Saturday, March 9, 2013

Asian Chronicles 8 - Guilin

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Our wake-up call came at 0445. I stumbled aboard our bus bleary-eyed with a boxed breakfast tucked beneath my arm. 
“Drink the liquids and yogurt before security,” Derek instructed as our bus groaned too, rolling from its berth into darkness. We traveled seemingly south, everyone quiet and contemplative in the pre-dawn. The sun eventually rose to my left, creeping down the cement tenements of the city, which spread endlessly to every horizon. 
I hate cities. I glared at the gray, concrete landscape as we glided past on elevated freeways. Cities germinate that small seed of fear in me that sprouts, invading my chest with seedlings of anxiety and alarm. Better, far better for me in the natural world with ursa and orca than in cities of artifice and the artificial. I shoulda been a forest ranger.

Our group of travelers had notably shrunk. One-fourth would take a later flight to Hong Kong and home to Hawaii. The Big Island group, that source of constant laughter and comedy, had departed. And while my cheeks and abds reveled in a much needed rest from laughing, I missed their comedic commentary and easy enjoyment. One-half had taken a flight to Wuhan and their boat to float the Yangtze River. One-fourth, our group, waited for a flight to Guilin, home of the floating mountains.

Our flight would be full, they informed, as we queued in the airport. 
“China Eastern has cancelled all later flights for the rest of the season, so the flight is full.” You’re kidding. I wonder how well that would go over in the states? An example perhaps, of the differences between private industry and government control.

famed Floating Mountains
The tour book read, “Guilin’s scenery bests all others in the world. Its shapely-rising limestone towers and crystal-clear waters are often portrayed in Chinese artworks.” The floating mountains are abrupt, limestone monoliths rising from the riverbed.
Jessica, our local guide greeted us, took command of the green flag, and led the way to our bus. “Guilin,” she said, “Is close to South China Sea and Viet Nam border. It is known for cassia forest, you call osmanthus tree, osmanthus.” In a idiosyncratic speech pattern, Jessica would often repeat herself. “Guilin also known for clear water, green mountain, fantastic cave and beautiful stone. Uh-huh, clear water, green mountain, fantastic cave and beautiful stone.”
The air was thick with mist, not unlike the marine layer of the west-costal US. But Guilin isn’t that close to the coast. Air pollution or something else? Mom remembered the air similarly smokey when she visited some three decades earlier.
We passed cassia trees lining the roadways and Jessica pointed to them. The camphorina cassia tree is an evergreen of southern China; its aromatic bark is known as cinnamon.
Turns out the osmanthus is a completely different tree and also an evergreen of China. While in Beijing, I watched people collect their delicate, yellow flowers and gather fallen petals for tea. Later, its lemony scent wafted through our hotel lobby in Hong Kong, prompting my enchantment and purchase of osmanthus tea.

We stopped for lunch. Ever-nearing Guangzhou (Canton), the food was more and more to our liking.
Later, we visited Seven Star Park, a panda park. There are approximately 1500 giant pandas remaining worldwide, many residing in wildlife preserves like one near Guilin. We walked through a moist, subtropical forest and low-tech amusement park to the panda exhibit. It was after lunch and moi-moi (sleep) time for the pandas. 
“Don’t they know that pandas are only active in the morning? If you want to see them moving about, you have to come in the morning!” Mom was clearly irritated along with other fellow travelers who knew this informational tidbit.
“We should have skipped lunch and come to see the pandas.” Yes and then people would complain of hunger and forced marches and skipped meals.
The panda park tour could not be rescheduled to the following morning as our boat left the dock early for an all day float downstream. Such is life on a whirlwind tour.
“And can’t they get a golf cart to drive us to the pandas? We don’t want to walk all this way, a half a mile through a stupid amusement park to see sleeping pandas!” 
That was a consistent downfall of this tour methinks. Not arranging transport (when available) for the elderly who had difficulty with long walks. The panda park had paved trails and carts. We followed the trail through natural gardens and classically beautiful, Chinese scenes. 
Mother and daughter posed for photos before Camel Mountain in full, ethnic regalia. The headdress of hammered silver looked vaguely familiar.
“They’re Miao,” Derek said, “One of the minority.” Familiar - though I  could not quite put my finger on it. A Google search for Miao people explained - they are Hmong, the hill people of southern China, north Viet Nam and Cambodia.

We boarded the bus again for Reed Flute Cave, a large, local, limestone cave.
En route, Derek was asked about the air, its thick, smokey appearance, and air pollution.
“You tink da ehyah (air) duhty? Tonight, you dig yawh nose. If no moh dot-dot (dark dot = dirty boogers) da ehyah is clean.” He peered at his pointer, extended before his face, as if examining the dot-dot. “Beijing get dot-dot. Xi’an get dot-dot. Oah hea, no moh dot-dot.” We howled and Derek, racked with laughter, seized in a full body spasm and giggled in high falsetto like a girl.

Guilin bore a striking resemblance to Denpasar, the capitol city of Bali, which seems to languish in some perpetual state of cinderblock collapse and rebuild. Cubby-hole storefronts line the main road.  Plastic tables and chairs in bright, primary colors ornament sidewalks where proprietors and customers smoke, eat, and play cards. Toddlers push small toys underfoot, while older siblings pedal tricycles in circles.
Absent is the purely western phenomenon of children’s faces glued to their iPods. Gone is the rickshaw and pedaled bicycle. Electric bicycles and scooters swarmed the streets, moving and weaving like entrained birds in flock and flight. 
“We call electric donkey,” Jessica said pointing.

Guilin’s main industry is tourism, 10 million per year, of which 90% are Chinese nationals. They come to see the floating mountains and Reed Flute Cave. Reed Flute - so named for the red reeds growing abundantly about - which are fashioned into flutes. The cave is over 180 million years old and filled with limestone stalactites and stalagmites. Ink inscriptions dating back to 792 CE indicate that even in the Tang Dynasty, Reed Flute Cave was a tourist destination. The cave was rediscovered in the 1940’s and reopened to the public by Mao.

The path through the 240 meter cave is uneven, dimly lit, and wet. It ends at a small lake where the path turns to take a parallel, exit stroll. Rock formations are accentuated and illuminated in multi-colored lights. In Chinese tradition rocks are bestowed legendary or poetic names like Dragon Pagoda, Virgin Forest, Flower and Fruit Mountain, Morning Sunrise over Lion Jungle, Bumper Harvest of Melons and Vegetables, etc. Bumper Harvest of Melons and Vegetables? Good grief Charlie Brown.
The walkway to the cave entrance was strewn with local merchants in a kind of street fair, some with seemingly authentic handicrafts. We left part of our group there as the cave’s footing seemed to invite stumbling and falls. In retrospect, it was a wise decision.

Returning to our hotel, we passed the Sun Come market, a corner market overlooking the river Li. Sun Come? It launched a conversation regarding the literal translation of the Chinese language. Sun Come probably means “sunrise” but a language based on pictograms, we decided, does not lend itself to easy growth, change, and translation.
We had (and HAD is the operative word) a Chinese massage parlor in the small town where I live. Golden Hands Massage Parlor. Ooh, the visual is not good. Their business was short lived. I have often thought Chinese businesses (airlines, tourist industry, brochure and sign makers) should consult a banana - to use Loo-Loo’s colloquialism (see Asian Chronicles 6) - white on the inside but yellow on the outside (looks Chinese but no Mandarin), a Western-born Chinese with English as a first language, to help them with translation. Then Sun Come Market would be Sunrise Market, Golden Hands might have a thriving business on the main drag under a different name, and the message before landing would say something other than “Up your seat back.”

We were served a pickled, pork meatball at dinner. The center was pink. We sent it back to the kitchen for cooking and it returned unchanged, pink in the center. Our annoyance was equally matched by that the wait staff. Usually our guides hovered about, ensuring the meals were to our liking. This time, they were nowhere to be found so few people touched the pork. Later, we learned it was fully cooked but colored for that particular presentation.
“But you weren’t here to tell us that Derek,” I said, “And no westerner in their right mind, is going to eat raw pork. Sorry.”
“Next time, no moh, we take it off da menu,” he flicked a hand in irritation, his face pinched, his lips pursed.

After dinner, we crossed the street for a Chinese massage. A long, dimly lit room was lined in big, Lazy Boy-like chairs. We traipsed in followed by a line of small women. They start with your feet in a pail of hot water followed by a foot massage. Then the chair is flattened for the full body massage through clothing. I find Chinese massage kind of forceful, pokey, abrupt, and in true Chinese fashion - expedient. It is anything but the slow kneading that works its way into the deep muscle belly to promote blood flow, relief and healing. But they’re cheap! 
She yanked the warmed towel grown cold from my eyes and leaned into my field of vision, “La-a-a-dy, finish.”

10/6 Li River and Floating Mountains

We boarded a large, flat-bottomed boat to float down the Li River in an all day excursion. I went immediately topside, rocking dockside in a confined space would never do.
The staff asked for our orders of turtle or fish soup. Orders would be phoned to a fisherman who would meet us downstream and deliver the fresh catch.
I stopped to photograph the bottle of snake wine. That too, would be served later. A favorite of Chinese men (natch), they swear snake wine makes them virile “like Superman. Of course it does. I wonder how much they drink before that fantasy seems real? I, quite honestly, have never considered that particular anatomic appendage of the Man of Steel, which, now that I am, seems a little... intimidating. But I digress, as I am wont to do when men wear spandex. Oops! Secrets out!
The river Li bent and swayed and with each turn we floated into another startling scene made famous by Chinese ink and wash paintings. Small trails disappeared quickly into the deep, broad-leafed jungle. Tin roofs sometimes peaked over banana fronds and phoenix tail bamboo. Water buffalo swam the shallows and lumbered onto rocky shores. A junk pulled alongside to deliver fish and turtle. In a National Geographic moment, a Chinese fishermen poled his bamboo raft, his kormoran waterbird perched, ready to dive. 
I spent the day topside visiting with whomever joined me: a large group of Germans in hi-tech fabrics, Tevas, and zip-off, convertible, hiking pants, a bunch of east-coasters, and Jimmy from Los Angeles, who planned to race home for his (internment) Camp Reunion. 
Jiuma Hua Shan (Nine Horse Fresco Hill) came into view and they herded all passengers to roof and rails. The mythological Monkey King brought his horses from heaven to drink in the Li River. It so happened that an artist saw the horses and wanted to draw them. Frightened and skittish, the horses ran into the cliff, never to reemerge. Variegated in yellow and white, dark and light, the horses assume a variety of poses: some run, some lie, others play on the mountainside as they have for centuries.
Chinese legend says that if a person can point out all the nine horses, he or she will win the next Imperial Examination. Urban legend says Mao and his Generals floated the river Li one day and came upon Jiuma Hua Shan.
“How many horses do you see?” Mao asked.
“Only eight, Mr. Chairman,” his infinitely wise general responded.
Not surprisingly, it is reported that both Premier Zhou Enlai and President Bill Clinton identified all nine equine etchings.

Lael spoke with a Seattle doctor over lunch. She attended a six-month rotation in China to update her holistic/herbalist skills. She said the leading causes of death in China were lung and liver cancer.
“That’s odd,” I said.
China has not been environmentally conscientious. They dump anything and everything into their rivers and oceans. ... And now, even their government is wondering if their practices are poisoning the people.
Knowing the water in China is bad, we brought hiker water filters and drank only bottled or filtered / boiled water.

Derek climbed to the upper deck and pulled a Chinese 20 Yuan (like a $20 bill) from his wallet.
“It’s coming up,” he said holding the bill against the riverscape. ... and so it did.
Methinks one of the old Bond movies used this area as backdrop - but I can’t quite remember and am unwilling to hunt it down.
We docked in a tiny town grown up around the pier of disembarking tourists. Dusty store fronts spilled out onto dirt streets. Vendors called, “Lady, lady, you like? Come look lady, nice one!”
“Look out for pickpocket and one-day old antique,” our guides warned before we fanned out through the bazaar.

Walking back from dinner we saw full, bull elephant tusks, beautifully carved.
“I thought this was illegal?” I exclaimed aghast.
It IS illegal, everywhere but China. China did not sign onto the world embargo of ivory importation. So if you shoot it, they will buy it... and illegal poaching and annihilation of dwindling elephant herds continue across the African plain. A crime punishable by death is fueled by Chinese yuan. ... A tragedy of global consequence and proportion.
I want to call them environmental morons but you know the adage: when one points a finger, three fingers point back.


  1. I think I love Derek!!! :-) The pictures are just spectacular (I love the one of your and your mom, with you in the orange shirt). You have such a way of talking story :-) Every detail is so well described. You should do this travel writing for a living.

  2. I would LOVE to get paid to travel!!!

  3. A job well done! This is a beautiful piece. Trust me, the sky is your limit...

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