Visiting Yangshuo (and the back of the 20rmb note)

During the recent Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, Matt and I decided to spend a few days in Guilin, which is in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China (not too far from Yunnan province where we visited back in July). The relentless Shanghai summer heatwave of July and August had left us both pretty exhausted, so we were looking forward to leaving the city for a bit of fresh countryside air.

We booked our trip fairly last minute and at the same time had booked a daytrip to Yangshuo to see the Li River and some other local sights. This meant an early start, as we met our guide – Lila – and our driver – Mr Wang – at 8.30am the next morning

Cuiping Hill

To reach Cuiping Hill we drove down dusty streets, past boggy rice fields and through tiny villages

Circles of local men sat in the shade of dilapidated houses, smoking and taking some down-time before the rice harvest begins. Through the car window we saw a couple of women washing laundry in the shallow river that ran past the village. Lila explained that most families in the village didn’t own a washing machine, so the women still wash their clothes in the same way they would have done hundreds of years ago. We felt the stark contrast to the garish opulence we live alongside in Shanghai; the nouveau riche kids in their shiny Lamborghinis, million-dollar luxury apartments, four-storeys of Prada.

By the time we reached the base of Cuiping hill at 10.30am the temperature had already soared to 30 degrees, so our climb was a sweaty endeavour! The ascent revealed a mystical mountainous landscape that stretched for miles into the hazy blue distance.

In a country where you are constantly surrounded by other people – there are 27 million of them living alongside us in Shanghai –  it’s a relief when the noise drops away. And what a view!


Shitouchang Stone Village

Next on our itinerary was a village built in the mid 19th Century, using a ‘dry stone wall’ technique. Our car crunched up a gravelly track lined with trees bearing tiny kumquats, heavy pomelo fruit and Chinese chestnuts.

I was amazed to find some of these houses are still inhabited, existing side-by side with those long since abandoned; the latter slowly crumbling back into the earth from which they were built.

These men were busy building a new house in amongst the stone ones. It looked like they were literally building everything by hand. Don’t be fooled by the picture showing them hard at work though; when we got there they were all sat around and as soon as they spotted us, they jumped up and started working. Presumably to show off for the photo; or maybe they thought Matt was the site foreman.


Xianggong Hill

Our second climb of the day (proud dad??!) was up Xianggong Hill. A little more ‘touristy’ than Cuiping, we met a few fellow hikers on the way up and at the top we found a gaggle of Australian backpackers debating the possible implications of being kicked by a kangaroo. Yes, we really did!

The view from the top was, without a doubt, one of the most magical I have ever been lucky enough to witness – the type of landscape that I imagine Hollywood directors would drop jaw and salivate over. That is the Li river below, which connects Guilin and Yangshuo.


Cormorant Fishing

As we made our way back down to the river, we stopped to watch a Cormorant fishing demonstration. Fishermen have been using domesticated Cormorant birds to catch fish on the Li River for the past 1300 years, but these days the technique is largely practised as a show for tourists, unable to complete with more modern approaches.

Mr Wong, pictured above, paddled over to us on his bamboo raft on which sat three large Cormorants. He tied a string around the throat of one of his birds to prevent it from swallowing large fish, then picked up a net hemmed with small stones and hit it rhythmically against the bamboo of his raft to create a drum-beat – a signal to the bird.

Mr Wong threw a fish into the water infront of us, and we watched as the Cormorant dived below the surface to retrieve it. He then used a long stick to usher the bird back to his raft and held it by the neck until it coughed up the fish into the waiting basket.

I thought the process looked a bit on the violent side, but apparently the fisherman have good relationships with the birds. It takes about a year to train a cormorant to fish for you and they live for about 18 years, plus the bird gets to keep 1 in every 6 fish they catch. The cormorants seemed very efficient and apparently one cormorant can catch enough fish in one trip to feed a family. Hopefully the birds don’t mind having to forcibly regurgitate 83% of all the fish they catch!

Cruising the Li River

Next we got to experience a bamboo raft for ourselves, cruising down the Li river.

The water was clear and shallow – only knee high in places – and we weaved through the Karst limestone mountains before dropping anchor at ‘Nine Horse Hill’. Apparently if you can spot the nine horse shapes in the side of the mountain then you are a very intelligent person. I could see three of them… I challenge you to see nine!

The mountain behind me is the same one on the reverse of the 20rmb bank note – cue the obligatory tourist photo!

After climbing mountains and sailing down rivers we stopped for some dinner and tried the local delicacy: ‘beer fish’ (funnily enough, this is fish cooked in beer). It was delicious, especially washed down with a cold one.


Impression Sanjie Liu

The final line item on our itinerary was an ‘Impression Show’. We hadn’t done any research in advance and so had no idea what to expect


We found out that the director of this show was the same person who directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The show was based on a traditional love story of boy meets girl, girl like boy, boy offers to marry girl, girl dies, girl turns into the moon etc. In all honesty – it was spectacular! The whole think took place on and around a natural lake,with the action taking place on boats or large floating stages, while we couldn’t follow the story (it was in Chinese), the visual impact was beyond impressive.

I couldn’t get any shots that did the show justice, but the picture above amused me. At the start of the show, there was an announcement ‘Please do not take any photos’. You can see how almost every single audience member is taking a photo or video. The illuminated group in the middle are being lit up by camera flashes.

All in all a great day – and special thanks to Lila who was the perfect host!


You are what you drink

One morning last week, feeling exhausted and faced with a full day of important meetings, I needed a pick-me-up to carry me through to lunch. There are 4 coffee shops in my building, and a further 3 in the mall next door; but I have been drinking a lot of coffee lately, and while the onset of coffee-boredom would usually prompt me to switch to a strong cup of tea, in China the tea doesn’t give you that strong caffeine uppercut that you need on such a day.

So I opted for an energy drink. You can get quite a lot of energy drinks here; normal sized red bull, the small phials of concentrated super red-bull that they use to resuscitate unconscious race-horses, and quite a lot of herbal alternatives containing Jujube fruit. Fortunately it’s impossible to buy those huge cans of Monster that you often see decorating bus-stops in the UK.

I chose this shiny silver bottle of energy:


I was attracted by the possibility of experiencing the kind of hardcore, vibrant energy that you often see plants exhibiting. Plus, I understood that Maca was a kind of Peruvian plant root powder that you could add to smoothies if you wanted to make them more expensive.

I cracked it open hoping that it would be utterly disgusting. Somewhat disappointingly, it wasn’t. It tasted a lot like a flat red bull, but slightly less artificial.

Quenched, I then hopped on the tube to head in to work. It was fairly crowded and a few people bumped into me; quite normal for rush-hour in Shanghai. The bustle doesn’t normally bother me, but on this occasion I lost my cool. A middle aged gentleman backed into me, trod on my foot and in retaliation I lent over and bit him on the shoulder. As an angry mob started to gather, appalled at my behaviour, I quickly apologised and left the tube at the next station.

When I reached the office I got in the lift to go up to my floor. There was a woman insisting on holding the door open for others who kept arriving. Just as the door was about to close, she’d open it again for some other latecomer. It wasn’t good lift etiquette, so I showed her my frustration and bit her on the arm.

A little later in the day, I was in a meeting where we were attempting to agree our budget with the finance team. Things were pretty amicable, until we got onto the line item about stationery, where one of my colleagues really began to annoy me with his actions. I couldn’t contain my anger and so given he was in the vicinity, I bit him.

I was hauled into a room to explain myself by my boss who saw the whole thing. I said that it was the third time that day i’d bitten someone and that I didn’t know why I was doing it. I was told that it might be better if I went home to cool off.

Reflecting, I couldn’t believe i’d bitten another person, let alone three separate people. It wasn’t at all like me to do so; in fact i’d go so far as to say that it’s totally out of character.I started to think through what could possibly have caused it, and how that day was any different to any other day. The only thing I could think of was that i’d tried a new energy drink rather than my usual coffee. Maybe that had some kind of ingredient that caused this violent reaction in me. So I retrieved the bottle from the bin to see if that could be the case.

Then it all made perfect sense….