8th – 15th March
Anyone who’s ever seen a photo of a Chinese rice terrace is probably looking at something snapped in the Longji (Dragon’s Backbone) rice terraces. Spectacular images of intricate contour-following rice paddies, their watery contents glistening through mysterious morning mist, had certainly whetted our appetite.
So after two days enduring rutted roads and rundown hotels to get there, we’re not exactly pleased to be weaving our way up the mountainside in a proper pea-souper. Added to the lack of views, the temperature’s hit a bitter 4°C. “That’s nothing you bloody softies!” we hear our friends chant. But when the only accommodation comprises guesthouses constructed from plywood and furnished with little more than a summer duvet, its damned cold.
Actually, we manage a glimpse of this extraordinary feat of traditional farming during an hour when the watery shrouds briefly retreat to the heavens. The effect of centuries of terrace farming is amazing – thousands of miniature plateaus cascading down the hillsides, blooming with oilseed rape, young rice and vegetables, like a giant 3-D Ordinance Survey map.
After marvelling at this time-honoured example of Chinese ingenuity, we make our way to our guesthouse, in the middle of the Ping’an hill village, a farming village encircled by terraces but now mainly given over to olde worlde accommodation for tourists.
Having decided that we’ve got no chance of keeping warm without additional help, we inform Queenie that this evening’s meal may need to be rather more alcoholic than usual. Good girl, she comes up trumps. The aged, cheery owners of a small restaurant nearby take us in, plant us at a table in the centre of the room and wheel an electric heater under the table, much to our delight.
Next comes the plum wine, a local favourite. It sounds perfect to us, and it is. Its fiery stuff, and although we’d rather it was served hot (promisingly, it arrives in a teapot) it soon warms us up properly. In fact, after the second teapot we’re all giggling like schoolchildren, enjoying the brief and artificial respite from the bitter night outside.
By the third pot, even the Chinese boy bands pirouetting on stage at a government variety show being shown on the TV in the corner look good. By the fourth pot, we’re sozzled and can barely remember what we’ve eaten. All that matters is we that pass out cold when we get back to the guesthouse…
The local hangover
It certainly works. We sleep long and soundly, huddled together in a drunken stupor. Poor Queenie, on the other hand (being alone and not so adventurous with the plum wine) looks dismal in the morning, frozen solid without a wink of sleep. That said, Nina’s still drunk and Charlie’s got the worst hangover in the world, so we can’t exactly be smug.
We wend our way slowly back down the hairpins, hoping that the loss of altitude and a southerly bearing will bring warmer weather. No such luck…
Guilin is another place that usually features on every tourist’s to-do list in China. In fact, Guilin city is a fairly typical modern Chinese city, i.e. vast, sprawling, high rise and characterless. And freezing. Last night’s really taken its toll; we arrive in time for late lunch and abandon any pretensions of sightseeing in the afternoon. Queenie opts for a stroll on her own; we try in vain to get the air-conditioning in our grim little hotel to churn out some heat.
The city does have one appealing point for us – its position as a tourist hub means it has a few Western restaurants. Being Queenie-less, we opt for a wonderful early supper comprising cappuccinos and excellent pizzas – a welcome break from the local grub, especially considering our condition.
A little revitalised but still chilly, in the morning we head further south to Yangshuo, home to the region’s most picturesque scenery, and a far smaller and prettier town. This is what people think of when they refer to Guilin, thousands of enourmous limestone monoliths protruding from a washboard landscape, sheer grey cliffs and wherever possible, determined and vertiginous vegetation.
Even in the mist that seems to be following us south, it’s still a beautiful, mysterious landscape. One can only image what early European explorers must have thought when they stumbled on this area without the aid of a guidebook.
We book in to a decent business hotel (primarily to guarantee some heating and a hot shower) and after a hearty lunch of duck (well, mainly duck bone), aubergines and rice we head off in search of a boat to take us on a tour up the Lijiang River, through the most famous parts of the scenery.
Such boats are not hard to find these days - they tend to find you, in droves. The Chinese, being an industrious bunch, have decided that plastic replicas of their traditional bamboo rafts and more durable and reliable, so we find ourselves atop something that looks like a bunch of white downpipes strapped together, with a motor glued to the back.
It does the job though, and our heavily wrapped-up boatman navigates us upstream in an amiable silence. The only reminders of his presence are occasional wafts of cheap Chinese tobacco (like all Chinese men, he chain-smokes like his life depends on it) and the frequent hawking noise as he spits lungfuls of phlegm into the icy clear water running beneath us.
Despite the sun trying to break through the haze, a bitter breeze is racing down the river and we’re thankful we’ve adopted full ski-kit. The overcast sky gives the monoliths a monochromatic bluish tinge, as if they’re almost as cold as we are.
And so to Hong Kong
Our itinerary allows us two days at Yangshuo, but given the unappealing prospect of driving 750km in one day and then attending a dinner party in Hong Kong immediately upon arrival, we decide to leave Yangshuo half a day early and break up the journey.
We spend a final morning here climbing the aptly named (for once, given the Chinese enthusiasm for ridiculous euphemisms) Moon Hill for a final view of the landscape. On our way out of town, we cross the Lijiang River and stop to watch an elderly cormorant fisherman, posing for raft-loads of tourists. It’s a typical and unsurprising snapshot: the old boy will earn far more from tourists than he ever will from fishing these days. We just hope there’s enough money in it to persuade him to teach his children such an endearing craft and livelihood.
The expressway south starts off blissfully smooth, weaving its way around the retreating monoliths, before venturing into more rolling, agricultural territory. The Chinese road network really is something to behold. The figures are extraordinary: there are 65,000km of motorways in China; all built since 1988 and frequently through remote and mountainous terrain. The UK’s 3,500km motorway network seems rather trifling by comparison. China currently spends the equivalent of £14 billion a year building new motorways alone; the UK has spent £1.5 billion over the past 10 years on new roads of any description. That’s not to say that the Chinese are decent drivers, of course. Far from it…
At the provincial border, though, this particular expressway ends abruptly – evidently Guangdong province is behind schedule on this bit…
We spend our final night pre-Hong Kong in Zhaoqing, a featureless industrial city in the nether outskirts of Ghuanzhou (Canton). Guangdong represents China’s industrial heartlands, imagine hundred of miles of uninspiring places like Ferrybridge and Sheffield and you get the picture. We narrowly avoid staying in a knocking shop, grab an early night and get the hell out in the morning.
Our Western fix
After dropping our car at Toyota Shenzhen, with some explicit instructions about a careful going over, we head to the border point and into the different world that Hong Kong still is. The Western, capitalist influence is immediately present the second we leave the mainland behind – the shops, the buildings, the people – everything has a tangible confidence and an aura of wealth that is either missing or heavily polarised across the border. China is certainly not poor, but in growing up it hasn’t exactly given itself a facelift, and economy has won over aesthetics every time. Hong Kong is way past that.
We arrive by mid-afternoon. Peter Heber Percy, old mate of Charlie’s and our host for the next four days, is working from home and gives us a wonderful, much needed greeting. It’s a mighty relief to be here, to feel at home in this most foreign of countries, and to know we’ve got four days off and some serious fun and catching up to do.
Peter has organised a dinner party in honour of our arrival; copious quantities of normal and civilized (to start with anyway) conversation, cottage pie and decent red wine are all very welcome. As to be expected from such an old drinking partner, Peter has taken it upon himself to ensure our first night in Hong Kong is memorable – or totally unmemorable as it turns out.
Shortly after midnight we stagger out of the flat and hit the bars – lots of them, we can’t remember any of their names or where they are. As far as we’re aware, it’s a lot of fun. A receipt and an entry voucher provide some clues in the morning, as do some extraordinary photos taken on our little camera – the last one timed at 4am. Suffice to say our first full day in Hong Kong is a write-off!
Onto a winner?
Having recovered we spend the next three days socialising, relaxing and generally feeling very much at home. By extreme coincidence, it happens to be the Hong Kong Derby on Sunday, and Charlie’s old boss from racing days long ago, Sean Woods (now training in Hong Kong) has a few runners.
It’s a superb an unexpected treat to manage to squeeze in a day’s racing and to meet up with old friends. We spend the day being royally looked after by Suzanne Baker (Sean’s horse physio) and her husband Simon, enjoying the state-of-the-art fineries of Sha Tin racecourse.
We spend our final evening in Hong Kong enjoying a home-cooked pizza and salad in front of a DVD. We actually feel incredibly homesick to be leaving, knowing just what awaits us back on the mainland and the homeliness of what we’re leaving behind. But we mustn’t grumble too much…