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Entries about karst

Another day in karst wonderland: Yanshuo

sunny 30 °C


We had a few morning missions to complete in Yangshuo. Making breakfast was one of them, although we were met with a line of fellow travellers. Most seemed to be in their thirties and European. While I tackled that, Ryan went to the front to inquire about tickets to a mud cave and get the information we needed to buy train tickets written down in Chinese. The women at the front desk certainly knew us well with our inquiries.


We had a swift bike ride into town. Ryan found a new bike that didn't have a flat tire. Yesterday, his last few kilometers had been on foot. The staff hadn't been too concerned when he told them. I chose the bike I had yesterday since I had gotten used to its personality: the rhythm of changing gears on its own schedule and the squeal of its breaks.

Visibility was much better today and most of the ride to town was downhill from the guesthouse. We found Friend Hotel in good time and lined up to buy train tickets at the only game in town. Apparently, the Chinese government had set restrictions on the number of tickets that one person could purchase at eight to discourage tour companies from sweeping in, buying them and up-selling at a higher costs. While that was all well and good, it left us high and dry combined with the train station's sell two days before this particular train policy.


We waited behind a Chinese man as the clock ticked closer to nine o'clock. My heart beat fast as I wondered if we'd even be on that train tomorrow.
Only fourteen tickets left as of last night, so our odds weren't looking too hot. The clock hit nine and the woman at the front began checking in the first man with his Chinese identification card. Another Chinese man came waltzing in and stood right in front of us and the Chinese woman behind us. We had watched people do this in train stations before, and another man from North America had called the man in question on it and he went to the back of the line.

Ryan tapped the man on the shoulder to motion that there was a line. The man simply looked at us, turned around and stood at his cut position like he was a third grader. Even my students didn't get away with those shenanigans. The woman at the front didn't seem to care and served him first, then us. Something about that arrogance and entitlement that he deserved things faster than everyone local and foreign alike really rubbed me the wrong way. We did get our tickets in the end: two top bunks together. I was still pretty shocked there were still some left.


We followed dozens of bicycle convoys on the road past the bus station. It was incredible to see so many people cycling and enjoying the area, but less great to have to navigate through traffic to pass their leisurely pace. Our voyage took us through passes of the karst cliffs climbed by very fit adrenaline seekers, by gardens, scenic bridges, a couple of commercial caves and finally by Moon Hill, our first destination, so we had to backtrack a little.


Our tickets were only 15 yuen or about three dollars and we began our hike up to the top. Looking straight up at Moon Hill, a limestone arch with a hole in the center, told us we had some climbing to do: the kind with stairs. We beat the estimate of an hour to the top, doing it in half an hour. We passed a group of Chinese tourists on the way, up but lost our lead to a large group of Europeans as we rested on the benches to eat our oranges and alien-like rambutan fruit.


The noise of their voices led up to a better viewpoint, which became the birthplace of numerous selfies and group photos. We waited our turn to have our own and took a group photo for the Europeans while they took ours too. Before we left, we sneaked into one of the corners and took a few photos fake rock climbing. Although, given the grip on the rocks and the chalk-like powder on them, they seemed ideal for climbing. No wonder they had to put up all those signs to forbid it.

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Next, we biked back to Golden Water Cave to go on our next adventure. We harboured no illusions that this would be a natural cave as its artificial lights had been griped about in trip advisor posts, but it sounded fun anyway. I changed in the dark and gross bathrooms while Ryan refused. Trough systems weren't the most pleasant.


We still had to wait awhile for the obligatory guide after they confirmed that we didn't speak Chinese. Lunch hour wasn't the best time to arrive. Our tour ended up being a private one, since no other English speakers were in the vicinity. The tour was fairly straightforward as she would name the formations or stalagmites and turn on the lights to bathe them in artificial colours. Some of the highlights were Buddha, the Yangshuo landscape, elephants and even 'mother's milk'. We did learn that the cave was around 20 degrees Celsius year round, a welcome fact in the midday heat.


On the second level, there was a section called rebirth where our guide encouraged me to climb through a narrow and tight space to meet them on the other side. My hips and bum hardly made it through. Once I spotted Ryan and our guide, they had a photographer in tow to document my success or struggle rather, for later purchase. The whole process made me happy to make it out of the tight space.


The third level held mud baths and hot springs for the more recreational part of the tour. They had changing rooms after all and we went into the chilly mud bath. Some time passed before we were brave enough to submerge more than just our calves and thighs. The mud bath was empty save for us until our guide and the photographer came back. They encouraged us to kneel down in the mud so we could take some of those 'authentic' cave photos as well as experience the floating sensation due to the density of the mud. We posed for a few of the photos, but had to rub on the mud as it didn't naturally stick uniformly to the skin. A group of Chinese tourists came in, cameras at the ready and snapped away photos even when we turned away and covered ourselves. We weren't looking to be their cave attraction.


After a quick shower, we made it to the hot springs. The first was scalding, but the second tolerably hot so we could relax once again in solitude. It was nice to unwind after cycling most of yesterday and that morning. The guide was pretty good about letting us have as much time as we wanted. On the way out, we ordered one of our mud bath photos that came out all laminated for us and we headed through a gift shop. It was crazy to see such commercialism right in the cave.

Ryan wasn't feeling so great after we left so we sat outside in the shade. I thought it might be heat exhaustion because he was nauseous, so he took in plenty of fluids and some food. That didn't stay down, but he felt a bit better afterward and we started our bike ride back. We looked around for cab options but found none. He was sick once more on his hands and knees into the ditch on the side of the highway, but determined to cycle back, claiming he felt fine right after.


We made it just past the bus station, the area where I thought we could maybe cab from and continued to a 'supermarket'. After perusing their expired food supply and picking up drinks, Ryan was sick again and I flagged down a cab who to our good fortune would also take the bike. I had the guesthouse's business card with directions in Chinese to give the driver so that wasn't a problem. I still wanted to pick up snacks for the long train voyage the following day, so Ryan took the cab on his own while I did some bike riding. I never did end up finding products that weren't expired and got to the guesthouse only ten minutes after he did. He was resting under the covers when I came in.

Ryan rested for the rest of the night and I went off to find supper in town since eating was at the bottom of his to-do list, understandably. Timing wasn't too kind to Ryan as I found the snazzy vegetarian restaurant on the ride home earlier. I went in anyway, to a place that from its empty tables and Western trying to be zen and earthy atmosphere I assumed few locals frequented. It was likely because they didn't understand why anyone in their right mind wouldn't eat meat.

I sat in my own little alcove on a pillow. They handed me a tablet to flip through and order my meal that even had English and plenty of pictures. I could even snack on the baby mandarins and soy beans while I took my sweet time. One of the oranges found its way into my bag for when Ryan was feeling better. Eventually, I settled on some Guilin noodles which were rice/glass noodles with broth and a sweet, nearly sour, sauce.


I wandered through the town and took some pictures of the night markets by the river and down West Street. It was almost reminiscent of Thailand with bright lights, food vendors and little trinkets for sale. There were some neat handicrafts around as well. I stopped in a fruit market to grab some bananas that hopefully Ryan could eat the next morning. They were supposed to settle the stomach too since he hadn't wanted any teas. When I got back from my bicycle ride in the dark, Ryan still wasn't feeling too well but did manage to rest between bouts of sickness.


In the morning, we headed out soon after breakfast. We met a Turkish man studying history in Beijing and vacationing at the time who shared the cab with us. He spoke great Mandarin and again we were wishing we had some skills of our own. They didn't come without practise though and that we hadn't done.

If we were going to put money on who would be most likely to miss a bus because of a bathroom break, even after food poisoning, I'd still get the vote. Sure enough, after depositing our stuff in an empty bus and me running around to ask people where the toilet was, pointing at my toilet paper and only further confusing them, I came out of the facilities and the bus was gone. I heard someone shouting 'Sarah!' across the parking lot, not Ryan, but our Turkish savior. He had told the bus driver what was going on when Ryan realized the bus had started moving and I was still absent. I did make it on the bus in the end, so we could watch the Gods Must Be Crazy, dubbed in Mandarin.


Luckily, getting on the train was much easier. We managed to deposit our large bags for a small fee, pick up a snack which included the large yellow fruit pomelo that had been growing all over the countryside, and eat lunch in a snazzy air-conditioned restaurant with an English menu and wifi. The fries tasted like they were straight out of McDonald's fryer and the 'lemonade' was just overpriced coke with a dash of lime, but it made up for it by being a cozy place to loiter, and glancing around the booths of others with large bags, we weren't the only ones. We even made it to the train on time too to enjoy our snug top bunks. Not enough space to move, but enough of a ladder to make us feel like acrobats.

Posted by Sarah.M 01:20 Archived in China Tagged mountain cave light bike karst mudbath artificial moonhill Comments (0)


Kartst, bikes, and river rafts

overcast 26 °C


Arriving in Yangshuo wouldn't be complete without the standard terrifying bus ride, complete with horn blaring and ultra-aggressive driving. It didn't help that it was only a two lane road most of the way. Once we arrived, we followed the directions that the guesthouse had given us. It was only 2kms from downtown, which didn't seem too bad at the time. Unfortunately, the bus station was far more than 2kms from the downtown. There were plenty of tourist maps on billboards to follow to the Li River where large karst formations stood in the background, quickly fading as the sun set. We continued down the long yellow corridor and onto pitch black dirt roads. Luckily, Ryan had his flashlight.

In the end, we walked nearly an hour with our heavy bags, to make it to this little guesthouse in the countryside. It would only be fitting that the signs were poorly mapped and that another tourist couple had to give us directions to the cozy garden. When we arrived, it was indeed cozy with a nice porch in front, relaxing lobby and warm colours. They even had Lonely Planet China. Our room on the fourth floor was like staying in a hotel: soft cushy bed, A/C, towels, soap dispensers and even toilet paper (rare for China). It was a welcome change from the rice terraces.

Supper across the street at their sister hostel was pretty delicious. I had one of their recommended dishes, dragon eggplant that had a spicy, sweet and salty sauce and peppers. Ryan had a chicken burger and fries that he quite enjoyed as well. Back at the hostel, the women at the front, who spoke wonderful English, helped us plan out our day for tomorrow and luckily for us, everything was able to be booked on a whim.

In the morning, the fog covering the spectacular view from our fourth floor window concerned us a bit. We went downstairs to take part in the do-it-yourself breakfast that offered a fully equipped kitchen, eggs, tomatoes, toast, jam, tea, coffee, milk, yogurt all for about four dollars each. The jasmine tea alone made it worth the price, at least for me. It was nice to make something for ourselves for a change as well instead of being restaurant dwelling bums.

The fog remained after breakfast, so we postponed our plans to go rafting on the Li river until the afternoon and chose to do our cycle earlier. With the hot temperatures here, 25-28 degrees, that would probably be more agreeable too. The guesthouse rented us bikes that almost functioned and even gave us a picture book of directions to follow for their countryside cycle to Dragon Bridge. The bikes had really squeaky brakes and trying to switch gears was up to the bike's discretion, although I appreciated the fact that they actually had gears.


The mostly peaceful bike ride took us past fields of rice and mandarin trees. Some were still covered up with plastic, probably to protect them from the cooler temperatures at night. We passed a colourful elementary school, went through village back alleyways, past chickens, dogs and farmers. There were some crumbled brick buildings too, just past their prime.


After being treated to minimal traffic other than motorbikes and the occasional van, we had to go onto the main highway for about 3kms to reach what Ryan referred to as the embroidered rock. He had been reading up on some interesting Chengdu museums with embroidered balls the night before, and was seeing the word everywhere. The ride was alright for the most part, except for the horn-happy tour buses that took up most of the road. Thankfully, 3kms wasn't that far on a bike.


The next villages had more apartment buildings, not much bigger than three or four stories and a relaxing downhill stretch. Just past a bamboo patch, the village turned back to open fields and we soon glimpsed the Yulong river. Locals paddled bamboo rafts with tourists sitting to take in the view of the not so far off karst rock formations.


We reached Dragon Bridge after passing through one more village. We could tell immediately based on the number of souvenir and food vendors along with ladies asking us if we wanted a raft tour. We'd already arranged ours on the Li Jiang river so we declined. We walked around to take pictures and I munched on a cheap and tasty cob of corn while Ryan laughed.


The photos we took didn't really do the plant-covered bridge justice as the riverbanks were too crowded with vegetation and buildings to offer a clear vantage point. We also made the executive decision to skip the optional bridge in the interest of making it to the bus station to go rafting on time. It would have been neat if we had an extra hour to be on the safe side.


On our map, there seemed to be a smaller road that followed the river and could keep us off the highway. Maybe it did exist, but instead we found a really bumpy road with a dead end that cost us twenty of our a hundred and twenty minutes. Not wanting to get lost again, we opted for the main busy road. Ryan asked every local he saw for directions, just to make sure we were on the right path. That beautiful downhill section on the way in was a killer walk in the midday heat, since my bike decided to go into first gear right after I had climbed the whole thing.


With just over an hour left, making minimal progress we found the eroded rock to mark our entrance to the main road. I had my doubts that we'd make it, but forty five minutes of intense cycling -- at least fifteen of those spent coasting on downhill sections, three through a dusty tunnel -- proved that the feat was possible and we had time to spare. We might not have been the most desirable people to sit next to on a confined bus space to Xingping village.

The ride was relaxing after that. We stopped in one village to pick up more parcels than a UPS truck for about ten minutes, including large bags of rice, and then a few stops later, we made it to the village. A woman from the boat tour met us at the bus station. When I went to use their washrooms, not only were they squatters, they also only had half-walls without any kind of door. It really made you realize that everyone is there for the same reason no matter how you dress it up. We had a long walk to the boats after that.

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The bamboo rafts here weren't the authentic ones we saw on the other river. These were made of thick PVC pipe and painted to look like bamboo. The boats ran by motor power instead of manpower and the sheer number made me cringe for the environment. I felt a little bad boarding one, considering we had paid a higher price just to get it to ourselves, because we were tourists and weren't offered the alternative.


The first view was the one on the 20 yuen bill of the karst hills. The driver pulled out bill to show us the resemblance. I could understand why they'd put such a nice scene on their money. The landscape continued, big and small peaks, some treed and others bare. The shadows in the distance soon became more peaks as our boat chugged along.


A migraine didn't help the boat situation. I knew I should have been enjoying the spectacular views with caves, karst, greenery, water buffalo, but I was ready to go back to the guesthouse, without the dreaded bike ride. Ryan gave me an Advil, water and we eventually found a washroom on an island. I was happy to pay for the little metal shack as long as it came with a door.


The ride back was far more enjoyable and we took some more pictures. The morning fog had cleared and we could see much better now. Most of the other bamboo boats had gone back too so the noise was reduced. We got a little lost in town after a free ride in their electric car shuttles, bus eventually found the bus station and made our way back to Yangshuo.


Once there, we were not looking forward to the crazy cycle back. We looked around at restaurants until we found one with some affordable dishes that we both wanted to eat. I ordered some spicy beans as well a very basic fried rice. Ryan ordered some sweet and sour chicken that came on the bone. After a few pieces he noticed the chicken was pink and stopped eating it. We tackled the fried beans instead, which sadly came with meat, meaning I had to pick it all off and inspect each piece. The fried rice was meat-free though.

We went into a travel shop in hopes of buying the train tickets that the train station wouldn't sell us in advance yesterday. Must be bought two days in advance, no more. In the shop, the woman was playing on her phone so we waited there until she acknowledged us as most employees who value their job would. Instead she kept playing on her phone and when we didn't leave, she got up and sat on a street bench to make a phone call without even looking at us. Sorry for disturbing your social life. It astounds me how some people still have jobs with work ethic like that.

We rode back to the guesthouse in the dark, but made it there quickly. The women at the front desk there actually helped us figure out that there were 13 train tickets left to Chengdu and if we went to another hotel earlier in the morning, we just might be able to get them. I really hoped that we could.


Posted by Sarah.M 16:54 Archived in China Tagged trees village corn bike chicken bamboo raft yangshuo karst mandarin dragonbridge Comments (0)

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