Thursday, November 10, 2005

The China Logs: The Rice Terraces of Dazai

Yangshuo, that weird and wonderful backpackers' enclave, was beginning to hang heavy on us after a few days, so we got out. Far to the north of Yangshuo, over 4 hours by bus, are 66 square kilometres of amazing rice terraces in an area populated by the Zhuang and Yao minority groups, who have unique clothes and customs and language.

We were picked up at 7.30am by the tour guide (it was going to take a full day rather than four hours to get there on our own steam so we capitulated and booked a tour). The bus was almost full of westerners - Australians, English and Dutch it seemed - and we were on our way fairly quickly. North past Guilin and into the mountains we went, leaving the weird karst hills of the lowlands behind.

The trip there was slow and arduous as we were driving up into very high mountains and the road was less than ideal in places. For the first three hours or so we were on decent highway but we were still going really slowly due to the steep gradient. Then we turned at a hairpin bend, and the guide told us it would take one and a half hours to travel the final 17km as the road was so tough. She wasn't wrong.

We followed a river valley, the road clinging to the valley walls sometimes hundreds of feet above the almost-dry river bed. Narrow wooden houses on spindly stilts lined the roads on the valley side, shored up sometimes by a few huge struts. On the other side of the road - unhelpfully - huge amounts of timber was piled up, reducing the width of the road in places by a third. But it was still a half-decent road with a tarmac coating.

Then at a river crossing, the tarmac road continued left across the bridge and our bus continued straight along onto what I had thought was a building site. This was the state of the road for the rest of the journey - dirt track would be a generous term. In England we would not attempt this road without a state-of-the-art 4x4 genuine off-road vehicle.

The timber was still piled up and this time there was nothing between us and the river valley but fresh air. No barrier, no struts, no bollards, nothing. Landslides, we had read, were frequent in these parts, and the roadway was cluttered with enormous boulders, some of which had clearly only recently smashed down from above. Above us workers continued to cut timber in the heavy forest. At one point Orlando flinched visibly - later he told me that some workers above us had lost control of an enormous bamboo trunk and it was coming towards us end-first. They rescued it at the very last moment before it snooker-cued us off the road and into the valley below.

The steep hills were beginning to show signs of terracing, although much of the land was covered with dense forest. Around the towns small amounts of land were terraced and as we continued, greater and greater areas in the hills had been cut into to make arable land.

Over an hour along this dirt-track, and many numb rear-ends later, we arrived at a ticket office and a car park in the middle of nowhere. A gaggle of local Yao women were waiting for us to sell their handicrafts. These women looked very different from the Han people who make up more than 92% of the Chinese population. Over 2 million Yao people of various sub-groups live in the southern and south-western provinces of China.

The women were mostly dressed in their traditional clothes of highly-coloured embroidered blue and bright pink and yellow and black fabric: plain (some western) tops were worn under collarless hip-length jackets which wrapped over in front like a kimono, belted at the waist with a long embroidered fabric belt which wrapped twice around the waist before tying at the back. Skirts were knee-length and again embroidered, many narrowly pleated, and most wore a knee-length black apron in the front. Jewellery was ornate silver-plate including heavy hoops in the ears which had elongated many of the women's earlobes (apparently long hair and long lobes equal a long life). Some women wore cloth wrapping around their calves like knee-length socks, black with a white tie at the top. All wore standard army-issue green plimsolls on the feet. But most striking was their heads.

The Yao women are famous for their incredibly long hair, which they wear wrapped in ponytails around their head and covered with a kerchief-like black cap. Most women's hair will get close to reaching the ground when unwrapped. Along with their own hair, young women will also have one or two long tails of hair which belonged to their mother, grandmother or great-grandmother. They add this to their own hair to make the ponytail mane even longer. They wrap it a couple of times around their hair like a crown and tie it in a loop at the front.

We were attacked by these friendly but enthusiastic women even before we had disembarked. They chose their prey as we got off, attaching themselves to us - literally - by linking hands and arms with us and starting the most aggressive sales pitch we have encountered so far in China. However, they were really good-natured (many cheeky!) women who were clearly having a laugh as well as trying to do business. They hawked their jewellery, embroidered bags and aprons and blankets, and the inevitable postcards, as we walked along a stony path towards the village that was to be our overnight stay.

Nestled in the middle of surgically-cut terraced hills was the small picturesque village of Dazai, and its beautiful wooden stilt houses. A wooden school for the children was in the middle with a basketball court in the centre. One or two houses also had small shops. We walked across the central open space and started to climb steep stone steps into the dense houses above.

All the time, these wiry women, young and old, tried to get us to allow them to carry our backpacks for us, in the sturdy wicker baskets they carried on their backs. We kept going doggedly, almost missing the beautiful houses and increasingly amazing views around us as we tried not to lose our step.

Twenty or so perspiring minutes later we were at the uppermost reaches of the village, and stopped finally at the Countryside Cafe, the very highest building in this part of the village. We stopped to admire the spectacular view laid out beneath us and the chiselled terraces stretching as far as the eye could see. These terraces are called the Dragon's Backbone terraces, and it is said that the small hills look like snails and the larger ones like waterfalls. It is autumn here (despite the high temperatures) so no rice was growing and most of the terraces were dry, but the sheer scale of the area is enough to make you stare.

We had lunch surrounded by the seller women and then headed off into the hills guided by a handful of the local women to find one of the best viewpoints. We climbed and climbed up these steep stone steps, thankful that we had left our baggage in our room for the night back at the cafe. In the autumn sunshine we sweated and panted our way up and up, past another village where older women were sitting on their balconies in these big wooden houses weaving fabric on foot-powered old looms.

Up and up still, and the views got more and more panoramic and amazing. Everywhere we looked, hill after hill into the distance, was carved out into razor-sharp terraces. Not an inch of land was wasted. We stopped at a make-shift halting point at which - surprise surprise - women were waiting to sell us their wares along with cold drinks. My camera was hardly switched off at all as I clicked away at every new view.

On and on for about an hour, and we finally came to "viewpoint number 3" where still more women, handicrafts and cold drinks awaited. Some of the women offered to take down their famous long hair for a photo, for 5 or 10 yuan, but I declined - it seemed nothing short of prostitution to me (the picture above I took from Google till I can upload more of my own).
We sat and found our breath and marvelled at the panoramic views all around us before setting off on a different, mercifully downhill, path back to Dazai with yet more lovely views.

Those of us who were staying the night parted company from the others on the valley floor as we returned to the village, and returned to the cafe where were sat sipping Sunkist Orange (all those delicious e-numbers!) and eating supper in the yard overlooking the village and valley below, while the sun slowly set and the lights winked on in each homestead in the hills around us.

We slept soundly in our wooden room on stilts (despite no insulation or floor covering so every whisper and footfall was transmitted throughout the house) and woke again to breakfast outdoors before a gentle wander along another pathway and across a small "wind and rain bridge" (think Bridges of Madison County) to the next village of Tiantou.

It was so peaceful strolling by ourselves along these stone pathways through terraces that were cut into the hills more than 700 years ago. We were hundreds of miles - and years - away from the circus of Yangshuo, and it was one of the highlights of the trip for me. As we walked, local people went about their business, tending the fields or carrying goods up and down from the villages in woven baskets carried on bamboo yokes across their shoulders.

In Tiantou itself one or two small guesthouses had covered sedan chairs outside, the kind which two people would carry up and down the pathways with lazy westerners or prosperous Chinese businessmen in, which they must use in the high season to entice the more weary travellers beyond our village of Dazai and up to their businesses.

A wonderful couple of days, and certainly a trip highlight as I said. Back to the "big smoke" of Guilin and on to Shanghai in a day or so for us, on the final few days of this odyssey.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The China Logs: Yangshuo 2

Yangshuo is not the type of place that grows on you. With two people who don't drink beer at any price (and it is cheaper than tea or water here) we are finding the time a bit heavy on our hands some days, but we are trying to chill out on the balcony and appreciate the inactivity and continuity for a change.

We spent two lovely days out on rented mountain bikes in the countryside around Yangshuo, which is spectacularly lovely especially in the sunshine and unusually high temperatures we've been having. It is easy enough to find your way around with a local map, and even if you get lost you soon find a familiar landmark again.

The local people seem to be used to Westerners who have read Lonely Planet out with the cameras and the bikes trying to find abit of genuine China behind the movie set that is West Street.Water stalls are propped up at every dirt track corner and the prices are not exorbitant. I have been tempted on a number of occasions now to buy one of those pointy woven hats people use when working in the fields but that, I suppose, would be the ultimate in kitsch.
Orlando took the opportunity to have a Chinese lesson yesterday which he really enjoyed, and has made him even more confident. The test will come, I know, once we have left this enclave and can't rely on English menus for everything.

Meanwhile I decided to have a couple of calligraphy classes, and spent a really enjoyable few hours sitting like a schoolgirl at a table in Lisa's cafe being taught gently but firmly by Li Shao Ren, a retired gentleman with a greying buzz-cut and a winning smile who taught locally for 32 years. He has little English but enough to correct my faltering hand: "Strong good. No strong, no good. This (pointing to a feeble attempt at a "han" or "la" stroke) NO good. Again!".

I sat with my tongue sticking out, concentrating on copying my characters onto the squared tracing paper with some sort of confidence. People stood looking over my shoulder at my faltering strokes and laughed with the teacher (in good humour I think) at my enthusiasm and complete lack of ability. I felt as hopeless and as hopeful as a three-year-old.

It is amazing how your mind clears of everything but the paper and the ink and the brush and your posture and trying to get some sort of character into your brushstrokes. I did succeed a number of times in doing something half-decent, and was rewarded with a huge grin, a thumbs-up, a little "correct" mark and an enthusiastic "VERY GOOD!" from Li Shao Ren. So there is hope for me yet!

I also took the opportunity to get some acupuncture for my backwhich was preceded by a strong back massage (I had the bruises from that for two days). Not sure if it did any good but it was worth a try. I went back today for a reflexology session as there is nothing so good as somebody massaging your feet for an hour. I sat first with my trouser bottoms rolled up on a tiny chair with my feet in a big bamboo bucket half-full of warm water in which some herbs had been mixed (or, as we like to call it here, TEA). No matter what one is doing, one always feels slightly ridiculous inr olled-up trousers. It was a lovely hour spent being pummelled and my feet look great although nobody will ever know with these boots on.

Tomorrow we are off to the mountains again, to stay in a farmer's house and see some wonderful rice terraces. This is the last weekof our stay in China, so we will be squeezing every last drop from the time left before we depart for Aus in a week.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The China Logs: Yangshuo 1

Whilst Yangshuo is certainly a backpackers' haunt, it seems to have become more (or less?) than that too over the years.

There appears to be four different types of visitor to Yangshuo:
  1. Independent travellers like me and Orlando, looking for a bit of R&R and a few days off the road - the original backpackers;
  2. Young tour groups passing through with their "fun" tour guides - often their first stop in China outside Hong Kong - lots of drinking and activities like rock-climbing, cycling etc.;
  3. Well-heeled over-50s tour groups in expensive rambling gear roughing it in "the real China" for a few nights, and enjoying the shopping;
  4. Legions of Chinese tourists who come for the justifiably famous spectacular scenery, and spend their evenings on Xi Jie (West Street or Foreigners Street) watching the westerners watching them.

In a way the town has become a caricature of a genuine backpackers' haunt, which are usually devoid of tourists and tour groups, and very inward-looking. Orlando may be right - this is a bit of a theme park, but it is not "Disney China": this is Disney Lonely Planet Town.

For myself, I can happily disregard what I don't need here and focus on the nice things like places to sit and watch the world go by with a coffee; shopping for cheap trinkets; maybe a cocktail or two; and yes, banana pancakes for breakfast.
Places like this can be a bit of a double-edged sword too. Many of the West

erners here have come up from the warm south and have outfits to suit. I am experiencing a bit of wardrobe envy - or, in these particular circumstances, backpack envy would be the correct term. Here I am with two nice serviceable and warm pairs of trousers; ditto sweaters; ditto footwear (one pair of lightweight waterproof hiking boots and an ancient pair of Dunlop trainers to hang out in). Two thermal vests, a rain jacket and a handful of plain tee-shirts complete my choices. Apart from by bindis and three (ONLY THREE!) pairs of earrings, I have no other adornment.

Then I walk down West Street and see spangly flip flops and knee length floaty dresses on women who have clearly deep-conditioned and coloured their hair far more recently than I. I see younger women doing cool artlessly-tied things with pretty scarves on their heads. I see casual but elegant black ankle-length trousers worn with colourful wrap-around tops.

Now, none of the above would have served me at all in freezing Datong or rainy Xi'an. My fleecy black tea-cosy hat may have made me look like a madwoman but by God I was glad of its thermal rain-proof properties up north. My cheap black corduroy trousers kept me nice and warm especially with an alluring old pair of opaque black tights underneath (thermal vest tucked in of course). I packed well. I hope these women checked the forecast for Beijing before they zipped up their backpacks.

But oh, how I long for something pretty to wear. A skirt, for god's sake. A pair of flip-flops or sandals to wear instead of clumpy boots. More jewellery. A nice colourful lungi or wrap. Nail polish on my toes. I can get fisherman's trousers here (naturally: this is a backpackers' place!). but they are only for the slim-thighed. People with normal (read: generous) proportions such as myself look fine standing up in these wrap-around trousers, but when we sit down they split each side to the hip, giving all and sundry an eyeful of beautifully dimpled pale-blue cellulite on each leg. Perhaps not then.

The evening sellers are setting up opposite our little hotel. I have been watching them avidly like it was Eastenders every night. I sit, literally, on the edge of my seat watching young women unfurl the long coloured scarves of the woman directly opposite our balcony. I agonise over which colour they should choose and silently urge them on to give the lady some early-evening business.

Tonight I may be her first customer. I have my eye on a lovely blue scarf that I saw yesterday. I won't wrap it casually around my head or use it as a sarong. Indeed I may not wear it at all. I may just sit here and dream of my lovely white linen trousers and dark red-and-gold jewelled kaftan and spangly sandals waiting for me in Melbourne, stroke my new purchase lovingly, and chant gently to myself: "ten more days... ten more days..."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The China Logs: Guilin to Yangshuo

We have finally arrived in Yangshuo, a famous backpackers' haunt in the south of China in Guanxi province. This will be our final stop on our odyssey before heading back to Shanghai and onwards to Aus.

Yangshuo is quite westernised in parts, and is actually advertised on Chinese TV as a place where westerners and Chinese people hang out in western-style cafes. The main drag is actually called West Street (although that is originally because it is on the west shoreof the river that runs through the town).

The landscape around this area is really unusual; karst hills rise out of the land like alien sculptures. We started out in this area in the small but pretty city of Guilin, which has a real holiday feel to it. At last the weather was a bit finer and I was able to discard the thermal vests I have been wearing constantly!

We spent a few days in Guilin seeing the local sights (many of which are these hills) - ElephantTrunk Hill looks like an elephant dipping its trunk into the river, and Camel Hill looks like, well, a camel. It sounds less attractive than it is in reality I promise you!

In the evenings the river tributaries and city lakes are all lit up, and we spent a pleasant few hours strolling along the banks and across the bridges (allvery Venice-like in places) watching Chinese Opera being performed on a lake island or enjoying the floodlit dancing waters of the lakefountains set to music. On another lake there are twin pagodas, one silver and one gold, sitting on stone lotus flowers beside each other. They are floodlit at night and look beautiful.
We decided on a river boat trip to Yangshuo, as this is the way to travel around here, and anyway it was one of the few modes of travel we hadn't experienced in China. We chose the Chinese tour(Y190 each - about 15 pounds) instead of the English tour (Y500!) as the only difference was that the tour guide spoke English, and all we wanted to do was see the scenery in any case.

As the river level is really low after a dry summer, we were ferried by bus toanother embarkation point downstream where dozens of big flat-bottomed river cruisers were lined up to receive the tourists. Along the river bank local people stood selling fruit and trinkets until the boats departed.

It took about half an hour to get out of the little wharf village (and this is low season!) but when we got underway the scenery was really breathtaking. We slowly wended our way along between the karst hills in the sunshine, surrounded by well-heeled young students from the Beijing no. 55 High School all dressed up in head-to-toe designer gear (not fakes) and dripping in electronics like iPods and digital cameras.

I took dozens of photos of the hills and the people working the river, either selling fruit or gifts from the bamboo rafts they punted alongside the tourist boats on, or fishing or doing their laundry.

We were served lunch - a fairly basic meal of rice, stewed bamboo shoots and some pretty salty tofu, which one could augment by ordering other more expensive dishes, mostly river fish of one type or another.

After about three hours we arrived in the sleepy village of Xingping, where we disembarked amongst an army of sellers and taxi drivers. We managed to find the local bus (Y5.5 toYangshuo for one hour through the countryside) and sat wedged into our narrow seats, backpacks and all, for the ride. The female bus conductor crammed as many people as possible in this bus (up to her legal limit - we were stopped at one point by the police doing as afety check) and she even had little footstools for people to sit on in the standing room. I sat with a local woman beside me on a low stool, a small child harnessed to her back, whilst a long-legged young man sat with his legs folded up under his chin in front of her.

We drove through beautiful countryside, small haystacks punctuating the low fields as small home-made beehives clustered in otheryards. The hillsides around us jutted up into the (at last!) flawlessly blue sky and my all-black travelling outfit seemed far too hot for once.

In time we arrived in Yangshuo and were assaultedfrom all sides by women with pictures of their hotel rooms - one lady had pics of a little place called Fawlty Towers which actually looked lovely and had been recommended to us by an Israeli couple we had chatted to before. We headed for our hotel, the Morning Sun Hotel, which was located off the main drag and would hopefully be a bit quieter than the rest of the town. It is a lovely place, with a little courtyard in the middle, shiny marble in the halls and dark wood polished floors in the rooms.

Our room actually has a balcony overlooking a pedestrianised street below, where the daytime sellers (key-cutting, clocks, beltsetc.) make way for the more touristy sellers at night time (bags, scarves, jewellery). It is a bit of luxury for a change (although in low season right now the prices are great) as we intend to stay here almost a week.

I think Orlando might be a bit unimpressed as this is most certainly not the "real China". Instead, the main Street, Xi Jie(West Street) is lined on both sides with cafes selling Western food (real coffee! French toast! Banana pancakes! Hamburgers!Pizza!) as well as Chinese food (although they are really surprised when you order Chinese). Shops sell every type of trinket and item of clothing. Huge fans are a fashion here (the type which look like a handheld fan but are actually about 6 feet across for hanging on the wall).

There are rock-climbing cafes (Karst Cafe and Spiderman’s!) for the more adventurous, and bike hire everywhere forless than a pound a day. Other places I have been promised offer acupuncture and massage (I fancy a bit of foot massage I think) as well as calligraphy classes or Chinese lessons. I think I will like it here although I suspect Orlando will have to take off on a mountain bike once or twice to get out of here. Never mind. I can shop!!!