As I write this (later to be typed) I’m sitting 507 steep steps on top of a karst hill in Guilin’s Seven Stars Park. My Ventolin has had a workout and I’m buggered.
When I arrived in Guilin, I wasn’t too impressed. It seemed to me to be a typical ugly Chinese city in beautiful surrounds. But, just like many other Asian cities, it’s exceptionally pretty at night, and especially when perched upon a karst hill.
To get a picture of Guilin in your head, imagine they built a city where Ha Long Bay has its bay, with vivid blue-green rivers running every which way. There’s lovely pagodas on lakes, parks dotting the town (only 700,000 people so let’s call it a town) and karst hills, some with caves that were used as air-raid shelters in World War Two. Karst hills are those towering stone hills that seem to jut out of nowhere in an otherwise flat landscape.
I headed up to the hills one day to check out the famed Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, where the oppressed Yao and Miao people fled six hundred years ago and constructed level upon level of rice terraces on hills up to 1,400 meters above sea level. At the bottom of the hills you get to rub shoulders with the Yao and Miao women, who cut their hair only once in their lifetimes, their eighteenth birthday, which shows that they’re ready for marriage. Their hair put my ratty mop to shame – their secret? Washing it with rice water.
The view from the tops of the hills is said to be incredible, so Lazy Caitlyn gritted her teeth, grabbed her Ventolin and pulled herself up an insane 1,188 uneven steps to look at… A white sheet.
Yep, twenty years after the O’Dowds visited Mount Rushmore in the fog, I followed in such spectacular fashion. Thankfully, once we began our descent it cleared slightly before becoming a blank canvas once again. Another one to add to my ever-growing list of “places to return when the weather’s better”.
The hills just keep on going down the Li River – I was originally looking at taking a boat ride down the Yangtze to the Three Gorges, but as it took a whopping three days I opted for the four-hour Li River option. My only option was to cram onto a boat full of insanely loud Chinese tourists and be told by my guide of where the ‘scenic’ spots were. The whole thing was scenic, so I ignored the guide for the most part, snapping away happily myself, only joining him in his enthusiasm at the spot which is on one side of the twenty yuan note.
What was actually better than our cruise was our destination – the town of Yangshuo, sort of a hippy haven of China. It was like being back in Southeast Asia with all the dreadlocks, floaty pants and Tibetan beads. It was a world away from the military and security in the national capital.
Most people spend a few days in Yangshuo, but Lazy Caitlyn was convinced when planning the trip that there wasn’t much to do there but hike and cycle. My loss. So I had to cram the best of Yangshuo into one afternoon, a pretty hard task. I started by visiting the village of Baisha, where our guide pointed out unorthodox sights such as the local Communist Party headquarters (one in every village in China) and the doctor’s surgery, where a 2006 law sees every villager pay thirty yuan a year in exchange for unlimited healthcare. My guide was from the national CITS agency so I didn’t dare ask about the quality. And about the fact that the building looked very much uninhabited.
Baisha is a pretty lucky village however, boasting the 600-year old Dragon Bridge. Here we took a bamboo raft down the Yulong River, only stopping to feed a herd of water buffalo and watch a cormorant fisherman do his thing, sending his well-behaved birds to catch unsuspecting fish and pretty much vomit them back up on his boat.
Yes, a bamboo raft. It was basically nine pieces of bamboo stuck together, with a couple of bamboo chairs perched atop. Yes, I got wet, yes, there were (unworn) life jackets and yes, it was bloody freezing. But it was the best thing I did in the whole of Guangxi Province, which might just has be the final nail in Lazy Caitlyn’s coffin.