In Southern China, near Guilin, is an area that has the most unearthly, steep, green mountains you can imagine. You’ve probably seen pictures of them before — they’re amazing, and getting to see them is one of those things I never thought I’d actually get to do. I think I probably spent the first several days not saying much, since I was so focused on staring agog at the mountains.
We stayed near a smaller town called Yangshuo, in an adorable little hotel with a restaurant on the roof and a view of “Moon Hill,” a mountain with a natural arch on the top of it. Since there is another rise behind the arch, only a small crescent of sky is visible, which looks a little like the moon, and the thing to do in the little tourist hot-spot below our hotel is get your picture taken “holding the moon in your hand,” usually while also dressed in some rather bizarre and completely neon “traditional dresses.”
The first day in town, after checking out our hotel and grabbing some quick lunch upstairs (bizarrely enough they specialize in Italian food and Chinese food — one of the founders of the hotel had lived in Italy) we headed off for a boat tour of one of the most famous stretches of the Li river, winding through the mountains. The air in Guilin is much cleaner, generally speaking, than Beijing, but it was warm and muggy and there was a lot of fog, so as we went up the river the mountains drifted in and out of view.
After the boat tour we wandered around the nearby town for a while, perusing the shops, but also wandering down a residential street. We didn’t take photos — not wanting to be more intrusive than necessary — but it was a really interesting time of day to meander through. There were kids and dogs everywhere, running around and playing, often with family members sitting on the stoops of their homes, all the doors open and the very bare houses visible inside. Usually you could hear a TV on inside, and sometimes see a large framed Mao portrait hung on the wall. Many of the stoops were littered with pomelo (a large grapefruit-like fruit or sunflower seed husks. The nice thing about China is that they do a fair bit of staring themselves, so I feel perfectly comfortable staring back and checking them out. It’s a very poor part of China, and you can see it in their clothes and their houses. But the neighborhood we walked through had a strong feeling of community too.
At any rate, we returned to our hotel for dinner (we had, at that point, already become addicted to the very sweet ginger tea they offered there.) The next day we decided to climb moon hill, a very steep ascent that was essentially a staircase going straight up the mountain (Jen counted steps on the way down and got 1073.) By the time we got to the top we were all winded and sweaty, but the view was definitely worth it, and we kicked back up there for a little while, sampling a pomelo and taking pictures. (The pomelo, for the record, was not my favorite thing in the world — tasted like a really bland, dry grapefruit, but wasn’t really sour. Jen also nearly busted something trying to get into the silly thing. Jen also says that this was “not a good example of a pomelo” so perhaps I am unfairly judging pomelos. Interestingly, we suspect they also burn the pomelo rind — outside many of the houses they seemed to be drying large quantities of the stuff.)
After descending, we rented bikes from our hotel and took off across town. We got lunch at the sister-hotel, sitting out looking over the river and sipping fresh fruit juice, and then continued on with the bike-trip. It was a lovely ride, winding through the flat areas between the mountains, very peaceful and pretty (with the occasional interruption of a really foul-smelling pile of trash.) The fields of yellow rapeseed were in bloom, and the Chinese tourists were all wandering among the flowers and taking photos. The area appears to be rapidly developing to accommodate the increase in tourists, so a lot of new buildings were going up, and many others appeared to be only occupied on the first floor, their upstairs just a concrete shell without windows or anything (except sometimes lines with hanging laundry) waiting until the owner has the funds to finish the upper floors. New hotels appear to be going in, and everywhere there were enterprising Chinese folks who wanted to sell you something, guide you somewhere, or let you take a photo with some contrived prop which they’ll then charge you for. We thought we were moderately safe on the bikes (you can just outpace them!) until one enterprising woman decided to pace Jen from her moped, offering various services.
Calley had to head back a day before us, so on her last day there we decided to go Kayaking down one of the Li tributaries. It was a beautiful and peaceful trip, although it was a fair bit of work — the river was wide with no current at all so we had to paddle pretty hard the whole way. After Calley departed, Jen and I headed out to see one of the many caves in the area (we chose this one because it did not seem to require rolling around in the mud — an activity we had not anticipated needing an extra pair of pants for) which was lovely, if perhaps a bit gaudy. They lighted all of the stalactites/stalagmites in a rainbow of colors, which occasionally was pretty, but mostly was just a bit strange.
Unfortunately Jen and I ate something bad that night at dinner, and spent the rest of the night being dramatically ill. All I’m really going to say about that is that two cases of food poisoning and one toilet takes a fair deal of spousal cooperation and teamwork. We had to delay our flight (originally scheduled for the following morning) and spent that day laying in bed feverishly trying not to think about anything related to eggplant. We did finally get on an airplane (still feverish and miserable) and got back safely to Beijing, where surprise, surprise, it had snowed! We rolled into Calley’s house around 4 am and collapsed gratefully into her spare room.