A Conversation in Yuanyang, Yunnan

Before I knew that I was seated in an ill-fated bus that would take me to a barren city where I would be stuck for two days while Nick was ill with food poisoning, I sat in my seat, happily eating my oranges.

Nick and I were waiting for the bus to fill, and as we sat an old man with a cabbie hat kept sneaking sly looks. I am used to the stares, and I am too engrossed in my oranges, so I ignore them. The oranges are sticky!

“Where are you from?” the old man asks us. Usually when people ask, they’re asking Nick.

“Beautiful Country.”

Then, what I typically hear at least twice a day – and this time, it’s directed at me: “But you look Chinese.” (There’s another version – “But you look like me!”)

“I’m an overseas Chinese,” I say.

Mostly, when people find out Nick and I are Americans, they tend to ask a lot of questions about the US, or comment on US-China relations and the strength of the US Military, or ask to see some American money (a request best deflected); and it seems like a lot of questions about the US might more accurately reflect an interest to learn more about China and its influence.

“How much is a flight to China?” he asked.
“About 3600-5600 RMB one way.”

“Where can you fly into China?”
“You can fly into Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. From there you can basically fly to any large city within China.” (Here’s where I always forget that Taiwan is part of China…)

“Does your country have a lot of Chinese?”
“Where he (Nick) is from, his city is 50% Chinese.”

“Does your country have a lot of minorities?”
“People from all over the world are in the US. There’s a lot of Chinese people.”

“What about Han Yi Minorities?”
“Um, I don’t know any, but I bet we do.”

“Do you have any American money?”
“Uh…”

“Let’s have a look at it.”

“…You’ll gift it to me as a present?”

The money gained a big crowd. It tested the quality of the paper. Very good. Much better than Chinese money.

“How do you get around China?” the old man asked. “Do you have maps?”

I showed him the Lonely Planet. “That says China in English,” he commented, looking at the CHINA printed on the spine. He flipped through pictures of China from the book, exploring parts of his country he’d never seen. “This is Shanghai,” I said, pointing at a picture of the French Concession. He saw the Sunday Market in Kashgar, the multi-colored water in Jiuzhaigo, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. He didn’t say anything more, just flipped to the next page.

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Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan

After an overnight stay in a stop-over city, a one hour bus, a one hour bus, and then a one hour minivan costing 15 RMB per person – a number we agreed to, prompting the driver to gleefully compare inflated prices with another cabbie – Nick and I still couldn’t find the guesthouse for another 45 minutes.

The sign reading “Sunny Guesthouse” pointed to a restaurant that directed us straight to Jacky’s Guesthouse. Was Jacky’s taking any guests? No.

When we’d arrived in Yuanyang, the rice terraces had looked incredibly dry. The villagers had just begun to drain them, and seeing as the main point of traveling to Yuanyang is to see the fields when they’re filled with water (they reflect light and stuff), after traveling to the first three cities and encountering endless and often unprecedented rain, the sudden apparent and unwanted dryness felt appropriate.

There’s tens of thousands of these rice fields, which stretch to the horizon; it’s great for photographers, with each angle and location and time of day providing a completely different view, and the packed mud dividing the paddies create really great lines. And if you walk along the terraces, there are scarecrows made of roosters on spikes and dog carcasses pulled by all fours and spread thin.(Scarycrows?) Luckily, the fields were still filled with water.

The Terraces During the Day
The Terraces at Their Best: Reflecting the Light at Sunset

Yuanyang’s second charm is its small, contained villages, which lead down into the rice fields, and where women – middle-aged or having worked themselves into looking it – wear thick ethnic clothing and carry wicker baskets holding my weight’s worth in rocks while maneuvering up and down the muddy steps of their villages and into the main road, past men carrying bundles of sticks and leading cows down into the fields. Gangs of dogs roam the steps, threatening violence (all bark and some bite), and pad past the smells of caked feces slapped onto the walls to dry, and pigs, lazing in filth with an occasional grunt.

It’s easy enough to get lost in the bending turns and dead-ends, and Nick and I picked out a reddened rice paddy in the distance, splitting off to see who might get through the village and down to it first. He lost, having bumped into a piglet who’d fallen in a ditch. He didn’t know how to save it, he said; a woman came by to observe the foreign devil and laughed at him as the piglet uprighted itself.

Travel Notes
Accommodation: Duo Yi Shu Sunny Guesthouse (阳光客栈)
Address: 云南省红河州元阳昙胜村乡 多依树普高老寨
Email: sunny_guesthouse@163.com
Tel: 15987371311 (English speakers)

150 RMB, Double w/ shared bathroom
The owners are this old-but-sprightly couple; the lady sometimes eats with her mouth open for comic effect, and the guy is silent and hardworking and sports a really long ponytail. They’re a totally enterprising Guangdong pair who rent out cameras (film, I think) and serve pretty good family-style meals for 30 RMB where you’ll have to eat with Hong Kongers, who you will learn use English when Mandarin is no longer useful with local villagers. So no English, but very helpful, and take advantage of the bus schedule, of which they have printouts.

If you’re planning to be in the Duoyishu area of the Yuanyang rice terraces, this is a good bet. It’s plopped right on top of the rice fields, and you can easily walk up higher to get better and better views at sunrise – or, just take it in from the rooftop. Tickets to view at an official viewing station are expensive and look extremely crowded. You can get pretty much the same picture, and closer, from just nearby the guesthouse.

Directly over the bus station, Sunny Guesthouse has advertised itself on a huge billboard that you may completely miss because it is very high up – you can point to the sign if all else fails and get sent directly there via any of the minivans, parked up the street.

For those arriving from Kunming:
Head to Yuanyang via Jianshui , which is not a bad city in itself; kind of has a worn-out/ancient feel to it. Also, the barbecue is amazing, and am very sad to not have eaten at a restaurant on a lane off of the local ancient street that was carpeted with real grass. From Jianshui, head to Nansha, and from there, take another bus to Xinjie, which is the main town in the Yuanyang area. From there, you’ll have to take a minivan to the specific village area that you plan to stay. Sunny Guesthouse is located in Duoyishu. (You may see somewhere that it is in Pu Gao Lao Zhai, which is true, but Duoyishu is what you should mention to the driver.)

Kunming to Jianshui bus: 80 RMB
Jianshui to Nansha bus: 30 RMB
Nansha to Xinjie bus: 10 RMB
Xinjie to Duoyishu: 15 RMBish

You do not need to pay the entrance fee into special viewing “zones.” 

For those heading to Xishuangbanna:
Lonely Planet will suggest that you go on to Lvchun, which is a terrible idea. Buses from Lvchun don’t leave very often, and you’ll likely be stranded there for a half day, which is also terrible, because there is absolutely nothing there. It would be even worse, if, like us, you are suddenly struck with terribly acute food poisoning and have to spend two days there. It would be a much easier and expedient route to go back to Kunming, and from there head to Xishuangbanna.

To get back to Xinjie, flag down any minivan, although after early evening, they’ll be hard to find.

Kunming, Yunnan

After acclimating to a constant aural background of honking horns and building (de)construction in the works, my first memory of Kunming is the drive to the hostel being a very quiet one. I told the cab driver that, compared to Beijing, Kunming was very peaceful, and she asked what made the capitol city so loud.

“Everyone honks their horns all the time,” I said.
“And why do they do that?”

Taxi drivers, if you can understand them, are a good source of information and conversation – they’re language partners virtually held hostage until the destination is reached, and the fare paid.

She was a lady, and I asked if there were many female taxi drivers. -Tons in Kunming, she told me. And then she started on about how much more capable women were than men (purely in local terms), and in a comment of semi-domestic racism, none of which I had really heard in China before, said that the Dai minority women work very hard, because they had to, seeing as all Dai men are very, very lazy. Until then, I’d only heard general comments re: regional generalizations, like, “Sichuan women are very hot, because they eat a lot of spicy food.”

She mentioned Hai O, who I should go and see, as he was in Kunming at the moment and had come with a group. I wondered who this Hai O – who had come from Siberia – was and if I had ever heard of him and if I would supposedly have a good time seeing him because we both happened to be foreigners. He was leaving in 10 days so the timing was quite good, she said, and that was all very well but still, why bother? And I was getting a bit confused, until I realized that Hai O was not a person, but a group of seagulls visiting Kunming for the winter season.

Siberian Seagulls on Cui Hu

The Siberian seagulls had taken up residence in Kunming’s Cui Hu (翠湖, or Green Park Lake), one of the best parks I’ve been to to date, with a really vibrant, uplifting energy. Members of China’s plentiful elderly community (i.e., “old people”) were singing in casual join-in choirs and impromptu trios playing classical Chinese tunes, dancing choreographed numbers to taped recordings, and hundreds of civilians and soldiers had come out on a bright afternoon (my first so far) to feed the Siberians, throwing pieces of bread in the air and holding out whole baguettes for the more ambitious of the flock. And the cherry blossom (?) trees were in full bloom.

No better way to celebrate the fine weather than to go inside, (we opted to forgo the Kingdom of the Little People). Nick – forever a slave to the guidebook – had been wanting to try out a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet, and so we headed to Tang Chao Yi Pin, where we ended up ordering approximately 4 dishes too many, the result of a terrible inability to discern portion size from poorly proportioned photos.

An Exercise in Self-Control

The distortion of the pictures was intentional. I’m convinced it was all a scheme to prey on travelers, enchanted by the prices and deceived by the small-seeming portions, and susceptible to over-order. The other wai guo couple across the room was likewise drowning in dishes, and all I could think about was the message we were sending that foreigners ordered poorly and wasted their food (when abroad one always represents her country). I spoke to the waitress, mostly out of a need to explain ourselves: “The pictures on your menu are very very small,” I told her.

Travel Notes
Accommodation: Lost Garden (一丘田七号客栈)
Address: Kunming Cuihu Nanlu Huanggong Dongjie Yiqiutian No.7 (昆明市翠湖南路黄公东街一丘田七号)
Tel: 0871-5111127, 13888457037

40 RMB, 4 Bed Dorm Room w/ shared bathroom
The sheer width of a single bed is almost that of a queen, and one of the most comfortable beds I’ve found at a Chinese guesthouse. The shared bathrooms are pretty clean, and the showers are outfitted (at least on the 2nd floor) with free shampoo and body lotion, although the toilets sometimes give off this weird fishy smell. Lost Garden is also a pizzeria, with real cheese and legitimate foreign cooks; it’s more of a boutique budget hotel than a guesthouse, however – don’t expect the staff to be able to give you directions to the station, or anywhere for that matter, or to comment on any tourist sites (“I have never been there”) or to suggest how to get from point A to point B (“I don’t know, buy a plane ticket?”).

Check out:
Tang2 Chao2 Yi1 Pin3 (18 Wenlin Jie): Very large proportions and lots of local, for pretty cheap.
As You Like (5 Tianjundian Xiang, off Wenlin Jie): Downright authentic homemade sourdough bread, baked goods and pizzas. Look out for a sign in the alley.
The Loft (101 Xiba Lu): The Loft is Kunming’s very intimate art district based in converted factories, and has a few cafes, as well as a gallery that shows free movies every once in a while. If you go up on the second floor of one of the buildings, you can see that it was burned in a fire. Though it’s 101 Xiba Lu, you’ll only see a very large sign marking “Loft No.99”  up on the facade of second floor of a tall white building on Xiba Lu.
Confucius Temple, Lingxing Gate (Renmin Middle Road): An overgrown, aging temple in the middle of the very developed in Renmin Middle Road. Plants fight each other for space inside the temple grounds, and there’s also a teahouse nested within the pavilion, where old men play cards. Extremely peaceful in early morning hours, and especially good for solitary contemplation during rain showers.

For those heading to the Yuanyang Rice terraces:
Kunming – Jianshui bus: 80 RMB
Jianshui-Yuanyang Rice Terraces (Nansha) bus: 30RMB 

Guilin, Guangxi

Guilin has been more of a rest stop than a stop-stop; three soggy days while working as pro-bono translator are reason enough for a break. If there’s anything I’ve learned while living in Beijing, too, it’s that China can be an exhausting place to live.

But being a tourist in China is another deal: Not only can you expect constant shoving while waiting in line three times the normal wait (fruitless as it is when bombarded on all sides by queue-interlopers, staying in line through the bitter end, is, for me, a matter of principle); After going to the train station multiple times to buy tickets that are nonexistent or newly sold-out (last ticket bought by the guy who cut in front of you) and after hearing everyone talk about you and your very tall wai guo friend as they stare at you throughout your bus ride, it can often be difficult to muster up the energy or excitement to see yet another overpriced attraction, one of the many that often makes ancient China look more like Chinatown, LA.

According to my conversation teacher, Chinese people like attractions of the re nao kind; bustling and noisy. When 80% of tourists go to 20% of the destinations, and when that 80% comes from a population of 1 billion, it’s not exactly bustling, so much as an overcrowded human zoo, and noisy can often translate as “someone is yelling their phone conversation in your ear.”

The View from China

But if re nao is a major trait of every worthwhile Chinese destination, then so is a startlingly uniform business strategy of the sites’ proprietors, one that not only insists that caves (and often natural wonders) be decked with neon-brite lighting, as well as a natural element/growth that looks like either a breast or a phallic symbol, for the amusement of travelers. You can also expect Chinese phrases branded into natural rock wonders, a requisite unnatural “natural” hot springs, and national parks turned into something more akin to national amusement parks, with cable cars, a multiplicity of animal shows, and photo opportunities at every 200 meters. My trip to a nature reserve was more a tradeshow rather than an opportunity to commune with nature. But why commune, when you have an opportunity to buy nature and bring it home?

Travel Notes
Accommodation: Wada Guesthouse
YHA/International Youth Hostel

4 Bed Dorm Room: 35 RMB
Dorm rooms are big, and equipped with a bathroom/shower to boot. Knowledgeable staff. Storage lockers are kept in the main reception entryway, and are otherwise pretty safe. for the animal-wary, the hostel has a large dog, that understands both English and Chinese, and is very lonely and will come to play ball. do not refuse it, but be warned – should you engage it in a ball of catch, it will be very hard to stop it from repeatedly asking for more.

Yangshuo, Guangxi

In the late winter, when guidebooks and wikitravel frown upon going to southern China, and when all  variations of weather.com indicate rain, it’s probably not the best idea to go. But the typical Nick response (“Whatever”) and my tendency to believe that the travel gods have chosen me, ME, as their own, inevitably meant that we miscalculated spring for winter, and went to Yangshuo, where it was not as green or as dry as in the photos, and where it rained for the entirety of the three days we were there.

Along the way we met a lot of people. With my natural inclination to dislike stranger dangers, I was pleasantly surprised by some of them, while an elderly couple from the Netherlands/Canada reaffirmed why mankind is terrible and traveling should be illegal for some.

Some people we’ve met on the way:

Peter:

A Dutch man working in Shanghai with flower (not flour) imports. He studied agriculture/food in college, and his job prospects, though good, depressed me a bit to listen to, because they sounded boring, and made me wonder what it is our generation has to look forward to, also reminding me that I have no job.

Peter’s idea-man personality saved Nick and me from a failed day-trip, having planned to walk to Moon Cave, which I only later realized would have only taken us approximately 5 hours to walk to, plus another 5 hours back. The flash rain storm stopped the journey about 25% of the way in, and we were stranded at a hostel with Dutch people, one named Peter. The three of us headed by car to Gold Water Cave.

Gold Water Cave is a very cool cave, that Chinese business sense mixed with Chinese bad taste has made even better by artificial lighting and day-glo hues. The mandatory guides seem to have acquired a good understanding of the foreign sensibility, pointing to novel stalactites shaped in recognizable images, like the stalactite shaped like a breast, which she made me take a photo with against my will.

Gold Water Cave  is also a very natural cave, supplanted with decorative concrete rocks we saw workers molding as we passed by, and also has a bunch of  amenities, like the (not) natural hot springs and the mineral mud bath meant to cure your ailments. You should’ve been there – there was a mud slide!

Workers at Gold Water Cave

Alistair:

Deciding to take a day long hike out of the city and along the very beautiful Li River (and also going to see the place depicted on the back of the 5 Kuai bill), Nick and I headed an hour away to Yangdi, where the plan was to hire a boat to to cross the river at three separate times, in order to continue the hike as paths were available.

The Li River banks in Yangdi are actually controlled by a very tight mafia of middle-aged women, who will cite ridiculously high prices for a mere river crossing that they really aren’t in much of a position to cite in the tail end of winter, when only idiots like myself and Nick (few and far between) are traveling in wet and rainy Yangshuo, and are their only source of income. The Boat mafia’s modus operandi involves flattery (Your Chinese is so good!), shaming (What, you want to rob us?) outright lies (Your Chinese is so good!), and intimidation tactics, where any other boat people who quote a reasonable or merely lower price for crossing are kicked out of the port, for good, with the knowledge that if they ever come back, they shouldn’t count on having hands to row their boats anymore. The mafia women followed a really sad group of clueless Russians who I tried to help – their cluelessness rendered them unsaveable – and well into the 30th minute of this boat-crossing-fee debate, where we walked away, and they followed us, and we continued to walk away, Alistair showed up, and was pretty  much down to pay a high (but already much lower!) price and share a boat, and then Nick and I gave up, shut our mouths, and sat down.

The hike from Yangdi back to Yangshuo is really pleasant, and involves walking along a dirt path for most of it, where you walk along villager’s orange trees and river banks and outhouses and piles of trash, that is, before you end up on a paved road for the rest of the way. A four hour walk is even more pleasant when you have pleasant company.

My Hike: A View of the Li River

Alistair, an Australian, works in occupational therapy, which I now know what that means, and has his own company where he can leave whenever he wants for as long as he wants, and where everyone works from home and has monthly company dinner meetings at an employee’s house. I talked to him a lot about co-ops and he seemed very impressed by my Rhetoric degree (which I convinced him was very useful) and sought out my ill-informed opinion on workplace dynamics. His grandparents came to China in the 60’s, which I found unbelievable, and predicted that China would become the superpower it is.

Alistair had a camera which he used to film all of the proceedings of the day, and said that he makes videos after all of his trips. I even made an appearance. He bought Nick and me a dinner of beer fish and gave us his business card at the end of the day, which was very nicely designed.

The Dutch Couple:

Along the walk, I spotted something among the brush. It was an animal caught in the tall weeds, It was trapped! It turned out to be an elderly couple wandering aimlessly and lost in the shrubbery, talking very loudly. Of course I had to help. I started telling them that they were near the main road, and that the last crossing point was not far away,  and then I saw a boat coming after them, and suddenly the man started yelling at it, and it seemed they were not lost at all, but that they had jumped out of their boat and then didn’t know what to do.

Elderly Couple had jumped out of their boat because of a misunderstanding of how many crossings the boatman would take them on, and the price. They’d wrangled in the Chinese passengers on their boat to translate, and anyway, jumping off a boat never resolves problems, so the boat led on a hot chase (40 km/hour) and found them on the river bank.

I’ve always thought of Europeans as very worldly, but having been in SE Asia and also having met this couple, my opinion has considerably lowered, especially when they complained about the locals in every country they’d been to so far (“Crooks… all of them”) and when they asked Nick if he was enjoying Japan. (We are in China).

When the couple saw me, and the enemy boat approaching, they raised their white flag and pointed at me, saying, “This Japanese girl speaks wonderful Chinese!” (I am Chinese), thereby recruiting me as translation. For the next 20 minutes I had to translate from their English to my lackluster Chinese, which was met with the Chinese contingent’s “Do you mean….?”s, and eventually, everything was settled when the Dutch couple threw 100 kuai at the boat driver, less than agreed upon, saying, “One hundred or nothing!”. They were utterly disagreeable, and evidently do not live by the very true maxim that when abroad you represent your country. They then followed us the rest of the way back to Yangshuo, with Alistair, Nick and me trying to lose them along the way.

Facilitating the Gathering of the UN in Yangdi

Travel Notes
Accommodation: Yangshuo Culture House

80 RMB/Double Room
Nice. Owner is a bit world-weary and may not like his job anymore but helpful. For a rate of… I think… 180 RMB/Day, the price will include all meals for the day. Owner is a bit of a scoundrel, though. Told me bikes were 25, which I repeated (incredulously, not factually), and then he said, “Yes, bikes are 20,” trying to play off that he’d said that price originally (he did not).

Gold Water Cave: 90 RMB

Day hike from Yangshuo to Xingping: Take a 10 RMB bus to Yangdi. From there, you’ll be making a 4 hour hike to Xingping, where you’ll have to catch a bus back to Yangshuo. In order to make the hike, you’ll have to cross the river three times in order to follow the path. Typically, you’ll bargain at Yangdi with a boatman for only the first two crossings (I got 50 RMB for the two crossings, though during high season prices may be cheaper). The last crossing is a standard fee of 5 RMB. From Xingping to Yangshuo, the bus costs 7 RMB. 

Just the Beginning: Shenzhen to Yangshuo

Hello Friends and Family, It’s late as implied; I’m playing a little catch-up, but please do apply pressure so that i’ll continue to write more, in a less sporadic manner. Parents, please be advised that adult issues like swear words may find themselves appearing within these digital pages. And so here we are, two weeks and five days in the past:

After the nice Shenzhen policeman led Nick and me to the bus station ticket booth (in reality, an overpriced travel agency) we, veterans of the bus-ticket-hustle, got lost trying to run away from the man and found standard tickets on an overnight sleeper bus to Yangshuo, Guangxi, the beds of which were roughly 2/3rds the size of a Nick (measurement of roughly 6’2″). “Sleeper” was less characteristic of the ride than the music videos played loudly all night. Music videos, I’ve found, are key to understanding a country’s romantic culture. Whereas in the US, romantic liasions involve lots of sweat and rain, in the overnight buses I’ve ridden in Laos, romances always involves misunderstandings with cell phone usage.

According to Nick, the walls of the male restroom on rest stop #729 are scrawled with crude jokes written in crude English, some of which he was too happy to share:

A woman goes to doctor. Doctor say, “You have an obstruction.” Friends say, “What obstruction?” Woman say, “Fart!”

Travel Notes
Shenzhen-Yangshuo Sleeper bus: 230 RMB