Friday, July 26, 2013

Li River or "We Go Shopping"

The Li River, China

I've always thought that the journey is often more memorable than the destination and today's adventures support this theory. Being adverse to both organized tours and taxis often means that I must be extremely resourceful about visiting many destinations. Today I wanted to go to a little village called Yangdi and take a bamboo boat ride along the scenic river Li to the village of Xingping.

The easy, touristy way to see the Li River's majestic scenery is to join a tour and be picked up early in the morning at your hotel in Guilin, take a five hour ride crammed onto a noisy, smelly ferry boat, be fed cafeteria style then taken to a specific area to buy local crafts and merchandise, followed by a bus ride to be safely deposited back at your hotel. This seemed rather unappealing to me as it rarely affords a traveller the opportunity to meet local people and to get a feel for the day to day life in any particular location.

I had conducted a bit of research before coming but there were no clear instructions about how to attempt my journey. I had hoped to go to the bus station and get a local bus to Yangdi where I would secure a bamboo boat ride to Xingping, then take a bus to Yangshou where I would take a bus back to Guilin. An ambitious plan, so armed with a few words of the destinations, written in Chinese by the hostel clerk, and my trusty iPhone off I went with the warning of the clerk, "I think maybe you can't get there." Challenge accepted!

The bus and train station seemed to be one and the same with dozens of buses parked outside the train station. There are big buses, little buses, modern buses, and dilapidated buses. The area is teeming with stalls, vendors and a very large number of women who seem to be making it their life's work to ensure that everyone finds their correct bus. There must be some kind of profit in this endeavour as I'm sure they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. There is no english signage on the buses at all and very few people in the area seem to speak any english. I first went to what seemed to be the ticket purchasing counter, ignoring the many women trying to get my attention. I hopefully, showed the woman at the counter my paper with the word "Yangdi" on it but she rapidly said something and made an abrupt motioning gesture as if to say, "Go away."
Not to be discouraged, I spied a sign saying Tourist Information and thought that this might be a likely place to get some solid information. Unfortunately, by tourist they don't mean clueless foreigners such as myself but rather the many millions of Chinese tourists that visit this region yearly. The gentleman inside started off patiently as I asked him if he spoke English and he indicated a little. Well apparently it was a very little, because although I think I made him understand that I wanted a bus to Yangdi there was no way that I could understand him as he tried to give me directions in some very rapid Chinese. After about five minutes of me trying to understand him, while using the odd Chinese word, he began to get very frustrated and made the 'go away' motion by violently extending one arm with finger pointing, while loudly yelling the only english words I could understand, "I SAY, NO ENGISH!" I made a hasty retreat.

The next booth with the tourist information sign looked more promising as there was a friendly looking young lady who was soon joined by a man with an iphone. I thought they knew what I needed as they indicated I should walk down the street for 500 meters and look for a green bus. I was rather dubious about these instructions as "down the street" just seemed to be stores and restaurants. I had walked a complete circle and was back to where I started. I noticed some small green buses so I approached them and tried to match the Chinese characters of my destination with the signs and show the drivers my paper. Looking helpless and confused will attract the helping ladies quicker than honey attracts flies in a transportation hub. They quickly gathered around waving placards of tours and maps in my face while yelling the names of the local tourist highlights. I kept muttering "Bu shur," and waving my hand in the no gesture. But it was no use, if I was ever going to make it to this Bamboo boat ride I was going to need some real help.

One of the hovering women seemed to have better english and she was thrilled as I began to engage her in conversation. The others drifted away. This entrepreneurial young woman quickly grasped that I wanted to go to Yangdi so she pulled me by the arm to one of the many buses while explaining that I would need to take a bus to Yangshou and get off along the way. She indicated that the cost was 14 RMB and then sat me in the front seat. She introduced me to another woman on the bus travelling with her son to Yangdi, where they lived. This native of the town I wanted to visit, spoke excellent English and I was starting to feel hopeful that this day was going to be successful after all. I was getting ready to pull out a 10 Yuan note to hand to the woman who had assisted me when next thing I knew she was sitting beside me on the bus. As we pulled out, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable and hoped that I had not inadvertently secured her services as a personal guide for the day. I hoped that she would perhaps get off the bus at some point but this didn't happen. She continued to speak to the driver and money collector as we drove along and I had the distinct impression that they were involved in some type of three way scam and I was the target. The money collector started at the back of the bus collecting and I got my money out to pay. My "helper" indicated that she would make change for me and tried to hand me three 1/2 Yuan notes which have the numeral 5 on them and therefore might be mistaken as a 5 Yuan note. I was aware of this scam and quickly made the woman know that I was not impressed with her. When the money collector reached me I gave him my 20 Yuan note and he gave me change. He and my would be helper seemed to be having a good laugh over the whole event and I hoped that now the woman would get off the bus and go back to the train station to find another victim.

Alas, she did not and after a couple of hours the bus pulled over at the side of the road and the mother and son, along with several others, got off so I followed them. The "helper" lady also followed and I began to feel that ditching her was going to be more difficult than I imagined. I felt like a had a candy wrapper stuck to the sole of my shoe and no matter how hard I shook my foot it will not unstick!

The woman from Yangdi was very helpful and told me that although there were cars offering rides, we would take the bus as the cars charge too much. I really thought the "helper" lady would take the hint if I just blanked her, but no, as I boarded the next little bus there she was right beside me. This bus was jammed with locals who were pretty much on top of one and other. I told the woman I was following that I didn't trust the other lady and could not understand why she would be following me. The helper lady began speaking to my new benefactress and the rapid Chinese conversation made me feel like there was a new conspiracy afoot but perhaps I am too suspicious. As we pulled into the Yangdi station I got off the bus following the woman who spoke english and was once again followed by my stalker. The woman who had let me follow her now seemed to want to get rid of me so I thanked her and headed out purposefully towards the pier.

Now Yangdi is just a small little village whose primary source of income seems to revolve around the transport of tourists down the scenic Li river to XingPing village. In and around the pier area there are a multitude of business minded people (mainly women) who are trying to sell snacks, plastic water guns, umbrellas, flowered wreath hats and other items they might tempt the many Chinese tourists with. Now not too many Westerners opt for this method of seeing the Li unless they are part of a large organized tour group. I decided to do a quick reconnescence of the area to try to figure out the best method of securing transport down the river. As I walked to the pier my stalker remained on my tail and tried to engage me in conversation.

"You want Bamboo boat? I get you bamboo boat."
"No, bu shur," No thanks, I responded politely and tried to walk away. I headed into a small store and bought a never melting lolly, but as I came out there she was.

"You go Xingping, I get good price for boat."
"No." Less polite now.

I hurriedly walked back down to the pier but she kept up the pace and was hot on my heals. I stopped abruptly forcing her to skid to a stop.

"You want Bamboo?" Seriously, I was going to need to be direct. I extracted a one half yuan note from my wallet, pointed at her and said, "You tried to cheat me," while pointing at the note.
"I don't trust you." I strode purposefully away down the pier and I thought I had finally gotten rid of her. But no, she should at least get an A for tenaciousness. She followed me down the pier and tried to convince me that I was confused. She pulled out a one half yuan and began explaining what it is worth.

"I know what it is worth now please leave me alone."
Desperate, she began yelling, "We go shopping. Come on. We go shopping." Really not sure what the point of this was but I was becoming seriously annoyed now as I only wanted to figure out how to get a boat and this woman was getting in my way.

I stopped abruptly, pulled out my iPhone and typed "Please leave me alone and go away!" Even when I am angry I feel the need to be polite in a foreign country!

Finally, with a deflated look she said, "Okay."

My rescuers.

Instantly, the other piranhas on the pier seemed to sense that I was now open game and I was surrounded by a group trying to get my business. Just then a tall young man and his mother approached and asked in very good english if I needed help. Cheng Cheng and his mother more than made up for the stalker. They had already booked a boat and said I could join them. They had paid 130 Yuan but their "lady" wanted to charge me 200. In China, there is one price for Chinese people and another for Westerners. I managed to get her down to 150 after much negotiation. Cheng Cheng told me that she said that the pier people were competing for my business and he aptly commented that they were like tigers and I was the sheep they were hunting.

I joined my new friends for a beautiful afternoon on the Li River. My companions were on vacation from Shanghai. Cheng Cheng had just graduated university and was due to start his first job soon and his mother was a teacher. They translated the guide's descriptions of some of the beautiful scenic spots and when we arrived in Xingping they insisted on buying me lunch. They walked me to the bus station where they safely put me aboard a direct bus back to Guilin.

I have met many wonderful people on this journey but these two were amazing, kind, funny, and generous! Today will be a highlight of my trip because of the wonderful people I have met, the tenacious people I have met, and the stunning landscape.

Since I am not a very poetic writer, I think that only pictures of the Li River will do this part of China justice.

Li River

Bought a snack along the journey from this local woman.

Purchased polished stones from this woman to make necklaces.


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