Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Guilin: The Prequel

My earlier post about visiting Guilin in China was all based on my second visit there. It had changed quite a bit since my first visit in 1992. That had been interesting in a whole different way.

Our plane, a small narrow bodied jet on which the faint but unmistakable logo of Aeroflot could still be seen through the inadequate ‘Air China’ repainting, approached the airport. In the bright sunlight the area looked a gorgeous place. The strange conical mountains rose from an impossibly green plain like the Molehills of the Gods. When we landed it was at an airport that seemed to be military rather than civil. We had acquired a new "guide" at Xi-An airport, Robert and now, as we trooped down the steps onto the runway, we were met by our local man, Hector. He was tall and thin and slightly shabbily dressed, with a broad goofy grin that never left his face for the whole of our time in his city. Parked near the chain link fence was a bus which could easily have been mistaken for a derelict. Hector led us to it, proudly proclaiming it to be the best in the city. We climbed aboard, leaving our luggage behind, and drove on to yet another lunch in yet another local restaurant. This one was magnificent. It would have shamed the standards of Chinese restaurants in any capital city in Europe. The interior was cool and air conditioned. The furnishings and decor were all of elaborately carved wood. We grouped around the highly polished tables and were served by immaculately uniformed and deferential waiters.

We were also the only people in the whole enormous dining room. The impression was that it had opened solely for our visit.

At the hotel our luggage hadn’t turned up. By now we should have learned the lesson but still no-one had thought to pack anything as sensible and practical as a spare T-shirt into their hand luggage. As it was 90 degrees and we had exploded into soaking perspiring sponges the moment we had left the plane, we were in need of a change of clothes. Robert checked us in while Hector went back to the airport to find out where our changes of clothes had all gone. There was just time for a quick shower to get rid of some of the sweat and cool down before climbing back into the dirty clothes and heading out to the Reed Flute Caves.

Guilin is in the heart of the China that people imagine, the China of rice paddies, toiling peasants in broad hats, buffalo drawn carts on dirt tracks with mountains in the background and thin wispy clouds in a perfect blue sky. The town itself was nothing very special. It was rather seedy and shabby. The hordes of visitors, both Chinese and foreign, had resulted in a thriving but rather tacky tourist boom.

The drive out to the Reed Flute Caves though was so perfect that we insisted on half a dozen stops to take pictures of the mountains reflected in the water of the paddies. None of the workers in the fields showed the slightest interest as twenty people lined up on the road to take their photograph. I supposed that it was such a common occurrence that they scarcely even noticed it any more.

The caves, when we reached them, were extremely busy. Crowds of people were waiting to be admitted. We queued with joined them for over an hour in the small, shadeless concrete waiting area. The sun was even hotter now that it was at its afternoon zenith and we were all on the verge of heat-stroke when we finally stepped into the cool dark interior.

Those strange conical mountains are limestone and they are pitted with caverns that have the usual weird limestone stalagmite and stalactite formations. We went down the steep path and entered an enchanted fairyland. Coloured spotlights in dozens of hues and shades had been cunningly hidden among the rocks to illuminate the various features and formations, casting gargantuan multicoloured shadows around them. For more than an hour we followed the path. At the very lowest point of the cave system was a vast natural hall with a perfectly still underground lake that reflected the gorgeously lit roof as if it were a polished mirror. I had never seen anything like it and even now, years later, when I have been in cave systems in many parts of the world, even in the mighty Carlsbad caverns, it still remains the most wonderful of them all. Purists will disagree, saying that what I found so entertaining was the light show, that the caverns themselves were much less spectacular than others, that to appreciate the natural beauty would have been better than the art and artifice of the Reed Flute Caves. I don’t care. Even if it was the lighting that made the place wonderful it was, nevertheless, wonderful.

Back at the Hotel there was still no luggage. There was however an extremely harassed Hector. Our bags, he said, were safe. Unfortunately the reason that they were safe was that the authorities at the airport had impounded them. He was negotiating for their release. It wasn’t an uncommon problem. All that was needed was a sufficiently large bribe and we would get everything back. Meanwhile we should eat dinner, have a few drinks and a sound nights sleep and wait until morning.

We took the advice and sure enough, when we woke up, our suitcases were outside our doors. OK, the locks were open and broken, clearly having been forced. Inside everything was messed up but seemed to be complete. I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted that none of my things had been worth stealing.

I selected some clean clothes from the jumbled together mess and got ready to attempt breakfast. The anti-malarial tablet that I had taken was making me severely nauseous but I went down anyway. By the time I reached the dining room I felt dreadful. The sight and smell of breakfast unleashed a fresh assault from my quivering stomach. I forced down a glass of juice and retreated to my room. It looked as if I might have to miss today's trip on the river Li and spend the time in a darkened room. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes.

An insistent knocking at the door woke me. I looked at the clock. I had had about two hours extra sleep. The knocking proved to be Robert, checking up on whether I wanted to take the boat trip or not. I was still feeling ill but the immediacy of the problem had eased so I decided to go after all.

Down at the docks there wasn’t one boat there were dozens, a flotilla that looked like a re-enactment of Dunkirk. The boats were all of the same design, square and blocky with an interior lower deck with tables and seats and a flat canopied upper deck where we could stand and watch the riverbank go by. For the more dedicated shoppers there were even a couple of small trinket stalls on the deck selling items of jewellery.

The convoy moved out and the combination of the fresh air and the lovely day started to blow away my sickness. I was glad I had come.

Out on the river the cormorant fishermen were at their business. They fish with trained cormorants, slipping a noose around their necks to stop them swallowing their catch. I watched one release his bird into the air. It hovered for a few moments then swooped down to skim the surface rising again a moment later with a large fish in its talons. It circled back to the boat it had come from to deliver its catch.

We drifted lazily down the river through a magnificent landscape. It was tranquil and serene and a perfect change of pace from the frantic sightseeing that had filled the days until now. At the back of the boat was a kitchen where cooks were busy preparing our lunch. We ate inside the boat and considering the cramped conditions in which it had been prepared the meal was excellent.

After lunch, all nausea gone I wandered back outside to simply watch the world drifting by.

It seemed that there were many things that were common in our wanderings wherever we went in China - the local restaurants, the people striking up conversations and, of course, the cultural shows. In Guilin there was another of them. Of the two I’d seen already I’d hated one and loved the other. What would the Guilin version be like? It turned out to be colourful enough but was one of the weirdest cultural shows I have ever witnessed. It consisted mostly of dancing but there was no perceptible Chinese element to it. The opening dance was, as far as I could tell, a Cossack dance. This was followed by what appeared to be a Red Indian rain dance and the show stopping finale was a perfectly choreographed replica of the Chimney Sweeps dance from Mary Poppins.

In the interval I had another unlikely encounter that left me chuckling for the rest of the evening. I had found out in conversation with Robert that many of the jobs in China are state controlled. The employer is he government and as a consequence the job you end up with can be determined by the whims of the particular government officials with whom you have dealt. At the break in the show I went to the toilet and was standing in the urinal happily going about my business when I felt something at my feet. I looked down expecting to see a cat or a dog. What I saw was a wizened old main kneeling at my feet polishing my shoes and taking the chance that my aim might not be perfect. I was astonished. What should I do, I wondered. What I did was pretend he wasn’t there, carried on until I had finished, zipped myself back up and turned to leave. He stood up and opened the door for me. I reached into my pocket automatically to tip him, forgetting that tipping is illegal in China, and he backed away waving his hand in a gesture of refusal. On my way back to my table I wondered if he had been allocated that job, polishing shoes in a men's urinal, and d who exactly in the local government offices he had annoyed enough to be given it.

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