DAY 22 - 23
I scram out of Guilin to Yangshuo, hoping to see the karst rocks up close. The bus bumps along.
I check into a hostel on West Street. It’s like the Khao San Road. It’s worse than the Khao San Road. It’s not what I envisaged. There are cheap souvenir stalls lining the street. There are restaurants serving fluffy pancakes. There are happy hours and beggars. An old lady bent at the spine like a closed book. A million thousand backpackers, men with haircuts that might have suited them 15 years ago, girls not much better. Can’t say it didn’t appeal at some point in my life, just not now. It’s a bit overwhelming, like a bad acid trip when all you went out for was a few quiet drinks and some nuts.
I rent a mountain bike. The lady hands me a map. She tells me I’ll get lost at some point. I think, ‘I cycle, lady’. I think, ‘I won’t get lost, I eat maps for breakfast’.
I cycle til Yangshuo is far, far behind. I get lost, the trail gets a bit technical, I fall in a rice paddy. All I can do is say aloud to myself in shock, ‘I’ve fallen in a rice paddy’ and hope the farmers aren’t somewhere watching. Cloying, wet mud everywhere. It strikes me that the next time I have to wash my socks, I’ll be in Australia. It’s a bittersweet moment.
Later I pass a sign advertising cold drinks. I stop. The lady calls into the house from the field where she’s working. I wander through their house, past piles of grain and eight ducklings under a wicker basket, a large picture of Mao, into a courtyard. It’s lovely and they’re a cute couple.
Later down the road I find a weathered old guy in a vest selling beer from his house. He says 10 kwai. I say 5. He says ok then and caves like wet sand. He pulls up a seat and we sit together looking over the fields to the weird hills. It’s idyllic. A passing neighbour spots some loose change in my bag. We all examine it. I give her boy a 2 pence piece and some roubles. The weathered old guy I give 10p, then he goes for a pound coin. He weighs up the two coins and it becomes abundantly clear he prefers the pound coin. Who wouldn’t? Man’s got a nose for a good coin.
I eat after the ride. A beautiful girl in a colourful throw with an inch thick fuzz cut walks in and sits nearby. I’m running through my mind the most attractive features in a girl. I get as far as confidence and cheekbones. Confidence is head and shoulders above cheekbones, of course. If that girl were to walk over and sit here, I think, well that would be some girl.
Next thing, she walks over and asks if she can sit. She sits. She asks if I speak Spanish.
I don’t. I don’t speak Chinese either and conversation doesn’t get too far. My kingdom for a Spanish dictionary and a poncho. Meanwhile, I can’t figure out if she’s a remarkably confident girl, or a prostitute. One guy, one girl, easy pickings. Solo travel has it’s advantages, but I can’t help feeling like a target in places like Yangshuo.
I ask the waitress for my bill, she says where are you going. I try to explain to her I’m going to watch cormorants catch fish the traditional way. I’m not sure she understands. I walk away, stunned at my dumb luck and incapacity to capitalise. Probably was a lady of the night though.
I go to watch the stupid birds catch the fish. It’s a tour, the first I’ve booked all trip. We all get jammed onto a boat made for half our number that lurches to the side when we pull up along a bamboo raft, a fisherman, six cormorants bobbing along. It strikes me then- what was I thinking? Honestly. Trying to take pictures of black birds at night.
The first one surfaces with a reed in his beak. Eventually we moor and hop off to take pictures together with the birds. It’s a horror show. Most of the birds remain lashed to the raft fanning their wings and blinking at the camera flashes. The lady sat opposite me on the boat throws peanuts at them. What did I sign up for? They ignore her and the peanuts.
The next day I take a bamboo raft with three Chinese: Julia, Lilly and Ronald. I’m not sure those are their real names. I leave them and hike most of the riverside trail, then scram from Yangshuo back to Guilin to get to Guilin airport tomorrow to catch a plane to Vietnam because it’s on the way to Australia.
I look forever for a computer to print my Vietnam invitation letter for the visa. I walk forever. There are no computers. What’s wrong with these people? Little wonder they’re still playing cards in the streets and bashing grain. They haven’t discovered Solitaire and elaborate oil painting rackets yet.