I spent just one week backpacking around touristy China in Guangxi and Sichuan. I’ll be back.
Shanghai → Guilin
I flew from Shanghai (SHA) to Guilin (KWL) to save a day’s travel. The plane was delayed 2 hours as per standard operating procedure here; an hour of this delay was spent boarded on the plane. The passengers were supplied with dinner during the wait. While I’m actually generally a mild fan of airline meals because they come so nicely compartmentalized, we were served soggy noodles hardened on the edges that had a chemical taste with not even enough thin salty brown sauce to try to coat them, along with about 10 peas and corn kernels.
Upon debarking, I easily found the airport shuttle. I’d also written down walking instructions from the dropoff point to my hostel. However, it wasn’t until I encountered a prostitute under a bridge that I realized I shouldn’t be walking alone with a huge backpack in an unfamiliar city past midnight. Also I’d been walking for half an hour and the walk was supposed to be 10 minutes. And there was a ginormous tropical moth flying around that was the size of a bat, getawayfromme.
But with the help of my trusty compass watch, I found my way to the dimly shining beacon that was the Hostelling International sign of WADA.
Guilin + Longsheng
I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn and ambled outside for breakfast. Right outside my hostel was a bustling market. It was really local and the morning only got better with the purchase of a fragrant passionfruit.
WADA arranges transportation to the Longsheng rice terraces, which are about three hours away. The drive itself was past frothy bamboo forests, idiosyncratic countryside estates, lonely restaurant-hotels, and one serious head-on car crash that had a small boy (!) setting up cones. The latter was inevitable considering how both sides of the road used both sides of the road. Beyond his ability to keep us uninjured, our outstanding driver even stopped the car to show us a half-hidden waterfall off the side of the road, which made me nostalgically recall Dindéfelo.
The Longsheng terraces were just as picturesque as they were famed to be, but I was uneasy with the human zoo-like atmosphere: the terraces are originally home to four different minority groups, and the overly-clean “hiking trails” take tourists through the villages. I can’t help but feel that I’m intruding on private lives. Every aspect, from clothing to daily rituals, began to seem staged, which was worsened by the villages’ almost complete dependence on tourism, evidenced by persistent offers of guidance or lunch (even at 3pm), the ubiquity of souvenir crafts, and charging for pictures.
Still, the rice terraces were worth seeing. What struck me was how many of the houses looked like they came from Lake Tahoe or the French Alps. Perhaps all mountain cabins look the same. We also got a great lunch freshly picked from a garden, which we ate in an airy room with blood and chicken feathers pasted on a paper hanging on the wall.
We got back to Guilin in the evening and I rented a bike to do some laidback sightseeing. This turned out to be extremely stressful. Somehow my biking experience in Shanghai had not prepared me for biking around Guilin at dusk. I managed to see zero of the circled landmarks on my map. After about 45 minutes of adrenaline-induced sweating and gasping, I returned the bike. The receptionist laughed kindly at my expression and gave me a full refund on the bike despite my protests.
Guilin → Yangshuo
I continued my tourist tramp with a float down the Li river on a
bamboo PVC raft. It was noisy, and as is the problem with all Chinese touristy excursions, took up much more of my day than it was supposed to. On the upside, I met some really cool people on the bus and sat behind a French family on the raft. (“Language practice,” not “eavesdropping.”) Still, were I to redo this trip, I’d skip the raft and instead go on another Yangshuo bike trip.
Midafternoon finally landed me in Yangshuo. Yangshuo. Yangshuo. Yangshuo. The diamond of my Pinterest Travel board. I had pinned pictures of wizened cormorant fishermen holding lanterns above clear water, of karst mountains rising from the plains like fuzzy dinosaurs’ backs.
So I was of course disappointed. Yangshuo is completely 商业化 – it’s literally just a place to eat, drink, rent bikes, and buy souvenirs. Any “locals” are there only to serve the unending flow of domestic and foreign travelers. There are three cormorant fishermen, and they only fish with their birds for nightly performances. The karst mountains are near but it’s impossible to extract them from the bustle in one’s face. Fortunately my hostel, Showbiz, had a rooftop terrace to get away from it all, but the view was marred by garish lights that stay on until the sun begins to peek out.
On the bright side, the mango smoothies were excellent. And… the voyeurism from the hostel rooftop gave a glimpse of normalcy. I watched women wash laundry, and a carpenting couple construct furniture in a beautiful open-structured workshop.
Yangshuo → Xingping
I had a substandard Western breakfast in a cute place, and then rented a bike for some scenic cycling to Yulong Bridge. I saw lotus fields, water buffalo, and women pumping water. I got stuck in mud and almost lost my shoe in quicksand. I cycled through a nearly-empty town and as I passed each building, I heard a different television program stream through each open doorway; I could make out the dark shadows of people bunched together in repose. I flew down gravelly paths that made me feel like I was riding a jackhammer. I fell from single-track trails right into prickly rice paddies. Twice.
The bridge itself was underwhelming and, again, far too touristy. There’s nothing wrong with tourism but no one comes thousands of miles to eat underwhelming food and buy knickknacks.
I took the easy, paved way back, which coursed downhill through tree-lined avenues. Small shops with doors wide open showed that Chairman Mao still featured prominently in wall decoration.
Back at Yangshuo, I got my feet nibbled by little fish and later split an order of Yangshuo’s specialty… beer fish. The fish was incredibly spicy and incredibly fresh but I didn’t see how it was that special. But as much as I’ve complained about Yangshuo, I was in great company and thus waited until the last bus to Xingping came by to leave the town.
The 50-minute ride was bumpy but I was glad I was on this late bus. We were only a handful of people and I got to watch the bus drop off locals to what seemed to be the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. By the time we got to Xingping, I was the last man standing. The sky was a quiet deep blue and I felt that I’d finally found what I’d been looking for. Few people were around, and those that were were locals (clothing immediately distinguishes tourist from local).
After I dropped off my stuff at This Old Place, which was charming in its bricky way, I walked two minutes to get to the harbor. This was perhaps the best moment of my trip. I sat alone in dark silence, surrounded by the suggestions of karst mountains silhouetted by a nearly full moon.
When I got back to my room, I walked in on a group of four shirtless boys, two white, two Asian, laughing and talking boisterously in perfect Chinese. They had obviously come as a group, which surprised me – “expats” don’t tend to assimilate.
Xingping → Jiuzhaigou
I woke up at 6am to explore the town, which was tiny. There was a roadside farmers’ market just setting up at which I bought some dirt cheap vegetables for snacking. The market disappeared before 8am.
Yangshuo is great for bicycling. Xingping’s surroundings are a bit more hilly, so I walked down quiet pathways behind the town. Though the town is by no means untouched, I was able to observe citizens weeding small plots of vegetables, washing pots in the river, or collecting shellfish from the shore. I also did the touristy things, like taking a picture of the scene found on the 20Y note, and walking around Old Street.
Part two coming soon!