Saturday, January 10, 2009

China's south: Hainan and Guangxi

I love China. It is the country where the woman behind the 'English speaking' counter on the train station doesn't speak English. It is the country where a 26 year old woman wears a pink 'hello kitty' t-shirt without feeling embarrassed. It is the country where a group of nicotine addicts lean against a 'no smoking' sign. It is the country with the largest population and probably the most peaceful and hard-working people in the world. It is, besides the Netherlands, the country where I spent most of my life and I keep coming back to it. Already the 6th time I am visiting this fascinating and diverse country and it definitely won't be my last visit. This is China and I love this country.

This sixth journey through China started in the city I called home for the past 4 month: Hong Kong. It was a few days before Christmas and I started to arrange some 'check-out procedures' at the Chinese University. I already knew that after I crossed the border to China, I couldn't come back to Hong Kong, as I didn't had enough space in my passport for a new Hong Kong student-stamp (that is a good reason ha?). So I really had to arrange everything before crossing the border. I finished my last geography paper, packed all my stuff, said goodbye to my friends and moved to a guesthouse in Causeway Bay. I picked up my father from the airport and we stayed a few days in Hong Kong, visiting its major tourist sites. We went up Victoria Peak for some skyline views, walked around in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central for some skyscrapers and I showed him around the Chinese University. As a day-trip we took a ferry to Cheung Chau island, which has a totally different atmosphere than the city. One of the things I liked most of Hong Kong is the diversity of its territory. Standing in the middle of one of Asia's largest cities, you can be laying on an empty beach with a view over beautiful islands within half an hour. Hong Kong is much more than just a city; it has a huge backyard full of islands, mountains, forests and villages. So my father Frans and I went to Cheung Chau, which is a small island just half an hour by ferry from Central Hong Kong. We hiked a bit around the island, stopped at a few nice viewpoints and temples and enjoyed a cold Tsingtao beer afterward.
Back in the city, on Christmas eve, Hong Kong was absolutely flooded with people. It seemed that all the 7 million inhabitants were out on the streets that evening. In the masses, I met some friends from CUHK and joined them for a few beers that evening. Next day, Christmas, we took the quick MTR to the Chinese border and went to Shenzhen's Bao'an Airport for our flight to Hainan Island.
So we flew to Haikou, the capital of Hainan province. We chose to visit Hainan, because my father doesn't really like large cities and we were in the mood of some nice beaches and high temperatures. Hainan is the logical location to go to, as it has a reputation of being China's own 'Hawaii'. The sandy coastline of the island is surrounded by palmtrees and it is one of China's main domestic tourist destinations. Besides Chinese tourists, the island is also extremely popular for Russian tourists. A Swiss tourguide told me, that the Russians in Hainan mostly come from Eastern Russia (Siberia and the Far East), because for them Hainan offers tropical beaches relatively close to Siberia. We would see loads of Russian tourists in Sanya, but more on that later.
After arriving in Haikou, we went to the city center with an airport bus and with a taxi driver we searched for a place called the Banana guesthouse. Unfortunately we couldn't find the place and we ended up in some sort of brothel hotel. We drank a few beers in an outdoor restaurant before trying to sleep with noises of a shaking bed in the room next to us. Next day we walked a bit around town, visiting Haikou's market area and a nice Confucian temple. Due to rainy weather we didn't see much more of the city besides a noodle shop and the temple, so we continued southwards to Sanya in the hope of better weather.
The southern side of Hainan turned out to be as cloudy and rainy as the north, so also in Sanya we couldn't really enjoy the beaches. The atmosphere in the area we stayed in was nice however, and fruit shakes, beach views and a Chinese woman singing in four different languages still made our stay worthwhile. Around the beach are really loads of Russian tourists and the streets are even filled with Russian shops, which made communication with the Chinese a bit easier for me as a lot of them speak Russian. During our stay we hang a bit around, talked to some travelers in the guesthouse and I met two friends from CUHK who were traveling in Hainan as well. Besides beaches and Russians, Sanya is also famous for its navy base, which is the largest and most important in China. A whole area of the city is closed off to visitors because of this base and when we walked past the main entrance, some military guys started shouting at us as apparently we walked too close to the main entrance.
However, after a few days relaxing in Sanya, we flew to Guilin in Guangxi province. Stepping out of the small airport, we were reminded of the fact that it was late December, as Guilin was much colder than Hainan. We made our way to the city and stayed in a very friendly hostel. The rest of the day we visited some of Guilin's famous hills. We climbed Fubo Hill for some views over the city and visited strangely shaped Elephant Hill. Guilin is one of China's most popular tourist destinations and famous for its unique scenery. The area is surrounded by the strange karst formations and therefore one of the country's mostly photographed sights. The idyllic Li river flows through Guilin and completes the picture.
We spent our remaining days in Guilin by strolling around the nice city and visiting some lakes, pagodas and more hills. During a walk in 'Solitary Beauty Park', we saw loads of Chinese tour groups, all wearing caps and following a guide who holds a colored flag. This typical scene of domestic tourists can be seen all over China actually, I think it is really funny to see and it reveals some elements of Chinese culture. I met some of those Chinese on top of a hill in the park, who asked me to be on a photo with them. Really funny to be on someone's photo without knowing them, also a typical China experience. After the park, my dad and I went to another highlight of Guilin: the Lude cave. Guilin's karst formations host lots of caves and Lude probably is the most beautiful. The cave is absolutely huge and well lit inside. In a side cave we visited a 1000 year old turtle, who is kind of worshiped, the animal is so old that he barely moves.
Back in the hostel we met a French guy, Stephane, and a British guy, Oliver, with whom we drunk some Tsingtao beers and enjoyed some conversation. The day after, which was 31st December, we went for a 'New Year's dinner' in a steak restaurant with Stephane and celebrated the changing of 2008 into 2009 in a local disco. The Chinese didn't really celebrate the New Year, because their lunar calendar marks the point of year-change usually in late January or early February. In Guilin, obviously the Chinese New Year is much more important than the Western New Year, so no firework unfortunately. I still enjoyed our little celebration however.
From Guilin we continued our journey to the city Longsheng, where we had a quick lunch and went up a steep mountain road to a village called Pa'an. The village is beautifully located in the middle of the Longji riceterraces and consists of traditional wooden houses. We walked a bit around the amazing rice terraces up to a few viewpoints. Although the terraces probably look much better in summer, spring or autumn, the views we had are still stunning. Pa'an village is, besides tourism, based on agriculture. Chicken, dogs, ducks and pigs walk along its narrow streets, which make the scene of this picturesque village complete. We stayed in a friendly wooden guesthouse, but as the temperature dropped during the night it got freezing cold there. Two thick blankets made me survive the weather and next day we hiked a bit more and hopped on a bus back to Guilin.
We stayed the night in Guilin, where we met Stephane and Oliver again and moved on to Yangshuo by bus the day after. Yangshuo is a small town one hour by car along the Li river from Guilin. I visited the town on my 2005 China trip and arguably the scenery around Yangshuo is more beautiful than Guilin, although it doesn't get the attention. We found a room in the 'Bamboo guesthouse', a place where I stayed 3,5 years ago as well, and we talked a bit with some Israelis that evening. Our first full day in Yangshuo we hired bicycles and cycled around the paddy field and the gorgeous karst scenery. The area along Li river is filled with sleepy villages, rough country roads, rice fields and buffaloes. The atmosphere is more relaxed than in Guilin, although also Yangshuo sees a lot of tourist folks. Next day, we made a boat trip on the Li river, together with a Swiss guy and a Isreali girl. The scenery again is absolutely beautiful; however I couldn't enjoy the boat ride fully due to the cold and windy weather. One point along the Li river is especially famous in China, because it is printed on the 20 Yuan banknote. With the boat we arrived in a small village and took a bus back to Yangshuo. The day after we traveled back to Guilin and my father flew to Shenzhen and went back home from Hong Kong.
Myself, I took a flight to Shanghai to visit some friends and I made a day trip to nearby Suzhou. I didn't do much in Shanghai, I hang a bit around meeting friends and I prepared myself for the next destination, Myanmar. The daytrip to Suzhou wasn't very productive either, although I still got a glimpse of the city's famous gardens. After those few relaxing days in Shanghai, I moved back southwards as I had a flight booked from Shenzhen. I booked a train ticket to the southern city Guangzhou, but unfortunately I had to spend the 17 hour ride in the lowest class: hard seat. All sleeper tickets were sold out, so the long journey to Guangzhou turned out to be a tough one. I strolled a bit around in Guangzhou and went on to Shenzhen. I finished this sixth China journey at Shenzhen's Bao'an airport, from where I flew to Bangkok.