Saturday, November 29, 2008

Yangshuo & Guilin

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), or the ‘Mainland’ as we call it, is split into many provinces similar to America’s States. Hong Kong is different from these provinces, having recently been returned to the PRC from the British in 1997(HK was a British Colony for many years), and is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR).

Last weekend, I left the safety of the SAR for the Guangxi Province where myself and five girls, my traveling companions comprised of three French, a German and an American, set out to explore the area surrounding a city called Guilin.

But my experience started much earlier than the day of our departure. After having decided to go on this trip to Guilin in the Guangxi Province, I still had to get my Chinese Tourist Visa, which in the past I had heard was a horrific trial. First, as an American, I have to pay HKD 1,020 where exchange students from other western countries might only have to pay HKD 240 (do remember, much of this cost is due to retaliation, as the US is not a cheap place to get into). I had also heard that a traveler needed to have a detailed itinerary of their travels if they wanted a visa, including purchased hotel rooms, something I wasn’t prepared to do at all.

It turned out that a detailed itinerary wasn’t necessary. In fact I found the security process quite laxest. The women at the window actually recommended to me a better visa, allowing me to visit the Mainland as many times as I would like in six months. Four days later, my passport was returned to me with no problem.

The border with the Mainland is only a forty-five-minute train ride from our school in Kowloon Tong. Upon Arrival, we quickly discovered an enormous difference: no one speaks English. It wouldn’t be so shocking if Hong Kong didn’t have such a large amount of English speakers. But in Shenzhen, the large city located just across the border from Hong Kong where our bus to Guilin would depart from, we found no one who could speak any English.

We arrived at our bus station in Shenzhen after several failed attempts at understanding the locals’ body language directions. The bus we would be taking over night was the nicest bus I had ever taken (in comparison with all the busses I had taken in South America). Instead of being seats, we actually laid down in beds and each person was separated by an aisle rather than having to sit next to someone. Some of the other Westerners traveling on the same bus complained a little about the lack of legroom. But I said nothing. I was in Heaven.

This is where the story takes a strange turn. Instead of the bus dropping us off at Guilin, the bus driver stopped at Yangshuo (about an hour short of Guilin) and kicked us off. When we pointed to the bus ticket that said Guilin (in Chinese characters) he said “Yup” and continued to point us off the bus. It turned out all right. The girls and I had planned on visiting Yangshuo, which is far more beautiful and cheaper than Guilin. A persistent Hostel owner named Mr. Li followed us around for about an hour before we gave in. We managed to get the price down to 10 Yuan a night (or USD 1.75). However we did commit ourselves in later negotiations to a three-day tour contract. Looking back, it was a great price, but I should have known never do tour packages as they always lead to very linear experiences.

For the next couple of days, the girls and I saw and did many things. A bike trip around Yangshuo and some surrounding areas gave us a great view of the stunning landscapes (Really, if you haven’t looked up Guilin or Yangshuo on Google images yet, you should do that now). For about USD 20 the girls and I visited a cave that took us about an hour and a half to get through. The cave had rooms that in some places were three stories high. I had never seen such a beautiful cave. At the bottom of the cave, before we began the climb back up, there was a large pool of mud that the girls and I were able to swim in.

Did I mention the food was spectacular? I have never had such good Chinese food. Really! I ate so much good food and for so cheap. The girls and I would order about eight plates of food, sharing them all with each other. The price per person would then be about Twenty-five Yuan (or USD 4).

On our last day before leaving for home, I began to get frustrated. Not at the trip so much but at trying to make decisions and negotiate with five girls. In comparison with how I am use to traveling, decisions took so long and we would spend much of our time waiting for members of our group (including me on occasion). It wasn’t there fault so much as it was my own. I should have realized that I needed some time alone and then took it.

But now it’s back to school. Finals begin in one week and many seem to be very difficult.

I hope everyone had an amazing Thanksgiving. I wish you all a Happy Holiday Season!

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