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The morning after my bikeride to Xingping, it was finally time to say goodbye to my temporary home in peaceful little Yangshuo. And to all my new friends from Bamboo House Inn & Lodge: to Annie, who cheerfully called out my name from her post across Xi Jie every single morning; to Debbie, who absolutely refused to believe I was over 19 years old; to Sally, who I spoke with from Guangzhou before even arriving; to Carey and Lively, two of only three residents who were there longer than myself; to the girl at the backpack shop, who I chatted with daily on my way to the supermarket; to the friendly owners of my favorite dumpling spot, who always knew exactly what I’d be having; to Mr. Bing, the English-speaking police officer who helped explore options for extending my visa; and even to the silly shoeshine guy who couldn’t have offered me less than seven hundred shoeshines over the course of my stay.
I hopped on a bus to Guilin with five hours until my cross-country train’s departure. The plan was to leave enough time to check my bag at Guilin Station and get a quick feel for the city. In this I succeeded – because unlike the “express bus” I rode into Yangshuo, which stopped every other block to hustle additional fares onboard, this time I managed to find my way onto a legitimate express bus 😛
The instant I stepped off that bus I felt I was back in China.
Gone were the sparkling-clean cobbled streets, gone were the English menus and heated coffee shops, gone were Western toilets and TP, and gone were the ubiquitous WiFi signals. Back were the food carts surrounded by piles of garbage* and the omnipotent sound of the car horn.
(*Funny little side-story: Along my walk from the bus terminal to the train station, I decided I’d satisfy my hunger as quickly as possible by purchasing some skewered meat from one of the street vendors along the way. When finished, I looked around for somewhere to dispose of the skewer. There was a plastic bag on the ground, so I started towards it. Nope. Full of charcoal she’d planned on using for cooking. So I turned my eyes towards her with a look of inquiry. She indicated towards the ground by her feet, a pile of discarded skewers on the sidewalk. I looked back with an expression of “you’ve got to be kidding, I’m not throwing my trash on the ground.” Someone nearby noticed my moral dilemma, met eyes with her, and they both shared a laugh – at the silly foreigner who didn’t want to litter. I hung onto my skewer and threw it out when I got to the train station.)
Unlike the previous day in Yangshuo, the weather in Guilin was cold. Icy cold. So cold that I completely abandoned my idea of spending the day exploring the city. Instead, I caught a local bus to one single tourist location – just to kill the few hours I had until my train to Shijiazhuang.
The Reed Flute Cave.
This cave was very different from the muddy Water Cave I’d visited only a week or so prior. In fact, it scarcely felt like a cave at all – it felt more like some sort of indoor Disneyland exhibit. For this cave, just 5km Northwest of the city centre, held thousands and thousands of stalagmites and stalactites…all lit with rock-concert-like lighting. Its “Crystal Palace of the Dragon King” – just one of its many chambers – was by itself large enough to hold over 1,000 people. And hold them it did, during WWII when it was used briefly as an emergency air-raid shelter. Definitely worth a quick bus trip out of town.
After taking my time with some timelapse photos, I bussed back to the train station and picked up my bags. I was literally FREEZING cold – my teeth were chattering. But inside the entrance, I felt the soothing call of a heater blasting forth from a waiting room off to the right.
“HOLD IT!” I was stopped at the door.
“VIP ONLY” said the woman at the door in thickly-accented English.
“So I can’t go in…? It’s so cold!” I exclaimed.
“You must pay,” she said.
“How much?” I asked.
It was barely 73 cents.
In Hong Kong, with its designer clothes, overpriced nightclubs, ritzy shopping malls, and countless sports cars, I remember feeling like a poor, scraping-to-survive backpacker. But Here I feel often like a millionaire: splurging for the hotel with the best view in town, for a private boat down the Li River, and for VIP waiting rooms at the train station where everyone else is shivering outside.
And yet, I’m spending virtually nothing.
China is a pretty crazy place.
On the train from Guilin back to Shijiazhuang, I spent the first couple hours coding productively on my laptop. Until the battery started to die, at which point I tried one of the train’s many power outlets. Like before, they were all deactivated. So once again I found myself with little choice but to spend the better part of 24 hours staring into space nonproductively like most everyone else around me
Luckily, I’d met some English-speaking college students while on my way to the train station in Guilin, and we were able to pass much of the ride chatting together. I asked one of them to request that the electricity be enabled for the train’s countless customers, but the conductor looked at us like we were crazy.
Soon, I was back in Shijiazhuang.
And Chinese New Year was just around the corner.