Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cruising Among the Karsts

Scenes on the River Li


The galley on another cruise

Cruise parade; popular since the 6th century

Cruising the karsts

September 15, 2008, Yangshou, Monday A very interesting two days, Sunday and Monday. Yesterday we checked out of the Sheraton/Guilin and took the tour booked through the hotel on the boat down the Li River. Our boat held around 100 people basically on two semi air conditioned levels with an open third deck for picture taking. There are literally dozens of these boats taking off every morning for the 4 hour trip to Yangshou. We had a lunch buffet aboard ship—I recognized the french fries and the bananas. I did have some very good rice noodles also. We are spending two nights in Yangshou as the guidebook recommended for its slow pace. Only 30,000 people live here—with 10 million visitors per year. Last night was the Moon Festival—autumn harvest festival that is big in this part of China. Everything was packed even more than usual. When leaving the boat you literally had to run a gauntlet of shops and stands and sellers. Hundreds—we had so much luggage that all our hands were occupied, but that only deferred the less determined ones.

Staying at the Sheratons for free (we are using Starwood points we earned on our credit card) is really spoiling us—so far 9 nights. They are extremely nice, with robes, slippers, marble baths, every toiletry and amenity you can think of, including American style mattresses. Last night was our second Chinese International Hotel—which cater to mid range tourists. They feature the favored Chinese hard mattresses, of which they are quite proud. They feel exactly like concrete. The room here with breakfast is 300 yuan—or about $45. If we hadn't booked through the concierge at the Sheraton we would have probably done better. Posted charge is about twice that. Breakfast was interesting. Orange juice, which isn't safe to drink, noodles, stuff for on the noodles, hard boiled eggs (no salt or pepper), steamed buns, fried bread, two kinds of sweet rolls—not a South Beach diet kind of place, though 98% of the Chinese are thin. Most are not as short as I expected, but the lack of anyone really overweight is really striking.

The heat here is oppressive—even for a couple of Miami natives. I would say 95 degrees and 99% humidity. The karst mountains always look hazy in all the pictures because of the very high humidity. You are dripping wet from head to toe after 15 minutes outside even at 9 am—there is no cool down in the evening or overnight—or if there is it is like Dallas—maybe 4-5 degrees.

The Yangshou area with the karst mountain (humped) scenary has been a tourist area for about 1500 years—so they know every trick in the book and they have everything for sale. I would love to window shop but that is impossible—if you even look at an item from afar the salesperson comes out into the street to grab you. Mark learned “no, thank you” from our guide today, but I am quite sure they all know what “no” in English means—it just doesn't have any effect. Vicki

The karst landscape is unique, and it is why this part of China has been in the tourism business for so many centuries—and why it traditionally has been a magnet for artists, poets, philosophers, and other aesthetes. From the boat, the karsts seemed to come in clumps. In Yangshou, you are surrounded by them. They rise anywhere from several hundred to several thousand feet above the flat valley floor. So many different shapes, sizes, so many different images suggested by them (camel, moon, etc.).

This morning (Monday) we arranged our own mini-tour, with a young student (studying English) in a sort of open-air bus-let. The tour was out into the countryside, around the karsts, down the Dragon River a bit, a stop at Yangshou Mountain Resort, over to views of Moon Hill, and back into town. The river conveys quite a rafting business—bamboo punts (five or so large bamboo lashed together, with seats and umbrella for tourists), so many it seems crowded at times. Even in the nearby rural areas (Yangshou is about 30,000) there is evidence of de-population, homes half-built and abandoned, residents moved to the city.

The Li River is quite clean-looking, clear, not terribly deep, but relatively swift. The scenery along the way, cormorant-fishing, water buffalo, traditional river trade and transportation, wedding photos, cell towers, the haze, and, of course, the karsts, was unforgettable.

I have eaten pretty well the last few days. (OK, the meal on the boat was not to rave about, but at least there were serving utensils and free beer). Saturday night in Guilin, at Gu Long restaurant, I had steamed vegetables, rice, and mixed grill (duck, pork, beef, fish). Vicki nibbled. I very much like the local Li Quan beer, especially the 600 ml bottles. And I surprised myself with my chopsticks facility. Last night we ate at a nearby air-conditioned place, and I had the local specialty, Li River “beer fish” and snails. All this was done in beer, presented on a platter with scallions, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, snails, and an anise flavoring. Very interesting but for all the tiny fish bones. One gets at the river snails in their shells with toothpicks. Earlier in the afternoon we had watched live fish being delivered by bicycle. Vicki had a very tasty lemon chicken dish.

We are in our room now, 3 in the afternoon, at the Imperial Palace Hotel overlooking the market, the quay, the river, and the karsts. Vicki is watching TV and asked me to mention the infomercial for the “Magic Bullet,” a Vegematic-like device being demonstrated by a young couple, which, if you order right now, can be yours for only 200 yuan. This, folks, is full capitalism. But wait, there's more.

Tonight, we are seeing “Impressions Liu Sanjie,” the outdoor theatrical extravaganza concocted by Zhang Yimou, whose most recent credit was the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. Needless to say, my expectations are pretty high, even if I don't understand a word of it.

Last night, we did some photo down-loading and editing, so soon, I promise, there will be pictures.

Randoms: “more to see, visit Inner Mongolia” (on TV). Bamboo scaffolding at construction sites, 3-4 stories high. Watching Ike (and US gas price gouging) on CNN. Paper-cut portrait of me. Fireworks outside our windows during the Moon celebration last night. Moon cakes everywhere (I bought a tiny one in Guilin, very tasty.). My 1968 copy of Chairman Mao's quotations, acquired Saturday night at a market in Guilin. Bu yao, xie xie. And posted from Jimmy's Cafe. Mark

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