This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chapter 6: Dali - the conquest of the Cangshan


Undaunted by the failure of my first attempt to knock off the peaks of the Cangshan mountains, I succeeded by cheating. I got together with a group of other backpackers and hired a tractor to take us most of the way to the top.

I made sure I was prepared this time, by spending most of the intervening day lazing around outside Jim’s Peace Café, soaking up the sun and partaking of beer, chips and whatever other western indulgences I fancied. I met some Brits, a Jewish Mexican guy, a Swede and two Germans who also expressed interest in taking a trip up to the top of the mountains the next day.

Leaving Jim to make the arrangements, we hired bikes and freewheeled down the lanes out of Dali to see Erhai Lake.

It was a lovely cool and clear day. Away from the town, the scenery around the lake was almost biblical – a couple of traditional sailing boats drifting around on the mirror-like surface of the lake, with the mountain backdrop . In the surrounding fields the Bai peasants laboured away at ploughing and planting crops by hand, while we decadent westerners sat around drinking Coke. The houses were decrepit and the locals had spread rice and grain out on the road to dry it out.

Early the next morning we all assembled in the cold street outside Jim’s café and he marshalled us past a young PLA soldier stood as if guarding the city gate, gripping an AK47 like he meant business. The tractor-bus took us up an increasingly rough switchback dirt track, never out of second gear for the whole hour it took. I was terrified of the sheer drops and wild exposure on each of the hairpin bends, but managed to control my panic until we reached the end of the track, more than half way up the mountainside, and seemingly about the same level as I’d reached by the tough all day uphill slog two days previously.



We had nice clear weather to begin with, but some cloud soon built up around the peaks and threatened to envelope us. Soon we were climbing up through the swirling cold clouds, along a well cut track through the long brown grass, and before we knew it we were then above it all and actually looking down on a sea of cloud. The summit looked a long way off and the altitude started to kick in again, rendering me breathless after only a short period of exertion. My lungs felt they were fit to bust and I thought my heart would pop, and it took us more than two hours to get within striking distance of the summit, to a grassy plateau.

Here, where the birds sang and the sun shone it felt like I was ascending into heaven.
The last thousand feet of ascent was relatively easy and before we knew it we had reached the “TV station” – a concrete blockhouse festooned with aerials and TV satellite signal receivers.

Dali Yunnan, climbing the Cangshan peaks, 1991

We plonked ourselves down on the leeward, sheltered side of the building to have lunch and a drink. A Chinese workman dressed in the usual blue Mao suit came out of a door and glanced at us with a blank expression, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for their remote perch to have visitors, let alone foreign ones. He emptied a bin of rubbish down the slope and went back inside without saying anything. Another worker later re-emerged bearing a thermos flask of hot water, from which we filled our mugs and bottles, and I was able to make a cup of Earl Grey from a few teabags that I had brought along.

The views were absolutely breathtaking on all sides, looking down on the pine forests as stretching down the ridgelines until they disappeared into the clouds. To the north and south, dark razorback ridges of rock snaked menacingly towards other peaks in the Cangshan range. And in the distance, the snow peaks of the Jade Dragon mountain range near Lijiang were visible. And yet immediately below us, Dali was obscured by cloud.
After posing for a few pictures, we split up.

The Germans headed back down to the track, while the rest of us decided to explore a little further along the ridge, to the south, where there appeared to be a slightly higher peak about half a mile away.

The path petered out and we soon found ourselves scrambling up a steep hillside covered in knee high scrub until we cam out on to a narrow platform of rock that formed the summit. We were rewarded by spellbinding views down into a series of sheer gullies and gorges that dropped off to the west. I felt giddy and lacked the courage to even stand up on such an exposed spot. Instead, I sat and rebuilt a small stone cairn that previous visitors had piled up.

Dali Yunnan, climbing the Cangshan peaks, 1990

We reluctantly left the summit and headed down towards a small tarn on a plateau, where we rejoined a well –formed track. From there it was another knee-jarring descent, back down into the clouds and towards the tree line, where we crossed paths with a party of local workmen who were busy hacking away to widen the overgrown track. No sigmnn of the missing two porters, they told us.

Cangshan peaks, 苍山, Dali, Yunnan, 1990

From there is was a long and leg torturing descent for more than an hour, over now familiar territory back down to the temple. We paused for a very refreshing cup of strong and bitter green tea before continuing, almost limping back down into Dali and a peak conquering victory drinking session at Jim’s Peace Café.
After the initial ‘mission accomplished’ euphoria, the rest of the evening was a dull anticlimax.

Climbing the Cangshan, Dali, Yunnan, China, 1990


The rest of my brief China trip was also something of an anticlimax. This was partly because I was now back-tracking through the same places: Kunming, Guilin and Wuzhou, back towards Hong Kong, with the consequent feeling that my trip had past its high tide mark and there were no more new places to see. On later trips I was to find this a common feeling – that once my goals had been achieved I soon lost interest and enthusiasm for China travel and just wanted to move on. Once I had mentally set my mind on being in the next place, my patience with the minor irritations of Chinese life quickly ran out.

The things that had seemed novel or funny in the first few days and weeks of travel were now often just a reminder of what an alien environment I was in. I soon got tired of the long list of annoying ‘S’s’ that marked China out as a world apart: the spitting and staring, the shoving and shouting, the slurping of tea and the incessant smoking.

When the bus stopped on some rural road for a toilet break the male Chinese male passengers would adopt a peasant squat by the roadside and eye me impassively as they puffed on their cigarettes. They dressed in cheap black and grey suits that still had a big label sewn onto the sleeve, as if fresh from a bespoke tailor. They would hoick up a throatful of phlegm and spit without taking their eyes off me – was this a calculated insult? I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other as they stared and snickered at me, except for the constantly recurring word ‘laowai’ – foreigner.
Sometimes I felt like I was a character in Planet of the Apes - a weak human who had fallen into a new post-apocalyptic world populated by beings who were both smarter and yet more callous than myself.

And yet at other times the Chinese people I met were touchingly open and generous. Sat on the back of the bus wedged between a bunch of teenage kids who were already hardened manual workers judging by the dirt on their suits, I was prodded into sharing their snacks of monkey nuts and mandarin oranges. They spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese, but I understood their gestures when they flicked through my paperback book and gawped at the English words and gave me the thumbs up sign. “Zhen hao!” (‘Very good!’)

I left China via Hong Kong in November 1990. A sign of how cut off China was: it was only when I arrived at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal in Hong Kong and bought a newspapers that I learned that Margaret Thatcher was no longer the British Prime Minister. I had missed the whole changeover while I was in the China news blackout.

From Hong Kong I flew to Perth in Australia and did the whole backpacker tour of the big continent, up to Darwin and through the red centre to see Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. But even though I saw some amazing sights, I felt unsettled and unsatisfied with Australia. I didn't realise it then, but I had caught the 'China bug'. I wanted to see more of this amazingly different country and I missed the feeling of adventure that comes with being on the road in China. I was no longer the centre of atention, no longer the big tall guy in a crowd. In fact I was now the weedy pale European guy compared to the big bronzed Aussies.

I moved on to New Zealand, where I found a job as a journalist and settled down for a while, indulging my love of the outdoors with a lot of tramping and mountaineering.

I was to spend the next four years in New Zealand ... getting married to a girl from China (that's another story), teaching myself some Chinese and slowly building up a curiousity about Joseph Rock and the places he visited. It would be 1994 before I returned to China to see for myself ...

ruapehu

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chapter 8: Four years later ... 1994


Three weeks before I was due to leave for China I gave up my job as a medical journalist in Auckland and went shopping tor camping gear. After three years of writing about constipation and cough remedies, I was free to fulfil my ambition to be an explorer of sorts.

My immediate plan was to spend a couple of weeks trekking in New Zealand's Southern Alps, testing my gear and getting myself fit for the Chinese adventure. I traipsed round the camping shops of Auckland, feeling guilty as I handed over money for extravagant items such as a bladder water bag ('developed by the Israeli Army'), a head-torch, two pairs of Thorlo socks ("Satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded'), and a set of extra small billy cans.

There were some larger items I'd had my eye on for some time: an MSR International stove that could burn on almost any kind of fuel, and a Thermarest sleeping mat. I also treated myself to a second-hand Olympus OM10 camera, with a polaroid lens filter for mountain pictures. These items I added to my existing inventory of outdoor gear: a MacPac Eclipse lightweight tent, a bulky English sleeping bag, ice axe, crampons, fleece jacket. And thus equipped, I set off for Mount Cook.

A Mount Cook Airlines Avro 748 turboprop dropped me off in -d field at Lake Pukaki, about 12 miles from Mt Cook village. This airport consisted of a shed, a windsock and a Maori coach driver who doubled-up as air traffic controller with his headphones and table-tennis hats to see off the plane. He dropped me off in the rain at Mt Cook village, from where I trudged up to a campsite full of Germans.

The talk was all about a young Japanese woman who had gone missing while on a day walk up to the Mueller Hut with her mother.

The next morning, when the rain cleared, I did this walk myself. It was a steep, slippery track up through the dripping bush to a couple of ponds wishfully known as the Sealy Tarns. Beyond was a tussock and scree slope that led up to the ridge of Mt Ollivier. Just before the Second World War, this had been Sir Edmund Hillary's first real peak.

I found the going quite tough, especially with my heavily loaded backpack. But after a while I established a steady rhythm of breathing, counting 1-2-3-4, which enabled me to proceed slowly hut without stopping every five minutes. Nearer the top of the ever-steeper slope I passed a party of what I took to be Japanese climbers: short, stocky, tough-looking men with an English leader.

On reaching the ridge-plateau I discovered how easy it must have been for the Japanese woman to have disappeared: the plateau was basically a collection of huge boulders and rocks piled on top of each other, creating many spaces and hidden crevasses, some up to 30 feet deep. It would take weeks to search every
single nook and cranny. The Japanese woman had probably wandered off the track and fallen down one of these many holes.

Meanwhile, the mist blew in and I carried on the last few steps to the Muelier Hut. It was an exhilarating feeling to be the first to arrive. My only company was a group of mischievous green keas, the New Zealand alpine parrot. They hopped about on the hut's water tank and peered curiously through the window at me, tilting their heads intuitively.

Within a couple of hours several other hikers had arrived, including the 'Japanese' party, who turned out to be a squad of Gurkhas from Hong Kong, on a training holiday in New Zealand. The hut was soon jammed with sweaty trampers brewing up tea on roaring Primus stoves, and the atmosphere was cosy. Outside, the mist lifted slightly to reveal the menacing ice walls hanging from Mt Sefton opposite. Every ten minutes there would be a roaring noise as huge chunks of ice broke off and avalanched down into the valley. Now I could understand why climbers feared avalanches so much.

That evening trampers from Germany. Britain, Israel, and France huddled round candles in the hut. New Zealand's mountain huts were well equipped: cutlery, stoves, mattresses, and even a radio link to the National Park HQ. As we sat in the nickering gloom I asked the English Gurkha captain if the British Army in Hong Kong did a lot of expeditions into the Chinese mountains. Apparently not, he told me. Serving soldiers were discouraged from visiting communist countries such as China while on duty.

The next morning I did a quick dash up to the nearby 'summit' of Ollivier, which was actually nothing more man a dimple in the pile of rocks, and then fled back down to Mt Cook village. That evening, I sneaked into the posh Hermitage hotel, where rich Taiwanese parties dined by candlelight, able to admire the mountain views while safely insulated behind large windows. No primuses there.

Over the next four days I attempted the Copland Track, an 'alpine tramp' that led from Mt Cook over the Main Divide to the lush West Coast rainforest. In typical macho-kiwi understatement the route was described as 'exposed in places'. This meant it was a full-on mountain climb up a very precarious ridge. The first time I tried it I took the wrong route out of a steep gully and had to retire, exhausted and bleeding, minus my watch, back to the first hut. The next day I tried again, accompanied by a middle-aged couple from Christchurch, who turned back after three hours when they saw how steep the route was.

After a lot of floundering round in a stream, I managed to scrabble my way up a scree slope out onto the slabs of the narrow ridge, from where the route led up a thousand metres to a barrel-shaped emergency shelter. On either side of the ridge were sharp drop-offs, with little chance of arresting a fall. I managed to reach the shelter by lunchtime and retired inside, my hands shaking, to brew up some tea. The going so far had been scary, and when I saw the gradient of the final snow slope ahead I wanted to chicken out. But I couldn’t turn back: that would be equally hazardous.



So I set off alone and reluctant with my ice axe and crampons, for a terrifying 40 minutes of 'plugging' up the soft snow. During the whole time I did not dare look down or behind me, but kept my eyes firmly on my boots as I followed a zig-zag pattern up towards the sharp ridge. Just when I thought I'd reached safety, when the snow flattened out to meet the razor-edge ridge, I faced another problem: the snow had melted back about three feet from the rock, leaving a gaping crevasse about twenty feet deep. After putting my foot through the snow at the lip, I managed to leap these last few feet. to land bloodily on a small platform of rock. I was on top. Behind me the pyramid of Mt Cook dazzled white against a clear blue sky, almost near enough to touch. Ahead was a yawning valley that led down into the mists and foliage of the West Coast.



Going down the western side was a lot easier: no snow slopes or steep drops to contend with. Many hours later, on the verge of nightfall, I staggered into the Douglas Rock hut in the middle of the Copland valley, absolutely worn out. I had crossed countless streams and hobbled down miles of mountain track to reach this point, still two days walk from the West Coast highway. And when I eventually did emerge into the sunshine and coffee shops of Fox Glacier township two days later, I felt like a superhuman, definitely superior to the mere tourists taking their twenty-minute tea breaks from their coaches.

Three days later I met disaster. Recovered from my Copland rigours, I hitched down to Mt Aspiring National Park and attempted a track known as the Cascade Saddle. The scenery was more Scottish than Swiss: brooding crags and long tussock grass, forests and streams. After a restless day cooped up in a hut because of rain, I rushed out up into the hills, eager to reach the 'Saddle'.

The track led up through a beech forest before opening out into a steeper hillside of scrub, gullies and crags. The tops were still shrouded in wet cloud and the knee-high grass underfoot was slippery. But after the perils of the Copland, this was straightforward grunting, I thought. My guard was down.

aspiring pylon

I made good progress up to lunchtime and had almost reached the 'Saddle' when I stopped for a breather and slipped off the straps of my rucksack. Leaning back to stretch my aching shoulders, the pack toppled over and rolled away down the slope. I leapt to my feet 10 chase after it. but the bag picked up speed and disappeared over the lip of a gully. Only Just in time I managed to stop myself going over the edge with it. I peered over into the gully hut could see nothing beyond a hundred foot drop. My stuff had gone, just like that; all I had left the ice axe I was using as a walking stick.

Stunned for a few seconds, I couldn't believe what had just happened. I rushed back down the track in search of my pack, but soon realised there was no hope of finding it. The gully was deep and inaccessible, and my bag had probably carried on rolling right down into the forest. The vast expanse of hillside was dotted with holes, any of which might have swallowed by bag. My bag, and all my newly-acquired, uninsured kit, was gone for good - over the edge.

aspiring pylon

'Come back in four years. A flood might have flushed it out by then,' laughed the policeman in nearby Wanaka when I reported my loss. I had returned to the Mt Aspiring mountain hut and cadged $50 off the kind warden to live off, until my wife wired me some funds down from Auckland.

“Not a good start” she said over the phone.

Chapter 9: Hong Kong again: Lantau Rats and Lamma Expats


I woke up in a single-bed room on the 13th floor of Mirador Mansions, Kowloon. The room was a tiny box, with only a one-foot space between bed and door. Outside it was still dark. The window, barred like all in Hong Kong, gave onto a central shaft cluttered with corrugated plastic canopies, drainpipes and rubbish that blocked out all light.

Having flown in from New Zealand the night before, my body clock was four hours ahead of local time. I thought it was about 9am, but the darkness of the shaft outside suggested it was much earlier. So I lay in
bed, running over the images of my arrival still fresh in my mind: the eggy smell of the humid air as I stepped off the 747 at Kai Tak; then standing in the long queue for Immigration, watching the other lines go down more quickly than mine, and hearing two western businessmen behind me sighing and swearing:

'Come on, get a move on...'. Later, there was the disinfectant smell of an empty airport bus driving through the Kowloon streets at night: a Buddhist monk sat opposite me in a grey toga reading a Berlitz Hong Kong guidebook. And the Pakistani hotel tout who jumped out at me as soon as I got off the bus in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, offering cheap rooms for $100 a night.

I don't know how long I had slept, but now I was unable 10 resist the call of my bladder any longer. I edged myself out of bed and squirmed into my clothes within the close confines of the four walls. The toilets were three floors up, via a grimy open stairwell. Outside it was suddenly daylight, and way below Nathan Road glistened in early morning drizzle, reflecting a few neon signs still lit up from the previous night. It was a chill, damp, spring morning and I was in Hong Kong, quite different from the placid autumnal Auckland I had left behind the day before. Already I could feel a hollow rumble of energy in the air.



For breakfast, like many foreigners travelling on the cheap in Hong Kong, I sought refuge in a place where I knew I could find a vacant seat, an English menu and a handy toilet: McDonalds.

Hong Kong was a city without seats, a place with nowhere to rest from the constant push of people, machines and noise. It was not a place to relax and smell the roses. Even at its most famous scenic spots like the Peak and the Star Ferry Terminal there was nowhere to sit and admire the view: lingering was not
encouraged. Likewise, there were no outdoor restaurants to while away an hour or two watching the world go by. Restaurants were for eating, meeting and doing deals, not relaxing.

Despite Hong Kong's affluence and budget surpluses, its public spaces were spartan, functional and unwelcoming - if not undergoing redevelopment. The parks were designed by somebody who hated nature: they had more concrete than grass, and the few park benches were rendered uncomfortable by iron dividers to prevent dossers.

Hence McDonalds was my refuge that first morning, squeezed into a yellow plastic corner reading my copy
of the South China Morning Post, with its amazing stories of hijacked ships, grenade attacks on jewellery
-shops and refugee camp riots. From here I couid plan my first day's mooching.

II



Hong Kong had been my home for a year in 1992. when I worked in the territory as a medical journalist. Now I was back, passing through on my way to China. On my first day I took a walk up Nathan Road to visit my old haunt of Yau Ma Tei, where I had once spent several weeks living in a cheap dormitory hostel.
Back then, I had been one of the lucky ones who had been able to move out into a flat. The other transients with casual jobs teaching English had no choice but to stay, living permanently in the dormitories with their private space demarked by towels and carrier bags.

This time round, my first impressions of Hong Kong did not agree with the previous jaded recollections I'd had of brash, cold and acquisitive people. The city seemed more subdued than before, not as arrogant or show-offy as I'd remembered. Perhaps it was just a hangover from the winter, but the locals definitely seemed paler and goofier than the bland, smug migrants who drove their Mercedes and BMWs round the posh suburbs of Auckland.

The office and shop workers marching 10 work looked Tired and more down-to-earth than their languid emigrant cousins in New Zealand. These were the ordinary Hong Kongers, the working people, not the flashy 'big-face' entrepreneurs with the hundreds and thousands of dollars needed to buy into another country and a better passport.

And to me, coming from the sunny colours and cheerful pastels of New Zealand, the people in Hong Kong seemed to dress in greys and blues. The only exceptions were the near little kids in bright uniforms skipping hand-in-hand with their Filipina amahs on their way to school.

The Kowloon streets had little touches of England, which together with the hustle and bustle, reminded me of London: the drab colours and dampness, the school uniforms and pasty faces, the double decker buses barrelling down Nathan Road, and the traffic lights that changed slowly from red-amber to green.

Yet amid all the Japanese department stores and plastic fast food chains there were still Chinese rough edges. Coolies in vests and rolled-up trousers pedalled stout black bicycles in among the traffic, ferrying toilet brushes and squawking chickens, while others trundled flat trolleys of wicker baskets full of rubbish.



Further north, lying on the seedier streets of Yau Ma Tei, were the worn-out bodies of homeless old men, with their greasy black necks and ankles protruding from under a piece of cardboard. They slept rough on camp beds in front of shops, under, cages of twittering birds, or amid the concrete 'recreation areas'. But Hong Kong's street-sleepers were not like London's 'Price of a cup of tea, guv?' beggars. They dossed but they weren't destitute: they still had work, but couldn't afford the sky-high rents, not even for the cheapest
caged-bed dormitory. There was no booze, glue or drugs, and the only beggars were the blind and hideously maimed.

Sleeping out in Hong Kong would be easier than on the cold, hostile streets of European cities. The humid heat of summer means there is little need for blankets and boxes and newspaper. Just the noise of the streets
to contend with: a crescendo of engines, pneumatic drills, the metal saws and the police sirens. And Hong Kongers were immune to noise: during my working days in Hong Kong I saw commuters dozing next to the open door of the engine room on the morning ferry, oblivious to the 100 decibel roar emanating from
within.

This was how I spent my first two days in Hong Kong: tramping the streets of Kowloon and Central, looking for nothing in particular. I went to visit my old office, where my former colleagues now regarded me as a hopeless eccentric, not to be taken seriously- They couldn't understand why anyone would want to visit
China for fun.

Two years previously, my workplace in Hong Kong had consisted of 30 Chinese, two westerners, three Filipinos and a Pakistani messenger. The westerners lived up to the acronym FILTH: ‘Failed In London, Try Hong Kong', and had a singular tack of interest in things Chinese. For example, my boss, who had lived in Hong Kong for seven years, would not eat rice and had never visited the mainland, forty minutes away by train.

'What would I want to go there for?' he had said. 'It's a dump. If I've got any free time I'll go to Thailand or the Philippines, not waste it going to that hole.'

Yet it was possible to pop over the Chinese border on a Sunday afternoon, explore the beaches and villages around Shenzhen, and be back in a Kowloon pub drinking John Smiths bitter and eating a Cornish Pasty by the same evening.

In our office there was an unspoken taboo among the 'gweilos' about socialising with the Chinese staff. In my first week at work, fresh from friendly New Zealand. I made the mistake of suggesting that our little section of secretaries and editors all go out for lunch together. This was met with dark looks and mutterings of 'He'll learn', from the old hands.
'They like to do their own thing, we do ours', they said later.

And so it was. The Chinese had been equally baffled by my suggestion, and proved impossible to get to know. During my year at the Hong Kong office I didn't make one acquaintance among the Chinese staff.

I might have put this down to language and cultural barriers, had I not been conducting a romance with a mainland Chinese girl across the border at the time. On my frequent visits to my girlfriend's home in Guilin, I would strike up conversations with all kinds of people, who were only too willing to tell me everything about themselves and invite me into their homes, or join their table for dinner. People on the mainland could be noisy and ignorant, but they could just as easily be frank, charming and endlessly hospitable.

Often I would return from such a weekend in China, full of enthusiasm from these encounters, only to hit a brick wall of indifference from the Hong Kong Chinese staff. I would try to start conversations about Chinese life, only to see them fizzle out within seconds – in the end I gave up and became another patronising gweilo.

The Hong Kong Chinese staff had a chip on their shoulder about the British. They regarded us as a separate species to be humoured, tolerated and obeyed. They put gweilos on a pedestal as the people who gave the orders and accepted all the responsibility. At the same time, they resented us foreigners and could not bring themselves to treat us as equals.

Attitudes towards work were also very different. When given a task, the Chinese staff would expect to he given exact instructions, which they would follow to the letter. They were industrious and uncomplaining,
but would never use their initiative, even to correct the most obvious mistakes. It was not uncommon for me, the rookie, to have to tell staff with 12 years experience how to do their job. "Don’t stick your neck out” seemed to be the unwritten rule.

The reunion with my old colleagues didn't last long. We said hello and swapped gossip, and I realised how small a place Hong Kong was for its 50,000 expatriates. They talked about their amahs and their little scams and their cricket teams, and between the lines of their conversation there was a sense of guarded isolation, as if a secret enemy was eavesdropping, everyone had their own little circle and I was out of the picture.

After two days on the streets of Hong Kong I tired of the incessant pace and the head-down, go-for-it rush. Everybody tore past me looking like they knew where they were going. The local Chinese would glance at me with bemused curiosity, as if thinking: 'Who is this nutter in the lumberjack shirt and big hiking boots?'
Some of their looks seemed almost pitying. It was time to visit Lantau Island.

An hour and ten minutes away by ferry, the barren hills of Lantau beckoned me away from the congested streets and exhaust fumes of Central. Lantau island is actually bigger than Hong Kong island, yet its population is a minuscule 50,000 villagers, fishermen, boat-builders and a few long-distance commuters. It
is a lush green island of beaches, mountains and holiday villas, with a few prisons, Vietnamese refugee camps and monasteries on account of its relative isolation.

Lantau

Most people visit Lantau to see the huge bronze Buddha statue squatting on the top of the hills at the Po Lin monastery. Some go to visit the fishing-village-on-stilts at Tai 0, or to walk the empty hills on the Lantau Trail. I wanted to see how much Lantau had changed since I had lived there three years previously.

The Outlying Island ferries were a great mini-cruise experience in themselves. HK$6.50 to pass through the turnstile from a heaving waterfront throng of newspaper stalls and taxi stands, into a cramped caged pen to await the boarding of the ferry.

Once through the press of bodies over the gangplank, the choice was between the earthy lower deck, or for a few extra dollars, the air-conditioned refrigeration of 'De-luxe' class. My favourite spot was the sun deck at the stern of De-luxe. There I could sit watching the ripples in my condensed milk tea as the rumbling black and white ferry backed away from the jetty, out into the harbour traffic.

On the murky water there were craft of every description: small blue hovercraft wallowing in the swell, returning from Tuen Mun or Discovery Bay, red and white Jetfoils picking up speed on their way to Macau, large sleek hydrofoils waiting 10 pick up passengers for Shenzhen airport. There were dredging platforms and mainland tugs flying ragged red flags, their bridge railings draped with shirts and trousers hanging out to dry. There were flat barges with cranes loading containers, and there were sampan style pleasure craft (kai-do) and sluggish grey police patrol craft. There were the fishing boats; motorised junks without sails, flying the pennants of the sea gods.

And, as the ferry slipped away from Hong Kong island, the city's development came into perspective: the high rise buildings perched on a narrow strip of shoreline, above which rose the steep verdant hillside culminating in the Peak. A select few luxury developments peeped out from the higher slopes, and the peak was crowned by radio antennae. From a distance, Hong Kong island appeared neater and more modern than the noisy sprawl of street level had suggested.

Eventually Hong Kong island and Kowloon receded in a haze of smog, and the Lantau ferry wended its way through an armada of merchant ships at anchor. We passed a handful of small, overgrown islands, mostly rocks and bushes, though some concealed prisons or treatment centres for alcoholics. I spent the journey practising Chinese characters in an exercise book, to the hemu.sement uf a few Hong Kongers who stood watching behind me.

At Lantau I disembarked with a crowd of day-trippers and local residents pushing motorbikes and baskets of chickens. The tourists sprinted for the bus to Po Lin monastery, whereas I strolled over to a squat, yellow and red bus going to Tung Chung.

This bus, like all others in Hong Kong, had bars on its windows – I wondered what they were for. Someone had once told me the bars were to prevent damage in typhoons. But maybe they were just part of the Chinese obsession with security.



After depositing my fare (exact change only), I squeezed into one of the hard seats and held tight as the driver shot off up the hill. Lantau's bus drivers, I thought, held a key to understanding the Hong Kong psyche. Here on this sparsely populated island where the roads were relatively quiet, they still drove like
the clappers: foot hard on the floor, braking tightly around corners. I could understand this sort of behaviour amid the hurly-burley of Hong Kong island, but not here on this empty, bamboo-lined road where svelte Chinese cattle would occasionally meander over from the paddy fields. There was no tight schedule to keep: when the bus reached its destination it would sit idle for half an hour before returning. The rush was just the Hong Kong obsession with squeezing as much activity out of the minimum time. Time is money.

The bus skirted the southern coast road of Lantau, from where the sharp green-brown hills rose up gradually from the beaches of the South China Sea, up to the rocky barren tips of Sunset Peak and Lantau Peak. The thick bush of lower levels giving way to the scrub grass and occasional crags of the upper slopes.

The Tung Chung bus forked right and strained up a mountain road. over a cleft in the 2,000 feet hills, bringing into view the huge coastal airport development on the northern side. Where there had once been a sleepy fishing village -sheltered by a deserted islet called Chek Lap Kok, there was now a vast sprawl of
earthworks and reclamation, a huge swirl of cranes, trucks and portakabins. The small island had been flattened into a muddy brown smudge, and the once-peaceful shore of north Lantau now reverberated to the sound of engines, diggers, generators and the regular crump of rock blasting.

Surprisingly though, when the bus reached the centre of Tung Chung village, the small community appeared untouched by the multi-billion dollar development taking place next door. I sauntered over a walkway across the silty harbour, past fishing boats at anchor, and stepped into a maze of narrow alleys. Tung Chung was still the shonky. Jerry-built mess of concrete and hardboard I had first seen five years ago: poky little shops selling dried fish and shrivelled fruit, each shop protected by a little red box for a temple, with joss sticks and old oranges fur offerings. Old ladies in black smocks still peered suspiciously at me from their doorways, and I hurried through the narrow lanes, to emerge into the fresh breeze of abandoned paddy fields behind the village.

Beyond the coastal plain stood Lantau Peak, dark and gloomy against an overcast sky. Through the open fields I followed a ribbon path of concrete past a water buffalo, back towards the main road, noting the new developments: three-storey holiday villas with newly-tiled walls, and a large police station flying the Union Jack, looking so out of place. The police station looked enduring and slightly overgrown. But it hadn't been there a year before.

ngong ping

My plan was to walk up from Tung Chung up to Po Lin monstery and then climb up to Lantau Peak, where I would camp out for the night in the hope of catching a sunrise,

But first I stopped at the remains of Tung Chung fort, built by the Chinese in the last century to control pirates in the surrounding seas. Now all that was left were a few old ramparts and some restored cannon. The rest of the building had been converted into a primary school.

Lantau lion

There were no other sightseers that weekday, other than a group of mainland Chinese officials, on a visit to see the progress of the airport. They were being taken in a Hong Kong police van and given a deferential commentary by their government minder.
We stood together and watched the school kids in their neat pale blue uniforms, line up and troop out of the fort like little soldiers. And I wondered how Lantau would change when the Union Jack was exchanged for the red flag.


VI

The path up to Po Lin passed several smaller monasteries hidden in the bushes. I had always wanted to visit these mysterious places after seeing their feeble, lonely lights high up on the hillside one night.

Po Lin Big Buddha statuettes

The first Buddhist monastery was the largest of the Po Un satellites. Its yellow prayer hall was emblazoned with a large Buddhist swastika, and gave out onto a forecourt with a sweeping vista of the Tung Chung plain. Nobody was about, so I sneaked round to a side door to look for a dining hall which I had heard
served vegetarian lunches. But everything was locked up and deserted: all I could hear was the slow Cantonese chatter of two nuns in the kitchen.

The path continued uphill through dense trees and bushes, passing several smaller temples. Some were locked and barred, others echoed to the sounds of daily household chores. Outside one of the larger temples, a Buddhist nun with a shaved head and a grey robe, looked up from tending a row of vegetables. She saw
me and looked away.

The bush around the track was alive with dragonflies and butterflies, while other insects hummed and squeaked in the undergrowth along with a few whooping bird noises. The track crossed a stream and I startled a pair of wild dogs scavenging from a rubbish bin.

I met no-one else on the track to the top, where the path levelled out below the crags of Lantau Peak and passed through an engraved yellow archway announcing the boundaries of Po Lin.

Po Lin monastery

Po Lin had changed. It had always been a hit touristy with its small bus terminal and gaudy buildings. But now, thanks to 'Buddha fever', it had mushroomed into a mega-circus of sightseeing. The concourse beneath
the newly-opened giant statue of Buddha had been developed into a wide circular coach drop-off point that reminded me of the end of Mall at Buckingham Palace.

The roadside was lined with noodle stalls and trinket sellers and hawkers selling joss sticks. Chinese tour groups disgorged from coaches and snaked after their megaphone-toting, pennant waving guides. Each group wore identical baseball caps and name badges. They paused for solemn snapshots at the base of the statue before rushing to rejoin their group ascending the steps of the Buddha.

I turned my hack on this scene and walked hack into the trees, past a riding stables and a tea plantation, towards Lantau Peak. My guidebook described the path to the summit as steep and hazardous and said it was easy to fall off and kill yourself. But after my recent hiking escapades in the South Island, I found it a doddle.

Within an hour I was at the top, sat among grass and rocks in the doorway of a flea-infested public shelter, sheltering from the drizzle and cold wind. Everything was below me: the cluster of monastery buildings,
a smoggy outline of the hills poking through low cloud, a half-empty reservoir and the distant coastline.
Airliners would sporadically break out of the mist above to circle towards Kai Tak. There was no other noise apart from the patter of raindrops on the roof. At odd intervals a tannoy voice would echo up from Po Lin, hut otherwise I had the place to myself.

I felt rather lonely, watching the clouds close in below me, then dissipate to reveal a darkening landscape. There didn't seem to be much likelihood of a decent sunrise the next morning, but I wanted to stay and try out my new camping equipment.


The public shelter was squalid, nothing more than a six-foot high wall of rocks topped off with a roof of wooden planks. Inside, it was muddy and sprawling with rubbish in one corner. There were rat droppings on the bench. I wouldn't sleep in there.

Lantau

As the light faded I chose a site just below the peak, a large flat rock ledge sheltered from the prevailing south-easterly breeze by a huge boulder. I pulled out my Thermarest air mat, stuffed my sleeping bag inside the bivvy bag, and climbed into my cocoon. It was 7.30pm and still raining.

The bivvy bag was nothing but a nylon body bag to keep the sleeping bag dry. In theory, k was made of breathable fabric that would prevent condensation. When I zipped myself in it felt dank and claustrophobic. There was just enough room to stretch out my arms and read a paperback by torchlight.

The wind and rain increased in force as the night wore on, and I couldn't sleep because the bivvy bag flapped and snapped in the wind - and I began to imagine I could hear rats chewing at my backpack.
Some time after midnight my worst fears were confirmed. I heard 'eek eek' noises and felt a small rodent body slither over my bivvy hag, scratching its claws against the nylon. I poked my head out of the bag and shone a torch into the mist. Under the rain-cover of my backpack, I could see a small body wriggling, just like the mouse under the carpet in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. 1 walloped it with my torch and it disappeared with a squeak. Wearily. I lifted up the cover to discover a three-inch hole chewed out of my backpack. The rats had been eating my muesli.

I didn't get much sleep after that. I dragged the backpack into the bag with me to protect it, which was a very light squeeze, and passed the rest of the night worrying whether rats were now nibbling through the bivvy bag. I glanced at my watch throughout the night: 2am... 3am... 4am, and the rainstorm increased in intensity. By 6am the wind had risen to such a strength I thought it would blow me off the ledge. I crawled out into a pre-dawn greyness and dragged the flapping bivvy bag, contents and all, through the teeth of the gale and into the relative peace of the shelter. Here I managed to snatch a couple of hours sleep on the bench, then awoke to a misty morning as the storm suddenly abated. There was no sunrise, but I consoled myself that despite the storm I had stayed warm and dry in my bag.

Bone tired, I packed up my wet gear and descended back down to Po Lin. The concourse was deserted and smothered with fog: silhouettes of temple buildings loomed out of the mist. I was the only customer at the noodle stalls when they opened at 9am, and the stallholders gave me suspicious looks: who was this dishevelled gweilo just descended from the mountain? I felt wasted. I needed a rest.

Before I first went to Hong Kong. the word 'expatriate' conjured up images of young ex-public school types in sleek suits living the colonial life in Their well-appointed Mid-Levels flats. These kind of people still exist in large numbers in Hong Kong but the other side of the coin is the Lamina expat. Lamina island is the haven of the down-at heel in Hong Kong, the home of drifters who came for a three-week visit and ended up staying three years.

Because of its low rents and relaxed lifestyle, Lamma attracts a diverse crowd of casual workers: teachers, waitresses, journalists and artists. In recent years the regular community has swelled with an influx of economic refugees from the recession-hit west. By 1994 the peak time ferries were bursting, and the narrow lane that served as a main street became one long conga of gweilos, making the local Chinese look like a minority on their own island.

After my wet, sleepless night on Lantau Peak, I went to spend a couple of days unwinding on Lamma. As if to bless my visit, the sun came out as I sat on the upper deck of the ferry on the way in. I looked around at the other passengers, contrasting the composed Chinese with the clapped-out, cynical expats. The gweilos looked so ungainly and sloppy beside the Chinese.

This contrast was typified on our arrival at Yung Shue Wan, the Mediterranean-like harbour on Lamma. As the crowds of Chinese commuters strode impassively along the jetty, they were suddenly thrust aside by a group of expats “GET OUT OF THE FUCKING WAY!' they screamed. A small group of pissed-up young expats pushed through, wheeling one of their mates on a home-made barrow. The Chinese continued on their wav, paying no attention, and I felt embarrassed.

On Lamma I stayed with a couple of friends whose flat was located on the first floor of a villa somewhere up a labyrinth of by-ways at the back of Yung Shue Wan. It felt good to be able to clean myself up, dry my clothes and then sneak out to hang out at the Waterfront Bar.



There were few Chinese faces in the bars of Lamma. It was mostly Brits, with a few Americans and Australians. Over their beers, the young expats grumbled about their lives in Hong Kong: how rude and unfriendly the local Chinese were, how the ferries were getting too overcrowded and flats more expensive, and the neighbours too noisy.

There were grumbles too, about work, although most expats were in Hong Kong simply because there were opportunities that didn't exist in London, Glasgow or Melbourne. In Hong Kong, the so-so could get a break into their chosen field of publishing, design, engineering or whatever, whereas at home they wouldn't even
have had their CV acknowledged.

Every so often a beeper would go off above the chatter of the bar, and somebody would sneak out to the phone, to find out about their next day’s schedule.

There were a few pseudo-westernised Chinese in the bars, but they looked out of place and over-the-top. In place of the neat yuppie wardrobe of the average Hong Kong Chinese, they wore exaggerated hippy or trampish clothes. And their behaviour was equally confused, picking up on the worst aspects of the western rebel image and bandying around 'fuck you’s'. It was as if by abandoning Chinese self-control for western freedom, they had lost everything.

The Sunday before I left for China, the weather was untypically clear and fresh. Recovering from hangovers, we went for a walk up the concrete paths of Lamma, out over the grassy hills to a vantage point overlooking the Lamma Channel and Aberdeen on Hong Kong island.

'Those are English clouds', my friend Paul said. looking up into the blue sky. 'I love clouds...', he said, and his scouse accent gave it a finality that made everything make sense.

I felt freshened up and ready to go to China.

Chapter 10: WUZHOU: Saunas and Snakes


There are many different ways to get into China from Hong Kong, most of which involve going via Guangzhou (Canton). But I chose to leapfrog this poor sister of Hong Kong and instead take the one-day boat trip to Wuzhou, a small river town 100 miles up the West River. This avoided the nightmare of Guangzhou railway station with its huge columns of itinerant peasant labourers camped outside.

My route also delivered me directly into the interior of China, within a day's bus ride of my first destination, Guilin. Of course, I could have avoided all this by flying directly into Guilin. But the western airline Dragonair was beyond my budget, and I wasn't brave enough to fly the Chinese airline, CAAC. After my previous experiences of flying in China I hadn't been surprised when the International Airline Passengers Association announced it was safer to live in Sarajevo than fly in China. Despite its modernised fleet of 737s and 767s, there were disturbing hints that all was not quite right with CAAC. Like the pilot I once saw emerge from the flight deck wearing flip-flops, or the time we were stranded on the tarmac in a brand-new $35 million Boeing because they hadn't bought the $10,000 set of matching stairs. I also suspected Chinese airline mechanics had the same make-do-and-mend approach as their roadside counterparts- During the all-too-frequent breakdowns, Chinese drivers would invariably hop out and bash some metal under the bonnet until all was right. This kind of approach was alright for trucks, but I feared its consequences if problems developed in mid-flight.

Thus it was that I ended up on the passenger catamaran 'Lijiang', from Hong Kong to Wuzhou. The boat wallowed through Hong Kong harbour and entered a maze of sandbanks and islands that made up the Pearl River Delta. For ten hours we ploughed up a dirty brown river through a flat landscape of banana trees, brickworks and primitive concrete buildings. There were few people to see on the shore, only the crews of the decrepit black barges that plied the river, and pitiful fishermen who tried to eke out a living on small bamboo rafts. When they saw our catamaran coming they had to paddle furiously with their single stern oar and turn into our boat's wake, to avoid being swamped.

Meanwhile, on board, the hundred Chinese passengers sat in airline-type seats watching ultra-violent Hong Kong videos. Old women and young kids sat unflinching as pregnant women were riddled with bullets and babies were thrown from speeding cars. We arrived in Wuzhou just before dusk. It was a small town that appeared out of nowhere, strung along the mud flats of the shrunken rive! with only a couple of high-rise buildings. Our boat docked alongside a sucking pontoon among a clutter of smaller ferries and barges, and we disembarked into a passport and customs shed. I felt a tingle of excitement as I was waved through by the guards in their slapdash green uniforms.

Wuzhou

I had entered the People's Republic. The Piss and Shit Republic. The land of the 40-watt bulb.

Cherry was waiting beyond customs, just like she had been in 1990. 'Welcome to China!', she said in English, grabbing me by the arm. Then she recognised me. 'Oh Michael, you come back!' Every second day Cherry came down to meet the ferry from Hong Kong. to persuade whatever westerners there might be to stay at her hotel, the Yuanjiang. Cherry acted as hotel tout, money-changer, tour guide and ticket agent, and most westerners who passed through Wuzhou got to know her simply because she was the only person in town who could speak English. She had a very un-Chinese habit of touching, other people, prodding them in the right direction while teasing them in her twangy English. 'This way please, gentlemen and ladies', she urged the four of us up the riverbank. 'Now I take you to good hotel. You see if you like or not, OK? Then decide.' Nobody complained: we were willing to be herded like sheep. I remembered my first time in China, right here. Nobody had spoken English and all the signs were in Chinese only.

People stared, shouted, offered things to sell. And Cherry, who I had thought was some kind of official who must be obeyed, had intercepted me. I had been so overwhelmed by the sheer otherness and incomprehensibility of China that I was willing to follow anyone who could lead me through that chaos. Such was the culture shock that I had almost returned to Hong Kong the next day. Fortunately, I had stayed, and now I knew the way.

To get to the hotel. Cherry took us on a motorised punt across the Li river, a tributary of the main West river. The other westerners were Tim, a Fred Flintstone lookalike from Seattle who was teaching English in Taiwan; Tammy, a photographer from Bristol, and Oliver, a student from Germany. The hotel was part of a cluttered four-storey facade that overlooked the main waterfront street. 'Welcome foreign guests, HK and Macau compatriots!' said the only English sign on the window fronting a gloomy foyer. Cherry took us straight upstairs, past the female floor attendants who did not look up from their knitting, to show us our shared rooms (l6rmb per night). The rooms were a taste of what was to come over the next two months: a cold concrete floor, scuffed bits of carpet and windows with flimsy wooden frames that didn't quite shut properly.

Wuzhou Cherry

There were two solid-looking beds with silk pillowcases and a towelling cover, each bed with a mosquito net gathered above like a bridal veil. And there were the standard Chinese room fixtures: a thermos of boiled water with two lidded cups and tea bags, a colour television covered with a scarlet silk cloth, an enamel washbowl, an ashtray and a spittoon-cum-bedpan. The noise from the road below permeated the room: tractors, truck horns, bicycle bells, and Cherry pestered us to change some HK dollars into Chinese renminbi.

I changed a hundred dollars and persuaded Oliver to accompany me on a walk round the block before dinner. Wuzhou had changed in subtle ways thut echoed the larger changes taking place throughout China- In 1990 it had been a town of frumpily-dressed women tor whom cheap plastic baseball shoes were the height of fashion. Now they wore silly platforms and flouncy dresses, copied from Hong Kong. And instead of the heavily-lacquered hairstyles of four years ago. the women now had the lush locks of Canto-pop stars like Sandy Lam. My abiding first impression of Wuzhou was of a young women in an expensive padded silk jacket, slouching on her Honda Spacey step-through scooter, and chatting unselfconsciously into a mobile phone.

Wuzhou was definitely richer. There were nice cars on the road: Toyota Corrollas and Mitsubishis, and plenty of minivans and buses. The old trucks and tractors were still there in the background, as were the old workers, still clad in their diiil blues and greens, but it was the flashy foreign influence that stood out. The main street was still a jumble of open-fronted shops, offering a bizarre array of goods: grimy noodle and dumpling restaurants with trays of steamed buns and glass jars of pickles and broken biscuits. There were general stores that sold Black Man toothpaste (the English label now changed from Darkie to Darlie), 2 in 1 shampoo and 555 cigarettes. Next door would be a .signwriter's or a shop specialising in heavy duty pipes or generators. There were hairdressers and TV repair shops, shops selling CDs and videos and chained up displays of mountain bikes, or air conditioners. There were photocopying shops that would produce business cards and one-hour photo developing shops.

Wuzhou

I was puzzled by some new establishments that looked like restaurants or hotels. They hid colourful foyers decked out with fountains and Roman staircases, all mirrors and baubles. But I couldn't make sense of the Chinese characters outside. Then I spoke them out loud: 'Sa-na'-.- Sauna! An advertising placard outside one of the more opulent of these sauna palaces showed the plush interior with individual cubicles available for 150rmb per hour, and 45rmb for individual massage. Quite expensive considering the average monthly salary in China was 400 rmb.

I later heard that these sauna parlours were very popular with young couples who could not find privacy at home. Parked outside this particular den of vice was a shiny new Toyota Camry with Gonganju (Public Security Bureau) licence plates.

I walked back towards the hotel with my new companion, Oliver, who told me he was hoping to meet 'the right kind of travellers' in China. He had just come from Indonesia where the travellers were apparently of the wrong sort. We walked through the market street where they sold ice-creams and fruit and skewers of fish halls and roast meat, and old men squatted over cloths displaying bricks of rich brown tobacco.

When went to eat at a stylish restaurant opposite our hotel, overlooking the grey river, I was on my guard because the staff were too nice. My recent stay in Hong Kong had accustomed me to surly service in shops and restaurants, where staff would snap: 'What you want?', snatch the proffered cash out of my hand and throw the change back at me. 'It's nothing personal,' my friends had reminded me. 'That's just the way Hong Kong is, remember?'

Therefore I was immediately suspicious in Wuzhou when we were greeted at the restaurant door by two smiling girls wearing red silk 'qi pao' slit skirts, and they held the door open tor me. Waitresses appeared in smart uniforms, and ushered us to a long smorgasbord of uncooked meat, seafood and vegetables, the idea being to choose our own dishes which the chef would then cook up fresh. Behind us were large plastic buckets of live fish, lobsters, turtles and prawns, all waiting to be selected for the pot. Once we had settled for the relatively simple dishes of chicken and rice. the head waitress came over and introduced herself with almost Japanese politeness. She beamed with delight when I spoke in Chinese and began to praise my fluency, even though I had only uttered one sentence. Oh dear, I thought, the hill is going to be enormous.

But it wasn't. It came to a measly 15rmb tor ihe two of us and I had (re)learnt that China could ne cheap and cheerful compared to Hong Kong. Throughout the meal the shy waitresses would sidle up to listen to our English conversation. The braver ones would giggle and ask me how to say 'beer' or 'menu* in English, then skitter away to tell their friends. When it was time to leave, they escorted us to the door and chorused 'Goodbye! Come again tomorrow! Welcome to return!'

After dinner I went to re-visit one of my great cultural discoveries in China: the disco. In 1990 I had visited the White Cloud Song and Dance Hall with two hippy American missionaries from Boise, Idaho. Back then, fusty young couples had swirled and scraped around the dance floor in a solemn display of ballroom dancing, under the watchful eye of a policeman, I had even had a cheek-to-cheek dance with Cherry to a tune called 'Moscow Nights'. In 1994,1 retraced my steps along the potholed main street, looking for the hotel that housed the disco.

Wuzhou

As night fell, Wuzhou transformed itself from grime and shoddiness into an enigmatic blackness, lit by neon and perfumed by diesel and cooking oil. Shops and restaurants that hadn't attracted a second glance in daytime were now glamorous dens of excitement, decked with strings of bulbs and neon signs. Advertisements gleamed against the night sky from the tops of tall buildings, and the riverboats gave off pinpoints of light from their living quarters.

The White Cloud disco was still there, on the 9th floor of a shabby hotel. When we entered, the dancefloor was deserted and the room lit only by a single UV strip light. We took our Tsingtao beers to an allocated alcove, and when my eyes got used to the dark I realised all the other alcoves contained smooching couples. Onstage, a bored female musician sat behind a Yamaha organ, yawning and pumping out an off-key Canto-pop karaoke tune.

Suddenly, the lights went off and I couldn't even see the beer glass in my hand. There were vague scuffling noises on the dance floor. and the band played on. Two songs later, when the lights suddenly went up, the dance floor was full of couples embracing each other in smoochy dances. They scattered hack to their murky alcoves like cockroaches startled by the light. The organist switched to a sentimental ballad, which was the cue for a young man to climb onstage and join in, karaoke-style. It was also our cue to leave. The disco didn't seem fun any more, it had lost its innocence and become a furtive parlour for kissing and carousing. We left our beers half-finished and went back to the hotel.

Chapter 11: TEMPLES AND SNAKES

The next day, Oliver took off early for Guilin, an eight-hour bus ride away. I decided to hang around for a day to see the Western Temple and the snake factory. Over breakfast of steamed bread huns I wrote a letter to Linda; 'China is changing so quickly!' I wrote. 'All the men carry beepers, all the women wear make-up now. And the food is fantastic.'

Then I went to the post office and realised China still had a long way to catch up in some areas. They may have put satellites into space, but the Chinese still can't or won't, put glue on the back of their stamps. Instead, at the post office you have to take your stamp and envelope to a tub of colourless goo paste that looks like mashed potato. Here you apply a few lumps ofguo with a chopstick and try smear the stamp Hat onto the envelope. No matter how hard you try, the corners of the stamp always curl up, stubbornly unstuck. Then you have to find the letterbox, which, confusingly, are painted the same green as rubbish bins.

Wuzhou

Back in the dim foyer of the hotel 1 leaned on the reception desk and waited for Cherry, who was to lake us up to the temple. I tried to read the Chinese text of her 'Good Service Award' hung on the wall. Underneath an unrecognisable black and white photo of her with a piled-up, lacquered hairstyle, the citation gave Cherry fulsome praise for her 'extraordinary efforts at welcoming guests' and her 'Lei Feng' spirit. (Lei Feng was the model worker who always put country and comrades before himself, and was held up hy the Party as a good example to all Chinese workers. He died trying ID salvage a telegraph pole from a swollen river.)

Cherry walked in with a rather un-Lei Feng-like swagger, and I wondered if that citation took into account her money-changing and other dodgy activities. She laughed off my doubts and we set off up through the steep narrow streets, towards the Western Buddhist temple. Cherry seemed to know everyone on the way: a policeman tinkering under his car bonnet, some old men selling stamps and Mao badges in the town square, and the young lad taking his dog for a walk.

Wuzhou

As we climbed higher, through a park, we left behind the hubbub of the town and edged along a narrow path beside small houses clinging to the hillside. The temple was perched on the top of the hill with a southward view over town and river. It was as pleasant as I remembered: yellow walls, red pillars, a green tiled roof, and a complement of grey-cloaked nuns who looked just like their Lantau Island counterparts. We stayed for lunch, which was a delicious series of vegetarian dishes served up by the serene-faced nuns: mushrooms and silvery noodles and exquisite green vegetables, all washed down with pots of Chinese tea. The nuns had a gentle, quirky spirit that contrasted greatly with the wheeling and dealing spivvyness down in the town.

Cherry then asked for our help: could we think of a suitable English name for her new pupil who was learning English? His Chinese name was Yee Han. Easy, we said, call him lan. 'But that doesn't begin with a Y', said Cherry. The name had to begin with a Y. We were stumped. Yasmin? Yolanda? Yehudi? Eventually we settled on Johanne, without telling Cherry it began with a J. She seemed happy.

'How about you try some snake for dinner tonight?' she asked. When we agreed, she led us hack down the hill to the animal market in a side street, looking for a snake. There were all kinds of live species on display: hawks and owls, puppies and kittens, rabbits, small deer, musk rats and leathery armadillos. We stared at the animals in their baskets while a crowd of Chinese gathered round and stared at us. Meanwhile, Cherry was bargaining to buy a snake to take to the restaurant, but the price of 35rmb proved too much. Never mind, we -said, we'll go to the snake factory instead.

Wuzhou was famous for its snake depository- where snakes were accumulated from the surrounding hills and processed into health tonics such as the popular 'Three Snake Wine'. An old Chinese story tells of a cripple who made a remarkable recovery after he drank from a pitcher of wine into which a snake bad fallen. The belief in the health-restoring properties of snake ingredients has persisted, and the Chinese have widespread uses for items such as snake bile extract in home remedies. It was at the snake factory that I got my first taste of China's double-pricing system. Admission was 2.5rmb for locals, lOrmb for foreigners. The official explanation for this two-tier pricing system, which applies to parks, museums, railway and airline tickets and hotels, is that these ventures are government subsidised for Chinese citizens. The reality is simply a case of charging what the market can stand. I felt a twinge of indignation as I coughed up my 'foreign guest' price, and wondered how a Chinese tourist would react if he turned up at Big Ben in London to be told; 'Sony ^ir. £1.50 for British, £5 for foreigners,'

Wuzhou

For our l10mb we were shown a badly-edited video of a rabbit being eaten alive by a snake. Then we were invited to buy souvenir snake products: shoes and handbags, snake wine and a range of medicines. Most Chinese museums and exhibitions were to prove the same: dedicated to business rather than enlightenment. Just when I was beginning to think it was all a bit of a swizz, we were led out lu a vvni Jiou,su full of crates of snakes. An anonymous-looking woman, wearing the sleevelets so popular among Chinese service workers, lined us up in front of some wire baskets labelled with the names of various deadly snakes: Banded Kraits, Vipers, Pythons and Boas. Gloveless, and armed only with a metal rod, she proceeded to lift out a hissing example of each snake, pinching them by the peck to expose their fangs as she gave a running commentary in a bored monotone.

Cherry gave an intermittent translation: 'This is ihe many-banded krait. il is the most potion (sic) snake in Chm;i. Good for digestion and skin problem-s.' Her grand finale was an eight-fool lung boa Constrictor, which we were encouraged to wrap around our necks. The snake felt cold and dry, like a car seat, and had well-worn hard spots on the back of its head from being handled too much. That night, we made Cherry lose face. We asked her to take us to a good restaurant, but she took us to a dull, expensive place, presumably to get a kickback from the owner. The exterior of the restaurant was gaudy pink and green neon, hut inside it was empty.

Wuzhou

We were ushered up a back staircase into a private room with bare walls and no windows It was like a cell. Apparently these places were popular among Chinese, perhaps because they lived cheek by jowl 24 hours a day, but we westerners wanted a more earthy Chinese eating experience. We sat around the table looking glum, too meek to express our disappointment, until Roy, A Canadian-Chinese who had just joined us, jumped up and protested.

'Fuck this, man. 1 don't like eating where I can't see what they're cooking. I'm going to eat out on the street.' And with that, he made for the door. The rest of us hummed and hawed, not wanting to embarrass Cherry, but in the end we were glad to troop back out into the bustle of the street. Round the corner we found just what we wanted: a few stools and tables set up on the pavement next to a roaring wok stove and a platter of uncooked meat and vegetables.

We let Roy choose. He was hardly Chinese at all: a real estate salesman from Vancouver who spoke barely a word of Cantonese, let alone Mandarin. As the night wore on and the number of empty Tsingtao bottles on the table multiplied, he got really worked up about the Quebec issue. I goaded him on, not out of support for French Canadians, but just to see what Canadians felt passionate about.

'The rest of Canada has been propping up Quebec for too long, man,' he moaned. 'So why don't you let them become independent?', I asked. 'No way! They're not entitled to split up the country! They should learn to be good Canadians,' he said. Eventually he got so annoyed I thought he was going to hit me- it was after midnight when we walked back to the hotel, and the street stalls were still trading.

Chapter 12: YANGSHUO: ON THE BUSES WITH THE MASSES


Chinese buses were simple but effective: a 1950s design, little more than a tin box on a chassis, with an engine that turned over so slowly it was hard to tell whether it was switched on. Yet these crude ugly boxes could cart sixty peasants and their bags of rice over some or the most potholed roads in the world, day in, day out, with just an occasional wallop from a spanner and a top up of water from a roadside hosepipe to keep them going.

In a country with few private vehicles and only the most basic of railway networks, buses remained the main mode of transport between smaller towns. The local bus system appeared chaotic but in reality was dependable and thoughtfully organised: buses departed on time, everyone got a reserved seat and there were regular stops for meals.

The drivers were a stoic lot, not in a hurry to get anywhere but fund of using the horn to announce 'Here I come'. The conductresses performed feats of physical and mental agility, squeezing down the crowded aisle and remembering who had still to pass their fare over the heads of the standing latecomers.

Before my bus trip to Yangshuo, I prepared my survival kit; a bag of oranges, a hunch of stubby bananas, some monkey nuts and crumbly biscuits, a bottle of water, a good book and a pair of ear plugs. All packed in a small day-bag that would squeeze onto the tiny overhead luggage rack.

When I found my bus, parked next to a wall slogan: 'Safety First, Service Second, Wish Vois A Pleasant Journey', it was already full to the gills. The sharp-tongued conductress evicted a peasant couple from my seat, and I was thankful it was by the aisle, with room to stick out my long foreign legs. The walkway was already cluttered with sacks of rice, tools, baskets of chickens and boxes tied up with twine.

Our bulging foreign backpacks looked ridiculous compared to the meagre belongings the locals carried in cheap vinyl shoulder bags.

At 9am, the bus lurched out of Wuzhou, up into the rolling hills of eastern Guangxi province. It was a good road by rural Chinese standards: tarmac, with just enough passing room for two trucks. The villages we passed through consisted of mud brick huts topped with upturned roofs of grey tile. The local peasants were working in large teams, ploughing and sowing their small rectangles of mud using simple ploughshares pulled by water buffalo. Brightly dressed children sat around watching their families toil, or ran around playing in the fields.



Otherwise, the colours of the Chinese countryside were muted: dull greens of the crops and trees, dark blues of the peasant clothes, brown and grey buildings. There were red flashes in the New Year posters of Chinese Gods pasted on doors to deter evil spirits, and in the Party slogans: 'Protect the forests!' 'Develop irrigation!' on official buildings.

Almost immediately after we set off, some of the Chinese passengers began to be sick. Not the loud vomity retchings that westerners make, just a quiet slavering onto the cluttered floor.

I spent the morning trying to translate road signs: 'Ten Times Quickly, Nine Times Arriving!' said one. k Drive Carefully For Your Family's Sake!' said another. And everywhere: 'Safety First!'. Lunch was taken at a roadside cafe in the countryside near Babu (Eight Steps), where the friendly, brisk staff rushed in and out of a chaotic kitchen with plates of fried pork and chillies, tofu, eggs, and bowls of steaming white rice. The food was great, the surroundings typically basic: a scuffed floor, knee-high tables and stools, thermos flasks of boiled water and jars of wooden chopsticks.

Etiquette dictated it was acceptable to hoick up and spit on the floor, but not to eat with your fingers or pick your teeth without shielding your mouth with a hand. The Chinese brought their tea jars in for a refill of hot water. When filled, these old jam jars of murky green-yellow liquid looked like they contained some form of pond life. Only the peasant's slow slurping of their contents gave it away as green tea.

I followed my nose to the outside toiler: a row of slits in concrete slabs, separated by waist-high partitions: these were for a 'large convenience'. Nearby were a couple of huge glazed urns for a 'small convenience', brimming with urine. I soon learned to close my nostrils before entering a Chinese public toilet.

Back at the bus, the passengers were waiting, squatting on their heels in the classic Chinese aimless fashion, smoking, spitting and staring. We reboarded, and continued into a flatter landscape of rice fields that suddenly started to sprout the strange limestone pinnacles peculiar to the Guilin region. These huge bush-clad stalagmites dotted the plain until we were completely surrounded by hazy peaks as far as the eye could see. Some were misshapen, partly quarried away to reveal an inner core of yellow-grey rock. Others took on humpback shapes of crenellated towers: each karst pinnacle had a unique form. I wondered if anyone had ever counted how many there were: tens of thousands, at least. By mid-afternoon I was becoming saddle-sore and restless.

Scenery notwithstanding, we were bogged down in endless roadworks and a string of lookaiike small towns, each with its scrappy shops and huddled crowds of drably-clad peasants who stared emptily at the slow-moving traffic. When they saw us foreigners, some of them would shout 'Hello!' or 'Laowai!'. It wasn't a friendly hello, more of a taunting squawk, as if we were monkeys in a cage. 'Laowai' means "old foreigner', and in theory was a friendly term. But I was to hear this word so often, uttered with a sneer and usually followed by a snickering laugh, that it came to sound like a term of ridicule and abuse.



Young lads on the street would nudge each other on my approach and mutter 'Laowai...'. Likewise, shop assistants would turn to each other when I entered a shop, and whisper the dreaded word. I hated it; it put me in a pigeon hole, and relegated me to some exotic category of strange, dumb foreigner.

And there was one last tiresome episode before we reached Yangshuo. A trio of young labourers got on the bus, hauling several heavy sacks into the aisle, and shouting boisterously to each other. An argument developed between one of them and the young conductress, because he refused to pay an extra 1rmb for the sacks.

She spent 40 minutes tapping him on the shoulder and pulling at his sleeve, telling him to pay up or get off, all of which he ignored. His friends laughed and sneered at the girl, and the young 'liumang' eventually turned round and hurled a stream of abuse at her, and tore up his ticket in front of her face. I couldn't understand why the driver wouldn't back her up.

He turned round and asked what the problem was, waving his hand dismissively when the conductress explained. The 'liumang' hopped off shortly afterwards, still sniggering.

As the bus approached Yangshuo we had competition to see who could spot the first foreigner. And when we saw some, I understood why the Chinese stared at us: we were so lanky, fat and ungainly, we wore strange, untidy clothes and had hairy legs, big noses, gaping eyes.

But in Yangshuo at least, the locals were accustomed to foreigners. A lot of people knocked Yangshuo for being too touristy, 'not the real China', they said. But I liked it. It was a great place to relax for a couple of days, sitting in a wicker chair outside one of the backpacker cafes such as Mickey Mao's or Lisa's, watching China go by at arms length. The menus were in quirky English: yoghurt muesli for breakfast, steak and french fries for lunch, and the Star TV channel showed baseball and MTV in the background. The waitresses, all in their teens, were tolerant of the foibles of foreigners, spoke a little English and acted wacky.

The beer was cheap, 3rmb for a Tsingtao, and there were plenty of traveller's tales: Israelis who had come up from Vietnam. Germans heading home via the Trans-Siberian, Australians who had hitched through Nepal and Tibet, and Americans taking a break from studying in Shanghai.



For some young travellers, China was just a segment of their Asia trip, three weeks squeezed between Japan and Indonesia, or before crossing to Pakistan via the Karakoram. The beaten track in China starred in Guangzhou and Guiiin, then went through lo Kunming, Dali, Chengdu. Xian, perhaps down the Yangtse gorges to Shanghai, or straight up to Beijing,

I marvelled that people could spend so long on the road. and get through so many places. They made my own plans to explore one tiny part of Yunnan province seem rather puny. Even in Yangshuo, other backpackers were hiring mountain bikes and visiting Moon Hill, or taking boat trips down the Li river, when I just wanted to laze around. All I could manage was a walk down the pedestrianised main street, past the tourist shops and stalls full of things I didn't want to buy: silk shirts and Little Red Books, custom-carved seals and erhu violins and T-shirts with inscriptions like 'Happy Banana'.

There was jade and dodgy antiques, and scroll paintings of galloping horses, flowers and classical Chinese mountain-water landscapes. The Yangshuo traders set up their stalls by the riverside, waiting for the tidal wave of tourists to arrive mid-afternoon from the fleet of cruise boats down from Guilin. Then. like me, the tourists would take the two-hour bus trip back through the pinnacle landscape, to Guilin.

Chapter 13: GUILIN: In-laws, Artists and Acrobats.

My first encounters in Guilin were not promising: pimps, beggars and plain-clothes policemen.

On the bus up from Yangshuo I was trying to decipher roadside slogans such as: 'GET RICH, MAKE PROFITS, DEVELOP TOGETHER!', and: 'GUILIN WELCOMES CAREFUL DRIVERS', when the bus was stopped hy police. Two thuggish-looking plain clothes men got on and fired questions at the driver about 'the two foreigners'. There was something sinister about the cops' nice clothes: silk jackets concealing walkie-talkies, and their smartly creased trousers. They were looking for someone, but it wasn't us. Before setting off to China I had rehearsed a few glib Chinese phrases in case I was detained by the police, things like: The Police are the People's Heroes!'. But the ugly atmosphere created by these two goons made me forget any smart-alec plans: I wouldn't like to mess with guys like these.

After the relative quiet of Yangshuo. Guilin seemed like a bustling metropolis. It was an odd place: a nest of factories, hotels and railways set in a howl of karst peaks. And it was booming. Glossy new hotels and restaurants had sprung up since my last visit. Shops and stalls spilled out their wares onto the streets: shrink-wrapped Reeboks. hi-fi systems, cameras, light fittings, king-size beds. Advertising hoardings promoted PLA-brand beepers and new condominium developments.

Guilin

Large balloons held up slogans tor motorbike sales, and the Bank of China celebrated a billion depositors. Canto-pop blared out from boutiques selling dresses costing 500rmb, while pastry shops and 'tried chicken' fast food cafes did brisk business. The streets were full of smartly dressed people, shopping, hustling and showing of their new wealth. I hardly recognised my old haunt, the Overseas Chinese Mansion. Its lobby had been refurbished into a slick, gilded atrium of marble and mirrors, with a row of clocks over the reception showing the (wrong) times in Bangkok, Tokyo and New York.

The prices had gone up accordingly too, from 40rmh for a double the previous year, to 200rmh in 1994. I told the neat-suited clerk I had just paid l0rmb per night in Yangshuo, and he cackled with his colleague. When I asked him to recommend a cheaper hotel, he became serious and offered me a reduced price of 50rmb. Beyond the refurbished facade, the hotel was still the same: stained carpets, dripping toilets and steam trains pooping and wheezing past the back window.

It was like China was improving its face to the outside world, but inside nothing had changed. I was sharing a room with Tim, the American, who had fallen in love with Guilin at first sight. No sooner had we stepped out of the hotel than we were jumped upon by a couple of 10-year-old street urchins. They broke off from a sword dance display they were doing and flung themselves down in front of us, kowtowing on the pavement and then pulling at our trouser legs. They would not be shaken off, and the crowd watching them found this more entertaining than the original sword antics. Eventually the two brats gave up in disgust when we wouldn't pan with our money.

Bui we were then accosted by a sleazy young punk who sidled up to us from outside the Cowboy Karaoke Parlour. 'Do you want to have a good time with some young ladies?' he wheedled in Chinese. Tim made the mistake of jokingly asking the price (80rmb), which encouraged the pimp to tag along with us for the next half hour, until we stopped and told him face-to-face to bugger off.

We continued up the tree-lined main street, our heads turned by the chirpy, trendy young women. Guilin girls were elegant, short and slim, with neat little button noses and smooth pink-brown skin: quite different from the wide-faced, pudgy-nosed Cantonese. They wore coquettish Hong Kong fashions: leather hot pants, crushed velvet jackets with enormous shoulder pads, Gucci-copy handbags and gold-buckled high heels, 'Wow', said Tim. 'Forget Taipei, I'm gonna come and teach English here.'

Our first encounter with the nicer side of Guilin was at the mirror glass-fronted department store. The two female assistants at the souvenir counter squealed with delight when we spoke Chinese. "0oh. you're so fluent! Where are you from? How did you learn Chinese?' they said. "How long are you staying in Guilin? What do you think of our scenery?'

They talked in coy but dignified voices. Despite the country's rough edges, the Chinese could be very 'proper* in conversation, not wavering from their rules of traditional etiquette and formality. And despite the reputation of Chinese shop assistants for being rude, these two young women were eager to help. They rushed around, helping us to collect receipts, wrapping the gifts we bought and asking the English words for items like 'fan', 'teapot' and 'painting'.

As we were about to leave, they began a wistful lament that I was to hear so many times in China. 'You're so lucky to be able to travel. I wish we could go outside China and see some of the rest of the world...' I tried to say that China had almost every kind of scenery within its borders, and that Guangzhou and Shenzhen were now just as good as Hong Kong, but it sounded lame. 'Come and see us again soon!' they said, 'Nothing is too much trouble!'. They waved, and I felt sorry for them.

Despite being one of China s lop tourist spots, there were few English signs in Guilin. The few I did see were bizarre translations: 'WELCOME BAILEMEN!' shouted a six-foot sign in a hotel window, 'DIANE AND CHRIST'S HAIR SALON', said one tucked in a corner. And at the railway station; -GOOD- NATURED YOUTH SERVICE WINDOW', which was a literal translation for service-with-a-smile.

As we toured the city centre, I introduced Tim to the two best bargains in Guilin: a bowl of Guilin noodles and the view from the top of the Lijiang Hotel. Guilin's rice noodles were famous throughout China, something to do with the pure local river water and a traditional recipe. A greasy bowl of these noodles, served in a spicy soup of roast pork, peanuts and chillies, cost 1.5rmb at a hole-in-the-wall servery on the main street.

The other great freebie was achieved by sneaking through the lobby of the Lijiang Hotel and taking the lift to the 13th floor. The panorama from the rooftop encompassed the whole sweep of Guilin city, with its few belching chimneys, surrounded by peaks, and skirted by the Li river. It looked too small to tit half a million people.

Guilin

Back on the streets, we were continually approached by friendly young men who wanted to practice their English. The ensuing conversations inevitably got round to the subject of Li river boat trips. Perhaps we would like to buy tickets? No? Then had we visited the famous Reed Flute Caves? Not interested? Oh. Did we like art? Perhaps we could visit his friend's gallery? Tim was too polite. He felt obliged to keep up me conversation, whereas I felt no compunction about telling them to get lost.

I was beginning to feel that Guilin was too greedy and philistine, a tacky tourist town, until we met Yang Lee, an artist, He was a goofy kid wheeling an old bicycle. who started pestering us as we walked back to the hotel. I was knackered and fed up of spivs, but my ears pricked up when I heard him mention Tibetans. Then he asked where I was from. When I said England- he remarked: "Oh. I am going there soon.' Bullshit, I thought.

He introduced himself as Yang Lee, and blinked earnestly through his thick glasses as he loki us he was an art restorer at the local museum. In three months time he would he going to London to study painting restoration techniques at the National Portrait Gallery, he said. 'I'm really looking forward to it. I'll be able to see all my favourite English soccer teams: Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United. And I will have two weeks holiday in Brighton.' He said he was just on his way to see a Tibetan acrobatic show, the last performance of a sold-out season in Guilin. Would we like to go with him?

After meeting so many friendly people that day, we were in a generous mood and agreed. So we flagged down a three-wheel moped taxi and threw his bike in the back, and he told us about his 'salon'.

'My girlfriend is a serious painter. She paints in the style of Munch and Manet - do you know these?' No, I said, I lived in New Zealand where there wasn't much art. 'How about Colin Macmahon, the famous painter from New Zealand? I very much admire his style/ said Yang Lee. I'd never heard of Colin McMahon, but I was impressed by this penniless bohemian with his swept-back hairstyle and corduroy shirt.
'Can we come and visit your salon after the show?' I asked. 'Of course, no problem,' he blinked.

In retrospect, I think we were 'had'. But I didn't mind, because Yang Lee was a refreshing change from the usual street spivs. The Tibetan acrobats turned out to be a local cabaret troupe putting on ethnic minority dances strictly for Japanese and Taiwanese tourists. The tickets were four times more expensive than Yang Lee said, and the promised free 'refreshments' turned out to be a plate of wafer biscuits and a pot of tea. Yet it was still good fun.

There were trapeze artists and acrobats doing silly stunts with piles of chairs and unicycles. Young women in silvery imitations of ethnic dress sang traditional love laments in squeaky high voices, and the young men did a comic 'ski dance’ to plinky-plonky music with planks strapped to their feet. The audience were dragged up onstage to Join in, and the Japanese loved it. Each act was introduced by a hostess in full ethnic garb who spoke in a formal, smiling mandarin.

My favourite act was a dance of the Wa people, who, we were told, lived along the Burmese border. The dancing girls came on in silhouette to the pounding of jungle drums, with their heads down between their knees, shaking their long hair in imitation, of an elephant's trunk. In contrast, the dance of the Dai (Thai) minority had the same girls flutter onstage wearing slim pink sarongs and shielding their faces with conical straw hats. I must visit these places, I thought.

What struck me most about the evening was the casual attitude of the performers. They had a strange mixture of natural elegance and couldn't-care-less insolence, talking to each other as they danced, and adjusting their Straps in mid-song.

After the show we went to Yang Lee's salon, which turned out to be somebody's apartment in a high-rise block, up three flights of unlit stairs. We surprised a young couple who had been smooching on the sofa among the easels and palettes. They jumped up and adjusted their dress sheepishly. 'This is my friend Wang, he is also a serious painter,' said Yang.

The apartment, which belonged to the museum workers' work unit. had been turned into a production line for the kind of traditional landscape paintings I had seen for sale in the shops of Yangshuo. These were the artists' bread and butter work, Yang explained. The serious works were in the next room. To my untrained eye they looked like stylised batik patterns, full of lizards, fish and white oriental ladies in a swirl of yellows, blues and ochres.

'Guilin is an artist's city', said Yang. 'We have a long tradition of landscape painting and we are a long way from the restrictions of Beijing.' He quoted the Chinese saying: 'The hills are high and the emperor is far away'.

His friend gave us an explanation of the symbolism of the paintings, in quick-fire Mandarin, about the significance of love, time, defeat and the circle of life. It sounded to me like an intellectual hard-sell, and I was surprised when Tim agreed to buy two paintings for US$40, without even bargaining. As we were leaving, I mentioned that I was heading towards Yunnan and hoping to get to Muli monastery. 'I went there when I was touring through Tibet last year', said Yang Lee.

"What was it like?, I asked. 'Hmm', he frowned. 'The local people were too superstitious, too backward', he said. Having sold us the paintings, Yang Lee seemed in a hurry to get rid of us. So we walked back to the Overseas Chinese Mansion in the dark, and I wondered about my impending re-union with my Chinese in-laws the next day.

About Me

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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