Thursday, May 23, 2013

a forest of stone

a forest of stone

Our second day in Kunming began with a breakfast comprised of the various pre-packaged baked goods my father and I had gathered during our travels. Breakfast eaten, we packed up and checked out of our room. Today we were heading for YuNan's famous Stone Forest. A major tourist destination, the stone forest is yet another wonderful natural consequence of exposed limestone and rainwater. However, unlike the sloping hills along the Li River, the Stone Forest offers visitors a maze of limestone columns, interspersed with tiny caves and vernal pools. 

Getting there would take some doing. After making contact with the Western World, we secured our baggage at our hotel and set about hailing a taxi to the train station. This took some doing. After a few minutes of unsuccessfully attempting to hail taxis using crude drawings of a train station, our "English-speaking" concierge attempted to help. Flagging down a cab, he chatted with the driver for a whole, then bid us to get in. The train station was on the same road as out hotel, so I was somewhat alarmed when our cab driver took a right, and began speeding down a side road. 

Breaking out our sketch pad once again, we began an elaborate game of pictionary, which eventually communicated our message. Happily, the cab driver pulled a u-turn, and was soon speeding toward the train station. When he let us off, I immediately took a photograph of the train station, in the hopes that showing the picture to a future driver might ease our transit. We then set about looking for a bus. 

the little drawing that could

My guidebook suggested that a bus to the stone forest departed from the train station, but there was no clear indication where this bus was. Finding a poster depicting the stone forest, I took a picture with my camera, and began showing the picture to official-looking types. This netted us some instructions, written in Chinese, which we were able to show to other official-looking types until we found ourselves waiting for bus 706. When the bus arrived, we were alarmed to see that it was a city-style bus. The stone forest was 70 km. out of town, and the prospect of riding on hard seats with a standing crowd packed around us was less than appealing. Nevertheless, we were soon speeding along a highway, toward God-knows where.

God, it turned out, knew that our destination was the Kunming Bus Station, and when the bus mercifully stopped, we took our cue from the crowd and piled out. A little wandering, and we were soon buying tickets to the stone forest on a proper long-haul bus. A short wait, a two-hour bus ride, and we were standing on the grounds of Stone Forest National Park. Discretely following a Chinese-speaking Westerner (who I presumed knew what he was doing) we soon plunked down ¥150 each for tickets to the stone forest. Without the benefit of a map, we asked directions to the entrance. A man, who I would later curse under my breath, directed us down a road, and blissfully ignorant, we began our merry jaunt. 

Coming to a fork in the road, we turned left, and decided that the road led out of the park. Staring down the right-fork, we watched as electric trolleys ferried tourist-looking types down a long road that disappeared into the distance. We would soon learn that we were 3 km. from the entrance, 3 km. that - in the heat of the day - would probably have killed us. So we hiked back to where the trolleys were departing, only to find that we needed to buy a separate trolley ticket. Exasperated, we returned to the ticket office, bought the appropriate tickets, and at last found ourselves speeding toward the park.

One misguided cab ride, a packed bus to an unknown destination, a long-haul bus through the countryside, and an almost-unexploited electric trolley later, we were stepping into the stone forest. It was worth it.

At first, the area was crowed with tour groups, their coordinated hats and flag-waiving guides loudly moving through the park. But soon, we had put some distance between ourselves and our noisy fellow park users. We explored deeper and deeper into the maze of twisting limestone. Then we climbed high up to the stone-tree line, and gazed over the extraordinary expanse of rain-carved rock.

my father, down in the valley

following a cement bridge across the water

an elephant!

looking down on a forest of stone

After three or four hours, still very foot-sore from yesterday's walking spree, we emerged in the hopes of finding a reviving pub or restaurant. While the guidebook and other travel sites I read suggested that such amenities, I can only imagine that they once existed in the now closed-down buildings near the entrance. Surrounded by untended gardens, and somewhat overgrown with vines, the complex of buildings reminded me of what Jurassic Park would look like a year after the dinosaurs got loose. 

Not spotting any triceratops, we decided to board an electric trolley that was heading to some other part of the park. Hoping onto the back, we cruised past well-manicured grounds at the periphery of the park. The close-cut grass and attractive flower arrangements brought out a very pleasant perspective on the limestone formations. When the trolley finally stopped, we hopped off, and headed toward a complex of buildings that we hoped might include a restaurant. Turning a corner, we were shocked to discover that we were back where we had come from. Walking by the same Jurassic Park-esque edifices, we decided to call it a day. Finding the exit, we made it back to the hotel where the Kunming-bound bus would pick us up.

the well-kept grounds of the "mushroom forest"

I had strategically positioned myself to be the first person to spot the bus. I didn't think that it was terribly important, but this minimal fore-knowledge gave me some sense of satisfaction. I had no idea how practical it would become. When I did spot the bus, I alerted my father, and we began walking out to the boarding area. Our movement attracted the attention of other passengers, and they soon began rushing toward me. Unmoved by my naive assumptions of entitlement at being the first to see the bus, I was elbowed and prodded away from the entrance. These people really wanted to get on the bus. 

Retaining some sense of propriety, I used my commanding wingspan to allow some women and children onto the bus, then blocked others to let my father sneak on with me behind him. It turned out that the mania may have been due to the shortage of available seats. Despite tickets sold on a hourly basis, not everyone made it onto the bus. I was therefore pleased that I had been vigilant, and we were soon motoring back to Kunming Bus Station. Catching a cab from the bus station in an attempt to cut one form of transportation out of the equation, we were soon outside our hotel. By now it was 6:00 in the evening, and having not eaten anything since breakfast, we looked around the area for food. We found a series of colorful markets, and a large indoor farmers market, featuring an array of food items (living and otherwise). Fresh vegetables spilled over counters, stacks of eggs balanced precariously atop tables, butchers chopped away at cuts of meat, and merchants offered various cuts of cheese. Fish, frogs, and eels swam, sat, and slithered in buckets, awaiting the tastes of connoisseurs who insist on freshness.

a colorful array of lentils 

While many things looked delicious (less so the frogs) our wimpy Western stomaches directed us elsewhere. Eventually we found a sit-down restaurant, where I enjoyed a dinner of eel and rice. Our hunger thus staved, we collected our luggage and hailed a cab to the train station. Availing myself of my prepared photograph, I was able to accomplish in ten minutes what had earlier taken over a half hour. 

With plenty of time before our train boarded, I caught up on some homework that had not been transmitted before I left, and played backgammon with my father. When our train did arrive, it was flashy and new-looking. My initial impressions were good: the washroom was clean and had only the faintest hint of the lavatory smell so pervasive on Chinese trains. These trains had two stories, a further sign of modern luxury and connivence. Unfortunately, our compartment soured my impressions. The double-decker train layout meant that the cabin was ludicrously compressed. Even "normal" sided people sitting on the bottom bunk would  have to crouch to avoid hitting their heads on the upper bunk. The space was further constricted due to the lack of available space for luggage. Exploiting ever nook and cranny we could find, the remaining space was so claustrophobically constrictive, that I immediately jumped into my bunk to sleep. Contorting myself around some of my luggage, I caught what sleep I could. 

It's now morning, and I'm anxious to get off this train and and explore Lijiang. We've left the cities behind us, and the next few days promise fresh air and open country. After this train ride, I can't wait.


As our train to Kunming sped along, my father decided to head to the dining car to get some water. Entering the car, the head chef spotted him, and shout out "YO!" to no one in particular. Perhaps the chef was calling over a waiter, perhaps merely announcing my father's presence, regardless, on hearing this startling exclamation, my father jumped. This of course amused all of the Chinese passengers, and as they laughed, my father communicated his desire to purchase water. Leaving the dinning car, my father stopped at the exit, turned toward the chef, and shouted out "YO!" This time all the Chinese passengers turned around startled, as my father left the compartment chuckling. 

We both went to sleep fairly early that night. Having the compartment to ourselves, we were able to take the bottom two bunks. Then at 11:00 at night, the train stopped, and there was a knock at our door. It turns out that we had guests after all. My father shot out of our commandeered bed  and sprang, with amazing agility, up to the top bunk. The couple that joined us had a baby in tow, and I could be forgiven for being concerned that I wouldn't be sleeping much. My fears were unjustified, as the tiny tot was a perfect gentleman the whole trip, and we waived goodbye to our guests who departed around 7:00 in the morning.

The rest of our morning involved a dramatic change of scenery. We were now properly in the mountains. Kunming is 2,000 meters above sea level. That's more than a mile. As our train climbed ever higher, we gazed out at the incredible engineering that made our journey possible. Through countless tunnels cut into the mountain side, and endless platforms raised up hundreds of feet from the valleys below, we rose ever higher out of the rain-soaked rice fields and into the arid highlands.

a blurry picture through a dirty window, but you can see the tracks winding through mountain.

We arrived in Kunming at 11:00, quickly joining the teeming masses leaving the station. Securing a cab, we sped toward a hotel where we would only be spending one night before resuming our sleeper train schedule. Kunming is a city under construction. The honorific can be applied to most Chinese cities, but the level of construction going on in Kunming distinguishes this capital of the Yunnan Province.  The city is in the process of building a metro system, and in doing so, they have torn up most of the major roads in town. More on this later.

Arriving out our hotel, we were able to check in by 11:30, and by half-past noon, we were showered and ready to hit the town. The first order of business was to mail some post cards. I had a map of central Kunming in my guidebook, and it's (criminally negligent) scale suggested that the post office was right up the road. Thus began our principle activity in Kunming: walking. 

Walking down the sidewalk toward the post office was complicated by the fact that more often than not, there was no sidewalk. Metro-related construction meant that where once there was a perfectly good (and safe) place for pedestrians to stroll along, now there was a 60 foot hole in the ground. So we were directed to walk in the street. 

walking (not dancing) in the street

I have probably not devoted enough of this blog to explaining the synchronized chaos that is Chinese driving. Lanes - indeed direction of travel - are more suggestions than enforced rules. You can always, always pass someone, even if that means veering into oncoming traffic or into pedestrian ways. To stop for a pedestrian must be considered a great dishonor, I've never seen it done. And of course, there's millions of mopeds, scooters, trikes, and bicycles swarming in and out of the gaps left by cars. 

It was into this maelstrom that my father and I strode. Every once in a while, a choice piece of sidewalk was made available, and we hurriedly scampered over to it. But for the most part, our walk consisted of a very consorted effort to not become a Chinese traffic statistic. We walked for about four blocks, then walked for about two more blocks, then consulted the map, then walked for another two blocks, then stood and waited to cross the street, then walked for a few blocks more. By the time I spotted the sign for the post office, my father and I had all but given up hope. We deposited our postcards, bought a few Chinese lottery scratch tickets, and began to head back the way we came.

We retraced about four blocks, before deciding that it was prudent to seek out some lunch. Buying some nuts and dried bananas from a vendor, we continued our search for real food. Hungry and footsore, we decided on a very small, very local joint that helpfully had pictures of the food. Using my camera to take pictures of each of the courses we wanted, I then showed the chef - who had a window from the kitchen to the dining room - and he quickly set about preparing our meal. The food was terrific. My father attests that it's the best he's had in China. The final bill for the two meals - plus a coupe of cokes - came to ¥27. About $2 a piece. Excellent.

cooking up our orders

We didn't know it then, but that would be the highlight of our day. Walking became something of an art form who's medium my father and I practiced over the next five hours. We walked to a central squire. Then walked through markets. Then walked to a shopping district. Then just walked. Outside of a few museums that closed early, Kunming didn't have much to offer. My guidebook steered us this way and that until finally I decided that we should take a cab out to Kunming University, which was reported to have wonderful little cafes.

The problem was, no cab driver would take us there. I managed to get within a few kilometers of the university, on damn road that led there, less than a 10 minute drive, and the cab drivers kept turning me down. I went from annoyed, to frustrated, to incensed. Eventually (after dabbling in some more walking) by father and I hoped on a #5 bus that may or may not be heading to the university. For ¥1, we hadn't made a major investment. The bus took us most of the way toward the university, before veering left onto a street that, for all I knew, led to our doom. We quickly exited the bus and (surprise!) walked the rest of the way to the university. We managed to circle 3/4 of the university before finding a way into the grounds, and enjoyed a break in a little grocery store-cum-cafe.  I'd hoped to find an English Language Bookstore that had been advertised, but after walking two or three blocks fruitlessly, we gave up. Boarding a mystery bus (I had sworn off taxis for the day) we managed to get back to the shopping district, and walked the seven or eight blocks back to our hotel.

a sea of mopeds near the university

Once there, we purchased two Budweisers, which came in early-70's era pull-top cans. Exhausted from our urban marathon, we gorged on the nuts we had procured earlier, then went to sleep without any supper. I had hopes that Kunming would not be a total wash, but those hopes would have to be realized the next day... 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

a royal city palace

I woke up to our last day in Guilin with somewhat of a stomach ache. Sickness and injury are the ultimate bane of travel, and I skipped a traditional breakfast, hoping to avoid exacerbating a stomach bug. Instead, I availed myself of our hotel's famous cappuccino, and found myself feeling much better by the time I had finished.

My father and I then went out pastry shopping. We had passed a number of bakeries in Guilin, and my father was hoping to find some tasty baked good for breakfast. We walked the entire length of a pedestrian walk (passed a number of other bakeries) to get to one I remembered as seeming nice. Everything seemed okay until we turned over the packaging and found the prices. Many of these simple little breads cost ¥120 and up! Uninterested in shelling out US$20, we backtracked to the other bakeries, bouncing in and out of a few before finally settling one a shop that had a good variety and fair prices.

Breakfast complete, I directed us to the Guilin City Palace. Styled in much the same way as the larger and more famous Forbidden City in Beijing, the Guilin City Palace actually predates the Forbidden City by around 40 years. Paying for a ticket, we were shown around by a very respectful and interesting guide. We were given the history of the city and brought into the throne room. Twice burnt to the ground (most recently in the 1800s) the throne room as been rebuilt to showcase the history of the palace grounds. We were treated to our far share of gimmicks: two "guards" opened the door to a "throne room" that was actually an image projected on a screen; and two dancers preformed 2 minutes worth of a three-hour traditional dace. Cheesy, perhaps, but I found myself enjoying it.

The entrance to the city palace.

We were then brought into a Confucian cave carved into the single limestone peak that towers over the palace. Inside, carved images of figures representing each year of birth greeted the devout and the visitors alike. When I was taken to the figure representing 1986, our guide stopped short. With an uneasy tone, he informed me that my year had "warning symbols" associated with it. Every ten years or so, a figure is given a "warning symbol" represented by a single red Chinese character beneath the figure. 1986 has two symbols, one of only two years with this usual designation. Our guide explained that the devout would interpret these symbols to mean that they should "beware in their job" and "beware of traffic." Which means all my aspirations as a crossing guard just went out the window.

Leaving the cave, we were treated to a demonstration of the Pubic Official's test. In ancient China, subjects of the Emperor could rise through a total of seven ranks by taking a series of standardized tests. After a brief explanation (in Chinese) we were directed to a cubby hole, where we were given an exam (also in Chinese), a calligraphy brush, and ink. I began attempting to imitate reasonably simple Chinese characters - to the amusement of many passers-by - but had the exam snatched away from me before I had completed my second character. It turns out that I all but flunked the test, which meant that I had to watch on as the two brightest students were hastily draped in costume robes and presented before us. 

Leaving the Academy, and bidding our guide farewell, my father and I then began the 291 step accent of the "Solitary Beauty Peak." The same peak beneath which the Confucian cave is carved, the number of steps beguiles the true rigors of the climb. For one: these were massive steps. I'm tall, and I like large steps. Heck, I'll often take 'em two at a time. Not these steps; no way. Secondly: while steep, they were not very wide. Certainly not meant for size 10 boots. And last, we were negotiating this climb admits a sea of other visitors. 

Climbing down.

Somewhat out of breath, my father and I both eventually made it to the top of the peak, and the views of Guilin were splendid. We made sure to stay up there long enough to justify the physical exertion, and then slowly made our way down. Having free reign of the palace grounds, we explored some of the roads less travels, arriving at a library and the grounds of a university. We also made it to a wonderful little Zen Island, though we did not linger as the sky threatened rain.

A view of the Solitary Beauty Peak from Zen Island.

Leaving the City Palace, we stocked up on some provisions for our train ride, and returned to our hotel to kill some time. Ordering a simple lunch, my father and I spent an hour or so talking with the girl who was working at the cafe. A student at the university, she worked at our hotel 2 days a week for ¥5 an hour. If I've ever complained that Work-Study doesn't pay enough, I take it all back, because ¥5 doesn't even break US$1.

Finally, we caught a taxi to the train station, where we waited for the (unsurprisingly) delayed train. To kill the time, I introduced my father to Backgammon, which I had downloaded on the iPad. Playing a few games, we then became the pre-train entertainment for a young Chinese boy. Cautiously curious, he starred us down for quite some time. Urged my his mother, the young boy then came to shake both my father's hand and mine. We exchanged a few simple pleasantries, and I rooted through my bag to find a US Quarter. When my father handed the US quarter to the child, half a dozen uncles and grandparents gathered around him to see the token. It made me wish I had packed more change.

Now we're speeding along toward Kunming. It seems we've been lucky enough to secure a sleeping compartment to ourselves. This is terrific because it's allowed us to spread out a bit, and while my father naps on the bed next to me, I'm not going to catch up on a little reading as the Guilin countryside whizzes by.

river life

After a quick American-style breakfast - which included the best coffee I expect to find in the Orient - my father and I were met by our guide. The night before I had booked a ferry through the most scenic regions of the countryside, and "Harry" as our guide styled himself, was going to show us to the docks.

Picking up a few others along the way, we were soon at the Guilin Docks. I was somewhat unnerved by the sheep-like behavior I began exhibiting in response to my surroundings: slowly herding onto a ferry with the rest of our group. Among those traveling down the river with us included five Swiss folks, with whom we carried on the longest English-language conversation we had since leaving the States. By 10:30 the ferry was underway and we hurried up to the observation deck. Our boat was steaming ahead of the other river traffic, and we had soon put some distance between ourselves and the other boats.

The flotilla departing Guilin harbor. 

We were floating past massive pillars of limestone, thick with vegetation. Trees and vines hung to all but the most parlously vertical cliffs. A misty haze floated through the peaks, painting the far-off hills in increasingly lighter shades of blue.

The hills.

The views were magnificent, and the ferry was moving just quickly enough to keep a light breeze blowing. We watched as our captain deftly drifted his keel-less boat by sheer limestone faces and around scrappy grass-covered islands. Here and there, a waterfall would appear where a stream carved its way through the limestone to find the river. Small villages occasionally lined the shore, their harbors filled with little fleets of bamboo boats. It was a peaceful way to spend the morning.

Cooks hard at work.

There was a small buffet lunch around noon, featuring meats of questionable origin. My father seemed to enjoy what I am almost certain were chicken feet, though I found the over-abundance of bones to be irritating (past readers may recall that when I choose to dine on whole-bird, I prefer that it be boiled before its fried, that the bones might be easier to chew). 

Eventually, our ferry terminated in Yangshuo. Yangshuo is a beautiful mountain town beset by a commercialism that both suffocates the space, yet strangely keeps it alive. Without the commercial potential of tourism: it would go the way of so many other towns: industrialized and without character. Yet by exploiting that potential to the fullest, the town has leached out much of its authenticity. Nevertheless, if you could see past the souvenir stands and the occasional western fast food chain (the Colonel's ongoing campaign in China has left few towns without a KFC) Yangshuo can be pleasantly charming.

Along that market in Yangshuo.

We walked around for about an hour, during which I took one of my signature detours down an abandoned road. This led us to a complex that was likely once a thriving resort. Sitting on a prime piece of real estate beside the town pond, the resorts Zen Garden was now untended and overgrown. Exploring the space made for an interesting diversion, and the whole adventure would have been worth it just to see the look of incredulous confusion on the face of a Chinese guard watching us leave.

Before heading back to Guilin, we had arranged to stop by one of the minority villages to have a look around. Shuttled there in a goofy little air conditioned bus, we arrived outside the town center looking so much like a camera-strapping, fannypack-adjusting, doofy tour group that I unconsciously began putting physical distance between myself and the group. 

Nevertheless, despite the absurdly contrived visit with the water buffalo, I was enjoying the village. We spent some time on "The Dragon Bridge" which, our tour guide informed us proudly, was not only the site of two major motion pictures (one American, one Chinese), but also the vantage point from which photographers from Microsoft captured a background image featured in Windows 7. Cheesy though it may be, I am looking forward to verifying this claim when I return home.

We then watched a local fisherman using commerant birds for fishing. With string tied around their necks to prevent the birds from swallowing their catch, the fisherman sends the commerants into the water. The two birds excel at pursuing fish underwater. When they catch one, the commerants rise to the surface and are scooped up by the fisherman. The fish is retrieved from the bird's mouth, and the commerant is rewarded with a bait fish. With fish stocks strained by an ever expanding population, this ancient tradition is preserved only for the entertainment of tourists.

Holding up the commerants.

There was a second part of the guided tour that my father and I opted out of. While waiting for the rest of the group to explore "Shangrela" we purchased a few provisions, and I went exploring in the countryside. It wasn't long before I found myself criss crossing rice patties, thoroughly enjoying myself. I came upon an intricate stone and clay aqueduct system, which so captivated me that I jogged back to find my father. Finding him smoking one of the Cuban cigars we purchased in the Toronto Airport, I guided him to my find, and he was suitably impressed both by the aqueduct and the countryside.

Finally returning to our bus, we were driven back to Guilin. We visited an excellent restaurant with absurdly large portions of fantastic Chinese food. Doing our best to not let too much go to waste, we both ate entirely too much, and walked off our meal on an evening stroll along the city river. Following a winding tourist path, sheltered by brightly-lit trees, we meandered back to our hotel.  While my father relaxed at our hotel's bar, I went exploring in the market area. Without the trappings of a tourist, I enjoyed a stroll bereft of the interjections of pushy merchants and dubious touts. I was the only Westerner in site, and it was interesting to see young Chinese men and women assailed with the same methods that so frustrates our interactions with public spaces.

Pagodas lit up along the river.

I've now made it back to the hotel, and it's time to get some sleep. Tomorrow we catch a train to Kunming, and I have to say that I'll be sad to see Guilin go. This has been a wonderful little town, and I couldn't be happier with our quite little Lakeside Inn. Tomorrow we trade rivers for mountains; let's see how it goes.


It's 6:00 in the morning in Guilin, a small city in the south of China. The heat of the tropics has already begun to weave its way in between the concrete and tile edifices that line the lakefront. We're here to see a landscape that for over 2000 years has been been acclaimed as being the most beautiful in China. Eons ago, titanic forces thrust up a massive plateau of limestone above the countryside. Limestone - despite its strength - has the curious property of dissolving in rainwater.  And so, for thousands of years, water following the path of least resistance dissolved away much of the plateau. Left behind are a stunning series of limestone columns, abutting the slow-flowing Li River.  Immortalized in Classical Chinese paintings, these mountainous columns are China's greatest natural landmark.

Getting to this scene of natural splendor took some doing. First we had to find our train. This was accomplished with little to no effort, because our train was easily seven and a half miles long. Powered by electricity (quite possibly from an on-board  nuclear reactor) the behemoth stretched on as far as the eye could see. This made finding our carriage somewhat tricky. It didn't help that we had no idea which carriage we were looking for (the carriage number being cleverly disguised amidst a sea of other numbers). The tactic my father employed was equally brilliant and repetitive: we handed our tickets to one of the conductor, and she directed us farther down the train. Reaching the next conductor, we were again directed farther down. A third conductor, a fourth, farther down, farther down. We repeated this procedure at least a dozen times before my father finally got fed up and skipped a conductor. Reaching the next conductor, we were - of course - comically pointed back the way we came. The only carriage we skipped was our own.

At our carriage at last.

By the time we got on board the train was nearly ready to depart. We were staying in a "Soft Sleeper" compartment, distinguished from a "Hard Sleeper" compartment less by the comfortability of the beds as by the presence of doors. Hard Sleepers have 4, 6, or 8 bunks in a compartment, and no door. Soft Sleepers have four bunks, a door, and a fancy carpet lining the carriage hallway. Our compartment was already occupied by the two other people who would be riding with us: a man (I will refer to him as Snore-Master for reasons that will soon become obvious) and a women (who gets no nickname, as she rarely interacted with us). 

Snore-Master spoke some English, and we would later learn that he was a retired Medical Teacher. The women was already up in the top bunk, where she would remain for most of the voyage. We exchanged pleasantries, and I began taking bad pictures out of the grimy windows. Less than an hour into the trip, and despite it being only 5:30 in the afternoon, Snore-Master and the women were already lying down to sleep. Within minutes, Snore-Master had earned his nickname. My father - a veteran of many fishing trips, scout camps, and other large congregations of men snoring - had never heard Snore-Master's equal. Over the next sixteen hours (sixteen!) we were treated to a symphony of respiratory excretions.  Snore-Master preformed everything: the classic quite nostril  murmuring that rises into a rumbling chortle; breathy inhales followed by exhaled whistles of "seew"; slurping sounds reminiscent of the rudest consumption of soup; and his piece de resistonce: a thunderous inhaled snort followed by a measured fluttering exhale that so perfectly channeled the Three Stooges as to defy belief. 

Suffice to say: we did not sleep well. The women would chime in every once in a while, but she was a novice, a mere amateur compared with Snore-Master. Here efforts did little more than demonstrate how hopelessly outclassed she was by the prodigy in the bunk beneath her. My father and I finally gave up our hopeless dreams of sleep around 5:00 in the morning, and spent the pre-dawn hours in the hallway. When Snore-Master finally woke up at 9:30 in the morning, we were all expecting to arrive in Guilin shortly. The train was scheduled to arrive at 11:30, and Snore-Master went to check if we were on schedule. When he returned, he angrily announced that the train was late, and promptly returned to his natural state of noisy unconsciousness. 

The countryside whizzing by.

While the countryside was interesting, by 12:30 we were anxious to depart, and by 2:30 we were seriously considering jumping off. Ultimately, the train arrived at Guilin at 3:30 in the afternoon, nearly 24 hours since we had first set off from Shanghai. Soon we were in a cab, speeding into town. Our driver quickly found our hotel, where we checked in, dropped our bags, and appreciated that for the first time 24 hours, we were not moving. 

Showering and changing, I consulted the internet to find a place for dinner. We were directed to an Indian restaurant - the highest rated restaurant in Guilin, and only five minutes from our hotel. After a false start, we found the restaurant, ate a terrific meal, returned to our hotel, and - finally - got some sleep.

Now it's time to head off toward the storied limestone hills that brought us here. If nothing else, our experiences getting here will serve as a benchmark against which no other ordeal will soon compare. And I am confidant that this town and its landscapes will be more than worth the effort. Let's see...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

shang-hai'll cya later

We began our last morning in Shanghai by venturing out in search of breakfast. When all the immediate alternatives failed us, we resorted to the Western traveler's perennial haunt: McDonalds. Everything tasted eerily similar to what I remember of Egg McMuffins (it has been many years since I've partaken). 

Returning to the room, we packed everything up, and left our luggage with the font desk. Our train wasn't leaving until 16:18, so we had plenty of time to make a final exploration of the city before jetting off to the train station. Deciding that we should pick up a few extra articles of clothing, we headed of for the No. 1 Shanghai Department Store. The prefix "Number One" is almost comically ubiquitous in Asian countries. If advertising is to be believed, I have already been by the #1 Tea Shop, the #1 One Jade Store, the #1 Great Fast Taxibus, the other #1 Jade Store, and so many #1 Silk & Shall vendors, that you'd think they were a chain.


In contrast, the No. 1 Shanghai Department Store to boast. It is the largest department store in Shanghai - and may be the largest in the country. While American and Europe have moved away from the department store model embraced at the turn of the last century, that model is alive and well in Shanghai. In eight floors and one basement, each arranged by the merchandise available on that floor, the No. 1 Shanghai Department Store presents a cornucopia  of conspicuous consumption. My father purchased a light wool sweater to replace his wool blazer as cold-weather layer of choice. I picked up yet another adventure shirt, after determining that I'm somewhere between a 110 and 115 in Chinese clothing sizes.

Leaving the department store, we made our way back into Renmin Park, where we found the Contemporary Art museum was open. Paying the admission, we were presented by the works of two artists on as many floors. The privately-funded museum may have been small, but the works of art - at least on the first floor - were fairly interesting. While nothing matched my indescribably surreal experience in Denmark (which I none-the-less attempted to describe earlier in the blog) the museum was, if nothing else, a welcome reprieve from the outdoor heat.


Deciding that it was probably time that we head back to our hotel, my father and I descended back to the Metro, though not before walking through a large underground shopping mall. It's astonishing how many things are for sale here in Shanghai, and how the city exploits every nook and cranny for unabashed consumerism. Picking up a few unusual donuts from "Mister Donut," we returned to our hotel, collected our bags, and caught a ride down to the South Train Station. 

Now sitting here admits a great mass of humanity patiently awaiting their trains, I am anxious to get on the train, and watch the countryside whizzing by. With any luck, we'll soon be on our way.

the people's square

We began our last full day in Shanghai with a thoroughly local breakfast. At what could best be described as a Chinese Dunkin' Donuts, my father ordered a rice-patty breakfast sandwich, and I got some variety of fried dough in a savory sauce, wrapped in a doughy omelet. Both meals came with a glass of soy/coconut milk, and when we had finished, neither my father nor I was especially keen on returning.

Today, we were heading to the People's Square. The site of a horse-racing circuit that so captivated the Westerners (and later the Chinese) that it rose to be the third-largest business in China, the races were shut down by Chanhi-Chek in favor of a sports area. The area was then itself toppled in favor of a Glorious Square to the People. We had to dodge a rather forward shoe-shine women, but pretty soon my father and I were walking through the cool shade of the Renmin Park. Encountering an even greater variety of exercisers in the Park than we had on the Bund, we lingered in shady spots, taking pictures and acquainting ourselves with our surroundings.


Eventually, we set off for the Museum of Shanghai - a walk that was somewhat complicated by precarious placement of a highway. Walking past imposing Communist architecture, we eventually made it to the museum. Admission was free, but we rented an pair of audio guides to better acquaint ourselves with the area. We then proceeded to spend the next few hours emerged in Chinese art and history.


Leaving the museum behind, we moved away from the grand public space and into a more commercially developed area. Hoping to find some lunch - and more importantly some water - we made our way to a connivence store, purchased two bottles of ice-tea each, and proceeded to guzzle them down. While we drank, I watch a street vendor hurriedly preparing noodles for a long and eager line of patrons. She must have made the best noodles, because we would later see similar corner-side vendors languishing without customers.

Grabbing lunch at a sandwich shop, we then made our way back to the metro in search of one of the more impressive temples. Following the advice of my guidebook, we skipped the better known temple in Shanghai in favor of the Temple of the Jade Buddhas. Its entrance congested with beggars, we quickly got inside and looked around. The space was impressive, if thoroughly commercialized. It was certainly still an active place of worship, as partitioners burned fake money in outside piers and knelt before the towering images of the Buddha. The air was thick with incense as we peaked into the various temple buildings. 


Eventually coming to the great Jade Buddha - 2 meters tall and carved from a single block of white jade - we began to meander out of the temple. However, our path was blocked by a long procession of monks, drumming and chanting as the went, followed by an even longer procession of women dressed in black, following behind. Making a somewhat circuitous exit, we found out way out past a pond chocked with koi, dozens of which would throng at the slightest arm movement that might indicate food.

When we returned to the hotel, both my father and I dozed off for a while. Waking up later than we intended, the immediate options for dinner were somewhat compromised. Even the nearby department store's food court was closing down, and so we eventually found ourselves assembling a somewhat creative - if not wholly nutritious - dinner from a local mini-mart.

The fruits of our foray secured, we returned to our hotel and watched an English-language Japanese new station while scoffing down salads "BLTs" and pastries of unknown fillings. We also broke in to provisions purchased for consumption on tomorrow's train ride. Ostensibly checking to make sure that these provisions were of the flavor and consistency appropriate to rely upon during our long journey, my father and I were relieved to find that Marshmallow Pies and crackers, did, in fact, taste like Marshmallow Pies and crackers.


Now it's time to settle in for our last night's sleep in Shanghai: fresher air, and more adventures to come on the other side of tomorrow's train ride!