Spring travels: a short break in Guangxi province (April 2017)

I think the best word to describe the second semester at the university in Shanghai would be ‘draining’. I went back about 6 weeks before the start of the semester, to get a head start on my thesis writing, yet by the time classes started I was far from finished. I was constantly juggling all the required readings and getting my thesis finished. There was the added stress of not having a date for handing it in, half-expecting to receive an email saying “Surprise! Your thesis is due tomorrow!”. In the end, we had a week’s warning and I stayed up until past midnight most days to get it done.

The timing was good for me, though, as it was just before a bank holiday weekend and happened to be when my boyfriend was visiting. On the day before the deadline I submitted my thesis, got four copies printed, bound and signed for the pre-defence jury, and hopped on a flight to Guilin, Guangxi with him.

We weren’t sure what to expect from Guangxi province. I had done quite a lot of research on transport to see where we could realistically make it to in such a short time and had booked a couple of hostels, one in Guilin city and one in the mountains.

We arrived in Guilin when it was already getting dark and the weather seemed to be turning, and ventured out to find some food and beer. The area near our hostel was very pretty, with an artificial lake and lit-up bridges, but otherwise Guilin was a bit more like the centre of Shanghai, minus the skyscrapers. We found lots of little food shops and ate some very spicy rice noodles. It wasn’t until the next morning when we were looking for breakfast that we realised that Guangxi is all about the rice noodles – they’re everywhere (and they’re delicious)! We decided to grab a beer before going back to the hostel. Just as we got into a pub the heavens opened and we ended up sitting on their terrace under shelter much longer than planned, yet still got drenched on the way back.

The rice terraces

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We took a bus the next morning up into the mountains (after our rice noodle breakfast. The plan was to see the rice terraces. After three hours on two buses, we found ourselves in the village of Dazhai, where I had booked a hostel. It was already around 4pm and we were hungry, not having eaten since breakfast, but in the instructions from the hostel I saw that we had a 45-minute walk uphill ahead of us. I knew it would be dark by 6, so we started off down a muddy road towards the rice terraces. We asked a local lady for directions at a crossroads and enquired about a place to eat before we started our trek. She delightedly told us that she had river fish at her hotel, just a short detour from our trail. I’m not sure whether we were so hungry that that sounded delicious or if she was just too sweet for us to decline, but we accepted.

It was a ten minute walk to her hotel and inside it was quiet and somewhat dark. Her husband sat us down and went off to cook the fish. Two guests walked down the stairs while we sat there but otherwise it was eerily silent. After about 20 minutes and no sign of him returning, we started to worry about the time. It had also started to rain. I tried to get his attention from the kitchen and he, quite flustered, came over to our table, and without asking what I wanted, told us that he was cooking the rice. After another ten minutes, the food arrived. There were fried river fish and a variety of vegetables. My boyfriend didn’t quite know what to make of it but we were so hungry that we ate almost all of it, very quickly, and were soon on our way back down that hill and up another. By that time, the rain was pouring. After some time, I received a call from the hostel. They must have known which bus we had arrived on and were quite alarmed that we weren’t yet at the hostel. Thankfully, they directed us on the fastest route from where we were and when we reached the tiny hill-top village (named Tiantou), a kind girl came to meet us.

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The hostel was magical, a three-floored wooden structure right on the edge of the rice terraces. The view from the window was spectacular despite the pouring rain. That night, though, we were worried that the building might come right off its foundations as a storm shook the walls and windows and the wind found its way through the gaps in the wood.

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The rain had stopped in the morning, and we set off for a detour to see more of the terraces before going back to Dazhai to catch the bus. After about 30 minutes of following signs to a viewpoint, we reached a wall of red mud, something like clay. We clambered up it but soon turned around as the road we were on appeared to have been churned up by big tyres, our shoes were caked in clay, and it was starting to rain. On our descent, we saw where the path should have been. There seemed to have been a small landslide over it. A rather disappointing start to the day, but at least we were back to the village in time for lunch. They tried to push more river fish on us (please, no more river fish) but we found some rice cooked in bamboo, which, along with more rice noodles and fried bamboo, was an absolute delight that we talked about for days after.

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Change of plan

Back in Guilin, we wandered around and realised that Guilin city, while very clean and quite calm for a city of its size, doesn’t really have that much to offer tourists. From what I’ve read, Guilin was one of the first famous tourist spots in China, but while it has plenty of beautiful parks outside the city, the centre is not hugely inspiring (the rice noodles are good though). Since our main plan for the remaining days was to see the Li River which runs from Guilin to Yangshuo, we decided to relocate our base to Yangshuo, the smaller city. Then I noticed that our hostel had a branch in a small village near Yangshuo, Xingping, where the famous scenery of the 20 yuan note is. The hostel agreed to transfer our booking to the Xingping branch and we set off on a bus. By the time we arrived in Xingping it was the afternoon and the village was swarming with tourists. We went for a walk as the afternoon was drawing to a close. Without any planning, we found ourselves at the “20 yuan scenery” spot as the sun was setting. Luckily, there were surprisingly few people there. I suppose most people come to visit on a tour bus and are dragged away before the evening.

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We were so glad that we stayed in Xingping for a night. The buildings are extremely well preserved and the village is very adapted to tourists. There are not that many hotels there, though, so at night it is surprisingly peaceful. We found a restaurant and had a local fish stew which was absolutely wonderful, though more expensive than the prices we were used to.

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Our flight was in the evening the next day, so we borrowed bikes from the hostel with the plan of cycling to another small village. We chose one on the map which appeared to be quite big and cycled along a dirt track. The bikes were not at all suited to the terrain and shook our bones all the way. When we reached the village, children and adults stopped to stare at us. We continued, hoping to find a little restaurant for lunch. Nothing, just farms, houses, more farms, more houses. Embarrassed, we cycled back through the village, to the locals’ amusement, and headed back to Xingping. It was scorching hot that day, and we were absolutely melting when we got back. We found a restaurant with plenty of shade and ate huge piles of vegetables.

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We cut it fine getting to the bus station, only to find that about 200 people were queuing for the bus. We panicked. Without much hope, I opened the Didi app (like Uber) on my phone. To my surprise, there was a car nearby and he drove us to the bus station in Yangshuo where we got on the airport bus. Needless to say, by the time we got on our flight we were exhausted.

The combination of being well-prepared in terms of knowing how to get around and also having the company of a very easy-going and laid-back travel partner meant that our adventure was not only a bit spontaneous but also fast-paced and fun. It had been a very long time since I’d had such a fun holiday and it really refreshed me for the last few months at university.

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