Friday, September 4, 2009

Day 9: Sichuan HotPot Tigers and Bears

Our last day in China, breakfast of dumplings from a street vendor, and into the car for the drive back to Guilin. A visit to Steve’s office, local markets for more colour, noise and smells to assault the senses, then lunch to add injury to the assault - Sichuan hot pot.

Steve had to race off to do something, leaving the two off us hot pot virgins to tackle it alone. It was also early for lunch, so although other patrons were arriving, no one else had any food yet. Along with some lamb, beef, greens and mushrooms, there was a curious looking white food, cut roughly 3 cm square. I popped that in the roiling chili soup, waited a moment or two, pulled it out and ate it. It was tough, chewing and largely flavourless, so assuming it was some sort of fibrous root, I didn’t touch anymore. Thank goodness. An hour later when Steve returned I asked what the white stuff was. He grinned. It is chinese food, he said. What is it? I persisted. Pigs throat. Mmmmm. Add that to the list of the weird and wonderful, chalk it up to experience. The rest of the meal gave us the equivalent exprience opposite to that of a brain freeze. The zinging, tingling, chilli buzz envelopes your nostrils, back of your throat and across your scalp as it is washed down with lashing of beer and softdrink.

The chinese seem a mass of contradictions. The hold beautiful things in high regard, yet commercialise everything they can, adding awful lights, no protection of natural assets. like the caves, the mountains, the rivers. Their built environment around here is awful - they cannot pull down the charming older buildings fast enough to replace them with concrete cubes for houses, with aluminium windows in one standard size and bare concrete floors. The toilets are scary, often using the one toilet cubicle space for all ablutions, and the toilet itself as the only drain. Restaurant and hotel room toilets with a hole in the floor for the loo, the shower over this said hole (don’t step in the wrong pace when the shampoo gets in your eyes) Plus the sink has only a hose running from the plughole to the floor, so your handwashing water spreads over the floor on the way to the toilet hole. Never any loo paper, rarely any soap, never any towel. So one must crouch carefully, not getting anything wet, then rustle around for the pack of tissues in your handbag or poclet to fix yourself up some. We managed to avoid any disasters, but we’re glad to be back to familiar abluting.

After lunch, the Bear and Tiger Mountain Village Park - a local zoo stocking mostly tigers and bears. We saw the first couple of enclosures, and thought that must be it. Nup. There must have been over 300-400 tigers at this place. All lounging in the sun, but one enclosure of young tigers (adolescent) were so close, Charlie even touched one on the paw. So unlike home. None of the enclosures looked as good for the animals as the tiger enclosure at Adelaide Zoo looks, not by a long shot. But the scale!! These guys certainly had more space to roam in. There was also a pride of lions, a few deer, and 3 large enclosures with probably 50 - 70 black bears in each. That was the last experience in mainland China before heading to the airport.

A word on HK airport - it is massive. To depart, we had to catch a train from one end of the airport to another. Even with this, we had to walk miles and miles to get to our gate, and again to get from the gate to customs and baggage collection, and then to get to the right terminal to get our bus to our Kowloon hotel. It makes Sydney look like the old Adelaide airport.

HK, back to the bright lights, bustle, shopping, hawkers, markets, people, food and shopping.

The Sechuan HotPot. It's roiling hotness, a black-red soup of fiery goodness

A man fixes scooters and bikes on the footpath in Guilin.
Within 15 mins he had fixed 3 machines with a deft skill that
would be treasured in other parts.
He just seemed to get shouted at by the clients
he was helping out.

Day 8: Yangshou, Bamboo Rat and Karaoke

We skirted Yangshuo on our way to see a couple of the local tourist sites. First the Big Banyan tree, a 1400 year old tree. This one with a fence around it so you can’t climb it, although people were still doing lots of touching. We were there by 8.10, but the monkey men were already there, and the crowds were building. After a photo op with Tory and her Simian friends, we were then on to Steve’s cousins house where he has a restaurant on top of a hill in the country side. The hero of the meal was a still living Bamboo rat in his little trap caught whilst we were ballooning. Restaurants in town do not have a license to serve this gopher type animal, so this was a special treat. After photos, we were asked if we wanted to see it killed - 'Noooooo'! We did however, catch a glimpse of the bamboo rat being blowtorchedto de-hair the critter before before being tossed in the wok.

Here the pace slowed down a little (after a whirlwind trip with so much to see and the only down time being in the car through mad traffic on poor roads). Our fearless guide has had our days programmed for 12, 14, even 18 hrs, and has barely left our side). Once witnessing the dispatching of the rat, we relaxed on one of their balcony dining areas, beer and water to hand, and read, listened to the birds and cicadas, or dozed in the balmy breeze. After a spot of fishing on the Li river yielded no reward, just an hour of getting hot and thirsty

Time for lunch!! Bamboo rat, a beef like meat but with so very many small bones, and cooked with large amounts of chili. The feet and tail were used to make a soup, then sour beans for Mr Wu, Rice, Greens, and a treat for Steve - a plate of deep fried Cicadas!! This time, Tory tried the cicadas first, but really, one's enough. Not the taste so much as the knowledge that you have all those legs and antenna in your mouth, getting stuck in your teeth, tickling your throat as they go down. As a rule, in this part of China we could eat very very well, very cheaply. Plain restaurant meals for the 4 of us are only around the 120 - 200 Yuan mark ($20 - $35) with beer included. Meals with more dishes run to 300 Yuan ($50). But delicacies such as Bamboo rat, snake, turtle push the price of the meal up to 600 Yuan, turning a very cheap holiday into an unexpectedly expensive food safari.

We are enjoying our quieter day, with an afternoon of resting and washing, then exploring the tourist town of Yangshuo. We are finally seeing some westerners here, mostly in pairs on backpacking holidays, and the market stall holders are pushier in plying their wares. A treat that had to be sampled was their Green Bean flavoured icecream! It was a dull green color (like overcooked green beans), but had a kind of herbal tea flavour. Not bad, but not gonna replace chocolate icecream on my list of favourites.

We had the local speciality - ‘Beer fish’ for dinner - whole river carp cooked in a beer and tomato sauce. Then it was off for the cultural experience of the local light show - a massive tourist show put on in an amphitheatre by the river. Spotlit mountains (as only the chinese can - they also light them in beautiful colours!), a cast of hundreds and a performance the scale of olympic games opening proportions. Chinese singing can get bit much - sometimes it sounds just like bagpipes - but the show was visually spectacular. The evening was rounded off with a few drinks in a karaoke bar with Steve and one of his employees, in a private room with karaoke up very very loud.

Chinese version of a Hummer - actually very cool!

Tory enjoys a Green Bean Ice-Cream

Mmmm Rat Feet Soup

Mmmm Rat Liver

Mmmm Cicadas - Deep Fried!

Day 8: Early Morning Ballooning

4.32am. The all too familiar ring tone of our guide Steve rings through the timber hotel room. We ‘awake’ from the torture instrument that the Chinese call a bed. This was the worst so far in this journey. under the sheet it looks like a mattress but it feels like a freight pallet with a mattress material cover. The edges are solid timber and the middle core is probably ply wood or bamboo.

Bags packed, we climb into our vehicle and with eyes half awake we embark on the drive to Yangshuo. In the distance the strobing glow of lighting sillhouettes the karst peaks and I’m beginning to wonder if taking a balloon trip in China was such a good idea.

We arrive at the base of the mountains in Yangshuo as the team are firing up the first canopy. The red burst of flames echo into the valley as the balloon takes shape and slowly rises up. Given a complimentary cap to guard our hair from the heat above, we hop into the basket and say our last prayers to the ‘travel gods’

Lift off! We rise rapidly above the valley floor into the cool tropical air. A few more bursts of from the burner and we achieve altitude. A gentle breeze takes us along a path which roughly follows the river below. Once we are up 2 more balloons have since inflated and are rising up to greet us. The pilot feathers the burners and air vent causing the balloon to bob and weave it’s ways amongst the peaks. At one moment we are 20m from the river snaking its course and then within 15 frames of my camera - several hundred metres into the upper limits of perceived safety.

As the flight continues the early mist starts to clear and reveal the rising sun. Already at 15ยบ to the land below, it glows a hot pink shrouded by a dragon fist of early morning cloud.

This was truly postcard stuff. A decision to try this experience many months ago has paid off. We saw a thatched green escarpment as far as the eye could see. Fruit and rice, vegetables and chinese greens each in their own compartmentalised space at varying stages in their development. Combined with the mountains fading into the distance it was a moment in time. Once the sun was up, it was time for us to get down, chased by 3 ‘ninja’ balloon catchers around small fields of rice, taro, greens, and oranges. After a false start (too close to the only power line, and no wind at low altitudes to move us away), we were caught and brought down for a soft lading. After a 2 km walk we were back to the car, whilst our able pilot and his ninja crew folded up the balloon.