Oh, it must have just rained. Water is dripping from the leaves of tropical trees lining the peaceful Li River. Black slabs of stoned used to pave the sidewalks are slippery wet. But rained it had not. The immense tropical humidity of Guilin was able to achieve these things without any downpour. This sticky humidity combined with the rising temperatures were a definite projection of the looming tropics. The somewhat troublesome climate may be what enables Guilin to be such a relaxed city compared to others further north where I’d arrived from. I mean, nobody wants to rush around too energetically when even the slightest of movements produces a wet shirt and sweaty brow.
Once I’d mostly acclimatized myself to the local climate, it was time to head down the river towards the backpacker ghetto of Yangshuo. With a very pleasant British couple and a politically vocal Israeli in tow, we headed down the Li River in plastic rafts. The mountains surrounding the river were admittedly very beautiful. Mother Nature can really work some wonders with a few million years of erosion and shifting water levels. But the awesomeness of it all was a tad bit lost in the struggle to stay awake in the soothingly put-putting boat during the early hours of the morning.
Reaching Yangshuo was a very peculiar moment. The small fishing town, or what has once been a small fishing town, had grown a tumor like district of concrete buildings supporting the hordes of backpackers flocking there. Also, hundreds of Germans with their German restaurants and German beer shops. Luckily, renting some rickety bicycles allowed me and my British companions to ditch the city in favor of a quiet whoosh through rice fields, small farming towns, and onward to tropical mountain paths. Peace and quiet, the two things you come to miss and appreciate in China.
In fact, the Guilin-Yangshuo combo proved to be quite attractive in its laid back vibe. Even a visit to the strange, tragically cement-paved and psychedelically disco-lit, Reed Flute Cave wasn’t able to distract my spirits. Still I knew I needed to keep up my momentum, and head for what I’d thought would be an even more relaxing scene in the beach city of Beihai, after first making a quick transit layover in Nanning.
And now, forgive the following rant.
Beihai is said to be the fastest growing one in the world, with attractive sounding sand beaches and nearly year-round sunny days. So the perfect place to unwind before heading in to Vietnam. Right? In the end Beihai almost brought me to my limit, my braking point.
The first day in Beihai was a clear sign of things to come in the city. First the struggle of locating my guesthouse in a compound of around forty identical looking ones, all with identical looking Chinese characters written on identical looking billboards. Hours of walking around in a scorching mid-day, piping down so hot that I was sure it would start melting either my brain or my plastic duffel bag. Most likely the former. After the ordeal was through, a swim at the beach sounded like a pleasant way to save the day. I should however have realized, that “relaxing” at a Chinese beach resort would entail what seemed like tens of thousands of Chinese whipping around a two-kilometer stretch of sand-plastic-mixture.
My next couple of days followed this same format of optimism and defeat. The peak of which, was an effort to locate a bus station where I could purchase tickets to Hanoi. Seven hours of trying to ask for advice, jolting around in public buses with confusing and ever-changing routes, and being turned away at the one bus station I was able to find. The same unforgiving sun, and not enough to drink. I was done. Through. I knew I had to leave China the next day, but how? I still did not know. This would be a cavale and then some. It was then that I realized my journal, the one item of most personal significance I carry with me, to be lost. I did not sleep well on my last night in China.
Luckily, like the visage of a prophet reaching the eyes of a downtrodden soul in a desert, on my morning of exit, with still no real plan of exit, I was greeted in the lobby of my guesthouse by the first and only person in Beihai who I could converse with in English. This is by the way, after ninety minutes of desperately trying to exit my building in the guesthouse, which had been barred from the outside by a lock and chain. Chinese fire safety at its finest. The solution to this particular situation was an exit through the window of a laundry room. However, back to the saintly man in the lobby. He directed me towards a solution involving a bus, a train, second bus, a minivan, and a third bus. This combo would and did bring me over the border and to Hanoi by the end of the day.
Frankly I was overjoyed when exiting China, which is not a nice thing to say. Then again, it’s unfortunately hard for me to think of many nice things to say about my general experience traveling China. There’s so much beauty and so many nice souls and moments in that vast nation. However, these good moments and things are often hard to enjoy due to the constant difficulties with language and culture. I don’t for a single moment regret experiencing China the way I did. It was an intense time which thought me a lot. But some of those lessons could have been a little less infuriating.
Nevertheless, I find myself in Vietnam. The WiFi on the bus is better than any I’ve had in China and the quick lunch at a dodgy truck stop the best meal I’ve had in weeks. Things are looking up.