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Yangshuo river with view of rolling hills

Misty mountain life in Yangshuo

China got off to a rocky start. 5am start, with 3h sleep, slow taxi to the border, slow (but happily painless) bordercrossing, and got to the Zhuhai train station on mainland China with an hour to spare for the 7am train to Yangshuo.

Time for breakfast. But also time for some interesting new discoveries. Like: even big train stations might have no ATMs to withdraw cash. And even though they’re on the international border, they might have no money changers. And cards are accepted even less in China than we’d thought – knew they wouldn’t work in remote places, but had thought a major modern train station would use them. Tried every shop and cafe in the place, including 7-11s, found one cafe where it *almost* worked – but then it required a 6 digit pin, and even adding a couple of zeros to our 4 digit pins didn’t work. And even though tons of people there were crossing the border daily to go to work in Macau and Hong Kong – nowhere would take our leftover currencies. And, as we’d feared, despite our best efforts, AliPay and WeChatPay couldn’t be persuaded to work for us.

So it was a hungry train ride to Yangshuo, all 4 hours of it. And without coffee, which makes it hell. We were highly unimpressed with China and the Chinese people, in spite of being on a shiny new bullet train (with western toilets, yay!) at a decent 300kph.

The noise! Everyone seemed to have their phone’s loudspeaker on top volume, whether they were talking to someone, watching a video, playing a game or listening to music. The conversations all seemed to be angry – indeed, every interaction we’d had so far with people seemed stony faced and irritated. The guy sitting behind me didn’t have a phone, so spent the four hours coughing – deep, rich, chesty ones, with proper phlegm bubbling behind them – and making hacking noises, and every time I braced myself for the spit – but, thankfully, he stopped short of that. Maybe he swallowed. The TV was a stream of instructional videos of what not to do – done in incongruously cheerful cartoon form, and with a huge variety of ways of explaining not to spit, not to panic in case of fire, not to let children play on the tables… – on repeat for four hours. The outside view was fog – yes, for all 500km.

But we got to Yangshuo in one disgruntled piece. We’d arranged on the way for the hotel to send a driver, since no money for the 20k journey, even if we’d had the will to feck around with buses or other routes. And things started to get better.

He drove us through spectacular countryside to what proved to be a beautiful little hotel: like a dream of China, with misty limestone karsts towering outside the window, stone floors, bamboo dividers and a beautiful wooden bath. Even the kettle options were beautiful – a glass teapot with flowers provided as tea (chrysanthemum: delicious). And once we’d eaten – got money en route, and the sweet receptionist suggested a nearby lovely place – suddenly, everything seemed much better.

And now I can happily say: China is lovely. It is a pain in the ass – everything is difficult! – and I’ll stand by people being noisier here than most other places. But lord, the place is beautiful! The classic China of my childhood imagination: giant craggy limestone karsts jutting in an unlikely way out of the bright yellow fields below, mist enshrouded;  people wearing rice hats with handmade wooden carrying-poles and buckets. Even the vehicles are oddly Chinese and charming: tractor/trucks with their engines on the outside; electric scooters with giant long umbrellas mounted on them. The people – when you’re not tired, hungry and decaffeinated – are lovely and friendly. They don’t smile as much at every stranger as Indonesia – but then, who does? And once you make an effort, they are delighted to engage; they are keen to ensure visitors have the best possible time, and try to point out cheaper ways of doing things rather than trying to rip us off in general (I guess we look skint).

I hadn’t realised that they’d just revised the one-baby policy a couple of years ago, to a two-baby option. It seems that everyone’s obeying the new law to the max: the number of utterly adorable babies is amazing – word of a non baby lover.

We did the typical local things – Yulong river bamboo raft through beautiful karst area.

And borrowed bikes from the hotel to go on long bike rides through the countryside – they had a particularly lovely cycle path next to the river.

Where we were staying was a bit out of town, and thank god for that. Don’t know if all other Chinese towns will be like this, but Yangshuo town was a shock to the system. We’d both expected a slightly-touristy-but-small-quiet town. Instead, every shop, cafe and kiosk had its speakers blaring music at top volume; the streets were jam packed with people – mostly Chinese tourists; light shows and gaudy decor abounded. You could see beauty in the background – karsts towering over; the lakeside’s craggy old small trees – but the foreground was LIGHT AND NOISE.

Anyway, we’ll soon find out what more of China is like. Our plans have been slightly waylaid – V came down with a spot of gastroenteritis, so instead of flying to Lugu Lake, we’ve stayed a bit longer in Kunming. We’re out near the airport, in a desolate area. Moving to a nicer hotel near the centre tomorrow – our current place would not have been our first choice of places to stay longer: a very basic cheap hotel, with worryingly large bloodstains on the wall – too large for any insect I can bear to imagine. And then back on track to go to Lijiang and carry on as planned.

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