Our second full day in Guilin was passed in nature. At least, as close to nature as the Chinese get. Here, if you want to go hiking, you head to a national park, where you pay a hefty entry fee to trudge up man-made stone steps to the top of the hill, where another 50 tourists are snapping pictures of the pagoda or temple that stands on top. The whole thing has a very manufactured feel to it. Nonetheless, we had a fun time exploring Elephant Trunk Hill Park, where some university students followed us around to practice their English.
View of Guilin
Then we stopped by the Sun and Moon Pagodas and paid yet another expensive entry fee to walk to the top of each. I was expecting that each of the nine levels would have an interesting room or something, but each level was the same, offering nothing but a 360 degree terrace overlooking the lake. I, of course, realized this after about the 5th floor, but Andrew, being a man, had to reach the top, so we continued on, and then performed the same fruitless task on the second pagoda until we were convinced that we had, indeed, just wasted our money. Finally the strange lack of tourists in the pagodas made sense: there was simply nothing to see! However, since we were on vacation, we decided to make the best of it and chalked it up to a you-live-you-learn experience.
Sun Pagoda in the background
Our Chinese is bad, so ordering food in a restaurant can be really disastrous for us. Our usual M.O. is to randomly pick something off the menu and hope it's good, but on this trip we were determined to have some of the local specialties. This led us to only eat in restaurants with English menus, which were more expensive. Unfortunately, this price increase didn't always correlate to better quality, and we made many big mistakes in Guilin. For lunch that day we ordered snails and sauteed pumpkin, neither of which were appetizing. Moral of the story: escargot outside of France is disgusting.
Our next stop was the Seven Stars National Park, where we hiked around pagodas and artificial caves. This park was pretty, but again, very manufactured.
Camel Hill (it's more llama-like, imo)
Andrew is interested in rocks, so we stopped into the Geology Museum, where we were greeted by an English-speaking tour guide who spent the next hour showing us around the museum before leading us to the "gift shop" and trying to convince us to spend $1,000s of dollars on rare rock formations. I resisted the urge to point out that they were just rocks, afterall, but some of them were quite pretty and should I ever need a rock museum of my own, I will possibly pay these exorbitant prices, but more likely go out into nature and root around for them myself. Our last stop in the park was a Buddhist temple, which was nestled against the cliff face and looked very peaceful.
We made another attempt to commune with nature the following day. Having looked at the map the night before, Andrew's general plan was to get on a bus that left the city and get off when we saw something pretty. This plan worked pretty well, though we accidentally ended up at another national park, which had one short route to the "top" of the mountain, which was really only about 1/5 of the way up. However, there was a lovely lake nearby, and we paid a silly $2 to ride around on a bamboo raft for a while before hopping back on the bus and riding it to the end of the line. This deposited us in a suburban housing district that didn't look very promising.
We forged ahead, though, and found a path into the fields and toward the mountains. Strangely, there wasn't another person in sight, though there were many huts and shacks and even laundry hanging up, and I became a little uneasy so we left after not too long.
Off the beaten track
Back in the city, we finally lucked out for lunch and found a dumpling stand that gave us 15 huge steamed pork buns for about $1.50. We were in heaven!
We finished up our shopping, whereupon we discovered a knitting store! Chinese sizes are different than US, so I guessed at the size needles I needed and bought some lovely gray yarn for these Evenstar Gloves. Unfortunately, I guessed incorrectly, which led Andrew to run back and exchange them while I packed our bags for Shanghai.
Around 5:oopm we boarded the train and spent the next 23 hours in relative comfort as we journeyed east. To be continued...
At our arrival in Guilin we were met by a car from the hotel, the Riverside Hostel. For a mere $25/night, we had a private double room with a river view in the city center. It was pretty luxurious for us.
After showering and having a brief pillow fight, we headed into the city for a walk before dinner. We loved the wide pedestrian-only walkways lined with osmanthus trees that meandered around the river.
We spotted a cute little cafe, The Shire Hobbiton. Naturally we had to stop in, and we were treated to giant LotR posters and a menu that included delicacies such as "Rohan tea" and "lembas." I opted for something a little more this-world, and had a Vanillacino, which was by far the best coffee I've had in China.
Thus fortified, we passed through the gauntlet of Chinglish speaking natives trying to sell us everything from traditional Chinese clothes to tea. Guilin has a lively night market, which mostly sells cheap tourist souvenirs, our favorite kind, so we easily hit that up every night we were there.
We also walked through the expansive park, admiring the lake lit up with twinkling lights. The Sun and Moon Pagodas looked especially lovely in the evening.
The next morning we got up early and joined another 50 or so tourists, mostly Chinese, but with a good smattering of Europeans as well, for a cruise along the Li River from Guilin to the famous Yangshuo.
It was definitely a new experience for us, traveling on an organized tour. Normally we do our own thing and wander off the beaten track, but since Andrew's inquiries into the possibility of kayaking the entire way were met with confused looks, we had no choice but to join a tour group. On the cruise we met up with a German-Malaysian couple and some Belgiums, which made for interesting conversation in both English and French. The 4 1/2 hour journey downriver was full of magnificent karst scenery, made all the more intriguing by the fog that covered the tops of the hills. We passed many well-known sites, including Nine Horses Painted on a Hill, and the scene featured on the back of the 20 RMB bill.
Can you see the nine horses? Yeah, me neither.
Once we arrived in Yangshuo, we spent about 40 minutes walking along the tourist shopping street, where we bought some pretty cool souvenirs for ourselves and friends back home.
Then we met up with 12 others from our group for an optional countryside tour. We drove to a small village and noticed all the mirrors hanging over the front doors. Apparently these mirrors are used to scare away ghosts, who will be frightened of their own reflection.
In this village, we also stopped at the Stone Dragon bridge for some scenic shots of the river.
Then it was past the rice paddies and downstream some more for a river trip on a bamboo raft.
This was actually my favorite part of the entire trip to Guilin, because the river was quiet and isolated but for us 14 travelers. We were pushed along the river by bamboo poles, and a woman dressed in traditional garb stood on our boat and sang, albeit through a megaphone.
After we had drifted a little bit, we met up with a cormorant fisherman. The fisherman ties cords around the bird's throat to prevent it from swallowing the fish it catches. The fisherman then throws the bird off the boat, and the bird brings back the fish it catches to its master. After about 20kg of fish are caught, the bird is then allowed to eat some of its catch. It was a little cruel, but interesting to watch.
After our lazy trip down the river, we then hopped back on the bus and headed back to Guilin, where we tried Guilin beer duck, which was really disappointing. To be honest, almost all the food in Guilin was disappointing, which is pretty unusual for China.
After dinner we once again wandered around the park and markets, stopping to buy some sugar cane juice before heading back to our hotel for the night.