An outsider’s reflection on a land of majestic peaks, winding rivers and spectacular scenery
In the evening, on a good night for fishing, a man stands ankle deep in the emerald Dragon Li River. He turns to watch as you cross over the bridge in an air-conditioned van. Though the windows are slightly tinted, he sees you and holds a steady, almost reproachful gaze until you pass. Unnerved by this interaction you breathe a little quicker, and your stomach feels a little more hollow. You remember how you were told not to travel alone, that the airport is still close by and you could still catch the last flight out. Then the clunk, clunk of the gravel under the wheels and the bobbling Buddha on the dashboard take over your focus and reminds you that you are still in a van, in China. And it’s taking you to the heart of some village.
The streets of Yangshuo are sprawling with vendors and scooters. At one stand, an array of unidentifiable meat lies out, spoiling in the sun and you are thankful the stench does not seep through the tightly sealed windows of your temporary inhabitance. At another stand, a group of women sit behind a table of spiky-looking fruit soon to become your favorite. Children dash through the streets pushing wagons and chasing off local stray dogs.
Photo by Amy Tucker
As you pass, both human and canine eyes gleam up at you, almost as though they are noting your arrival.
The van heads out of the village and back to serene landscape where the ground curiously unfurls into lush greens and hard rock rounding up to the sky. Though you are relaxed now and eased by the landscape, you sense something ancient about these Karst Mountains – they are alive, and watching you too.
The van, at last, slides to a stop on a gravel road outside your hotel, which you are informed is located 15 kilometres from the village center, 12 metres from the river, three metres from the rice paddy fields and (based on your own sense) about one coordinate off from the equator. You step out and feel the weight of water vapour cling to your skin, your hair. Somewhere close by you hear the cicadas’ tymbals click in harmony and the splish of fishers’ bait at the end of their fishing lines being tossed into the river.
The driver comes around from the back, unloads your bags and then introduces himself as Lǐ Chá Dé but says you may call him “Richard.” You wipe your sweaty hands on your t-shirt before shaking his hand and then tie your hair up and away from you neck.
Photo by Amy TuckerRichard will be your driver for the week and he insists on carrying your bags (all three over 35 pounds a pop) across the uneven, stony street, into an ornate courtyard and through a crimson archway etched with oriental characters. He leads you into a cool lobby finished with glossy wood and ceramic-tiled floors. He then stacks your bags and holds them above his head, using the top of his head as a third arm. He does so with such routine-precision and casualness as he heads up the three flights of stairs to your room.
You unlock the door to your room and quickly move aside so Richard can place your things at the foot of your bed. He gives you a tour in accented English, “Here are the spare towels… These are the keys for safe, put passport and money inside.” He leaves and you take a moment to refresh yourself.
You are advised not to drink the tap water by a sign hung in the washroom but you aren’t worried because Richard has left you with enough water in the mini fridge to keep you hydrated for a month. You lie across your bed and stare out the window adjacent to you, which overlooks neighbouring rice patties. You’re in utter peace, and you think to yourself that those who live here, in Yangshuo, are the most fortunate of all.
You think this because you haven’t yet discovered what lies beyond the plush comforts of the retreat. You don’t know yet that somewhere a family has likely relocated from their rice paddy property to a small shack in the fishing village on the bank of the river, to make way for an accommodation such as this one, for a tourist such as yourself.
Photo by Amy Tucker
Here, you imagine a daughter will boil and drink the water the family needs but no more than that. The kitchen is only made up of a fold away table and its accompanying chairs, some pots and buckets for washing, but is also the living room and the laundry room. There are walls but they are not protective from the elements. A father will build a bamboo raft along with the other men of the village and charge tourists for a trip down the river for 20 Renminbi (RMB) (equivalent to two Canadian dollars).
This family you envision is the portrait of so many others that no longer have a rice paddy field to tend to each morning until nightfall. They don’t earn the profits, though sparing, to feed their children or send them to school because it was more desirable for the town to focus on drawing in tourists.
You haven’t yet experienced walking through the village streets where you are swarmed with business deals. “You take one hat 40RMB or you take two hat, 55RMB.” or “You need refreshment? 20RMB. No? Here, for 10RMB.” A bottle of Coke is shoved into your chest and you realize that the bartering is over mere loonies and toonies.
Photo by Amy TuckerYet there’s something else here that makes it different from any other tourist-overrun town. A backlash of culture still clings to the village and defends the village. You can see it in the way the little girl dressed in a traditional gown leads a tourist to her mother’s stand and insists that he buy their fruit; it is in fact expected of him. You hear it when the bamboo raft guides ask if you’d like a ride down their river and you can feel it each time a local looks at you.
So when your time is up and you’re off to catch your flight to the next destination you understand the precognition you sensed. When you peer up at the Karst Mountains as you pass, they stare right back at you. They let you know that they are not a landmark. They will never bare a map that reads, “You are here.” Instead, they stand proudly yet admonishingly, and say, “We are here.” And then you realize that while you were busy observing and compiling your own opinion of this place it was unnecessary and unwanted, for Yangshuo had been scrutinizing you and the trail you left behind.