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Barbecued River Fish, Yulong River

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.

Well, it’s now nineteen years since that Turkish fish meal, and I’m sorry Number One, you’re now officially Number Two, and Ten just fell off the end of the list to make way for the Best Fish Ever. There are remarkable similarities – freshly caught river fish, this time fried in a makeshift kitchen by the riverside, and paddled across to a floating mid-river restaurant by bamboo raft. It’s a hot summer’s day, rather than midwinter, and prices have gone up since 1991, so I now have the equivalent  of $10 tied tightly in a plastic bag perched under my hat as I swim across to the restaurant from where my bicycle is parked by the river’s edge. Most customers arrive by raft, rather than by swimming, and so there is a lot of interest in the strange foreign woman who wants to freestyle her way to lunch.
The fish is the only dish offered. Recently alive, it has been fried until the skin crisps, then once cold, skewered and painted with a marinade made (I think) from ground peanuts, sesame seeds, chilli, coriander seed, cumin and oil. The fish is now cooked a second time on the floating raft restaurant by being barbecued over a charcoal brazier. The marinade melts into the skin with the heat of the coals and some kind of magical alchemy takes place between the oils of the fish, the nutty marinade and the smoke from the charcoal. The flavour is at once robust and complex, harmonising with the firm flesh of the fish. 
I ply the waitress for the recipe, but my Chinese is too poor, and in my heart I know I can’t reproduce this at home, that this will only be a Number One meal when the other elements are all there too – the magnificent Yulong River  all around, bamboo rafts floating past and the odd water buffalo wallowing lazily in the shallows…and the karst peaks rising up silhouetted against the sky.

Climbing the Dragon’s Backbone

Sometimes in your travels you have the chance to experience a place so incredible the memory will never leave you. The Dragon’s Backbone (Longji) is such a place – these ancient rice terraces north of Guilin in the far reaches of Guangxi province are almost one thousand years old, built entirely by the hands of the local Zhuang and Yao people, and still worked in exactly the same manner today as then. 

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.

But I can also feel the oppressive heat and humidity of Yangshuo dropping away and the air becomes ‘liang kuai’ – cool. We drive alongside a clear green mountain stream where children areswimming while their mother picks some wild green vegetables nearby. Even so, I am quite relieved to get out of the car at the entrance to Dazhai village.

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.

We walk up through the village guided by several of the local women, who have given us the bad news that our guest house is a further two hours’ walk uphill all the way. For thirty yuan each, they negotiate to carry our bags in baskets strapped to their backs. I feel very guilty about this, until it is pointed out to me that this is how they make extra money when there is no work to be done on the rice terraces. We follow them along narrow stone paths past rice fields just sprouting, past their beautiful wooden houses built on stilts wedged into the hillside, past pigs, chickens and children playing. The women chat away as they walk, their wiry legs finding no struggle with the thousand metres climb.
We pass the first terraces, carved into the hillside like contour lines. Each terrace is fed by a mountain stream, diverted to feed the rice and keep its feet wet, and then the clear water runs down the subtlest of gradients into the next terrace. An ancient and efficient irrigation system, honed over centuries.

The scale of the terraces is hard to judge from photographs, but each terrace is about one and a half metres high. In the photo above, the small yellow-coloured dot in the lower right half of the picture is a local man working his terrace. The larger white dot below and to his left is a pile of equipment.

The vilage is now way below us and we climb closer to the low clouds. We pass through the next village, Tiantouzhai, and upwards again for another hour, past more beautiful wooden houses and along ever narrower stone paths set into steeper and steeper hills. We are truly up in the heavens now, and as we arrive on the terrace of our guest house after two gruelling hours the magnificence of this place becomes obvious, and I can see the dragon stretched out below us, coiling his way down the hill and around into the valley.

Yangshuo and the Li River

Yangshuo is a small town by Chinese standards – practically a village, with only 300,000 people. It sits by the bank of the magnificent blue green Li River and is surrounded on all sides by those incredible limestone peaks. They have great names, as all Chinese peaks do – Dragon’s Head Mountain, Nine Horse Painted Hill, and Young Scholar Mountain. 

At the town’s heart are the twin peaks of Man Hill and Lady Hill (the fancy names apparently do have a limit)and not far from here is pedestrian-only Xi Jie (West Street), lined with shops selling antiques, souvenirs, and clothing and artifacts from the minority Miao and Dong tribespeople. Although the remaining ethnic minorities live in villages some way from Yangshuo, their culture is strongly felt here. Each embroidered piece of clothing tells a history about the wearer’s family, their past, and their hopes for the future. I would love to find some small beautiful piece while I’m here, but I’m hoping to buy from the villagers themselves, rather than line the pockets of a wealthy Yangshuo tourist shop owner.

We head further down Xi Jie to the Li River’s bank to try and catch a breath of breeze. Make no mistake – southern China bakes like an oven all summer and July is the hottest of all. It’s 40 degrees and close to 100% humidity. Normal activities, like, say, breathing, generate a layer of sweat that only increases with any activity above simply standing still. Now I know how those buns inside the steamer basket feel. 

Down by the river the clear water looks cool and inviting, and on the water’s edge is a local character – the cormorant fisherman – who will pose for a photo for 2 yuan. Every now and then he dips one cormorant or the other into the river to cool it down, and I wonder to myself if I were to hang on tightly to one end of his bamboo pole, whether I too could have a dip without finding myself swept away by the current and into the South China Sea…….

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.