Life in Beijing has been great! A lot has happened since I last posted.
We first left Beijing early on a Wednesday morning for a 7 am flight down to Guilin. What was great about the flight was that we were on Air China, which meant that we would be flying out of Beijing Capital Airport’s newest terminal, T3.
Built to handle the influx of international travelers for the Olympics, T3 is the world’s single largest terminal and is literally as large as the original section of the Beijing airport. Air China is the official airline of the Olympics, so along with all international arrivals, T3 caters exclusively to this airline’s international and domestic flights. The terminal itself is amazing and at times intimidating. It was constructed to look like a huge dragon, and from the air it definitely looks as such. Additionally, it looks and feels Chinese; the structure itself mimics parts of the Forbidden City with ominous red columns and ceilings. Those arriving this summer for the Olympics will definitely have a dramatic greeting when landing into T3.
Beware cab drivers
When we landed in Guilin, we caught a cab to our hotel, and the cab ride itself was something of an experience. We had read before we left that tourism was the number one industry in Guilin and that we had to be wary of cab drivers and fake tour companies that try to rip off tourists. At the airport we followed the rules and found the official taxi stand, which is where licensed cab drivers queue for customers; this also reduces the chances of getting ripped off.
Once in the cab we started talking to the driver, and he asked us questions about our hotel and how much it costs. My friends and I got the sense that our driver was fishing for information, so we started to be vague with our answers just to be safe. If we gave off the impression that we were carrying a lot of cash or something, he might have tried to cheat us. Additionally, when we got into the city center, the cabbie asked us if we wanted to “look around Guilin, or go by a tourist office to book tours,” so we said that we had to meet our teacher’s friend at our hotel and had no time to do that kind of stuff. Apparently this is a ploy of cabbies there to increase cab fare, and it is usually at that point the cabbie will try to tack on fees for taking you other places.
Once we checked into our hotel, we took a few minutes just to soak in Guilin. The first thing I noticed was the clean, moist air. Guilin has no major pollution problems because it is not only a town of about 700,000, but it also lacks a major industrial base – no factories are nearby. This is because Guilin is fairly geographically isolated. The city is literally surrounded by a range of karsts, which are these oddly shaped limestone mountains that jet out of the ground hundreds if not thousands of feet into the air. So, it was a great relief to enjoy the amazing air. In addition, the view from our hotel room was amazing; our window looked out onto this beautiful park and in the distance we could see the karsts that surrounded the city.
Reed Flute Cave
On Wednesday afternoon we took in some of the major sights around Guilin. First we went to Reed Flute Cave, which is one of the largest tourist-accessible caves in the city. The karsts’ formations are usually hollow on the inside and give way to caves. Reed Flute Cave was really convenient and walker-friendly; it was also a light-show extravaganza. Every nook and cranny of the cave was well illuminated, and in the largest chamber they had a light show complete with cheesy techno music and bubble and fog machines. I definitely think this is a Chinese specialty; I can’t imagine any other country outfitting a cave with that kind of technology and kitsch.
Afterward we went over to one of the tallest karst peaks in Guilin. The peak is housed in a complex that was once a vacation compound for emperors. At the top of the peak is a small temple and great views of Guilin. The hike up the karst is dangerous because the sides to these peaks are nearly straight drops to the ground, so the stairs themselves weave up this steep edge.
Elephant Trunk hill
Our last activity of the day was a ride on a bamboo motorboat that took us around to Elephant Trunk hill. The hill comes to a point in the middle of a river and is hollowed out to look like a huge elephant with a trunk that shoots into the water. The bamboo boat took us into the arch of the hill, and we could get out and climb around the arch that made the trunk of the elephant.
The Li River
On Thursday, we took a cruise up the major river in Guilin, the Li River. It is about a four-hour boat ride that takes you up the river and has some of the best views of the karsts in the region. Despite the mist that plagues southern China in the spring, the views were amazing. The river and the conditions around it were also pristine, and it was a great relief to see that some parts of China were not being ruined by development.
At the end of the cruise, we ended up in a small town called Yangshuo. Despite its very small size, it has developed into a tourist colony and a starting-out point for backpackers who want to hike around the countryside and among the karsts. The whole town is literally five long streets that have nothing but hotels, cafes, and shops.
From the center of Yangshuo, we went around the outskirts of the town on another bamboo boat to take in some more sights of the karsts. We also went to a park called Shangri-La. It is a tourist site that gives a sample of the ethnic minority villages that used to exist in the province. (Guangxi, the province that entails Guilin, is 75 percent non-Han and is comprised of many minorities including the Zhuang and Hmong.)
At Shangri-La we hopped on another boat that took us on a tour around a series of canals and stopped at platforms on the banks of the water. On these platforms people from different ethnic minorities did short performances that reflected special traditions from their cultures. One of the performances did leave me wondering if this is the way things really were back in the day. At one platform were Polynesian-looking performers wrapped in loincloths who feigned throwing spears toward our boat. Also, they had cattle skulls on pikes in the ground. I guess maybe way back this could have been possible, but the whole performance looked like they had taken a page out of the Flintstones.
Friday was my favorite day of the trip because we ventured out north of Guilin into the town of Longshen. Longshen is a small sleepy village that sits atop a mountain in the middle of nowhere. It is a two-hour drive outside the city through verdant orange groves and a series of winding mountain roads. Once at Longshen, we hiked into this amazing little town that was cloaked in fog on the side of this mountain. The views were great and looked down into rich green valleys.
Longshen is especially known for its 800-year-old rice terraces that cascade down the mountainside. However, when we got there, there was a heavy fog so we had to wait around a bit for the fog to burn off. When it did, we had great views of these terraces that literally went on for miles in each direction. My friends and I went off the beaten path and hiked through the terraces and made our way to other small villages hidden in the terraced mountains.
What was also great about this experience was that we had come during China’s tomb-sweeping festival. It’s a time when families go to their deceased family’s tombs and clean up around the tomb and honor those who have gone before them. While hiking on the terraces, we came across several families that were at tomb sites on the terraces themselves honoring the dead.
Recovering in Beijing
After returning from Longshen that evening, the trip pretty much ended for me. That night I got really sick – I ended up with something similar to Montezuma’s Revenge; I think I got it from buying a bad bottle of water from a street vendor. The next day we were scheduled to fly home anyways, so I only missed one day of sightseeing, and we only had plans to go to a park in Guilin.
Once we arrived back in Beijing, I realized how dirty the air is here. After being spoiled with the air in Guilin, it definitely took me a few days to re-acclimate to Beijing’s air.
The week after Guilin was non-eventful. I spent a lot of time sleeping and generally just recovering from my bout of illness. My Chinese family also came by the dorm and gave me a care-package to speed along my recovery, which was really great of them.
As far as ACC goes, we are closing in on the last stretch – I can’t believe I have been here for so long! We are now prepping the last sections of our independent project, and we will have our oral presentations next week. I thought I would be more stressed about it, but so far I am approaching it with a pretty relaxed attitude.
That’s it for now! I will check in soon with more about life in Beijing.