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China

Guilin

It's not Yangshuo but you'll still probably have to pass through, anyway.

May 3~4, 1998

If you visit China you're supposed to visit Guilin. It's in the south in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, 500 kilometers west of Hong Kong. The attraction isn't the city; it's the surrounding scenery. The area is world famous for its karst mountains, the thousands of limestone peaks, mostly around 1500 feet high that fill the countryside along the Li River. It's scenery that has inspired watercolor artists for centuries. It is truly spectacular, and to my knowledge, there is nothing else like it in the world.

For better or for worse, there is nothing else like Guilin either. Or should I say, I hope there is nothing else in the world like Guilin. Most tourists coming to see the karst scenery will stay in Guilin. This is a habit travelers need to break. And there is an alternative, about 65 kilometers down the Li River is Yangshuo. Like Shanghai, it was a place I didn't want to leave but for entirely different reasons. But before I talk about everything that is right about Yangshuo and the surrounding area, here's a few paragraphs about the worst fourteen hours I have ever spent in China.

I was on my guard before I arrived in Guilin. Guidebooks had warned about the scams, price gouging, and harassment that went on in Guilin, and other independent travelers I spoke with confirmed it. Willing to admit my own personal biases, I'll concede I already had a negative prejudgment of Guilin coming in. My flight from Shanghai would land in Guilin just before sunset. I planned to get a hotel, eat, sleep, and take a bus first thing in the morning to Yangshuo. I should never have stopped in Guilin at all. And as I learned, there was no need to.

Guilin does have a nice new airport on a nice new highway connecting it to the city. I walked from the terminal to the taxi line. I had already chosen a low priced hotel; though given mediocre reviews by the guidebook, it should do for the night. "No, sorry, that hotel is closed," says the first taxi driver. "How about I take you to the Overseas Chinese Hotel?" Great. Here we go again. Another taxi mafia playing the commission game. However, I had no allegiance to any particular hotel, I was only staying the night, and I really didn't want to play games with the taxi drivers as I had done in Suzhou. Whatever, I'll let him get his stupid commission.

Surrendering to apathy, I allowed him to take me to the Overseas Chinese Hotel. No surprise, he followed me in. It was a textbook commission grab. The driver stayed at the counter, waiting until I was checked in and paid for so he could collect his cut. For 225 yuan I got what was the dirtiest, smallest, ugliest room I rented in all of China. It's just one night, right? If only this was the end. It was only the beginning. It was about 7:30 p.m., from now until about 9:00 a.m. the next day I would spend almost every waking minute trying to keep people away from my wallet, and I don't mean pickpockets, muggers, or armed robbers, either.

After checking into my room, I ventured outside to search for some food. I immediately had a gauntlet of pedicabs to pass through. I was about five hundred meters down the street from the bus and train stations. With each approaching step the touts got worse and more plentiful. Everything was offered: pedicab, taxi, hotel, food, drink, drugs, women, anything and everything. Though none of this was new to me, never in my life had I been approached by so many in such a short period of time. It was absolutely ridiculous. To add insult to injury, outside the bus station were several minibus operators. They all ran up to me "Yangshuo! Yangshuo!" Marvelous. I didn't even have to be in Guilin. I could have gone straight to Yangshuo.

Please take my advice now. Whether you arrive in Guilin by plane or train, do not stay in Guilin, do not stop in Guilin. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Go straight to the bus station and take the first minibus to Yangshuo. Do not waste one minute or spend one yuan in this sorry excuse for a city.

Anyway, exit rant mode. Well, maybe not. Okay, where was I? Yes, I passed the bus station still having not found a suitable place for dinner. Most of what I saw I didn't like. There were either half naked women standing out front, and/or some tout in a fake silk shirt and slick hair would approach me with open arms, "Ah, sir, you come for drink, have some food, sir, come over here to my restaurant, dine with a lady." I'm sure most of them were clip joints. Order 50 yuan of food and get a bill for 500 yuan. Though I had heard many warnings about clip joints in China, I hadn't hit one yet and I wasn't planning to hit one now.

I crossed the street and started back the other direction, not so many touts on this side, though a scantly clad woman beckoned to me from the shadows of an alley. Gawd, right out of a bad movie. I kept walking. I came to an area of cheap noodle and rice stands with a lot of tables on the sidewalk, different sections being run by different people. They all hustled for my business. I had to eat, and it would probably be reasonably cheap.

I chose one based on the mere fact the woman touting for it spoke a little English. I ordered some rice dish and confirmed the price of 10 yuan. Not trusting anybody or anything in Guilin I made her write down the price on a piece of paper which I put in my pocket. A barely edible rice dish was served. Tea was poured in a glass that smelled like cheap, stale beer. When I was ready to leave I handed a woman, not the woman who originally took my order, ten yuan. She then just stood there with her hand out. 'You got to be kidding', I thought to myself. I handed the girl the piece of paper that had 10 yuan scribbled on it and pointed over to the woman who had originally took my order, now standing across the way. The girl next to me then yelled something at the woman who then yelled something back. The girl gave me a dirty look and walked away. That was enough. I returned to my hotel once again fighting off the gauntlets of pedicabs, pimps, pushers, and posers. All I wanted was to return to my hotel room and escape the touts. No such luck.

No sooner do I get back to my room but the phone rings. A woman wants to know if I'd like to buy a boat cruise. One of the things to do in this area is take a boat cruise along the Li River. The scenery is fabulous and it's something I certainly wanted to do. But I wasn't about to do it from Guilin for 400 yuan when I knew I could pay a quarter of that and do it from Yangshuo. Well, this woman on the phone wants 450 yuan from me. I tell her 'forget it'; I'm doing it from Yangshuo for 100.
"You can't from Yangshuo, season ended April. Now it's May, can only go from Guilin."
"I don't believe you."
"No, is true. Must go from Guilin."
"Tell you what, I'll go to Yangshuo, if I can't get a boat cruise from
Yangshuo I'll come back to Guilin and I'll buy the boat trip from you, okay?"
"No, sir, I am very sorry. You waste your time if you go to Yangshuo. Stay in Guilin is better. I get you boat ticket, 450 yuan, okay?"
This went round and round for another two minutes until I finally cut her off and just hung up the phone. What was going on in this city? I can't even get peace in my hotel room. And it still didn't end.

The next morning I came downstairs and tried to check out. The man behind the counter tells me 'just a moment', and disappears into a back office. I forget what the stalling practice was, either he had my passport or owed me money, I don't remember which, but there was something that kept me from leaving the hotel. No sooner does he step away from the counter that a woman approaches me. She starts to show me a book with photos of some rice terraces. 'Beautiful, yes?' Another sale was on with a whole new set of lies.

Turns out this was the same woman who had called my room the night before and now she has a whole new set of tours she wants to sell me all at unbelievably high prices. I tell her again, I am buying nothing. I am going to Yangshuo. Period.
"When do you return to Guilin?"
"Never."
"But how do you leave? Cannot go anywhere from Yangshuo."
"I leave Guilin by plane, the morning of May 7. But I'm staying in Yangshuo."
"What time?"
"8:30."
"Oh, you can't do that from Yangshuo, it's too early. You must come back to Guilin the day before. I book you room, okay?"
"No, not okay."
"Really, too early, no transportation from Yangshuo, you miss plane. You just stay in Guilin."
The hotel clerk still hadn't returned. I gave her the look of death.
"Sir, what wrong, you seem angry?"
Okay. You asked. Calmly but forcefully I commenced a diatribe, "Ma'am, from the moment I arrived in Guilin up to this minute it seems every leech in this city has tried to put their hand on my wallet. I've had enough. If I can't get a river cruise in Yangshuo, which I know I can, I'll come back. If I can't get morning transportation from Yangshuo, which I know I can, I'll come back. You have said and done nothing to give me reason to believe anything you say. I have only been in this city for about thirteen or fourteen hours but never in my life has one place turned me off so quickly."
She was taken aback. "I'm sorry to hear that, not everybody in Guilin is bad."
"Of course. I know that. But you know, almost every guidebook criticizes Guilin for its greed and the harassment that is directed towards independent travelers. And nothing I've seen indicates this to be anything but the absolute truth. You're standing here doing everything you can to keep me in Guilin and away from Yangshuo. Why is that, huh? You afraid if I get to Yangshuo I'll find out everything is a quarter of what you try to charge me here? Hey, I'm sure there are 299,000 honest, friendly, hardworking people here. But it's the 1,000 thieves that the traveler meets."
The hotel clerk returned with whatever it was of mine that he was holding hostage. Freedom.
"Where are you going now?" she asked.
"Bus station. Yangshuo."
And then perhaps to prove there really were humans in Guilin, she helped carry my bag, showed me a short cut down some alley, and once we reached the minibuses made sure the bus operator charged me the local price of five yuan and nothing extra for my bag.

And I left Guilin. Despite her kindness at the end, everything else she said was a lie. I did get a 100-yuan river cruise out of Yangshuo, and I did get early morning transportation from Yangshuo to Guilin airport - and transportation back to Guilin can be provided at absolutely *any* hour. Guilin lives off tourism. It has the advantage of being in the center of one of the most scenic regions in the world. If you were to arrive in Guilin on a prearranged tour with a prearranged guide you'd probably experience little of the hassles which I experienced. You'll pay through the nose for everything, but with any luck the recipients of your money will do their jobs so well you won't even notice. But for the independent traveler, I can only say that Guilin is nothing short of a horror. But that's part of solo traveling. Through solo traveling I have had some absolutely fantastic and memorable experiences, but I have also had some awfully ugly experiences as well. I have to say that the fourteen hours I spent in Guilin easily marked the low point of this and all subsequent China trips.

May 2002 - A brief return

I breezed through Guilin in 1999 and 2000 making my way between the airport and Yangshuo, only staying long enough to get off the airport bus and then fight with the bus operators, which I later learned that in most cases if you just keep your mouth shut and hand them money they'll charge you the regular fare without hassle. Ask them how much and all sorts of outrageous amounts may be requested.

In 2002 I was forced to spend a little more time in Guilin as I had to sort out a visa extension and with an early morning train departure we decided to spend one night in the city before leaving for Kunming.

I was hoping not to have to extend my visa in Guilin. In the past, they had often been available in Yangshuo but perhaps as part of the Chinese government's new desire to siphon some of Yangshuo's tourist dollars back to Guilin, I was forced to make two trips up there simply to buy a few extra days in the country. And buy I did.

Arriving at the PSB office, the front desk has a scrum of Chinese trying to get permission for something or other. I get somebody's attention and manage to communicate what it is I want, or as is often the case, they figured it out, anyway. I'm sent to the back for the Foreign Affairs Division where there's a man who speaks fluent English. He tells me it'll take a week, never mind the law says it supposed to take three days. I protest. "Oh, you want express service? That costs 100 yuan extra." I pay. I don't get a receipt. I wasn't expecting one. Now he tells me maybe three days. I call the next day. It's ready. Back up to Guilin, same dance. Well, that was easy, if not a little expensive.

Two days later, May 11, it's back to Guilin, this time to spend the night and take a morning train to Kunming. Leave Yangshuo at six pm, reach Guilin, head to some hotel across from the train station, Xi- something or other (to the left of the New World). A woman sees us coming, runs in ahead of us and tries to pull a commission scam. Staff hardly speaks a word of English but I think I effectively conveyed that the woman trying to get money had nothing to do with our arrival. They seemed to understand. I imagine they are used to it. Haggle a Y160 room to Y120 and head out for some dinner.

We get a taxi who takes us on a very circuitous route to the center of town to which I protest and refuse to pay the full meter amount. I speak virtually no Chinese, he speaks no English. We yell back and forth in our respective languages, primarily for the sake of yelling, and finally he takes the lesser amount and out we go.

Some dinner and a walk around the crowded city and it becomes readily apparent that there's some big celebration going on that has half the city shut down. Oops, so that's why the taxi had to take the long way. Massive loss of face.

After dinner we decide to walk the kilometer or so back to the hotel down brightly lit Zhongshan Zhonglu (actually most of Guilin is brightly lit this evening). Half way down Guilin's main drag I happen to look to the street and who do I see sitting in traffic? The same taxi I had fought with earlier. He gives me a look as to say, "look you idiot, this is what I tried to tell you." With no further thought, I approached him and offered the difference in fare we had fought over, but he wouldn't take it. Ah, well. Guilin really does have honest taxi drivers.

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Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.