Coming back from Nuremberg for a short four-day trip, I barely had time to touch base for 12 hours in Ho Chi Minh City that I had to head back to the airport for a business trip to Guangzhou, China. It’s funny how every time I plan vacation, there is always a business trip that places itself right after. Some might find it exhausting, but I actually enjoy flying and am always happy to travel. What gave it away, right? Besides, I haven’t set foot in China since last year’s short term assignment. I was quite excited to reconnect with the country that hosted me for three months in 2017. Despite all the beautiful places I had visited last year, there was still one on my list I had yet to discover. This place is called Yangshuo, in the Guangxi province, which is located about three hours West of Guangzhou by bullet train. I had plans to visit this scenic area last year, but it didn't work out. When I learned I was going back to Guangzhou for a week, I immediately planned a weekend getaway following the planned trip. I would finally discover the marvels of the Chinese Southwest.
THE INDIANA JONES STUNT
On Saturday morning, my train was leaving from the Guangzhou-West Railway Station at 8:00am. To make it on time, I had to leave my hotel room at 6:00am at the latest. If you are familiar with train travel in China, you will know that a non-resident of the People’s Republic of China must withdraw their train tickets at a special booth with the pieces of identification documents used to make the online booking. That booth is not the regular ticket purchasing booth, but another booth that is normally located outside of the train station. If you are located in a small town, this process goes very smoothly and it’s no biggie to go through it. However, when you are in Guangzhou, the largest city of the Guangdong province, the line can be quite long. The worst part is that this line dedicated to withdrawing tickets purchased online by non-residents is mostly full of locals. Apparently, they don’t trust the mobile ticket and would rather have an agent hand them a physical train ticket instead. I remember from my last year that it is in the Cantonese culture not to trust anything. When the Cantonese people go to a restaurant, they ask the waiters for hot water so they can rince their plates and wash the cuttlery themselves before eating.
Now back to the train station. As a resultof this neverending line at the ticketing booth, Wanwan, a Taiwanese friend travelling with me on that weekend, had to start begging every person on the line to let us pass in front so we don’t miss our train. Wanwan claims that Taiwanese people are very polite and courteous, in comparison with Chinese people. Personally, I never had any demonstration of rude people in China. But, this time I could clearly see how people responded to Wanwan’s request. Let’s just say that people were not very receptive and did not care much about our situation. We finally found someone who pitied Wanwan’s begs and we got our tickets in hand.
Next step was to get through security to access the gate to our train – a little bit like at the airport, if you will. We got into the line about 5 minutes before the planned departure time of our train. The line was not moving one inch. Despite my efforts of passing people in line before me by constantly apologizing, Wanwan had a better plan in mind. She got out of the line and begged security to let us through. After a few seconds trying to get her mercy, the security lady pulled her phone our of her pocket and showed her WeChat QR Code to Wanwan. About 10 seconds and a 60 Yuan money transfer later, we had passed security and ran to our gate. We made it right on time to our wagon as we heard the officers whistling the departure to the engineer while stepping aboard. All that was missing to this episode was to slide under a closing door inside of a temple, whip in hand, and reach back for my hat before the door closed on my fingers.
YANGSHUO NATIONAL PARK
While on the train, the first stop in the Guangxi province already announced the colors for the weekend, as we could see on the horizon a dramatic landscape of oddly shaped mountains. I was already excited and ready to take on this beautiful scenery that reminded me a bit of Zhangjiajie – which I had the chance to visit last year on a rainy weekend. From the Yangshuo Railway Station, the Yansghuo National Park area is reachable by a 45-minute bus ride. Buses leave right from the railway station and tickets can be bought on the spot. If you are smart, you will rush out of the train and walk at a very convincing pace to beat the crowd walking to the ticket office and avoid waiting in line. At 11:00am, we reached the Yansghuo National Park area, checked into our hotel, rented a scooter and headed for adventure. While in the national park, getting around by scooter is definitely the way to go. Other options would be to hire a driver for the day. But, at a rate of 60 RMB (10 USD) for scooter rental, it was a no brainer. I was happily surprised that most scooters available for rental were electric. The Yangshuo National Park is a very popular tourist destination for the Chinese people. With the amount of tourists on this particular day, the absence of engine noise and gas smell surely contributed to our enjoyment of this scenic area.
ALL ABOUT THE MAO'S
While travelling in China last year, I came to notice that touristic spots often have in place some schemes to make sure the maximum amount of money is being squeezed out of the visitors' pockets. And, you best believe that his park was no exception to the rule. When in China, it's all about the Mao's and nothing else. If you think that paying the entry fee to the park would grant the visitors access to all sights, think again! While driving from one spot to the other, we were constantly asked to pay extra money for some pseudo attraction. While Wanwan and I did not bite on their bait, most local tourists paid the extra fee at every possible occasion - thinking they would make their travels worth. Somehow, these schemes seem to be working with the locals, which I think is hilarious if you ask me. In Asia, I came to notice that people often spend money, not for necessity, but for demonstration. A "I'm paying because I can" kind of mindset.
The one activity I absolutely wanted to do was to cruise down the Yulong River on a bamboo raft. Fun fact: the view over the mountains from the river is featured on the 20 Yuan bill. When we arrived at the embarking point, a lady approached us as soon as we parked the scooter. She was offering to deliver our scooter go us downstream for 30 RMB. We first purchased our tickets for the raft ride at the official ticket office and questioned the National Park staff about the legitimacy of this offer. Apparently, it is a common practice to hire someone for such service. Note that this lady is not an official staff member, but a simple local trying to make an extra buck. Fair enough, we hired the lady. After all, it was either that or walking upstream a few kilometers to the embarking point. So, we hopped on the raft and prayed to see our rental scooter on the other side. Along the river, some ladies strategically set up pit stops where we could buy snacks including beer and grilled fish. Thanks, but no thanks for the grilled fish, but a cold one is always welcome! It wasn't cold, though... Sure enough, after a smooth sail with our designated captain, the lady was standing with our scooter at the disembarking point.
Among the other schemes, we could count paying a fee to see the so-called "Money Tree". Of course, we could not see the tree from the ticket booth. Quite frankly, Wanwan and I had no desire to see such a ridiculous attraction, so we decided to turn left and cross a bridge to visit the rest of the area. In Asia, all it takes is to name a tree with a connotation to supersticion or fortune and tickets will sell like hot cakes. On the other side of that bridge, we sat by the river to rest and drink water on this hot and sticky afternoon. While rehydrating, I could clearly see the Money Tree (for free) on the other side, as well as a sea of tourists who couldn't contain their curiosity. Many tourists paid 30 RMB per person to cross the river to the other side where Wanwan and I were sitting. I was shocked to see how booming this business was since the bridge we crossed to get to the same spot was right there! I mean, how lazy can one be that they prefer paying so much to cross 20 meters of water to avoid a two-minute detour? Again, the "I'm paying because I can" mindset striked again, and locals trying to make an extra buck couldn't be happier. I've always been told that money didn't grown on trees. I beg to differ...
HOT AIR BALLOON
While taking photos on one of the bridges, a young man approached us and asked if we were interested in going up a hot air balloon. According to his description, we would go up in the air and cruise around a 6km radius. The price was descent, so we thought we'd go for it. I had never been up a hot air balloon before. We purchased the tickets and went to the white tent in the middle of the field. It took us a second to understand that this was the waiting area before boarding. We approached a staff member to understand what was going on. He explained they were serving client #22 and we had to wait a bit more. Having a closer look at our ticket, it mentioned #96. We waited a bit and observed other people going up the balloon only to realized they were just going up about 20 meters up and down after 5 minutes during which the balloon was still connected to the ground with a rope. No cruising, no 6km radius either. Wanwan and I just looked at each other simultaneously thinking: "This is not what we signed up for!" We headed back to the ticket booth for a full refund. I guess my first hot air balloon experience will have to wait.
Breakfast at the restaurant
Before starting the second day, we grabbed breakfast at a local restaurant on the street corner from our hotel. The restaurant was family held and the staff were none other than the owner's children. I tend to like family-owne business. I'm always happy to encourage the local economy as well as entrepreneurship. Though, in this case, I must admit some of the basics of running a restaurant were not observed. For instance, the meal I ordered was so different from the one I received that I even found it insulting. The three green bean cakes turned out to be only one, and the beef noodle soup turned out to be a noodle soup with a poor sprankle of ground beef. Evidently, when I realized the portions were not as anticipated, I asked for an extra egg boiled egg to add to my soup so I can reach the required level of protein for the morning. That egg was brought to me and served at my table with the waitress' bare hands. No plates, no nothing. After all, it wasn't so bad since the egg is protected by a shell. But, let me tell you it was a different story when she pulled the same trick with the green bean cakes.
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES
I had no intentions of going back to the money-making sausage machine at Yangshuo National Park. Wanwan, who thoroughly searched the web for recommendations on what to visit while in the region, found a viewing point about two hours away from the park. It might seem far, but the view was promised to be breathtaking. Besides, this was the perfect occasion to rent a scooter and drive through the mountains at our own pace and far away from the masses. Let me tell you that the ride itself was as enjoyable as the amazing view we contemplated on that afternoon. Not only we had the flexibility of stopping for an improvised photoshoot whenever we found a great spot, but we also enjoyed a viewing point that was completely empty of tourists. We must have seen at most 15 people over the two hours spent at the viewpoint – a true luxury nowadays.
From the viewing point, we could clearly see the excessing amount of tourist boats cruising on the Yulong River. The foot of the mountain was definitely more crowded than its top. Still far away from the park, we still wanted to enjoy more of the ride through the mountains, so we drove down to the Yulong River on a path we had anticipated to be as nice as the one that brought us up. Wrong! Following the badly announced, color-fasted and washed out sign on the main road, we took a right turn to a side-road that might have looked very smooth fo the first hundred meters. Following that, it took all my focus to avoid the neverending segment of monstruous rocks to get to the riverside. I was completely tuned in while on the neutral gear, as I was zigzagging down the road. It might have been more efficient to drive down with a mountain bike. When we finally reached the riverside, the view was very nice, but there was nothing much to do except for using the frerry to ross to the other side. The clock was ticking and we ad to bring the scooter back to the rental center two hours later. After a few minutes of rest, we hopped back on our motorized vehicle and used the same destroyed path back up to the main road. After that segment, the fun really started and we could go back to enjoying the stunning views that charmed us on our way here in the morning.
ANCIENT TOWN FREAK SHOW
The Ancient Town of the Yansghuo village is nothing other than a giant freak show where tourists are swallowed in with their clothes on, and spitted out without their wallets. The whole area is almost exclusively made for pedestrians, where you will find people walking on cobblestones from wall to wall. Claustrophobics, beware! While wandering around, you will cross countless amount of hostesses trying to attract you into their restaurant for dinner, people selling all kinds of guizmos in the middle of the street, a man painting with his pinkie finger (pretty impressive, I must admit), and, of course, other tailored services for the gentlemen. For my part, I decided to get a single cornrow on the side of my head for the amount of 30 RMB. I could enjoy the freak show before me while being braided on the side of the street. I guess, passersby equally enjoyed seeing such a weird hair type in the middle of China.
While in Yangshuo, the regional dish one must try is beer fish and restaurants in the area definitely know about it. Once again, the "All about the Mao's" motto revealed itself with all restaurants on a quest to squeeze every penny out of the tourists pockets. Along the same lines, most local tourists didn't seem to care about the exhorbiant price for a dish "because they can". We got invited by one of the hostesses in the middle of the street to come and check out the restaurant's menu. It took the bussboys a quick second to take the table clothes by its four corners into a bundle and clean the table as quickly as possible for the next customer. As much as the Operations Management aficionado enjoyed a very quick changeover time, I am not sure abotu the economic viability of smashing the glass and porcelain cuttlery every time a new customer comes in.
Although the menu showcased the traditional beer fish plate at a reasonable price of 85 RMB, a small asterisk strategically placed in the smallest possible font was meant to tell us that the prices were per 100g. Therefore, for two people, 500g of fish would have brought the price up to 425 RMB. Granted, we are in a very toursitic area and prices are expected to be high. But, here's the kicker! Every order of beer fish had to be of a minimum of 2kg. This means we would have ended up paying about 1700 RMB, and that's without rice, drinks or any sort of side dish. Needless to say, we stood up and left the restaurant as quickly as their table cleanup process! We ended up getting a delicious beer fish plate at a very reasonable price just around the corner in a less crowded street. It was a very mom & pop's type of bed & breakfast with a beautiful restaurant on the ground floor. We took seat on the terrasse and ordered 500g which we judged to be enough for two people. It was delicious! Besides, every dish paid at a descent price is always served without a bitter taste.
The following morning, we took the speed train back to Guangzhou and transferred directly to the airport. As I was trying to nap on the train, a lady decided to leave her toddler bang on the meal tray attached to the back of my seat, as if no one was sitting there. It's crazy how sometimes people don't understand the consequences of their acts on other people. The very same lady couldn't stop talking super loud during the whole trip. At some point, Wanwan just turned and asked her if she could keep it down a little. A question to which the lady answered: "What am I supposed to do? I have a toddler in my hands!" Does this answer even make sense, or does she use her toddler as a scapegoat by default? In the end, I think it goes without saying that Yangshuo is a beautiful area to visit. You will enjoy the scenic area, as long as you keep away from the masses. Just like for every travel, the motto is always to go off the beaten tracks.