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We had breakfast at the hotel before making tracks and heading for Guilin. The lady at reception wrote down for us what we needed to say to get tow tickets on the express bus. They are used to the routine at the bus station and the express bus conveniently leaves from right outside the main ticket office.

It was short one hour hop to Guilin through more unremarkable countryside, except for the limestone karsts. The area around Guilin, and the city itself, is apparently one of the most beautiful in China. The bus station was on a par with most but with this one the bus had to fight to get in. Taxis were blocking the entrance and buses seemed to be coming from everywhere, all trying to get into the one single lane entrance to the station. Once inside our bus simply stopped as soon as there was space and bundled everyone out. A taxi stood waiting and for the tourist price of Y20 took us to our hotel.

With me not feeling too great we decided to go for a slightly more expensive hotel in the hope that the room would be warm and the bed soft. The Universal Hotel did not disappoint although the room was slightly faded and worn. A doorman hopped down the steps to help us with our bags and then led us through a cavernous marble lobby to reception. Here they checked our passports before confirming that they did have a room for the night. Not only do we have space but we also have a view our across the Li River and over to the Seven Star park, where the peaks are apparently in the formation of the Great Bear constellation.

We sat and watched the activity on the river for a while before heading into town. The hotel is by the main Liberation bridge. To the left, the water level was so low that there were just a few pools of water here and there. To the right the river appears to be in full flow. It is almost as if there is some sort of dam under the bridge but not so, it is just the way the river runs. Bamboo rafts, like the one we got soaked on in Yangshou, were plying up and down the river and there were also a couple of people swimming, not something that I think I would choose to do in these waters. Local fishermen were out with their nets balancing on very narrow bamboo rafts. Here they use cormorants to dive in a catch the fish, swiping the fish from the birds before they can eat them.

Our first impressions of Guilin were positive. It is a very green city but it also looks clean and well organised. There is no litter lining the streets and, apart from the bus station, the traffic seems to flow in an orderly and organised fashion. Our taxi brought us by the scenic route to out hotel, along the river bank, where there is a wide pavement for people to stroll along under the shade of large trees.

We spent the afternoon making plans for the next few days using the China International Travel Service. It is listed in Lonely Planet and for us therefore is classed as “approved” and there was a very friendly and helpful chap behind the desk who spoke English. We checked the option for onward travel to Kunming. We can either fly there for Y930 each or for Y350 (Y270 for the ticket, the rest commission) we can take the train, a twenty three hour trip. A long train journey is something that Stef in particular has wanted to do for ages. It has romantic connotations of watching the world go by through the window as you gracefully glide across the country. Even though we both know that the reality will be very different we opted for the train, hoping that we have been booked into the “luxury” soft sleeper class.

Not far from here (only a four hour drive away) are the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, which are meant to be a spectacular sight. Not wanting the hassle of public buses to get there we asked about tours. With an English speaking guide it would cost a staggering Y550 each, a hug mark when the bus and entry fees would be less than Y100 each. The alternative trip, for Y150, would be to go on a tour with a Chinese group and a Chinese guide with no English spoken. We decided to think about that one as either option is a fair amount to pay.

While we are here we also want to try and see some typical classical Chinese theatre or opera and we asked about options. He enthusiastically pulled out a leaflet for a show, Dream like Lijiang, confirming that it was traditional music and dance. We paid a deposit for the train and the theatre tickets and he said he would meet us at our hotel at 7:15 to take us to the show.

From here we ambled around and through town for a while heading back in the general direction of our hotel. We walked around the Shan Hu Lake, one of two in the city centre and then worked up through the shopping district to the main central square. Hungry we went in search of food. The option listed in Lonely Planet (Anna’s) was closed but across the street on the first floor was another hopeful looking option. We were met with friendly smiles but the language barrier kicked in.

Fortunately it was a buffet style place. They gave you a slip of paper and you went and pointed at what you wanted to eat and they then brought it to your table. Not knowing the score we assumed that everything we chose would be heated up but that was not the case. We had cold spicy noodles with spicy fish (that I think was eel), something else that we could not place and a local egg dish. They marinade the eggs somehow so the yolk goes black and the white turns to a clear brown jelly looking consistency. Stef assured me that it tasted good but I could not bring myself to eat it.

By this stage I was feeling pretty foul again so we ambled back to the hotel, stocking up on drinks along the way and chilled out while waiting for our evening’s entertainment. Our chappy duly arrived at 7:15 and bundled us into a cab. This surprised me as we had passed what looked like a theatre in town and I had just assumed that the show would be there. We crossed the river and drove our through a different part of Guilin, again neat, tidy and clean. After about ten minutes we turned into the entrance for the theatre and I think we both knew then that we were not going to see what we had hoped we would see.

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Li river lit up at night, in Guilin

The car park was full of coaches and the theatre was full of groups of Chinese tourists. Our chap got our tickets and showed us through and into our seats. As with the bus, everyone was given a free bottle of water on their way in to the theatre. My concerns at upsetting people with my coughing were soon allayed as people were quite happy to chatter away during the show.

And what a show! I know we probably were not meant to but we chuckled our way through it, the laughter setting me off coughing every time. It was like a poor imitation of Cirque du Soleil. There was a big cast including dancers, clowns and acrobats with the acrobats stealing the show each time they came on stage. The dancers performed western style ballet to western music. It was a bit stiff and starchy and none of them really looked as if they were enjoying themselves, especially in one of their last bits that was disco dancing. We were close to the stage and you could clearly see that the costumes were a bulk order and did not fit most of the dancers properly. The clowns were a bit tame and did not really get the crowd going but the acrobats were good fun. They tumbled, leaped and juggle making an otherwise laughably painful show something worth watching.

One little chap built a tower out of chairs and climbed to the top doing handstands as he went. He was tiny and I could not decide if he was an adult or a child, but then I had that problem with most of the people on stage. As you can probably guess it was about as far removed from traditional Chinese dance as you could get. The chap from the travel agency had proudly told us that some bigwig is taking this show on an international tour. If it comes to a theatre near you save your pennies or go and see something else. Next to us was a tour group of Chinese men and they were also chuckling away at how crass it was, in between eyeing up the dancers!

We got a taxi back to the hotel and tried to get some dinner on room service, knowing that there was a menu in the room. Communication failed badly on this one and they also were not much help when we asked if there were restaurants near by. “Yes” was the response! We went to a place next door to the hotel called the Left Bank Café and breathed a sigh of relief to see a menu in English. Not wanting Western food though we got stuck as the Chinese dishes were only listed in Chinese. The manager, who spoke good English, helped us out and suggested dished to us. We had a really tasty baked fish (try that with chopsticks!) and a beef dish where they bring a pot of hot oil to the table and tip the meat in so that it is freshly cooked. All in all a good dinner.