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May 4-7, 1998
May 11-17, 1999
April 15-19, 2000
May 6-11, 2002
April 14-20, 2006

First Visit, May 4-7, 1998

South of Guilin, a little more than an hour by bus and a century in lifestyle away, is the village of Yangshuo. Yangshuo is famous as a place to relax in a relatively hassle free, peaceful, beautiful environment. The village itself is not much to rave about, it's very small, you can walk to anywhere in ten minutes, and two of the roads are almost nothing but guesthouses, souvenir shops, and western style restaurants. And in Yangshuo there is no shortage of western food, English menus, English speaking staff, western music, and western movies. Most of the businesses are geared towards budget travelers but there is at least one up-market resort. With all this western nonsense you might be asking 'what's the big deal?' Just ride five minutes out of town on a bicycle and verdant rice paddies, limestone pinnacles, and tiny rural hamlets await and all of the western oriented businesses are quickly forgotten.

When I got off the bus in Yangshuo, the morning of the 4th, about five women instantly surrounded me. Four were touting guesthouses and the fifth, a young woman in an Orlando Magic baseball cap didn't say anything, she just looked at me, holding some book in her hand. I followed one of the women to a place called the Fawlty Towers Inn. A clean room with hot water, air conditioning, and TV were mine for about 60 yuan.

The man who ran the place was young, maybe 30, and spoke good English. He went into his pitch about the gazillion services he could offer me, some of which I wanted. A boat cruise was 100 yuan. His suggestion was I take the boat cruise up river about two-thirds of the way to Guilin, most of the scenery is in the lower section anyway, and then ride a bicycle back to Yangshuo, which depending on where I got off could be between 25 and 40 kilometers by road. Good deal. Travel arrangements were next.

My plan was to fly out from Guilin to Guangzhou on the morning of the 7th and somehow get to Hong Kong, probably by bus or train. It is extremely time consuming to do anything but fly to or from Guilin, the trains aren't direct to anywhere. However, flying to Hong Kong is prohibitively expensive. So, back in Xi'an I purchased a discount air ticket to Guangzhou. I asked if it could be changed to a later date should I decide to stay in Yangshuo for more than three days. No such luck. Discount tickets could not be changed. By the evening of the 6th I was giving serious thought to ripping the thing up and staying longer. Because my flight was at 8:30 a.m. it was too early for a bus, but no surprise, for 170 yuan he could arrange a taxi to take me straight to the airport, anytime day or night. Proving once again, everything I was told in Guilin was a lie.

I went ahead and let the man fetch me a boat ticket and arrange airport transportation for me, now leaving me free to explore the area. I was curious about guides. Guidebooks make reference to a number of women in Yangshuo that hire themselves out as guides. The reviews for these guides were very positive. They could lead you on bicycle rides through tiny villages and down roads you'd otherwise get hopelessly lost on, take you back to their village for a home-cooked meal, whatever you wanted. I figured it might be worth my while to locate one of these women, or more likely, have one locate me. Standing outside my hotel was the same young woman in the Orlando Magic baseball cap.

"Excuse me, sir, sir, you have look at my book?"
She handed me the book she had been holding when I saw her at the bus station. It was a journal/diary type book filled with short writings from past travelers describing their wonderful travel experiences with 'Margaret'. Stories about the villages, having lunch at her mother's home, the Li River, and so on. A few photographs were interspersed as well.
"You're a guide, huh?" I said, showing my extraordinary powers of perception.
She nodded her head. "Guide."
"How much for a day?"
"You give me what you want. You like me, maybe give me 100 yuan, you not like me so much, maybe give me 50, 60 yuan."
She seemed nice enough. "Sure, why not. I heard the guides here were good."
And for the first time she smiled. "You want me? Okayyy. Where you want to go?"
"Anywhere. You tell me, you live here."
"You know Moon Hill? Buddha Cave?"
I had seen something about them in the books. "Sure, whatever."
"We get bicycle. Come with me."

There were about a half dozen bicycle rental places around the corner. Cheap ten and twelve-speed mountain bikes made in Guangzhou were available for five yuan a day. I chose one that seemed to be about as functional as I would get. We had some lunch and then headed south of town. In minutes we were on a country road surrounded by spectacular electric green rice paddies. Beyond the rice paddies were the karst peaks, all shaped like gumdrops; no two were alike.

"You're lucky," I said to Margaret. "You get to live here."
She laughed, "No lucky, this boring. I want to leave."
"Hong Kong. Maybe Canton." Canton is the traditional name for what is now called Guangzhou.
"Can you?"
"My father say I can. Say I do anything I want. But I have no money."

We rode on, crossing over a river. She then turned off the main road leading me down a dirt path. Over the next several kilometers we road through more verdant rice paddies and through tiny hamlets, passing farmers in straw hats walking behind single ox, farming rice much as their families have done for centuries. Dragonflies buzzed over head, and all around us, the endless sea of limestone peaks rose from the ground. The various hamlets were often nothing more than a couple of houses and some farm buildings. The houses were very small, most constructed of mud and brick. Farm animals grazed in the yards. I had seen nothing like this in my life.

After about forty minutes the path led us out to a main road. For the past few kilometers we had been riding on paths no wider than a small ox cart. No motorized vehicle bigger than a motorcycle could have ever reached those tiny villages. We turned down another dirt path and rode a few hundred meters to a collection of small buildings.

"Buddha Cave. You want see?" Margaret asked.

Depending on how deep and how long you want to go, you can get into the cave for anywhere between 40 and 100 yuan. It's not cheap. There are several caves in the area. I'm not generally a big fan of caves so I opted for just this cave, and the short 40 yuan one hour tour. Its name stems from a small rock formation on a ledge that looks exactly like a seated Buddha. After seeing the Buddha and a few other interesting formations, I went down about one hundred feet to a pool just big enough to paddle around in a rubber dinghy.

Just down the road from the Buddha Cave is an especially interesting limestone peak, Moon Hill. The name derives from a huge near circular hole in the rock near the mountain top; it's maybe fifty, I don't know, one hundred feet in diameter and looks just like a full moon. A series of steps leads up to the bottom of the hole, about 600, maybe 700 feet above ground level. On the way up I got to talking to my young guide.

Margaret was eighteen, and had spent her whole life in Yangshuo. She had been to Guilin a couple of times but that was it. She had seen Hong Kong in pictures and heard many stories about it. Moving there was her dream, but Guangzhou would be an acceptable alternative. Her English, though rough at times, was good enough for conversation. She was almost entirely self-taught, teaching herself English so she could work as a guide making better money than most other eighteen-year-olds involved in honest work, and also maybe help her to get out of Yangshuo someday.

We reached the bottom of 'the moon'. Margaret told me I could continue to the top by following a trail on the side. She stayed below while I went to the top. The views were, getting redundant here, spectacular. Again, just an endless sea of karst peaks and electric green rice paddies. Afterwards, we returned to Yangshuo via the main road, biking about eight kilometers.

For lack of anything to do, Margaret hung around with me that evening. We ate and sat for awhile at one of the scores of western style cafes, conveniently staffed by one of Margaret's friends. We then walked around the village, there's not much to walk around, and soon ambled down an alley towards a lot of noise that was coming from a gym. It was a dark, dingy, smelly old gymnasium packed with cheering people.

Though Yangshuo is overrun with foreign tourists there was not another foreigner to be found here. Playing some kinds of games were what I guessed to be high school students. The various games included things like painting a picture while moving around on roller blades, or four people walking on a single board, legs tied together, holding a bunch of balloons that had to be deposited in a barrel at the end. It looked like a lot of fun. I was really beginning to resent that nonrefundable air ticket I had.

Tomorrow I was taking the river cruise. I invited Margaret along, she was good company and I figured she could keep me from getting lost on the bike ride back to Yangshuo. She was happy to come along and I was happy that the boat operators didn't charge the local guides for the trip.

There are several differences between the Guilin and Yangshuo riverboats. From Guilin the price is a ridiculous 450 yuan and it's a big boat that seats about fifty or sixty people. The boat goes the way to Yangshuo where a bus returns the tourists to Hell, I mean, Guilin. Going downstream, it's a fairly quick ride, four hours, maybe. From Yangshuo the trip is of course, upstream, in a small boat able to carry only about a dozen people and their bicycles. Almost everybody chooses to return by bicycle. The boat goes about two-thirds of the way to Guilin, stopping at the village of Yangti. You can get off here and ride 40 to 45 kilometers back to Yangshuo or return downstream about another hour to the next village, Xingping, and ride about 25 kilometers home. We chose the latter, though in retrospect I wish I chose the longer ride, it was almost a completely flat ride. Not surprisingly, the ride back was immensely relaxing and beautiful.

The first hour of the boat ride isn't much, but the next several hours are amazing. Aside from the usual karst peaks are all manners of rural life in southern China. Along the river shore are bamboo groves, small farms, and the occasional mud and brick house. There are many small fishing boats, often nothing more than small rafts with a single elderly man in a straw hat with a pair of cormorants (the pelican-like birds that are trained to dive in the water and retrieve the fish). As with so much else in the area, not much has changed over the centuries.

That evening I again settled into the same café. A young girl joined us, Lindy, an eighteen-year-old student at the Yangshuo Foreign Language School, a local college specializing in English and Japanese instruction. Hmm, no wonder there was so much English in this town. Later, one of Lindy's teachers joined us. Her name was Jo-Jo, a cute young woman in her early 20's who spoke very good English. That an English teacher speaks very good English might seem like stating the obvious, but I've been in Asia long enough to know that's not necessarily so. Jo-Jo and I hit it off instantly. I spent the entire evening with the four young women, Jo-Jo, Lindy, Margaret, and the girl who worked in the café. It was a lot of fun.

I was wearing a t-shirt that bore the image of three Rottweilers and the word 'Rottweiler' written across the top. Jo-Jo commented, as have many people in Asia, about why I would wear a shirt with a dog on it. I said I had a Rottweiler back in the United States, was very fond of that breed of dog, and well, if I can't bring my dog to Asia, I can at least wear her on a shirt. As the subject was dog, I raised my eyebrows and looked at my new Chinese friends, slowly I said, "Umm, anybody eat dog?"
"Sure," said Jo-Jo. "I like it."
"Really?" Though I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the rest.
"Sure. It's quite good. I know foreigners have a problem with it, but it's my culture. It's China, we eat dog."
"But what about pets?"
"We have dogs as pets. No problem. There are dogs you eat and dogs you keep. It's not hard to separate. It's not a big deal. But don't worry, if we ever have dinner together, I promise I won't eat dog." Then she broke out laughing; "I'll eat cat instead."

Fast forward to the present (2002). While I still won't eat dog or cat, I have grown much more comfortable with the idea that others do eat these animals. Consider something...

In the United States we round up stray cats and dogs and put them in a municipal animal shelter. While a few may be fortunate enough to find a home, the majority are euthanized, their bodies incinerated, the ashes disposed of in a landfill.

In China, they round up stray cats and dogs - and eat them.

So tell me, which society is more wasteful? Think about it.

Anyway, back to Yangshuo 1998...

The following day was my last day. I spent the morning souvenir shopping, buying a few shirts for myself and a few odds and ends for people elsewhere. The same cheap paintings Roger tried to sell me in Shanghai for 400 yuan could be obtained here for 50. Hand painted t-shirts could be bought for 20 yuan. There were also all manners of so-called antique clothing, ceramics, and other bric-a-brac.

Margaret than took me on another bicycle ride through villages and rice paddies, but this time to the west of town. It was even more beautiful than anything I had seen before. We rode for a few miles, the path growing rougher and smaller as we moved along. Soon we were running alongside a river and after a kilometer or so we came to a waterwheel. It was turning in perpetual motion, bringing up water in bamboo cups, pouring it into chutes of brick, to be dispersed to the various rice fields surrounding us; just as they had done for centuries. It was possibly the most beautiful site I saw in all of China: the waterwheel, the river, the limestone peaks, the electric green rice paddies, the dragonflies buzzing about, and a lone mud and brick farm building across the fields. Except for Margaret and me, there was only a single farmer several hundred meters and several rice paddies away. I thought briefly of Shanghai where I had been but three days earlier. In both Shanghai and Yangshuo conventional time has been rendered meaningless. In Shanghai they've outpaced time, but around Yangshuo time stopped centuries ago.

We then went to Margaret's mother's home for a late lunch. It was down a narrow alley about two kilometers outside Yangshuo. The entire alley was lined with tiny homes all connected to one another. Her mother's home had one large room, maybe twelve feet long and seven feet wide. Two steps led down to the kitchen area, a small room with all the necessary cooking items and a couple of live ducks to keep the family supplied with eggs. That was it. That's the house. The bathroom is a communal facility at the end of the alley. Aside from her mother, Margaret's young niece lives there, too. She was a cute kid of about six years old. Her mother cooked a great meal. I thanked her profusely, snapped a few family photos, and we departed.

I finished the day by spending about an hour or two in a park by the river. There's not much to see except for a small museum, which has some interesting sculptures made from rock and wood. Margaret suggested, or had been suggesting since I got to Yangshuo that I should see the evening cormorant fishing exhibition. I thought about it but I was tired and preferred to spend the evening sitting at the same café talking with Lindy and Jo-Jo, mostly with Jo-Jo.

I really wanted to spend a few more days in Yangshuo. Other than the nonrefundable plane ticket I had, there was no other reason to leave. I didn't have to be in Bangkok until May 18, but the three weeks I had been traveling in China had inflicted some heavy damage to my bank account. And I still had plans to spend two more days in Hong Kong before returning to Bangkok.

Yangshuo really is a great place to relax for a few days or even a few weeks. The scenery is gorgeous, the pace is slow, and by China standards, the place is cheap. My only fear about Yangshuo is whether it will self-destruct under the pressure of increasing popularity. It's a very small town.

Second Visit, May 11-17, 1999

I arrived in Guilin, this time knowing what to expect. I would get in and out as quickly as possible; five minutes would be about right. From the airport I considered taking the CAAC shuttle bus to the center of Guilin, as it would be considerably cheaper than by taxi.  Well, as the bus was already full and leaving and I didn’t want to wait twenty or thirty minutes for another one, I guess it would be a taxi. Of course they wanted to bargain the fare with me. They tried to get me in the cab for a 100 yuan but I wouldn’t budge - use the meter, nitwit, that's what it's there for. Then the drivers made a big deal about the ten kuai toll I’d have to pay (that’s not a lie, there really is a toll and passengers really do have to pay it), and why don’t I just pay the one hundred yuan and make it easier from everybody. “No. Meter,” I said again.

Once in the taxi, I made a point of sticking a map in my lap should the driver get any funny ideas about giving me a ‘bonus’ tour of the streets of Guilin. As long as I was in Guilin I wasn’t going to yield an inch on anything. About Y75 (toll included) later I was at the train station, and the driver really did take the most direct route. As soon as I got out of the taxi the minibus operators were all over me. Last year I got to Yangshuo for the Chinese price of five kuai. The first guy wouldn’t budge off ten kuai so I let him go without me. The next one went down to eight kuai (a dollar), and I figured I might get down to six kuai three buses later, but I really did want to get to Yangshuo, so I paid the blood money and got on. As it turned out, I did quite well getting to Yangshuo for eight yuan, other travelers I met in Yangshuo had been gouged for Y12 and even as much as Y15.

I wondered if Margaret, the same guide I had last year, would still be standing around the Yangshuo bus station waiting to grab the foreigners as they jump off the bus. Well she wasn’t, but I knew I’d find her soon enough. I was also hoping to track down Jo-Jo, the Chinese English language teacher from the Yangshuo Foreign Language School I had hit it off well with last year. I went to my same hotel as last year, the Fawlty Towers, and again got a room for Y60. They also remembered me (or claimed to).

In case you haven't read my Chengdu story, I should point out that at the moment it's just a couple of days after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia...

Check-in necessitated as always forking over my American passport. After looking at my passport the man behind the counter told me not to worry about anything. There hadn’t been any problems with foreigners/Americans being harassed in Yangshuo and the PSB had come around to all the hotels telling the operators that absolutely nobody was permitted to bother anybody. If anyone, students or whoever, should come around the hotel looking to make trouble the PSB would handle this quickly and severely. While this was comforting to hear, it also further cemented my own growing feelings that the Chinese government was going, on the outside, to play up this incident for everything they can get, regardless of the hypocrisy that would be most visible to those of us on the inside.

These feelings were fully confirmed by week’s end as I continued to watch the nightly English language Chinese newscasts and engaged in numerous discussions with people around town. The image that was solidifying in my mind is still the first thing I cite when asked about the reaction of the Chinese on the street. I think back to that first day in Chengdu - while angry students were tossing Molotov cocktails at the US Consulate there were still as many people as ever outside the Bank of China looking to get their hands on my US dollars.

Absolute hypocrisy.

Burn my flag but kiss my dollars.

So, despite my having still not heard any significant news analysis generated outside China, it was now plainly obvious that the government really did stage the protests. As it turned out, and I believe was accurately reported by the non-Chinese press, the government scheduled the routes, they even scheduled the times for throwing rocks and paintballs, the government orchestrated everything. They also made a point of not letting things get too out of hand, either.

The main road through town is Pantao Lu and is where my hotel and a few of the older cafés are located. It looked pretty much the same as last year. I walked the few hundred meters over to and down Xi Jie, a.k.a. West Street. This is the main drag for cafés and souvenir shops. To my right, the Countryside Café, where I spent a lot of time last year was still in business while several new establishments had recently opened next door. Across the street, outside Yangshuo’s only luxury resort - the Yangshuo Resort Hotel, is where many of the guides hang out. If I was going to find Margaret this is where she’d probably be.

I glanced over to the lot outside the resort gates, which was now filled with food vendors and tables. The same bicycle renters as last year were out front and sure enough, a group of guides were assembled under a tree, but I didn’t see Margaret. One of the women asked me who I was looking for, but I declined to answer, as I wanted my arrival to remain a surprise. I walked all the way down West Street. There were several new cafés and a significant increase in the number of souvenir stores from last year. I walked to the end of the road, near the river, then turned around and walked back up towards Pantao Lu. This time, outside the Yangshuo Resort Hotel, I saw Margaret standing around by the driveway entrance.

I stopped and looked at her but didn’t say anything, waiting to see if she’d recognize me. She did. She shrieked, ran over, gave me a big hug, and began admonishing me for not writing her to tell her I was coming. Well, I said, I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, and I added that maybe something would happen and I couldn’t make it. Like, maybe your government tells all the Americans to leave. “I hate America!!” She yelled, partially in jest. I made a mental note to continue that topic later. We had dinner together and agreed to meet for a bike ride the next day. Life was the same as ever for Margaret except her English was noticeably better, not that it was bad before. She also hadn’t cut her hair in a year, it now reaching half way down her back, though she was threatening to cut it any day now. We talked a bit about the bombing and as I was to discover, she like most Chinese, pretty much believed everything their government told them.

I bid Margaret goodnight, though I was to bump into her again later that night anyway. I then took another walk down West Street. I stopped at a sidewalk snack and beverage stand to get a bottle of water. “Eshcuse-a me. Are you free?” a girl of about eighteen asked me.
“Free? What do you mean?”
“You go somewhere now?”
“Ummm, no, why?”
“I study English at Yangshuo School. I want practice English with you, okay?”
“Sure. Whatever.”

We talked for awhile, her English wasn't very good so conversation didn’t get too serious. We left the Embassy bombing alone, though I did mention I was Canadian when asked where I came from. But Margaret came by about twenty minutes later and revealed to all that I was American. This revelation only generated laughter from the several Chinese assembled. I found in Yangshuo that almost without exception being American was of no issue except as a lead-in to a lively political discussion. Most Chinese were truly angry with the US government but seemed to have little difficulty separating the American people from the American government, even if my experiences in Chengdu indicated otherwise - but the negative actions of a few will almost always be more noticeable than the inaction of the majority.

The girl at the snack stand, whose name I’m afraid I have forgotten (I’m terrible with names), was also a student at the Yangshuo Foreign Language School. This is the same school where Jo-Jo taught. I asked if she knew her, the response being the obvious question, “What’s her Chinese name? I only know Chinese name. Don’t know Jo-Jo name.” I did it again. I neglected to bring along or otherwise commit to memory a vital piece of information necessary for locating someone. “I only know her English name,” was all I could say. Nonetheless, I wrote a note to Jo-Jo and told the girl to ask her teacher or teachers if they knew a teacher with the English name Jo-Jo and to just give her the note.

To clear out this story, the girl didn’t go to her school the next day, but I did. She had given the note to a friend who told me that the teacher they think I wanted was absent that day. I thought that was strange because Jo-Jo lived at the school - or did, anyway. Over the next several days various inquiries were made through my friend which turned up nothing. I had all but given up on finding her when on my last day in Yangshuo, as I’m eating breakfast at a café on West Street, I recognize a young woman with long hair walk by. It was Lindy, one of Jo-Jo’s students whom I had met the previous year. We talked only briefly, but when I asked about Jo-Jo she told me that Jo-Jo had moved back to her hometown, Bobai, a few hundred kilometers south, near the Gulf of Tonkin.

Back at my hotel I sat down to watch the 11:00 p.m. English language Chinese news on CCTV-4 to get my nightly dose of America bashing. It was pretty ridiculous. Most of the news was editorializing with the buzz words of the day being “hegemony” and “indignation” as in, “We protest American hegemony with strongest indignation. The hegemonic actions of the imperialistic war mongering United States must be condemned in the severest of ways. We are a peace-loving people. We condemn NATO. We condemn the United States. We condemn American hegemony. We are indignant in our response to the criminal behavior of the American imperialists…” and on and on it went night after night. Within a week of the bombing, a popular Chinese pop group had recorded a song condemning the bombing, condemning NATO, canonizing the three killed journalists, and supporting the Chinese government’s leadership in the response to the bombing. The accompanying video had plenty of images of grieving family members, fist shaking, and protests. Needless to say the state run television was all too happy to run the video over and over.

Several days into my stay in Yangshuo, I watched an English language talk show broadcasted from Beijing. The host, judging by her accent and usage of English, was clearly American educated. The three panel members had extensive American experience; one of whom was in America when the bombing occurred. But for thirty minutes I listened to a Q&A session that sounded like it was taken right out of a government written script. It probably was. I honestly wondered how much of what these people were saying they actually believed. My guess is not a whole lot. The one panelist who was in America would have had access to American news reports and he never reported the American version except to say we flippantly dismissed the whole thing as an accident. To the Chinese on this television show, the bombing was regarded as nothing less than an act of war proving the United States is determined to maintain world dominance at any cost. I made a mental note to remember this reaction if sometime in the future a conflict erupts over the Spratley Islands or over control of the South China Sea. China claims almost complete control over the islands and the South China Sea in disregard to potentially legitimate claims made by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Access to foreign news is not impossible in China. The Internet is everywhere now, and though the Chinese language portion is censored, the English language portion generally is not. Accessing foreign newspapers is hit or miss. I was unable to access the major US newspapers’ on-line versions (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Philadelphia Inquirer), but I was able to access newspapers from San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and Kansas City.

I offered to Margaret and one of her friends, both of whom are fully literate in English, to read the other side’s point-of-view. They wouldn’t do it. For the most part Margaret didn’t want to be engaged in political discussions and showed reluctance to criticize her government.

One of Margaret’s friends was often agreeable to lively political discussions. I suggested at one point that the Chinese government was making such a big deal of this attack simply to deflect attention from the upcoming tenth anniversary of that little military exercise in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government doesn’t hide the incident from the history books, but instead, the Chinese people are taught that the government’s heavy-handed response was a necessity as the protesters, labeled with various adjectives such as counterrevolutionaries, traitors, and subversives, threatened the stability of the nation. Apparently, a lot of young Chinese believe this.

Margaret's friend made an interesting point as to how she views her government. She said that her government is like a grandfather. Old and wise, he loves his children and grandchildren and always acts in their best interests. While sometimes the grandfather may be strict and the grandchildren may not always like what he tells them to do, they do it anyway because they know he loves and cares for them and as an old and wise man, his knowledge runs deep and should not be countered.

The following morning Margaret and I went for a bike ride to an old bridge I hadn’t seen before. The Dragon Bridge is about 13 kilometers north of Yangshuo, just past the village of Baisha. It's an old, massive stone bridge built in 1412. After spending an hour at the bridge we picked up some food in the Baisha market and went back to Margaret’s house for lunch. The house we went to this year is the family’s real house, not the squalid little one room place she took me to last year. I’m really not sure what the relationship is between the two houses or how many roofs her family is spread out under. I never bothered asking and I really didn’t want to know.

There’s no point in giving detailed descriptions of the surrounding area of Yangshuo. I did that last year. It’s still as beautiful as ever, but there has been a noticeable increase in development in Yangshuo. Last year Margaret and I rode bikes from Xingping, about 25 kilometers north of Yangshuo, following the boat trip. Much of that ride was along a rough road with little traffic. The portion of the road between Yangshuo and the village of Fuli has been upgraded. I was amazed when we came upon the crest of a hill. I was expecting the peaceful, scenic tree lined route I had remembered from last year. Instead, all the trees had been removed to make room for road improvements. The impact of this development hadn’t missed Margaret. She turned to me and said, “Do you remember this?”
“Yeah. It was all trees, and I sat under one of them for ten minutes waiting for you to get up the hill.”
“Where you sit this year?”
Good question.

Yangshuo is getting more crowded. Last year I expressed concern that Yangshuo could collapse under the weight of its popularity. I think that collapse may be starting. It’s still in better shape than Dali but for how long is anybody’s guess. Guilin can save it or destroy it. So far it’s saved it by remaining the base of operations for most tourists. Presently most tourists, at least the ones on a package trip, will be put up in Guilin, only seeing Yangshuo at the end of the boat trip before the bus takes them back to Guilin.

However, many groups, and certainly many of the Chinese groups, are still shuttled off to the Moon Hill area south of town, where they can see one of Yangshuo’s many caves, see Moon Hill, and see the enormous Banyan tree, reportedly 1500 years old. But as most are then returned to Guilin, Yangshuo is kept relatively calm at night.

The weather wasn’t too good this year. It’s around mid-May that the nasty humidity that makes places like Hong Kong and Guangzhou so miserable in the summer begins to creep into Yangshuo as well. Except for my first full day, every day was overcast with at least some drizzle. Nonetheless, I got in four good days of bike riding. I did three days with Margaret and one day on my own taking a long loop of about 25 or 30 kilometers that Margaret had shown me. We also retraced some of the village paths from last year, which I’ve now committed to memory.

There are two famous personalities in Yangshuo. One is named Forest. He’s a stand-out among souvenir sellers, hand-painting his t-shirts in any custom design you want. Though not the only one who hand paints t-shirts, he certainly is the best. His specialty is custom shirts that depict one’s trip through China, painting landmarks from various areas around the country and adding absolutely anything that relates to a particular experience one may have had.

He also talks, a lot. About anything. To anyone. Anytime. And it doesn’t matter if you understand him, you probably won’t, for he just keeps right on talking until he’s through, then he’ll excuse himself and return to his shop. I like Forest, I really do. I’ve bought shirts from him, and I’ve listened to him. Many times. I only wish I could tell you what he was talking about. When he’s not painting shirts, he’s painting real canvases, and he’s good, too. Many are on display in his shop on West Street.

He has one rather funny shirt that only a Yangshuo visitor would understand. It’s a woman fruit seller carrying two baskets on a bamboo stick saying, “Hello, banana!” to a tourist who is screaming and running away. “Hello, banana” is Yangshuo’s most famous fruit seller. She’s a smiling woman of about fifty who walks the streets of Yangshuo approaching every foreigner with, you guessed it, “Hello, banana?”

I was in Yangshuo a little longer than I had planned. I planned to at least try to make it to Bangkok by Monday the 17th so long as I could get connecting flights out of Guilin on the 16th, or at the earliest, leave for Kunming on the night of the 15th. It didn’t matter; I couldn’t get a Guilin to Kunming flight until Monday the 17th, and the earliest I could get a Kunming to Bangkok flight would then be the afternoon of the 18th. So I got the latest possible flight - the evening of the 17th. This gave me a full week in Yangshuo. I didn’t need a full week but I certainly wasn’t complaining.

The two Danish girls I had met in Tiger Leaping Gorge were also in Yangshuo at this time and we spent several evenings in the cafés playing cards and sampling the local beer. I otherwise spent my days bike riding, playing cards, discussing bombs and politics with some of Margaret’s friends, listening to Forest’s incomprehensible monologues, and often stopping by a certain sidewalk beverage stand to help one young vendor practice her English.

Third Visit, April 15-19, 2000

We landed in Guilin the night of April 14th, flying in from Zhangjiajie. Fortunately, the CAAC bus wasn't yet full and leaving so we didn't have to fight with the taxi drivers. They let us off at the main intersection near the railway station where the mini-buses to Yangshuo were parked. Fighting our way past a number of touts for who-knows-what we reached the buses. Now this year they're trying to get me to pay Y10 for the passage. To add insult to injury, the bus operator blocks the door preventing me from boarding without first paying Y20 for me and Ning. Of course, the Chinese can walk right on, but... 

Upon arrival in Yangshuo we once again turned up at the Fawlty Towers, they remembered me. They were kinda full, but as they sell some of their rooms by the bed they stuck is in a room with some other backpacker who seemed a bit surprised but unfussed at the late invasion and termination of his privacy. The next morning they sorted us out with our own room.

Yangshuo was showing the early stages of its transition from a peaceful western retreat to major domestic destination. Every building in the entire "old town", for lack of a better term, was being painted in the same white with dark trim, and yes, local shop owners were complaining about this new directive. Forest was nowhere to be scene, reports stating that he was fed up with the town's facelift and had fled back to Guiyang till it was all over. Margaret was still about, hanging around with all the other tour guides in front of the Yangshuo Resort and didn't seem too keen on hiring out her services to us for a day, telling me I already knew where I was going and that "three is a crowd".

We had a couple of days of absolutely spectacular weather before two days of spring drizzle set in. But the good weather was more than enough to get in plenty of bike rides to all the usual haunts as well as a replay of the boat trip I did in 1998. The only difference being that for whatever reason the boat operator didn't drop us directly in the town of Xingping but rather about two klicks up telling us there was an easy road back to Xingping. There was not. Rather it was a rocky path that at times ceased to exist. I was not amused, Ning even less so. (to be continued...)

Fourth Visit, May 6-11, 2002

2002 report coming soon, but until then, some images:


Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2005 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.