Saturday, December 03, 2011

Chinese Landscapes

I remember, as a child, seeing traditional Chinese landscape paintings. I remember thinking to myself that they didn't look real: they were permanently misty and the mountains looked like caricatures, sort of ideal mountains that a child would draw, but far more "mountainy" than any real mountain. They didn't look like anything I had ever seen in Europe and so I simply dismissed them as fantastical make-believe landscapes ... how wrong I was.

Yangshuo's iconic karst scenery and idyllic rivers make it one of China's most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason.

On my southward peregrination to find warmer climes I veered westwards to visit Wulingyuan national park as well as the region around Guilin and Yangshuo. Iconic images of the latter, of craggy, green, limestone peaks parted by black rivers, adorn almost every brochure about China and have sent many a tourist booking flights to the Middle Kingdom. Wulingyuan, on the other hand, is relatively unknown abroad. I certainly hadn't heard of it and was mainly headed there because it was more or less on my way and a UNESCO world heritage site. Little did I know of the spectacular landscape that lay in store. I wasn't initially impressed by the $40 entrance fee at the park entrance; the interminable low haze that was threatening to turn the outing into a damp squib (both literally and figuratively); and the hordes of screeching Chinese tourists who, despite the onerous entrance price, were there en masse and seriously getting on my nerves. Nevertheless I shouldered my daypack, gritted my teeth, and started climbing the stairs (this being China, the national parks are doted with wide, paved trails and stairs climbing the innumerable hills - their concept of man and his place in the environment being somewhat different to ours).

The Chinese like their nature, but as long as it is sanitised and they don't have to expend any effort in experiencing it. National parks are generally serviced by fleets of buses; paths are paved and swept of leaves on a daily basis; cable cars whisk people to the top of mountains to prime viewing spots so that they don't have to exert themselves getting there; and for those who really want to get in amongst the nature there are porters with sedan chairs waiting to carry them up those bothersome stairs.

After an hour of climbing the never-ending stairs, where I tried to retain myself from boiling over at the lack of respect I felt the Chinese tourists had for their own nature - bellowing at each other, spitting, dropping litter, screeching, squawking, smoking - I was somewhat depressed. I had reached the final set of steep steps that led to the highest viewpoint in the area and made a pact with myself to turn back should it be as underwhelming as I felt. I slowly ascended the last 20m to the peak (there were fewer tourists there - I later discovered that most of the tourists I had passed whilst ascending had taken a cable car to the top and were simply coming down, whilst here everyone had to climb, and that was enough to put off the majority of the Chinese), got to the platform and sauntered to the edge ... and then stopped to recover the breath that had been taken from me by the view. Spread out in front and below me were countless rocky columns rising vertically out of the opaque mist, most of them only a few metres across, barely big enough to accommodate a stunted pine at the top. Suddenly the money, the weather, the exasperating tourists all paled into insignificance. This. Is. Awe. I stood there for a full five minutes just soaking it in until a noisy group of locals braved the steps and broke me out of my trance and I turned to head back down again. The rest of the day I actively sought out trails inaccessible to elevators and cable cars, soaking in the sights and marvelling at the simple geological processes that came together in just the right ways to produce something so extraordinary, whilst at the same time thinking how travelling in China can be exasperating one minute and sublime the next.

Unfortunately due to the mist and haze my photographs fail to do justice to  the otherworldly landscape of Wulingyuan, where thin, sandstone pinnacles rise hundreds of metres to form a majestic geological forest. If you want to know what inspired the scenery in the film Avatar this is the place to go (I'd also recommend googling some images of the park to get a better impression of what the place looks like).

From Wulingyuan I kept up my southerly bearing and made my way to the tourist mecca of Yangshuo. As a side note I thought I might mention the joys of long-distance travel in China. The cheapest and most comfortable means of getting around is by train. Trains criss-cross the country and you are almost guaranteed to have at least one going directly to your destination without needing to change. Even the so-called "hard sleepers" are perfectly comfortable, with thick, warm bedding provided and there is a constant parade of onboard vendors selling snacks, fruit and surprisingly decent meals for under $2 (something one can only dream of when it comes to trains in Britain which are experts at gouging their captive audience. However, due to the price and quality of the trains tickets are often sold out a few days in advance and when that happens you have to fall back on sleeper buses. Contrary to long-distance buses in every other country I've been to where you sit in reclining seats with variable degrees of leg room, in China the buses have individual beds. The buses are divided into three rows of partly-overlapping bunks (where the head area is slightly raised and the feet of the person behind slot in below the headrest) with two central aisles. When travelling overnight these are surprisingly comfortable compared with standard seats, though during the day it's not so easy to sit up. Furthermore if you are not short and thin then the narrow bunks can be quite torturous. Here us small people are certainly at an advantage.

The town of Yangshuo is prettily nestled amongst lush, green karstic crags and the lazy bends of the Li river. The setting is undeniably picturesque and even the strong development brought on by the many visitors can't totally detract from that. Tourism is the only industry in town and touts are everywhere. But what I found refreshingly amusing was that because of the rise in Chinese affluence most visitors are locals and the touts actually prefer to target them as communication is easier and the Chinese nouveau riche are just as prone, if not more so, to flinging away their money as foreigners. There are various tours, trips, excursions and shows on offer to visitors, but I was only really interested in exploring the surrounding countryside on foot (not only is it the cheapest option, but there are places that can only be visited on foot and the slower pace allows you to notice things that would otherwise pass you by). Although my first two days in and around Yangshuo were marked by the same cold, hazy weather that had been trailing me ever since returning to China (another way in which those traditional landscape painters had got it right) I was blessed on the last day with blue skies and sun which made the amateur photographer in me rejoice. On that day I went for a walk along a nearby tributary of the Li. Although there is nowhere in the area that hasn't been touched by tourism, it was easy enough to get away from it all. The small river sees plenty of Chinese hiring rafts (with raftsman attached) to be punted along the gently-flowing stream, and a good number of foreign visitors hire bicycles to cycle along the bank, but I didn't see a single other soul on foot. And I was glad, as the villages that line the river still retain a rural charm. Sure, many houses are being renovated or rebuilt along boxy concrete lines and the tracks leading to the villages are slowly being paved as some of the tourist money trickles down (and I certainly can't begrudge the people for wanting to improve their quality of life), but the neat paddy fields and mandarin orchards plainly show that agriculture is the mainstay of the local economy. Just ambling along the raised, earthen dykes that separate the paddies, occasionally getting lost, pocketing the odd mandarin or two from a tree, and seeing the friendly locals who invariably greet you with a combined hello-nihao made it one of my most enjoyable days. The fact that the surrounding scenery was so jaw-droppingly stunning was simply the icing on the cake. I suppose it just goes to show that if you look hard enough you can find something unique, even where many have gone before you.

By walking beside the river and wandering amongst the rice paddies I got to see some aspects of ordinary village life, like this farmer who was bailing water from the river up into the irrigation canals to water his fields and orchards.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sweet no comments.. Hmm well Erik, really great commentary, almost like i was there, i can practically smell the soy sauce!! on the tourists' breath. lucky you! its been my dream to see this place too, but when i saw the paintings, i wondered what the fak inspired them!