When last we left our intrepid hero (before the brief Weird Food foray you’ve just heard about) she was speeding away from Yichang on another overnight train. Yichang was simply a waystation – the place the boat happened to drop us at the end of our Yangzi cruise. It doesn’t have much to offer, and we only had a short time there. Yichang did have one or two things in its favour, though, things that were important for me in my particular state at the time. The first was a long and well-paved length of riverfront where I had the best run I’ve had since the marathon in Athens way back in November. It was 10km I really needed to cover, and I felt much better when it was over. The second, to which I sped as soon as I’d stretched and showered, was a nearby McDonald’s. Sometimes you just need the Food of the Clown.
From Yichang it was an overnight train to Liuzhuo. I already mentioned that the mattresses in our “soft sleeper” car didn’t conform to any definition of soft that I’m familiar with. But did I tell you about the dining car? I don’t think I did, which may be a good thing. Suffice it to say that the dining car on the Yichang to Liuzhuo overnight train will not be challenging for a Michelin star any time soon. Or if they do, they might consider hosing the place down before they invite the good folks from Michelin over, because every surface in the carriage was coated with a layer of grime so thick that the last time those walls saw a scrub brush must surely have been before the Cultural Revolution.
Eventually, after the train, a 4 hour wait in a hotel room in Liuzhuo, and a 3 hour bus ride, we fetched up in Yangshuo. It’s a small city, with a population of 310,000, but is incredibly touristy and well-equipped with tourist-friendly amenities – all-night bars, proper coffee shops, English bookstores, and the inevitable McDonald’s. The reason Yangshuo has become such a hotspot is largely due to the surrounding geography. It’s because of this geography that Nixon paid a visit to the area during his famous trip to China in 1974, thus forever cementing Yangshuo’s place on the China tourist trail that was to grow, slowly, as the country opened up. And what’s so special about this geography? The whole countryside is dotted with dramatic hills called “karsts”. These are odd-shaped leftovers from an inland sea that once covered that area. I can’t remember the exact geological cause for them, but it’s all about the erosion of soft material and the emergence of the remaining hard stuff… something like that. I was immediately struck by how much it reminded me of the “fairy castles” in Cappadoccia, way back in Turkey, except the hills in Yangshuo are all covered with a carpet of trees. Very pretty.
Because it’s so touristy, there’s a lot of infrastructure in Yangshuo to keep tourists busy. We had a long menu of optional activities to choose from during our two days there: gung fu, tai chi, painting, calligraphy, ma johng, cooking class, language lessons, bike tours and caving. Heeding Rob H’s advice, I decided to forgo an afternoon nap after we arrived and instead accompanied a few of the Danish girls to a gung fu class the first evening we were there. This resulted in a lot more sweat and sore muscles than I’d been expecting from a tourist-oriented beginner type of class. I’m glad I went. Rob H., you were right.
You’ve already heard about supper that night, after which I felt justified in returning to my hotel room – the nicest one we’ve had so far – and spending the rest of the night blogging for a while before hitting that sack.
The next morning I had breakfast in my room once again. Despite the lure of the many many restaurants in the area offering what promised to be proper bacon and eggs, I’ve been finding it really pleasant to get up and have some quiet time in my room at the beginning of the day. This is helped along by the fact that every hotel room we’ve had so far, including on the boat and even on the overnight trains, has a kettle or ready access to hot water for making tea (and instant noodles). Early on I bought myself a thermal cup with a lid and stocked up on proper Lipton’s black tea bags and sugar, so this means I can wake up, make a cup of tea, and settle in with some fruit, yogurt and peanut butter on crackers. Often I even get to check email and surf the internet, because our hotels have also been consistently well-wired for internet. It’s remarkably civilized.
At 9:00 am we all met in the lobby for the day’s group activity – a cycling tour of the countryside. It had rained overnight and the streets were wet, and the weather was cold. It also took us a while to get kitted out with bikes because we specifically wanted to find some with fenders so the muddy puddles on the way would not result in us ruining the clean laundry we’d just had done. Eventually we were all suitably equipped and headed out behind our local guide, Billy. All our local guides have had us refer to them by their “English” names – Lisa, Lily, James, Billy… it’s a bit weird. I’ve always wondered where these English names come from. Do they get to pick them on their own? Or do parents give a child a Chinese name and an English name, hoping to give them a leg up in the tourism industry later in life? I’ll have to ask Huang about this. (Aside: Ok, Huang says that the local guides pick their English names themselves for the most part. He said he even has an English name himself, though someone else gave it to him, and he didn’t tell it to us, because he wants us to call him by his proper Chinese name. We are, after all, in China. Fair enough. Though I am kind of curious.)
The bike ride itself was pleasant enough, though it did spit rain a bit and was kind of chilly. At least the bikes were good quality, and I was able to raise the seat enough to make for a comfortable ride. We cycled along, and every once in a while Billy would stop us for a photo break.
Our ultimate destination for the tour was a place called Moon Hill, so named because there’s a large round hole in the hill, naturally occurring, that resembles a full moon. It’s actually quite impressive.
Naturally, we paid the extra ¥15.00 to climb up to the top of the hill. This is because we all LOVED the 1,200 step climb up to the Hongchun Ping Monastery so much that we positively leapt at the chance to climb more and more sets of slippery, uneven stairs, just so we could go back down them again. And once again, like on the Great Wall, we were accompanied most of the way by aged local women puffing up the stairs beside us trying to sell us water or postcards or local handcrafts. The view from the top was quite lovely, but I’m a bit tired of the clammy, sweaty feeling that always accompanies these vistas.
At the top we had the mandatory group photo, taken by Billy. We do a lot of these, which I find a bit annoying, but only because there are twelve of us so they take a while. The poor person appointed photographer has to juggle ten or more different cameras so that everyone gets a shot of their own. Still, this one turned out quite well.
After the not-so-bad trip back down the hill we had another enormous banquet style lunch – the kind where they keep bringing out more and more dishes until you think it must be over, and then four more dishes show up. The trouble with these lunches, other than the huge volume of food involved in the first place, is that the unfinished dishes just sit there on the table so it’s really hard not to keep picking away even though you’re already full. It’s a question of willpower I suppose, which is something I seem to have precious little of these days.
After lunch we had the option of touring a local “Water Cave” that looked like it had some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites and pools of mud and such. I was on the fence about the cave – it sounded interesting, but so did a nap and a quiet afternoon in Yangshuo. No one else from the group was going to the caves, and the weather was still chilly and grey so it sounded like a dip in the famous mud bath would have been a decidedly chilly affair. In the end I went back to town with the gang and I honestly have no regrets. Especially since I still got to take a picture of this excellent sign for the Water Cave:
The afternoon turned out to be quite nice. I did have a nap, and then went out into the town and ran into my buddy Randy from the boat. His GAP group is on a parallel path with my Intrepid group, so we’ve met up a few times since leaving the Yangzi. He and I had a pleasant time having tea and chatting in the local used book store / café. Then I had a small supper and went back to the hotel to freshen up for the evening.
I may have missed the Water Cave, but I still had one more event to look forward to that day – a really big show! “Impression Sanjie Liu” was directed by Zhang Yimou, who may be best known for having directed the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. I wasn’t sure what to expect but thought whatever it was, it would probably be impressive, and on a grand scale. After all, the show purported to have a cast of more than 600. (There’s a good link here explaining about the show. It’s actually a bit more informative than the show’s official website, here.)
I was not disappointed. Even though the evening was cold and a bit drizzly, I was very glad I’d gone. They even gave away free rain jackets, which added a much-appreciated extra layer against the wind and rain. The venue was an outdoor theatre that seated about 2,000, all clad in free rain jackets, and milling about loudly. It was hard to guess what we were about to see, since I couldn’t even tell the size or nature of the performance area – it was all completely dark.
The thing was billed as a Sound and Light show, but it definitely wasn’t all lasers and wiggly lights and such. And it turned out that the performance area was much, much, much larger than I ever would have guessed. And much wetter, too. The first chords sounded and the lights were turned on and that first light cue illuminated the whole river valley – highlighting the dramatic karsts that surrounded to playing area, which turned out to be the Li River. It was fantastic.
I don’t have a lot of pictures because the scale was so big it was hard to capture. And despite the zillions of watts of lighting, it was still often dark and moody. Of course I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, but I was unconcerned by this. The visual spectacle was enough for me. That, and trying to figure out, technically, how they were doing everything they were doing. One section was particularly impressive – a whole series of men entered the playing area, each in his own small boat. I suspect there were about 150 of them, lined up in long rows. Then they pulled rows and rows of bright red fabric out of the water and manipulated it in a series of choreographed movement that was just breathtaking.
I really tried to upload my own video of this, but it just didn’t work. This one is better anyways.
There were crowds of people with torches, and choirs of singing children and boats and big floating walkways that moved around. Admittedly once in a while the pace lagged a bit, but I forgave them when I thought about the sheer number of people that had to be moved around. Still, there were one or two times when I thought to myself, “Ouch! This scene change is death!”. But then some other new and dramatic tableau would emerge and I’d just settle back and take it all in.
My other favourite part of the evening was near the end. Far in the distance, a line of people started entering hand in hand, walking across a bridge of some kind. The place was dark, and each person was wearing a costume lit up with lines of bright LEDs, so it looked a bit like a row of stick-men. I was impressed by this, but grew more and more impressed because they just kept coming. And coming. And coming. I’d think, “Wow, that’s a lot of lit-up people”, mentally calculating how many LEDs were involved in each costumes, and how many costumes there were, and the line just kept getting longer, snaking along the floating walkways. More and more and more. I think was literally open-mouthed in amazement. In the end, I estimated that there were about 200 people in that line.
They did a bit of choreography and a bit of unison switch on, switch off business which was really neat to see. The show ended with a bit of a whimper, and I was annoyed to see people start to get up to leave long before the show was over, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I was really surprised later when I learned that the others in my group weren’t nearly as impressed as I was. They’d been expecting lasers and things and felt a bit ripped off. One said they shouldn’t have called it “Sound and light show” but “People moving water show”. I suppose he had a point. I guess a lot of what made it impressive for me was having an inkling of the amount of work, time, technical and artistic skill that goes into a show of that scale.
All in all it was a good day. A bit of group activity, a pleasant afternoon, and a big extravaganza to close things off. I went to bed that night pretty content with my current lot. The other thought I had was that this was definitely a kind of show I might like to work on some day. Perhaps some day very soon. Err… do any of you know anyone at the London 2012 Organizing Committee? I have a resumé…