In the summer of ’99, Mary Thompson and I went on our first real roadtrip. We traveled from Gainesville, Florida to San Antonio, El Paso, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon before heading all the way back to North Carolina and then home. It was a magical trip. A couple of weeks and thousands of miles in the hot summer sun with two roommates who somehow managed to not get seriously lost or have a single argument the whole way. Mary and I just make good travel companions, I guess.
We decided to see if that’s still holds true, 15 years and half a world away. Mary arrived in Zhuhai on June 8 and after a few days at our home, we set off on our big adventure. Unlike the first trip, we have a few more traveling companions (Joel and Simon).
Having no car at our disposal, this road trip features an abundance of alternative transportation methods. We started out on the bullet train from Tangjia to Guangzhou, and then transferred from Guangzhou South station to Guangzhou Central Railway Station via subway. Then the cool part: an overnight sleeper train. Joel and I had traveled by sleeper train in India, but this was our first experience in China. It was wonderful. We left Guangzhou at about 7:30 at night and arrived in Guilin early the next morning. We had decided to book a berth for Simon so that the four of us had a room all to ourselves, which was very comfortable. Simon even made friends with the family next door. Their little boy was just a few months older than him.
From Guilin, it was a 90 minute bus ride to Yangshuo and then, finally, a brief taxi ride to our hotel, the Li River Retreat. Readers abroad might be wondering, “Why Guilin? Never heard of it.” But you know it, even if you don’t know it’s name. It’s the place in all those Chinese paintings.
Thanks to amazing karst geology, this is one of the most amazing, unique, awe-inspiring landscapes in the world. You could easily imagine yourself to be on a foreign planet. The peaks pop out of the ground as tall, conical pillars dotting the landscape.
We are staying in the Li River Retreat, which is just 2km out of touristy Yangshuo with a view of the Li River and karst hills. The rooms are pretty nice.
But we’re staying here for the view. Here, take a look out our bedroom window.
We checked in and chilled out. After all that travel, we were content to just sit on the balcony and enjoy the view.
Joel picked up a book from the lobby bookshelf. It was a quick read.
We finally gathered the energy to move into Yangshuo for dinner at a vegetarian place called Pure Lotus. Afterwards, we roamed the streets for a little while.
The next day, we took a bamboo raft trip down the river. This is a very popular, very touristy thing to do while in Yangshuo but it was completely worth it. Mary and I shared one raft while Joel and Simon rode in another. Each raft had a boatman who steered us with a long pole. The two-hour trip was a leisurely way to take in the scenery and I only wished for a cold, fruity drink to complete the experience.
Eventually, Simon tired of his dad’s company. The boatmen pulled up next to one another and Joel handed him off to us.
Once the raft ride was over, we were met by our guide. The rafts get hauled back to the starting point by truck, but we were going on a bike ride.
We biked for a couple of miles. The scenery was stunning–massive karst peaks surrounding us, with farm fields in the foreground.
At one point, we came upon a rice paddy that was still being planted. The workers were away on a lunch break. Our guide, Anna, asked if anybody wanted to learn how to plant rice. “Sure!” I said. But Mary and Joel were less enthused and offered to hang back with Simon. Anna led me into the field and we peeled off our socks and shoes. “Won’t they be upset that were disturbing their field?”
“Why?! We are doing their work for them. They will be surprised and happy when they come back!”
So, here are my impressions of planting rice. While it is pleasant enough in the short-term, the constant bending and repetitive motions would eventually take a toll on your back. The water is about five inches deep and steamy hot. Hotter than bath water–more like a hot tub. And it’s well fertilized by the cattle in the region. Let’s not dwell upon the components of that mud that was squishing up between my toes.
Anna grabbed a clump of rice shoots in her left hand. She instructed me to use my thumb to separate one at a time, which I should transfer to my right hand and poke into the mud. Sounds simple enough, but the roots and shoots kept tangling for me. Obviously, if you going to grow enough rice to feed the most populous country in the world, you’re going to have to be faster. I poked and prodded like the novice I was.
Until Anna encouraged me to work faster, or the leeches would grab me and start sucking my blood. That’s just the kind of encouragement I needed to pick up the pace.
We finished our bundles and I took a long view of the field. To my left, the neatly planted rows done by the local farmers. To the right, the haphazard rows that I managed to plant. It was quite an eye-opening reminder of the sheer physical exertion of agriculture.
As we cycled on, we saw fishermen in the river and family gravesites.
Our will to stop and admire sights was fast diminishing, though. It was early afternoon and about 95 degrees out. The sun was burning bright and hot and we were hungry.
Anna led us to a little lunch spot accurately called the Secret Garden. After filling up, we returned our bicycles and took a taxi back to the hotel. Simon went down for a nap and we boasted of our plans to process photos, write blog posts, and read up on tomorrow’s activities. In truth, we were exhausted and accomplished little more than showers and naps. Tomorrow would be another full day and we needed our rest.