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


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.

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