Saturday, October 9, 2010

Day 49 -- A China Reader, Part 1: Guilin and Yangshuo

Vast and boundless the internet may, China strives to eclipse it in ponderous bulk.

I have been remiss in posting information lately about my trip, for which I can only offer as an excuse that I have been laboring under Communist oppression and internet censorship (a suitably archaic statement that I would never have thought to utter a few short months ago). I have been in China, of course: that much was clear from the start. Some weeks ago Michelle and I ventured north to the city of Guilin by express train, a journey which I will recount momentarily.

Of course, I knew before coming here that certain websites were unavailable within the People`s Republic of China, yet I was unaware of the degree to which information technology is carefully regulated and massaged by the Communist party. They are like some mischevious satellite blotting out information, refusing to budge from their precarious perch in between reality and the stagnant shadows of truth and history that hang over the nation. It is difficult to concieve of comparatively silly things like Facebook, Blogspot and functional search engines as democratic freedoms, but I assure you that I will never again take them for granted.

(At least I and the countless legion of petty bloggers can take solace in the fact that we are sufficiently subversive in our personal views to erode Chinese soverignity and threaten its citizens` moral virtue; for if travelling has taught me anything, it is to take pleasure in such minutia.)

Politics aside, China has proved to be a fascination like no other. South China is known for its rustic charms and dazzling landscapes: towering karst peaks and flowing rivers with bent pine trees jutting out over impossible gorges. You may have encountered the oft-repeated adage that whatever it is that you expect to find in China exists somewhere in the country, no matter how bizarre or strange it might be. This quite true, but so is the inverse. We arrived in the city of Guilin late at night and found accomodations for ourselves situated across the street from a large shopping arcade: a brazen, neon encrusted thing that glowed like a pulsar in the hazy night air.

Fancying an evening stroll, we took advantage of its proximity to sample something of Chinese society. The experience was much like that of walking through Central Park, or indeed any other fashionable Western neighborhood. The streets were well lit and as we penetrated deeper into the maze of Gucci and Louis Vuitton storefronts the neon gave way to soft streetlamps; elevator jazz played softly as smartly dressed men and ladies walked to and fro leading groomed pets (mostly dogs--poodles and the like, but occasionally a small child was at the end of the leash instead). The occasional electric palm tree and prefabricated beach hut gave the place a distinct holiday feel: it made you relaxed enough to buy something expensive at one of the shops.

Thus, my first impressions of China went something like this:

Ah, what a quiet, well-ordered country full of mild-mannered individuals from the upper-middle class!

This remained my more or less consistant opinion of China all throughout the southern part of the country. Guilin itself is something of a playground for Chinese fleeing the cities of hives of Guangzhou and Shenzen (that's where the money is, in case you were wondering) due to its image as a plesant backwater with low population (about 1.3 million residents) good shopping, nightlife and very little else unless you count the Li River and the rolling karst cliffs that pass through the center of town.

For Michelle and I, these natural features were the main draw to the region. We spent a considerable amount of time in the small town of Yangshuo, a typical backpacker haunt with its electric boogaloo of discos, fireworks, street food and tremendous geological beauty with the titanic karst cliffs of illuminated by giant floodlights at night so that tour busses could run into the predawn hours. Tourism was endemic to the region, and I felt positively ragged in my backpacker chic by comparison to the coiffed Chinese tourists in bright silks and linen who needed no provocation to snap pictures of the quaint Americans with their glittering Nikon lenses. We were very much on display, almost a part of the local color so far as the visiting Chinese were concerned.

Money seeped from Yangshuo's pores; the touts and shopkeepers barely looked our way, knowing that their marked-up handicrafts would always sell to the next visitor unlike the frenzied bargaining of Southeast Asia. The wide streets and pedestrian boulevards bespoke careful planning and capital investment on a large scale as did the cleanliness and well-groomed appearance of the tourist areas. It was unsettling in a way to visit a developing country and find myself economically outclassed by the average person on the street though the reality of that wealth was cold and hard as the diamonds and jewels priced higher than my entire bank account. The Chinese do enjoy their shopping excursions; at least for those that can afford to travel and vacation at leisure. For every well-to-do Chinese tourist, there was at least one local picking through garbage.

Despite these oddities, I cannot fault the scenery and natural beauty of south China for being anything less than stunning. The jagged peaks shrouded in mist and golden terraces of rice were magnificent and utterly unique (if a trifle hazy in the afternoon). The dainty brushstrokes of a Chinese mountain watercolor are less fanciful than one might suppose, a credit to the eyes of local painters throughout history.

Yet after a week we were happy to trade floodlit mountains for flourescent skyscrapers: Hong Kong and Shanghai awaited to the north, the urban jewels of China though there is much to see beneath their faceted surface. In my next post I hope to offer a fruitful comparison between the two and bring you up to date on my movements thus far.

Don't worry--I'm not under the China's digital shadow just yet. Look for more news tomorrow, if fortune allows.

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