of my alarm and realised that although I gave myself two hours it still would have been cutting it close so the extra time has paid off. The difference this time is that a visit to HK normally ensures getting an early metro out of my local station. Whereas Guilin doesn’t and I am entering the metro in the midst of rush hour! I didn’t expect a shower and a quick email to swallow two hours but there’s not even time for breakfast before I’m southbound on the metro. After a quick latte and pain au chox I’m on board for the near three hour jaunt not to Guilin itself but to its nearby neighbour Yangshuo.

Although the station is new, the toilets are typically inadequate and are just square boxes with only a few urinals. The women don’t fare much better judging by the queue. It is amazing the Chinese don’t appear to apply any thinking to their architecture or more so its interior functionality. Likewise while the station is named after the famous idyll, the township itself lie a further hours ride away! It is in every sense the station in the wilderness. A bit like one of those lonesome hotels you see in American horror movies only more modern and without the shower scene (more on showers later). The taxi drivers wait en masse outside and I bid them a polite nod as I wander into the nearby tourist office for a map only to find a visit there was a necessity for the bus ticket. With 20rmb paid (coincidentally the one with Guilin on it) we’re on the way a short while later. The station is not the only recent addition to the landscape its approach road is still a work in progress which absolutely amazes me! As the tarmac surrenders to dirt and stones, the bus is bouncing all over the place and I’m grateful to arrive sooner than expected. Rather than head straight to a hotel, I decide to kill two birds with one stone by getting my bearings and finding some lunch at the same time.

I’ve long heard about two burger joints, yes I know… western food, but after much circling West Street find that neither appear to exist. So much for my notes then. Reluctantly and although I swore I’d never eat there again it is Burger King that wins out though in hindsight I probably should have had the Guilin Noodles. The rest of West Street is the kind of touristic zone that real travellers avoid. Full of expats, bars pizza and German sausage eateries. Does this make me a hypocrite? Perhaps, but believe me I’ve sampled a fair amount of Chinese food and this day my feeling was for western food. What I am not however is a beer swilling party hoon! So the zone is not really what you come to Guilin to see and I could now thankfully cross it off my list and go in search of the real ‘place’ and for me that was all about ‘them hills.’

Before I can get to those is the conundrum of where to stay? I have a few hotels jotted down but a couple of them are a way out of town requiring another bus and as I’ve already traveled 3-4 hours opt to stay in the locale. Locating a 7 Days Inn is easy enough but it’s in two building blocks and there’s a construction site in front of it. This leaves Zhi – a book/cafe/hostel which is a little tricky to find. The odd numbers on the main Kangzhan Road run on the right hand side (or left if you’re coming from the dreaded West St). You need to cross the street into a community of sorts and not far into it lies the Zhi. It is a beautiful new start up fronted by the youthful Zhao Yu and female accomplice who seem caught off guard when I walk in. It’s ambience during a rainy day is fine enough though there are a few teething problems. As Zhao himself is honest enough to point out, the noise from the night market might be a bit much – he’s right. I’ve avoided a construction site and gained yapping dogs, which may or may not be for human consumption, coupled with chit chat and chuckles into the early hours. Either way, the windows simply cannot cope. Something he forgot to point out was that the swanky new shower needs a bloody long run to warm up. I wait and wait and there’s just no hot water so I’m forced to creep down to reception and find it devoid of any service personnel. I knock Zhao’s door. He doesn’t look too happy as he yawns and stretches from slumberland to tell me it needs four minutes. Sure enough it starts to work soon after my return.

So to ‘them hills’ the ones that stared back in me in my postcard collecting days of yore and whose cousins stared back at me on the train to Nanning at the southern end of the same province late last year and now by the magic of high speed rail travel stand impressively before me. What I really wanted was a museum to tell me how these formations appeared like they do and why they sprang up in this part of China. Instead I get more tourists and theatre (I don’t go in) and restaurateurs trying to entice me into their gastric enclaves. I really should have had the Guilin Noodles. After this frenetic activity I cross a bridge into the unknown. Two old men mind a rustic open storefront and play cards, all else, save a few scooters and cars, is quiet. Finally I find the ‘place’ breathing a similar serenity to that postcard. The twilight is moving in fast and my time shooting on both iPhone and Canon is limited. By the time I head back night has fallen. Gazing upward, a streetlight stands silent as said hills only with its glare courted by a swarm of small insects. Standing in the middle of the road trying to get the shot was in vain, with each passing vehicle honking at me to move.

The Kangzhan Road is much more interesting than West Street. You see the real China, the real Chinese with women and sewing machines, and all manner of street eats no stranger to my line of vision after five years in the middle kingdom. My next move involves seeing Guilin but aside the early morning ritual of trying to make a hotel shower work was going to be a leisurely breakfast. Instead I end up in another shower (this one natural) with a girl who looks about 15 (she’s in her early 20s) trying to flag down a bus which we manage and so Yangshuo fades away in a meld of mist and steamy windows. Across from me and my youthful acquaintance is a dodgy looking guy playing porn on his phone with no headphones. Fortunately my friend is oblivious to the moaning soundtrack emanating from the adjacent seat, her parents won’t even allow her a boyfriend. Even more fortunate is he stops, albeit with a dirty look, when he notices me and even better alights not further up the road after rubbing his privates and ogling my friends legs. Travel is indeed a break from the normality of a bowl of oats and a computer rapidly burning my retinas.

An hour or so later we both alight at Guilin’s train station and my young friend darts away departing in a waiting car. For me the decision of whether to hang on overnight or whether to jump on a southbound train back to Guangzhou. A rainy day is sometimes fun but not if you happen to have damp feet from trudging around in it. So I find myself in a beautiful Starbucks with a brunch of sorts. Better than the nothing lining my stomach anyhow. Outside the rain has gotten heavier and I admit defeat and jump a bus to a waiting train. No seat says the ticket seller indiscreetly through the glass. Just as well it’s a high speed voyage home then, I install myself in a seat which holds until the halfway mark when its ticket holder appears along with a sea of people much like the Guangzhou metro at rush hour. Standing to a halt an hour later, grateful to be back. Another hotel bed spared, another city done and dusted, the trip over much faster than the anticipation preceding it. I’ve got the feeling it won’t be the last time this travellers sensation of elation, excitement then the all too familiar post trip come down occurs but life’s like that.

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