Monday, June 9, 2008

Guilin and Yangshuo

It's hard to believe it, but in three weeks from today I'll be on my way home! This last month is certainly slipping by quickly, with the time being filled up by mostly nothing... lots of reading, some half-hearted flurries of job searching, and plenty of long lunches and dinners with friends I'll soon be leaving.

Last Sunday was Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional holiday which commemorates the death of the famous poet Qu Yuan around 278 B.C. Legend has it that at the conclusion of the Zhou Dynasty, Qu drowned himself in protest of the changing regime. When local villagers heard the news, they furiously rowed their fishing boats to save the poet. Although they were too late to help the living Qu, the kind people scattered sticky rice into the water to feed his soul. To protect the food from river dragons, they wrapped the rice in fine silk cloth.

Today, Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated with dragon boat races: competitions are held between several long, thin, elaborately decorated vessels rowed by about 15 people. Zongzi, a sticky rice dumpling wrapped in grape leaves, is the festival's traditional food.

In honor of the holiday, there were no classes on Monday, so my three travel companions (Scott, Lindsay and Jamie) and I decided to head north eight hours to Guilin and Yangshuo, two cities of legendary beauty in neighboring Guanxi Province. Guanxi Province's Li River is truly lovely, surrounded by mystical karst mountains and extremely lush greenery. This region is one of the cleanest in China, and a real effort has been made to maintain the natural beauty of the Li River. Classical poets such as Li Bai have long extolled Guanxi's fantastic landscapes:

He who travels in Guilin hills finds himself in a fairyland.
He who sails along the Li River finds himself boating in a sweet dream.

We rode the night train and arrived in Guilin early Friday morning… just in time to (accidentally) see the Olympic torch coming through! I’m not as much interested in the torch itself as I am in the Chinese reaction to the event. Huge crowds of frenzied Olympics fanatics sporting “I Love China” and “Beijing 2008” shirts lined the streets of Guilin, craning for a glimpse of the torch and snapping camera phone pictures. For once, the four of us were far from the center of attention!

Later that day, we explored Guilin a bit, ascending Solitary Beauty Peak for a fantastic view of the beautiful Li River and descending into Reed Flute Cave to wander through the surreal, Gothic-looking formations inside. I especially enjoyed just strolling along the greenish river and watching the dragon boats practicing for Sunday’s races.

Saturday we rode the bus about an hour outside Guilin to Yangshuo. Yangshuo is a favorite with backpackers for a number of reasons. For one thing, Xi Jie (West Street) boasts some of the best Western food in the country; for travelers like us who have been in China for too long, a Mexican burrito can taste amazingly good! Most importantly, Yanghuo offers lots of outdoor activities such as kayaking, biking and hiking... all excellent ways to explore the Li River independently. The town is out in the countryside, so travelers don’t have to deal with the same smog, honking horns, and crowds found in Guilin.

Despite rainy weather over the weekend, the four of us took full advantage of our two days in Yangshuo. We rode a bamboo motor boat down the river and also kayaked about four hours (in the pouring rain, but still fun), attended a music and lights show on the water, and bargained wholeheartedly for the many Chinese trinkets and souvenirs for sale in Yangshuo.

It was an excellent trip. I am certainly savoring these last few weeks of spur-of-the-moment vacations and 12-hour work weeks!

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