I doubt the security at the train station had ever seen the like: Four foreigners, three over six feet tall and the fourth sporting a blonde mullet/afro affair, attempting to catch a train from Xiangtan to Guilin. The startled stares we received strongly suggested this was indeed a rare occurrence. Our attempts to avoid a scene were certainly not helped by Rob Sheard in a conical paddy hat. Security quite wisely preceded to conduct an extra thorough search of his person (see photo). Loz, Rob and I had been joined by another intrepid adventurer after Hong Kong, Alex. He was fresh from the Trans-Siberian Express and the Mongolian steps, so thoroughly enjoyed the comparatively balmy two degrees Celsius that Xiangtan enjoyed earlier on that February day… unlike the rest of us.
Guilin is a popular Chinese tourist destination in Guangxi autonomous region, to the south of Hunan province. The Guilin region boasts very impressive scenery and wonderful hikes, but we had been warned that the city of Guilin itself was certainly not the place to stay. Instead we journeyed about two hours south along the Li River to a small town named Yangshuo. We lucked into a great little hostel with lovely staff. I believe it was named ‘Green Forest Hostel’ and I can definitely recommend it!
We had two nights in Yangshuo. Booking sleeper trains to and from Xiangtan gave us practically three full days, which was just enough time to explore. Large, domed hillocks, verdant with greenery surround the meandering Li River, the town of Yangshuo nestling amongst the peaks. The town itself reminded me a little of an Alpine resort – minus the skiing. Many of the buildings were constructed from various dark woods, or at least detailed in such a way, and tables from the countless bars and restaurants crowded either side of the paved walking streets. As it is a major tourist attraction, considerably more care and attention has been given to the upkeep and general cleanliness of Yangshuo than most other similarly sized Chinese towns.
On our first afternoon we climbed a small mountain, or perhaps a large hill. It is difficult to know what to term the limestone formations which surround Yangshuo. They’re not quite mountains, but also too steep to be hills. I’ll go with mountains, it makes our achievement in reaching the top sound all the more more impressive! In reality the climb wasn’t too bad at all, the hardest part was actually finding the track up to the summit amongst the labyrinthine back-streets of Yangshuo. We reached the peak just as the sun was setting and the view across the town to the mountain ranges in the distance was stunning.
That evening we had an impromptu night out. It was utterly unplanned as we were all suffering a little from the inevitable sleep-deprivation of a night on a Chinese sleeper train. We had stumbled across two of Alex’s fellow travellers from the Trans-Siberian (who happened to be Dutch, the nation of Rob’s persona – if not his birth). This was quite by chance, one of the wonderful coincidences which seem to occur so often when travelling – a couple of beers in the hostel were a must. These two beers escalated in a big way and we soon found ourselves in a down-town bar.
The following day we all awoke a little worse for wear. A combination of hangovers, food poisoning and dodgy ankles sadly did for two of our gang, so it was just Rob and I who set off on a twenty-four kilometre hike from Xingping to Yangdi. Both these villages lie on the Li River, to the north of Yangshuo. We caught a bus to Xingping, which took just under an hour, and then walked on to Yangdi.
It was a lovely wander. A twenty-four kilometre trek sounds like a serious mission, but it was all flat and not especially taxing. It took us about four and a half hours at not a great pace, but in our hungover rush we had forgot to bring any food. Luckily we managed to get by on a bag of oranges we bought from a local farmer. It was a pleasant twenty degrees or so, a welcome change from Xiangtan. A couple of times the trail crossed the river, so we had to charter some locals to help us across in their slightly dicey looking craft. We then had to engage a final chap to take us all the way back down the river to Xingping. He didn’t inspire me with that much confidence, but we are both good swimmers so we weren’t too concerned…
The following day, after a well earned lie-in, we had just enough time to explore some local caves before making our way back to Guilin to catch the train. After searching for an hour or so, we discovered that the caves had been blown up to make room for a luxury hotel. It was unclear whether this was a monumental error on the part of the hotel’s backers: ‘A hotel for all those weird, cave-obsessed foreigners? Good idea’ – ‘Thanks, the caves will have to go to make room though’ – ‘Well, of course, I quite agree’ – ‘Great stuff, those caving Europeans will love that nice new luxury hotel’… It sounds farfetched, but sometimes you do wonder.
The bus journey back to Guilin was a little chancy. The rain was torrential and our driver seemed to take the view that, because the roads are more dangerous in the rain, it is best to drive as fast as you possibly can, thus limiting the time you spend on said dangerous roads. This is surely some of the most controvertible logic which has ever occurred to anybody, ever. We were a little greyer for the experience, but did eventually make it to Guilin train station, although we passed at least one accident on the way.
We spent most of the time on the train back to Xiangtan playing poker, drinking vodka and eating caviar curtesy of Alex’s time in Russia. Munching on caviar in a sleepy compartment as your train hurtles through the Chinese countryside is certainly an odd experience. We called it a night at 1AM, but it felt like barely a few minutes passed before the female conductor was banging on our door to get us up. She was incredibly aggressive for somebody who must have surely had ample experience of rousing comatose passengers from deep sleep in a non-traumatic fashion. If she did have such experience she failed to utilise it, instead screaming at us in shrill bursts of rapid-fire Chinese. Perhaps startling foreigners in the small hours of the morning is one of the perks of her job? It was 4AM and we ended up cursing her and twiddling our thumbs for the next hour as our train slowly approached the station.
Offensive train conductresses aside, it was a great trip with great friends. It was also a fantastic end to a wonderful two months of exploring China. Since then I have knuckled down again in Xiangtan, with great memories from the holidays to get me through the long, smoggy days!
There will be some good reunions soon though. Loz thoroughly deserves a final mention, having just returned to the UK after 976 days on the road. A very impressive effort! All his smiley photos with family and friends have certainly increased my excitement for the impending reunions… Just three weeks until my ten months in Xiangtan comes to an end!