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The Giggling Tree, Yangshuo

Our first night in Guangxi Province after the long train from Shanghai is spent at a delightful guest house by the Yilong River in Yangshuo, The Giggling Tree. Guilin itself has little to recommend it, other than as a means of departure to more beautiful countryside, and most travellers head south to quieter, more lovely Yangshuo – and we do the same.
We are collected at the train station by a man holding a hand-written sign that says ‘Fiona’. A good start. His name is Xiao Liu (Little Liu), and he is neither young, nor short, but a good driver nonetheless. He takes us via the ‘second rate cement-road’ (in the words of the Yangshuo Tourist Guide Map) around potholes, yawning gaps in the concrete and watermelon sellers with ease and delivers us direct to the Giggling Tree’s door.
What a welcome place for weary travellers! The moon shaped gate enters on to a long terrace filled with tables and chairs,  and lined with red lanterns. Perfect for breakfasting, and easing into a cold beer after a long, hot day. On one side of the terrace is the converted stable and barn, and our room – light, airy, clean and comfortable. On the other is the restaurant serving wonderful Chinese food, western food, and cold drinks. The magnificent karst peaks are visible above the edge of the traditional tiled roof in every direction.
We sit at the outside terrace sipping smoothies, under the shade of the Giggling Tree itself – an ancient and enormous camphor laurel tree with wide-spreading branches. From here I can see rice fields all around me, a lumbering water buffalo and a herd of geese ferreting for insects in a puddle. As the sun sets the karst looms large and dark against the deepening sky and the crickets take up their song for the evening. I think I’m going to enjoy these two weeks. A lot.

Shanghai to Guilin by Slow Train

For the next two weeks we’re travelling to Guilin, in China’s South. Internet being what it is in rural China, my posts may be more sporadic than usual, so thank you ahead of time for your patience. We’ll be visiting the famous karst peaks of Guangxi Province, the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces and tiny farming villages. Enjoy the trip!

The journey begins at Shanghai South Railway Station, and heads south west, and back in time. Shanghai South is a beautiful modern architectural masterpiece compared with its North Shanghai counterpart. We drag our bags through perfunctory security checks, then marvel at the immense circular roof, fortressed like a giant star looking over the thousands of travellers below waiting for their trains. I spot a river a people surging towards a platform whose train has just arrived. There are thousands of people. Then I realize that it’s my train they are moving towards.

From the moment we step into our carriage I feel like I’m back in travel’s golden age. We have a soft sleeper compartment. I don’t know that the soft part refers specifically to the bed, but your journey will certainly be softer. Our compartment has two upper and two lower berths, all with cream satin damask coverlets and embroidered anti-macassars for our heads. There is a small white damask covered table, for eating, drinking tea, or playing mahjong, and a large thermos for hot water for tea or noodles. Each berth has its own little lamp with an old fashioned silver toggle switch, and I spend a while just switching it off and on, off and on, for the sheer enjoyment. Each bed is also equipped with a blue velvet covered coathanger hung at its foot, and a China Rail standard issue silk quilt. On the floor is an ornate red patterned carpet and four pairs of blue plastic slippers, for padding about in. This trip will take 23 hours, and has cost $85.

When I see the bathrooms, I understand why the slippers will come in handy. They are as industrial as the compartments are ornate. Two plates of stainless steel tread plate mark the position for squatting, over a hole which leads direct to the tracks below. Obviously $85 doesn’t get you everything.

We pull out of Shanghai and I make a cup of tea, sipping it as the outer suburbs of Shanghai make way for five minutes of farmland before the outer suburbs of our first stop, Jiaxing, appear. For the next three hours I come to understand more about the accelerated Industrial Revolution China is undergoing than I could have learned in three years in Shanghai. Everywhere I look are huge piles of slag, sand ready for concrete, tonnes of bricks, steel re-inforcing rods, welding, hammering and building, building, building. Apartment blocks, roads, pipelines, office towers, factories, factories, factories. Huge lights illuminate the night workers laying a new high speed rail line. Off duty workers lounge shirtless in the heat in makeshift tents by the edge of their worksite. Some wash from a small plastic bowl, some sleep out in the open. Activity is everywhere. It’s as if China is literally racing to catch up after years of much slower progress.

As darkness falls the frenetic activity starts to thin, then eventually the first prolonged tract of farmland – we have entered China’s rice bowl, and rice fields are interspersed with lotus fields. Rice, lotus, rice lotus. I nod off to sleep, only to be wakened by a bright light shining in my window – it’s actually just the moon, and I lie awake watching it reflected in the rice paddies and ponds. Through the night we make several stops, each one breaking the journey by just a few minutes. Few get on or off. I go back to sleep.

In the early light of dawn we stop for half an hour at Wulidun, along with three other long-distance trains. Everyone looks tired, and in the hard seat compartment of the train opposite I can see exhausted travellers asleep on their tables. They are going in the opposite direction, and have come from Nanning, near Vietnam’s border. We pull away through smaller and smaller villages and tiny farms. The farmers are already at work at six in the morning, tending to the rice, the corn and beans they are growing.

Around midday our packed food runs out, and we resort to eating the cardboard-boxed food from the train canteen. It doesn’t disappoint. A hideous mixture of knuckle, bone, gristle and cabbage, with a fried egg on top, with rice. I eat the egg and rice and give up on the gristle-knuckle mixture after picking up a piece that looks like a fingernail. Because most of our stops were during the night we hadn’t yet figured out the train’s food system – during the five minute stops you must leap out on to the platform and buy from the noodle vendors who waits there. There are no interesting food vendors plying the carriages like trains in other parts of Asia, and no snack trolley. Never mind. The first limestone karst peaks appear and I know we are close to Guilin. The entire landscape is a bright subtropical green and there are now banana palms and lychee trees between the rice fields. We pull into Guilin station mid-afternoon.

As we leave our carriage the heat hits us like a wall, dense and heavy. The sound of crickets and cicadas fills the air with a loud throng, almost as loud as the taxi touts at the exit gate looking for business. Welcome to Guilin.

The Man With The Sticky-Tape Bike

Shanghai is tough on bikes. The roads are actually pretty good, but when you own a bike or a scooter you spend a lot of time going from A to B via footpaths and roadsides, and this can get rugged. This is because the big central roads are closed to two wheeled traffic, but as these are often the fastest way to get to your destination, and to avoid getting a traffic violation it’s easier to just go along the footpath amongst hundreds of pedestrians. Because, of course, that’s not a traffic violation. 
All the unevenness of the footpath, what with missing pavers, piles of rubbish and oddly placed power poles, plays havoc with your suspension. There’s also the annoying line of ridged paving longitudinally dividing every single pavement in Shanghai, even the narrowest – apparently it’s for the blind to navigate by, but given that most disabled toilets require wheelchairs to go up several stairs, it seems like an unlikely concession to the sight-impaired. More than likely the Shanghai City Management got a cheap price on ridged paver factory seconds.  They’re hell to walk on as well as to ride on.
So what do you do when your bike starts to suffer from all the juddering, bumping and shaking? Not to mention sudden braking when those pedestrians step into your path…..? Eventually your excellently constructed Made In China scooter begins to fall apart, bit by bit. Do you take it back to the shop and have it repaired? No. Do you replace the screws that have jiggled loose, with your footplate now adrift? No. Do as the owner of this bike did and just take out the roll of heavy duty sticky tape you keep under your seat, and tape the whole sorry mess together. Sticky tape the seat on, tape the footplate to the body, and sticky tape the front headlight to the handle bars. It’s the Shanghai way.

Duck Egg Blue

I don’t eat that many duck eggs back home, mostly because they’re really hard to find, and hideously expensive. And being a little larger than chicken eggs they make baking tricky too. That said, duck eggs are really the most beautiful eggs. 

There is an egg seller near my house who has trays and trays of the most gloriously coloured duck eggs. They range from celadon to palest sky blue to ash-blue, but the most common colour is a delicate blue-green. I guess that’s why they call it duck egg blue…..

The colour looks quite unreal until you see a tray of regular chicken eggs next to it. These blue beauties range from 1.2 to 1.5 yuan each, depending on weight and quality. So that would be about $3 for a dozen for top-line duck eggs. Not bad at all!