Phase 3: That’s So Backpacker
For the final installment of my Yangshuo post, I give you my time with people. I think what was so distinct and fortuitous about this trip was the fact that following several satisfying days by myself, I got to remember the beauty of good company. My second to last day in Yangshuo, I hopped a bus to the already disgustingly packed downtown, as Monday marked the official start of Qing Ming Jie holiday. From there, I had to haggle with several cabbies, until I finally jumped on the back of a motorbike, who took me to the hostel – a 7 minute bike ride through a covered walkway of souvenir stands, next to the river. There, I met Cat, a friend who teaches in Zhuzhou, and with whom I had spent two weekends in Changsha, her friend Tom, who was visiting China, and two other teachers from Zhuzhou, Gabriel and Cait. The next day, Sammy, another teacher from Zhuzhou would arrive.
The charming hostel (Tripper’s Carpe Diem, again, I’d recommend to anyone) was tucked away in a small nook along a hillside dirt, and was the ideal set up for backpackers. The common area of the hostel was open-air, and sat like a balcony overlooking a farming plot,; there was a pool table at its center, and tables that made you feel like you were a royal looking out onto your prized fiefdom.
We ate lunch – Western sandwiches on sliced bread – underwhelming to say the least, but still a slice of home (pun-intended?) We rented bikes from the hostel and set off to find a high-jump bridge that Cat had been searching for since the first time she had come to Yangshuo earlier that year. We wove in and out of pedestrian traffic, coming close to hitting other bikers and crashing into moving vehicles frequently (especially with faulty brakes!). At first it had felt bothersome, but by the following day, navigating through four lanes of buses and cars, breathing in gusts of engine exhaust, felt exhilarating and natural. We eventually came to an isolated dirt road, flanked by those fantastic mountains again, and our pace slowed so we could enjoy the scenery. Gabriel fell to the back, and never returned – always “manning the tail.” The best.
We did come to a bridge after close to an hour of biking; not the bridge, just a bridge. It was also the Minnie Me of bridges next to the one we had been trying to find, perhaps only 2 meters from the water. It was a cloudy day, and it was humid; Cat was determined to jump in the water, and we had all become converts. Bamboo rafts flowed slowly under the bridge, and we asked a man how deep the water was – he told us it was too shallow to jump into. Several times we tried to find means to justify jumping – finding tiny pebbles and tossing them into the water to see how far we could see them sink, asking more rafters – until finally, someone grew balls, and the rest of us followed suit. Off came the pants, and the shirts, and in we went, one by one, into the shallow water (though he who passed the 6’5” mark hit his toes on the ground twice). It was freezing, but refreshing. When the time came for us to put our clothes back on, we formed a circle of t-shirts, Gabriel’s new Chinese hat, and rotated who was at the center changing.
It all felt so backpacker.
The bike ride back was breezy, and we stopped downtown for snacks, but after about 30 chuan (meat, vegetable, etc skewers), it became more like dinner. I had my first beer, after what had felt like a lifetime; it went down easy. We made it back to the hostel just as darkness had taken over – the back dirt road was not lit, so we relied on cell phones to lead us home. Back at the hostel, it was beers, card games, trolls, fawns, centaurs, and Rumspringa.
A leisurely morning later, we found ourselves on the rooftop of our hostel, feasting on Western-style breakfast (French toast and bacon – just getting my fix before heading back to ZJJ) under the sun. A coffee, a spilled tea, and a broken mug later after a hilarious incident of Gabe v. adorably fat bumble bee, we gathered our things and set off for the mudcaves. The streets which had two days prior been virtually empty, were now packed with cars, and amazingly, there was traffic getting to Golden Water Cave – but we arrived, exchanged our shoes, and Cat and I took out out contacts (thank god). We moved to the outside waiting area – we were the only ones there; fifteen minutes later, this wouldn’t be the case. Without realizing, we missed the opportunity to sneak in (I think very lucky, considering what happened inside the caves), and we were soon joined by 18 or so foreigners, some European, in tight spandex and matching tops, and others American, wearing cut off jean shorts, and an Arizona State t-shirt with the boobs to match (I know, unfair – I’m just saying she didn’t help the American stereotype…). I felt like I was at a concentration camp waiting to enter the gas chambers – it was bizarre (and unfounded probably). Our tourguide was memorable for saying two things: “these here, are stalagmites – and these here, are stalagmites (that’s a typo, I’ve corrected these Tourism scripts that “Tourism” majors memorize), and “hurry up. Please don’t fall behind” – even when, after 20 minutes in the caves that gleaned with tacky bright neon lights, the power went off suddenly, and a large crew of strangers in bathing suits, packed into tight crevices, and walking down tiny staircases found itself stranded in pitch darkness, phoneless. “Don’t fall behind.” Right on cue, robot. That was fun.
When we finally arrived at the mudpits – large pools full of diarrhea-like soupy mud, it didn’t take long for everyone to leap in. It was cold, and revolting, and therapeutic, and gooey, and dirty, and oozing through my toes, and grasping at everything up to my knees, and was fantastic, and yet scary, and was the 1950’s “Blob” and Jabba the Hutt, and trapped souls in Ursula’s dark cave, and it was suction, planting my feet like I was a sea reed drifting without a care, and then it was in my hair, and in my mouth, and then it was underneath me as I floated on my stomach, all my limbs held up in the air. It was awesome and seriously, seriously gross all at once.
After pictures, and riding down a tiny slide made of rock, the gaggle of shit-stained strangers piled into a shower (are you seeing this holocaust thing yet?) and “cleaned” themselves under the four cold water faucets. What followed was a cave of “natural” hot springs, and oh how they were heaven. With the steam rising, and 20 or so people jammed into small pools, fluorescent colored lights covering the ceiling, and reflecting off the water and the fog, it felt like a skuzzy underground bar that you’d see in Men In Black, where shriveled tiny aliens, smoking cigarettes would serve you beer and sleazy cocktails.
We emerged from the caves, ready for sun, feeling refreshed, but tired. We worked our way over to the same restaurant where I had eaten with Xiao Li and the old woman the other day, where it was fortunately empty, and stopped at a passion-fruit stand along the road for a deliciously fresh cup of yum. Exhausted, we decided to bike back; as a consequence of the tremendous traffic, and our own fatigue, we got split up. Also, poor Gabriel’s bike got a flat tire, and after haggling with a driver to take him to the center of town, admittedly for a ridiculously high price, Cat and I continued back alone. Gabe would get screwed over, dropped off at far-off round about, find a bike shop to fix his own bike, and bike back alone. Cat and I took a quick detour before the hostel to a clearing by the Li River, where we could take a chilly dip in the water. The water of the idyllic scene was so still it looked fake. The water was frigid.
We were met by Tom and Sammy on the ride back – and I got a free ride on the back of my own bike by Rickshaw Tom. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking beers, ordering about every single appetizer on the menu, followed by an impromptu call for dinner, and finally, my departure back to town to catch my hour and half long bus back to Guilin for the night. I managed to catch a bus immediately, but passed an unpleasant 90 minutes as they were playing a typically gory Chinese film, wherein every scene, someone was killed in a clever, gut-spewing fashion. On Wednesday morning, I woke up early, fought a large group of French tourists on the streets of Guilin at 6:15 AM for a cab, and suffered a minor heart attack when I thought I was going to miss my 7 AM train, but made it back to Zhangjiajie at 4:51 AM, Thursday morning. Yes, 22 hours later.
Yangshuo, what a trip.