When we arrive in China, it feels like we have left the best country for last. What surprises me about Beijing is how relaxed people seem to be, despite the crowds and pollution. I instantly like the city. We try to go to the Forbidden City, but after two hours of being shepherded through x-ray searches and barriers, we give up on trying to find it. “The Forbidden City’s still forbidden,” Chris muses.
We take a 300km per hour train (which happens to be showing a Steve Coogan film) to Guilin. We head to a town called Yangshuo, and we are here because one of my all-time dreams is to visit the Li River. Apparently, it’s also a dream for thousands of other people. We try to walk, but there’s so many people that we get trapped in one place. The bright lights of KFC and McDonalds illuminate the night sky and the neon lights of hotels and restaurants try to attract customers. A giant outdoor TV screen advertises various Chinese travel destinations. Hardly the tranquility I had visualised. I had been a bit prepared for lots of other tourists, but stupidly I hadn’t prepared myself for the trafffic, the noise, the fast food chains, and the hotels that tourists inevitably use. I am gutted.
“Is it always this busy?” I ask a local.
“Well, it’s summer break and it’s the weekend…” she replies.
Most of the tourists here are in tour groups. Chinese tour groups are like a less offensive version of the western package tourist: everything is done for you so that you don’t need to think for yourself. The Chinese tourists follow a leader, who holds a flag in the air so that no-one gets lost.
You can read lots on the internet and in books about the Li River. People post romantic photos onto websites of the dramatic limestone rock formations. Rarely do they post true photos, showing the hundreds (if not thousands) of tour boats plying the river. And no-one talks about the loud, shitty music blasting out of Yangshuo’s bars. I suppose that you wouldn’t make your mates back home envious if you showed the Li River and Yangshuo in their true light. In some ways, it reminds me of a friendlier Chinese version of Magalluf.
Despite the fact that everyone is so nice here (lots of Chinese people want photos with us sweaty Europeans!) we need to get out of here. Fast. We concoct a plan to head to a place called Xingping in the hope that it’s going to be more quiet. We ask for boats at the quay.
“No boats to Xingping. Only bus,” people say.
“Nooooo! I can not fight through those crowds. I can’t go back to the traffic, the noise, the chaos….!” I cry.“But I can not stay here.”
We ponder what to do, whilst women try to sell us Bamboo Boat Tours and old cormorant fishermen pose for tourist photos. Each fisherman has two cormorant birds, who are tied to a piece of bamboo. When the cormorants dive for fish, they are unable to swallow their catch because the fisherman ties string around their throat. The fisherman then takes the fish for himself. For some reason, Chinese and western tourists alike love this cruel tradition.
There’s only one thing for it. To get out of here we need to do the ultimate Tourist Gimmick: a Bamboo Boat Tour. We will get off the boat in a village called Fuli and hitchhike to Xingping. We barter with an old woman and finally agree to an extortionate price for our Bamboo Boat. However, about twenty minutes into the journey, the woman moans that we haven’t paid her enough money and that she’s turning back round to Yangshuo. Chris argues with her, and she whinges and throws a teenage strop, and then begrudgingly drives the (motorised) boat the extra five minutes to Fuli. She then chucks our bags off of the boat in a rage and chugs off into the distance.
With trepidation, we arrive in Xingping. But to our joy, Xingping is (by Chinese standards) very peaceful! There’s barely any cars and not a KFC in sight!
After a few days, we leave Xingping by doing a hiking route through villages. But it gets dark and we haven’t reached our destination.
“Bamboo Boat! It’s dark. You must get the boat”, a local says.
We reluctantly accept the offer, and with dread, we board another Bamboo Boat. As we set off, a miracle happens. We float along the Li River, with the mist hanging over the beautiful dark rocks, and we are the only people on the river. This is the Li River that I had dreamt about for years! We drift off into the silent, beautiful, perfect darkness.