YANGHSOU, CHINA – December 2008

Tortoise Climbing Up The Hill (Rain, Rain Go Away…)

The countryside surrounding Yangshou is like no other Huckleberry B and I have ever seen.

You would probably have seen the exotic landscape on TV and in movies; hundreds and hundreds of missile-shaped mountains lined up, row upon row, like the fingers on a countless number of hands.

We touched down in nearby Guilin Airport during Boxing Day afternoon, where we were met by Lily, our guide. Soon we were settled in at the Li River Retreat, a small family-run hotel with a pleasing view of the river and the mountains – or karsts – beyond.

However, the best view of the beautiful landscape is from the river itself. We were fortunate to enjoy this view on both our days in Yangshou.

On the first morning, we rode a bamboo raft along the gentle currents of the Yulong River, which runs to the west of Yangshou.

Constructed of 10 long and sturdy pieces of bamboo, the raft is controlled by a boatman standing on the back of the lightweight vessel with another hefty bamboo stick. The boatman propels the raft by dunking his bamboo oar into the shallow water and pushing off the river bed.

Our raft was specifically built for two passengers given that exactly two chairs – no more, no less – had been strapped to the bamboo floor. The raft was just wide enough to accommodate each chair.

Whilst life jackets were available, we declined to use them. Even if the unlikely became reality and one of us found ourselves in the water, the surest way to avoid drowning would have been to simply stand up. We may have remained hopelessly underwater from mid-thigh down, however, if any threat existed it was hypothermia not drowning.

And so we found ourselves in a boat on a river. Unfortunately, the sky was grey – rather than marmalade – and our boatman had to occasionally erect a large umbrella over our heads in order to shield us from some drizzle.

Admittedly, the viewing conditions were not perfect. We can readily imagine that the scenery would be spectacular on a clear, blue and golden day, with the mountains – glorious in their unusual starkness – rising sharply from the flat fields which ran along each side of the river.

However, on this rather grim day, each of the hundred karst peaks which surrounded us appeared a ghostly grey, the sinister shade becoming lighter with distance.

Whilst not perfect, our experience of the Yulong River remained memorable for its misty, bleak and austere beauty.

Life along the river banks continued – probably as it had, more or less, for centuries – oblivious to tourists such as ourselves floating down the river. Women washed their clothes in the water. A farmer carried a heavy load divided between two buckets suspended from a length of bamboo braced across his shoulders. Two friends stood on a bamboo raft and caught fish in a net.

Periodically we came across small waterfalls, no more than one metre in height. Usually, there was sufficient water running across the top of the cascade to allow our raft to continue moving, albeit with the assistance of some additional velocity generated by our boatman, although we were required to lift our legs to the horizontal in order to best avoid our pants being soaked as the front of the raft dipped into the water on its sharp descent.

The low tide, however, rendered some of the waterfalls in our path dry. On these occasions, we were directed to disembark our vessel to allow the boatman to heave the raft forward so that its centre of gravity was across the apex. Only then were we allowed back onboard to enjoy the downhill slide back onto the water; again with legs raised as high as possible.

After a couple of hours, our idyllic bamboo ride came to a regretful end.

The next morning, we enjoyed a similar voyage down the Li River, which borders Yangshou to the east.

The Li River is wider than the Yulong, with stronger currents, requiring a bigger bamboo raft and an outboard motor for propulsion.

Once again the weather conspired against us, sometimes by inflicting steady rain across our path. Fortunately, our better style of bamboo raft included a permanent roof. The grey mountains, however, were even more grey and ghostly then the day before.

This was rather unfortunate given the intriguing names the ancient Chinese had given some of the peaks in this region of the river, including: ‘Grandpa watching apple’; ‘Camel crossing river’; ‘Lion watching the nine horse’; and – our clear favourite – ‘Eight super naturals crossing the river’!

Doubtless, the Chinese are very fond of their mountains; and the scope of their imagination is beyond reproach.

Food Glorious Food (Chickens, Goats and Ducks! Oh My!)

Part of the attraction of coming to China was, of course, the food.

We enjoyed a variety of meals in Beijing.

One meal – which we enjoyed with our Beijing guide – was a (very hot) hotpot, which was very welcome on a very cold day.

The hotpot operated much like a steamboat, where we cooked meat and vegetables in the liquid within the pot. However, what distinguished hotpot from steamboat was the quantity of chilli swimming around the molten lava in which we cooked out food. There were times when my mouth felt numb from the exposure to the chilli seeds. It was glorious!

Whilst in Beijing, we also enjoyed, as we felt compelled to do, some Peking Duck.

Some of our most pleasing eating experiences, however, were in Yangshou.

Dining amongst the mountains of Yangshou was an interesting experience, as much for the dining venues as for the food itself.

We made it clear to Lily from the start that we were not interested in eating in the tourist restaurants. We wanted to eat what the locals ate. Huckleberry B put it best: mine was the only white face she wanted to see.

Lily followed her instructions to the letter.

Our first meal took place in squalid surrounds. Positioned in a small marketplace, there were a line of three or four rooms which served as restaurants. The covered centre square of the marketplace was strewn with all manner of wooden boxes, motor bikes and rubbish. People huddled around some small camp fires and either ate food or gambled.

Notwithstanding these – not entirely clean – conditions, our crockery was spotless and arrived tightly wrapped in plastic. In China, restaurant-owners are required to send all their cups, plates and bowls to a government agency for cleaning. It’s a clever idea. Not only does this process ensure proper cleaning, it is also an accurate way to estimate sales and, therefore, calculate tax.

Outside our small restaurant in the market-place, an array of foodstuffs were on display from which we could choose our meal. On offer were a range of vegetables, some live fish and a skinned rabbit, complete with head!

Lily recommended a local specialty; catfish cooked in beer with ginger, garlic and shallots. It turned out to be quite something.

During our stay we ate at equally unusual locations, including on a large bamboo raft moored on the Yulong River. At one venue we sat on children’s chairs and ate from a low table.

In addition to country-style chicken – said to be leaner and more tasty than their steroid boosted cousins – and stir fried duck, we enjoyed a dish of mountain goat. Whilst just a little apprehensive about the goat, I tried it anyway. After all, we relished the alpaca and guinea pig we ate in Peru. In the end, the goat proved to be delicious.

Each of these dishes was presented in much the same way. A gas burner was placed on the table and the dish would be served in a large wok. We would spend the following half-an-hour or so diving our chopsticks into the wok, picking out succulent morsels and gradually depleting the pile of food. It was a great experience.

Moonriver

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