Monthly Archives: October 2010

Typhoon!… Or… not… (This post is mostly about teacher stuff. Fair warning.)

So this weekend we were supposed experience the wrath of Supertyphoon Megi! Instead, it was 80 degrees and sunny. If that’s what typhoons are like, bring ’em on.

But even though the weather was pretty mild and actually quite enjoyable on Friday evening, it seemed that the entire Chinese population of Shenzhen hunkered down and only the waiguos were out to play. This is, of course, a gross exaggeration; but really, I had a student cancel a tutoring appointment with me on Saturday because of the storm warning, even though it was a pretty beautiful sub-tropical day in Southern China. It’s kind of like wearing shorts in a snowstorm because the weatherman said it would be sunny out.

And it’s kind of typical that a Chinese person, upon hearing that there is a typhoon warning, would stay indoors despite what’s actually happening outside. This is actually segues for me nicely into a topic that one of my 11th-graders brought up in class (which, by the way, absolutely shocked me). I was doing a class on adverbs of frequency, and to get the students talking I asked them to use some of the words (always, sometimes, usually, never, rarely) to make sentences about what they think American students’ lives are like. Almost to a student, the answers ran along the lines of, “They always have free time.” “They never have to do homework.” “They usually play sports every day.”

Oh, bless their hearts.

One student, though, when asked to repeat what one of his classmate had said (this is one of my tricks to get them to listen; thank you, TEFL training), replied, “I don’t really care about what he said.”

“Oh,” said I. “Well, tell us one thing he said anyway, then you can share your thoughts.”

So he obligingly did, and then proceeded to absolutely go off for 3 or 4 minutes about how he talks to his friend who went to America, and how in his opinion (this is paraphrased) American students learn innovation and creativity in their schools, while Chinese students learn by rote memorization are basically computers. He essentially said that Chinese people don’t invent things, they only produce what Americans have already invented. And he absolutely blamed the school system for this problem.

Okay, and just let me say that this is a student for whose peers speaking English for 4 seconds is kind of a miracle, let alone for 4 minutes. I was astounded. Where did this kid come from?

He obviously felt very strongly about the topic, he was quite animated and clearly annoyed with what he sees as the Chinese inability to think outside the box. I sort of listened, stunned, for a few minutes, before realizing that half of the class had no idea what was even going on, so I spent a few minutes explaining, and then asked if anyone had a response to him. No one did, of course. Pity– could have been a great class discussion.

So now, more than ever, this is one of my goals with my students, especially my higher level students: to challenge them to think creatively. I’m starting to sort out the different ways in which they do learn, because despite being little automatons (apparently) I really have started to notice different students blossoming on different subjects. I did Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” as part of my Hallowe’en unit this week, and I had about 2 or 3 students from each of my 10 sections get really, really into it– students that I hadn’t necessarily seen take an interest in the class before, because it’s usually too easy for them. On the other hand, last week’s activity with the adverbs brought a bunch of shyer kids who seem to be really good at puzzles a little more out of their shells.  Hooray!

So the typhoon was a no go. Never fear, the season is just beginning. I’m sure I’ll have exciting weather to tell you all about some other time. Meanwhile, I still owe you a post on Hong Kong. So that’s coming up. See you soon.

National Week, Part Four: The Caves

It was with stout hearts, sore behinds, and severe sleep deprivation that five brave souls embarked on one last, ridiculous group adventure in the wilds of Yangshuo.

Some of their number had spotted the pamphlet on the Water Caves days earlier, and had been leafing longingly through it ever since. The pamphlet boasted photographs of gleeful sojourners splashing about in a cavern filled with a clay mud pool, and blissful vacationers soaking in natural hot springs.   After the previous day’s epic journey mud pools and hot springs seemed just the ticket for relaxation.

So our intrepid adventurers, after a hearty breakfast of eggs benedict, arranged tickets for the day’s activities and thereby left the comfort and safety of the Yangshuo hostels.

We piled into a rather decrepit-looking van, which no-one was convinced should actually make it all the way down the highway to the Moon Water Cave entrance. As it turned out, it didn’t need to. The ticket office for the Moon Water Cave is actually still 5 or 6 km down the road from the actual cave, so the van pitched us out at the ticket office and then tore back down the highway back to pick up more unsuspecting tourists.

We explorers exchanged the receipt we had purchased at the hostel for sets of actual tickets, and were directed to another van that was, if possible, even more dysfunctional-looking than the first. The van bumped and groaned and rattled down the highway, finally grinding to a stop in what looked like dirt patch in the middle of field. The passengers all extricated themselves, only to find we were, in fact standing in a dirt patch in the middle of the field. Luckily, our laconic driver did at least point us in the direction of a path that disappeared into some long grasses, so we set forth in that direction, wending our way toward the rocky cliff face some short distance away.

As we arrived, we realized the cliff face had in front of it a concrete pool with small wooden boat and two wooden shacks. Ah, this must indeed be the place. A woman wearing traditional blue work clothes waved them over, checked their tickets, waved us in the direction of an absolute fleet of plastic shower shoes and then pointed at one of the wooden shacks.

A European tourist (German or possibly Austrian by the accent) sat upon the ledge along the pool and helpfully told us, “You’ll want to leave everything behind that you don’t want to lose.”

So our intrepid group went into the shacks, which turned out to be changing rooms, and stripped down to our bathing suits, put on the shower shoes, and bundled our belongings into some wooden lockers housed the other wooden shack, ready to take on the mud and hot springs.

Then we were handed hard hats.

And we stood at the edge of the concrete pool, looking into the dark mouth of the cave, wearing bikinis, shower shoes, and hard hats.

Something did not seem quite right. But we were directed into the wooden boat, and off we went across the pool and toward the mouth of the cave. The boat ride was actually a surprisingly long distance, especially since it was accomplished by a guy pulling on a rope hung over our heads, and as we wended their way into the tunnel some of us had to duck several times to avoid collision with the tunnel ceiling or outcroppings from the walls. At some point, which looked just like all the other points on the boat ride, the guy pulling the boat instructed us to get out onto (not very dry) land and we were greeted by the short, energetic woman who would apparently be our tour guide.

And we began to hike.

The cave was full of stunning limestone formations– stalactites, stalagmites, columns, protrusions, strange shapes that looked like King Kong, Buddha, and the scariest Santa Claus ever seen– helpfully pointed out by the diminutive woman at the head of the party. We hiked, through all of these formations, wondering where the mud cave was. Our guide pointed out The Moon Temple, for which the Moon Water Cave was named– it was an area where the roof had a skylight and the trail climbed a steep, steep hill. With no handrails. Or safety features of any kind. Again, typical of China. We hiked up and around the Moon Temple, came back down, and kept hiking, and hiking, and hiking… and hiking… and hiking…

Let me remind you, we were still wearing bikinis. And shower slippers.

Finally, after about what felt like five miles, but was probably closer to one, we spotted the hot springs. “No go yet!” our trusty tour guide called, because apparently it would be bad form to do the hot springs before the mud caves. For reasons which would become apparent soon thereafter.

We hiked a little while longer, finally coming out into a cavern in which the light was suddenly much more orange than in the rest of the caves. This was mostly due to the pond of clay mud which dominated the cavern, and which boasted a set of stairs on one side and a slide on the other.

We couldn’t resist.

So we took turns sliding into the mud pool, getting completely and utterly covered in the stuff. It’s pretty watery, so unless you are paying really close attention you don’t notice that it’s quite a bit thicker than water. If you lie on your back and float, about half of your body is out of the water; as opposed to a pool, where it takes a bit of energy to keep legs and shoulders and so forth up. This takes absolutely no energy whatsoever, you just float. We of course had to take a few more turns on the slide, did some foolish and fun things like attempting to blend in with the walls and spraying mud from flinging hair, and all the sorts of things that tourists do when they visit the mud caves. Clay mud, by the way, clings to skin like polish to a shoe, so by the time we had splashed around a bit, we could have been the Swamp Thing’s family reunion.

When we were finished mucking about, our guide took us down a series of limestone stairs (now wearing shower shoes, bikinis, and a layer of surprisingly slick mud) to an underground river, where we proceeded to try to wash as much of the stuff off as we could. Which was not much. My hair was absolutely full of the stuff, and all of our bathing suits had taken on a sort of reddish-brown dinginess that didn’t seem like it would ever come out. The river was pretty cold, too, so we splashed in and splashed out probably quicker than was really productive, and shivered a bit as we climbed back up through the mud cavern, picked up our hard hats, and hiked back toward the hot springs, to which we were now really looking forward.

The hot springs were, as advertised, comfortably warm, but the bottom was rocky and a bit jagged weird places so it took a little while to get situated. Once we were, though, it was pleasantly relaxing. We spent quite a bit of time just letting the water soak more of the mud away– this, incidentally, is why the hot springs comes second. It’s bathtime. We came out with still-muddy hair and bathing-suits though—soaking apparently doesn’t do the trick. My bikini required rinsing with the highest spray on my shower head in order to look presentable again.

Post hot-springs, we hiked back through the limestone caverns (this time, we didn’t detour around the Moon Temple), got back in the boat, and pulled back out into sunshine. The temperature in the caverns had been fairly cool, so it was nice to be back out in the sunlight—even though sunlight revealed what true messes we still were. Mud had seeped out of our bathing suits after the hot springs and was running down our arms, legs, stomachs, etc. Nevertheless, we changed back into our clothes in the little wooden shack changing room, headed back to the field where the van dropped us, and climbed into another van to take us back to town. This van, incidentally, was running with the needle pointing completely to Hot on the engine gauge, and we were all convinced it was going to break down on the way. Especially since it gave us a little concert of bumping, groaning, squeaking, creaking, and squealing all the way back to the ticket office.

Thankful to be out of the infernal contraption, and less than enthusiastic about taking another one, we decided to brave a tuk-tuk instead. For those of you unfamiliar with tuk-tuks, they are motorized rickshaws which are widely used as transport-for-hire all over SE Asia (as well as some other parts of the world, I’m sure, but I don’t think they’re called tuk-tuks anywhere else). They are generally kind of rickety, usually pretty loud, and (of course) feature absolutely no safety options. Including walls. Though there are bars to hold on to.

In fact, because there is pretty much no containment at all, at one particularly jarring bump we watched one person’s wallet go sailing out what would have been a window if we’d had them, and thump ungainly onto the shoulder of the highway. We all screeched at the driver “Ting yi xia!! Stop a minute!” and as she hopped out of the tuk-tuk fetched her wallet, I tried to explain to our driver in between peals of laughter what had happened, and why one of his fares was running down the highway away from us. Luckily, it was unscathed and so was she, and we finally made it back to West Street in time for an early dinner before I had to take off to the bus stop to get back to Shenzhen.

Having four full days of relaxing and outdoor activities in the the sunshine and the clean mountain air was probably the most rejuvenating way I could have spent Golden Week. It was hard to come back, especially since I knew there was some serious travelling ahead of me; but the bus ride back was fairly pleasant– I made friends with the only other foreigner in the Guilin bus depot, an Indian guy who was from Austria and had come to China by way of Canada; got into a conversation with the woman who takes tickets for the buses while I was waiting for mine, which was fortuitous because our bus arrived approximately five minutes before the scheduled departure time and since I was pretty easy to spot amidst a crowd of Chinese people, she came rushing over to tell me as soon as it had pulled in and got me all situated, quickly and efficiently.

All in all, a very successful vacation.

Again, apologies to the photographers for shameless, shameless thievery.

National Week, Part Three: The Bike Ride

So National Holiday was, as a whole, one of the best and—frankly, most bizarre—weeks of my entire life. This day was one of the major reasons why.

Our second full day in Yangshuo, we decided that we wanted to bike up to a place called Dragon Bridge on the Yulong river. And, because we are all apparently sadists, we decided that we would take the 40 kilometer back-road scenic route. “A three-hour bike ride? Sure, why not!” we all cried, all inwardly cringing at the thought but none wanting to back out.

Bear in mind, please, that previous to this adventure I had not ridden a bicycle in over 10 years, and I was not the only person in that situation on that day. Relearning the bicycle is fairly easy—I do not, however, recommend doing so on a Chinese highway.

Because remember how I told you in the first National Week post about Chinese traffic? And how it is completely insane? Yeah. Let me refresh your memory and put this bike ride in context for you.

We set about renting mountain bikes from our various hostels (cheap, cheap, cheap!) and after a couple false starts, and a second breakfast, we headed out. Part of the reason the bicycle rentals are so cheap, methinks, is that they wouldn’t really pass any kind of inspection. Sometimes the gears worked. Sometimes the chain fell off if you tried to switch gears. Three of our number were all stuck in 3rd or 4th gear for the entire ride, part of which was up a massive hill.

Oh, also, no one wears helmets in China. They weren’t even offered.

So we truck out to the main highway, where we will begin our journey. No big deal, just riding against (mostly truck) traffic through the downtown of Yangshuo. Then we get out on the real highway, which is where it starts to get really interesting. Remember how I mentioned that China traffic is at least two lanes of traffic to every painted lane? Now add to that 9 foreigners on bicycles riding amidst an absolute horde of Chinese tourists, who sometimes stop right in front of you for no apparent reason. And the tuk-tuks, which also sometimes stop in front of you, usually because they’ve hit a patch of about 30 or so Chinese tourists who are all massed in one clump, and the tuk-tuk is too large to get through them. Unlike your crafty self on a bike; I relearned pretty quickly how to dodge and weave on two wheels. Still though, watch out for that motorcyclist who nearly clips you on the left, and also don’t worry too much about ducking out into traffic to get around a slow group, an advantage which the slow-to-accelerate tuk-tuks do not have—but make sure that it’s a car behind you first, because while the cars can slow down easily, the buses take a bit more time.

Oh right, and beware the water buffalo. There’s a guy riding it. Into the bicycle traffic. And then just hanging out on the shoulder for a while.

And if you really want to make things interesting, go ahead and miss your turnoff for the scenic route and decide to turn around and ride against traffic back to it, not just through the throngs of bikes and swarms of motorized vehicles, but also over a bridge which narrows the maneuverable area considerably. Harrowing. Absolutely harrowing.

At least there’s a guy wearing butterfly wings to keep you giggling.

Finally you make it to the turnoff and breathe a sigh of relief, only to realize that now you’re on a narrow back-country road about as wide as one army-surplus jeep, with extremely narrow gravel shoulders. So every time one of those said jeeps which have been converted into farm- and field-labor transport comes trundling down the road, you have to dive into the narrow gravel shoulder and hope that your tires don’t come shooting out from under you because a) there’s a truck right there and b) remember, you’re not wearing a helmet. (Incidentally, for a little while the working title of this post was “Dumb Things I Would Never, EVER Do In The States.”)

This continues for about 10 kilometers or so, at which point y’all have been biking for about an hour, when suddenly you come to a place that is absolutely lousy with little vendor stands, bicycle racks, and a blessed, blessed public restroom. There’s only one reason for all of these vendors to be here—it’s a tourist trap of some kind. Uh-oh, you think, did we come the wrong way after all? We can’t possibly be at the bridge…

And you’re not, because as you round the corner (walking your bike, because there are way too many guys with umbrellas and wooden helicopter toys wandering around for riding to be in any way logistically possible) you suddenly see before you a fleet of little bamboo rafts, and the continuing path across the (presently not very wide) river.

Ah. Ok.

So you shell out the ridiculous price of Y15 each (about $2 US) to get you, your bike, one of your tripmates, and their bike, and possibly one more bike just for good measure, loaded onto a bamboo raft. These rafts, I think I should point out, are made of about 12 to 15 bamboo trunks strapped together with wire. Some of them have little seats; many do not. I got on one that had no seats, so my raftmate and I crouched over our little pile of bicycles trying not to get too wet from the water lapping through the voids between the bamboo trunks. Luckily, at that point the river—which there is actually probably either a tributary or feeder of the Yulong, and not the Yulong itself, to be quite honest—is a mere 15 yards across, so you can wave at, yell at, needle, and cajole your friends on the opposite bank as they also embark upon this slightly ludicrous endeavor. You are all, meanwhile, being called all variations of “fat,” “heavy,” etc. by the skinny river people poling the boats.

Once you’ve all crossed over (some of you cranky about having damp shoes, some of you are cranky about the insults about the size of your person) you hop back on your bikes and start pedaling once more. And this is where you realize why you came out on this adventure in the first place.

Across the river, there is no motorized traffic. You’re biking down a path that winds through the limestone hills, and it feels like it’s just you, your friends, and the beautiful wilderness of Yangshuo county. There are flocks of birds, a gecko now and again, and myriad butterflies of every conceivable color flitting about as you wend your way down the (nicely paved) path. The sky is a shade of blue that just never quite occurs in Shenzhen because there’s a bit too much pollution; out here, though, the sky is a true cerulean and between that and the jade green hills, it’s jewel-toned scenic paradise.

We ran into other groups of bicyclers now and again, overtaking each other as we all wandered through the Yulong River back country. At one point we reached a massive, steep hill, full gravel on the road because it was probably too much trouble to try to pave. We were joined at that point in the trip by a group of people from Boston and we shouted encouragement as they bravely tried to pedal their way up the hill. We did no such thing—we walked. This seemed the only sane course of action because a) the hill was ridiculously steep and b) as previously mentioned, some people’s bikes didn’t have actual gears. So we got out and pushed, as it were. Once we got to the top, we got back on and gleefully raced down the other side of the hill.

Which, as it turns out, was perhaps not the smartest course of action, because again this particular part of the road is not paved. Going over potholes at 15-20 miles per hour with your butt is not exactly the most comfortable activity in the world. And as it turns out, the rest of the ride to Dragon Bridge, about another 10 or 11 km, is not paved either. So it’s potholes the rest of the way. Glorious. Not to mention at this point you have to cross the river again, thankfully this time on a bridge, but it means that you rejoin the back-roads traffic, so you’re trying to do a bunch of things at once:

  1. Not get hit by traffic.
  2. Not dive into any potholes.
  3. Not get hit by traffic because you’re avoiding potholes.
  4. Not go headfirst into any potholes because you’re avoiding traffic.
  5. Not bruise your tailbone any more than is absolutely necessary.

After a bit, you start to notice houses coming up along the sides of the road. It’s interesting, because out here the people live pretty far away from the bustling commercial tourist center of Yangshuo, and it definitely shows. Houses out here are small, dirty, and dilapidated; sometimes they’re missing walls, sometimes the roof has holes or hastily slapped-on patches, often the doors are hanging badly on the hinges. Obviously these people don’t see much, if any, of the tourist money that floods into West Street at times like National Holiday. I have a sneaking suspicion, actually, that a lot of the people who live out in those houses are actually some of the merchants whose stalls line West Street and the market along the Li River where it borders the town, because it seems to be the way to make any money at all in the district.

This scenery continues until you reach what looks sort of like a cross between a concrete labyrinth and a ghost town, and also looks distinctly like a dead end. Magically, though, if you take a right down one specific street, all of a sudden the Yulong appears before you once again, along with a quaint little cobblestone sitting area, a fleet of parked bicycles, and a host of street vendors hawking fruit and steamed corn and roasted nuts.

We were pretty stoked to have arrived, and we set about locking our bikes together and sat for a few minutes in the shady sitting area. Then the more adventurous souls decided to go and jump off the bridge, because, after all, that was one of the attractions.

The Dragon Bridge is basically just an old stone bridge, not too much to look at but at least a little picturesque because of the location. It’s about 25 feet or so off the water, so by the time you stand on top of the stone wall to jump off, you’re probably jumping somewhere between 27 and 30 feet into the water. Most of us hung back at first, and the three bravest of our group went first, to such admonishments as “Don’t land on your belly! Or your back!” and “Make sure to clench your butt!!” I’m pretty sure the group of European tourists thought we were nuts. So did the Chinese people. They seemed both fascinated with and horrified by the fact that we were jumping off the bridge into the river.

The three who went first whooped and hollered and fist-pumped so much, that it inspired those of us who had been hanging back to go ahead and get up there. Our friends back on the bank were taking pictures– they told me after I jumped that I had gone too quickly and hadn’t given them enough time to take good pictures or video. Basically I scrambled up the wall and jumped before I could think about it. There is, however, a nice action shot and the person I went with and I got a good photo of the triumphant jumpers afterward.

Side note: biking for 30+ kilometers leaves you with a bit of a sore rear, let alone when you smack it with a jump from 30 feet into water. We were not wild about the idea of biking back immediately, so we sat on the far side of the river for a while and had a China approximation of sandwiches for lunch. (Bread, lettuce, egg and tomato. No dressing, no condiments, and no meat of any kind…) We were still sore after sitting for an hour, so we decided to once again hire bamboo rafts, this time to take us down the river back towards Yangshuo.

We were at this point sitting across the river from where the boat hiring dock was located, but the gnarled old woman who haggled with us over the price of the boats kept waving at us to stay where we were, they would go get the bikes, it would all be fine.

So we relinquished our bike lock keys, and watched as the old woman pointed and yelled and gesticulated at 5 boatsmen who proceeded to pile 7 bikes variously on their boats and head over to our side of the river.

The catch: we had 9 people. Therefore, 9 bikes.

So one of the gals who spoke better Chinese raced over to the other side to make sure that all of our bikes got collected and put on a boat. Alas, she didn’t get over there before the last of the boats pulled away, so then there was a mild circus on the other side while we shifted around two of the boats that only had one bicycle apiece, put one person on the boat that had no bicycles and sent him back across the river to the opposite side where the two stray bicycles and one stray bicyclist were waiting. Finally all situated (and again, all of us having been called some variation of fat by our boaters, who obviously didn’t think any of us spoke any Chinese, at all) we began our float down the Yulong.

If biking through the Yulong river country at midday was beautiful, it was nothing compared to floating down the Yulong at late afternoon. The sun was just low enough that as we passed the hills, the sun would hide just a little behind them, casting long, purple and blue shadows over the water and deepening the greens in the hills. There were plenty of people on the water, too, so the river was a parade of bamboo rafts with brightly colored umbrellas. For the most part it was incredibly peaceful, but there were a series of smallish—maybe 2-4 foot—man-made waterfalls about every 2 kilometers or so that you’d have to go over, and the strategy here was for the boatman to get a good start, aim for a smooth point in the rock and concrete wall, and hope you didn’t get stuck. If you did get stuck, it was usually shallow enough on the top side that he could get out and push. If you didn’t get stuck, you tipped precariously into space for a moment before the front of the raft crashed down into the water, miraculously not getting you too wet if you managed to bring your feet up into the seat with you.

When we landed, we wrestled the bikes back up to shore and took stock. There was a water buffalo sitting in a water hole, chewing grass and looking quizzically at us. We looked quizzically back at it. Then a little girl came up to us and started jabbering excitedly in Chinese about how there was a man with wings, and was he our friend? And why was he wearing wings? which just added to the peculiarity of the situation. At some point during all of this, we also realized that we were on the highway at the second crossing of the river– on the back roads, still at least 20 km from comfort; on the highway, probably 11 km.

We chose the highway.

And bumped and jarred and cursed and swore and joked all the way home. One of the more painful experiences I’ve ever had, and mostly just for the prolonged torture of it. I don’t know if I have every biked that far that fast, just trying to get as many miles chewed up as possible, so to find a soft place to sit and a good, stiff drink as anesthetic. The perils of the traffic had nothing on the discomfort of the bike seat.

We did eventually make it home, with daylight to spare, and all went our separate ways to wash up, and find one of the many happy hours all over town. Five of us wound up at a rooftop bar, and around midnight made a pact that the following day we would go to the mud caves and hot springs.

On to Part Four. Later.

Photographs courtesy the rest of the group. I had very little to do with them, except in the pilfering of them. Apologies to the photographers.

National Week, Part Two: The River District

As I mentioned in the previous post, Yangshuo is situated in a part of Guangxi Province that is known for its limestone formations (it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site) as well as the abundance of rivers which run through the area.

West Street, which as I mentioned is the major tourist center, runs perpendicular to the Li River which crosses at the eastern part of town. To the west, a little ways out of town, the Yulong River picks up off of the highway and runs to meet the Li a little ways south of the city center, though the two rivers are connected by a couple of smaller waterways which crisscross through Yangshuo town itself.  The Jinbao River also runs further to the south and west as well.

So basically, there is water everywhere.  We decided to take advantage of this fact by spending as much time out-of-doors as possible; at mealtimes, we also tried a few of the local delicacies.

Our first evening in Yangshuo, we went to dinner at your basic West Street restaurant– their menu offerings ran the gamut of tourist-y Chinese food (sweet and sour pork, for example) and some Western offerings (club sandwiches, etc), but the real prize on the menu were the fried river snails, one of Yangshuo’s famous local dishes. So of course someone had to order them. Snails in the shell, while surprisingly delicious, are also kind of difficult to eat. This is actually a running theme in Chinese food; meat is always on the bone, fish is always served either whole or cut with no regard to removing the bones, seafood is always in the shell, etc. The snails in particular though can be quite tricky. You’re given a box of toothpicks, and the object is to get a good enough pierce on the snail whilst attempting not to push it so far down the shell that you can’t get at it anymore.  Well, suffice to say that definitely happened more than once; so the person who ordered the snails in the first place, and who would not be deterred by logistics, started to get creative. She’d place the shell on the table and whack it with the bottom of her whiskey tumbler, cracking open the shell and leaving an unholy mess of snail shell carnage all over the restaurant table. It was, of course, absolutely hilarious. We may have started calling her “The Otter” for the rest of the night.

The next day we decided to explore the river itself. Heading out of town, if you walk north along the Li River for a few kilometers– about 40 minutes or so– you reach a “restaurant” (which is basically a bunch of tiki huts and a small bar) called the Golden Sands, and if you walk down a set of stairs next to the restaurant you find yourself at “The Secret Beach.” No idea if that’s what it’s actually called, but that’s what we called it, anyway. It’s a smallish beach on the river, slightly overrun with naked Chinese children but still with plenty of beach chairs and places to relax in the sun along the banks of the river. That is, if you can relax with the constant and extremely loud honking of boat horns on the river. Apparently obsessive horn-honking is a traffic phenomenon not just limited to the roads here in China. We think they do it just to say hi. After a bit, though, the boats cleared out and we had a bit of quiet. We got in the water; a couple of people rented inner-tubes and floated merrily about. People were gawking at this group of nutty foreigners who were swimming in the boat lanes; and it didn’t help that Adam was wearing butterfly wings.

Which I should mention here. All week, one of our guys, Adam, was wandering around wearing a big, bright orange pair of butterfly wings. You know, the wire-and-nylon kind that little girls wear with their fairy costumes at Hallowe’en. This is because on our first day in Yangshuo we walked past a store selling them and our friend Gwyn stopped, swung around and said, “Hey Adam. If you buy those wings and wear them for the entire trip, I will buy you ice cream any time you want for six months.” To which Adam immediate replied, “How much are they?” and walked into the store to buy them. He walked out and put them on, and was not seen without them for the rest of the week, true to promise. In fact, now I barely recognize him without them…

We got out of the river and headed back into town for dinner, and decided to do the full-blown Yangshuo-style meal. We’d already had the fried snails, but we went in for the Beer Fish, which is a local white fish cooked in a beer sauce made out of the local brew; Spicy Shrimp, which were actually whole crawfish done in a Chinese-spicy boil. Really delicious. Most of the group had no idea how to eat them, and were pretty weirded out by the idea of sucking on the heads. I actually acquired a pile of otherwise unwanted crawfish heads; it looked like a mini crawfish massacre happened on my plate. There were some other dishes as well, including pork-stuffed mushrooms which were outstanding, and all three of the vegetable dishes that were available on the menu. Which is only surprising because the menu was about 20 pages long. Ah, Yangshuo. Not so big on the veggies there.

Here I leave you one more time, because the next day we went on the most epic bike ride ever, and I don’t want you to tear your eyes out trying to read so many words at one time. Verbosity– it’s a problem. Anyway, I’ll be back soon.

National Week, Part One: Long-Distance Travel

Disclaimer: This is going to be a fairly substantial series of posts, as it encompasses 4 days of hardcore vacationing away from Shenzhen. I may wax poetical about mud caves. It will be in several parts, number TBA; but I hope to be able to post them one after another over the next few days. (Partly as an apology for not posting anything for the last two weeks…)

Last week marked the National Day Golden Week here in the good ol’ PRC. This national holiday is celebrated on the 7 days beginning with October 1st, commemorating the formation of the People’s Republic of China and the ceremony at Tiananmen Square in 1949. As a Golden week, it’s a holiday for Chinese workers so it’s a time when millions upon millions of Chinese people go travelling. Everything is clogged. The bus systems, trains, airports, boats– any conceivable method of transportation by which a group of foreign teachers from Shenzhen might use to get around is also being utilized by thousands of Chinese tourists. It is utter madness and chaos– but surprisingly organized madness and chaos.

I went with a group of about 40 teachers to a city called Guilin, which is in the next province from where we live. Guilin and the surrounding areas are in what is called the River District, because there are a sort of uncountable number of them running the through the area. The scenery is absolutely stunning, as the county is known for its karst formations– a topography of closely packed limestone hills and an a network of limestone caves. The hills are covered in local flora, mostly trees, and have a distinctive, jagged look to them. The place where I stayed with about a dozen or so of the teachers is a town about an hour outside of Guilin called Yangshuo, which is basically the Chinese mecca for rock climbers and backpackers. I’ll talk more substantially about Yangshuo in another post, but here I want to describe the journey to and around Guilin, because if you’ve never been on a sleeper bus before (and I assume most of you have not), well… it’s an adventure.

35 of us made arrangements to travel together on a bus leaving Shenzhen at about 9:30 pm on Friday night, which entailed us all finding our way to the bus station around 8 pm and then hanging about looking incredibly foreign amidst the hordes of Chinese travellers. I’d like to point out that, in order to get to the Silver Lake Long Distance Bus Station in northern Futian by 8pm, my luggage and I left my house at 5:30 to get on the public bus, which took me to the Metro, which took me to another public bus. (Thankfully, rush hour was not really in effect that day.) Two and a half hours of travelling through the city later, I arrived in time to sit down to a couple of beers with my fellow teachers. Then we all piled into the Silver Lake Station, where we proceeded to mob the convenience store and clean them out of Pringles, Oreo’s, and bottles of water.

In typical China fashion, we were on time– the bus was not. Though it was scheduled to leave at 9:30, the bus didn’t even pull up to our station until after 10:45. By the time we got our luggage situated and crawled into our sleeper bunks, it was about 11:00 and we were ready to pass out. Here’s the thing, though: sleeper buses could not even facetiously be called “comfortable.”

You climb up the stairs, and the first thing that happens after you notice that everything is padded in this sort of weird rubbery red carpet, is that the bus driver hands you a plastic bag and points at your shoes, which you are clearly supposed to remove before setting foot on the bizarre red matting. So you shed your shoes, hoping the person behind you wasn’t close enough to have just gotten a faceful of booty as you bent over to do so. Then you stand bewildered for a second as turn to get a good look at the layout of the bus.

Sleeper buses are laid out thusly: There are three rows of bunks running the length of the bus,, holding about 40 beds in all– down the right-hand and left-hand sides and smack down the middle, with a set of floor bunks and a set of upper bunks. The bunks are (obviously) head-to-foot, about 18 inches wide, and built for people who are, on average, about 5’4″. At least there is a little head room, as the upper bunk sits about 4 feet off the ground. There is, however, very little foot room, and the way this is handled is for each of the bunks to have 45-degree angle bend in the middle (non-reclinable, by the way), and the feet of the person behind you actually go into the space underneath your head and back. Luckily the bunks are made of pretty thick plastic. The downside is, because the seats are rigid, not only can you not recline them (sleeping on one’s side or stomach at this angle is possible, but extremely painful) but you also can’t sit them up any further. So you either have the choice to lie down on your back, or to sit full upright with no back support.

The trip from Shenzhen to Guilin is roughly 10 hours, but thankfully it is overnight. On the way to Guilin, I had been sick and was still on several forms of cold medication so I crashed hard pretty much as soon as the bus pulled out of the station and woke up while we were pulling into Guilin bus station at about 7:30 in the morning.

Man. The Guilin bus station is an adventure in and of itself. Because you haven’t heard enough about them in general, I have to tell you about the bathrooms at this bus station. I’ve been living in China for a couple of months now, but even so I was still mildly horrified. Instead of the regular squatties, the bus station bathroom consists of a raised tiled platform with a trench in the middle of it which runs down the entire length of the back wall. The platform is divided into stalls, which– wait for it– have no doors. So you’re sitting there, squatting over this trench, just hanging out while people are trying not to look at you. Or, if you’re a foreigner, while they are all staring obviously at you. Every now and again the trench is washed by a gush of water from one end of the room. If you are unlucky enough to be in the stall closest to the flushing mechanism, do watch out for splashing. Ew.

We survived the bus station, though, bought tickets for our respective return trips, and then the 15 of us who were headed on to Yangshuo bought tickets for that bus as well. The Guilin-Yangshuo bus runs about every 20-30 minutes, and there were enough of us that we had to go on two separate buses. So most of our group left at about 9:30am, while 4 of us got tickets for the next bus at 9:55. I got adopted by a Chinese family on this particular leg of the trip. It was funny, because there were 4 blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigners travelling together on this bus but this family attached themselves to me for some reason. There was a little girl with adorable, adorable pigtails who was obviously a little frightened of the weird-looking wairen, but her mom kept bringing her over to have pictures taken with me. Then when we got our seats, they shuffled around to allow the grandma the place of honor next to the foreigner. (The other three were sitting on the bench of seats in the very back– I was in a single seat just ahead of them.) We didn’t really talk much, but the grandma kept patting my hand and smiling at me, and I’d catch the various family members staring at me now and again.

I had been asleep for the sleeper bus, but was fully awake on the way the Yangshuo and therefore got the full taste of what travel is like in more rural China. I though city traffic was insane, but this was just out of control. The highways are two painted lanes; but nobody pays attention to that. There were usually 4 lanes of traffic, sometimes two lanes heading west and two heading east, though sometimes it was 3 one way and 1 another, and sometimes it was 4 lanes all travelling in the same direction. Then there was a bit of a traffic jam, so our bus driver decided to pull into oncoming traffic and barrel on through, honking madly, so close to the traffic on the right side that I felt sure we were going to clip some sideview mirrors. Then there was apparently too much traffic on that side, so he dipped through the line of cars out onto the shoulder on the other side, and drove down the shoulder for a while. Oh, and while all this is going on, he’s leaning merrily on the horn about every 5 seconds. Which is totally normal in this area, apparently. I have never heard so many vehicle horns in my entire life.

Suffice to say, we arrived in Yangshuo, unscathed and in one piece, and really, really glad to be done with the travel and traffic for a few days. Or so we thought. Next up: bicycles, buffalo, and bamboo rafts. Stay tuned.