Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hong Kong to Guilin

Only a few days prior to my landing in Hong Kong there were typhoon warnings along the coast. Fortunately I only had to put up with four days of torrential and unabating rain, but in waterproofs that weren't as waterproof as they had originally seemed - I now have three Chinese phrases at my disposal: "hello, beer please", "thank you" and "Do you sell some sort of spray or liquid that will make a jacket more waterproof on application or washing?". The latter I carry around on paper in my wallet just in case I pass an outdoor clothing store... I now need to get this translated into Vietnamese.

Despite the inclement weather I took a trip on the Peak Tram, a gravity-defying funicular up the steep inclines of Hong Kong Island, and was rewarded with stunning views of the area, shrouded in mist and low cloud. Hong Kong looks its best from up high - the juxtaposition of concrete and glass skyscrapers with a surprisingly large amount of untouched countryside (almost 70% of the total land). Had the weather been kinder I would have ventured further afield into the New Territories and to the picturesque bays in the south, however I decided to see more of the city on the Island and Kowloon. The passenger ferry connecting these is possibly the best value tourist activity that Hong Kong offers. It's hard not to be taken in by the view, at its best at night when both sides of the harbour explode with neon.

I took a train into Guangzhou in Guangdong province, the economic powerhouse of South China, purely as a means of getting deeper into more rural China. Away from the coast the weather was much better - sunny, low-thirties but very humid. The city itself has few sights of note, however I spent an afternoon wandering around its Buddhist temples and visiting the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King (found by accident as authorities levelled ground for a shopping mall) and hurrying through its exhibition of ceramic pillows next door. Enough to keep me busy while waiting for my sleeper to Guilin.

Guilin sits on the bank of the Li river and is one of the major tourist hotspots in all of China. Around 15 million people visit this comparatively small city each year to take trips down the river and explore the surrounding countryside. The area is known for its karst landscape - huge limestone outcrops which make for some incredible views. Some of the best views are downriver on the way to Yangshuo.

Li river between Guilin and Yangshuo

Famous for being the picture on the back of a 20 yuan note

The following day I went to the village of Longshen, famous for its rice terraces in the hillsides. 11 minority groups live in the area around Guilin; two of which - the Red Yao and Zhuang peoples - are now playing the tourist attraction card heavily. Obviously economically this is a no-brainer with so many visitors to the region but I can't help feeling that they've sold out. Our guide assured me that they are happy with their new lives with wifi, pepsi, electronic music and the like (and who am I to judge?) but it does feel like China is slowly homogenising, with the 55 ethnic minorities it supposedly cherishes being represented by nothing more than a 30 minute dance show. Away from the tourist trail I saw glimpses of the real rural life and cursed myself for not being able to speak the language well enough to get out there properly.

The following day I took the train south to the capital of Guanxi province, Nanning. After a few drinks in town with a fellow visitor (and a little bit of alligator kebab from the street market), I packed up my things for the bus journey south to Hanoi, leaving China behind and feeling like I'd only scratched the surface in the 6 weeks I'd been there.

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