We had been told by many people that exploring mainland China on your own is really difficult due to the language barriers and not being so well equipped for backpackers. We therefore decided to go with a tour for this leg of our trip and, after extensive research, we picked the 25 day tour – Hong Kong to Hong Kong – with Dragon Trip, which was much cheaper than the G Adventures and Intrepid equivalents. The 18 or so of us on the tour met in Causeway Bay, HK at 7am on the first day and started the tour with the visit to Victoria peak I mentioned previously, before heading by bus to Sheungshui and getting the metro to Lok Ma Chau border. We crossed over the border into Shenzhen before getting the metro to Shenzhen North Railway station and taking a 3 hour bullet train to Guilin North railway station. From there we got took a 2 hour bus ride to Yangshuo. It was a long day with us arriving at our hostel (Yangshuo 131 International, with 9 people per room) at 9pm so we headed straight for food at Lucy’s Place (the name of the restaurant – not a local’s home!) where I had a delicious meal of Eggplant (I’m not being a knob, I know we British call it aubergine, but this was how it was named in the restaurant) Claypot. I will say now that the oil they use in Yangshuo (this is written before I have eaten cooked food in other parts of China so I cannot commit to saying the oil they use in China at this point) to cook their food is amazing. Vegetables have never tasted so good.
We spent 4 days in total and Yangshuo and it felt a bit like a crash course in China (although it happens to be one of the most English speaking and English-friendly out of all the towns and cities we are going to so I may still be in for a shock!); I witnessed the spitting I had been warned about before travelling (they literally clear their throats and go for it right in the middle of the street, once directly behind me, and it is something I doubt I will ever feel overly comfortable with), I had to navigate and weave through the seemingly free-for-all approach to traffic and crossings whilst jumping out of my skin by the constant tooting of horns (sometimes it is to tell people/cars/bikes to get out the way, sometimes to let you know they are coming, sometimes apparently to say hi to fellow drivers; the reason isn’t always clear, but at times it can feel relentless), I took my first bathroom trip where I had to squat over a hole in the floor (as a woman I have never had to worry about having a particularly good aim, but it is a skill I can now proudly say I have mastered) and learnt to ALWAYS carry tissue with me (they are afraid people will steal it), I realised the curiosity and amusement Chinese people feel towards British tourists by the number of times they would sneakily (and sometimes not so sneakily) take photos of me doing various normal activities (including eating, cycling and getting a metro), I experienced the diverse and quickly changing weather conditions and my first ever flood, and was hit quite hard by the extreme heat and humidity in a country where there are so many wonderful active things to do.
Unfortunately a couple of days saw severe weather conditions (if I thought I had seen torrential rain before, I really hadn’t!) and we were unable to do the scheduled Bamboo Rafting (which I was particularly gutted about) and Cormorant Fishing on Yulong river or the Kayaking on Li river, however having free time to explore Yangshuo, a bustling town set against a stunning rural landscape, eased the pain for me.
We went on hikes in the stunning mountains, wondered round the markets haggling over the price of merchandise and sampling local street food delights (grilled oysters, octopus, chicken feet, tofu), had delicious dining experiences such as Beer Fish and picking your own stir fry ingredients to have it cooked in front of you (for a price of 200 RMB – 2 quid – including beer), went on a 3 hour bike ride round Yulong river (a personal highlight) and had dinner cooked for us all by a local family in their home that included a dish with cooked dog meat (which, in my opinion, tastes how dogs smell and I could only stomach a few bites, yet I would recommend trying it. When in China…)
One of my favourite moments was passing by a Chinese couple whom had just got married and were having their wedding photos taken. Upon seeing us they insisted we join in their photos with them, with the Groom instructing us how to pose (“all of you pout”, “now all cheer!”) – their delight and interest in us, and desire to have photos with us, became a theme with Chinese people throughout our trip.
On our last night in Yangshuo, the town was hit by thunder and lightning and the worst rain they had seen since 2008. We woke to no electricity at the hostel and many of the streets around us flooded (including multiple cars practically submerged). The bus taking us to the train station was unable to reach us, so we rolled up our trousers, slipped on flip flops, put on our waterproofs and proceeded to wade through the streets (with our 15kg bags on our backs) to reach our bus with out tour guide, Melinda, leading the way; huge applause to her for getting us through it. Less than half an hour into our bus ride we hit a large patch of road that was now under water; we had to stop the bus, get our backpacks out from underneath and bring them up to our seats before courageously continuing (the bus driver more than us!) across the river that had formed before us. In some weird way, this was one of my favourite moments, with all 20 of us on the bus cheering and applauding the bus driver’s success!
Fortunately, we made it to Guilin train station in time for our 25 hour sleeper train to Chengdu where I was gifted with the top bunk (great for not being disturbed when you want to sleep but not so great for space, nor for having to get up and down the ladder); I’ve felt so tired since arriving in China (part jet lag and part humidity) and I’m not sure this journey will cure that feeling of fatigue…
[See next post: Chengdu]
[See previous post: Hong Kong]