Arriving in the beautiful town of Yangshuo
(This is part 2 of a 5-part series.)
Yangshuo: Luck with tourguides, quitting smoking and a culinary experience
My uncle and I were the first to wake up the next day and we set off to find breakfast. My parents were still exhausted from their 48-hour journey from the U.S. and we wanted to let them sleep, and my younger cousin (14 years old) also just wanted to sleep, so we let her be. We walked down the main street of Yangshuo, which is extremely wertern and touristy, and found a place with a decent western breakfast and ate for a couple of hours. The rain had temporarily stopped and the peaks started to appear from the mist around us, and it reminded me of being in a ski town in Colorado or Alaska — you can’t really believe that the mountains around you could be so dramatic or beautiful; there’s just no getting used to it.
Quickly, though, it started raining again, and when my parents woke up after noon it was too rainy to do much. We settled on a raft ride up the LiJiang river (Jiang means river I think so maybe it’s just the Li River) and found a 2 hour ride on a rickety bamboo raft for about 120 RMB. The driver couldn’t speak English, but my Chinese was good enough to find out that the river is 6 meters deep and has an old, creepy sugarcane plant along it, which we passed.
The raft ride along the Li River
Yangshuo is in southern China just a few hundred miles north of Hong Kong, and the landscape there is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere. The town itself is fairly small. It consists of a street that runs along the main river (the LiJiang) where our hotel was located, and then several streets that spur off of that into town that generally consist of restaurants and tourist shops. It’s a great place for touring, especially if you’re new to China or don’t have a lot of time to see a lot of the country, because there are a ton of places to buy gifts where bartering is not only allowed but totally necessary, there are a million things to do and its very easy to find places to get western food and to rent motorbikes or bicycles to get out and explore.
After the boat ride we cleaned up and got ready for the Yangshuo night show that was designed by the guy who also designed the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies. We bought the tickets in the morning; the tickets were about 150 RMB. There was an option to buy 250 and 350 RMB tickets too, but somebody told us that we didn’t need those, which turned out to be more or less true (would have been true if it hadn’t rained, but it did rain, and the only part of the stage that’s covered is the 350 RMB seats – but probably not worth the extra 200 to not get rained on anyway). The show consisted of about 300 performers singing, running around a huge stage that actually was the river’s surface – they used boats to move around on the water and crazy big moving platforms – and even though the story was impossible to follow I still thought the performance was beautiful and the music was good. The others in my group varied in their opinions – my uncle wished there was an English translation and my mom found the whiney singing a little annoying, and other people seemed to think it was just a little boring.
The night show in Yanshuo rocked my world, but others weren't quite as crazy about it -- although we all thought it was good. Those red things are people performing on a huge stage that is just water.
On the way to the show we were seated in a van with four of possibly the weirdest people I have ever encountered, and one very sweet and nice English girl. The English girl was of Chinese descent and teaching English in a nearby province, and she had run into the other four in Yangshuo. The four weird people were also all foreigners teaching ESL in China, two couples. One couple was American and one was English. The Americans guy was super mumbly and I couldn’t understand anything he said, and everytime I spoke to him directly he looked away; the American girl was super intense and seemed like she was burning a hole in my head when she looked at me; the English guy had huge bulbous eyes the color of pale green apples and spoke very slowly; and the English girl, after we had all got soaked at the performance, kept grabbing her breasts with both her hands, like full on titty-grabbing herself for no reason, and complaining about how her “knickers” were soaked.
I was, however, fascinated by the sweet English girl, and actually when I first spoke to her I thought she was Chinese so I spoke in a slow English. Then she started talking and right as I was about to compliment her on her excellent accent I realized that she was in fact British. She said she was staying in Yangshuo for three weeks studying Chinese before returning back to England to go to grad school, and I wanted to talk to her some more but there was no time; the show was over and it was time to head off to the next thing.
After the show we went out for dinner. We found a Chinese-style steakhouse and watched the World Cup game between Germany and England, and watched Germany kick England’s ass. Later that night I walk back with my parents as my mom did some last-minute shopping. We got a little lost in the winding streets of the little town after I stepped into a smoky open-air Chinese stall restaurant to buy some beers for us to take back to the hotel. The place stank of Chinese cigarettes and was loud and chaotic and dirty. It felt a little like being back in my home city and I felt more in my element there than I had felt in our expensive hotel in Hong Kong, in a way. I’ve never been able to afford nice hotels for myself and am still not sure if I ever will. I let a cigarette while the waitress wrapped up my beers, which I bought for 4 Chinese Yuan per can, or around 60 cents, which was 10 percent of the price we had paid for the same beer at dinner. Then I left the restaurant to meet my parents and together we headed back to our hotel.
On the way to the hotel we stopped at a McDonald’s to use the bathroom, and in the men’s bathroom, there was a completely drunk English guy who could barely stand, slowly and deliberately washing his hands, muttering, “fucking Germans”.
Thinking about not smoking
That night my parents asked me if I wanted to sit with them on the balcony looking out over the LiJiang river and have a beer or two, and I did. At first we just chatted and my dad and I smoked and we drank beers, and then my dad went to bed. Then my mom asked me about my smoking and I admitted that I was still smoking regularly, always at least several cigarettes a day. But that I wanted to quit, and that I had tried a few times but that I had always been foiled by basically nothing but a lack of resolve.
A view from the Yangshuo countryside
Then she mentioned in passing the story of how she quit, which she said I must have heard before, and when I said I hadn’t she told me about it. I guess that she decided to quit smoking after she got pregnant with me. She had tried several times before, especially after my sister was born, but had never been able to fully get there. She had been a smoker since she was 14, so anything – taking a drag at a party, getting into a car accident – could send her back into full-on two-packs-a-day smokerdom. So she finally managed to quit, while pregnant with me, by taking a full week off from work and deciding to do nothing but stay at home and focus on not smoking cigarettes. She asked my dad to smoke outside and put his cigarettes in his truck and she fully committed to not smoking. She cleaned the house constantly without taking breaks so that she would not get a chance to have a cigarette, and just basically wanted to smoke all the time until the week was over, and at the end of the week she wasn’t a smoker.
This story made me realize several things, but most of all it made me realize that being a smoker is more than just a habit or a feature of a person, not like liking chocolate or not liking broccoli. Being a smoker is totally something that shapes your persona and your routine and what your life is in so many ways. Once you have been a smoker for several years, your personality becomes the personality of a smoker, whatever that is. It may be only subtly different from the life and personality of a non-smoker, but it is different, and I realized that after smoking since the age of about 21, about five years, I could no longer remember what it was like to have the life and personality of a non-smoker. And I told my mom as much – that I couldn’t even imagine my life without cigarettes – and realizing that (after saying it, of course) was one of the bigger, kind of sadder things I’ve realized in a long, long time. I’m not sure why – I just realized that being a smoker and smoking is not just a matter of stinking and having ugly teeth and skin and etc, it’s also a huge conglomeration of things that pile up over the years and decades that you can never, ever measure or conceive of in one sentence or in one idea in your head. At least I can’t. It’s one of those cumulative things that you never fully realize that you don’t ever know you don’t ever know the full extent of. And after I really realized that, I realized that I have to quit smoking cigarettes, really. And the next day I didn’t want any. I did take a drag of my dad’s cigar halfway through the day, but I didn’t even know why, and after that I didn’t want any, and sometime after that I decided that I was going to focus on becoming a non-smoker, on overcoming my cravings and focusing on the long-term and giving it up. And that is what I did for the rest of the vacation – it was hard as hell at times, but that is what I did.
Also, at the end of the conversation I thanked my mom for deciding to quit smoking soon after she became pregnant with me.
A motorcycle trip through the mountains
The next day in Guilin we all woke up rather late, because we had all been up late the night before, and again we went off to a western breakfast. After that, my mother booked a cooking class to learn how to cook some Chinese dishes for the next morning, and I noticed that all the dishes the school was planning to teach were very weird, non-Chinese dishes that you don’t even find in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The school’s facilities looked cool but they were obviously teaching how to cook some weird forms of non-Chinese food that sort of approximated Chinese food – in other words, they were realizing that a lot of foreigners are not comfortable with true Chinese food and trying to accommodate accordingly, but they were doing it badly. So instead, I suggested that my mom just asked them to teach her how to cook fried rice, fried noodles, and gong bao ji ding, three super common and usually delicious authentic Chinese dishes, and that’s what she did, and the next day I think it turned out pretty well.
We stopped to take picture on the motorscooter ride. To left is Nancy, our amazing tour guide.
After we left the school we realized that the rain had actually stopped for the first time in days and we immediately decided to rent motor scooters to go on a tour of the Yangshuo karst peaks. There were hawkers promoting tours on almost every corner in Yangshuo, literally, so we just asked the first one we passed. The first question I asked the vendor was if she had helmets, and she said yes. This was a good sign, as the vendor we had questioned the day before had laughed when I asked this question and explained that helmets were not really necessary at all, as though it were obvious. But this vendor had them, and she actually offered a reasonable price off the bat – 100 RMB for a motorized scooter for the whole day. She said she could add a tour guide for 150. I asked if we could get a discount on the bikes since we were renting 4, and she said yes, and I suggested 80, and she said OK. We agreed to the tour and said we would go rally the troops and return in an hour.
It sounded great – around 550 RMB (less than $100) for 5 people to scooter around the beautiful landscape for a full day, and it was great. It was ridiculously, ridiculously great. We completely lucked out on the tour guide. Her name was Nancy, and she was clearly a sweet, decent woman and was one of the few people in Yangshuo, besides the people in the cooking school, who did not appear to want to rip us off in the slightest bit. She smiled a lot and let us take as long as we wanted all day and led us on an amazing six-hour tour of the Yangshuo countryside, through obscure villages, over muddy obscure mountain paths, through back woods and into huge rice fields in valleys, and answered all our questions and even told us about her family and that they all grew up in farming families but were now working in the tourism industry in Yangshuo. About herself, she said early on that she was just a farmer, with a smile that flickered with an understanding of the negative connotations that word carries in China but also the fact that she had risen above that status by way of her use of English in the tourism industry.
I probably annoyed my family by speaking Chinese with Nancy, even though her English was much better than my Chinese, but she was accommodating with me and seemed to appreciate that I could speak the language. She told me that she had learned her English by taking a months-long (I forget how many months, I think 6) training course in English. She also said that often in China the children of a family take the man’s name (females in marriages in China don’t typically take the man’s name after marriage), but that her son had taken her name. “Because I am the most important person in my family,” she added, again smiling slightly.
This is the little dirt path where Nancy showed us the rice -- it was in the middle of nowhere and totally quiet, a nice contrast from the touristy busy-ness of Yanshuo
The motorcycle ride was a bit difficult for my mother, because she had only ridden a motorcycle once before and some of the trails we went on were very thin and very muddy, but for me it was very fun and reminded me of my days riding a dirt bike in the woods in New Hampshire when I was a teenager. About halfway through the trip one of the bikes broke down, and Nancy made a phone call to a person who must have been her dealer, and the dealer agreed to bring another bike out and take care of the broken-down one. It was about that time that I realized that Nancy didn’t own or hold any stake in the motorcycles we were riding, and I realized I could ride the hell out of mine and really have fun, so I started playing in the mud on the bike more and opening it up all the way when we hit open stretches. I was able to get it up to about 40 MPH on a paved road, which was as fast as I wanted to go anyway on a small motorcycle in China. Also while driving through the mountains in Yangshuo there was little reason to go fast – the slower you went, the more chance you had to look at the incredible mountains and valleys and streams and hollows. The place was amazing.
At one point Nancy stopped and showed us the rice growing in the fields. The rice was green and lush and stood about knee high or higher, and she explained how at harvest time the farmers would cut the clumps of rice blades with a knife and use a small threshing machine (the word “threshing” is my guess and not her descriptor) to actually get the rice out of it’s green pod-like container. She also knelt over a stream and showed me some snails and I recognized them as the kind that is so often fried up with a bunch of numbing hot sauce in restaurants in Fujian – the kind you can suck out of the shell in one slurping kiss – and when I asked her if she wanted the snail she said no, but if there were more she might gather them.
The tour went on and on and on, and by the end I was exhausted and everyone seemed to be hungry and the sun was red and hanging low. Finally I asked Nancy to bring us back and we skipped the final couple of stops she had scheduled, but she was still ready to bring us on another hour or two of touring. The woman was working hard and making sure that we all had a good experience – I noticed that she went out of her way to talk with each member of the group every once in a while, not focusing on any one person but trying to switch between people and make sure everyone heard something interesting – and she earned every damn bit of that 150 RMB, which is a good day’s work in China (even for me). As we pulled into the garage and put the bikes away I thanked Nancy and said the day had been perfect and we were all happy. “I am happy too,” she said, “because today I got a group of five. It’s a good day for me.”
(I got her card at the end of the trip – her phone number is 138-7837-4059 and her email is email@example.com)
Tasty meals in Yanshuo
We all wrote enthusiastic comments in her recommendation book and went to a big Chinese dinner nearby, which I enjoyed thoroughly but which everyone else only enjoyed a bit – they were still not used to how to use Chinese sevingware, the rules of table (in China you eat out of a bowl and never off a plate, for instance, and of course you use chopsticks and not a fork), and the completely different palette of tastes that comprises Chinese cuisine.
One of the last things we did in Yangshuo was a cooking class, which was a little expensive at 150 RMB ($20 per person), but was four hours long and included a tour of the local food market, instruction on cooking and a final meal, all with a translator, so I think it was well worth it. I missed it because I slept in.
I realized over the trip that Chinese things – the food, the compulsion to drink hot water and not cold water, the flavors and smells and sights and habits – they are all part of a very big painter’s palette that is just different, just fundamentally different, from the palette of the culture from whence I came. It’s not that the people are weird or that it’s impossible to get accustomed to Chinese life; it’s just that you have to come to understand the colors that underlie everything here, become familiar with the palette, and then things begin to fall in place. But you can’t mix the colors. Just as you can’t take a palette of earthy greens and browns and yellows and splash hot pink on top of it, you can’t really take an American diet and mix it in harmoniously with a Chinese diet. The flavors, the ingredients, the philosophies, start from different places and go in different directions. You have to choose one and stick with it for a while. You can’t sit down expecting a burger and fries and end up with fried snails and curdled duck’s blood. It doesn’t work that way. So, I think my family had a bit of a turbulent time, food- and stomach-wise, throughout the trip, and it was a bit tough for them to eat and appreciate the Chinese food. But I think that’s OK. You can’t get used to it and start to appreciate it in just two weeks; it took me a lot longer than that; it’s just too weird and different at first. But I did realize, a bit, how much I had changed since coming here. There are so many things I like now that I thought were freaky at first – drinking boiled water, for one; eating everything out of a bowl; spitting at table; eating snails; sharing all dishes with the whole table; eating cold chicken legs at the beginning of meal; weird-looking, generally unidentifiable meats; jellyfish; etc. The list goes on and on. But it’s just because I’ve had enough positive experiences with all those foods to understand what good is when it comes to those foods. If you don’t even know what good or bad jellyfish is, how can you know that the slimy thing you’re putting into your mouth is not poison?
As part of their cooking course, my mom, uncle and cousin went to the Yangshuo food market, where they got a glipse of the very different, definitely dirtier and more gruesome Chinese food-shopping process. The only substantiative comment I got from them on the experience was: "It was definitely real."
After dinner we all went home and cleaned up and passed out. The next day was the cooking class and then we would leave Yangshuo to go to my base city in Fujian. The cooking class was located near the end of town, near the food market in a building with the most amazing view of Yangshuo that we saw on our entire trip. For 150 RMB per person, the school provided a translator, a chef and a guide; they met at 9 a.m. and went to the food market in Yangshuo (the only thing I heard from my uncle about the market was that it was “real; it was definitely, definitely real”) and then went back and cooked. Everybody had their own wok and utensils and salt and spices, and around noontime my father and I joined them to eat.
As part of their cooking experience they also tried some Chinese tea with the traditional tea set...this method of brewing tea is extremely common, but usually with slightly smaller cups, which means that every two or three sips the tea server has to refill your cup for you
We sat on a deck on the sixth floor of the hotel the school was located and looked out over Yangshuo and enjoyed the food and a few beers, and then it was time to go. We went back to the hotel and packed up in the van and headed back through the karst peaks, this time in the daylight, to return to the airport and turn our path toward the little city in Fujian where I had lived for nine months, Sanming.