A Railway Epic
26. Twenty-six hours by train took us from Lijiang, in Yunnan province via Dali and Kunming to distant Guilin.
We ignore the Christmas in some Spartan chariot, displaced in a post-Communist community of Sino-passengers little given to such beliefs. Neither to Christians nor to pagans. Determined, yes, to celebrate the moments on board with the attachment of any others.
An uncompromised walk down the aisle reveals small tournaments of mahjong and of cards, banquets of noodles snapshots and conversations so animated that they sounded like discussion.
Almost 1500km after the departure, without ever setting eyes on other outsiders, practically at the same latitude as the origin, the composition that had been advancing for a long time between rice fields withered by the winter cold, slides into the final destination.
It's just past noon when it comes to a standstill at Guilin West station. We had slept as much as possible in the top sleeping places that suited us. Even so, as we walk along the platform, we can still feel the sway of the train and we drag ourselves and our luggage like the undead in search of meaning in that drain. rail of Eastern civilization.
A Rest Even Better Than Deserved
Luckily, we had managed to stay in one of the most sophisticated and welcoming hotels in the city. After a short taxi ride and a quick check in, we surrendered to the laptops but ended up surrendering to the warm and padded bed, committed to recovering our bodies and minds from the fatigue we had been subjected to.
We woke up at night, hungry, but with enough energy to walk around the hotel in search of a spare landing for dinner.
It's dark. A peculiar dark. Here and there, desecrated by one or another street lighting, the pitch proves to be almost white because of the humidity that surrounds the city and, at that time of year, we were betting that the entire province of Guangxi.
We tighten the jackets to protect the bones of the well. Even without knowing the best course, we started on our way. The hotel was located in a prominent area of the urban houses, between the neighborhoods of Sanliancun and Xiacun, on the verge of the Li River and the bridge on Huancheng North Street that crossed it.
Guilin's Foggy Night
We advanced in the opposite direction from the river, guided by lights that the fog distorted but that hinted at some niche of civilization. We alternate between the side of the road and another side street, dotted with trees.
At first, we thought it was a pedestrian refuge, so we walked unconcerned with the traffic. That's until a phantom scooter comes out of nowhere and forces us into an emergency near-jump. It was the first. It wouldn't be the last.
In recent times, motorcycles and small electric cars have become fashionable in the China, much thanks to the savings in fuel costs they provide.
But the epidemic's disrespect for traffic rules and signs validated that, betting on prolonging battery charges, their drivers would drive around at night, like that, with the lights off, without any intention of blowing the horn, whatever the unforeseen event.
An open restaurant but deserted with clientele shortens the walk. We install ourselves. we ask the chao fan and miàn tiao (semi-fried rice and pasta with vegetables) that we knew were ideal for filling your belly and simplifying processes. We devour them with the avidity of someone who has not seen a plated meal for two days, we return to the hotel, to laptops and to sleep.
New Day, Same Fog
We had breakfast in the company of Ruby Zhu, the Communications Manager of the hotel. Ruby was born in Xian. Studied at Amsterdam, visited Germany and Belgium and got used to European freedom.
He doesn't shy away from communicating, whatever the theme: “we're not going to the ball with the Japanese… the hotel's TVs have to be good. We don't want the Chinese because they are still far from it. But we don't buy the Japanese ones either. We buy the Koreans. Korean women are good and their factories are in the China, so we help them.”
With the morning getting too exhausted for our taste, we cut short the gathering. We rushed into town.
Isolated from the center of China across the Nan Mountains, Guangxi Province has always stood apart, both geographically and in the imagination of Chinese elsewhere, who give it a good deal of mysticism, visible in the artistic illustrations of countless Chinese restaurants in the China, and around the world.
From Industry to Betting on Ecology
A channel named Ling, opened in ancient times (II BC), allowed small boats to navigate from the Yangtze River to the Xi, through another, the Xiang. Thereafter, commerce took off and developed with no return. In a vast river area and with heavy rainfall, agriculture soon conquered its space. It guaranteed the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of souls that had migrated there.
We advance in time. At the time of World War II, Guilin had a population of over two million when it served as a base for successive attacks against Japanese invading forces. Unsurprisingly, it suffered retaliation from the Japanese. It was razed to the ground.
The authorities outlined a recovery based on the installation of several polluting factories. Later, when the surrounding landscape aroused the admiration of the world, the investment in tourism marketing in the region forced the expulsion of these factories.
Guilin continued to develop in the intended ecological register. The city is now the third in Guangxi, after the capital Nanning (almost 7 million inhabitants) and Liuzhou (4 million).
Urban Guilin is home to not even a million inhabitants but it receives 3.2 million visitors every year. At the time of this text, Guilin was not part of a single building with more than twenty floors, a rare case in the China contemporary, committed to growing in all directions including the sky.
Monuments that Accompanied History
Even erected during the Ming dynasty (1372 AD to 1392 AD), the yellow Prince's Palace of Jingjiang, which we find 4km away, on the other side of the Li River, seems to compete for the blue of the firmament with one of the sharp and abrupt cliffs that rise from the soil, a little everywhere.
It appears in the heart of the Inner City, the historic heart of Guilin with 630 years, older than that of the Forbidden City of Beijing. Today, as seen by the number of young people passing through, it functions as the University of Guangxi, but in the 257 years since its construction until it was damaged during the Qing dynasty, the palace welcomed fourteen kings from twelve different generations.
Not only. During the Chinese Civil War, Kuomintang founder Sun Yat-sen also lodged there, during the Northern Expedition (1926-1928) in which the Chinese National Revolutionary Army sought to defeat the Beyiang Government based in Beijing and other warlords to reunite the China still divided due to unforeseen effects of the First Chinese Revolution.
A Solitary Peak with a Panoramic View
It took us time to assimilate the complex history of the place. Much more than the beauty of the walled complex, organized around four large pavilions, four halls and forty other large buildings “in the shadow” of the imposing Solitary Beauty Peak, another sharp hill located almost over the Li River and which we have the best of sense of climbing the steep, winding staircase. We know that we have reached the summit when, exhausted, we come face to face with the small pagoda that crowns it.
From that prominent peak, from which, during the summer, abundant vegetation hangs, we can admire a 360º view: the houses of Guilin ahead, especially to the left of the Li river that cuts through the city.
Farther away, in almost every direction, the sharp silhouettes of hills abound in these northern parts of Guangxi and form the region's dazzling Rocha Empire, the domain of Leye-Fengshan, declared a geopark such is the geological virtuosity of its countless cliffs, caves and underground limestone chambers.
As soon as spring creeps in, this scenario attracts an eager horde of speleologists, climbers and adventurers in general willing to risk (at least a little) their lives in honor of the magnificence and eccentricity of the local Nature. We were still in the middle of winter. Accordingly, as was the case at the top of Solitary Beauty Peak, visitors were mostly Chinese on holiday after New Year's Eve western period.
Riverside Life on the Margins of Li
We return to ground level and to the bank of the Li, pointing to its other peculiarity, Elephant Trunk Hill. Along the way, protected from the possible rain under a bridge, a battalion of women armed with drums and holding strips of glossy fabric, rehearsed movements of any parade in which they were going to participate.
Ahead, a fleet of fishermen seated on the same number of bamboo rafts, the traditional Li's, fished on the icy and almost immobile waters of the river.
Elephant Trunk Hill forced us to walk 5km. We can identify it, of course, by the way it is named, notable for the fact that a long hill ends above the river with a huge hole that, after the rainy season, is reduced to half.
We continue along the Li, in the direction of Fubo Hill, another limestone hill with its foot pockmarked by erosion and with three independent caves. Including the Thousand Bhuddas Cave, filled with Buddha sculptures conquered there from the rock walls during the Tang dynasty (608-907 CE).
It's 8 or 9 degrees. Indifferent to the freshness and to the astonishment of an entourage that enjoyed the river from the openings of the cave, a resident of Guilin determined to preserve the youth of his body, nothing in front of him. It flails in the greenish water, in stark contrast to a jacketed fisherman looking at it indifferently over the edge of the cliff.
As happens throughout the China, souvenir merchants maintain a stall in the vicinity with colorful costumes from the various ethnic minorities of Guangxi: the Zhuang, the Yao, the Hui, the Miao and the Dong. One after the other but well spaced, the Chinese Chinese tourists wear their favorite clothes and have themselves photographed in a fuss.
Discovering the eccentric Guilin Lacustre
We return to the city center. There we looked for another of its emblematic havens of tranquility and leisure, the urban lake of Fir (Shanhu). When we arrive, groups of inhabitants synchronize their souls according to the choreographies of the Tai Chi while the short day of Chinese winter fades away.
The intensifying twilight highlights the two almost twin pagodas that protrude from the lake. These are the Sun and Moon, also known as Silver and Gold, and lit to match. It would not be the last pagodas we would enjoy that night or in Guilin.
We left in a hurry. We took a taxi to the hotel. On the way, we stop at Mulong, another lake part of the city's “two rivers, four lakes” water itinerary. Mulong has everything to be important but we find him without a soul, relegated to an apparent secondary plan.
Completely alone, we are dazzled by the Asian exoticism of that other historical setting, sandwiched between two huge cliffs connected by an arched bridge. The complex is also illuminated, even more exuberantly than the Sun and Moon pagodas.
Finally, we found an employee. With a lot of effort, he explains to us that only in high season do small restaurants open and a themed show is staged. At that time, the place was only used to host private events and celebrations.
After dark, the first guests of one of them appear. We, granted you the contracted exclusivity and we went back to the hotel surprised and satisfied with what the city had revealed to us. The next morning, we move to Yangshuo and begin to explore the magical water and rock scenery that surrounds Guilin.