The area of Guangxi province around Guilin has always been famous in China for its unique scenery which has inspired so many poets and artists since the Qin dynasty 200 years before Christ. On my previous trip to China, in 1973, I had purchased a copy of a painting by Xu Bei Hung depicting a Guilin scene so mysterious and beautiful that I did not believe it could be real. I just had to come here to see for myself. I was not disappointed, the sky was covered and the rocks were wreathed in mist just like in the scroll I had admired during 24 years at home.(The horizontal banding you can see on this picture comes from scanning the textured paper on which the original photo was printed. Unfortunately, you will see this defect again for nine rolls were printed this way. The only way to get rid of it would be to have everything printed again on glossy paper.)
Guilin's fame has attracted so many visitors that it has now become a fashionable but expensive tourist trap. The rocks around Yangshuo, a small town 80 km down the Li River are just as beautiful. Xi Jie, the ancient stone paved main street leading down to the jetty on the Li, is being taken over by tourist shops but the prices are still reasonable. A dormitory bed in the youth hostel was only 4 dollars!
This is the jetty where visitors embark on tour boats to view beautiful karst formations along the Li river during a three hour cruise upstream to the small village of Xingping. If Yangshuo gets too touristy, Xingping will be the place to go.
These remarkable cliffs are the result of the uneven dissolution of massive limestone beds by surface and underground rivers. Karstic formations are not uncommon but they rarely have such dramatic appeal as those found in this area. The only place I know of that can compete is Ha Long Bay on the northern coast of Vietnam.
Such formations are also found in other places in China. That is why fantastically shaped mountains are a common feature in Chinese paintings.
I took many pictures here because I am vulnerable to the mystery that seem to surround these fantastic shapes.
Just a last one of these taken from a bus on the way to Liuzhou where I took the train for Chongqing. It was a daytime run but I took a sleeper bus which are definitely more comfortable. Its a pity we don't have such buses in Canada. I wish I had taken a picture of it, they are smaller than those I have seen in South America and feature ingenious double bunks.
I like to take the bus because it is a good place to meet people. On this 9 hour trip, I met a backpacker from Santiago de Chile with a German name, Wolf von Igel, who was also going to Liuzhou to catch the train. I also like to take the bus because there is more to see from a bus window than from the train. For example, this road gang making gravel with a mobile stone crusher right on the spot where it will be used.
It was only 6 PM when we got there so Wolf and I had enough time to explore Feie Lu and some of the surrounding back streets. Liuzhou is the second largest city of Guanxi province after the capital Nanning, we were impressed to see new construction replacing traditional housing everywhere.(That banding on the photo is really annoying isn't it.)
Before coming, I knew about the fantastic growth rate of the "special economic zones" such as Shenzhen next to Hong Kong and Zhuhai next to Macao but I did not expect to see new buildings like these here in Liuzhou and everywhere else I went. I found modern Chinese architecture to be imaginative and audacious in its use of color.
Wolf and I stopped to have dinner in this back street eatery where we had an excellent meal for very little money. The other diners, not used to seeing foreigners in this small place, were positively enchanted when we asked permission to take some pictures. That broke the ice and they crowded around us to satisfy their curiosity and to practice their high school English.
They accompanied us to the train station and we had a ball as the bolder of them interpreted the queries of those whose curiosity was held back by their shyness. It was a beautiful spontaneous and friendly experience of the kind that makes travelling worth the effort.
All good things come to an end and we finally had to leave our new found friends to board the train at midnight. I had been travelling since 9:30 that morning so I had no difficulty getting to sleep. My third level hard sleeper bunk was close to the ceiling but it was quite cheap and more comfortable than the third class berth on the ferry from Guangzhou to Wuzhou. Wolf got off at Guiyang in the morning and I continued to Chongqing. Then I met Yang Dong, a metallurgical engineer from Beijing who was going to Chengdu, 400 km past Chongqing. It was like playing leapfrog.
It takes a full 24 hours to go from Liuzhou to Chongqing through the sparsely populated, mountainous Guizhou province. This is one of the less developed areas of China where several important ethnic minorities maintain their traditional tribal cultures. A good place to go on my next trip!
Finally, I arrived here and found a dormitory bed in the Huixianlou hotel at one in the morning. Remote Chongqing, destroyed by the Japanese and rebuilt after that war, known as Chungking when it was Chiang Kaishek's capital before his flight to Taiwan, is being rebuilt once again. This time, 50 year old but still good structures are being systematically replaced by high rise office and apartment towers at an incredible rate. In very few years, the older area in the foreground will have disappeared and the central core of the city will be like lower Manhattan.
Scenes like these are fast disappearing from the center of the city especially now that it has become an autonomous region like Beijing, Tsientsin and Shanghai. Chongqing no longer depends on the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu and its expanded area now includes a population of 30 million people, as many as all of Canada!
In the new metropolis of Chongqing, there will be no room for street eateries like this one. They will be replaced by efficient large self-serve cafeterias like those I have seen in Shanghai. Its will be less colourful for the tourist but that is the price of progress. I must say however that the quality and variety of the food in those cafeterias are vastly superior to that of the industrial feed dished out by Macdonald's and similar western fast food factories.
Open food markets may be the last to disappear. The development of modern food distribution channels lags far behind other areas of growth in China because investment priorities presently aim at the basic infrastructures the country requires to maintain its accelerated growth. I have seen very few modern supermarkets and much of the processed food I have seen there is imported.
Processed food does not yet appeal to the Chinese who like their food to be very fresh and cooked rapidly to keep all its flavour. Markets where fowl are butchered and plucked as you wait like this one will probably survive a while. Even in modern Shanghai and Beijing, most of the food sales I have seen are carried out in open markets.
Narrow streets and alleys are being replaced by broad avenues such as Minzu Lu shown here. On this day, it was exceptionally reserved for pedestrians for some festive occasion. As usual these days, a construction crane can be seen in the background.
The Chinese love water and will put up a fountain wherever they can like in this small square next to Minzu Lu close to my hotel.
These happy and mischievous looking young girls preparing for a public dance show are a far cry from the very serious regimented youths that I had seen uniformly clad in blue Mao suits everywhere I went 24 years ago.
I counted 15 cranes working on major projects from my hotel window. It is difficult to believe the extent of the construction effort in China without having seen it. It is going on at a fantastic rate not only in big privileged cities like this one or Shanghai but everywhere, even in small remote towns.
More of the same... One wonders where the all money spent in construction comes from in a country where the gross national product is still less than 3 000 dollars per inhabitant (purchasing power basis). Most if not all of this construction is financed by the government. China's rate of investment of 36.3% of GNP is amongst the highest in the world with Singapore (34.5% of a 22 770$ GNP), South Korea (36.1 of a 11 450$ GNP), Malaysia (38% of a 9 020$ GNP) and Thailand (41.3$ of a 7 540$ GNP). China can maintain a high rate of investment only by keeping wages very low. People do not rebel against the hardship not only because rebellion would be repressed but also, a) because living standards are better now than they were before and b) because they accept to invest in their children's future.
China is going places quick. When overlooking the city from the Hongxing Pavilion in Pipashan park, I remarked to my friend Liu Xin that he must have strange feeling to see all these buildings that were not there when he was a boy 20 years ago, he replied that almost all that we could see was less than 10 years old! Doctor Liu Xin, who I also met on the web months before coming here, is a medical researcher working on a protein to replace hemoglobin. He has a wife and child and earns only 150$ a month but he does not complain.
Last glimpse of this surprising metropolis as my boat the Guo Hua pulls away from the modern pier with elevators in the background. I must come back to see how this place has grown five years from now!