I once passed a fruitful couple of hours with a friend counting down our top ten food experiences from 10 to 1, describing them in vivid detail as we went. My Number One involved freshly caught river fish, and a cold winter’s day with less than $5 in my pocket. The fish had been hauled up from the ice-green waters of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, onto the back of a rickety wooden boat tied to a bridge, filleted, fried in olive oil atop a 44 gallon drum converted to a griddle, and slapped between a half loaf of crusty bread. It was the best meal ever, for the taste, the view, and value for money; and a worthy Number One.
Places like this are never easy to get to of course, and from Yangshuo it’s about four hours’ drive through smaller and smaller winding country roads, across several landslides, past a number of alarming traffic accidents, and through searing heat rising from the asphalt. When the road begins to climb higher, higher, and higher, I feel my anxiety increase, particularly after we pass a crane pulling a compressed version of our car from the bottom of a ravine.
Dazhai is home to the Yao minority, whose women have their hair cut once, on their first birthday, and never again. Their long black hair is wound into an intricate style around their heads and fastened behind a front knot with a heavy black bone comb. Over this is worn a tightly fitting black headcloth, embroidered in each corner with brightly coloured thread. The women wear heavy hand-made silver jewellery – the silver loops in their ears elongate their earlobes, and they carry simple silver bracelets on each wrist.
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.
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.