Arrival – Guangzhou
We arrived at Guangzhou at 9pm on Tuesday 6th August, slightly delayed and very tired. Our final hour on the flight introduced us to the incredible lightning storms that were a daily feature all week: seconds-long illuminations of the whole sky, and occasional bolts of forked lightning which were too close to the plane for comfort and seemed to be on all sides!
After MONTHS of worry including numerous emails, many phone calls and two desperate visits to the Chinese Embassy in London, we still didn’t know whether carrying a year’s supply of testosterone was allowed in China. So we dutifully presented ourselves at customs and filled out the forms, Jay was asked to unpack his enormous backpack to show all the medication he was carrying, the woman on customs took a box away, and then returned with another agent who shrugged and said “you do not need to declare this”. And that was that. What a load of stress over nothing.
By the time we arrived at our “homestay”, it was 11pm. We’d been told that it can be difficult to get help in China, but we asked several people to point us in the right direction and everyone was very amenable. We got to the flat door on the 39th floor of a tower block and gingerly rang the bell, hoping we weren’t going to wake up the wrong household. No answer. We rang again. No answer. We had no internet, no phone and no real idea where we were! Eventually we decided to try the fancy hotel round the corner, where a very helpful young man phoned our host and got our phone set up with WeChat (the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp1 ) so we could communicate with the host. We then spent a torturous 20 minutes sat in the hotel lobby using their wifi to tease the required information out of our host. For some reason they would only send us one instruction at a time! It turned out the rooms in the flat were just used for short stays and nobody lived there. We eventually got the codes for the front door and room door and set off again.
It was after midnight as we were heading back to the flat and met an excited woman on the street who gestured “sleep” to us and said “guest house”, indicating for us to follow. She took us back into the housing development we’d been in earlier, her tiny legs moving at a pace that meant we were jogging with our 20kg backpacks to keep up! To our horror, she took us into a different building – had we really been ringing some poor random person’s doorbell at 11pm?? – and up to the 3rd floor. She showed us into a flat and gave us a key, at which point we started to question what was going on. Why did we have door codes when these doors had regular locks? As the night approached 1am, we realised this woman had nothing to do with our actual homestay, and we’d just followed a random woman to her rental flat! We showed her our booking confirmation, which didn’t help at all, and eventually just had to put the key on the side and walk out, ignoring her protestations in Chinese.
We returned to the first flat and tried the front door code which of course didn’t work. Luckily we now had the flat wifi code, and by squishing up against the door we could just get enough signal to message the owner, saving us having to go back out into the 30 degree heat to return to the hotel. We got the updated code and FINALLY made it in to the very nice flat at 1:30am. We hadn’t eaten since our plane lunch at noon, but we hadn’t been able to find anything without meat at the few open shops and takeaways, so we ate a dinner of crisps and bombay mix, and promptly fell asleep.
We woke up to an amazing view over Guangzhou: a modern city of wide roads and skyscrapers shrouded in smog. We set out with our vegan translation card and tried every food outlet we could, all of which shook their heads and turned us away, until we found a tiny cafe with a more helpful waitress. She pointed at two items on the menu: braised vegetables, and glutinous balls in white wine soup. We agreed to both and waited, very hungry, for our brunch. The “vegetables” was just pak choi, and had clearly been cooked in butter! The glutinous balls were such a weird texture that we both really struggled with them, floating in a huge bowl of sweet wine soup. She then brought us an extra dish of a sort of rice pudding, but it tasted like there was gelatine in. Not a great meal!
We then successfully completed our main mission for the day: buying train tickets to Yangshuo2: an area famous for the Karst mountains that everyone pictures when thinking of a Chinese landscape and feature on the 20 Yuen note. After queuing for at least half an hour, we showed the attendant our destination written in “Pinyin”: the phonetic written form of Chinese that approximates words and names with Roman letters. She got help from another attendant to check what we’d written, then used a dictaphone-type device to record herself in Chinese and play it back to us in English. A few hostels and tourist offices have had these, and they are far more accurate than any translation apps we’ve come across. We then had to hand over our passports as you cannot take a train here without it being recorded, and disconcertingly our passport details were displayed on a screen as she typed them in, for everyone to see!
Next stop was a phone shop to get a SIM card: in India, Maeve spent 3 hours in a shop, having her passport and visa scrutinised, with multiple online forms being completed by the staff, and Jay worrying that she’d been kidnapped, just to get a pre-paid card. In China, we handed over £20 and were given a SIM card immediately.
We chose another place for lunch, and were delighted to be interrupted as we tried to communicate with the waiter by an older man who was a salesman in the UK for many years. He offered to help translate, and even taught us how to say “I am vegetarian” (literally “I eat vegetables”) in Chinese. He ordered us rice, noodles and mixed vegetables. When they came, everything was in meat broth with actual lumps of meat in. At this point we started thinking we might starve in China3, if we can’t even get vegan food with someone requesting it for us in Chinese.
We spent the rest of the day mooching around a shopping centre with the tagline “We make poop beautiful” and bought some supplies at a supermarket where every.single.vegetable was wrapped in plastic. But atleast we now have instant porridge and peanut butter! We also visited IKEA – something we’d wanted to do in Hyderabad but didn’t have time – just to see what it’s like here (we were also hoping they’d have veggie hot dogs, no such luck). The store and items for sale are almost identical as in the UK (and Sweden, presumably) but how people interact with everything is starkly different. There were people sat on every sofa, children in the beds, families, couples, friends just hanging out, most on their phones, some with blankets over their laps. Given the 35 degree baking sun and concrete outside, it was easy to see why people would choose to stay in there with the aircon.
The next morning Maeve was very unwell, and we had a truly anxious journey on the (otherwise very nice and comfortable) Metro, wondering if we’d make it to the train station toilets. Thankfully we did! We’d arrived very early to ensure we didn’t miss our train, which was a good call as the security on trains in China is intense! We passed through ticket barriers first, unable to use the automated ones which scan Chinese ID cards, so we had to queue to have our passports checked. Next we queued for the bag scanners, in weaving lanes similar to airport security. Our backpacks and bags were scanned while we went through metal detectors and had a thorough pat-down. Finally we made it to the waiting area and Jay, wary of Maeve’s dodgy stomach and our terrible experiences so far, went in search of food. He eventually returned with plain rice and boiled vegetables (pak choi and mushrooms, again cooked in butter) for himself and McDonald’s for Maeve. A long discussion about veggie burgers resulted in us unwrapping a burger bun to find: some lettuce. Luckily Maeve was quite happy to have a chip butty, but it definitely was not what we expected, especially for the price!
Boarding for our train (it really did feel like an airport!) started exactly 18 minutes before departure, and closed 4 minutes before. We went through another set of barriers, again having to join the longer queue for a real person to check our ID and tickets, and followed the huge crowd down to the train. The platform number, coach and seats were all printed on the ticket so we’d been able to check these ahead of time and found our places with relative ease. The coach was clean, spacious and comfortable, except for the constant noise of other people’s phones and loud conversations. We enjoyed a smooth 250km/hr journey out of the city, passing fields where people in conical hats tended crops, and water buffalo meandered along the waterways. The trip was made slightly surreal towards the end when a soft saxophone instrumental version of “Close to You” was piped out of the speakers into the carriage.
We arrived in Yangshuo just in time for another electical storm; torrential rain poured down and lightning lit the sky, illuminating the magical Karst landscape all around us. We dove through a crowd of taxi drivers and got on our bus to the ancient town of Xingping, which the guidebooks describe as like Yangshuo before all the tourism. If that’s true, we are very glad we didn’t spend any time in Yangshuo as Xingping was HEAVING with tourists. This has been our first experience of travelling during the high season, as schools are closed right now and there is a huge middle class in China who travel extensively domestically. During our few days in Xingping there must have been thousands of tourists passing through: alighting from aircon buses, following guides holding stuffed toys aloft on thin poles, piling onto the tour boats that clog the beautiful Li river.
On our first morning, we left the hostel at 5am in the pitch darkness yet sweltering humid heat, to climb the nearest mountain which is recommended for sunrise. We could clearly see that it was cloudy but figured we may as well go for it anyway since we had made the effort to get out of bed! It was eerily quiet after the noise of the evening before: all we could hear were cicadas in the trees and the occasional splash of a fishing net on the river.
The climb was HARD. The path was well-trodden and mostly very well maintained; zig-zag steps made of dark rock turned slippery in the humid air. It was a struggle to breathe with all the moisture and exertion, and we had to stop frequently to catch our breath. Once again we had to reassess our capabilities for exercise in this alien climate! About two-thirds of the way up we heard whoops and hollers, and an older couple suddenly appeared, leaping down the steps without a care in the world. They’d obviously been to the top and decided it wasn’t worth staying for the sunrise. They were carrying empty plastic bottles collected along the route. Although China has had FAR less litter so far than we saw in India, unfortunately the heavily touristed areas still have lots of discarded plastic waste. The couple took turns swinging on a huge overhanging branch. We were too knackered to have a go on the way up, but made use of it on the way back down!
Near the top the path became sheer on one side, with the only protection a barrier made out of scaffolding poles, alongside a sign which warned you not to use the barrier as it wasn’t stable! To reach the top we had to scale a steep metal ladder bolted to the hillside, but luckily it was short and we soon reached the summit. A small pagoda was filled with a dozen other tourists, so we followed someone who scrambled off to one side to a more secluded spot, ignoring the numerous signs which warn against this. Around a massive telephone mast we found a comfortable rock on which to recover after the exertion of the climb, and look out at the mist, hoping for a view to emerge. We were treated to tantalising glimpses of the town and surrounding mountains as the clouds alternately lifted for a few minutes, then new ones rolled in from further up the valley to escape the invisible blazing sun.
Our favourite day in Xingping took us away from the crowds to explore the countryside. We had planned to hire one electric scooter, but as we attempted to pull away from the hostel into the road which was heaving with pedestrians and vehicles, it became clear we were not sufficiently skilled to balance with both of us and a full day pack! So we forked out another whopping £7.50 for a second scooter for the day, with a 50km range: more than enough for us. We followed the information from the hostel, using written instructions to supplement truly terrible handdrawn maps to try to find our way around. There is very little reliable mapping here, even the widely used mapping apps are only of limited use, with few features included that would help you find your way (and no option to translate the labels into English!)
Despite the navigation issues, we managed to follow the route described to us, along narrow paths with steep drops either side into glittering waterlogged fields. All around us the Karst mountains towered majestically. Although they are largely composed of limestone and pale in colour, from a distance their lush ecosystem gives a dark appearance, between the tall trees and bamboo that grows right up to the tops.
We arrived at a secluded part of a river tributary where we could lounge in the clean water, recommended by the hostel, and spent a lovely couple of hours cooling off (and slightly crisping our skin!) in a lovely pool below an old stone bridge.
As we were packing up to leave a small girl appeared from downstream, the first person we’d seen in hours. She was soon followed by an athletic guy who introduced himself as Andy, a local tour guide, who invited us to follow him as he led a riverbed scramble. We joined the family he was leading (hoping they didn’t mind!) on the promise of an even better swimming spot upstream. After only a few dozen metres we turned a corner and came across loads of people, much to our surprise! There was a good path to the road that we hadn’t seen before, and some had used this to transport a trestle table, actual china cups and plates and a brazier (!!) to a clearing further upstream, and were enjoying a lavish barbeque and beers. There were also other tour groups, with timid tourists in hard hats and lifejackets gingerly navigating the rocky riverbed.
Andy was a great guide, alternately leaping ahead to show us the way, and hanging back to help the group with tricky parts of the scramble. Some parts of the journey involved climbing up questionable ropes, one of which was just attached to some loose tree roots and moved dramatically when tensioned. At one stage, the water deepened into a steep-sided ravine, and we were forced to swim with our rucksack held aloft to reach the other end and climb the waterfall. It turns out one of our two drybags is not as watertight as we thought, luckily we only ruined an already mouldy novel from the hostel, and a toilet roll.
We reached the final swimming spot which was lovely, and saw hardly any other people there, despite having passed so many on the way. It was beautiful and there was a bit of river just deep enough to jump into from the rocks – Jay discovered a new setting on his waterproof camera to capture the amazing ethereal pictures below.
We also took advantage of having our scooters to travel up the Li river a short distance to the famous view that features on the 20 Yuen note. After months of relying on foreign public transport, it was truly liberating and exciting to have our own vehicles for the day. We were still mindful however that road accidents are the leading cause of death in China! On the dual carriageway around Yangshuo most scooters used the hard shoulder, so we followed suit. We’ve since seen in many cities that there are separate lanes for scooters and bicycles, to keep them away from the busy roads.
On our last day we managed a scorching walk to a nearby nunnery. We took the small local ferry across the Li river and walked up through a community orchard, pausing at every opportunity in the shade of stooped trees bearing enormous green fruit. We got lost (unsurprisingly, given the terrible hand-drawn map we were following), but eventually made it to a tiny Buddhist nunnery and temple set into a natural cavern in the side of one of the Karst mountains. Inside there were prayers being performed by the nuns, chanting out of key and slightly out of time to a gong beat. As we sat quietly in the courtyard looking up at the vaulted limestone ceiling layered with enormous stalactites, their voices echoed and reverberated eerily. The only other sound was the dripping of water as it oozed out from the rock layers into daylight.
A woman in the kitchen emerged to show us some things they had for sale, and Jay selected a small pendant with a sutra inside. The receptionist at our hostel had mentioned a cave behind the nunnery, and we gestured to the back to ask if we could go and explore. She showed us around to the back, and we both gasped as we passed through a small doorway and a long, cool cave suddenly opened up in front of us. She flicked a switch and a row of bare bulbs lit up along one side, startling the bats who were roosting on the wire. One by one they woke up, gave their ears a little wiggle, and swooped by our heads to a more secluded spot above us in the darkness. The cave extended a few hundred metres in front of us, at the end was a large plinth where three white marble Buddha statues surrounded by flowers glistened in the misty air. It was a truly moving and mysterious encounter, as we ascended the gently sloping rock floor, smooth with age and generations of disciples footsteps. The Buddhas smiled benevolently down, their features blurred and indistinct in the mist that swirled around them in the ancient, dripping cavern.
We returned to the light, and left subdued. We’d visited temples in Ladakh in the Himalays, and in Bodhgaya, where the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment grew in it’s fifth generation. Yet after the tourist traps that these places had become, we’d left feeling nothing but an empty sterility. Here, behind an ancient temple down a dirt track, where few tourists knew to tread, we’d found something that made us gasp in wonder. All the nuns were much older, and we worried for the future of this sacred and magical place, should a time come when there were no more women to guard it.
That evening we were treated to another beautiful sunset before heading to bed early for our morning bus. Before we could fall asleep, however, we were startled by deep echoing rumbling that sounded like heavy machinery just outside. It turned out to be thunder, and from the roof we watched incredible lighting illuminate the sky in bright blue and purples.
Longji rice terraces
We left Xingping the following day on a local bus to Yangshuo, where we connected to a tourist bus which took us the four hours to Dazhai in the Longshen protected area. About half the journey time covered a tiny distance along winding roads with a sheer drop on one side to the riverbed below, climbing steadily through the mountains to the village of Dazhai, 1000m above sea level. At one point, the driver pulled over at a random point at the side of the road, and hopped off to talk to a man selling watermelons from the back of his truck. Having purchased two, the driver opened the storage section in the bottom of the bus and went to load the fruit in with all the passengers’ luggage. The watermelon seller took great exception to this, and could be seen waving his arms and exclaiming loudly to the driver. They eventually agreed that an acceptable method of transportation was to wedge the melons in the gangway of the bus, held in place with a packet of biscuits.
We alighted in Dazhai (gingerley stepping over the two watermelons) to be immediately greeted by a crowd of local Yao women, offering their services as guides or to carry luggage to hotels set higher up in the hillside. Lots of tourists milled around, waiting for their guides, or queuing for the cable car. We found a shop where we could leave our huge bags for the duration of our brief stay, and set off up the path to our hostel.
For an hour we climbed up through the rice terraces, along ancient paths paved with stone, through covered wooden bridges over streams, and between the old buildings now jostling for space with countless modern hotels. This area was unknown to the outside world before 1990, when a photographer staying in the area published photos of the stunning tiered rice fields glistening in the sunlight, and it was promptly featured in many guidebooks. Since then, new roads and hotels have sprung up, and many were being built during our visit, so that it is hard to imagine the landscape that existed just 30 years ago. Nonetheless, it is beautiful. We were unable to truly appreciate the views during our climb, thanks to the searing heat and humidity, and the fact that we hadn’t really eaten since breakfast many hours ago. We plodded up to our hostel and (probably stupidly!) took advantage of their 2-for-1 happy hour to have a couple of beers and play some pool with the stunning backdrop of the terraces, before heading to a bigger YHA hostel for dinner. We opted not to eat at our hostel because we noticed a continuous shower of dust from termites in the bamboo roof that would have made eating challening, and certainly affected the nap of the pool table! Thankfully the young women working at the YHA weren’t too confused by our request for vegan options, and we actually had two different dishes for dinner, the most sumptuous meal we’d had so far in China.
We got up in the pitch dark again to hike up to the nearby East-facing viewpoint for sunrise. Once again we were astonished at the sheer number of other tourists, and particularly by the constant loud talking and also by how many were stood in front of the stunning view just staring at their phones. To get away from the noise (and cigarette smoke) we descended along a farmer’s path to their rice terrace and sat on some steps, listening to the sounds of the hillside around us waking up and enjoying the detail of the insects, plants and water immediately around us while waiting for the grander spectacle of sunrise. Unfortunately the weather was against us again, as despite the clear sunny days, the morning was cloudy and we didn’t see the sun cresting the hills. There was a beautiful pink dawn however, and we saw the occasional flash of sunlight breaking through the clouds.
After breakfast back at the YHA we began our descent down to the town and our bus. This time we were able to really enjoy the journey and stopped frequently to soak up the views, including in the seating area built into the side of a public toilet that jutted out over the valley!
We took the bus to Guilin to catch a train to Liuzhou, where we began an epic 36-hour train journey North. We were fully prepared for the security process to get into the station, and got there with plenty of time to go through that and find some dinner before our 23:30 train. There were only two shops and one fast food outlet open in the station when we arrived; we stocked up on every vegan snack we could find, and then asked what was available at the fast food place, to be told nothing. Eventually we obtained some plain boiled rice from the exceptionally sullen woman at the counter, and despondently began to make our way through the flavourless mass. We were delighted to remember that we had some instant noodles with black pepper sauce, so we used the sauce to make the rice slightly more palatable. It was still a struggle though!
We’d been concerned since arriving that our train wasn’t displayed with a platform number, but rather a series of Chinese characters where the platform should be. We asked at the information stand and were told – via a translation app – that we had to wait in a special cordoned off military holding area. We had to go through another round of bag scanners – Jay’s was put through twice, alarmingly – and a much more thorough pat-down, as well as having our visas scrutinised, before being allowed into the otherwise unremarkable waiting area of the station. When the train boarding opened, our tickets were checked once again as we were allowed through single-file onto the platform, and then again as we entered the carriage! We found our berths in the dark and settled down on our ready-made beds for a long journey.
1. WhatsApp, Google, Facebook, Wikipedia are all banned here, and we had no idea how dependent on them we were until we were unable to use them!↩
2. pronounced something like Yangshwar, but every time someone said it out loud to us it was slightly different, and we never successfully made ourselves understood trying to replicate it.↩
3. or die of diabetes from eating nothing but snack food.↩