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Fishing boats in the centre of Guilin

Today we just had a quiet day in Guilin. I was still not feeling great and I was glad that we had not booked to go on a tour to see the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng. It would have been about four hours both ways to get there and that was certainly not something I felt up to doing today. It is a shame that we have missed them but I keep on telling myself that it is not a huge loss at this time of year as the rice is all harvested, the fields will be full of straw etc etc etc.

We spent some time just ambling around town and doing a bit of shopping. I know I have said it before about other countries we have gone to but it is so frustrating not knowing instinctively where to go to buy certain things. We needed tissues, as neither of us are partial to following the Chinese and spitting and blowing our noses onto the pavement. Even a small thing like this was hard work as we did not know where to go and when we did find a shop it was down to charades to make ourselves understood.

Stef has pretty much run out of reading material now so we also went in search of a bookshop that sold English language books. The Xinhua bookshop listed in Lonely Planet was easy to find. It was in a basement and the lighting was very dim fluorescent tubes. They did have a small English section but Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Pride and Prejudice were not quite what he was after. He ended up with a collection of Chinese stories, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The writer lived in the fourteenth century and wrote about the period of history known as the Three Kingdoms dynasty (220 – 280AD) which came between the Han and Jin dynasties. It was a time when China saw a succession of rival kingdoms struggling for power so we are expecting them to be colourful tales to read.

There is a new central square in Guilin and it is a huge open space for people to simply wander around and relax in. It makes me wonder how big Tiananmen Square in Beijing is. This trip will not take us that far north in China, probably just as well as it is freezing cold there at the moment.

We stopped for brunch at a UBC coffee shop on the square which is part of a chain we have seen elsewhere. It had a western look and feel to it and we were both hoping for a bacon and eggs style breakfast but it was not to be. Communication was a barrier here because even though they had the menu in English it was not clear what you got with each dish. I had the most interesting pizza I have ever had. It was topped with about an inch of sweet corn, hard peas and carrots and was particularly unappetising. Stef ordered a steak and pepper rice to go with it. Stef has explained his experiences in his diary so here is an extract.

I ordered “steak” and pepper rice. From the pictures I assumed I would get a bowl of rice with peppers in/on it and a steak on its own. I actually ended up with two complete meals. The pepper rice was a large plate which besides the rice and chillies also included a generous helping of fried beef. “Maybe they have cleverly interpreted my request for steak as being for meat in general and have therefore included it in my rice” I thought, but no. As more and more dishes were delivered to the table the magnitude of my faux-pas became clear.

There was a chilled glass of minty green juice, a bowl of pumpkin soup, a fruit salad, the cappuccino I had ordered and an enormous plate with a massive steak, vegetables, fried onions etc, a whole plateful of stuff. I could not help laughing out loud at my own mistake and the absurdity of the situation as the little Chinese waitresses delivered one dish after another rapidly running out of room on the table. Earlier I had been asked, with a printed Chinese/English page, how I would like my steak cooked and I chose medium rare. The piece of beef was in fact served blue.

With our dictionary we cobbled together the request “more cooked” but repeating this and showing the version in Chinese characters and trying the alternative “cooked more” were all met with bemused stares. Eventually I just gave the plate back and said “xie xie” (thank you) and got on with my sole remaining meal and sundry side dishes.

A few tables behind us there was an English speaking middle aged man sharing a table with a Chinese woman. Our waitresses enlisted the help of the Chinese woman who came over and helpfully, in what at first appeared fluent English, said to me “neck half ten”. I had no idea what she meant and she repeated the odd expression a few more times. Then the man came over, a fluent English speaker, but alas not a word of Chinese. I explained my predicament to him, which he then in a modified version of English conveyed to his companion, who relayed it to the team of waitresses, Chinese whispers indeed. Aha, now it was suddenly crystal clear. The team disappeared taking my steak with them, The man explained that you have to word the request as “cook long time” as the Western concept of a state of the meat’s cooked-ness would simply not be understood. Cooked is cooked and that is that. From his seat he explained that he was from Montreal and here to marry his wife to be, the Chinese lady. What sort of an arrangement this was we have not yet figured out. He had himself had the same problem and was “hankering after a good old cheese burger so bad you wouldn’t believe”. The irony was that back home he is an executive chef.

My steak came back cooked through but fortunately not dried out and very tasty but it certainly was not any beef I have ever come across, maybe veal. Other possibilities were too exotic/worrying to be considered.

The restaurant also showed another feature that we have now seen a few times and is one of questionable taste. Most of the tables are designed as if you were in a bar. They are quite low and have two two-seater settees, one on either side. It is OK for eating but is really designed so that people can comfortable while away the evening drinking outrageously priced alcohol. Here though they have taken the idea of a cosy romantic drink to a new level. They have swinging chairs, hanging by chains from the ceiling and decorated with flowers so that you can have a quiet little romantic drink with the one you love. Highly questionable taste on the part of the person who commissioned and made them!

We spent the rest of the day not doing an awful lot, just lazing about in our room and for me at any rate trying to shake off the under the weather feeling that was still plaguing me. With a long train ride ahead of us tomorrow we popped out to make sure we had enough drinks to see us through, had a light dinner and then went to bed.