“Where are you going for the June holiday?” I ask my friend Heather. It is a question I shall ask and be asked dozens of times over the next couple of weeks. It will then be followed by, “What did you do over the holiday?” These are variations of the same questions I have been asking, and have been asked since coming to Shanghai. I have been here for eight months and in that time we have had five separate holiday breaks, and we still have a couple to go before we return home. Because we are so close to the exotic we want to make the most of our time here and that means traveling.
It seems we are always either traveling somewhere, recovering from having just traveled, or preparing to head out to someplace new. Four weekends ago we went to Hangzhou, the weekend after that we went to Yangshuo, and we just got back from a long weekend in Hong Kong/Macau. It is as exciting as it is exhausting. Sometimes I feel half of these diaries are just me talking about where we've been. I'll give the readers a break concerning the last couple, but Yangshuo was so amazing it simply needs to be talked about.
Avoiding the 24-hour train ride we opted for a plane to Guilin followed by a long cab ride to Yangshuo proper. We arrived there well into the evening hours and so we found our hotel and hit the bed without seeing a thing. In the morning we had breakfast in the hotel and then strolled out into the streets. Wow! Holy crap, it is beautiful. The mountains peak right above the city. I had expected the need to travel outside of town a bit to see the beauty, but no, it is right here outside the hotel.
A few meters from our front door also lies the river. The views from there were nothing short of spectacular. This is the very definition of the word “exotic.” The views are nothing like I have seen before. It is other-wordly. The mountains are more like giant spikes jutting out randomly throughout the countryside. They are covered in trees, vines, moss, and rocks so they look like some weirdly organized alien life form. The river winds and curls in between creating spectacular scenes these eyes haven't seen since the Grand Canyon.
It is a bit cloudy and rainy on this day and so the views are a little obscured, but still it is majestic. Not knowing what to do we find a recommended tour guide and ask for things to do when it rains. His choice: mud caves. We bus outside the city and do just that.
The caves here are different than the caves I am used to, they are less sanitized, less family friendly. In the States most caves seem to be so safety conscious that they suck the interest right out. Here there are still concrete steps and handrails from time to time, but there are also periods where we're hanging right over the edge, or stepping on small stones to cross large swaths of river water.
The guide, perhaps owing to speaking a second language, doesn't speak about science or geology, but instead only stops to speak when showing us how a bit of rock looks like a mushroom, or a stalactite in the shape of two lovers locked in an embrace.
The mud part of the cave is towards the end. It is a medium-sized pool of water with a good half meter of sedimental mud ready to squish between the toes at the bottom. The Chinese seem to want nothing to do with it, but they all gather around when us silly white folk decide to have a go. The water is freezing and the mud is… well, mud-like but we have lots of fun sloshing around and posing for a hundred pictures. From there we slip over to the underground river and have a swim and rinse off in the cold, clear water. This time one of the Chinese decides we're having too much fun and skimps down to his skivvies and has a go, too. Let me tell you right now, there ain't nothing like swimming in a cave with an unknown Chinese man in his underwear.
The day cleared up a bit from there and we took a boat ride down the river. The views were still obscured by clouds and still breathtaking. The boat let us off at a small village so we could see how the natives behaved. They were like much of the rest of them – trying to make a buck off of us tourists. One very cute old couple were walking outside their house when they spotted us. They spoke a little English and smiled at us with welcoming eyes. They invited us to see their garden and let us finger their herbs and admire their simple country life. Then they brought out the trinkets and asked us to buy. So much for quaint village life.
Moon Hill sits just outside the town and is famous due to the round hole sitting towards the peak of the mountain. We decided to bike out to it and give it a climb. I haven't ridden a bike in I don't know how long, and while it may be true that you never forget how, this old body sure wishes I would have and just gotten a taxi. Besides the aches and pains of biking up and down hills there was the real fear of death on that ride. Like everywhere we've been in China, the traffic was insane and full of danger.
Cars, buses, and trucks all whipped here and there and everywhere, passing whoever they wanted, stopping for no reason, and generally scaring the bejesus out of me. The other bike riders were no better, they weaved in and out of the road and the bike lane and nearly knocked me down any number of times. I tried to play along and did a little weaving myself, but not without saying a prayer for my pour soul all the while.
There were stairs up the hill and we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. I reached the top first, panted for my life, and took a few pictures. There was a small path winding around to the side and I imagined it went straight around the small mountain and decided to walk it before the girls came up. There were no stairs this time and instead of going around it went up. Way up. It had rained recently so I was treading up mud and rock. Falling was painful death. Climbing was muddy pain. I guess I should have just climbed down after a few minutes, but I really did think I was circling around until I realize it was nothing but climb and by then it was too late. I made it okay and the view was stunning, but I called the wife and told her not to even try. The way down was worse as it felt like I was falling the entire time and my legs were already caked in mud.
We spent the rest of the time shopping for trinkets and enjoying the view. Our flight out was Sunday night and we took an afternoon taxi to the airport. The taxi took longer than we imagined and we didn't make it to the airport until about 90 minutes before our flight. Signs warned us that if we weren't through customs at an hour before takeoff we wouldn't be taking off at all. Lines stretched long throughout the airport. We stood for our boarding pass and hoped things would go quickly. Ten, then twenty minutes passed. Finally we got our passes but now had to wait in line for security.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
If time can pass both fast and slow then this is what it did. Every moment took forever as we watched each person move like tar through the security gates. Every minute zipped by as we still weren't through the gates at the appropriate time.
We made it. Just. We ran to our gate and waited. Then waited some more. Then there was commotion and people began leaving. We asked about it and our gate was moved downstairs. We moved there and waited. More commotion and our gate was moved again. After a long time someone then told us that the flight had been delayed. A couple of hours, they said. Then they told us to board a bus and go to the hotel for some “rest.”
A two-hour delay and they are putting us up in a hotel? I've been here long enough to know something smells wrong, and it isn't just the pollution. I put the wife to bed and stayed up reading for those two hours just in case. Like I thought, no one came knocking and I went to bed, too. About six the next morning we got a banging on the door and a bus ride back to the airport. We still waited there a couple of hours while they did what they do and were finally let on the plan and made our way home. I swear every time we fly anywhere in this country something goes wrong. Next time I'm taking the bus.