China. It's dirty. Really dirty. Get on the bus, somehow fitting a massive bag on your lap while studiously ignoring the blatantly pissed off middle aged Chinese woman on your right who has her own selection of bagged goods but who feels as though you might be over doing it. Try and decipher street signs and exit names by playing a matching game using a piece of paper you're clutching onto for dear life. Or attempt to communicate with the aforementioned woman on your right, who has already proven uninterested in your travels, and only manage to mispronounce the name of your destination and be interrupted by someone with a hacking cough who then proceeds to spit onto the floor of the bus. Dangerously close to your foot. Now, you still dont know where the bus is taking you, but you sure as hell hope the last guy you tried to communicate with was right on in pointing you towards this bus. Next the woman on your right decides to make a phone call to her offspring, but because the bus is so full, her husband is a few rows in front of her, so whatever shall they do? Solution: speakerphone. Easy. Now, you are not a mandarin speaker, but able to pick up on repetition, and they must have been yelling the same thing back and forth for ten minutes. Hopefully it was a productive conversation. You are dumped out of the bus eventually, in the middle of a main-looking road, with a divider down the middle, cars racing past, it's now after dark and so there a lot of lit up things and movement. A lot of movement. You try to show your hostel name to a cab driver who is jumping for your business in such a way that he is leaning on the hood of his car, smoking a cigarette and trying to motion you over. Alas, he doesnt understand your sad attempt to pronounce the street name or your exuberant gesturing. Welcome to China.
Our first stop was Yangshuo, a smallish town two hours outside of Guilin with the most unbelievable mountains looking like floating mossy covered teeth; jagged around the edges, not rolling and continuous. Its a tourist town for sure, and let that mean domestic tourists. Of course there are international tourists, but in china the amount of domestic travelers prevails. In any case, we were able to book a nice little hostel in advance, and upon arrival we realized that we were essentially VIPs. We had the place to ourselves. Needless to say we still stayed in the cheapest room, that being the 5th floor 8-person bunk room. It was as though we lived at the top of a very cold castle (no heat) and had a requirement of four beds apiece. The owner was a delightful man who offered us tea and rice wine and took awfully good care us. Before we left there he asked me to please rewrite his chalkboard list of tourist activities and I did so happily, and so I felt like I contributed to china. Perhaps not to the whole country, but certainly to one Chinese man. In Yangshuo, we began our affair with tea. Puerh, dandelion, rose, green, chrysanthemum, and so many more. We wandered in to a small tea shop one night and sat down with the owner and drank about a billion thimbles of tea. She taught us about tea ceremonies, and proper tea preparation, and tea distribution and tea taste. I think Sarah was floating on a cloud in paradise. We talked of tea pots and tea cups, and drank as drank and drank. I was beginning to feel very well hydrated. We returned to this very shop a second time, and made some purchases with our new found intelligence about tea, and to thank our new friend for her time and tea and information.
In Yangshuo, we also were able to take a cooking class, and a fantastic one at that. Being that we were traveling through China during low season, what might have once been a 15 person class became a semi-private lesson. Our instructor was cute as can be, and an awesome chef. Her English name was Jennifer. It used to be Hannah, actually, but her friends name was also Hannah so she decided to change it in order to avoid confusion. We met her at the market in the morning to get our groceries for the class and have a sort of personalized tour through the market. The Chinese markets appear to just always be open..24 hours. It was in this large place, reminiscent of a warehouse full of tables and tables and tables piled high with vegetables, fruit, sundries, nuts, raw meat, cooked meat, cages of live animals, tofu; the works. Along the sides are women sitting next to small individual fires with big low and wide buckets of snails (a specialty in Yangshuo). We sorted through the vegetables and picked our necessary items. On one side of the market is where you find the butchers with the live animals and it's a noisy ordeal and heart wrenching, especially seeing the live dogs and cats in their cages and hearing their whines. Jennifer let us know that it's not allowed to photograph the butchery. So we ambled out, laden with bags of vegetables and tofu and fish and chicken for Sarah, and eating the delicious sweet steamed bread that is common around china, and we found the car and headed to our class. The location was tres picturesque. We were right on the river, and it was about 11am so the lighting was awfully nice, and a table for two was set up on the balcony overlooking the nice view. We each had our own stations and sarah and i played copy cat through five delicious dishes which jennifer demonstrated and explained flawlessly. We made the exemplary Chinese eggplant, beer fish (a traditional Yangshuo specialty... I made beer tofu), cashew chicken (I used lotus roots...new favorite veg), bok choy, and stuffed mushrooms. It was a feast, and when coupled with a cold watery Chinese beer and the sunshine, you couldn't beat it.
Moon hill was our let's be active portion of Yangshuo. Its a popular very easy climb with an unusual rock structure atop it. It's like an extraordinarily tall flattened circular boulder with a giant hole carved out of the middle. Quite nice to look at. The "hike" up was maybe 30 minutes or so and there was a man made staircase the whole way... how very challenging. We made it up and were accosted by a Chinese woman selling water and coca cola who knew about three words of English and really wanted to take our picture for us and receive some money in return. A boy in a red sweater was rock climbing the underside of the moon hill rock structure and it looked very fun and also very frightening. He seemed to be enjoying himself. We took loads of photographs and enjoyed the spectacular view, then made our way back to our home on a bus/van type vehicle that was driving by and pulled over to wave us in for 3 rnb to get back into the center of town. Lovely. The Chinese girls on the bus thought we were funny. Maybe we are. I suppose you can never know yourself for sure. The next day was our bus, train, bus, bus trip to Jinghong. A fiasco or traveling and lugging things, and eating peanut butter crackers.