Sunday, May 24, 2009

5/24 - Guilin, for a wet and very different urban experience

The plan today was to explore the Seven Star Park and Cave today and trying to negotiate prices on a river cruise. Did I mention that everything needs to be negotiated? But as I learned, one must remain very flexible when having an adventure in China.

As I left off back at the Zhongshan Hotel in Guilin, we spent two nights with minimal air conditioning and a view of the back side of the 5th floor hotel sign. The stay there all began after a miscommunication with our taxi driver. You must first imagine a growling Manchurian who repeats only one phrase in English "fir teen" over and over. We knew the taxi fare from the shuttle to our hotel should have run about 8 yuan, but since the shuttle kind of hit the end of its run in a dark, dead end alley and there was only one cab available, we were kind of stuck. We thought we'd agreed to fourteen ("fir teen"), but after arriving at the Zhongshan, he insisted on twenty. Alex let loose after we got into it telling the driver how he needed to improve his English speaking abilities. I'm sitting there holding two fives and four ones saying fourteen while the taxi driver is also saying fir teen (accent on the fir). We get some paper; he writes 20 and says, again, fir teen. A hotel employee and an official looking fellow gather round for the show. Nobody is budging. Imagine trying to communicate with somebody whose mouth is stuffed with a couple of socks. I paid him the extra dollar, writing it off to a few minutes of cultural enrichment. Alex was pissed. But the hotel staff then knew we were not to be trifled with. Hence, we received the warm, humid room with a sign across the window. And Karen wants me to add that the room reeked of cigarette smoke.

Sunday morning, and we lazily used our free breakfast coupons. Fortunately, that was our last mistake of the week. We went exploring and found a travel agent to book our river cruise for Monday. He was charming, and convinced us that he could take us around Guilin and show us all the sights. We decided to take him up on it, since it was raining constantly, and he spoke decent English and provided a driver for the day (both of them for the bargain price of CNY130, or under US$20). "Jerry" took us to Longevity Hill, a complex (now an art university, or it could be an art factory) which was built for the emperor's cousins during the Ming Dynasty. Never mind it was bombed by the Japanese and then rebuilt after WWII. We wandered around the campus with lots of Chinese tourists, explored a small wet cave in the limestone karst adjacent to the buildings, then climbed (again) the thousand or so steep limestone steps up to the top of the karst mountain. (I describe a karst as a massive pimple of stratified limestone about ten times higher than it is wide...I think we were a thousand feet up.) Mind you, it is raining all this time, and these steps are well worn and slick. Often, areas of the incline are too narrow for more than one person at a time. Remembering what I'd seen of people "taking turns" driving around the city or walking in the subway, I was not very hopeful. But I was proved wrong. Chinese tourists were more than willing to use common sense and courtesy, and everything progressed in a fairly orderly fashion, with preference going to the out of breath people who were climbing up the mountain over those who were making the easier trek down. [Similarly, traffic seems to move in spite of the fact that lanes are irrelevant and traffic signals ignored. And it works for fast and slow vehicles, motor scooters, bicycles, carts, and pedestrians equally well.] A couple of nice photos at the top in the rain show Guilin a city in the clouds with lots of karst peaks piercing up intermittently.

Once we got our bearings on the city, we drove up to Reed Flute Cave, where as we were proudly told, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan once visited (many of the locations in China have photoshopped posters on the walls of famous presidents standing behind the proprietors). Caving is a great idea on rainy days, for you'll get a little less wet. We loved the caves, and I got a few neat photos, thanks to the exotic lights which our friend Jerry would turn on for us as we entered each new area of the cave. For a long while, we had the cave to ourselves, and it was indeed spiritual.....until a tour group led by a megaphone finally spoiled the serene atmosphere. I'd set the camera on a flat surface, make some adjustments, click the shutter which was set to delay five seconds for the extra long exposures necessary, and then check out the results. We had fun. Good thing, because like EVERY tourist attraction, the beggars, hagglers, and street vendors await every visitor at the exit and one must walk the gauntlet of "hello, hello" and "just for you" and "come see" and "come look" in order to get back to the taxi.

Still raining, so Jerry took us to the " Pearl Museum." We knew at the outset that it would be a sales spiel, but we got to see some nice jewelry (one necklace lasted five months before it fell apart). Karen and Alex were very impressed with the selection, and after looking at all the displays, I took a moment to get to know Jerry. Quite a dealer, locally, in just about anything tourist related. He explained how the driver got a percentage of any purchases at the "museum" which his clients made, and of course Jerry took a bit for himself from every ticket we purchased at all these places. After shopping, we did lunch. We got to hear Jerry slurp, chew with open mouth, and talk about our afternoon itinerary. He got a percentage of our pricey lunch, which was okay, because it was the first meal we'd had in a while in a more traditional setting with actual linen tablecloths and usable washroom facilities. The profitable museum shopping and his friend’s restaurant probably inspired him to push his luck and took us to his cousin's tea store. We had a free tea tasting, experiencing some good Pur tea mixed with hibiscus blossoms, and our mouths tingled for some time afterward. We were joined by a couple of arrogant BYU students who were finishing up milking a month-long grant they'd proudly received "for doing nothing" touring around south China, and had worn out their welcome with one of their travel mates. Didn't buy anything, since our friend Jiying (a teacher who had lived in our house in America as a guest for six months) had left us with a gift of some good tea.

While waiting for our driver, Karen and Alex ran over to the Sheraton to use their facilities. Jerry pulled me into another museum, this time some fine art, the finest in the city, of course. And I was met by the professor of fine art, John, who was planning on traveling to NYU next January to teach his technique to the fine students at NYU. He was a person on cocaine as he shared his beautiful paper drawings, oil paintings, and other media for which he claimed to be the artist. He had several pieces on display in various museums in several countries, of course. He discounted his price at only his Guilin studio, and even at the discount price, he told me how he donates most of it to the victims of last year's earthquake. When I could finally get a word in edgewise that everything I bought in China, I had to carry in my backpack, so I wasn't in the market to carry anything, he told me that they could ship. I mentioned that although his work was beautiful, we had many beautiful pieces on our walls back home. He swiftly left the store and jumped on his bicycle to head off somewhere. We grabbed our umbrellas and jumped in the taxi.

Jerry then convinced us to head off to get massages. He knew of a place which offered one hour massages for CNY40, even less than the bargain we'd had with the blind people of Beijing. As we drove into a hospital, and he described the TCM ("Traditional Chinese Medicine") clinic where we'd be spending some time, I began to get those funny feelings which sometimes warn you to tread carefully. Let's say that after a week in China and the discussion I'd had with Jerry, who had an obsessive curiosity of how health insurance in the US worked, all I could see was Blue Cross receiving a bill for the TCM being laid out to Karen and Alex. We walked past a Chinese waiting room (which was interesting and doubtless not normally included on the standard tour of the city) filled with sick and crippled patients and then were introduced to the medical director of reflexology and herbal cures. We'd traded TCM for BS, and were kind and respectful as we learned about all the areas of the foot. I declined the massage and instead kept a very close eye on our money pouches and backpack as two young friendly apprentices worked Karen and Alex's feet and calves. Every once in a while Dr. Soon reappeared and calmly asked how we were doing (we were in the centermost area of a 3x3 maze of treatment areas each with five recliners). The masseurs predictably became giggly and very friendly when Alex finally shared her Chinese language talents (and after realizing that Alex probably understood the "private" discussion they thought they were having). I had this fantasy that I could be a part of this conversation, so I asked the male how long he'd worked there in the clinic. Alex translated that he'd been there for three years but wasn't paid well, which we took to be a polite hint that a tip would be appreciated. (Tips are rarely, if ever, given in China.) Unfortunately, by this time, Jerry had returned and their whole demeanor had changed. Rather than smiles and jabbering with Alex, they became quiet and expressionless (I'd concluded that Jerry had his hand in everything in Guilin and parts beyond. Still, he was a nice guy, just that one had to remember that he could not be trusted.) The tips Karen and Alex insisted on providing the two kids (CNY10 each) were accepted without any emotion or comment.

We left the hospital without divulging any personal information or signing any paperwork, so I felt a bit less paranoid. Some of the best looking vegetables and fruits were located in carts right outside the hospital, it's just that I couldn't identify many of them by name (but I'm sure I'd been eating them).

Although Jerry was up for more attractions, we were pooped and asked to be returned to the hotel. After he gave us cell numbers of his friends in Yangshuo who could help us with our entertainment needs, we parted amicably. He recommended noodles in an area behind our hotel, and sure enough, we found a very filling dinner for about CNY9 for all three of us (lots of noodles with tender beef and some very sticky, greasy, sweet, chewy buns which gobbed on our teeth so badly that we had to buy a couple more). Alex loves the local alleys for dinner so that we get stares from every other diner. I don't think they had ever seen three round eyes eating so vigorously, but Alex was burping along with all of them. Our Sunday night entertainment consisted of walking along the river Li (loads of activity and we felt very safe...enjoyed looking at one restaurant's offerings of live snakes, rats, chicken, various fish, turtles, crawdads, and clams which would be very fresh as dinner) and later some television Chinese soap operas, which are actually quite fun. Alex picks up a word hear and there, and I play dub the storyline I would like to see, while Karen reads Nora Roberts.

Take the Li River cruise to Yangshuo

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