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20051217_P_0154
A refreshing morning draught of sugarcane juice. Who cares if it's green?

We were up and out aiming for the ten o'clock bus to Wuzhou, our next stop on the trail. Getting to the bus station they told us that the express bus did not leave until quarter past eleven so we had time on our hands to spare. Near the bus station is the local "hungry hill" so we headed to a little corner cafe, much to the delight of its owners and the curiosity of its customers, and sat down to have some breakfast. I am still not used to the continual staring and I think the novelty factor of it is already starting to wear a bit thin for me. People also seem fascinated by our backpacks. I suppose we forget how much variety we see in our normal daily existence in Europe, particularly compared to a country like this which has had, and still has, outside influences closed off to it.

As we munched our way through yet more rice, others around us were eating what from a distance looked like a stomach lining, a long almost transparent rubbery piece of something. It was only when the people at the next table had it that we saw it was some sort of thin and stretchy noodle. It still looked unappetising. Any bits of food people do not like they simply spit out on the floor, and not just at pavement cafes. The place we ate in on Shamian Island provides dinner for its staff at about nine o'clock. Even here, in a relatively smart looking restaurant, the staff spat bits out onto the floor.

Back at the bus station we sat and waited for the bus, keeping and eye on the time and the gate as we could not understand any of the announcements. Before long we were on the bus and heading on to Wuzhou in Guangxi province. The journey itself was pretty unremarkable with the landscape becoming increasingly agricultural the further we went.

At Wuzhou we checked about onward buses to Yangshou for tomorrow. We are only really stopping here as there is no direct bus through. We bought tickets for the 8:40 bus, surprised that we needed to be at the bus station at 7:50, and then headed out to find a hotel. We had decided to stay at the Dongxin Binguan which from the map in Lonely Planet looked as if it was a fair walk away from the bus station. The lady taxi driver looked bemused when we showed her where we wanted to go and we soon found out why, it was probably only a five minute walk away. It is a new hotel and we had a very smart looking room with, unusually for China, a double bed. It cost less that a twin and I think it was designed for single occupancy. We only had two complaints. One, it was freezing cold and no matter how high up we turned the thermostat only cold air kicked out. The other was the ongoing saga of solid beds. It is nice to have a firm mattress but this one was rock hard

As we went up in the lift to our room a young man asked us why we had come here as it was only a city and there was nothing to see or do. Little did we know until we arrived there that Wuzhou’s main sight, the Snake Repository, closed down two years ago. Fortunately a lady there was quick off the mark coming to tell us so our taxi had not yet done an about turn. It is not often that Lonely Planet is that far out of date but we were surprised as our edition is from May 2005.

Instead, we decided to go for an amble through the old part of town. We walked along Nanhuan Lu, crossing over to go and have a look at a local market. Here they were selling mainly fruit and vegetables. Some we recognised – lettuce, onions, carrots, beans, peas – but others were totally new to us. It was frustrating that we did not have the language skills to ask and find out what they were. People here were generally quite happy to have their photo taken. One man who said “no” got such a ribbing from the others around him that he finally relented. He was chopping something, I do not know what, but his knife was moving so fast I had visions of him shaving off his fingers.

Around the corner we entered the fish section. The first stall we saw had a row of fish heads standing up in a row with the mouths still twitching open and shut – you cannot argue with the freshness of the produce here. I have no idea what the different types of fish were but recognised the shrimps and the turtles they had for sale. Outside there were more people with wares to sell but this time laid out on the floor. Although the goods were fresh the hygiene standard of the whole market left a lot to be desired and there was plenty of room for improvements. We are trying not to be too judgemental about the difference in standards here compared to home but sometimes it is hard.

As we left the market there was a row of three or four stalls selling what we thought was tea. It actually turned out to be sugar cane freshly mashed with some sort of leaves. It produced a very sweet green coloured liquid, the colour of dirty pond water. It was not an experience that I think we will repeat but it was interesting to give it a go.

The old town on Wuzhou had a very Mediterranean look and feel to some of its streets. Little statues were dotted along the road and plaques explained some of the town’s industry and what the buildings were originally used for. Wuzhou was once an important trade centre and many different nationalities had a base here. The buildings all had arcades with small shops on the ground floor. It was a mix of modern and old with bamboo mates for sale in some and small car repair shops based in others.

Down by the river a long paseo style walkway has been built about ten metres above the ground. I am not sure if it also acts as a flood defence barrier but it provides great views over the waterway and across to the other side of the river. A couple of small boats were out casting their nets. Having seen the colour of the water I am not sure that I would want to eat any fish they caught. We followed the river back down at floor level passing different shops that all seemed to be selling the same things – colourful packets of stuff with we know not what inside.

We ambled back through the side streets t our hotel passing a calm and relaxed bustle of daily life going on around us. Stef, hungry as ever, tried the wares of a little café. He had a metal tray, like the ones you see in films and on TV of prisons dishing up food for their inmates. A big steamer outside yielded a monster portion of rice and you were then free to choose what you fancied to go on top of it from about twelve different meat dishes and eight different vegetable options with the rice, meat and vegetables all segregated in their own little indentations in the tray. The round hole which I thought would get some sauce was filled by a bowl of soup that resembled dirty dishwater. It all went down the hatch and was tasty and cheap to boot.

20051217_P_0160
Riverside at Wuzhou

Having seen pretty much all there was to see and do in Wuzhou we made our way back to the hotel, stopping to watch a variation of a game of Mah Jong along the way. The people playing were happy for us to take a photo but just before we did they knocked don all the tiles and mixed them all up. They were seated around a low table on tiny little chairs that reminded me of the ones you see in the nursery schools and infant schools they are so low. They are common place throughout China and are not just for the kids.

Our experiences in China seem to revolve around making people laugh at our attempts to speak the language and the meals we have had, often both occurring at the same time. Having not really seen options for dinner out and about in town we opted to eat in the hotel restaurant and were met by the same wide eyed look of surprise that we have had in other places as we walked in. The waitresses were all jostling with each other to see which one drew the short straw and had to come and serve us. One finally came over, apologetically saying that she did not speak English and handed us a menu in Chinese. Help was at hand with Lonely Planet and we showed the page with different dishes, pointed and got a “yes” or a “no”. I am not sure whether it was true or just a stitch up but they came back saying that one dish was finished and suggested instead that we had Peking Duck (crispy aromatic duck as we know it), the one with pancakes, hoi sin sauce, vegetables and shredded duck.

Like the gullible fools we are we went for it and proceeded to give the entire restaurant’s staff their evening’s entertainment. We were almost the only people in the restaurant so all the staff simple lined up around our table, at a respectful distance, and stood and watched us eat. It was strange to feel so many eyes on us as we battled with the vegetables we had ordered, which were like purple sprouting broccoli, that you have to munch and slurp up guiding it with your chopsticks as you go. The real fun though started when the Peking duck arrived, not helped by us both getting chronic fits of the giggles too.

We were provided with knives and forks for the exercise which was probably not a bad idea. The duck had not come pre shredded like it does in the UK, it was still on the bone and hidden away under a layer of skin which looked nice and crispy but which for me was far too chewy and fatty to eat. It was pretty good and I successfully managed to prepare, roll and eat mine with chopsticks, much to Stef’s amazement. After a while the managers decided that their staff had had enough fun at our expense, which coincided with their own dinner arriving, so we were able to finish our meal without forty pairs of eyes staring at us.