We arrived at the Guilin airport near ten o’clock in the morning. The facilities and surrounding area was just as bleak as Beijing, but there were no armed soldiers walking about, and this was a good thing.
Charles took off into the busy parking area to arrange for a car to the hotel as we observed the many vendors selling strange snacks and souvenirs. We learned this city was a tourist area which was evident by the many Westerners milling about the airport. I was in awe as two young boys bought dried lizards on a stick from a bent and scarred shop owner with mangled hands, and went munching on their way.
A fellow with a deep Texas drawl standing next to me smiled and remarked, “I been to two world fairs and a goat ropin’ but I ain’t never seen anything like this!” Well, I missed the goat ropin’, but I had never seen anything like this either. Charles returned with a van and we headed off to the hotel.
The Li River Hotel was our second experience with a Chinese owned and operated hotel. The room was a tad cleaner than in Harbin but a long way from Edith’s well run establishment. The sad part… a new Holiday Inn was two hundred yards down the street.
“I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t know about the new hotel when I booked the trip. I promise you we will stay there next time!” Charles responded to the barrage of complaints.
My room had linoleum on the floor… and six inches up the wall. Whomever had measured had been a foot too long, but rather than cut it off, they had run the excess up the wall. Oh well. It should hold water if there was a flood.
We took a vote and unanimously elected to have our meals at the new Holiday Inn.
“We have a day of rest tomorrow,” Charles informed us. “I have booked us a seat on the Li River tour boat. It should be very interesting.” Those words proved to be inadequate to describe our experience.
The water in the river was muddy and polluted, full of floating debris. I expected that. The boat was crowded… no overcrowded would be more accurate. If you got out of your seat to take a picture, forget it. A Chinese person on holiday was in your seat… and they wouldn’t get up. One’s only hope was to play the same game. Within a half hour, none of our group was seated together.
The scenery was beautiful and interesting. The gray and black mountains, steep and pointy, looked like up side down ice cream cones. Ancient graves carved into the hillsides could be seen through the underbrush. Women washing clothes as well as people washing their bodies was a common sight. Groves of willow trees lined the river bank and provided a tasty treat for the hundreds of water buffalo’s along the way.
They served a meal on board. Mine came in a small box that had obviously been used before. Looking around, it was clear that most of the boxes had been used before. When the box was opened, it revealed a small portion of fried rice, three shriveled up shrimp and a pair of wooden chop sticks… also used before. I wasn’t aware of the fact, but I must have been staring at the un-appetizing morsels for some time when the lady next to me made a gesture toward the box, and then pointed to her chest. Was I going to eat that, was the obvious question. I assured her I was not and passed the box to her. The contents quickly disappeared.
I approached the railing to get a photo of one of the graves when we passed an identical tour boat making the return trip back to Guilin. At that point, I became very thankful that I had passed the food box to my fellow passenger. In the rear of the passing boat, where the meals were prepared, three Chinese workers were wiping out used boxes with rags and stacking them up for the next run. That was frightening, but not the highlight. One of the female crew members was washing her feet in the same large pot where the shrimp had been boiled. That was the highlight. We all had a lot of laughs that night over drinks at the new Holiday Inn.
It was at this point that it started to sink in. What we were seeing was not a movie or some fictitious play about life in a foreign country. What we were seeing was the real China. A culture the details we had never heard about… a culture most people never get to see. I knew then that someday I would write these stories.
We were having breakfast at the Holiday Inn the next morning when two young Chinese, one male and the other female, interrupted us.
“Are you from America?” the female asked. Her voice was delicate, like tiny bells, and her English was pretty good. Both were smiling broadly.
“Yes, we are,” came the reply from several of us.
“I am Foo Yee, and this is Miss Hu. We have been sent from our factory to accompany you on the train to Liuchou.” The young man was short (no surprise) with a round face and an ever-present wide smile. The girl was tiny, with little variation in her figure, but very attractive and… okay, I’ll say it. She was quite sexy.
“I am assistant to our factory leader, Mr. Chong Pei. I will be the one to translate all the documents and interpret for your visit. Miss Hu is my assistant. The train leaves in two hours. We must not be late, or I will face the music from my leader.” Foo Yee’s grin became even wider.
I smiled as well. A Chinese man with a sense of humor. A sense of humor in English.
“I’m looking forward to my first train ride in China,” I remarked. I had no idea of what lay in store.