This weekend we were offered the opportunity to visit ShangRi-La. And we took it, but as they say, it’s a bit of a trek to reach, and once again our story begins in FuZhou….
On this beautiful, sunny Fujian morning, we woke lovely and early ready to catch a taxi to the airport to board our flight to GuiLin – One of China’s few international tourist destinations. What we didn’t anticipate was the lack of available taxis that time in the morning, and the few we did stop were reluctant to leave the city in case the car didn’t make it there and back. Finally after nearly two hours of searching, soliciting the help of 3 security guards, a shop keeper and and a random mother and son, who used his high school learned english to translate our frantic requests, we got one, though we had to pay through the nose for it. Rushing into the airport, we managed to check in our bags and reach our plane in the knick of time; we were indeed the last passengers on.
The flight was quick, only an hour and half, and getting off in GuiLin we realised how isolated FuZhou is. There were hoards of English, American, Chinese, Dutch, German, and Indian tourists. We were in awe of all the faces – Fuzhou has very limited ethnic diversity – and yet still boarded a bus with the Chinese to get to our hostel. We realised that most people who come to China come with a tour, something that I hadn’t thought about before, and we still stood out here as the only foreigners acting like locals and not following a flag-waving leader.
The bus dropped us off in a hot coach park, and we were bombarded with people asking if we’d like a taxi. Recalling a previous experience with tourist taxis who were on commission to the local guides, we turned them down and wandered off. Looking at the map, we realised that we weren’t far and so set off on foot for our hostel. Along the way we found a hill, Elephant Mountain, and decided that there’s no time like the present and a swift hike would be fun. GuiLin is a relatively small city, built on the flat valley floor along the Li river. Like most Chinese cities, it’s a network of trunk roads, lined with expensive offices and apartments, with all the gaps in-between filled with tin-roofed shanty towns and backstreet markets. Where it differs is in it’s landscape, scattered lakes and canals left over from a shipping past have all been turned into beautiful parks, and the city is surrounded on all sides by towering curtains of karst mountains, and dotted randomly with great green pillars of lone peaks far taller than any of the buildings. Elephant mountain was one such monolith, and having just arrived, we headed for high ground to get our bearings. The weather was hot but clear, and the view as we wound our way up the steep stepped paths and caves that brought us to the peak were spectacular. It was a weekend, and the attractions were certainly busy, but the majority of tourists were Chinese, and were more interested in taking photos with us than the view.
Below the mountain a few small islands were also contained in the park, and we spent a pleasant afternoon sat on the river bank of Love Island, dipping our feet in the clear water and watching the world go by. We watched a slightly bizarre show in an open air theatre, which consisted of the same 6 girls in various attires, banging drums, dancing and playing games with the audience, while an underwhelming hype man drummed up surprising enthusiasm from the audience. As always, the adorable children of China were our window into their culture, and it was no different on holiday. We stopped and chatted to them, made funny faces, and splashed water – and were splashed back – at a girl who sat by us on the river bank. Locals and tourists of all ages were out in force as we wandered back through a lakeside park to our hostel, and we stopped in a cafe for some Western food while we watched the world go by. Eventually making it to the hostel, we found the room and had a quick explore of the rooftop terrace , dropped off the bag, and headed back out for an explore of the city after dark.
Back through the park, trees and pagodas now lit up in true Chinese style, with as many different neon colours as possible, we made it to one of the cities famous night markets. A grid of streets lined with stands, stalls and restaurants, selling local trinkets, toys, wooden and jade carvings, artists decorating fans and painting landscapes, pets, snacks, herbs, and a million other things we couldn’t comprehend.
The following morning we’d planned to continue our journey in search of Shangri-La, but having not booked or organised anything in the way of transport, we settled for an English breakfast at the hostel and another day wandering GuiLin, which we’d both fallen a bit in love with. Heading out on foot across the central island of the city, we came across a Princes Palace, a walled city area, a daytime version of the night market, huge indoor food courts serving food from all the wildly different corners of China, temples, pagodas and more towering green mountains. We chatted to a few locals and hawkers, before heading towards a group of three of the tallest peaks in the city for a bit of fresh air and a view.
Unlike Fuzhou, you have to pay to get into most of the parks in GuiLin, but they are well worth it. The first peak was fairly busy, with lots of tourists making for the pagoda at the peak for photo opportunities and an icecream, so we didn’t spend much time there. back down we went, into the near tropical forest of the park. The next mountain was largely overgrown, and pretty much deserted, so we sat and watched a huge butterfly bumble its way around the shrubs. Mustering some energy for the last peak, we stopped halfway up to admire a huge cave with a view over the city and hills, once used to shelter the Chinese army command from Japanese bombing.
Now suitably knackered, we wandered slowly back along the river towards the hostel and stopped in an Irish bar for pizza, a beer and game of pool, before heading to the hostel and booking onto a raft trip the following day.
With an evening to kill, we headed to the theatre to catch a bit of culture. With no idea what we were signing up for we bought tickets to a show that night, and then found a (possibly) Spanish restaurant nearby for some paella and seafood.
The show was a pretty mad spectacle, loosely telling a story of youth courtship and tradition in the area, whilst somehow shoehorning in ballet, a 10 people on one bicycle display team, 5 clinically insane motorcyclists doing loop-the loops simultaneously in a steel ball cage, and some edge of your seat acrobatics, where young teenagers swung 50 feet over the audience on silk curtains, holding each other by the ankles or the fingertips.
Enough excitement for one day, we wandered along the busy riverside promenade where some kids were trying to win toys on a hoop toss game, some teenagers were lighting floating lanterns, and some adults were singing warbling karaoke. The atmosphere after dark was great, reminding me of European cities and festivals where families would go out in the evening. We see a lot of kids put under huge pressure in school by their parents and teachers, and its so heartwarming to see the other side of the picture, where families are so affectionate and patient with their kids, and spend so much time together. A late night stroll back to the hostel took us through the heart of the city where we had walked in the day, now even busier as another night market had sprung up.
Up early for a cooked breakfast, but greeted with thunderstorms and torrential downpours outside the hostel, we sat on the veranda quietly regretting our commitment to a bamboo raft trip down the river that day. Eventually manning up a bit, we made a mad dash to a corner shop to buy an umbrella and some supplies. A few organised taxi rides later we were on a coach heading out of the city to a fishing village where we could board some rafts. The grim weather did nothing to hamper the beauty of the valleys and paddy fields surrounding the city. With the fog and low cloud framing a scene of rural shacks and wide-hatted field workers, to a backdrop of cliffs and tropical mountains, it was the most picturesque image of China I have seen yet, and straight out of a traditional painting.
The English speaking tour guide Allan gave us some brief instruction on where to go and what to do with the day before we got off the coach, then left us to our own devices to get some food before the boats. Standard rice noodles were easily procured and swiftly devoured as we made our way onto a tiny raft, made of lashed together bamboo poles, with a tarp raincover, 2 bench seats and a brush-cutter with a propeller on for propulsion. We shared our raft with a silent and camera-shy driver and the polar opposite, a Chinese mother and son.
After taking a few photos of each other against the backdrop, in True Brit style, the woman in front of us realised that there were no photos of us together without backdrop, and so offered to take one for us. Handing over a camera-phone, we immediately regretted it when she adorned Sam with a head band full of red carnations. With her broken Chinese, Sam managed to ask if she wanted it back, with the answer being “no, they’re more beautiful on you than they are on me”. Guess who ended up with them on.
Our raft ride lasted around an hour, gliding gracefully along watching the mountains get bigger as we went towards them, and then slowly disappear behind us into the mist, we wondered if the locals, who don’t have computers, let alone Google, understood that they lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery was stunning, the water clear, and the wildlife loud.
Alighting at the dock, we went in search of the “golf carts” that were promised to us by Allen for the next leg of our journey. Finding one we were comfortably surprised that it was in fact a golf cart that seated 10. hopping on, we were whizzed to the local fishing village, the beautiful Xing Ping, to have a look around before finally getting back on the coach. The buildings were a couple of hundred years old, which for China is rare. They are squat and close together, with stalls out of the front of shops and a temple-cum-museum halfway up the busy street. We were pleasantly surprised here, it was beautiful, and we vowed to come back again as we hurriedly tried (and failed) to order some food before ending up back on the coach.
It was here that our path to enlightenment began, and we set off on the 30 min coach ride to Shangti-La. As we pulled in to Shangri-La “coach parking lot” we wondered if we had been duped. Surely paradise doesn’t have parking lots? Allen put our minds at rest when he mentioned that the toilets here are five star toilets. You will find no better in China. And he wasn’t completely wrong; they are the cleanest squat toilets I have seen in China. They even had soap.
Boarding yet another raft, this one with a loud electric engine, we had a tour around an island with accompanying blurb from Allen about Shangri-La, the most beautiful girl in the village, the manly topless dancing hunters, and the charred totem pole that were all waiting for us on the banks of the river. The water was the cleanest we have ever seen in China, and the scenery was incredible. Its in a flattened valley surrounded by karst mountains, and looks incredibly difficult to get to. You could imagine an old explorer stumbling across a community without war there.
Alighting this raft, we were ushered into a maze of a building, with occasional torrential downpours when we had to cross outside spaces. Here was the ShangRi-La museum, with traditional clothes, trinkets, wood carvings, and paintings. Under one pagoda, the drum pagoda, local people were dancing and singing. “Don’t worry,” Allan told us “We are next.” Sure enough, as it cleared out and we moved in we were gathered in a circle for a good old fashioned Chinese dance that reminded us both somewhat of the Conga. However, the surprise that it was, it was actually quite special.
We were allowed to wander around from here, to finish off the maze of ShangRi-La’s gift shop, before being rushed back on a coach to get us back to GuiLin before the evening traffic. Leaving ShangRi-La, we felt no less enlightened (we were mostly hungry, big surprise there) but we were incredibly humbled at our time in China. How nice people had been to us, how people attempt to communicate even when they have no English, people who are patient with our simple and slow Chinese.
After a nap on the bus we got off in GuiLin, and still in damp clothes, we entered one of the various food courts in search of something without noodles. We managed to grab the last table at an Indian restaurant for which we were very grateful. The food was excellent. Curry and a beer is exactly what we needed after a long day of adventure (and coach rides).
Day four and we had ditched our idea of taking another coach mainly because of the weather. Instead we spent the morning relaxing in our hostel and taking our time over our breakfast. After a nap and a chat with a couple of others in the lobby, we headed out on the regular bus to find a famous attraction – The Reed Flute Caves. These have apparently been visited by all the Chinese celebrities and International people of importance, and have earned a reputation for being the most beautiful caves in China. The scenery outside was incredible, and beginning our walk to the entrance to the caves we were stopped by a wonderfully happy chappy who warned us that the caves were far to far away to walk to on foot (especially when you will be walking around them and then walking back) and would we like to go on his bamboo raft, right to the entrance? Like the suckers we are we said yes, handed over the last of our cash and jumped aboard. A sturdy older lady stepped on the back, and using a large bamboo pole she punted us around the lake stopping occasionally to shout at the Chinese who were playing silly-buggery on the other rafts on the lake.
Again, the hills surrounding the lake were breathtaking, and alighting not far from where we set off she showed us up the hill to the entrance to the caves. Tickets in hand we were excited to enter until we were barked at to get in line. Oh no, we realised we were part of another tour, however, this one was purely Chinese. Stepping in though, we soon left our group and took as much time as we needed at the various points in the cave.
The cave inside was humongous, filled ceiling to floor with stalagmites and stalactites. It must have been twenty feet high in places, and still, there they were, like silent giants, around every corner. The Chinese, in true showman style, had lit everything up as if we were in a seedy rave – giant colourful lights were shone at every part of the cave, reds, blues, purples, greens, which made getting photos incredibly difficult. I hope these photos do it justice, as I just don’t have the words to describe just how breathtaking it actually is.
Leaving the caves and now being without a bus fare we walked for a while to find a bank and some food before jumping back on a bus and heading back towards the hostel for a relaxing evening of music and napping. We met some great people in the hostel, and sat chatting and drinking with them all evening. A Belgian who was in China for business, a Kiwi who was in China for pleasure, and a couple of older self-proclaimed “flash-packers” who had left their house in the hands of a twenty-something son and boldly gone travelling for a year, all great fun.
Despite getting to bed at a reasonable hour, we weren’t any more rested for our flight the next day, both sleeping on the way to the airport, on the plane, and on the coach back, before planning and teaching classes in the evening.