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Journey up China’s Li River

Anyone who’s been travelling for any length of time, and even most people who haven’t, will have had an encounter with a Travel Goon. You know the type; he or she will regale you with tales of the time they lived with an African hill tribe for 3 years surviving on a diet of monkey ball soup twice daily, and learning to wrestle lions to death. They’ll spend hours asking you stories about your travels merely so they can trump it with one of their own, telling you how great it was to be with “the real people”. And they’ll do all this whilst sitting in a Western bar in Thailand, eating pizza and watching English football, the only Thai in sight being the one they shout at to get them their next pint of Carlsberg. Keeping it real indeed. I say all this, because I am quite aware how the story I have to tell could be taken, and please believe me when I say I am not trying in the least to seem cool or show off – it’s just what happened.

Having finished an 8-month stint teaching English in Dalian, Northern China, my girlfriend and I had been travelling south towards Vietnam for a month before we reached Guilin in Guangxi province. This is a tourist-orientated city, marking the starting point for trips along the Li River, and as such it sports a wealth of fantastically decorated and highly priced hotels. Being careful with money (some may say tight), there was no way I’d be paying to stay in one of those settling instead for a slightly less salubrious hostel across the road.

We planned to stay in the city for just one night before taking a trip down river to the village of Yangshuo, something of a tourist mecca, with plenty of bars, restaurants and market stalls to take advantage of the rich lawai (foreigners) who visit in their droves. After being in China for the last 9 months, that was fine by us as we felt the need for some burgers and chips as a change from yet another bowl of noodles.

Yangshuo was only half the reason for our visit though, as many fellow travellers told us a cruise down the Li River would be one of the highlights of our trip. Plus, the Rough Guide said so – how could we refuse? After chatting to a few people in our hostel, we found that hordes of tourists and backpackers would spend 400RMB (£27 and three times our daily budget) to pack themselves onto enormous ferries for a few hours of noise and jostling for camera positions. We didn’t fancy that, and so further reading of our beloved guidebook mentioned another option. We could take a bus from town to the small village of Caoping 7km downstream, where with some hard bargaining and maybe a few secret handshakes we could charter a boat to take us to Yangshuo, and all for the princely sum of 100RMB. This would not only ensure us a more peaceful journey away from the masses, but also save enough money for some much-anticipated burgers upon our arrival. Having managed to learn at least 5 sentences of Mandarin during our time in China to help us along the way, the decision seemed an easy one so we set our alarms for an early start.

Bloody buses. It always seems to cause some kind of sideshow if anyone of Western persuasion should try to get a public bus in China. First you have to fend off the taxi drivers who try to convince you they speak English and know exactly where you want to go and all for a knock-down price –  “luverly-jubberly”.

These are the only English words they actually know but that won’t stop them. After you get past them, you must persuade the ticket lady of where you want to go, usually done by repeating the name in as many different sounds as you can whilst jabbing at Chinese characters in your guidebook. This done you get on the mini-bus and claim a seat, hoping against hope that you won’t get stuck next to a nappy-less baby nonchalantly relieving itself on the floor, or a spluttering old man smoking incessantly throughout the journey. But you always do.

Even on the drive out of town we knew we’d made the right choice, as we gradually moved away from the pollution filled air into some beautiful countryside. This was something we’d been looking forward to for some time, as the North of China offers a far more barren landscape, certainly nothing that came close to the colours or vegetation we now saw. As usual we were befriended on the bus, and as usual this person just so happened to be going to the same place as us and knew somebody who could take us on our river trip for a very reasonable price. As we were heading into a village which wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot we felt it would be nice and easy for us to go along with her.

Once off the bus, she led us through a lively market place where we attracted a fair bit of attention, but I gave as good as I got, staring right back at the old lady who’d stopped in the midst of a spate of chicken killing to gawk and point. It was the kind of place that we didn’t see very often in our time in China, a small, seemingly contented, working village which could happily have existed self-sufficiently and never known anything of the city just thirty minutes drive away.

We were escorted down the waterfront and introduced to a young local man who spoke decent English. Now was time to negotiate a price, and it was explained to us we would have to wait for a few more people before we could go anywhere. Luckily, three Taiwanese tourists appeared soon after meaning we could get underway. After some good-natured haggling, we settled on a “secret price, only for you my friends” that was agreeable for us all. He then whipped out his shiny new Nokia and called up our captain who would take us along the river to Yangshuo. We boarded the small wooden boat increasingly confident in our choice of vessel as a huge passenger ferry lumbered past, packed with camera wielding tourists.

Once the quiet had been restored, we got under way. Sitting out on the front of the boat in the sun, it really was a sight to behold. Contorted limestone peaks of the kind you see on Chinese scroll paintings towered above us on both sides of the river, and for the first time during my stay in China, the water was clear enough for me to contemplate a swim. There was the occasional chugging ferry but they would soon disappear around another twist in the river, leaving us to take in the scene in peace. We pulled up at one point, giving me the chance to make good on my talk of swimming. I settled for a wade, and was thoroughly out-done by our fellow passengers. They were all in their 50s, and seemed to be a couple and their friend – the latter of whom spoke some English. We could just about hold a conversation, and whilst he was trying to teach me some martial arts, his friends jumped in for a swim.

Once underway again things took an unexpected turn. Without explanation we were ushered inside the boat’s small cabin and the Captain motioned for us to be quiet.  What in the name of Mao was going on?  Piecing together snippets of conversation, it slowly transpired that perhaps our little boat trip wasn’t entirely legal, and the Chinese Police Security Bureau’s River Patrol was out in force and on our case. We were a bit worried at this point, having heard tales of harsh treatment for rule-breakers, native or foreign. The captain’s worry seemed to pass, and we were soon allowed back out on deck and the journey down stream resumed. Barely a few minutes had passed before we were again called inside the cabin.

It seemed the PSB were back, and this time we pulled up by the bank and all five of us were bundled onto the floor at the back of the boat and told to stay out of sight. So there we were, cowering low, with the captain occasionally poking his head up to check if the danger had passed. The seriousness of the situation was hard to gauge. The others were slightly less amused than us (possibly because they could actually understand what was being said) and were pushing themselves down into the floor, making shushing noises in our direction. How they could complain about us making noise, I don’t know, as the captain’s mobile phone was continually playing a cheerful tune as his friends called to find out the situation. Alas the game was up. Something had alerted the PSB to our presence (quite possibly the captain’s own laughter) as were soon boarded by a stern looking Chinaman with a clipboard. Whilst his main problem was with the captain, questions were being asked of us as well, and we felt slightly uneasy in handing over our passports for inspection. More questions followed as our Taiwanese translator attempted to interrogate us on the PSB’s behalf. We answered as best we could but were continually met with a scowl and a shake of the head. Eventually, the Fun Police seemed to tire of our lack of Mandarin skills and grumpily shoved some forms in our direction demanding signatures. We hastily obliged, hoping we weren’t confessing to anything too illegal. It seemed the problem was something to do with the boat-owners licence and he was going to be copping a hefty fine for his troubles.

The captain was still in fairly good spirits, and rather than turning back as he’d been ordered, he merely said we’d wait five minutes for them to go and then carry on. We thought this a bit risky but we wanted to get to Yangshuo by nightfall so went along with it. Unsurprisingly, we were back on the PSB’s radar within a few minutes. Again a phone call alerted our captain, and to our amazement he dumped us and our belongings on an island in the middle of the river, told us to hide in a bush and promised he’d be back with a different boat soon, leaving us marooned and slightly aghast on the shore. We were a bit worried by now, miles from anywhere with just 3 slightly eccentric Taiwanese for company. They seemed to be enjoying it though, as they hid in the bushes, peeking out at the river and squealing in excitement. At least we now had more time to take in the scenery which was no less stunning than before. Soon enough, our heroic captain appeared, shaking his fist at the authorities (only metaphorically, if he did it really he’d probably be in jail) on a brand spanking new boat. I say boat, what I really mean is raft with some deck chairs and an umbrella tied to it, but who needs details.

We set off again down the river as fairly hungry fugitives from justice. Luckily lunch was soon to be had, but not before we helped camouflage our boat in the bushes next to riverside shack-cum-restaurant. Our orders placed, we were plied with drink by our Taiwanese friends. Lunch soon emerged.

It wasn’t what we’d ordered, but we were used to that by now. I was more concerned by the marauding chicken that was sending my bird-flu radar crazy and looked like it was trying to kiss the baby in the corner. We spent an enjoyable hour drinking local beer and attempting to make small talk in Chinese, before boarding the boat for the lazy home straight to Yangshuo.

Entertaining as our run in with the police was, we’d had more than enough drama for the day, and were quite happy as the rest of our trip passed off with little incident save for a few water buffalo wandering a bit close to our boat. As the afternoon wore on, the sky turned crimson, providing an electric backdrop to the dramatic limestone peaks. In very broken conversation, the Taiwanese told us this was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen, and we were inclined to agree with them. Later that evening, hamburger in one hand, beer in the other and an eye on the TV in the corner showing the football, I thought back over the day. It had been a truly memorable one, and I was delighted I now had my own story to fight-back with in my next encounter with a Travel Goon.

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