Monday, August 31, 2009

Day 4: Rice Terraces and Frogs

An early morning Bamboo raft ride on Li river to ‘make a nicer natural photograph’. So many locals out and about - swimming, washing clothes, washing bodies or just bobbing along in the current that was very swift in the shallower parts of the river. Those not in the water were exercising on the banks - any old movement seems to go - back bends, arm circles, (looked very much like they were waving, but it seems, they were not). Others played badmington or practiced chi ball.

Long drive out of town, through gradually poorer areas of Guilin, past market gardens, and into the country side - very small landholdings where people grow chickens or ducks, or leafy greens that can be bought at the market on the day they are picked. First stop was Huang Le village, a town recognised by the Guinness book of records for having the most women with long hair, up to 1.8m in length. After enjoying a cultural show, with faux marriage ceremony (apparently, the women pinch you on the bum if they like you), tea with crunchy rice bubbles in it, and demonstration of the long hair, we walked through the timber village and over a precariously swinging bridge back to the car.

More driving up steep, winding roads, an occasional rockslide to skirt, and hairpin bends with no guard rails and a relaxed approach to staying on the right side of the road, we arrived at the car park for Ping An village. For 20 Yuan ($3.50), little sherpa women from the village will load our packs in there baskets and carry them the 45 minute walk up the stony path with rough hewn steps, muttering at us when we pass.

First stop lunch. For lunch we had chicken and rice cooked in the tube of a bamobo stem. And washed down of course with Ying Ping Bing Pijiu (bottle of icey cold beer). After lunch we checked into the hotel in the side of the mountain - of which all the materials had to be carried up on the back of woman in a basket or by donkey.

In the afternoon a leisurely hike through the Li Jiang Rice Terraces was breathtaking - showing us the luminescent staggered vistas for miles into the distance.

Again we are back to eat some more - it seems that this holiday is turning a gastronomic journey of southern china than a health retreat based on the assumed hiking we’d be doing.

Dinner was Wild Mountain Frog (again the animal is cleaved into bite sized chucks) fried with the obligatory wild chilli and garlic. Tory was not too excited to receive the said frogs hopping equipment. As well as frog we had the Chicken Soup and vegetable with egg. After dinner, Tory was treated to an hour long massage whilst I enjoyed many more cold pijiu on the balcony bar overlooking the valley.

Day 3: Guilin and Surrounds

What a city! A city the size of Adelaide. A city in which we stopped only 3 times in the traffic on the way to the hotel from the airport. A city that does not stop. The traffic doesn’t stop. The locals drive on the side of the road that they want, there are no traffic lights (or very few of them) no one gives way, no one looks before walking across a 5 lane main street and amazingly I saw one one injured, killed or abused! Road rage on Adelaide level simply does not exist here. It is a constant ballet of lawn mower engine powered rickshaws, double decker buses, pedal powered trikes, families on scooters, bikes and pedestrians without a care in the world. Amazing!

First stop Li River Cruise. We got onto a boat full of Chinese Tourists ready to travel down the river and lakes that surround Guilin City. Unbelievably the Chinese people are avid travelers within their own country and are equally delighted with the sights and sounds as we are. After motoring through the chain of lakes and manicured gardens we made our way back to the original mooring upon which we were set upon by several giggling school girls who had never seen westerners before. Very well dressed and polite they asked us, through our guide if they could have their picture taken with us. I only wished now, that we had out picture taken whilst they had theirs. In all it’s splendor, 2 x 6ft + fair haired, fair skinned westerners posing with two 5ft school girls from a far away province on a family holiday. Priceless. Surreal couldn’t cover the feeling of our first day in China.

After our cruise it was onto the Pearl Museum and Silk Factory for the obligatory tours of some of Gulins more famous exports. After an interesting guided tour of the silk worm and their skills - we were ushered into, yet again, another souvenir trap that seemed to extricate Yuan from the westerners pocket in a blink of an eye. Narrowly avoiding a Silk Quilt purchase I made my way to the tea canteen and delighted the locals with a 2 beer can purchase before 12 noon. Not in keeping with Eastern tradition, but necessary on holidays.

The Reed Flute caves were the largest caves I have encountered, lit as only the Chinese can - fluorescent white and blue lights, garish green signs giving rock formations such names as “Looking through window curtains at cloudy mountains”, “bumper harvest of vegetables”, “forest of stone”, “mushroom mountain”. The hour long tour culminating in a visit to several cave tortoises, the oldest being 1000 years old (true!!). He was positioned on a yellow silk throne, blinking myopically, waiting for visitors to wet a 5 Yuan note and adhere it to his granite like shell. At night he gets carried from his throne and placed back in the shallow pool - his home from the past eon.

Lunch was at the Super Guilin Restaurant. On first appearances a cheesy tourist trap but with authentic Guilin food and private rooms we were kings amongst men. Our first dish was Cave Fish (no doubt relieved from his subterranean dwellings during our previous tour). Now with the hero ingredient chosen, we were escorted to a private room, plied with local beer, and brought a sumptuous meal of whole baked fish, sizzling beef, Rice Hot Pot with spare ribs and a saucer of leafy greens. After eating it was back downstairs to inspect the pens for tonight’s banquet. Guinea Pigs? Rabbit? Chicken or Duck? Wild Pheasant, Snake? We selected mountain cobra and the pheasant from the collection of wire cages and boxes. The snake combined with the wings, head and feet of the pheasant were to be made into Dragon phoenix soup for our dinner. Once the serpent was swiftly dispatched by a pair of scissors we were on our way.

The afternoon was spent at Yaoshan Mountain - the tallest in Guillin at 909m. A chairlift ride up, some photos, and a toboggan ride down again - weeeeeeeee! Then an educational visit to the Guilin Government Tea Science and Rsearch Institute for compressed tea, oolong tea and green tea. Very informative :)

Cormorant fishing
Amongst the darkened concrete terraces and seedy stairways we accepted the invitation to view a cormorant fishing trip along the Li River. We hopped onto the ferry with 100 chinese tourists and cruised along side the men and their rafts. Within no time the sizable black birds, necks tied with packing twine had hopped into the water and were under the waves searching for their fishy quarry. Amazingly the water was very clear and with the help from the lanterns attached to the bow of the rafts we could see the cormorants at work. Darting amongst the river pebbles the first bird earned his keep. Back onto the raft the handler grabbed him by the neck flipped him upside and shook loose the fish from his tied throat. A couple quick commands and the bird was back in the water looking for more prey. At the day the birds are relieved from of their garrottes and fed a portion of their catch as a reward.

Once the head has been removed from the snake, it is bled into a tea cup mixed with a pure spirit and presented to the diner.

In this case the diner being me - chickened out and gave the concoction to our hapless guide, Steve to drink.

Day 2: Hong Kong

Today we venture into Hong Kong City and Kowloon. To give us an excuse the explore the city i have chosen 2 stores that I need to visit before we hit the Chinese mainland tomorrow. The stores are Lomography (lo-fi toy camera boutique) and Tin Cheung (hi-rent Canon retail experience). With pre-programmed iPhone maps we were on our way.

Keeping pace with Tory’s power strides around, in-between and amongst the generally height challenged locals we made our way to the first stop: Lomography. As we walked the cities streets a whole new world opened up to us. Past street vendors, fruit stands,live fish markets and men building skyscrapers with bamboo scaffolding, this city of Hong Kong seemed eons away from the sleepy burbs of Adelaide.

In no time we had made the 1.8km walk from central station to the Lomography Store. But it was closed. It seems that stores in HK don’t open until 11.00. Luckily there was a 7-11 across the road. We purchased some water and an Icey cold beer and sat in the manicured gardens across the way. After slaking our thirst and watching Tai Chi enthusiasts (from now on I refer to them as ninjas) we decided to explore through Bird Nest Street and Herbal Medicine Alley.

On our way to said alleys - we happened upon the a large centre that offered live fish markets and and other delicacies - or from what I could assume given the smell. My mandarin is a little rusty. Once we were inside you would’ve thought it was the set for Tarantinos new ‘Hostel’ offering. But it wasn’t. It was animals of every shape, breed and flavour being diced up into every imaginable serve, cut or purpose. The stand out was a shaved goat that had been essentially drawn and quartered but complete with head, eyes and beard that followed my gaze is a slipped past. On the way out a wire cage of croaking toads caught my camera’s attention - who knows what fate awaits them.

Leaving the markets we made our way to the above mentioned alleys. Piled in boxes, crates and clear tubes was an array of every kinds on mushroom, herb or dried animal once could imagine. Whilst Tory documented our find I went on my way to find the hero shot and there it was. A tomato box of of neatly stacked, tied and skewered flying lizards. Complete with their original metallic colored scales and piercing eyes - I couldn't quite think how you would prepare them - it was possible they were an asian form or medicinal jerky, but didn't try.

Next stop, Kowloon. Our Kowlooon journey across the water was required as I desperately needed a CF card and battery grip for my new rig. Once purchased I asked the camera guy if he knew a place that sold cold beer. He looked at his watch and so did I in unison. And explained that it was far too early. Funny, my watch said 1.10pm - far too late I thought for the first ale of the day. Picking that I was Australian he pointed me to a promenade at the end of the street. Once arrived - I understood his directions and wry smile. It was Australia street, selling cold beers, steak and pizza by the tray full. We pulled up stumps and enjoyed several rounds and some tasty pizza (by asian standards) and left after an hour of air-conditioned comfort.

After a short train journey we arrived at Tung Chung Station I had the taste for more cold beverages. Tory had the taste for more (or some) shopping as I had out-shopped her at this stage. I left Tory to her devices and in 5mins was enjoying a $7 bucket of Hoegarrten at the Novotel Front Bar. Within an hour and with 2 hrs to spare Tory joined me and enjoyed our last moments in HK with a round of berry Daiquiris.

Next Stop China Mainland (Guilin)
A 1hr flight from HK to Guilin seemed easy enough. But the 1.5hrs of customs, bus transfers, customs, baggage checks and swine flu paperwork got our nerves to say the least. It was now 9.30pm and we were finally on our way from Guilin airport to the city. After an hour of some of the worst roads imaginable we arrived at Eva Inn on the banks of the Li River.