Gui Lin: Mountains. Rivers. A famous city.
The title of this entry was gleaned from big flags stuck to lightposts in Gui Lin city, and I believes it sums up most of the experience of Gui Lin.
But, you know me. Let's start at the beginning.
I had originally intended to spend the week off (given for the National Day holiday October 1, and the Mid-Autumn festival, this year on October 6) with a friend from Sydney Uni who was working in Beijing, but those plans fell through on the Wednesday or so, and I made the rush decision to make plans to go to Gui Lin, which I'd heard of as being 1) one of China's most beautiful places, and 2) one of China's biggest tourist traps. It sounded like fun, so I enlisted the help of an English-speaking travel agent my friend Niki had dealt with before and caught the last tour group with space free, with a flight leaving at 9:30am on the Sunday (National Day) and returning on a 10:30pm flight on Wednesday. It was a rush decision but it was definitely worthwhile in the end.
Of course, it wasn't without its downsides, and the first of which was that I had to wake up at 5am to meet Steve (the travel agent) who took me to the airport shuttle in the city, and I got to the airport by about 7 - way too early for a domestic flight on a good day, and then there was the matter of the thick haze in Xi'an which meant the flight was delayed by two and a half hours.
This hanging around the airport wasn't without consequence, of course, the first of which was that I was noticed sitting alone by another tour group filled with what I can only assume were not city folk, who decided that I was terribly interesting and they all took photos of me with their kids. It was a little strange. Well, talking to me was all right, I can accept that even for city folk it's not every day you see a lone Westerner sitting in the airport looking bored, and certainly not one who can speak Chinese, or who studies in Xi'an, so that was all right. The photos with their kids was strange, though, and it's weird to think that these people are going to take the photos home and show people and I wonder what they'll say. "And this was the foreigner that we met at the airport..." - it seems bizarre to me.
Secondly, the travel agent (not Steve, a Mr. Wang I'd met when I picked up my tickets) hooked me up with three people who were in my tour group in Gui Lin. There were two men and a woman, who were all from the same 单位 (dan wei, a system of organizing people under the Communist party through their workplace, now more commonly just referring to one's place of work), and we chatted and they fed me dried fruit sticks and peanut/sesame bars which were absolutely delicious and filled me up after my lack of breakfast. It's hard to spend two and a half hours talking to people, though, and so I settled down with an awesome book my sister got me for my birthday and finished it to pass the time (thankfully I'd brought two books with me, though I didn't get very far into Fever Pitch).
Then, once we'd gotten to Gui Lin, the three people were sent to another hotel and I was left with a young couple who were staying at the same hotel as me, and we went out after settling into the hotel (at about 4pm, yes ELEVEN hours after I woke up). We walked around Gui Lin city, which isn't very big by Chinese standards - only 400,000+ people actually live there, most of whom I assume do so to serve the tourists which make up the rest of the floating population - and quickly found the Sun & Moon temples. We also found a large stall for a fancy brand of 白酒 (bai jiu, which is about 50% alcohol and the foulest thing I have ever tasted) and they had a look at it and while I was hanging around, the salespeople decided it would be great for PR if they got a photo of me trying some. So I obliged, but the stuff is really disgusting - the couple seemed more discerning, but I just said I wasn't used to alcohol that strong.
Other than that, we wandered around looking at shops and stalls and they took me to dinner (which I insisted upon paying my share of - they'd already bought me a drink and some meat-on-a-stick! The hospitality was overwhelming, really) and then helped me catch a taxi back to the hotel at around 8pm, because I was starting to feel really crap. I'd caught a cold, of course, and they helped me to find some medicine (which, not that I could read the ingredients, but to me seemed more health-related than drug-related) and I was starting to fade by 8pm. I spent the rest of the night in the hotel room watching a karaoke TV show, something that felt sort of like Idol but wasn't quite as polished.
The next morning there was a 6:50am wake-up call and we were out of the hotel and at our first destination by 9am (after visiting three hotels to pick up everyone - the first signs of disorganization). Our first destination was a five-hour cruise down the 漓江 (Li Jiang) river, which was fantastic. There I got acquainted with most of the other people on my tour, because once we went up onto the top deck to take photos they all seemed to want photos with the foreigner in their group. The most lasting friendship I made there was an English student about my age and her mother. They're all from Xi'an, so I've got the girl's number and we'll probably see each other again. The boat ride was fun aside from making new friends, the scenery was gorgeous, and the tourists many, so there was always plenty happening. Of course, after lunch was nap time and after that was karaoke time. And yep, you guessed it, the foreigner was nabbed for karaoke. I had no idea what to sing, so I just serenaded them with my horrible singing voice doing a rendition of the Australian national anthem.
After that, there was some mass confusion about what we were doing for the rest of the day. There was yelling, and the tour guide seemed to be apologizing at the same time as yelling back, but I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I asked the second tour guide, a boy about my age who seemed to naturally speak slowly which was great for me, and he explained that there was not enough tour buses to take us all to places we had picked out earlier (or, in my case, had someone pick out for me because I didn't know what they all were). So it's understandable everyone was getting angry, but I was all right with it because I had very few expectations anyway, so I just waited out the fighting and eventually we were taken to another place for an hour's ride down a smaller and shallower arm of the 漓江 river. I sat next to the woman I'd met at the airport, and she showed me pictures of her five year-old daughter (who was adorable!) and we talked generally about how lovely the area was. There were some mini-waterfalls that got my jeans wet but the water was nice and warm, so I didn't mind at all.
Next on our list was a minority village. The exact minority group it represented was lost in translation, but the whole village wasn't a real village, it was an entirely staged event to portray the minority as uncultured, childish people, and I didn't know what to make of it. I knew the place was fake, but I couldn't tell whether the behavior was entirely put on or not. I don't doubt that these people spoke the language they were speaking to each other, but I had my doubts as to whether they truly didn't speak any Mandarin Chinese. I mean, since the place was fake and this was just a job to them, they had to speak some so as to get on with their jobs. But it gave absolutely no insight into these people's everyday lives - just the lives the minority peoples probably lived years ago. I just don't know what the reality was - did these people go back to a little village approximating this, or did they go back to apartment buildings and televisions? Their behavior was even more confusing. We had been told beforehand that they were a boisterous lot, and it was true. They took your hand and touched you and stared at you (me more than anyone, obviously - I didn't see a single Westerner in the entire place) and bumped you with their bums, but I didn't know what to make of it. Was that all put on too? Or was it really how they acted with one another? I was inclined to believe the girls' behavior more than the boys', but mostly because they were less loud and didn't make advances to me in incredibly clear hand gestures (nothing rude, just pointing at me, pointing at himself, and then making a sleeping and kissing gesture. Still!). One of the girls did slap my ass though - it was dirty because I'd been sitting on the ground after being dragged into the middle of a performance, which I was so thankfully joined by Destiny, the English student.
Dinner that night was nothing special, but afterwards we went to a Miao minority performance on the Li river which was directed by 张艺谋 (Zhang Yi Mou), of Hero fame, which was spectacular. Most of the performance was on the river, boats and there was an amazing display where people on about ten rows of little bamboo boats manipulated these huge long streams of red fabric in waves. I've uploaded a video of some Miao girls in their traditional dress and silver adornments which you can download: here.
The second day was a bit of a rip-off. We went to five places that were pretty much entirely advertisements and excuses to buy things. Three were gem places (crystal, jade, and other gems), one seafood snack & health product place, and one coffee place. It was about the most bizarre thing I've ever experienced. For the crystal and seafood places, you went first into a room to hear a spiel about how awesome these things were, and with the others you were shown some examples and given some history on whatever it was, after which you were shunted into a big sales floor where you could buy to your heart's content. It was a colossal waste of time, but it did on the other hand give me time to talk more with Destiny, her mother, and the young tour guide, who were more than happy to teach me words (I learned how to explain what my parents do for livings, and also the words for 'crystal', 'Buddha', and 'Goddess of Mercy' - the latter two of which were relevant because they were common statues made out of crystal and jade). That was great, and it was about then that I really started to open up to the whole learning part of the trip, which was half the fun of it for me, really.
Other than advertisements, we went to a few parks, which are of course more spectacular than any other parks because in Gui Lin they're at the tops of mountains and have spectacular views of rivers and there are Buddhist carvings in the sides of caves. One of them had a zoo in it, which I visited with the young couple and managed to hold up the rest of the group because we were looking at animals. The main attraction was the panda, who was awake and eating at the time, but we also had a look at bears, a red panda, and some monkeys. It was actually quite upsetting, because they weren't exactly the best conditions for animals to be kept in (parts of the gibbons' cage was broken, the bear looked really frustrated in his tiny cage, and people were throwing food at the tiny baby chimp), but the young couple seemed to be happy with it and it just struck a strange chord, I suppose.
Another highlight was a visit to the Reed Flute Caves, which were huge underground crystal caves with some really impressive crystal formations, and also some amazing lighting stunts that just made the crystals so much more lively. However, I was put on edge the entire time by the lack of barriers and the fact people could (and children did) touch and climb over anything they wanted, with complete disregard for the crystals! I have to give some background history here, because if you haven't (or even if you have, I don't know) been to a crystal cave like this before, I went to the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains just a week or so before I left for China, and it was very different. My dad and I went to the first cave walk of the day, and it was just a quiet and intimate setting with about fifteen of us walking through the caves with the guide, who was probably the reason for my discomfort in Gui Lin. He told us stories about how the crystals were formed, how long it took, and he stressed how you should never, under any circumstances, touch a crystal because it will be tainted by the oils and never be able to grow again. He also told us stories about how people and broken things just trying to steam-clean the caves from gases, and how they'd blasted through things just trying to get into the caves. So then to be at the Reed Flute Caves with a thousand other people, kids running around, people touching everything and dirtying up the crystals... it was just incredibly jarring. And even though I didn't say anything about the animals in cages to the young couple, I actually mentioned this discomfort to Destiny because I was so affected by it.
And that was about the last of it. I had another day there, as my flight left at 10:30pm, but that was filled sitting around talking to Destiny all day (I spent a happy half hour trying to explain Survivor in Chinese, and how it's interesting as a social experiment), which was really fun but it was like four hours of sitting around, so by the time they left to catch their train home, I went out and retraced the steps I'd taken with the young couple so I could peruse the markets and buy some things before I left. I made a couple of bargains, then nearly got lost on the way back, but made it back in time for the bus to take us to do more and more waiting. There was another contingent of Xi'an people getting back in on the same flight, and we all gabbed on for a bit (it was sometimes difficult, as they had very thick Shaanxi accents) and got on the plane, I caught the last airport shuttle bus back to the city, caught a taxi back, and finally got into my room again at 1:30am.
One of the most amusing strains in the conversations I had, though, was the fact that everyone was surprised that I was paying for all of this myself, and that I pay for half of my uni education, I buy my own clothes and all that, and they were even more stunned when I told them I knew people who lived away from home after they left high school. It's very much the custom here for children to be looked after until they're married, when they usually live with their parents anyway, and then they look after their parents when they get old. It was one of those moments, I guess, when something I'd only read about in class and heard about from people who'd been away from China for too long really came true for me. I could sort of believe it wasn't true, or at least they wouldn't be surprised that it went on, before I got here, but having conversations with several different people about it just confirmed the cliche, I guess.
So, all in all, I felt disoriented about it all for the most part, but once I started using my Chinese a lot more, it was fun and educational, and I got a lot more than just a vacation to see pretty scenery out of it.