I decided to start re-reading Paul Theroux's Riding The Iron Rooster while i was on the cargo ship. That was the book he wrote about traveling through China by train in the 80s. It's a testament to China's remarkable development that so much of what he writes about is dated. Back then China had a very good rail network, but the distances between cities were measured in days. Now there are bullet trains going pretty much everywhere in the country.
One thing Paul wrote about was his reaction to Guilin, and that he was not very excited to see Longji or take a river cruise to Yangshuo. He said after spending so much time on the train getting there, he had had his fill of rice terraces and karst mountains. I kinda get it. Even though i'd say 80-90% of the Guilin → Guiyang bullet train track is tunnel, even those very brief moments that you pop out you are surrounded by rice terraces and mist and implausibly sharp, jungly peaks. Ditto coming in from Shenzhen/Guangzhou. It's unquestionably a beautiful sight, but knowing it's the same for hundreds of miles around does make Guilin itself feel less interesting.
Except, of course, Guilin was throughly interesting. It looks like it got the biggest chunk of its development in the 70s and 80s, and they never updated it. It reminds me of Niagara Falls, possibly my favorite city in Canada. Like Niagara, there is a dizzying amount of tourist tack which is well past its prime - peeling paint and shuttered buildings and unnecessary turrets and fairy lights and all kinds of crumbling whimsical flourishes. Right next to all the faded glitz are some poorer residential areas. If you walk a bit further there are clusters of whatever brand-spanking-new shopping malls and fancy hotels they can jam in without further mussing up the view from the national parks.
Since i arrived in rainy season, it rained almost non-stop. I managed to climb a few of the peaks between thunderstorms, but mostly i stayed in the city. That was fairly interesting on its own, because due to the rain there was flooding everywhere. The riverside parks and walking trails were under water, and the crowds seemed as excited to take a photo of an uprooted park sign floating away as they would have been to pose next to it. The most bizarre sight was an orange buoy floating down the rapids; there was a guy hanging onto it with a GoPro filming the a "fish's eye view" of the flood. One of his buddies a bridge down threw out a rope and reeled him in and no one batted an eye. There might be police everywhere, but i guess they're not as concerned about arresting daredevils as they are in the west.
After enjoying the relative quiet of the parks in the rain, i foolishly applied the same logic to dinner. I got served flavorless American-style chow mein in the main tourist food market, and then sat down for a beer and some snacks at a bar where they overcharged me despite the fact i was the only person in the joint. I just thought it would be fun to sit alone on the tourist strip and watch people scurry by, soaking wet. I guess it was, and i didn't argue the bill because i know those kids were having a more miserable time than anyone in town, having to keep a soggy patio open for no one. Unfortunately my stomach was not as forgiving. Shitty food? Yes, literally.
So that was Guilin. Funnest memory? The guy using a banana leaf for an umbrella. Oh, and hiding from an explosive downpour in the national park with a couple of old guys who - like me - had both the time and inclination to sit about under an overhang doing nothing for a while. I decided to go back to street food for breakfast because i don't trust regular restaurants here at all. I got a red bean bun from a steam basket guy when i was waiting for the bus and some stir-fry noodle with egg from a couple ladies in a tent out the front of yet another bullet train station that doesn't exist on the map yet.
My arrival in Guiyang was a bit of a shit-show. Because it's a hub, the station is massive - tons of train platforms and bus platforms and touts trying to sell you a taxi or a "ticket" or some crap. I booked it for one of the several buses Baidu said went downtown, and just crossed my fingers. And then we got caught in gridlock on some overpass. It took like an hour of crawling to even get to the next stop. I couldn't figure out where my hotel was because all the hills and gullies and brand spanking new expressways had my GPS confused.
Eventually i just jumped out when i saw a bunch of food stalls, which turned out to not be close to my hotel at all. Due to the terrain, or perhaps the age of the city, there is no grid system and the alleyways twist all over the place. The overpasses reminded me of Hong Kong, except underneath there are old-town markets and pedestrian routes that don't show up because maps only show the top road. It occurred to me later that a better comparison is Hengsha Island as imagined in Deus Ex: Human Revolution - a city in layers.
No one at the hotel spoke English, not even a single word, so we communicated solely through translator apps. The elevator in the building was busted, and i had to head up to the 6th floor on foot like all the other guests. No one complained, it's just the way it is. Then my keycard didn't work. After 2 more trips back to the lobby, i was more than a little out of breath. The clerks were tremendously helpful, considering i was some dumb laowei who chose to stay in the Chinese equivalent of Motel 6 instead of going to a hostel or an international chain like a sensible foreigner would do.
Once the key situation got sorted (they had to call in some keycard programming specialist), i dumped my shit and headed out to explore - first to the river and then back up to the place i got off the bus too early. This city is way more "Chinese" than the last two, if by "Chinese" you think street markets all over the place, people carrying sacks of rice on their backs, people using carrying poles to haul their giant baskets of goods... but because it's the 21st century, also electric scooters silently zipping all over the place and street vendors using QR codes and mobile payment to sell their meat on a stick and bowls of noodles. But here was a surprise. In between all the cliché stuff, there were bars - real fucking bars - and cafés too. I walked into a coffee shop opposite a wedding dress store and had easily the best coffee i have had since leaving Europe. A tall double espresso with crema so thick and perfect it would make Italian baristas weep.
And right now i am in a real fucking bar listening to dirty delta blues. It has a bit of that hipster aesthetic, with exposed brick walls and soft filament bulbs and weird pipes coming out of the walls in a steampunk way, not in a Chinese wacky building code way. It could be Brooklyn, except no one speaks English. I am drinking a very good gin and tonic and writing this as i wait for my phone to charge.
It's weird, right here in a city of 5 million people most westerners have never heard of, in a place that out on the streets feels utterly different to anywhere i have ever lived, i have walked into two places that have made me feel more at home than at any time on this trip so far. It's very comfortable here.
Well, aside from the fact that it's fucking raining again. Still. Fuck rainy season.
Oh, and i had my new Best Noodles Ever. It's a spin on a local speciality called 丝娃娃 (sī wá wá), which means silk baby. The sit-down version gives you a bunch of ricepaper wrappers that you fill and wrap yourself, but i guess some enterprising street vendors have made a to-go version too. Similar to the Best Noodles Ever i had in Guilin, the cart just has a mise en place and some fresh noodles, but then they wrap the whole thing up in a giant ricepaper. The fillings are a bit more diverse too: carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, peanuts, seaweed and some kind of mystery root that has a very weird fishy flavor. [I later looked this up and found out it is 折耳根 (zhé ěr gēn).] Then chilis, garlic, shallots, cilantro, mystery pink pickle, sesame oil and more. Another fantastic vegan thing. It's a noodlerito. A burroodle. It collapses immediately, so you get chopsticks to eat it. Best. Fucking. Ever.
So, yeah. I want to not get toooo drunk tonight, because it would be nice to do a bit of sightseeing tomorrow.
On the other hand, this is the first non-expat bar i have visited in Asia that feels like an honest-to-God bar - front open to the street, barstools, the works.
At some point the bartender came over to my table and we started "talking", very slowly. Again, almost entirely with translator apps. I had complimented his daiquiri and he wanted to talk more. He explained that he had been taught how to make cocktails from his teacher, who had been taught by a bartender from Boston. I am pretty sure mixology isn't passed down from master to student like some kind of martial art in the west, but here it appears to be. He showed me his special leather-bound, meticulously handwritten recipe book, and it was proper fucking cocktails, you know? I ordered his margarita and it - too - was excellent. No slushy, sugary nonsense. No salt rim "because it's old tequila". I can't even tell you how many overpriced fucking hipster cocktail bars i have been to in the west where the bartender couldn't mix a proper drink to save his life. Here is some random kid in some random bar in a tier-2 Chinese city expertly blending premium drinks for 40 kuai a pop. I wonder if the locals realize how good they have it?
Walking back to my hotel i sat down at a rice place. My biggest surprise about China (and HK and Taiwan) is that hardly anywhere serves rice, but pretty much everywhere serves noodles. Perhaps it's more of a restaurant thing, because preparing noodles is easier on the street? Who knows. Anyway, i was taken aback to find a rice cart, so i got a fried rice and just pointed at all the things i wanted (everything except the meat) and it was hot and spicy and glorious.
It didn't soak up my hangover, though. The two extra cans of beer i grabbed before heading up to my room saw to that.
Today the sun has come out and people are making the most of it. The street vendors look a lot happier, and there are people sitting and squatting all over the place.
With more people around, it's more obvious that this is still a developing city. There are less cops, but not necessarily less police boxes. They don't all have flashing red and blue lights on the top, so they're easy to miss. But many of them don't have a cop inside or even nearby. Perhaps there's less to police here. Perhaps there are less foreigners to impress. Not everyone has a cart or a wheelbarrow or even a carrying pole. One guy walked past with a full-size fridge strapped onto his back. There are hustlers everywhere selling the humblest wares - jacket potato, fry bread, roasted peanuts, sunflower heads. I bought a USB cable from a girl who looked like she hadn't made a sale all day. I probably overpaid, but it was worth it to see her perk up a bit.
Then you've got the old guys still in the blue Mao suits, and the drunk who won't stop talking to me even though i don't understand a word, the ones who yell out "hello" to me and try to sneak photos on their phone. The kids are flying kites, not drones like the kids in Taipei, Hong Kong and Shenzhen. I'm sitting in an ampitheater because i heard some rousing patriotic singing and discovered a group rehearsing the song, complete with clenched fists and gestures that look like something off a 60s propaganda poster. They're all dressed in digital camo.
I haven't figured out the camo thing yet - i've seen it in Shenzhen and Guilin too. At first i thought they were soldiers, but soldiers don't wear forest camo in the city, and besides these guys aren't fit and clean-cut like soldiers would be. Then i thought they might be hunters, like the camo-freaks in America and Germany. But now i wonder if it is some kind of patriotic group, or a way of identifying with the party that is a bit more modern than the Mao suit.
I am quite enjoying just sitting around here. There are still people in western suits drinking take-out coffee, so there is definitely a middle class. But there is also a visible working class peasant-like grit that i didn't expect in a city this big.
Anyway, my patriotic crew has just finished their rehearsal, so i'm going to make like the other gawkers who decided to squat here a while and get back to where i was going. Which is... you know... wherever.
Today turned out to be the day of parks. I visited an amusement park that brought to mind all those viral "abandoned places" photo sets that pop up from time to time on social media. But despite the rusty rides and faded paint, there was still a carnie at every ride. There were plenty of people walking around early on Wednesday afternoon, and a handful of kids on the rides. My belly was full of chilis again, so i didn't buy a ticket although i was tempted - i had gotten a very spicy "vegan" noodle for breakfast. The scare quotes are because i asked for no meat so she just gave me the broth instead of the broth plus bony ribs or knuckles or whatever was floating in it. Still, searingly spicy, and i didn't want to take my chances throwing myself around on an anyway questionable fairground ride.
Around the rest of the park were people practicing musical instruments and singing Chinese songs with tiny portable speakers. Various cages hung from the trees with songbirds inside, adding to the racket. There is so much noise here, all the time. People watch shows on their phones when they are on public transport. No one wears headphones. Because writing Chinese takes so damn long on a phone, people use speech recognition to enter their end of a text conversation. People with noisemakers stand out the front of stores clapping away. Somewhere an alarm is going off. A fitness nut jogs past with a speaker playing high-tempo exercise/aerobics music. Bike bells and scooter horns warn people to step aside. Hawkers hawk. I don't really mind it, because it's just the sound of people living their lives. Nothing is so loud it drowns out everything else, so it becomes a cozy hubbub. Walking Chinese city streets is very cozy.
In some particularly grimy but thoroughly bustling residential area i saw a new thing cooking on a grill - silky tofu, and french fries, and rostis, and some brown mystery cubes. I ordered the tofu and apparently those mystery things came with. On the grill i thought they were marinated winter melon, but in my bowl they jiggled. I am not sure what the flavor was, because - as is apparently the norm in Guizhou cuisine - the whole thing was buried under a mountain of chili paste and chili powder and chili oil and whatnot. I was a bit concerned it was offal, but i couldn't think of any offal that would be able to make a perfect one-inch cube without any gristle. My next thought was pork belly or giant squid, but surely i wouldn't get a bunch of cubes of high-quality meat plus silky tofu for 5 kuai? I decided it was some kind of glutinous rice concoction. It was delicious, whatever it was. Awesome sticky, jelly-like texture. Then the tofu blew my mind too. Mega-silky, like the dou hua back in Taiwan, except with a crispy bottom from being on the grill so long. Such an array of wonderful textures. Amazing flavors. So good.
I also headed up to a national park area still in the downtown. Of course, it's China, so there were thousands of people there, and everything had a path. I snuck off the beaten trail for a while because there was no sign telling me not to and followed an older path mostly covered by fallen trees. When i couldn't go any further i rejoined the main stairway up the mountain where a bunch of kids were giving Coke and fruit to the macaques and laughing at their antics.
I am fucking scared of wild monkeys, but the path was so packed i made my way through and up to the temple everyone was ostensibly climbing to. Then i followed a small group of tourists up a side route that led to a higher peak. We were the only ones on the path and we were surrounded by monkeys, jumping over our heads, sitting on the path, holding their babies, screaming at us. I was a bit scared but i figured there was strength in numbers so we plodded up the hill together. I can't understand Chinese, but i could definitely understand the woman in the group wasn't very happy at being dragged along, but didn't want to go back alone either. So i walked with her. It was worth it - we were the only ones at the top of the hill with a panoramic view all round the city.
But the descent was worse than the ascent. The men of the group had discovered a crumbling staircase on the other side of the peak so we started down that way. They were some way ahead of me at this point and when i turned a corner i saw that they had stopped and were waiting for me. Once i caught up with them, they put me in the middle of the group. I didn't realize it yet, but one of the guys had been jumped by a monkey and his arm was all scratched up and bleeding. One of the more aggressive monkeys jumped on me briefly too, but didn't draw any blood thankfully. We stuck together and relaxed a bit when we saw a few kids standing around smoking. Then we realized the kids were in the midst of some kind of dare, running off-piste past a cliff face and under trees packed with monkeys. Us oldies quickly left them behind and kept to the path. And then we found the fallen tree. And the landslide. There was no fucking path. We had gone too far to turn back, so we all helped each other, hanging off of trees and sliding down the mud to get back onto the trail further down. I couldn't help but think the macaques were the true owners of this mountain, and we had reverted to monkey behavior in their midst - clustering in a group, protecting the "weak" (women) and swinging through the goddamn trees to get out.
It was refreshing to get back to the well-populated part of the park where grannies were dancing and grampas were playing chess and drunks were sleeping and young people were taking selfies.
Walking round back of the sadly polluted pond, i was surprised to once again find some ethnic minorities dressed up in their traditional garb posing for photos. This was a thing in Guilin too - and in Taiwan for that matter - but watching the tourists pose first with monkeys and then later with Miao it felt more blatantly exploitative. I also had two girls come up and take photos with me when i made it obvious i had seen them trying to secretly film me. Being a prop for some random tourist's photo album happened to me in Shenzhen too. "See, here's me with the barbarian i found in the big city!"
Do Han Chinese really see other ethnicities as little more than exotic creatures? That's the stereotype westerners like to take home with them, some smug generalization that Chinese are rude and cruel and have a superiority complex. It's easy to make assumptions when both the language and culture barrier is so very high. I also wonder if it's easy for privileged people to come to that conclusion because traveling here is the first time in their lives they are experiencing what it feels like to be a visible minority.
Both my parents and a few (white) friends have visited China and none liked it very much. Not that they didn't enjoy all the food and culture and the general experience, but they all shared feeling a bit uncomfortable and out-of-place. My parents were worried it would be even harder on me because i already stand out a lot. On the contrary, i think having to deal with people around me constantly doing double-takes or misgendering me or assuming i am a hooker or asking questions about my genitalia has hardened me. Yeah, i get a lot of stares here. So what? I am treated like a curio no matter where i go in the world. I could do what some of my LGBT friends do and spend their whole lives in gay ghettos - even when traveling - or i can accept the fact i made a life-altering decision when i was a teenager that has left me forever a freak. I have learned to let most of it slide off. In my dream world i would be as invisible as the next guy, but hey, this is the real world where cops kill innocent people simply because they fear dark skin pigmentation, so i think i can deal with some awkward questions in the west or occasionally mugging for the camera over here.
Tomorrow i am doing one of my least favorite things when traveling - heading out with a pack and nowhere to dump it. There isn't a bullet train to Chongqing yet, so the trip is about 12 hours. I wouldn't mind a long train trip through the mountains, but almost all the trains are scheduled at awful times for sightseeing. Instead i am going to head out to the long-distance bus station and try my luck there - the buses "only" take 6-7 hours and supposedly leave every 40 minutes. But if they are fully booked, my backup plan is to go to Zunyi, which is a very small town by Chinese standards (1 million) halfway between here and Chongqing. Stay a night and then take the train tomorrow. But if that fails too, then i guess i will just suck it up and take the train all the way. Though then i might then skip Chongqing and go straight through to Chengdu, so i can have a normal night's sleep. Urgh. This would be so much easier if i could speak Chinese. Oh well, it's an adventure.