The bus ride into Yangshuo was the first taste of Chinese traffic chaos that I would get, and definitely not the last. From the beginning the bus driver’s companion was trying to herd passengers in from the train station simply by leaning out of the doorway and screaming “Yangshuo! Yangshuo!” Unlike bus terminals I’ve traveled through in America, where departures are scheduled and routes are predetermined, this passage seemed to be spontaneous, as if the driver had just found a bus parked on his farm in the morning, thanks to Buddha, and decided to immediately put it to work by showing up at the train station and shouting “Yangshuo!” out the window until enough passengers climbed aboard to pay for the gas. The sales pitch didn’t stop after leaving the train station, and as we made our way out of the city the bus pulled up alongside what seemed to be regular municipal bus stops, where people were waiting patiently for their regular transportation. “Yangshuo!” the operator shouted, convincing several people who must have lost faith in the arrival of whatever bus they were previously waiting for to hop on board.
Arriving at the bus station in Yangshuo was the first experience that felt really Chinese, and where I felt really different. All the drivers of parked busses were standing around, and upon sight of four Westerners anxiously cried out the names of wherever they were going, hoping to take us there. People approached trying to help carry our bags, people stopped and stared. There was some kind of order in how the whole site was operated, I’m sure, it just wasn’t clear to anyone who hadn’t been standing there for fifty years. We dragged our luggage out of the parking lot and onto the main drag of Yangshuo, Diecui Rd., past shops, banks, alongside pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, autos, all sharing the road in disharmony.
We arrived at Lisa’s Mountain Lodge on Furong Lu, where our rooms weren’t ready but English breakfast was available. Walking into the café we passed the bar, upon which sat giant jars filled with strange things, including a gigantic snake. I paused for a moment and considered ordering it for breakfast, but eventually settled for a potato omelet and orange juice, or “Chinese Crepes” as the menu described them. My food arrived last, and only after I started to wonder out loud if it would ever come. I suspect the waitress was waiting for me to mention again what I ordered, so that she wouldn’t have to bring me snake. The breakfast was like a holy supper after fasting on the overnight train.
We had a few minutes to clean up before setting out on the kayaking trip. A small van arrived as our transportation, and we gathered in and drove out of the town toward the Li River. Upon arrival we were asked to pay the modest fee, and then the river men tossed some filthy orange life jackets in our direction. I neglected to put on sunscreen, and received a sunburn souvenir I would carry for several upcoming weeks. The river itself was tranquil and at some points clean and gurgling. When I didn’t paddle it was silent, totally. But some portions were populated by gassy bubbles on the surface and what looked like floating clumps of excrement. I imagine the villagers have no sewage system and rely on the river. Plastic bottles floated at points perhaps to mark shallow water. Women were at the banks washing their laundry, men on rafts fishing under umbrellas, and what appeared to be oxen were quartered under shady trees by rope.
Halfway through our journey, we took a rest. We stopped at a restaurant perched on the riverbank, which was basically a straw roof over a wooden floor, with two or three tables in between. We were given some peanuts, but while sitting, and without saying anything out loud, we decided that we didn’t want to eat there. Maybe because some of us hadn’t exchanged our Macau dollars for Yuan Remimbi yet, or possibly because there were chickens running around outside and I got the impression whatever we ordered was going to be killed and cooked right in front of us.
After peanuts, we walked up the bank to have a look at the local village. The buildings had shops selling bare essentials, and there was a peanut oil factory, and people sitting in bare concrete dusty rooms, open to the street, where only bicycles had room to pass. But they had television sets. It reminded me of the ancient ruins in Rome but inhabited with candy-sellers and TV watchers.
A bus brought us back to Yangshuo and we passed more antique development along the way, and a bit of new modern construction. Yangshuo itself seems modern compared to the village, but still remains a small city. The bus rides have been riotous so far, getting cut off by bicycles and pedestrians, listening to the steady output of an air horn.