Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5/26 - Yangshuo is a quaint little town

In America, patrons at outdoor cafes along a river hope for good weather. Generally, people like to be comfortable and dry when drinking or eating dinner. Funny thing is that it's different in Yangshuo. We found us a place (Bar 98) last night where if it's sunny, they close at 6pm and stay open late only if it's wet and miserable. It seems all the potential customers are off at the light show on the river if the weather is nice. Kind of backward as compared with how the crowds are at home, but that's the way it is.

We ate great noodles last night. Got to see tomorrow's noodles being made as well. The chef was even letting her granddaughter sample some of the dough (a little baby, who didn't care much for her grandma's offer). Drank mai tais, mojitos, and pina coladas because they were Happy Hour drinks (and Happy Hour apparently runs from sun-up until closing) and then played some pool. Slept pretty well, and here we are, writing about our adventures and drinking some tea on Tuesday morning.

I e-mailed my girls that if they needed to call us, they should Google The Rosewood Inn in Yangshuo. We don't have a phone in the room, but the front desk day people are Sophie and Annabel. Either would be nice enough to run down to our room and grab one of us if we're around. I told them to just use Net2Phone and they'd only have to pay six cents a minute. Not a bad rate, considering we were just about on the opposite side of the world. I'd say just call Alex's cell, but that would run down her remaining minutes (and for some strange reason, she can't purchase more minutes until we get back to Beijing).

We don't know what we're doing tomorrow yet. We think hot air ballooning over this area is one option. Authentic Chinese cooking classes are another. This area also seems to have some neat things in the markets (shock!), so we might be doing some shopping. In general, it's just nice to walk around and not feel like we're going to get run over by a car. Pickpockets are known to hang out around here, so we still have to be on our toes.

We continued to press our luck. We rented two electric scooters and braved the streets. Karen hopped on behind me and, with Alex in the lead, we went in search of the trail to the Yulong River. Navigated the chaos pretty well (I think the locals know to give a wide berth to American tourists). Alex ran into the back of another motorcycle only once (as the photo above shows, Alex liked to drive forward while looking backward), when the guy abruptly stopped dead to visit with another local driver in a small utility cart. Only kind of nicked him. We learned some Chinese sounds for ouch. Every time we stopped to review the place mat we've used for our map of the area, locals have been very eager to help direct us on the route we hoped to find. They have all enthusiastically run over to us every time we stopped. They were very nice and didn't rob us. After several redirections, we finally found the path we'd been looking for and headed away from the town and into the fields. Among the karst peaks are rice paddies and fields of every kind of vegetable, worked it seems by one person in each of the fields (in other words, isolated and spread out, unlike what we saw in the cities where agricultural workers squatted shoulder to shoulder to plant plugs of grass). Often, a person was working the mud with the aid of a water buffalo. We traveled through multiple small villages, each with a little vendor who might offer drinks or staple goods. Very frequently, we'd see several local residents congregated there with a baby or two and playing cards or hawking other goods, like flowers or fans. [I had this nonsensical image go through my head, that these vendors believed I had flown for over twenty hours, cruised a river, navigated a gauntlet of vendors, swatted mosquitoes, and then scooted through traffic and into the rice paddies just so that I could purchase a paper cutout of my wife's profile. Actually, later in the afternoon, I did.]

Somehow finding the path to the river ( we hit the end of the road, literally, and doubled back after being chased by a woman yelling "bamboo raft, this way, this way"), we scooted down an even narrower path, encouraged by some European bicyclists heading in the opposite direction. We crossed the river on a bridge made of 1'x3' rectangular stones (had to have been very heavy) arranged to form a platform. I didn't really want to study the foundation, since there were no alternatives anyhow and it looked as though countless people had successfully crossed, probably for centuries. Once we got over, however, we encountered a tour group of Swedes heading in the opposite direction. They had both an English speaking guide and, at the tail end, a guard of sorts. He had reflective sunglasses and stayed behind, we think, because Karen had stayed with our scooters while I went back to get some fun photos of Alex on the bridge. Once we realized that he was concerned for her safety, I became ever more concerned for it as well.

And since we'd reached the edge of our placemat (our map), and our scooter batteries were only half full, it was time to double back. Best thing about the return trip was that we knew where we needed to stop for good photos, and where we could go full throttle to zip past the vendors who otherwise might be able to catch us to try to sell us another something. ["She she, ke shur e jing yo" is a phrase I had to learn, roughly translated meaning "Thank you, but I already have it" although there were better phrases like "No" which also worked. Alex told me the "Go away" phrase, but I can't bring myself to say that to an old toothless bent- over woman, even if I know she's cursing me after we gave her a smaller bill than I initially reached for, as happened in the Muslim part of Xi’an.] We got back to town, missed getting flattened by the busier street again, and walked our scooters through West Street, the pedestrian market which actually has nice merchandise and a softer sell [but of course has its share of pickpockets....hairs on the back of our necks stood up as three locals took an uncanny interest in our rental scooters and I detected a few pats on my pockets, which left them unsatisfied as I then brusquely pushed past them and we returned to our hotel.....turns out one of them followed us all the way back, rather disturbing, but what can one do? Even pickpockets are entitled to "gwang y gwang" or "take a stroll"].

Since we'd only had the scooters a relatively short time, rather than the entire day, Alex convinced Sophie to let us have three bicycles for no charge at some future point during our stay. We had another great lunch at our favorite Yangshuo noodle place (2 orders of garlic beef noodles and 1 of garlic, green onion slivered potatoes---yumm---and 3 tall beers), the grandma proprietor smiling proudly that we'd returned again for a meal. The chef was proud when we told him "hun how" (I'd reconfirm the pronunciation, except that Alex has pulled a cover over her head and she’s grabbing a quick nap), whatever we said, at the time it worked and he understood we were saying "good job" or delicious. I still can't get over how excited these Chinese get when Alex starts talking their language. It's the look of relief that somebody might show if you dropped the double barrel shotgun you'd been pointing at them to the ground and admitted that it hadn't even been loaded. So, in addition to relief, it's excitement that they show, and then they launch into a high-pitched fast paced squawk and engage Alex, who "deluxe bun cha joes" them right back. (Deluxe bun cha joe is one of my favorite meals at a famous Tulsa Vietnamese restaurant.)

Tuesday afternoon shopping was surprisingly enjoyable and productive. There were no crowds (it was getting hot) and it helped walking from umbrella to umbrella looking for shade. Alex and Karen were showing that they'd become quick studies, and were only paying three times the absolute minimum price rather than ten. They were making friends of the vendors yet not being ripped off, which Karen really enjoyed. And I was able to play "secret Asian man" while watching Alex's back side to make sure her backpack was off limits to any of the shady characters (which could be any of the people I didn't directly know or recognize....I now proudly say recognize, because after only nine days in this country, I am beginning to be able to tell the difference between the different Asian body types and features....my favorite, of course, being the petite, delicate very feminine and smiling people who for an instant seem to create a refreshing and wondrous moment in their glances, or maybe it's just that their eye shape makes me think they're always smiling). For whatever explanation, it's something of which I'll never get enough. It's like a garden in full bloom, in spite of the reality of how hard life must really be around here.

Exhausted and sweaty, we went back to catch a short nap before we were to be picked up at around five o'clock by the hot air balloon people. We drove west this time, exploring a different part of town, and were saddened when our hot air hostess conveyed our pilot's recommendation that we wait until morning. [The photo I have of a building thunderhead at sunset is evidence that he was indeed wise to cancel the afternoon flight.] So we were driven back to town.

Before we went off in search of some mojitos, we just had to locate this really cool thing (I can't tell you what it is yet, sorry, it’s a surprise). We'd seen it used at the Rosewood Inn, and our hostess Sophie told us the going price. So we went to a rather contemporary market (imagine a Walgreen's, except with uniformed attendants standing at the end of each aisle ready to serve you and "do their duty"). Alex tried to explain what was that we were looking for, and we didn't think we would be successful at communicating this rather unusual request, when a puzzled young lady directed our gazes down to her feet, where these items happened to be located in a big, disorganized stack. We scared the poor kid, literally almost out of her shoes, when we exuberantly shouted, "That's it!" All the poor Chinese in the store thought we were nutty Americans when we bought as many of the things we could get our hands on. The Chinese are a very observant people, for we were rather nutty.

Alex and Karen had western dinners of sandwiches while I had a fried egg plate and some rice, but all in all, the drinks were less satisfying than our previous evening at Bar 98 (which we'd tried, but the weather had cleared enough that they had closed the bar and packed up the patrons to trek out to the river for drinking and festivities with the light show). We would have followed, but we knew that we'd be called at 5 am the next morning by the balloonists, which indeed turned out to be the case.

Adventure over Yangshuo

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