On the river between Guilin and Yangshuo

Today was the four-hour river-boat trip to Yangshuo, where we were staying overnight before coming back to Guilin, so we decanted one night’s worth of stuff into our small suitcase – which the minibus was bringing to our new hotel – and left the main luggage behind, hoping we’d see it again.

I’d expected a quiet river trip, but once again we were only one groups amongst hundreds and hundreds of tourists on dozens of boats. We also noticed that our passport number – two digits asterisked out – were on the ticket. We’d seen this on all our big journeys, but on a 4-hour river trip? Please!

The trip was gorgeous, through a rural landscape of sandstone stacks covered with vegetation. It was ultra-Chinese, and interesting to know that the Chinese think so too: one of the scenes from the boat is on the back of the 10 Yuan note.

We walked through the heat to our – rather old-fashioned – hotel in Yangshuo. The wesbite had said they had a pool, and we looked forward to that. They don’t have a pool.

We went out for a walk through the city and the shops, and were accosted by a group of Chinese teenage girls who wanted to talk to us. They were studying English and wanted to practise, so we had a chat. It turns out their English teacher was Scottish. As a finale, they directed us to McDonalds for a mysterious cold milky drink with little black beans in the bottom of the cup.

At night there was another show, wich had come highly recommended, but hardly anyone on the tour could face it: the humidity and threatening rain, along with the schedule we’d been under, had got too much.

So a group of us found a German bar and had some drinks. On the way I met more Chinese students and had a chat. When my wife appeared, the girls asked if this was my ‘lover’. They immediately realised their error – sort of – and we explained.

Our minibus picked us up and drove the road back to Guilin (and yes, we could easily have got back the evening before, but the show was on the schedule).

On the way we stopped to walk through a farm. Old buildings, people working the rice fields, ragged kids watching us, ancient farm vehicles. This was a China that was a long way from the cities and bullet trains.

Also noted on the journey was the amount of bamboo scaffolding in use: as strong as steel, and environmentally friendly since it’s renewable.

And we met a cormorant fisherman – at least, he owned and trained the cormorants, which did the fishing, with string round their necks so they couldn’t swallow the fish they caught. Cue half an hour of pictures with the man’s hat and the bamboo pole holding a cormorant at each end.

We were taken to some impressive caves, and walked through uplit stalagmites and downlit stalactites. Impressive.

From there we went to a pearl factory. This was the traditional history and description of pearls – the salt-water ones are the best – and then we were taken to glass cases that covered a huge room, with prices increasing from one side to the next. This time my wife was interested, and she bought a little pair of salt-water pearly earrings. Very nice.

From here back to our hotel, and yes, the luggage was there. Once again we walked out, meeting up in an Irish bar this time, and getting back to the hotel in time to see the eight o’clock waterfall down the outside of it

Close to our hotel was a park with Ronghu Lake in the middle, and two pagodas nearby. We heard about the Chinese ying-yang philosophy, which I knew, and were shown examples: two bridges over the lake, a zig-zag walkway.

Once more children gazed at us in wonder, especially when we said ‘ni hao’. Many adults took photos of us.

We visited the south gate, the last remaining part of the city wall, and were told stories of dragons. This had been a theme throughout the tour. We’ve inherited two stone lions beside a path in our garden: these are now being referred to as the dragons protecting our house (ably assisted by our kneeling archer).

From here to the airport, and an interesting issue at security where one of the Aussies who had an artificial leg – and a spare – was hastily taken off to be searched with some thoroughness. Our guide Amy explained that Guilin is quite close to the Vietnam border, and drugs are a problem. Hence the paranoia.

Apart from that, the airport was stunning – though the lattes were expensive and service was poor. And the flight was delayed.

We were late getting to Shanghai, and there was  a very long bus journey from the plane to the terminal building. For some of the journey we seemed to be on a – presumably dedicated – lane of the motorway.

Once decanted and with our lugagge, we were met by our local guide – the lovely and hyperactive Melody. She gave us a high-intensity briefing about the history of Shanghai as we hurtled to the Huangpu River.

Shanghai used to be a fishing village on the west bank of the river – Puxi. The east bank – Pudong – was developed firstly with European-style mansions and buildings, and more recently skyscrapers and, of course, the new airport. It was always an important port – the British effectively took it over to ease the opium trade, and blackmailed the old Chinese emperors into leaving it open for trade.

Once again we had expected an intimate river trip, but the boats were big, crowded, and there were loads of them. Still, the trip past the lit-up high-rises was stunning, including the ‘bottle-opener’ with its square hole at the top. Originally it had been designed as a round hole, but that made the sun shining through it to the ground look like the Japanese flag. Not a good idea.

Once again, we had a very comfortable hotel that we were destined hardly ever to be in.

The air quality wasn’t the best, so the sight-seeing – especially the view from the tower – was a bit curtailed.

We had been sceptical about the MagLev traing, but we went with it – and it was well worth it. Smooth as silk and a top speed of 431km/h. Melody asked what the closing speed would be as the two trains passed, and I, as the resident mathematician, came up with 862km/h. Melody complimented my maths skills and told me I was wrong.

It turns out that what Melody described as ‘our stupid government’ – gasps from the tour – built the tracks too close together, so the trains pass when one is speeding up and the other is slowing down. It’s still impressive. Melody told us to get our cameras ready as she counted down to the moment we would pass.

The other problem with the MagLev is that hardly anyone uses it. The normal train takes you right into the airport, while the MagLev involves a walk, and it’s expensive. So it’s used by some business people who have carry-on luggage only – and tourists.

We had time to walk along the Bund, which for all the world looks just like Glasgow’s Broomielaw used to, and has a replica of the Wall Street bull – as has Beijing. There was also a visit to the Yu Garden, with its carp ponds and its dragons, and its crowds.

The final high-pressure sale shopping experience was at the silk factory. We were on the verge of buying a complete set of silk sheets, pillow cases, and duvet – but came to our senses and just bought the duvet. We’ve since found out that everyone buys a duvet at the silk factory.

That day, as well as being our last day as a group, was my birthday, so the dinner at night was a bit special. A cake was produced, along with some Chinese tourist gimmicks – a lucky waving cat and a little boy getting his trousers pulled down by a dog – which now adorn our downstairs loo. The hat I was given is potentially much more useful though!

Back at the hotel there were drinks, and email addresses were swapped. Promises were made to look people up either on visits to Australia or the UK, and we’ll see what happens.

They were a great group of people, and helped enhance the trip. Amy was wonderful too. All in all, we’d never have got nearly so much out of it by travelling on our own.

But the next day was Hong Kong, and we would be on our own.

Shanghai at night – including the ‘bottle-opener’.