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 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.


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.


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.


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.

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