Friday, May 29, 2009

5/29 - Near death experiences getting to and leaving Guilin

We grabbed another nice breakfast at Kelly's Cafe, Karen going for the bacon and egg sandwich and Alex and I each getting another banana pancake with honey, fruit, juice, and coffee. "Wendy" stopped by our table to gently give us a hard time for not having called her for tickets to any of the nightly evening light shows on the river, which everyone had said was spectacular, but we saw as an opportunity for them to ritually sacrifice tourists to the mosquitoes and make a lot of money doing it. (I was getting confident in my newfound ability to actually distinguish various Asian ethnicities, as I'd recognized Wendy from two days earlier when she'd introduced herself while we were drinking Mojitos at Bar 98 and tried to get us to hire her as a local tour guide.) Then we returned to our Rosewood Inn, where we kind of knew it would be hard to say goodbye to the sweet staff. True to their word, they'd done everything they could to make our stay very pleasant and had exceeded our expectations, and Sophie even presented us with a gift box of rice wine, chili sauce, and pickled tofu as we departed. All I had to return the gesture was my well worn business card, but we planned on putting a package together to surprise the trio (together with Tracy, whom I'd repeatedly mistaken for Sophie, and new mom Annabel, whom I'd once embarrassed making small talk, asking how here five-month-old son was doing, to which she'd replied, "Did Sophie tell you about my son?" and I'd reminded her that she herself had during one of my other attempts at communication.) and writing an e-mail of thanks to Mr. Wong (the patriarch of several businesses on the block) as soon as we returned to the US. After all, they'd innocently introduced us and helped guide us to our favorite gifts which we'd picked up in Yangshuo, the tennis racket electric bug zappers. We took a nice group photo, and their final words of wisdom were to take the express bus to Guilin rather than the other bus, which was known for attracting loads of pickpockets on the dozens of stops between the towns. (So, about ten minutes later, we actually get on an empty bus and ride it two blocks until we determine that it is likely to become exactly the same type of bus of which we'd been forewarned). We found an actual bus station and purchased express bus tickets for the next departure, and instead of being robbed, got to enjoy a very early Jackie Chan film on the closed circuit television, which Alex and I at times really laughed hard at in spite of the fact that it was spoken and subtitled in Chinese and I still couldn't be certain who were the good and bad guys. We just knew every time Jackie pulled up his sleeve to expose his magic fist, a bad guy was going to be punched literally across the room or through a wall. Kind of like the thug sitting next to me on the bus, whom I'd determined was one of the latter. He had several cell phone calls during the trip (which should have been only one hour, but turned in to an hour forty-five, for although our bus didn't make stops, it had been passed by nearly every other vehicle on the road, including a three wheeler powered by a lawn mower engine). Every time he answered his cell, which had a uncharacteristic, attractive, delicate ring tone, he'd bellow "Wei" in a distinctively northern growl and then lots of other monosyllabic groans until I'd realized he must have concluded his conversation since he'd resumed his reclining position along the window and reclosed his eyes (he'd already pulled the blinds away from the passenger in the forward seat in order to block off the sunlight and glared threateningly at him when the poor guy foolishly attempted to pull the blinds back into their original seatmate had done the same with the curtains from behind us as well....nobody was willing to risk tugging at their curtains when they realized who this guy was). Not that I knew he was a thug when I'd first relocated from a seat I'd taken on the bus to my "assigned" seat (Karen, Alex and I had never guessed that the express bus had assigned seats) and found him occupying my aisle seat 15. I had pointed at my chest and then where he was sitting. No response. So I did it a bit more forcefully, with a Clint Eastwood raised eyebrow and without a single word (which I figured later worked greatly to my advantage, since I probably would have again said "The food is good.") He'd moved to the window and we did not exchange niceties.

As we finally approached the Guilin bus terminal, we got stuck in traffic. It seems all the buses in Guilin converge to one location a few blocks off the main street, and if you'd seen how many buses were crammed into the station, you'd understand why all the buses, cars, bicycles, and carts were backed up several blocks and not moving. Since Jackie was still punching the bad guys and I'd started to figure out the plot, we were okay with the hold up, but my seatmate was not. His restlessness (and I presume familiarity with the neighborhood and possibly the stench of my bug repellent) caused him to be the only person to insist on being let off prematurely into the mayhem. I felt victorious, and sighed a deep breath as my backpack was placed on the only vacant seat on the express. Minutes later, we entered the bus stop, which unlike the airport (our ultimate planned destination), displayed no English signs anywhere and resembled instead a scene of pure pandemonium. After ten days in China, I'd concluded that nothing was ever what I expected, and I was not let down. Wandering around the bus station felt a lot like being lost in a football stadium during game day. We searched for what looked like it might be a ticket office in order to buy tickets for the airport bus. Three intelligent people wandering helplessly in Southeast Asia watching each other's backpacks in a sea of singsong faces of people who were probably quite nice but could be killers. They doubtless all knew how to effortlessly wring a chicken's neck, and that itself kept us on our toes. We got into a conversation with a driver of a black cab, which we knew would involve negotiating an agreed upon fare to the airport (we didn't want another "fir teen" miscommunication over price), and reached a middle ground which was just slightly more than what we knew we'd paid to take the combination shuttle and cab from the airport six days earlier. We followed him to his cab (parked near the real ticket counter), and he whisked us off to the airport. He asked if we were hungry, and offered to take us to a restaurant so that we could grab some lunch before our flight. Alex thanked him, but explained that we were stuffed still from breakfast. We felt like old pros, driving through Guilin and recognizing areas near our seedy hotel where we'd spent two nights earlier on our trip. In fact, he was parking on the wrong side of the street so that we could eat lunch at the Lonely Planet restaurant. He'd misunderstood our request (or maybe it was a cousin’s restaurant). After explaining again that we weren't hungry, and blocking traffic in both directions as he turned his taxi around right there in the middle of the street, we were once again off to the Guilin airport. We drove through such interesting parts of the city, and then through parts of the edge of the city which looked like new industrial areas, fairly contemporary yet empty campuses of business ventures which looked recently vacated. Then we saw some beautiful countryside, where I found myself playing the game of identify the pollutant as I watched ponds of various shades of brown mixed into the fields of deep green. Again, there were intermittent areas of residential and then again industrial areas, with many smokestacks still belching an interesting mix of blue and gray smoke. With the exception of one brick factory, I couldn't definitively describe any of the products being manufactured at these locations. But I did start making notes of the few locations which displayed any words in English, because I started to feel the hairs on my neck tingle. This was not the same road we'd traveled a week earlier when we'd been shuttled from the airport to the city, not even close. We were lost. Worse, Karen and Alex were beginning to suspect that we were being driven to an undisclosed location where thieves were waiting to rob and dismember us, and even what little remained of our bodies (nothing went to waste in China) would go undiscovered forever. Their suspicions were confirmed when we turned onto a stone road which had no other traffic except three wheeled carts, all of which were snaking around like we were attempting to avoid the hundreds of six foot diameter pot holes and puddles of unknown depth. I was just about to reach for my cellphone to call 411, not for information but rather, in China, is the number for emergency, so that I could tell the operator "The food is good" and that (on the off chance somebody on the other end spoke English) the most recent sign I'd seen which I could identify said Greater China Mining Company, but then I saw a large airplane at low altitude in the distance. As we rounded the next hill, the control tower came into view as did an entrance, of sorts, to a well manicured and fairly modern airport. We had apparently traveled to the other "main entrance" of the Guilin airport to avoid taking the toll roads, and hence had been treated to a much more interesting and varied terrain, not to mention adrenaline rush which often accompanies watching too many horror films and then imagining living them in real life. Even though I had been confident all along, the tone of the girls' voices had caused a few pangs of concern, in spite of the several nice conversations Alex had with our driver, who again seemed too nice to be the brutal killer that he could have just as well been. He could have retrieved the business card he'd given us after he'd robbed and killed us is what Karen said. We were relieved to have been dropped at the international wing, even though we were just flying domestically back to Beijing.

The girls ran off the hit the restroom, made even more necessary by the bumpiest segment of the journey between the pot holes, as I determined that we were actually fairly close to where we needed to be to check in for our flight. Actually, we weren't far from the very helpful tourist information desk which I'd initially found when I uncharacteristically ventured off from Alex after we first landed in Guilin, although it was currently unstaffed. We checked Alex's backpack since it was loaded with our liquids, and then proceeded through airport security. We were met by a couple of perplexed guards who, after seeing the bag of tennis racket shaped electric bug zappers (as I've described, some unusual gift items we'd hoped to carry on), insisted that we return to the ticketing agent to check the items as luggage. After seeing the look on our faces as we tried to determine how we'd be able to figure out how to reaccomplish what we'd achieved thus far, they simply said that we could carry the items on board with us, which we did, so I told them "The food is good." (Now that I think about it, security should never have allowed us to carry eight of these charged things on board.) We found some very comfortable '70's style chairs in a lounge area and paid as much for each small beer as we'd paid for a meal at some of the family run eating establishments on our trip, and although it bothered Alex to spend so much money, Karen and I had looked at spending yuan more as a challenge in determining the most effective combination of bills to provide so as to minimize the number of fairly worthless wu jou (or half kuai) notes we might receive in change. We liked the more valuable, larger notes, because they were physically bigger. On the flip side, larger notes were easier to grab when one reached into one's shirt pocket, which made me rather inept at easily pulling out pocket change (wu jous) for street beggars, so I just gave up trying and instead resolved to be called a series of mean names as I walked past, or maybe they were also commenting on the quality of the food.

We played poker until boarding time, Karen again getting a number of really good hands, and then, like before, got onto the plane bound for Beijing with a relatively few number of other westerners, who were all seated together in the center section of the otherwise empty plane. Just a few minutes before departure, the balance of vacant seats were taken by a wave of locals, who looked as if they were seasoned shoppers who had just kept shopping until the last possible moment and then jumped on the bus as it departed. This is actually an accurate description, because many of these people were busy taking pictures of each other and out the windows and gleefully giggling as the stewards tried to get them to put their shopping bags under the seats or above in compartments. Many would stand to take photos as the plane was taxiing in preparation for take off, and I think the stewards finally gave up and were satisfied if most of the passengers still had their seat belts fastened as the plane took off. I wish I'd known how to get these discount tickets, because this particular flight happened to be the most expensive leg of all of our Chinese travel arrangements. And it turned out to be the least appealing, as far as food options. Alex is convinced that fish was on the menu (we'd avoided anything raised from China's waterways) solely for the non-Chinese speaking passengers, and she wanted to get our stewards' names in order to write to China Air and complain after she thought she heard them utter the Chinese word for "pork" to some of the passengers sitting behind us. As it turned out, the lunch was edible and we all survived, in spite of the fact that it was Alex's first time in her life to eat fish on a plane, and Karen and I hadn't done so since we first saw the movie Airplane.

We were treated to an uncharacteristically clear sunset as we flew into Beijing Friday evening. We could see the canals which at one time had defined the fields and paddies to the southeast of the city, and now were flanked with trees. We saw one walled area which seemed to be a luxurious golf course and some official looking buildings, which Alex pointed out might be an area occupied by party officials. Nearer the city and closer to high rise apartment buildings was the requisite nuclear power plant. In the distance to the north and west were the mountains. We'd learn later that because it had rained recently and from the stiff winds, the air was fairly clean. We splurged again and grabbed a taxi to the hotel. Our final three nights would be spent using HHonors points at the Beijing Doubletree.

It turned out to be one of the nicer hotels of the trip, and we were in the mood for a little pampering. Alex stuck around for a little while, but started to get sleepy, so she grabbed a taxi back to the university. Karen and I found the lounge and had our first mixed drinks in nearly two weeks, which were accompanied by some snacks which looked like Pringles potato chips but tasted like something completely different. We were not very picky, for our drinks contained real ice. And our room had the first soft bed we'd found since arriving in China. We turned the silent yet efficient air conditioning down to a frigid 22 degrees and passed out fifteen stories above the city.

Back to Beijing and the Simatai section of the Great Wall

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