Travel Journal

Intro to China, 4/24-4/30

(Sunday 15 May 2011) by Joanne Chang
Crossing the border into China gives me a different appreciation for Southeast Asia's tourist act. In Southeast Asia, there's always someone guiding you here and there, putting you on a motorbike, trying to take your money as they get you across. In China, they drop you off and let you fend for yourself against the mad rush at the passport counter, and don't tell you which direction to walk to catch your connecting bus. Despite being Chinese and having some basic language skills, arriving in China is more intimidating and more foreign to me than any country in Southeast Asia. If there is a tourist industry that welcomes westerners, I haven't seen it yet. Thank goodness I can speak a little Chinese, without it I would have been in tears my first night, searching blindly for an ATM and hotel. I also would have completely missed my bus to Sanjiang the next morning (missed the hour time change, had to hop off the bus and explain my situation to the cabbie who got me there lickety-split!). Perhaps coming from tourist-coddling Southeast Asia, I was expecting China to be just as easy, but no. Nobody speaks English (and they don't understand why I don't understand them I later learn to state upfront that I'm American and not mentally challenged), there is little English signage, and so many words I don't know, but it's fun to get by. By day 3 I've found my rhythm, eating eggs and sweet potato while chatting with the Dong lady in Ma'an Chengyang village in the morning, eating delicious steamed pork dumplings in Sanjiang for lunch (5 yuan for 10!), and slurping down Guilin mi-fen noodles with the motorcycle taxi-man who helps me find a hotel and book my train to Guangzhou. (The noodles are his treat, my moto taxi buying me lunch, how about that!)

The highlight of my first night in Nanning is eating dinner from a Chinese crepe stand on a nearby street corner. For 4 yuan (60 cents) I get a crepe filed with green onion, fried onion, lettuce, a hotdog-looking thing, bean paste, hotsauce, chili peppers and some other random stuff. Somehow it was perfect at the time; an easy, spontaneous, local delicacy, that I never need to try again. Next morning, despite being an hour behind I make the 7-hour bus ride to Sanjiang, main town of the Dong ethnic people, 2.5 million of which live in the surrounding area. Expecting something village-like, I'm a bit disappointed upon arrival. Nothing resembling a village, more like any old average town in China with wide streets, old concrete buildings, drab exteriors. But it's completely authentic -- this is China. The coolest thing about Sanjiang is the pavilion near the bridge, where on a Monday afternoon the area is full of people of all ages, including Dong ladies in their indigo costumes, hanging out and playing mah-jiang. I am too green to try and participate though, my Chinese is not forming complete sentences and I'm in observatory mode. I can see that the locals are curious about me; in my tank top and yoga pants I am clearly out of place and my face confuses them. I wish now that I'd had the instinct to interact with them, and look forward to another opportunity. I don't see one white person during my time in Nanning or Sanjiang.

From Sanjiang I take a locals bus to Chengyang, a collection of tiny Dong villages connected to the main land by covered bridges (my book says 100 bridges, I only see a handful). They are trying to turn Chengyang into a tourist attraction by charging an entrance fee to the area, putting on a cultural dance show and selling handicrafts, so here I see my first white people in China. A sweet Dong lady gets me a room for 40 yuan ($6) in Ma'an village (by whipping out her cell phone) and I spend the day wandering through villages, around rice paddies, watching children play and women hard at work in the fields. It's village life up close, real and simple. I end up chatting with a woman selling her handicrafts under a crumbling bridge and buy a beautiful hand-dyed indigo cloth, then grab a beer and catch the afternoon cultural show at the Drum Tower, my first taste of tourism in China. Tour groups and guides feigning interest in the costumed performers while old hunchbacked ladies dangle handicrafts and Chinese tourists snap photos with big serious cameras. It's a goofy scene, particularly in contrast to the working labor in fields just steps below us. Back at the hotel, I crash out until dinnertime, then have a lovely meal while a little girl sings to me in Chinese, a song about a little mouse. I think I used to sing the same song when I was a little girl.

The next day I take a bus to Guilin, a city on the Li River surrounded by limestone mountain ranges, a place I've heard about since I was young and have always wanted to see. It's bigger than I imagined (I later discover that everything in China is bigger than I imagined), but certainly beautiful with big osmanthus trees lining the streets, bridges and parks scattered throughout, pedestrian streets and pagodas, mountains all around. My first night I get persuaded into taking a bamboo raft ride down the river to see three of the famous peaks, and learn what being in a "tourist town" is all about. As the taxi driver explains to me, there is no manufacturing in Guilin and therefore every opportunity to make a tourist buck is covered. Views and sights are skillfully blocked and tucked away in "parks", and there are very few things you can do or see without paying an entrance fee or joining a tour.

So I will always remember Guilin for giving me my first experience as a Chinese tourist, including an 11-hour 28-person tour (in Chinese) bussing and boating from Guilin to Yangshou, stopping at disco-lit caves and souvenir factories, and an army "museum" where we sit in a windowless classroom to watch what ends up being a completely entertaining (and convincing) sales pitch about kitchen knives and electric razors. Priceless. If I weren't traveling by train I'd be the proud owner of a kick-ass $30 knife set with free peeler and industrial-grade scissors. Instead I settle for the free consolation prize paring knife and try to understand what just happened there -- was it really a museum? A knife company? An army surplus store (selling everything from apparel and flashlights to toys and kitchen utensils)? Too funny. Two middle-aged men from Dongbei treat me to lunch, local beer fish and local beers, and while we converse I start a mental list of words I need to ask my parents about. It's a memorable, entertaining, occasionally painful day with undoubtedly beautiful sights, though I may be somewhat desensitized having just come from Ha Long Bay and Sapa, with the temples of Angkor and the countryside of Laos before that. I'm being spoiled by all this beauty, and I feel myself getting tired... not at all bothered with spending a rainy day in Guilin sipping tea in my hotel room. Perhaps, maaaybe, it's about time to take a break.


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