Archive for September, 2011

Dragon’s backbone rice terraces

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The rush hour traffic in Chengdu was awful. I wondered if I would make it to the airport in time for my flight to Guilin. Happily I did and I found a room in one of the hostels I picked up a flyer for at Sim’s.

Next day I explored a bit of Guilin. You really need to get up high to appreciate the wonder of the landscape around and in the city. It’s a similar limestone karst topography to that at Ha Long bay, except it’s not partially submerged by the sea. There are several hills within the city which they will happily charge an admission fee for and from which you can drink in some amazing views. Locals swim and fish in the Li river which bisects the city. There’s a nice walk along the river bank but the best way to explore the city is on a bicycle; it’s a bit too big and the temperature and humidity are too high to make walking comfortable.

It’s possible to do a day tour from Guilin to the so called Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces near Longsheng, about two hours north of the city. Instead I chose to make my own way there, stay overnight in Dazhai and then hike to Ping’an the next day. Lonely Planet says take a bus to Longsheng and change there to a local bus. A Chinese tour operator website recommended changing bus in Heping and provided a map of the area which I printed and used to explain where I wanted to go. It ended up taking three buses, 46 yuan and about three hours to get from Guilin to Dazhai. The standard of driving here is no better than in Laos. It is common policy to hog the centre line of the road and whenever someone tries to overtake get even further over the other side of the road to make it hard for them. A handful of touts descended on me as I climbed off the last bus; local village women in traditional costumes. One, more organised than the others, had a business card for the hotel she was touting for and spoke a few words of English. The price was OK so she got my business. In the afternoon I walked up to one of the viewpoints above Dazhai and admired the view. Spread out over five or six viewing platforms were about 30 tourists. I was the only foreigner. I met only one English speaker among the Chinese tourists, a girl called Anna travelling with her boyfriend. She was impressed that a lone foreigner speaking no Mandarin had managed to get there by himself. They also thought I was only about 25 years old. If only! Sadly it was rather hazy so the photos don’t really do the views justice and it was too cloudy for a decent sunset.

Next morning I hiked about 12km from Dazhai to Ping’an. The trail began as a flagstone path about two persons wide and well maintained. It’s less well signposted. The path passes through the villages of Tiantouzhai and Zhongliu. The Chinese tourists only seemed to have the stamina for the first section as far as Tiantouzhai. After this I mostly had it to myself. The view was gorgeous and every bend in the path brought a new perspective on the terraces above and below it. I strolled along in no particular hurry, accompanied by the sounds of crickets chirping, burbling streams and occasional birds singing. A few birds were glimpsed, including a group that looked like robins but only half as big. Most were only heard and not seen. As the morning wore on and the temperature increased the birds stopped singing. Brown and iridescent green grasshoppers hopped on and off the path. Blue and red dragonflies buzzed through the air, every now and then two or more engaging in aerial combat. Alpine plants with little yellow, blue, white, orange and purple flowers buried their roots in crevices at the sides of the path. In places on the lower terraces the rice was just starting to turn golden. Higher up it was still green and some way off ripening. After Tiantouzhai the path was often only a single stone wide and less well maintained. The section from Tiantouzhai to Zhongliu was the prettiest. After Zhongliu the path was even less well maintained, in places disappearing completely. Also the rice terraces were less well maintained, some not even cultivated and overrun with weeds. The hillsides were more woody here too. I passed a total of ten tourists going the opposite way, four French, two Americans, two Spaniards and two English. Both the Americans and Spaniards had a local guide. About half an hour from Ping’an was the ugliest part of the route. Fifteen minutes above Ping’an the terraces reappeared. The “9 dragons and 5 tigers” viewpoint was the furthest extent of exploration of the majority of the Ping’an daytrippers. I looked but couldn’t see the dragons or the tigers. The walk took about five hours including a stop for breakfast and countless photo and gawping stops. It was another hazy day so the photos were again less spectacular than I would have liked. I wish I’d brought my GPS or a datalogger on my travels; it would have been nice to be able to geotag the photos.

Ping’an was a lot bigger and more bustling than Dazhai or the intervening villages. It was a rabbit warren of narrow streets lined with hostels, restaurants and souvenir stalls. Remarkably I made it all the way through the village unhassled by touts or vendors. Finding somewhere to catch a bus back to Longsheng or Guilin was a bit of a challenge. All the people who looked like they might know about, or sell tickets for such things denied any knowledge of English and waved me away in opposite directions. I switched to showing the bus drivers my map and pointing at Longsheng or Guilin. The third nodded at Guilin and through sign language we established the bus was leaving in 30 minutes and the fare was 40 yuan. Perfect.

Today I’m back in Guilin hanging out at the Ming Palace International hostel again. Tomorrow I’m off to Yangshuo for a day or two of more trekking and rafting on the Li and Yulong rivers.

Hello, goodbye, Chengdu

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Arrived at 05:26 on the K5 sleeper from Xi’an. Joined the Sim’s Cosy Garden hostel tour to the panda research centre at 07:45. Doing it myself on public buses would have saved less than 30CNY but would probably have gotten me to the centre too late to see the pandas feeding. When they’re not feeding they’re asleep so that would have been pretty pointless. Snapped a few photos. Once again a longer/faster lens and tripod would have been useful.

The rain has followed me from Xi’an. So instead of wandering round WenShu Monastery and the People’s Park this afternoon I’m sat in Sim’s cafe/bar getting another internet fix. Off to the airport later and Guilin where I’ll be exploring the surrounding countryside for a week or so.

Another day another city

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

On Saturday I boarded the Z53 overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an. My berth was a soft sleeper. There are four classes of train tickets in China

  • hard seat – cheapest, nastiest, least comfortable.
  • soft seat – more comfortable, recline a bit.
  • hard sleeper – six bunks in a cabin, bedding provided. Supposedly better than it sounds but I’ve yet to find out.
  • soft sleeper – four bunks in a cabin with a lockable door, thicker mattress. Hot water provided so you can make your own tea or coffee.

You can only buy tickets in person at the station you’ll be travelling from and only a few days in advance. They sell out fast so getting the class you want on the day you want is unlikely. You pretty much have to take what’s available for the day you want, or buy a ticket for further into the future or for a higher class than you want.

I couldn’t get a hard sleeper for any day from Beijing to Xi’an and could only get a soft sleeper for two days later than I wanted. Anyway, I made it to Xi’an and the journey was easy and comfortable. The train was punctual and left Beijing at precisely 20:03. My cabin companions who spoke no English at all were OK.

Xi’an was grey and much cooler than Beijing when I arrived at just after 08:10 on Sunday morning. I deposited my backpack in the left luggage facility and took a bus straight to the Terracotta Army. The museum comprises three halls constructed over the excavation sites. None of them are fully excavated. Of the much fabled 6000 warriors only a little over 1000 have actually been excavated. So it was interesting but overrated in my opinion.

By the time I got back to the city the rain had started and two days later it is still raining. My sightseeing has been seriously curtailed. Yesterday I visited some of the city centre sights but gave up on the idea of walking the city walls. Today I’m catching a sleeper to Chengdu. Tomorrow morning I’ll visit the giant pandas and in the evening catch a plane to Guilin. Unlike train tickets, plane tickets can be booked and bought in advance and remotely. So rather than hang around in Chengdu for an unknown number of days waiting for a train I’ve decided to fly one leg of my itinerary. And I’ve cut a few places out because it’s just not practical to see as many as I wanted given the restrictions imposed by train travel.

The weather hasn’t been conducive to taking many photos but you can find those from Beijing and Xi’an at Flickr.