Saturday, 2 March 2013

Chinese New Year

Like everything else in China, our blog shut down over Chinese New Year! In terms of size, CNY is by far the largest celebration in a very comprehensive list of public holidays. A sea of red descends on almost every city, town and village. Families get together, a lot like we do at Christmas, with the major events being eating and travelling across China to visit many different family members. There are some traditions that are a bit different though, including;

Eating mandarins
Cleaning the house
Decorating the house
Buying new clothes
Fireworks (lots of them to drive away evil spirits)
Hongbao (little red envelopes stuffed with cash)

Now, after the final celebrations (and another night of continual fireworks) last Sunday, the blog is back – refreshed, rejuvenated and ready for the Year of the Snake!

After a brief dash home to London and back, via Amsterdam and a (simulated) trip to space (that’s another long and pretty unpleasant story..), we set off for a our first experience of China outside of Shanghai. The destination was Guilin and Yangshuo, both situated in the Guangxi Province, close to the border with Vietnam in Southern China.

Here are our highlights and a ‘guide’ for any future visitors…

Choose Your Guide Carefully

We were very lucky to be offered the services of some of our Chinese teacher’s cousins who were back in their hometown for the holidays. On the first morning, we walked into the hotel lobby looking for someone named ‘Elwing’, who had text me to say she was wearing yellow clothes and had a purple bag. We spotted her straight away, but she just pointed us towards a guy, who then walked us to his car. We thought it a bit odd as she had been very chatty on text, but during a conversation with our ‘guide’, we found out that Elwing had to work today so he had been drafted in instead. Despite us not really discussing where we would visit, the decision had been made somewhere down the line that we would be taken to the rice terraces in Longsheng – not a problem for us, as they were on our list of places to see anyway. We settled into the two hour drive and were starting to admire the scenery as we headed out of the city… until I received a text on my phone from Elwing asking where we were…

Elwing, our guide in Guilin
After driving back to the hotel and reuniting our driver with his actual, paying clients for the day, we set off with a bemused Elwing, who was wondering how we could have been stupid enough to go off with the wrong person. The rest of the day was a success!

We also hired a guide a couple of days later in Yangshuo. The scenery was stunning, but a lot of the roads and villages looked very similar, so we thought it best to hire the services of someone who knew where they were going on our six hour trek.

Mo, our 'tour' guide in Yangshuo on one
of his many cigarette breaks
As a side point, it’s useful to update on the Chinese view of ‘holidays’ at this point. Physical exercise is not conducive to a relaxing holiday – when we’d told friends in Shanghai we were spending five days in Yangshuo, they looked at us perplexed – what will you do for five days in Yangshuo?! Never mind the endless treks, bike rides and mountains to climb in this area of outstanding natural beauty… there are apparently not enough attractions with flashy lights to occupy the average tourist there for so long! But, we were encouraged that there were at least companies putting on the sorts of activities that we had in mind.

When our guide arrived at the guest house to pick us up, we became less encouraged. Without wanting to cast judgment unfairly, it didn’t seem like this fragile 70-odd year old would be the best suited for a six hour trek. However, after clarifying the trip we thought we had booked was in fact the trip we were going on, we set off… with some trepidation.  A few steps in and my fears had been confirmed. This was going to be a six hour trek, that should actually take three hours! I’m really not exaggerating when I say we walked at a child’s pace, with Sam then having to take his bag at one point in an attempt to move him along a bit faster!

See the Guilin ‘sights’

 Michelle and two pagodas  - Guilin
(Banyan Lake)
Guilin is famed for its rice noodles – created when (Northern China) invaded the south and couldn’t get hold of the noodles to which they were accustomed. The ingredients to make them weren’t available either. So they used the ingredient that is plentiful in the area and created their own version.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the ‘attractions’ of Guilin in the drizzly rain. As hinted to above, Chinese ‘attractions’ have a specific criteria. They require either: lots of decorative coloured light, a tour guide shouting into a megaspeaker or some resemblance (if you squint and have an overactive imagination) to real or make believe animals. If it isn’t adorned with bright flashing lights, possible to view en masse or shaped like a dragon, they can’t understand what you would see in it.

Elephant trunk hill (can you see it?) - Guilin
China Fir Lake - Guilin

Climb to the top in Longshen

The rice terraces in Longshen are well worth a visit – and turn an impressive array of colours depending on the time of year. Although we ended up going with a tour group due to a last minute change in our travel plans and ended up experiencing a range of gimmicks along the way (including ‘long-hair village’ – does what it says on the tin…), the real highlight was the view from the top.

Take it easy in Yangshuo

There are a couple of ways to travel to Yangshuo – a 4 hour boat ride down the Li River, local bus or taxi. We arrived back too late from the rice terraces, so hopped in a car for a 90 minute drive to Yangshuo.

Yangshuo countryside 5 mins from our guest house and the view from the top of Moon Hill
We were staying outside of the main town, so were completely surrounded by mountains, rivers and fields. As well as the ‘long’ walk, we hired bikes, visited an old Banyan tree (a Chinese attraction that was slightly more appealing than Dragon Cave and other similarly named affairs), and went on a raft down the Dragon River (it’s actual name, not a gimmick). It was so nice to be out in the countryside and the scenery is really stunning… definitely worth visiting again when the sun is shining!

A little break whilst our guide tackles
one of many obstacles
Not a bad view from our 
bamboo raft

Pimp my ride bamboo raft equipped with umbrella
On our penultimate night, we went to the famous light show in Yangshuo - directed by the man behind the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Sam was secretly excited about this at it presented an opportunity to try and shoot pictures in the dark, something we have always struggled with! The light show features a cast of over 600 people and is set on the Li River amongst the limestone mountains.  

Now it's back to work until the next holiday - the morbidly named 'Tomb Sweeping Day' - we did say it was a pretty comprehensive calendar of holidays!!


  1. Fantastic landscapes, great pics!

  2. Great stories and pics guys - nice use of tilt shift in the last couple of snaps.

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