Phase 1: I want to die, I want to die.
I planned to head to Yangshuo Friday evening after my class – I would take a 5 hour train to Changsha, kill and hour or so, and then hop on an overnight train to Guilin (16 hours), followed by an hour and a half bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, and finally a 45 minute mini bus from downtown to the small fishing village of Xing Ping, which sits peacefully, along the Li River, and is a prime locale for all gluttons of sickeningly breathtaking scenic photos, like myself.
As, of course, this set up is laying the framework for, it was not this simple. After an uncomfortable week of gastrointestinal tango, the latent stomach bug that had been tickling and bloating me up all week attacked full force on the afternoon before my Friday train. As I skyped with my parents, in a fetal position, I questioned whether I should still go. But, feeling an obligation to avoid needlessly-spent money, I went – my 21 hour trip was, in short, a nightmare. As I lay on the train, under the curiously moist sheets of my hard sleeper, delirious, feverish, oscillating between extreme hot flashes and stinging chills all over my body, I thought only of sleep; it made me appreciate my health, as I heard the snoring men and women in my sleeping bunk (there are 2 sets of 3 beds on top of one another, with no doors or othersuch). I fell asleep at around 6 AM, only to be awoken at 7:30 when the train turned on all the lights, and began blasting music reaching such decibels and pitches that it could only be considered “death by discord.” This was an I hate you, China moment.
Someone hated me, though. When I finally arrived in Yangshuo, I made the trip to my hostel, just as the sun was beginning to set. I felt a muted rush of satisfaction as I spotted the first green mounds for which Yangshuo is so famous. Once I arrived, fearing I would waste the rest of my afternoon drowning in my misery, I allowed a lady to overcharge me for a motorized bamboo raft ride down the Li River because I felt too nauseous to do anything else but sit. Once I paid the 100 RMB, and faced the incredible landscape of pyramidal mountains, and the orange glow of the sun beaming out towards me, I reached for my camera to snap a photo. “Lens Error. Restart Camera.” Yup. Like, I said, someone hated me.
The bamboo raft ride was_____. Frankly, it could have been anything; it was beautiful, but I had to want it to be beautiful to get past how sick I felt. As we turned down one of the river beds, into the shadow of a mountain, and the sun began to set, the biting chill of a quick breeze began to beat like needles against my already stinging skin.
We stopped at 2 islands for photos ops – as I would learn in Yangshuo, photography stations, some on land, others, floating, were scattered along various waterways. Photographers with professional cameras would take several photos of you, and your guide/bamboo rafter/navigator would then pull over, and you would view your photos moments later on their computer, paying 15 RMB per photo to have them printed, and laminated. While these are actually very common at tourist locations in China, it always seems oddly anachronistic to be in an “ancient” village, or floating on a bamboo raft, or on the edge of a mountain cliff, and then see the newest model of HP Printer only meters away.
At the second island pit stop, I met a pleathery-faced cormorant fisherwoman, likely in her 70s. A long pole rested on her shoulders, with two cormorants birds perched on each end, their feet attached to a 6 inch piece of string. The eyes of cormorants are mesmerizing – like rare jewels of deep emerald and aquamarine that seem to hold secrets. I asked to take a photo (yes, I justified the 15 RMB), and complimented her beaming white smile of fake teeth. “Fake!” she squawked. Fake or not, I told her, her smile was still very nice – but she could only talk of the blemish on her front right tooth that polluted her dream of the perfect smile.
The western-style hostel – Xing Ping This Old Place International Youth Hostel (I recommend to anyone) – was like a big hug. All of the hostesses spoke excellent English, there was available internet, clean rooms, and what’s more: wood-fired pizza. To anyone reading this where this rarity seems irrelevant, I don’t care.
I ordered a pizza, despite my curtailed appetite, and began eating quietly with my thoughts and light-headedness. About 3 slices in, a Chinese girl behind me tapped on my shoulder and offered me a slice of her pizza. She spoke Chinese, and when I, unsure of how to respond, offered her a slice of my own as a default reaction, she got up, and joined my table to talk. She was bold, and told me she had come to Xingping to avoid the “business” culture that had burgeoned so rapidly in the center of Yangshuo, as tourism had transformed from an industry to a culture. People there, she said, were too concerned with money. She wanted to escape it.
A bi-racial couple had been staying at the hostel as well – a white man, who had the look of a business man who had spent months preparing for this trip, sporting the bright blue UnderArmor shirt, and matching New Balance sneakers he’d purchased specially for these days, with his Chinese wife (who proved to be the first unpleasant mother I have ever met) and their two adorable half and half daughters (2 and 4). On this first night in Yangshuo, the Gods were kind, and granted me one concession: during my meal, the couple had asked the hostel to play Toy Story 2 on the large projector by the tables – ripped off youku, obviously. The low lights went down, and the cacophony of conversations that filled the room soon lulled as peripatetic twenty-somethings, and forty-somethings drinking beers and sucking in their guts alike, turned to watch Woody save our day and give us hope about the world. While my fever returned, and I remember shivering throughout the film, I lay outstretched on my back across the restaurant benches, the two hostel kittens curled up in my lap, taking in every moment of what felt like home. I was in bed by 9, hopeful for a better morning. Hope, however, was met with periodic wake up calls – every 3 hours, in fact, on the dot – to the rooftop bathroom, until 7 AM when I decided that sleep was a lost venture, and I would commit to the light.
Phase 1 lesson: Don’t be a passive admirer. This was the period of simple pleasures, where for the first time, really, I was forced to fully appreciate my surroundings without passively relying on my camera to remind me thereafter how beautiful a place might have been– and feeling as ill as I did, I was forced to actively see, and to remain present because drifting off into delirium felt prodigal.