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

Sunday, March 8, 2009

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.


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.


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.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.