What a wonderfully magical place this is. In every direction, the limestone karst pillars tower overhead, and as we cycled across the countryside, we felt as though we were a part of some surreal moving painting. One can image that these large pillars were once the bottom of the sea, and over millions of years were thrust upwards into the sultry south China sky. I remember seeing a show on television somewhere about Yangshou, and how it was one of the most touristed places in China (and one of the longest touristed). The show was actually about the expansion of disco bars in China, and since this is a favourite destination for foreign folks, there was a spot on the show about it. Consequently, we recognized some of the streets when we got here. The place is really backpacker friendly owing to the years of tourism, and I was finally able to get rid of my 3 kg of Harry Potter novels and my South East Asian guidebook in exchange for the latest Trans Siberian Lonely Planet - actually I was surprised to find it here, but having missed exchanging the books in Hanoi, where it is arguably easier, I was glad to have uncovered this gem here in China. It will serve us well.
I had an interesting conversation with the shop owner, "Johnny" (not his real name). He was definitely educated and spoke English very well. I asked him why I was having such a hard time finding bookshops for backpackers in China, even in the places backpackers are likely to go. He told me that he was operating the only English language bookstore in the city, that he was the only permitted operator, and there was not likely to be any others. The reason is that the local government is not all that fond of spreading English books around, and he said he had a hard time getting started. He is technically not allowed to import the English books, so he had to build his sales library by doing "two for one" exchanges with travellers. He's done quite well actually, as he has two full walls of books, and a fairly decent selection of used guidebooks. Right up a backpacker's alley ;)
It's funny in a way, since China is such an economic juggernaught right now. The economy is decidedly capitalist, but highly regulated. It leaves me thinking about maze experiments with rats. You know the ones where they put the rats in the maze, and the scientists observe from above. Well, China feels sort of like that. The maze is China, and the rats are all the people going about establishing "capitalism" within the country. The scientists are the government looking down through the glass on how things are going. Everything goes along fine until there is an economic failure (for example, the failure of the free market to supply public transportation, or the factories running off so quickly that the supply of steel is restricted). Then the government steps in to manipulate the larger macro economic levers as they call them here (money supply, major trading purchases with other nations, currency pegging, etc...) to create the required fix. Is it really capitalism? I'm not sure - without absolutely free market forces, it seems that true economic efficiency might never be achieved. On the other hand, if the Chinese were to do something like float their currency right now (as the US would really like to see to help regulate their trade deficit with China), it may completely destabilize the economic progress in China (and leave even more people behind than what is already occurring), and that would severely affect any nation trading with them. Perhaps the regulated path is the one that needs to be chosen when you have over 1.3 billion mice in the maze...
And they are so brainwashed about the Olympics. There are T-shirts everywhere - every construction project is billed as one "In preparation for the Olympics" even though it may be thousands of kilometres away from Beijing. It's really strange - are the Olympics really going to change the world's opinion overall on things like Taiwan, Tibet, and Falun Gong? Will a good showing just make us forget about things like political conflict and basic human rights? What opinion do they want us to have? They have a bit of a complex. It's as though they are providing evidence that they are up to no good by being so anxious to show the rest of the world how "good" China is. This can only mean there is some bad, and what's more, we certainly will not be allowed to judge for ourselves in a self evident way, what the country really is. Everything (and I mean everything) will be scripted, planned, tailored, and edited. There is no doubt - China is unleashed, but not yet fully free. But we cannot ignore them.
And this is why there must be engagement, because there will be no stopping the next superpower on the planet. Indeed, as I picked up a copy of last June's Time Magazine from the hostel dinner table, I began to shudder at what will become my own inability to keep up. The cover of the magazine read something like "Mandarin: The next essential skill for survival". I think that might be true.
So it's finally happened - Kristine ate DOG! She didn't mean it though. It was because of Darren, one of our group mates. He wanted to try it and he offered it to her without telling her what it was. And since Kristine can never resist sharing, she inadvertently got herself into trying dog. YECHHH! So you see, my theory that it's OK to order your own meal and NOT share it has been proven correct - I think eating Fido even once is worth preventing, don't you? You should have seen her when she found out. She came bursting into the room, almost in tears saying "Ted, Oh no I ate a puppy"! I said "How did you know how old it was?" ;)
The next day, Darren ordered some duck thing at the restaurant we had cycled to and what he got had a couple if nicely webbed feet included - he just could not finish (or really even start) his meal. Of course, Kristine considers this the just force of karma bringing equality back to the planet. Me, I'm glad I had the burritos. They were surprisingly good, woof, woof...
Carrying on with the food theme, last night a few of the people in the group tried the snake. We'd seen this before in many countries, but not the same as they do it here! It's sort of like lobster at home I guess. You see, they bring the live snake to the table and show it to you in order to make sure you approve, and then right in front of you, they cut the head off with a pair of scissors and drain the blood into a cup. Now get this, here's the best part. They then take the blood and use it to make "real" bloody marys - mmmmm! Snake blood, tabasco, and vodka - it must be good! I didn't try that one either...
We also went on a boat cruise to view the karst pillars from the river, as well as a visit to a pretty good cave nearby. The cave was neat except for the fact that they seem to think that using coloured lights to illuminate everything makes it better. It comes off a little like Disneyland in the end, changing the natural beauty of the cave into a sort of theme park atmosphere, complete with the cattle guards to keep you from straying off the required path.
There are also loads of cormorants around, a bird that we've never seen before. Unfortunately, they all seem to be captive as the Chinese have found a way to use them for fishing. They tie a rope around their necks and then send them into the water. Being adept fishers, they always make a catch, but they cannot swallow their prey due to the rope. The fishermen then reel in the birds and simply snatch the fish from their jaws. It's really kind of sad in a way, but it has been going on for hundreds of years and is really quite ingenious in a sick sort of way.
So tonight we are off on another night train as the next phase of the journey begins. Actually, we have to take a 1 hr bus back to Guilin, then a 14 hour night train to Wuhan, and then a 5 hour bus ride to Yichang. I think we're all going to be just wrecked! Yichang is where we catch the 3 day boat cruise on the Yangtze up river to Chongqing, China's largest city (32 fricken' million, can you believe it, the city has the same population as our whole country). I hope I get a bottom bunk. :p