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Cooking Chinese in the Countryside: Yangshuo Cooking School

This will be my very last blog post from Guilin. Once again, it’s worked its charm on me and despite the heat and humidity, I wish I didn’t have to leave. Swimming in the clean clear rivers every day, cycling around under the hot sun wearing a broad-brimmed farmer’s hat, eating lots of good food and enjoying the slower pace down south – it’s a heady mix and Shanghai will have to work hard to beat it.

On one of my last days I visited the Yangshuo Cooking School – now an even bigger operation since I last visited a year ago. It’s still held in a rustic little farmhouse, looking out over lush green fields of rice and lotus to the karst mountains in the distance, but the school now holds classes twice every day, with a week-long intensive offered for serious foodies. In a morning or afternoon session you will first enjoy a guided tour of the Yangshuo wet market, then spend two enjoyable hours with fellow food-lovers learning to cook five new Chinese dishes, and then eating them. For 150 yuan per person, it’s something of a bargain. 
I’ve included one of their simple recipes below as a taster.
The kitchen set-up. And yes, those great big gas bottles are perfectly safe.

Steamed Chicken With Ginseng and Red Berries

This recipe, adapted from the Yangshuo Cooking School, is a healthy combination of ingredients designed to give the body maximal benefit through the medicinal components of ginseng root, chinese dates and goji berries. Luckily it’s delicious too!
  • 300g chicken breast or thigh, very finely diced (substitute silken tofu for a vegetarian version)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • dash white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 3 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • 4 shitake mushrooms, finely sliced
  • 10cm piece of ginseng root, finely sliced
  • 1 desertspoon goji berries 
  • 4 dried red dates (jujubes)
  • sesame oil, to serve

  • Mix finely diced chicken with salt, sugar, rice wine and vegetable oil
  • place chicken on a small saucer and shape into a circular patty
  • top chicken with mushrooms, ginseng root, goji berries and red dates and a swirl of sesame oil
  • place inside steamer basket with lid
  • steam over simmering water for 20 minutes or until juices run clear
  • serves 4 as part of a shared meal

In the village after class a communal nap was taking place under the camphor laurel tree. A damn fine idea, and I would have joined them had there been any spare space.
See you all back in Shanghai!

Bamboo, with Free Police Raid

I didn’t plan on writing a blog series about my police raid experiences whilst in China, but there it is, I’ve now had a foot massage with a police raid, bought bootleg DVDs and Converse sneakers from locked back rooms during police raids, and been inadvertently involved in a magnificent biffo between five angry Russians and a child-sized but very fierce stallholder at the fabric market – in which the five Russians resoundingly lost – also involving the police.
How is it that yet again, I’m an unwillingly participant smack bang in the middle of a police raid, this time in the middle of the Li River on the back of a boat made entirely from PVC pipes lashed together with gaffa tape? 

This time, it happens on a hot day for our group of two families, off to the ancient town of Xing Ping in order to negotiate a boat ride to Yu Cun, an even more ancient fishing village downstream from Xingping on the Li River. It’s accessible only by boat or a long hilly walk overland. This is going to be a great adventure, I tell everyone, because hardly anyone knows about this village and it’s certainly not on any maps. We plan to negotiate with the local boatmen to catch a boat downstream, have the boatmen wait for us while we wander the 600 year old Ming Dynasty cobbled streets, eat some fish, then boat back upstream to Xing Ping. That, at least, is my plan.

Downtown Xing Ping
Xing Ping is a lovely old town with a vibrant twice-weekly market, and a transit point for bamboo rafts and hundreds of big, bigger and biggest boats that ply the broad Li River. Because of the good business to be had from boats, every vehicle arriving in Xingping (including our minibus) is met by a swarming hornet’s nest of twenty women all buzzing around loudly touting for boat business.

“Hey! Bamboo! Bamboo! Hellooo! Bamboo!” they all yell, in so many different pitches and volumes it’s hard to hear yourself think. “Bamboo”, apparently both noun and verb, is the word used to describe any kind of floating conveyance, from a bamboo raft all the way up to a three storey cruise liner, or travel by such method, to anyone who is not Chinese. Every step we take, sideways, backwards, or forwards, the hornet’s nest follows, yelling “Bamboo! Bamboo!” with every step. We try to lose them but they stick to us like glue, all the way down to the wharf.

I tell the head hornet – in a broad straw hat with a sparkling jeweled chin strap – where we want to go. She probably thinks Yu Cun is a god-forsaken backwater, because she tries hard to sell us ‘bamboo’ to every other destination on the Li River.

“Bamboo Yangdi?” she asks. “Went yesterday”, I lie.

“Bamboo Guilin?” “Day before yesterday.”

“Bamboo Yangshuo?” ‘No. Bamboo Yu Cun.”

The hornet’s nest goes into overdrive with high-pitched arguing and back and forth scritching. I can barely catch a single word of their strong local dialect but I think they’re discussing the price we’ve offered. Half of the hornets seem against it, the other half for it. In the end, it’s decided by a small, wiry, nut-brown boatman who agrees to take us, two boats in all, for the sum of two hundred and sixty yuan, return. It’s higher than the price I was told by my Chinese source, but hey, we’re foreigners. We expect to pay more.
Rather than leaving from the main jetty, for some reason we need to take the local passenger ferry across the river to the opposite bank, accompanied by Jeweled Hornet, to meet our boats. I have paid her in full, against my better judgement (I usually pay half up front and half on completion, this being China). Once on the other bank, Jeweled Hornet takes us to meet our wiry nut-brown boatman and his friend, and eight of us clamber aboard the two rickety rafts, with four seats bolted to the PVC pipes and a flimsy canopy overhead. Once on board the floor of the raft can barely keep its chin above the water, and often sinks momentarily underwater to keep our feet cool and wet. Jeweled Hornet smiles and waves to us as we push off into the shallows. 

 The magic karst cliffs climb high from the water on each side, and the Li River flows fast and turbulent over the shoals, as we take off at full throttle downstream. There’s a cool breeze out on the water, the sun is shining hot, and all is right with the world. For eight lovely minutes we’re skimmimg along on our PVC rafts, anticipating a delicious fish lunch. I’m feeling faintly surprised and even a little self-satisfied that the negotiations went so smoothly, given that Yu Cun is not on any normal tourist paths.

Then our boatmen unexpectedly kill the engines, in an area of shallow water near a bend in the river. They manipulate the rudders until we have spun completely around and are now facing back upstream, wedged on a small pebbled beach. “Just a big boat coming through, I expect” I yell to our friends in the other boat. The boatmen are frowning though, and that’s when I notice a small white motor boat with a Chinese flag flying from its deck. There are four men onboard, all in sunglasses and various coloured polo shirts, all smoking. They look like a group of businessmen out for a spin on the river, except they’re not going anywhere. They’re hovering, midstream and against the current, watching us.

“What’s happening?” I ask our increasingly frowning boatman.

He ignores me, and without a word, pushes the boat back out into the water, starts up the engine, and heads slowly back upstream. Behind us, the second boat is following, and behind him is the white motor boat. Not a single word has been exchanged between the four men and our two boatmen. 

“What’s going on?” I ask again. Ignored again.

Ten minutes later and we’re back on dry land. Our boatmen wave us away as the white boat pulls in alongside and three of the Polo Shirts clamber onto our boat. Despite the lack of any identification on their boat, or any form of a uniform on the men, I’m beginning to think that these guys are the police, or some kind of Chinese water mafia. They remain stoically silent, sunglasses on, and stand over our boatman while he pleads pitifully with them.

The pieces are beginning to fall into place. The heated discussion amongst the hornets. The necessity of paying in full up front. The clandestine trip to the opposite river bank to meet our boat, away from the small blue and white police hut on the waterfront. No other boats other than the official Chinese Government owned cruisers downstream. 

But no-one’s explaining, and our daytrip is heading badly down the gurgler, so I walk back over to the boat and yell out “What’s happening?” to the group of men. This time a Polo Shirt looks up, laughs, and looks away. We’ve been duped. Our boat was never going anywhere near Yu Cun. Bugger. 

What happens next is that our boatman goes from pleading on bended knees, grasping the hands of a Polo Shirt, to sharing a cigarette with them. Some sort of agreement has been reached, and I haven’t seen a single yuan change hands. The Polo Shirts have pulled out a huge wrench, and are now removing the engine from the boat, without apparent protest. They’re confiscating the engines. First our boat, then the second boat. The engines are loaded onto a tricycle, and the two boatmen and three Polo Shirts start pushing them away from the jetty and up the hill. 

photos courtesy of R Smith

We eight foreigners might as well be invisible. This is clearly between the Polo Shirts and the boatmen, and not open to foreign interference. By now, I’m incensed – we’re going nowhere, it’s stinking hot, and we’re down 260 yuan. 

“Forget it” my husband tells me. “You’ll never get that money back!”

Never tell me never. I run after the police, my co-conspirator and Shanghai girlfriend RS by my side. She knows, as I do, that this is not about getting our money back. This is about the principle of the thing. Because if you dupe foreigners and get away with it once, you’ll try it again.

The Polo Shirts have arrived with the two engines at a huge locked shed. Brazen now, and sick of being ignored, I shout “What about our money?” They look at us, two sweaty, hot, bothered foreign women with basic Mandarin, but this time they can sense something serious in our voices. 

“How about their money?” they ask the boatman. He shakes his head and empties his pockets. “I have no money” he says, and I believe him – Jeweled Hornet’s got the lot. We need to find her, so once the engines are locked up (for the next two days – standard ‘fine’ for boating in an off-limits area we later discover), we follow the boatman back through Xing Ping’s winding lanes to the bus-stop where we originally arrived a few hours earlier. 

Every thirty metres a different hornet steps out of the shadows, calling out “Hello! Bamboo! Bamboo!” Clearly the system of Chinese whispers works less well in China and they haven’t heard about our current bamboo woes. “Missy! Bamboo!” “Bamboo! Hello! Bamboo!” We just shake out heads, and hurry to catch up with the boatman. 

Jeweled Hornet, however, is nowhere to be found. “Just wait, she’ll be here soon with your money” we’re told, over and over again. They call her mobile phone and scritch into it. Nothing. We wait. We sweat. Rivers of sweat. We’re hanging around in the hot sun outside a steaming noodle shop with fifteen or so non-jeweled hornets, all pretending they haven’t the slenderest idea of why we’re standing there. Half an hour passes. They’re hoping we’ll give up and go and have a cold drink, but we can’t back down now without a massive loss of face.

And that’s when RS delivers her Shanghai style trump card. 

“You have five minutes to give us our money back, or I’ll call the police!” she tells the assembled hornets. She pretends to be tapping a number into her phone. Incredibly, two hundred yuan appears in our hands almost immediately. “That’s all we’ve got!” the hornets whine. I don’t believe it. After two hours they are still trying to do a number on us. 

“That’s it!” yells RS. She pulls her phone back out and calls a random number. “Jingcha!” she yells, “Police!”

The remaining sixty yuan appears faster than you can say lickety split. Done. 

“Good work!” I whisper, as we walk away. We feel very sorry for our poor boatman, who has made no money from this escapade and has had his engine locked up for two days. We look for him to at least pay him for his time and fuel, but he’s disappeared. What a day. 

Later that afternoon, after a reviving lunch in a local Xing Ping restaurant, I ask the owner about getting to Yu Cun. “Oh, it’s no problem after four in the afternoon” he says. “The police don’t bother after four, four-thirty at the latest. Everyone knows that.”

As our bus pulls out of Xing Ping we pass the hornets one last time, sitting outside the noodle shop. Jeweled Hornet has magically reappeared and is sitting front and centre amongst them. I wave and smile sweetly as we motor past.

A Forest of Lotus Blossoms

On the outskirts of Aishanmen village, near Yangshuo, is a small lotus farm open to visitors. Narrow paths meander between the ponds of giant shoulder-high lotus leaves and blossoms, emerald and pink. The lotus pods, starting out as the fringed yellow centre of the lotus flower, turn gradually green and fill with plump lotus seeds, bending like old-fashioned shower heads on thin green pipes.
I wish I had a garden full of still pools, filled with lotus blossoms.  

I Love Sparrows, Just Not in a Carnivorous Way

It’s 8pm and I’ve just eaten my first sparrow. Twelve pairs of eyes watch closely as it goes into my mouth, twenty-four pupils wait expectantly to see my reaction. I crunch through the tiny little bones and feel the unpleasant sensation of a curled clawed foot scraping the inside of my cheek. Working it around my mouth for another minute I manage to extract the tiniest morsel of dark meat from the bones, and spit the rest out directly on the table. Smiles of relief break out all round, and immediately all twenty-four eyes fix on my husband, now tackling his first sparrow. An imperceptible shudder goes across his body as I hear the unmistakeable crunch of bones, but no-one else seems to notice.
Sparrows. Tiny, defenseless birds. Karmic retribution will be coming down heavily on my shoulders, I just know it. I keep thinking about Mao’s campaign against the ‘four pests’ – rats, flies, mosqitoes and sparrows, when peasants had to eliminate as many of the four pests as possible. The poor buggers have probably only recently come back from the brink of extinction in China. Even more damning, the sparrows had been alive until just before dinner. You may well ask what I’m doing eating recently alive small birds in the first place – but remember Tao Hai Ying, she of the char-grilled fish restaurant on the Yulong river? And remember her invitation to have dinner with her family in their village home? Well, here I am and the sparrows are the first course.
An hour earlier her sister had collected us from the river bank in the communal family car and brought us to their tiny riverside village of around thirty houses. The village sits in a small clearing surrounded by karst mountains on three sides and the river on the other, fringed by tall feathered stands of bamboo. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot, and we go for a walk in the deepening darkness to see the rest of the village and the riverbank. Although it’s night I’m sweating heavily in the near forty degree heat and dense humidity, and the frogs and crickets are singing up a storm down by the water’s edge. In the dark there’s someone doing their washing, and next to them someone gutting a fish in the water, but I’m hoping the second is downstream from the first.
We walk back to the house, and it’s now completely dark. Which means, sadly, my photos are rubbish, so you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure the rest. The house is a communal family affair, owned by all four siblings and their parents, and has been freshly built near the family’s old claybrick farmhouse. Four storeys high and perfectly square, it appears that the family of ten adults and two children, three generations in all, cram together on the bottom two floors, with the top floors spare and empty. Perhaps for future growth? Up on the roof I’m proudly shown the new solar hot water system in all is shining silver glory. 
Back downstairs in the kitchen, the husband of daughter number two appears to be the family’s designated wok chef. To keep the rest of the house cool from the wok’s heat, the kitchen is housed in a separate low building to the side of the main house, just concrete walls and floors, a single naked bulb for light, a sink, and a low table for food preparation. Tao Hai Ying, her mother, and her two younger sisters are busy preparing the food ready for cooking – peeling, slicing and chopping, crouched on the floor on their haunches. Despite hanging around outside the kitchen a fair bit I miss the part where the live sparrows, tethered by a string to their feet, meet their fate along with one of the village chickens in the hotpot.

Tao Hai Ying’s young nephew surveys the dinner preparations, chopsticks in hand, ready to steal a choice morsel. Shortly after cheekily thieving a juicy piece of pork his mother chases him out of the kitchen and back into the garden, where he tries to get a rise out of the family dog.
Another low table, similar to the one in the kitchen but larger, is rolled out from behind a door and assembled outside where it’s coolest. Sixteen low stools are arranged around it, and bottles of cold LiQ beer are brought out from a cold box. We take our seats, along with all the family, as the dishes are brought from the kitchen. 
The menu: Hundred-year eggs with stir-fried tomato, roast crispy duck, pork belly stir-fried with water spinach and black bean, fried tomato-egg, slivers of squash, pumpkin shoots cooked in chicken stock, local river snails fried with garlic and chili, fried beans, and lastly, the table centrepiece: chicken and sparrow hotpot. An intense smell of garlic and fried chili envelops the table. I notice there’s no fish, but I guess if you spend all day cooking and serving fish it’s the last thing you feel like for dinner!
There is a lot of excited chatter, and everyone rushes for the best bits. The four of us hang back, being polite, and it’s at this point that Tao Hai Ying serves my husband and I a bowl of broth from the hotpot to get us started. I can see her dredging the bottom of the pot for something dark, and I worry that it’s the prized chicken heart, or liver, or even worse, the head. That’s OK, I say to myself, I’ve eaten chicken’s head before. I can do it again. In the halflight I can’t make out what it is until I lift my spoon from the milky broth and discover a neatly cleaved sparrow body in my spoon, feet and all. 
Having tackled the first one, I cautiously spoon through the broth, hoping against hope that sparrows are so prized that each guest at the table will only get one. But no. I have six. There are six sparrows in my bowl. Tao Hai Ying smiles kindly at me, and I smile back and do the only thing right and proper in a situation like this, in front of such generous and lovely hosts. I tuck in. Karma will have to get me back later.
(For those interested, sparrow meat is tougher and gamier than quail or pigeon. Like many things eaten in China, I suspect it’s for the texture – all those little bones – rather than the flavour. By the end of the meal every plate has a small pile of picked clean sparrow bones next to it.)

‘Pretty Ladies! Handsome Men! Barbecue Fish!’

It’s only 10.30am but the lunch rush has already begun at the oddly-named Shouzi Roast Fish Main Store, mid-stream on the Yulong River. Actually a floating restaurant rather than a ‘store’, the charcoal grill is smoking away and the smell of barbecued fish wafts gently across the water, reaching the noses of tourists rafting down the river on narrow bamboo rafts. 

Their boatmen pull in alongside the surprisingly sturdy bamboo pontoon and lash their own raft to its side, and guests clamber across and take a seat on tiny wooden stools aside small square tables. The bamboo floor of the pontoon is covered in wood-patterned linoleum, and the makeshift roof is lined with blue plastic to protect from sudden showers, but there are no walls, and the gentle river breezes keep everyone cool away from the blazing sun outside. The ‘menu’ runs to just three items – barbecue fish, ice tea, and beer. Perfect. The ‘kitchen’ consists of a single brazier, a low table for condiments, a cabinet covered in netting for storing the fish, and a large polystyrene box held together with yellow duct tape, for keeping the beer cold. It’s a pretty simple set-up.
There’s a holiday mood all round – everyone boating down the river is here for fun, most having been bussed in from Guilin, several hours away, or nearby Yangshuo. We’re lucky to be staying very close by, in Aishanmen village, and the restaurant is, for us, a ten minute bike ride followed by a five minute swim across the river.
Meet Tao Hai Ying, who mans the grill 365 days a year. It’s her restaurant, and her mother helps out most days, calling out “Pretty ladies! Handsome men! Barbecue fish!” to the passing rafts, and acting as waitress, dishwasher, and cashier all in one. Tao Hai Ying’s younger sister runs a similar enterprise further upstream, and her younger brother supplies both places with the fish he catches in a neighbouring river, reputed to be even more pristine than the Yulong.

But back to the fish. Long time readers know I’ve visited here before, and friends with similar food obsessions know it’s Number One on my list of ‘Best Fish Meals’ (everyone has these lists in their head, right?). The whole family have talked about nothing but this fish since we left Longji rice terraces yesterday, and I am worried it might be better in my memory than in reality. Sometimes memory can be unreliable, particularly mine.
I needn’t have worried, because it is the best barbecue fish you will ever taste, hands down. Tao gets up every day at 4am, to prepare the hundred or so fish she’ll sell. There are a number of steps to preparation, including scaling, gutting, drying, deep-frying, cooling, halving and skewering the fish. This is all done beforehand in her home, and the fish transported across to the restaurant early each day by raft. 
Each fish (or half a fish, sliced lengthwise) is grilled to order over charcoal, basted with an aromatic mixture of ground peanuts, sesame paste, cumin, sesame seeds and la jiao (chili paste) while it grills. My Chinese is a little better this year (OK, it’s a lot better) so I understand more of the cooking instructions she gives me, and I become even more certain that this is a dish I will never be able to re-create at home. For a start, I can’t get my hands on the right kind of river fish, caught fresh the day before, and Tao makes her own basting mixture and la jiao from home grown peanuts and chilies, mixing the ingredients together without use of any recipe.  When I ask about measurements Tao says, like most Chinese cooks, “Just add the ingredients until it looks and tastes right to you”.
The intoxicating smell of the roasting fish is killing us as we wait, but at last it’s ready and Tao’s mother brings it to us on a tin tray, with extra la jiao to the side. Like a flock of seagulls devouring a fish supper, we demolish the fish morsel by tasty morsel, until all that’s left is a pile of bones. We order another, and another.
As the next round of fish cooks, Tao and I chat and she brings us little gifts, a few cucumbers from her garden, and a plate of peanuts and home-made bean pickles. She remembers us from last year, the Australian family who swam across the river to her restaurant nearly every day, money in a plastic bag. This time the language barrier is not so great and she invites us to her home for dinner. ‘I tried to invite you last year too, but you didn’t understand!’ she laughs. So that will be something to look forward to – the day after tomorrow, with her extended family in their village home on the far side of the river. I’ll keep you posted, promise.
Shouzi Kao Yu Zongdian 瘦子烤鱼总店
Yulong River, near Aishanmen Village
Open every day from 8am until 6.30pm
From The Giggling Tree Guesthouse, turn left, then left again onto the main road. It’s about 7 minutes by bike, keeping to the riverside road all the way and heading in a downstream direction. When you see a riverside restaurant with a paddle wheel, look for the restaurant pontoon in the middle of the river, just downstream from a weir. Swim across.

Standing On The Dragon’s Backbone, Looking Down

Spectacular, no? This view is all yours, should you feel like travelling twenty-two hours by slow train from Shanghai to Guilin, followed by two hours on a bumpy road (marred by occasional landslides) from Guilin to the village of Dazhai, and then finally hauling your travel-weary body uphill on foot for the last two hours to the top of the Dragon’s Backbone. There, as mountain breezes cool your face, the contoured layers of the very spine of the great green scaled beast spread out below to reward you.

I have visited the rice terraces of the Dragon’s Backbone (Longji titian) before, and couldn’t wait to get back there on this visit. Reputed to be over one thousand years old, the rice farming methods of the local Yao people have changed little. Yao villages are dotted throughout Longji, wooden huts cantilevered out over the steepest hills and clustered along the valley streams. The mountain paths between the villages lead the walker to incredible views over rows and rows of vivid green rice terraces.

The sound of water is everywhere, fresh cold mountain springs feeding the terraces from top to bottom, a system of bamboo pipes and channels diverting the water into and out of each terrace to keep the feet of the rice constantly wet.

In contrast to the orderly tamed rows of rice plants, the hillsides that are too steep for rice cultivation run completely wild with every kind of climbing, creeping tropical foliage, swathes of bamboo, exuberant ferns, exotic flowers, butterflies the size of small birds, and millions of frogs. It feels like wildness will cover the mountains in a smothering carpet of creeping green tendrils the moment my back is turned. The greenery presses in on the path from both sides, narrowing the broad stone stairs as I climb up and up to the mountain’s peak.

And there at last, after a day and a half of travelling, I’ve reached as high as I can go, and I can sit down and enjoy the view.

To reach Dazhai village and Dragon’s Backbone:

A minibus departs from Guilin train station every day for Dazhai village (two and a half hours)
Departs at 8am, 9.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

From Dazhai, the bus departs at 9am (direct to Yangshuo), 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

40 yuan per person.

Phone +86 18977392805 for information.

Guilin: Paradise on Earth

Mention that you’re planning a trip to Guilin to Chinese friends and their eyes stare nostalgically into the distance. ‘I’ve always wanted to see Guilin’ they say, with mystical reverence, a hint of wistfulness in their voices.

What exactly is it about Guilin, in southern China, that enchants so many Chinese people? I’m about to embark on my second trip there, exactly a year after my first, so I feel I have some small inkling of the attraction.

For a start, there’s the unsurpassed natural landscape, a jade green panorama of vertiginously steep limestone hills, to which cling deep and dense foliage, and between them a broad ribbon of rice fields, lotus ponds, and emerald rivers. The air hangs heavy and humid, dense with cicadas, frogs and crickets, and the smell of fresh, lush nature is everywhere. The people, short and deeply tanned, seem to be perpetually relaxed and in search of a good time.

In addition to my own observations I’ve been asking every Chinese person I know why they love Guilin:

‘I can feel total freedom there’

‘I love to ride my bicycle, and raft down the river, and just have a fun time with my friends.’

‘Did you know that in Yangshuo (near Guilin) there are more foreigners than Chinese people? It’s so cosmopolitan. That’s why I go there for two weeks every year.’

‘It’s my heart’s desire to see Guilin. I heard it is the most beautiful place in all China!’

Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ve come to accept that Guilin, and its backpacker friendly neighbor, Yangshuo, represent the kind of freedom so many young Chinese crave – freedom from work, freedom from family pressures, freedom from study. Guilin and Yangshuo are completely geared for fun and relaxation with bamboo rafting, bike riding, caving and rock-climbing among the many activities on offer. This, combined with a sub-tropical climate, lush surroundings, and scores of foreigners mean that a Chinese tourist can really come here and let their hair down. It’s a potent combination.

I’m spending all of this week in and around Guilin, and I’ll (try!) and post every day to show you just what an incredibly lovely place it is.  I’ll be visiting the fabled Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces (Longji titian) northwest of Guilin, the Yao villages of Dazhai and Tiantou, the hip hangout of Yangshuo, and the tiny market villages along the Li and Yulong Rivers.
Fancy a trip to southern China’s most beautiful places? Come along!

Xing Ping Open Air Dentist

I don’t love my dentist, but at least I get to grip the sides of the chair in private, without any old passerby having a sticky-beak at what my cavities are like. Not so in Xing Ping, a small market town near Guilin, where having a tooth pulled is fair game for anyone to watch by the open door of the street-side dentist shop near the marketplace. Lots of people did stop and watch actually, as a really gruesome extraction was taking place, most with a chicken hanging upside down in one hand and a watermelon in the other. Even in faraway Shanghai the dentists often operate in shop windows, air-conditioning being a small concession to the comfort of the patient, but no concession to their modesty.

Xing Ping sits by the Li River and is busy because being market day means everyone is in town to sell, buy, and see. It’s full of oddities though – footpath silversmiths, rat meat, corn-flavoured iceblocks. A barefoot dentist operating streetside is just one more thing to gawp at. At least some things are universal though – as soon as the drill started up, everyone scattered, chickens, watermelons and all.  

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.