20Yuan

Guilin River Tour and Evening Shopping-- May 30

Guilin was the smallest of the cities we were visiting, with "only" 700,000 people, and according to Lily and Jevons, it's pretty much a village out in the middle of no where, in comparison. It's quite close to Vietnam, and the sultry weather matches. The city has very distinct limits on the buildings, making sure that there were no high rises to cut off the views of the mountains. And there were mountains everywhere... all of limestone and all carved into karst formations that are covered with trees and tropical growth. They are quite reminiscent of Vietnam's landscape.

Our hotel was right by the Li River, in the heart of their shopping district. It had rained the day before, so profusely that the temperatures had dropped to something in the high 70's and low 80's when, usually, by the end of May, their temperatures are in the 90's. Sadly, the change in location didn't help my asthma, which really started to act up. Luckily, though, the overcast stayed around and made the river cruise quite comfortable.



Mountains Everywhere
We all had our hats and brought the bottles of water from the hotel room as well as from the bus. The daily allotment of drinking water was something we were getting used to having. The hotel rooms usually had a bottle per person, and every day on the bus, every person had at least one bottle, if not two. The tap water is not potable across China, which is one of the reasons for the popularity of tea. The water, if boiled, can be drunk, and if it's already boiled, why not make tea?

The omnipresence of the mountains was amazing, even through the most normal of parking lots or roads. I remember John's cousin Anne, staring at the Rockies outside our front door asking us, "You get used to this?"

Part of my wonder was that I'd been seeing these kinds of mountains in all kinds of traditional Chinese paintings for most of my life; however, I'd never seen these kinds of mountains in person.

One funny thing in the bus was Lily calling out, "Du dao la?" Which, in Chinese means, "Is everyone here?" But can be transliterated into "Two dolla'." "Wen dao la?" also means "are there people who going to be late getting here?" and can be transliterated into "One dolla'." I liked the clever cross-language pun, and the whole group used the two dollar phrasing for the rest of the trip. I really liked how quickly everyone in the group picked things up.

River Cruise
We drove out of the city to a harbor town. There were dozens of tourist groups all lined up for the boats. They bought us all tickets, and got us all out there onto the flat bed boats, and we all took off at about the same time, in a long, snaking line of craft.

Nearly all the boats were like this one, where the passengers were up front or on top on an observation deck, and the kitchen was underneath and out in the open, to keep the fumes from the cooking outside. The red basin was used for the initial scrub of all the dishes, and they all used water right out of the river for the initial scrub and then a sanitizer inside the kitchen to make the dishes safe. There were more than a hundred of these little boats all moored to the same docks and waiting for people to get on them.

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The Li River is one of forty four rivers through China, and the karst formations were created when about 3000 feet of limestone was deposited here by an ancient ocean. So there are not just the mountain formations, but there are also thousands of limestone caves littered throughout. It is more remote, so there's a lot of farmers and cormorant fishermen. Everywhere there are ponds that they use to raise ducks, fish, and lotus for roots and flowers. The rice paddy farmers bring in the rice in both July and October, so a rather iconic picture is that of the karst over the river and a rice paddy with water buffalo pulling a plow.

The Painted Veil was filmed one these exact waters, between these mountains.

Fruit Vendor
There's a lot that grows this far south, including bamboo, and it's used for these crazy minimalist boats that these fruit vendors would pole from tourist boat to tourist boat. They had lychee, cherries, and other fruit on-board that they would sell to the crew. They'd pole out into the middle of the river, get up enough speed to pull up alongside one of the tourist craft, loop a rope over anything they could get to, and pull in alongside with water spraying up the side of what was essentially a surfboard. They'd then just hop on board with their fruit.

The guides said that these flat bamboo boats were pretty dangerous, and a few more enterprising young men had decided to use PVC piping instead of bamboo. I'm not at all sure that it's any safer with the PVC. One of the interesting things for me was just watching the banks and seeing marks of people living right off the shore for nearly the whole length of the river. There are a lot of rivers I've rafted where there's a house or two by the water, but not a lot more. Usually it's just deserted shoreline, or just land let go wild. Here, there were always people and the signs of people. Everything from a small foot bridge built over a stream going into the water, to ropes on the side for boats, to small piers, steps, or even markets on the shore.

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Not that it wasn't beautiful, even so...

Much of the landscape was like this, the limestone formations, often cut clean by the water of the river, and each of them covered in greenery of all kinds. There were dozens of small waterfalls, splashing into the river. Trees, bamboo, and brush of all kinds covered every nook and cranny that might hold dirt and water. It was all completely green.

That's in high contrast to the Rockies, where there aren't trees or much of anything growing on the slopes. Underbrush is unheard of, and the bare rock is more often seen than this kind of thing.

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Here were towers carrying lines through the curves of the mountains.

The one thing we saw the most of was other tour boats, as far as the eye could see. We started our ride by jockeying around and with another half a dozen ships, until we finally broke free of the pack and got far enough ahead to only have a few of them in front of us and one or two behind.

The cabin was stuffy, hot, and warm. The one throne toilet overflowed, and I realized, in a visceral sense, why Jevons said that the Chinese really preferred the squat toilets for public toilets because there was absolutely no contact with any surfaces. After that I was really really glad for any of the squat toilets we found, especially if they flushed. The ones on the boat were by a sink that had a cook pot used to catch water from the faucet in order to "flush" the toilet.

I was never so glad of my alcohol hand sanitizer, and after that, I just stayed up on the observation deck for pretty much the rest of the ride.

IMG_7926 CROP
So I got to see things like this, which is a log with cormorants perched on it. These are water birds that are raised from chicks by fishermen. The fishermen put rings about their necks, so that when the birds catch big fish, they can't swallow them completely. They have to regurgitate the big fish, so that the fisherman can feed them smaller reward fish. It's an odd thing, because the fishermen have to buy the smaller fish to feed the birds, and while they can sell the larger fish for more money, if there aren't any fish to be had, it gets expensive to feed their birds.

Today, most of the cormorant fishing is done for tourists, it used to be that half a dozen birds could not just feed a family but make enough money to cloth and house them as well. Lily and Jevons said that there was a special outing for the evening that involved a ride around the city on a waterway and then watching cormorant fishermen do their thing. We decided to opt out and see our part of the city by walking instead.

Lily told a story about an old fisherman who so loved his birds that when they got too old to fish, his son was persuaded to sell them without telling him. When he found out, he got so depressed he got terribly sick, until his son relented and went and bought the birds back for just as much as he sold them. The old fisherman revived and was happy for a while again, until the birds got so old, they got sick. So he fed them wine and beef to kill them peacefully, and then buried them.

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It's an interesting story, and it really struck me that the point wasn't whether or not wine and beef would kill a cormorant, but really about the fisherman wanting to do his expensive utmost to allow them to die happy. It went with a story that Sherry told us in Xi'an about the Buddhist priests who decided it was time for them to die, and they'd begin a month-long meditation fast, at the end of which, they'd expire in the midst of their prayers. Lots of death by choice, and stories the likes of which aren't told here in the US.

The landscape only became more beautiful and more like the traditional paintings I'd always seen. I'd wondered if the mountains were really like that, and here they were, exactly like that, and I could easily imagine far more mist on rainy days.

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The upper deck got more an more crowded as we went along, and it was nice to just lean against the railing up there and talk with people while watching everything slide by the boat.

There was one whole tour group from the Bay Area, with a very exuberant East Indian man with an iPad, asking me to take pictures of his whole group. He was amused to find that I was from Colorado, just as I liked knowing that he was actually from the Bay Area, along with a bunch of his group. There were two young men from the East Coast, too, who rhapsodized about the kinds of tobacco they could find in Chinese smoke shops, the likes of which can't be found in the US anymore.

An American Indian Group
I also got complimented on my river hat. That it was adjustable in size from the back, it had a chin strap for the prevailing head winds, that it could double as a rain hat as well as a sun hat, that it had ventilation, and that it could be easily picked out in a crowd, were all heartily approved of by one of the East Coast men.

That was pretty fun.

Lily came up soon thereafter to point out a few of the more special formations. She'd told us about a formation, the day before that was supposed to be of a woman and her baby, and the tale had it that her husband had left to find work to make money to keep them. But that he'd gone across the river to do so. When he tried to come back, the river was in flood and washed him away to drown, and the woman and her baby had turned to stone waiting for him.

Nine Horses
This is the Nine Horse Cliff, which is supposed to have nine horses represented in the limestone. Anyone who can see all nine of them will be a leader of their country, or so the legends say.

It was fun standing there with everyone else just trying to see how many horses we could see. I loved Jeff not wanting to see that many, because he had no desire to be in charge of a country. I had to side with him.

Lily, as our guide, said that it was very Chinese to have to assign stories to all the formations, to make them interesting. She rather liked that us Americans really just wanted to enjoy the beauty of nature for its own sake. So she didn't try to catch our attention for too many of the named formations.

The Twenty Yuan Note
One we really didn't want to miss, though, was the specific set of mountains that were on the twenty yuan bill. It's Yang De, or the Sheep's Horn mountains.

I loved that Linda got out her twenty yuan note to make the comparison and John caught the moment of seeing it line up.

Lunch was served soon after that, and the upper deck emptied. I wasn't very hungry, and had had an enormous breakfast, so was pretty well set. It was nice up there without nearly anyone else. I stayed until people started filtering up again, and figuring that lunch was mostly over, I went down where everyone was finishing up. I asked for some plain white rice, and got a bowlful of it because Jet had asked for the same thing! They'd made a fried rice for lunch, but because Jet asked for plain white rice, I was able to get some of it for myself.

The coolest thing was that they were also selling a snake wine in the lunch room. It was a huge, glass jar filled with liquor in which soaked several dead snakes. One of the East Coast men had gotten a shot of it and banged it down like it was nothing, and got a very wide-eyed look from the waitress.

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Eventually we went by this small town, with a stone pier and dock as well as this beautiful bridge. There were small clusters of boats and buildings like this all the way down.

But as we went further, the mountains grew less jagged, less like individual lobes of stone set on the shore. They rounded out, grew more gradual, and had more slope, and with the slope they also gained more earth, trees, grass, and arable ground for crops.

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We saw wine grapes, fruit trees, and tea bushes on these more gradual slopes, and with the more greatly viable farm land there were more farmers and water buffalo.

The tiny plots seem typical of the whole country. Even just outside Beijing, all the plots were small, and obviously hand tended, as are these. Jevons said that the farmers were a designation within China, that they are given an allotment of land, and they're expected to get everything they need from the land itself. This means that if their crops fail, or if they leave their land, they're out of luck. They get no assistance at all from the government. They're expected to not only pay for their food and living expenses, but also for any and all of their medical costs from the money they make from selling their extra crops. And the hospitals in China, if you can't pay or don't have insurance have absolutely no obligation to take care of you, unlike in the US.

A farmer's children and grandchildren have the same designation, and cannot change it without a college education. If they want to become city dwellers, they have to have a job already lined up and someone to vouch for them in order to change their status. That's why the Xi'an farmer asked for an education for his grandchildren.

Into the Water

I'll admit that this wasn't the communism I was led to expect. It's communism in the terms of all the land is owned by the government, but it's certainly not socialism because there's a lot of people without any safety net whatsoever, and the government isn't going to bail the out.

So a farmer's resources are conserved to the utmost. They save and save and save for those emergencies, so these water buffalo, while they're an investment for the farmers, aren't as costly to upkeep as farming machinery might be. So they get a good swim in after a hard day's work, and then go at it again. They also give milk and more calves, and can be eaten when they die. So it's a tighter loop and much shallower pockets.

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We reached a small town on a hill at the end of our journey. This cataract flowed through into the river, and we went past most of the busiest part of town in order to get to the docks.

The docks were situated at the far end of the little town and the buses had to park out at an open spot on a different side, so when we actually disembarked from our boat, it was a long, long walk to where the buses were parked.

Jevons and Lily organized shuttles for us all that were aggrandized golf carts with cars. We had to walk through a long alley of vendors to even get to the bright pink carts.

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This was the shuttle behind us, as all of us had to have two of them to fit all together. There were no doors on them, just a strand of chain.

There's a lot of things that I take for granted in the US that have to do with personal safety. There aren't helmets here, aren't required safety belts, the campaign against smoking has little to do with personal health issues here. It seems to have far more to do with how China presented itself during the Olympics. That smoking isn't allowed in public venues for most of the rest of the world, so it wasn't going to be allowed here.

I'll admit, though, that it was a great relief being in the open air, with the wind blowing hard past us. The coolness was a blessing, and being about to see everything and everyone was really fun.

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The myriad of shops available was just wonderful to see. Everything from fruit stands like this to bakeries, coffee shops, computer shops, ice cream, shoes, high fashion, books, stationary, and all kinds of restaurants. I noticed that there were nearly no laundromats, at all, anywhere we went, and that lined up with information that John got about the scarcity of finding places to do laundry. The hotel would do it, but at very high prices. People expected to just do it at home, and Jevons noted that almost everyone hung up their laundry to dry, eschewing dryers for reasons of the cost of the power to drive them as well as a traditional liking for the scent of hung laundry.

The shuttle took us through down, out into the woods, and past a lotus pond, completely filled with lotus pads. They raise lotus with ducks in the ponds, and harvest roots, seeds, and flowers. The huge tourist parking lot lay on the edge of town. Twenty buses were all parked in neat rows. There was a public restroom there, that everyone went to after seeing the boat's restrooms. I was immensely grateful that they were squat toilets, and then we all got on the bus to head back toward town.

Rice Paddy
On the way, we stopped by this rice paddy. It was raining pretty hard by the time we stopped, and we were really lucky that the rain held off while we were on the boat. As it was, I ran out of the bus with John, to get these pictures of real rice plants. *laughs* It was kind of ridiculous, how much it meant to me because I've never seen them close up before. I've driven by the rice fields in Northern California, but they were the enormous, industrial farms. This was so different, tiny plots of rice paddies. Of course, the instant I actually held still, four mosquitoes landed. They really do like me, even over there!

We drove through farmlands. We saw one field where hundreds of tiny shelters had all been built by hand for the plants beneath. On the side of the road, at one point, we saw a man walking with a cow and her calf. It seemed all very rural until I realized that the road we were on opened up to eight lanes, coming and going. It's still a city of 700,000 people, which is about the same size as Denver!

Out in the Rain
When we got back into town, it was raining pretty hard. John, Jet, and I went swimming in the outdoor swimming pool. It was beautiful, huge, filled to the brim with extremely treated water, but it was clear and warm and a wonderful swim. There's always something I love about swimming in warmed pool water while cold rain falls from above. We were pretty much the only people using it, and there was one or two people using the workout equipment in the gym that was attached.

I went back to the room early, in order to take advantage of the shower. While I was under the spray thunder rocked the whole building. Jet and John were out in the water until a downpour ensued, and when the lightning and thunder cracked really nearby, they got out. Then they had to run through a deluge to get between the gym and the main hotel building. While my hair dried, John, Jet, and my Dad went out for a walk, so I just sat in the windowsill of Jet and Dad's room and sketched the camphor trees the lined the streets by the river. They're black barked trees with graceful limbs, and long leaves that fluttered in the wind. The soothing sound of the rain and the rush of traffic was wonderful to just sit and contemplate.

Dinner was from the hotel's buffet. I went pretty light on my meal, given the condition of my stomach, but there was one dish that I couldn't pass up. It was sliced pork belly slow-braised with preserved mustard greens in soy, ginger, scallions, and the usual Chinese crew of seasonings. It melted in the mouth, and had exactly the flavors I remembered from my childhood and the potlucks all the Moms threw in Indiana. Every week they'd try to outdo each other on the complexity and rareness of the dishes, and the kids would only be allowed to descent like locusts after the parents were done, but... wow. I remember eight treasure rice, roasted ducks, these slow-braised red-cooked meats, and all kinds of things like that pork belly. Funny what memories rise with taste and scent.

After dinner, John and Dad got a map of Guilin and we decided to take a walk to look around the open air market just a block away from the hotel.

Mangosteen
It was raining, still, and misty. Very very humid and after the air conditioned coolness of the hotel room, the camera had a bit of condensation to start. There was a fruit cart vendor at the beginning of the market who pressed one of these fruit on John. The guy had opened it, and it had five or six petals of fruit in it, each white with a black pit, all of which seemed a lot like a lychee to me. They're actually mangosteens, fresh and ripe from the trees.

As we were walking away after our little treat the guy started yelling at us. Unlike vendors in the US, who give our free samples to get people to buy, these guys 'give' the samples away, expecting people to pay for them. We gave him a couple of yuan, and felt kind of lousy for it. So there wasn't any way I was going to buy anything from him. Still, there were a lot of people with cart loads of mangosteens all over the city! So it would have been easy to get them elsewhere. There were just too many other fascinating things to see.

Made In Guilin Store
Right across the way was this "Guilin Speciality Shop", it made me think of the "Made in Colorado" or "Made in Washington" or "Made in Oregon" stores that have been around for decades, now, in every state, loaded with tourist trap things that come only from that state. This was the same thing, but Chinese, and stocked with all kinds of things that came only from here, including boxes of mangosteens.

Sure enough, with a little looking, I came across bags and tins of Osmanthus blossoms. The guy in charge of the store happily told Dad that I had to get the tins, because once the bags were open they'd go bad quickly, and we got him down from 60 yuan per tin to two tins for 50 yuan. That made me blink a lot, and wonder just how much of a mark up there was on everything else. The bags were just ten yuan a piece, and seemed to really be filled with the same stuff, but they had both the yellow osmanthus (which I'd seen before and loved) and something that looked like a red osmanthus blossom, which might have just been a much darker gold and had dried nearly red.

I wasn't sure enough to get them then. I knew that the last time I'd visited the place in Santa Cruz where I'd gotten just pure Osmanthus blossoms they hadn't had any more, so I wanted to buy some of them, but I also knew that I didn't go through them that quickly. So the two tins were just about perfect. And they smelled wonderful in their tins.

MacDonald's Too
The rest of the mall was very mall-like, with department stores, luggage stores, night clubs, and all kinds of things. There was also this little McDonald's kiosk that only sold McDonald's ice cream treats. I was intrigued by that because we don't see those in the US, or at least I don't.

It was raining gently, like a Seattle mist, and all kinds of people were out. The scooters packed the parking areas, and many of them had plastic on them, but people were out and about and ignoring the rain. Lily said that this was just the beginning of the monsoon season, so they just expected the rain.

We walked through the whole mall, and John decided we should go see the silver and gold towers on the lake in the middle of town, so we turned away into the dark away from the mall, and walked the few blocks to the lake.

Silver and Gold Towers
While we walked through the rain and the trees and the darkness, there came the clear, high warbling of a person in utterly joyous, confident song. I thought it had to be a woman, as the unearthly register was so high, but then a twenty-something young man came bounding out of the shadows, through a lit circle from a streetlight, and went bounding on through the paths in the park, still singing like an angel.

I turned, staring after him, and Jet said, "Wow."

On the bus, the very first night we got into Guilin, Lily had listed the four ethnic minorities that were more prevalent in Guilin, and I'd written down the following:
  1. Drum
  2. Miao
  3. Dong
  4. Yao

And that Guilin, itself was in the Drum Autonomous region, but there is no "Drum" ethnic minority, it's actually the 'Zhuang', and Guilin is in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which shares a southern border with Vietnam. One of the characteristics of the Zhuang is a courting ritual that involves singing, on both sides, so it's an ethnic art that's deeply cultivated in the region.

And we'd just heard an entirely spontaneous expression of it. Lily is one of the Zhuang herself. And, like Hawk, is able to have a family with two births instead of just one. And Jevons later explained that it is an attempt, at the national level, to preserve the ethnic heritage of those that are under-represented in the country.

It wasn't that much further to the lake, and the lit towers were beautiful, especially with the city behind it all covered in its own neon, and the tree filled and quiet park before it. The rain was still falling gently, and it felt more and more like Seattle than anything else. I loved it.

Personalized Seals
On the way back from the park, we went through the outdoor dealers' area again and stumbled on this 10 minute carving of your chop shop. He had all his wares spread out under a tent in the drizzle, and he had a young lady who bargained with Dad over a spontaneous chop on an irregular stone that I picked out of a small box of utterly irregularly shaped blocks of stone.

A few years ago, my Dad thought it might be all right for me to change my personal name to the one that actually means Jade instead of the homonym for jade that I used to have that meant something like tranquility or peaceful. All of my old chops have the old characters for my name on them, and I wanted a new chop with my name on it.

Dad managed to bargain it down to forty yuan, which, for a hand-carved chop seemed amazingly low, but they seemed all right with that price. Dad asked the carver to make it as spontaneous as he could, and so the guy sketched the characters for my name on the stone and got down to carving.

Penciling In
Jet was fascinate by the whole process, and he watched, avidly, as the man used a small chisel and carved the words into the soft soapstone. When the guy was done with the carving of the words, he knocked some of the smoother edges off the rim of the chop's pad. Then he handed it to Dad to see if Dad wanted anything done to it. Dad asked that some of it be carved a little deeper, and the guy said that it would lose a little of the free-hand style if he did so, as he'd carved it the way he felt it should be carved.

Dad decided to insist on a little more depth to some of the lines, and the guy obliged. It was fun to see him make the adjustments, and we ended up with a chop that felt as rough as the stone it was on. I loved that, as I intend to paint some paintings that aren't quite as meticulous as the Longs Peak painting I did in the spring. I need something more spontaneous and the chop felt like it matched. Dad was a little disappointed in it, and promised me that in Shanghai he'd get me another one that was more to his liking.

Carving
Jet, on the way back to the hotel, decided that he wanted a chop himself, and since he had the money, he'd look for one when we got to Shanghai, too! I loved the fact that Jet has his own sense of agency. That when he wants things, he knows he can get them.

I'll admit that interaction in a country where I feel incredibly clumsy speaking is really difficult, and drains a lot out of me. It's kind of odd realizing how limited I feel while I'm here. The interesting thing is that the longer I stayed, the more I began to understand of the conversations, they weren't beyond me, and came closer into reach the more I heard. That surprised me to some degree.

Another cool thing was that in the times when Dad and Jet were waiting for John and I, for dinner, for breakfast, before going somewhere, they had put together a series of writing lessons for Jet, where Dad would write out the word, give Jet the meaning, and a pronunciation, so Jet was learning words quite quickly simply by being Dad's roommate. So the whole arrangement of having Dad with Jet was working out really well.

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Oh wow, I just love your pictures and stories. I can almost imagine being there myself. Your picture of McDonald's makes me laugh, because when we went to Europe, I took pictures of the kids outside of "McDonald's we didn't eat at". I didn't fly all the way there to eat McDonald's food. :)

Now I can't wait to read about Jet getting his own chop in Shanghai.
Yes! Exactly like that! These foreign McDonald's are a sight unto themselves, doesn't mean we have to eat there, though. *laughs*

Hee. Yes, I am happy I set that up well, and he was very serious about getting exactly what he wanted. *dances about*
I love reading your descriptions. Even without the photos, gorgeous as they are, you give a lovely sense of location and place.