On the Road To
The blood-infused liquor was bright
crimson; sort of festive in appearance. But it was the other
beverage that really
had me concerned. Held in that cup was a clear solution seemingly
there to disinfect the fleshy tumor-like object settled at the
bottom. I was at a loss, but I would soon learn exactly what service
that organ delivered to its past client—a five-foot-long viper just
recently demised by decapitation, reluctantly offering up his life
for our varied consumption.
Reading the above introduction to
what was for the writer a somewhat unexpected culinary prelude, one
could be forgiven for presuming that I am recalling some open-fire
village scenario—perhaps a back-to-the-basics bizarre booze fest
with pauses to savagely feast on a few just-snatched backwoods
varmints. But we were a reasonably civil, somewhat educated group.
And we sat in a chic private banquet room in a dazzling clean and
trendy dinner house in yet another one of those Chinese cities that
manages to both boom and be beautiful.
That snake-based dining came days
into an otherwise not so adventurous southerly expedition. First, I
would drop into a wired little town that is situated at the crux of
two rivers and surrounded by those most Chinese of mountains. Then,
a few days later, I would seemingly step through a time portal—into
an ancient riverside village that was once the home of wealthy
merchants. And is no more.
Yank in Yang Town
The typical recommended tourist
itinerary calls for heading to downtown Guilin from that city’s
airport. Then, after a day or two among bright lights and busy
boulevards, down to Yangshuo via a one-hour bus ride. In my case, I
reversed that plan and executed a not so leisurely agenda: A 04:30
rise from bed in Beijing, a 45-minute cab ride, a 2.5-hour delay
getting off the ground, a 3-hour flight and a 1.25-hour trip by car
direct to Yangshuo. But I made it with plenty of daylight remaining
to browse the town’s pedestrian-friendly streets.
Yangshuo is known as a place of ease
for westerners. Most of the merchants speak some English or are
fluent, and the menus are likewise. The first hotel at which I
stayed, the Magnolia, is one of several smaller boutique-style
establishments in town. Cleanly melding continental modern with
traditional Chinese design elements, all wrapped around an
open-space atrium, the place is at the heart of things and
pleasant—very clean, and very well appointed. And they throw in
wireless Internet access.
In fact, the entire area surrounding
the pedestrian-only West Street, the main drag, seems to be wired
and wireless. If the cafe at which you are grabbing a morning coffee
does not provide a LAN line, chances are you can mooch wireless
service from the place next door. And it’s fast—approaching the
speed of my service in the US and (unfortunately) faster than my DSL
line in Beijing.
Communication and Cuisine
At this small networked oasis in the
countryside of China, sitting at a table upon which sat my laptop
and a coffee, a meal or a cocktail, that ease of Internet access
would allow me to keep up with business, message around the world,
download stateside news programs and upload digital photos to my
US-hosted website—a few times literally minutes after I snagged the
On that first morning in town, rising
far earlier than I would have preferred, I trudged down to the
riverfront a couple blocks away. Dutifully, I shot a few photos of
the misty muted landscape. Then I went in search of strong coffee.
Surprisingly, I found a café open at
that early hour. While unslinging my gear I ordered a blue mountain
brew from the smiling waitress, then looked for a good spot to set
my tripod. That turned out to be a few feet away, low on the ancient
stones of the nearly deserted early-morning West Street. Resituating
a few times to get that mountain peak in the background, I shot a
few, then returned the four or five steps to my now-served (and
The sidewalk seating proved ideal,
allowing me to cleanly commandeer the wireless signal from the
still-closed bar across the narrow street. I popped the camera’s
flash card into my laptop, uploaded
the images and 10 minutes later a sister in the US was on my
website. Just after her
sun slipped below the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, she was looking at
large images of new daylight flowing around the humpbacked
mountains, across the flowing waters and down the ancient stone
streets of southern China.
As for the many cafes on and around
Yangshuo’s West Street, within a couple of blocks, visitors can
sample the typically spicy local chow, or walk a few steps to dine
on cuisines ranging from American and Italian to French and, yes,
Mexican. All that I tried was good; the places were clean, the
staffs friendly, and the food fresh and well-presented.
Yangshuo is supposedly known for
beer fish. Sounds like something dreamed up by a Brit expat who
maybe hit town in the 80’s. But I am sure I’m wrong and I’m sure the
dish is great. I did not try it.
However, following up on an earlier
email contact, the proprietors of the Morning Sun Hotel invited me
to dinner and plate after plate of fresh raw fish sliced razor thin
was delivered to the table for hot pot cooking. Fondue style, in the
seasoned boiling water, bite-by-bite the fish is dunked and done in
about 20 seconds. Add to the cooked slices the native fresh peppers,
garlic, cilantro, oils and soy mixture—outstanding. I have enjoyed
several hot pot-style dishes in Beijing, but none were based on
fresh clean fish sliced transparently thin and dabbed with those
particularly wonderful organic condiments.
Tracking the Trails
While it’s relaxing just to lounge
around the narrow stone boulevards of Yangshuo (and many do), the
countryside is there, dragging you away from food, beverage,
entertainment and laptop.
The first morning I did what many do;
hired a guide for mountain biking. But those peaks that are at all
scalable are the domain of rock climbers and none would accommodate
a cyclist. Otherwise, surprisingly, most of the trails around the
countryside are primarily flat and can be easily managed by the
My bilingual guide, “Daphne,” was a
young and fit local—and married, so I left her in the dust. After
explaining that I was out for a little exercise and she need not try
to maintain my pace—that I would wait at forks in the trail—I took
off. For about four hours, those trails led us through villages,
across terraced rice paddies, over rivers and, of course, between
those graceful bosom-like hills.
My racing around, however, later
backfired when I reentered town ahead of Daphne and managed to get
lost. About 15 minutes of aimless peddling around town finally
brought me back to the hotel. That was when my mobile rang. The
guide was circuiting the streets attempting to locate me. I
nonchalantly explained that I was at the hotel. A few minutes later
Daphne arrived and I was able to declare to the hotel staff that my
guide got lost—before confessing that actually I blew by the
required right turn coming back into town.
The next day I went in search of a
good-sized rentable motorcycle, but instead ended up with a
junior-sized bright yellow electric scooter. Being a 200-pound man
of more than six feet in height, I presumed I looked pretty
ridiculous on the thing. This was confirmed, somewhat, when a couple
hours later I barged up a dirt trail and into a bamboo raft
checkpoint along the Yalong River. I bumped the little scooter onto
the scene to the laughter of at least one pointing Chinese gentleman
in a business suit.
"Yeah, pretty small, isn't it," I
agreed. Then I throttled the little thing, ripped across the foot
bridge and up into the trails—while the laugher and his
business-suit-clad associates boarded their assigned bamboo boat for
a nice float on the placid river.
It was not far from there that I
found some of the most remarkable scenery at the upper reaches of
the Yalong. The water was clear, the trees were full green and the
surrounding mountains, of course, were impressive. And it was
But just another couple kilometers
down the trail, for some inhabitants all was not scenic and
I arrived at the gate of an
ancient-looking village seemingly propped up by the mountain it
hugged. Bowing slightly each time I tossed out another ni hao
(hello), I paid my respects to the villagers and their oxen as they
filed through the gate, the latter residents heading out to graze
and water on the surrounding fields. After they passed I walked into
the tiny stone community.
Halfway in the silence obliterated
with a horrible non-human shrieking. Inside a darkened hut just
ahead, I presumed pigs were having a portion of their anatomy
removed or were being slaughtered in total. As I neared, just
outside the hut of horrors, I took note of two adult hogs dozing in
their pen, oblivious to the hideous howls of their brothers.
The next day I rented a higher-grade
mountain bike from Yangshuo-based Bike Asia and headed out through
the mountains south of town.
For a while all went well.
After a few kilometers on the paved
road, I successfully found the off-road trail. About 10 kilometers
later I had passed through many forested villages, by several
mountains and around some scenic riverfront turns. The slumbering
trailside dogs I rudely disturbed were too lethargic to attack and I
only had to outrun a couple of enthusiastic little girls.
Then I got pretty lost.
Three hours of steady riding had
passed. I had transited maybe 15 villages, responded to about a
hundred “hellos,” as called out by impoverished but smiling
residents, and I was saddle sore—very saddle sore. I was out of
water, the tourist map on hand was not cutting it, and I was looking
for a route back to a paved road. I instinctively took a fork in the
trail, and that turned out to be a right turn. I hit pavement about
20 minutes later and 30 minutes after that, heading in the general
direction of Yangshuo, I came across a roadside metropolis.
I spotted an ice box, wheeled over to
that dusty little establishment and created something of a stir in
the neighborhood. Trying to stay inconspicuous, I settled onto a
bench, indulged in a beer, lit a small cigar and watched the world
go by. A few residents passed with their oxen on a leash.
I pulled the digital camera from my
backpack, but did not stand and begin gawking around the street. I
stayed seated, kept the camera low on the bench, and swiveled up the
LCD viewfinder. A few people dropped by to say (of course) “hello,”
and the grandmother who ran the store could not seem to stop
laughing. But, overall, I managed to subtly sink in and get a few
Then, after recording those
semi-intrusive observations, as I neared the last swallow of my
beer, I cast a grim stare at my rented mountain bike. And I said to
myself, “How the hell can I catch a cab out of here?”
Gone to G-Town
The day after my misguided solo tour
by bike, I departed Yangshuo in route to Guilin on one of the luxury
buses that run about every 30 minutes. That term, “luxury bus,”
turned out not to be ironic. Very clean, comfortable seats, TV,
sound system and attractive in-route flight attendant.
(Though, unless you are partial to amped-up Chinese music videos, I
would recommend ear plugs or a personal headset attached to your own
entertainment.) Just more than an hour later, we rolled into Guilin.
The night before in Yangshuo, while
on the outdoor patio of the Morning Sun Hotel, I was visiting with
the hotel’s proprietors, sampling a few of the locally-made beers,
Li Qi, when I mentioned my intent to head up to Guilin the next day.
The manager, Mark, immediately produced a PDA and a few minutes
later he had booked me a room through a Guilin-based travel agent
I appreciated his effort. In Guilin I
was checked into the top floor of the Hotel Universal, overlooking
the Liberation Bridge crossing the Li River. The travel agent, Xiong
Wei (“Nancy”), met me in the hotel lobby to settle up business, then
volunteered to show me around a bit.
A midsized city, most of Guilin is
new, beautified and alive with energy. Much of that latter element
is generated by what seems to be a majority population of
fashionable and educated young people. This is reflected in most of
the town’s business districts. Commercial storefronts project:
modern, young, sophisticated and
stylish. And the entire city seems very much involved in
collectively maintaining their civic and personal
Part of this is evident in the urban
center’s rather dramatic exterior lighting. Expectantly, the Sun and
Moon pagodas reflect this aesthetic, glowing silver and copper
across their shared lakefront realm. The riverfront, too, is
fantastically lit up. The multi-hued effects stop far short of gaudy
and it all works. Day and night, the downtown looks great.
Otherwise, in the course of a very
short stroll, one can traverse immaculate riverfront promenades,
broad urban commercial corridors, intimate neighborhood hutongs
(alleys), and the grounds of a former Ming Dynasty palace, now the
dignified domain of Guangxi Normal University.
Dare to Dine
During our walking tour, Nancy asked
if I would like to join her and her office associates for dinner.
Seemed like a good idea, and not much later the taxi dropped us at
the Asia Pacific Restaurant, a place that specializes in fresh
In the restaurant lobby, the site of
caged pheasants and many varieties of live sea critters swimming in
their tanks was tolerable – by one possessing perhaps overly prudish
Western culinary sensibilities (though typically I don’t like to
hear my meal protest in advance). On the other hand, as to the fate
of the rather cute rodent-like creature… I did not want to think
And then there are the snakes.
Snatched at the head and rudely
removed from the company of his caged buddies—it’s a quick and
permanent trip to dark city. A snip of the shears and through the
newly opened spout where formerly there was a head the blood is
drained into a glass. Why a glass, I wondered.
We were escorted to a second-floor
private room already occupied by Nancy’s boss, Mr. Tan, and three of
her staff. That included a very-cheerful 22-year-old German guy
serving his off-shore internship with the Guilin-based travel
agency. He was doing what interns are destined to do: working his
ass off for experience and about zero cash. Meanwhile, he was
getting in some no-expense travel to spots around southern China.
All at the table spoke good English,
but none knew the word for the bizarre thing that would soon show up
in my pre-dinner cocktail. But let me back up.
Upon entering many restaurants in
China, near the reception counter one may notice one or two large
glass decanting containers. Inside is what residents call wine. But
in the US the potency would qualify the liquid as booze—strong
booze. Often within are soaking herbs and, in some cases, turtles
or, yes, snakes. I stay away from the reptile-infused stuff, but I
do like to have a single sample of the plant-flavored varieties—just
to get a feel for things in varying restaurants in various regions.
That was the same fictional
explanation I gave my host, Mr. Tan, when I asked about the
availability of such a sippable blend in this place. A few minutes
later, two highly disreputable-looking beverages arrived at the
table. One, crimson in color, was a mix of the fortified wine and
fresh blood—as drained from a just then dispatched viper. That was
unappealing enough. But the other potion really got my attention.
The still clear cocktail seemed to hold a fresh (of course) organ of
some sort. This was when the translation issue came up, with neither
the German intern nor the English-speaking Chinese at the table
being able to tell me what this thing was.
A digital translator was produced,
Nancy punched it a few times and read: “Gel… gal… begins with
something like gall…?
“Gallbladder,” I completed.
“Oh, yeah, that’s it,” the German
Mr. Tan used a toothpick to pierce
the departed snake’s recently occupied organ and soon the clear
liquid in the glass was made yellow.
“Hmmm,” I said to myself as I
eyeballed that two-ounce solution. “Now how am I going to get out of
this?” I didn’t.
The viper libations will be difficult
for me to describe here— Both were milder tasting than, for
instance, a shot of your basic tequila. I suppose if you imagine
having the taste of a raw piece of beef and a double-strong sake
simultaneously in your mouth—that might vaguely describe the
blood-infused stuff. As for the gallbladder-spiked cocktail… well...
if you’re ever in Guilin…
The snake himself? He was pretty
tasty. The hot–braised meat was mild, very lean, chewy but not
tough. The skin, stripped, chopped and cooked dry, is eaten separate
from the meat like chips. For those of you who have eaten that even
more bizarre American snack, pork rinds—very similar, but my
particular snake’s hide was lighter, crisper and milder.
Path to the Past
During that evening’s serpentine
supper Nancy went to her mobile phone to arrange a guide for the
next day. In the morning I met Zuo Hong Ping (“Effie”) in the hotel
lobby and we quickly boarded a taxi for which she competently
In excellent and very
pleasant-sounding English, Effie began to share some of her
encyclopedic knowledge of culture, geography, population counts,
ethnic compositions, economic data and the other sort of information
which I typically neither retain nor write about.
I asked her one question: “Do any of
the western-types you show around ever bug you?” Her answer was, as
expected, diplomatic. And 25 minutes after departing Guilin’s very
modern downtown we seemed to step into another dimension.
Full up with wealthy merchants, about
500 years ago Daxu was still a prosperous trading post on the Li
River. Not any more. Many of the structures in the village are
indeed a half-millennium-old – and older – and they look it. The
narrow main road remains as it was then, just decayed and now only
traversed by manually-powered carts, the occasional motor scooter
and an old single-cylinder three-wheel truck that shuttles for the
The young people have left for life
in Guilin’s new apartment buildings, schools, Internet bars,
nightclubs and gleaming shopping districts. But the grandparents
remain, still doing what their own parents, grandparents and great
grandparents did before them. Some trade in any way they can and
some have turned to modest farming, though this was never a farming
One could become saddened by the
stagnant flow of life in a decayed village, or one could take note
of other aspects and choose to be fascinated.
Wine in Time
For five generations of Han descent,
the Lu family has operated their Daxu winery operation in the same
location, producing grades of varying potency. River water is
purified and the wine is fermented and cooked within the same
vessels and in the same manner employed for generations. Some
clients drop by to pick up their personal stock, and much is
transported to customers and restaurants in Guilin.
The winery produces its booze in four
grades of quality. The three backroom brew masters work nonstop, and
Haiyan and her father, now heading up the family operation, keep
busy at the retail counter.
There is a medieval quality to the
manufacturing process—like perhaps that man-sized boiling vat within
the dungeon-like floor could be applied to another use. But I tried
a taste of the higher grade stuff and it wasn’t bad.
At the end of the day the strained
refuse, by then a gruel-like mixture with about a 3 percent alcohol
content, is given over to the village pigs. I’m just guessing—but it
could be that the hogs look forward to closing time.
Not far away is a very different
commercial operation. The building occupied by Daxu Cha Fang, a tea
house and antique emporium, is in good shape. The interior is solid
and very clean. The backdoor opens to the sun, the fields and the
river. The antique goods displayed are for sale and many are indeed
The Buddha carving, molded from a
single stump, is polished to a high luster. The starting price was
about right, but I did not enter negotiations. The thing weighs a
The proprietor, Han Chunzhi, of
Manchu decent, was once a Guilin-based tour guide. She points to a
photo on the wall. There she is, about 30 years younger, posing for
the photograph, standing next to a seated Richard Nixon.
Chunzhi has retired. Now she
peacefully minds this clean and quiet shop by the river in this
place of the past, this place at the end of the road, Daxu.
I can recommend two hotels in Yangshuo.
The Magnolia, an upscale boutique-style establishment with
pleasant and good-sized rooms set out around a sunny atrium, with
added bonus of wireless Internet access for packers of laptops. Also
Morning Sun, perhaps
slightly less expensive than the Magnolia and very nice. The
English-speaking manager at the Morning Sun is “Mark,” and the owner
is “Frances,” both good-natured and very helpful guys. The staff
people of both hotels are friendly, attentive, helpful, and equipped
with English skills ranging from fair to excellent.
Bikes are available for rent all over
town. A better grade of bike, drawn from a fleet of pretty
well-tuned Specialized Hardrocks, can be had at Yangshuo-based
Bike Asia, an outfit that does tours all over China.
If you need a guide for a leisurely
ride, drop by the Magnolia Hotel and ask to be put in touch with
Daphne. For more challenging spins, see Jamie at Bike Asia.
For accommodations and transit, Xiong Wei (Nancy Xiong) and the staff
of China Comfort Travel
operate nationwide. They're friendly, professional and know their
business. For local tours, they can connect you with Zuo Hong Ping
(“Effie”), a highly knowledgeable, professional and very cheerful