Chinese Whispers

Karsts and caves in south China

Onboard yet another sleeper train, this time to Guilin, I travelled in the relative luxury of “hard sleeper” class with my own bed (hurray!). It was still jam-packed, though – like the Trans-Siberian all the beds are open in a dormitory style, but with three bunks high instead of two.

A slightly more acceptable form of public transport

A slightly more acceptable form of public transport

Despite continued language barrier issues I still managed to converse with the passengers. Through the wonders of Google Translate, me and the young man beside me, Wuwei, talked about our respective journeys and lives all evening. He offered me a whole heap of snacks, including chicken feet wrapped like a chocolate bar (I politely declined) and large boxes of Chinese savoury snacks which I graciously accepted and gorged on.

Chicken feet snack. The idea is to eat and...spit the nails out afterwards. De-lic-ious.

Chicken feet snack. The idea is to eat and…spit the nails out afterwards. De-lic-ious.

Guilin itself is like most Chinese cities – big and bustling. Other than various historical relics, such as the ancient Sun and Moon pagodas, there are few tourist attractions in the city. The main draw is the natural setting; Guilin sits amongst large karst limestone formations for dozens of miles in all directions. Where there’s karsts, there’s caves, and the Reed Flute Caves outside of town were spectacular. The colourful neon lighting adds a nice touch to the cool, moist ambience of this huge cave.

Sun and Moon Pagoda. Three guesses which one's which.

Sun and Moon Pagoda. Three guesses which one’s which.

A trip via bamboo boat to the small town of Yangshou made for an even more scenic retreat. The town is largely unspectacular, but my highlight was the cycle around the rural villages amongst the hills and rivers in this beautiful landscape.

Bamboo boat to Yangshou from Guilin

Bamboo boat to Yangshou from Guilin

Cycling through Yangshou

My stay at the Wada hostel was probably the best all round on my trip so far. The staff are super friendly, and the hearty meals a welcome change from cashew nuts and beds comfortable. I’d highly recommend this hostel for any prospective travellers here.

Avocado! It's like meeting a long lost friend, and then...eating him

Avocado! It’s like meeting a long lost friend, and then…eating him

China: An unexpected delight

I never intended to spend more than a few days in transit in China. But the incredible people I met and culture shock I received in Beijing made me eager to see more while I had the chance (not to mention making the most of the horrendously expensive visa).

I drew several parallels with my trip to China with my first visit to India three years ago, particularly trying to battle through the sheer quantity of people and eccentric atmosphere of Beijing, which was in stark contrast to Ulaan Baatar.

No doubt, it was tough at times. I found the wifi and 3G cellular speeds to be abysmal almost everywhere, and it didn’t help matters that key online resources – especially Google – are blocked. I had to make much more of an effort to navigate around and converse without a mobile companion. Veggie food was especially difficult to find outside of cities. By the end of my time here I was completely spent and a couple of trouser sizes smaller. I was still in good spirits, though. There’s no adventure without a challenge.

Like I mentioned in a previous post, everywhere there are omnipresent reminders about the scale of China’s growth. It’s quite astonishing.

But I did leave with some concerning observations in China. Firstly, the relatively large proportion of overweight people in the cities (especially on display with the widespread shirt roll) was unexpected, but not overly surprising given the amount of processed foods and snacks in supermarkets. The use of gutter oil (it’s as bad as it sounds) and preservatives in foods means finding meals consisting of genuinely fresh and healthy ingredients are few and far between. Coupled with the very high smoking rates and serious air pollution issues, there’s surely a public health crisis looming for China’s ageing population.

The Chinese shirt roll. I eventually joined in too (I'll spare you a view of my stomach)

The Chinese shirt roll. I eventually joined in too (I’ll spare you a view of my stomach)

Add to that the skewed demographics due to the former one child policy, the hugely inflated housing bubble and weak consumer demand, I can foresee China’s rate of growth tailing off very quickly. I’ve witnessed first hand the cultural, environmental and social repercussions the country’s growth has had, and I fear it will bite back hard over the coming decades.

Anyway, without sidetracking into a political and economic rant, it’s time to wrap this up. The Chinese people that will give me everlasting memories of this incredible country. Not only had I never expected to be welcomed so warmly, but the energetic and light-hearted attitude of the locals made the whole experience incredibly memorable. Combined with stunning natural sights and historical relics, China has it all. I’ll be back soon without question, armed with an umbrella and a selfie stick of course.


Next: Good morning Vietnam

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