The view from my hotel window was quite stunning. One of the five lakes was across the road with the odd shaped hills in the distance. Having arrived at the train station at 2 in the morning and then whisked by taxi to my museum hotel I saw little the previous night.
The JingGuanMingLou Museum Hotel was the perhaps the most interesting in China, with antiques and artifacts in all public spaces including beautiful scrolls and large Buddhas.
Outside the heat and humidity hit, although it had been hot in Beijing the air was dry and polluted. It is good in these days of airconditioning and planes where you travel the world without really leaving a sort of New York / London climate to actually spend twenty nine hours travelling due south on a train and walk out into a different climate. Although the faces, the landscape and the smells are totally different the West impinges on you in the form of huge Coke ads and the German fourwheel drives clogging the streets.
And I was reminded of that ghastly Indian woman tourist on a Capeflats township tour who told me the best way of dealing with South Africa’s problems was to send everyone back to the land and that I would, at that moment take the regressive step of replacing the modernity of BMW’s for rickshaws.
There was something about Guilin that puzzled me for a while. Yes Guilin was unlike other chinese cities but what was it. There were more trees, lakes with marble bridges and more young people who spoke English, but the startling thing was one could see the landscape surrounding the town. Guilin had banned all buildings more than six or seven stories high in the centre and you didn’t feel hemmed in by skyscrapers. You could see even see the Karst limestone hills some thirty miles away.
Round the corner was another rare site in China, a secondhand bookshop, although it was more of a corridor than a shop. Guilin is in the Guangxi autonomous region which is next to the Vietnamese border and far from the great cities of China and perhaps here the cultural revolution wasn’t as pervasive as elsewhere and not all books were burnt.
Guilin has a university of tourism and the city is full of underemployed graduates who want to practise their English. Jerry, his English name, I met while looking for somewhere to drink real coffee and he took me on the back of his scooter to somewhere that actually served instant in a pot, the Chinese don’t really have the concept of real coffee. Another day I took Tang for his first ever expresso.
Jerry, 38 with a wife and young baby, was one of the underemployed and as he looked a lot like my old friend Rick Faulkener, I thought I might just as well throw my lot in with him. Over dinner that night I let him organise the boat trip down the Li river to Yangshuo and hired him for two days, at the end of the week, to take me to Long Shi and Ping An.
There is a huge poster of Richard and Pat Nixon in the middle of the town, probably the last place on earth that venerates tricky Dicky. Guilin and the boat trip is, along with the Forbidden city, on the tourist route for American presidents.
Tang was different from the other graduates of the university. Not only did he not have an English name he was self effacing, with a slight hangdog expression and open enough to tell me he had recently been dumped by his girlfriend. That is quite something for a young Chinese guy to admit to, loss of face!
But Tang was different in lots of ways, one of six children from an artist father who lived with his mother. He was never going to make it in the cut-throat world of ensnaring tourists. This involved basically signing tourists up for tours and receiving commission from the big tour companies. He was very traditional in that he believed a massage cured everything. One couldn’t imagine him in Beijing or Shanghai with the westernised youth.
Tang was proud of his city and unlike many others revealed all the interesting things in Guilin without a thought of how he could make money out of a ‘bignose’.
Early the next morning I walked along the banks of the Li river where most of town was out exercising. It wasn’t just Tai Chi but dancing, sword practise and even a sort of flamenco.
Guilin is a wealthy and calm place in the middle of a rather frenetic country with unbelievable landscapes and nearby unspoilt villages.