June 7th 1984

posted in: The way back | 0
A propaganda poster

The 4 of us breakfasted together at the Lotus café, this time avoiding the “Western” breakfast, + fared much better as a consequence.  We were all heading to Guilin, a 2 hr bus journey away, for the day, all of us with the same objectives in mind.  It was the next town along our route, + supposedly very beautiful, but we wanted to check it out before committing ourselves + lugging our bags up there, particularly since we were so happily + comfortably settled in Yangshuo.  Even more so, Guilin was by all accounts a bitch to get out of, since it was half way along the immensely popular route from Shanghai to Kunming.  The journey from Guilin to Kunming took 36 hrs, + unless one was able to reserve a sleeping compartment, no easy matter, the prospect was hellish, since there would barely be room to stand, let alone sit.  So we were all hoping to reserve a sleeper (known as “hard sleeper”, tho’ it isn’t, being simply cheaper than the thoroughly luxurious “soft sleeper”) either at the station itself, or, failing that, at one of the cafes.

A bit of confusion at the bus station about what time the bus went, but we sorted it out in the end.  The journey – 2 or 3 hrs – was uneventful – I killed the time with my book.  We got out at Guilin station, thinking first to try the direct method.  I was called away by the god of my bowels, so took no further part in the negotiations.  They were unsuccessful in the end, but not a waste of time, as we learned a thing or 2.  Most important, Val discovered that our International Student Card commanded no respect whatever, especially in a place like Guilin, which has seen enough travellers to be a bit canny.  However, the pink Taiwan card that Mike + Allen both have (bought in HK) did pass muster at the window, + they could both have bought hard seat tickets for tonight’s train.  But reserving sleepers for some days hence could not be done at the window – one had to see the lady in the office.  She was, by all accounts, decidedly unhelpful, + suggested they try CITS.  In her defence, we later discovered that Guilin, being in the middle of a very popular run from Shanghai to Kunming, receives a negligible number of sleepers allocated to it, so she probably wouldn’t have been able to help even if she had wanted to.  Which she obviously didn’t.  So we gave up for the time being, + went round to the local travellers’ café, the La La, for coffee + info. 

The guy in charge of the place, English name Luke, spoke fluent English, + was able to give us some good concrete stuff, about times, prices, availability, etc.  We also found ourselves somehow drifting into philosophy + the nature of man.  It must be something to do with the country to promote such activity.  Luke maintained that people are all selfish, while I (more for the sake of argument than out of force of conviction) said that the nature of man is like sweet + sour sauce, good + bad inextricably mixed, so that on taking a spoonful, one never knows which taste will predominate.  Luke offered to buy our tickets for us – he would obtain his commission by being paid in FECs – + Mike took advantage of his services, but Val, always a fighter, wanted one more try at the station.  When that proved unsuccessful, we gave up + caught the local bus out to see one of Guilin’s premier attractions, an extensive complex of limestone caves.  The trip was a bit of a washout, however.   Not that the caves weren’t impressive – they were as good or better as any cave system we’ve seen (with the exception of Niah) but, as is so often the case, there had been a liberal application of cosmetic “improvements” – a concrete path, massive use of coloured floodlights, etc.  Very pretty, of course, but like a meal of sticky buns, unsatisfying.  We 4 were the only Westerners, + as the commentary by the guide was entirely in Chinese, we entertained ourselves by whispering disparaging + cynical comments.

When we emerged into the daylight once again, we were greeted by a ferocious rain-storm, giving us a hefty soaking on our run down to the bus-stop.  Only Mike, equipped with a HK telescopic umbrella, was able to escape.  Val + Allen got off the bus early to go to the China Tours office.  She thought this was worth a try, even if it might cost a little more, they might be able to guarantee a hard sleeper, something the people of the café couldn’t do.  Mike + I waited for them at the La La, where we sipped green tea + chatted about China.  I’m liking the guy more + more, the better I get to know him.  Beneath the consciously-cultivated roughneck image, he is intelligent + sensitive.  And of course he has a good sense of humour, a necessary requirement for someone so that I can get close.  Val + Allen returned empty-handed from their mission, having been given the run-around in various offices – ultimately it turned out that they were no more in a position to give a firm guarantee of a berth than the café.  So, finally admitting defeat, we paid up our FECs + asked them to reserve is a couple of berths for Sunday night – they promised to do their best.  Mike had already booked for Monday night, + Allen reckoned he would buy his own ticket + travel hard seat.

We ate our evening meal at the La La – it turned out to be quite magnificent, quite the best meal we have had yet in China, ranking, for Val + I, among the top 10 meals of the last 3 years.  (Some day, when I have time, I’ll wrote out the complete list.)  And then we walked along to the bus station to catch the bus back, leaving ourselves plenty of time, for this was the last bus.  As usual in such situations, being anywhere where one requires something specific, we were a little lost, but a kind young lady slopped off thro’ the mud to buy our tickets for us, + made sure we got on the right one.

Travelling back to Yangshuo, we were all affected by the comforting + reassuring feeling of returning home.  We hadn’t been impressed by Guilin, which struck us as too big + bustling.  Tho’ the surrounding landscape was similar to that at Yangshuo, the mountains couldn’t dominate the place in the same way.  Guilin was too big to grasp, I suppose, while Yangshuo had that village feeling, + accessibility.  Val + I went for some cold drink + cake at the govt ice-house, before returning for the ritual listening in to the BBC sports report + news.  India is dominating the latter, has done for some weeks.  Fighting between Moslem + Hindu, Hindu + Sikh, this last culminating in a storming of the Sikh’s holiest shrine in Amritsar to dislodge Sikh militants operating from there, with the inevitable violent backlash such a move has.  Just as well we’re in China, I reckon.

A dispiriting and time-consuming encounter with various bits of bureaucracy, though all associated with getting to Kunming in a reasonably comfortable manner… and failing on every front. Nor did we think all that much of Guuilin, so not the best of days all round, though much improved by our return “home” to Yangshuo.

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