Lager and limestone

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 June, 1999, 12:00am

Yangshuo is so desperately short of English teachers that its canny townsfolk are luring tourists to apply for visa extensions with offers they find hard to resist.

The Buckley Language School, for example, boasts on its vacancies board: 'We have coffee, tea, beer and e-mail.' Enough to persuade some to hang up their backpacks for a while and go local in arguably the most attractive setting in Guanxi province.

For while domestic and well-heeled international tourists have landed in their droves in Guilin to marvel at the clusters of limestone peaks, Yangshuo, some 80 kilometres downstream by the Li River, has mainly escaped the onslaught.

It has for more than a decade been China's 'Hippyville', a mecca for backpackers who hang out in its cheap hostels and dormitories, a place to recover from weeks of arduous travel in the country.

Where else on the mainland would you find a cafe called 'Mickey Mao's' or the Red Star Express, where you can have pancakes for breakfast or for dinner a traditional English roast? Where you can sit outside a pub with a pint as Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones complete the illusion of the 1960s via the juke box? This is Foreigner Street - and that's official. The street sign is bilingual. Chairman Mao's Little Red Book may be on sale in the small antique shops further down the street, but the locals are thanking backpackers for bringing in much-needed dollars.

Tricycle boys slowly pedal down cobbled Foreigner Street, looking for customers, as Chinese tailors sew together cheong-sams and kung fu suits in their dimly lit shophouses. Next door you are likely to see Westerners logging in at a cyber cafe to catch up on news back home via e-mail.

And this mixture of East and West, traditional and hi-tech, has now made the foreigners something of a tourist attraction themselves as mainland tour groups start to put Yangshuo on their itinerary.

Domestic tourists are invited to take a walk down Foreigner Street to look at how the backpackers enjoy themselves.

There is only one quality hotel in town, so few tour groups stay overnight after their three-hour boat trip from the outskirts of Guilin, but as word gets out about Yangshuo, more hotels are likely to rise among the karst peaks here, and its quaint streets could be living on borrowed time.

As I enjoyed an evening beer by the pavement, I became the main attraction for a group of snap-happy domestic tourists and I realised how the local minorities probably feel as they guide their water buffaloes through the rice paddies when Western tourists alight for a focus frenzy.

Millions of mainland Chinese are now proud owners of point-and-shoot cameras, to the delight of companies such as Kodak, and in and around Guilin I saw locals were not short of ingenuity in finding ways to coax a few yuan from domestic visitors.

For a small fee, tourists could be photographed sitting in the lap of a giant stone Buddha; with a pet monkey (which was pushed into a small drawer and locked away when the owner wanted to take a break); wearing minority tribe costumes; sitting on top of a five-metre high wooden eagle; between the humps of a pet camel; underneath a stone elephant; with a live python draped around the neck; in an 'emperor's chair' at a porcelain factory; or on a raft with cormorants. Even the government seems to be making a bob or two out of the snap-happy tourists. At some of the limestone caves that attract tour buses, small sections have been rented out for private enterprise.

The stalagmites and stalactites are bathed in coloured lighting and for between 10 and 20 yuan (HK$9-19), you can snap your friends standing in front of them.

If they don't have a camera, no problem. There's always a professional around. On my boat journey down the Li river, passengers were queueing up to get their photographs taken with a limestone peak in the background.

Millions of tourists pass through Guilin each year to see the region's strange limestone formations, which have attracted Chinese artists for centuries.

Though the city has a population of more than 600,000, it is surprisingly leafy, and you don't have to go far to see, and even climb, some of its more famous peaks. Hire a bike, and get there early, before 10am if possible, for that is when the tour buses start to pour in.

Make for Seven Star Park, Reed Flute Cave, Fubo Hill, Camel Hill or Elephant Trunk Hill - you've guessed it, the latter two resemble the respective animals.

Ask the concierge at your hotel about local food and where to eat it. Guilin is famous for its chili sauce and noodles, which are served in various ways. At one small restaurant I tried soup noodles poured over a layer of hot pebbles.

You'll probably need to take a taxi out to Yaoshan, the highest mountain near the city, where a cable car ride offers spectacular views of scores of limestone peaks if the weather is clear.

At the base of the hill is a Ming dynasty tomb with a macabre exhibit, accompanied by a chilling video documentary.

The mummified bodies of a high Ming official and his wife were excavated nearby, and the film footage shows the coffins being opened, the bodies lifted out and their wrappings and clothing being cut away.

The funereal clothes are now in showcases in a museum at the site. The bodies? They float, stripped of all dignity, in glass tanks.

At night, go down to the Li River near the Sheraton Hotel, where an antique and clothing market stretches for a couple of hundred metres.

Down at the pier, ferries will take you out to watch the cormorant fishermen. The birds have string tied to the base of their necks so that they cannot swallow their catch.

The fishermen push the cormorants into the water and urge them to dive, with a little persuasion from their punting poles.

More often than not the birds return with a bulge in their throats and the fish are removed and thrown into a basket, still alive.

I'm told a cormorant costs around 1,000 yuan, but this can be recouped many times over. Finally, when the fisherman is happy with his catch, the string is removed, and it's supper-time for the cormorant.

To visit Guilin and not take a boat trip down the Li River would be like visiting the Tower of London and leaving without seeing the Crown Jewels.

This is where you get close up and personal to those picture postcard views of Guilin's famous crags.

The boats used to leave from the heart of Guilin city, but now you take a bus ride of around one hour across moorland to a jetty on the edge of countryside thick with karsts, to join your vessel. Dozens of tourist vessels ply the river, but they are dwarfed and swallowed up by the sheer numbers and height of these weird limestone formations that used to stand on the bed of an ancient sea.

The postcards, alluring as they are, can't do justice to the views on this three-hour journey. It has to be experienced.

The vessels cruise quietly through this silent vista of unearthly, misty peaks, below which fishermen pole narrow bamboo rafts and women from minority tribes lead water buffalo through rice paddies: a living painting.

I was in a small group who took in the views from a glass-sided room on the top deck as waitresses served us an eight-course lunch.

We stopped half-way to Yangshuo to walk to spectacular viewpoints on shore, but I could have done without the visit to Crown Cave, a favourite with tour groups.

After all this natural beauty, it was rather an anti-climax having to queue for 30 minutes to take an elevator into the bowels of this cave which echoed with the shrieks of delight from dozens of package tourists.

We took a boat on an underground lake and then finished the journey on an underground toy train as megaphones competed for the attention of the flag-followers.

It's a long walk back to the jetty from Crown Cave and locals were offering sedan chair rides for the weary, to make a few yuan.

After the river trip ends at Yangshuo, tourists are taken back to Guilin by bus, stopping at some of the most famous rock formations, and a banyan tree which is said to be 1,000 years old - some of its ancient limbs supported by wooden 'crutches'.