Guilin China : the postcard city!
Read our previous posting at “Suzhou : Paradise on earth?”
Our two and a half hours Shanghai Airlines flight from Shanghai to Guilin gives me plenty of time to pull out my laptop and start writing my blog of the day. It certainly is a better way to pass the time than the heavy gunfire and martial arts movies which Chinese airlines seem to put on whenever we are aboard. It is still morning but I already have more blog material than I know what to do with. Our flight to Guilin was delayed at the gate for one and a half hour because of an air traffic jam around Shanghai. The stewardess we questioned about this was in no way concerned; she in fact predicted that we would be delayed for a couple of hours, as this seems par for the road at 9am at the Shanghai Hongqiao airport. This is the first delay we encounter on our entire trip so far, and it gives me some time to think about what we have experienced.
It is ten thirty in the morning, and I already have had three full breakfasts. First, not knowing what was in store for us, we had ordered a full room service English breakfast at 5:30am, since we had to leave the Pudong Shangri-La Hotel for the airport at 6:45am and the Horizon Club lounge opens at 6:30am, too late really for us to take advantage of its offerings. The weather is clear, warm and sunny today, and the ride to the Shanghai Hongqiao airport turned out to be smooth and easy, taking only twenty minutes or so, thanks to our Saturday early morning departure. This left us plenty of time to go to the Shanghai Airlines First Class lounge at Terminal 2 where, lo and behold, a phenomenal Chinese style breakfast buffet was available and in store for us, including an irresistible manned noodle soup station where I could get different types of meat, mushroom, vegetables and condiments to add to my noodle soup. There was also an appetizing array of bamboo containers with various types of steamed buns (baoze) and dumplings (jaoze). And then the main buffet table with a wide choice of fruit, vegetables, meats, cheese, dry noodles, etc… How could I say no?
Boarding was extremely easy, as Shanghai Airlines had a small bus dedicated to bringing first class passengers (all four of us) to the plane, a relatively new Boeing 757. But when the departure delay was announced, soon after we boarded, out came the third breakfast. Lynn ordered the Chinese breakfast and I took the Western breakfast, for comparison’s sake. My vote goes to the Chinese breakfast, even though the omelet was excellent as were the grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes and sausage. However, the porridge and the French pastry did not begin to compare with the congee, the dumplings, the steamed buns and the meat-on-a-toothpick offerings on Lynn’s tray. Both dishes had the same fruit plate; in fact, the one common denominator amid all the meals we have had in all of China so far has been the fruit plate. It is always there, and it always contains the following three fruit: dragon fruit, watermelon, and canteloupe melon. Whoever controls the distribution of those three fruits must be doing pretty well.
The stewardess presented us with a printed menu of drinks, and we selected the herbal tea, which turned out to be a glass of what I can best describe as cold caramel-flavored sugared water. Lynn promptly changed to peppermint tea, and I to English breakfast tea. However, the damage was already done; just like yesterday, I’ll have to skip the next meal if I want any chance to limit my weight gain, which I think is around six or seven pounds now. I am wondering if the wonderfully pretty smiles of the beautiful slim Chinese stewardesses has something to to with my inability to say no to whatever they are offering me. It is true that I never seem to remember the word no in Chinese.
Lynn and I have already discussed our plans for Guilin and Yangshuo, and have even discussed Hong Kong, where we land tomorrow evening. The Li River cruise and the visit of the Yangshuo town are expected to be the two main highlights of our stay in Guilin, and I suspect Lynn is looking at shopping being the highlight of our stay in Hong Kong. For me, I am very curious to see how my favorite hotel in Asia, the Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel has weathered the twenty years or so since I was last there. I was very pleased to find out yesterday that the renovation of the Shang Palace restaurant at the hotel was complete and that Lynn and I have a Tuesday evening dinner reservation to eat at that two-star Michelin restaurant, probably one of the best Chinese cuisine restaurants in the world.
I was asking Lynn earlier this morning which meal she had enjoyed the most so far during our trip. She mentioned two: the hot pot dinner in Chengdu, and the dim sum lunch at Din Tai Fung in Shanghai. I would have included the Yangcheng Lake hair crab banquet in Shanghai and the zhajiang mian meal in Beijing. Remembering all the Chinese food we have tasted is already proving difficult; I am very pleased that I wrote this blog as it will allow me to refresh my memory when I start writing my own Mastering the Art of Chinese Cuisine book of recipes, or failing that, when Lynn and I go out to the Sichuan Jin River restaurant in Rockville, or the noodles place whose name I have forgotten on Rockville Pike. And when will I have the time to sort through the 1,500 photos I have taken so far? There has to be one or two good ones among all those.
The scenery outside the cabin window has changed drastically now. We have gone from the central plains to a very mountainous area. We are approaching Guilin and I will therefore shut down my computer and continue later.
Le Le is our guide for Guilin, where the climate is semi-tropical; we are now in southern China as the palm trees outside the new airport terminal remind us. The word Gui is the chinese word for the cassia tree, and the word Lin means forest. The yellow and pink flowers of the cassia tree are used to make tea as well as wine. Guilin has an area population of 5 million, of which about 700,000 live within the city. Some time ago, the government decided to emphasize tourism and moved the industry out of Guilin itself. Now 70% of the economy in Guilin comes from tourism, 30% from agriculture. The setting is postcard beautiful; the karst mountains spread across the city, the waters and the banks of the river Li, all a pleasure to look at. There are two rivers running through the town, the Li river and the Tao Hua He; they use the word He for a river with clear water and the word Jiang for a river with muddy water, like the Yangtze.
Le Le explains that there are monkeys and goats in the karst around Guilin, but now, with the great inflow of tourists, they hide and we will probably not see any. The farmers of Guilin still use the water buffalo to plow the rice fields, but the fishermen don’t really use cormoran birds to fish anymore. They now use fishing nets, and only use cormoran for photo opps with tourists in Yangshuo. Carps and catfish are fished in the river Li; by the way, beerfish is the most famous dish of Yangshuo and we are planning to have some tomorrow.
The guide informs us that we will go first to our hotel, a 45 minute drive from the Guilin airport. Half an hour later, as we are driving into Guilin, he tells us that we will go visit the Reed Flute Cave first since it is on the way to the hotel. Later, when I notice the car changing direction, Le Le explains that the Cave is only ten minutes or so out of the way! Why am I the only one thinking that I am being misled?
The people living in Guilin and this part of China are part of China’s minorities, the guide explains to me. There are two such minorities here, the Zhuang and the Yao; they have a lot in common with the people from Vietnam and Laos, which are only about 500km away, an eight hour train ride. They share the same brown skin and high cheekbones. They speak a dialect which is similar to the Vietnamse language. They have their own customs. One such custom, Le Le explains, is that women wash their head with the water used a few days before to wash the rice. Nutritious, luscious, smelly is how he described it. Another custom is to keep coffins on the third floor of the house once you reach 65 years of age; the ground floor is for the animals (donkey, water buffalo, etc..) and the second floor is where they live. If they die before the age of 70, the coffin is painted red, otherwise it is painted black. They are buried facing east, facing the river and the sunrise. At Chinese New Year, you set up a chair and an empty bowl with chopsticks to remember the dead. Being minorities, the people here can have two children, and the people in the countryside can have even more. They don’t like the people from Tibet, because they are trouble makers. People here in Guilin enjoy the slow and quiet pace of life.
We had a delightful afternoon visiting the magnificent Reed Flute Cave, and then two campuses of Guanxi University where paintings are being sold to tourists. We could not find something we liked enough to purchase, but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the visit of a Chinese university campus.
We then returned to the Shangri-La Guilin hotel, where our room has a phenomenal view of the river Li with chinese fishermen catching snails right in front of the hotel, and with a number of karsts in the background spread across the city. It is different than the view of the Bund in Shanghai, but it is still a sight to behold. We decided to try the special Saturday evening Chinese buffet dinner popular with the locals. it was indeed a new experience. I had several platters of food I am not quite sure what it was, but I do know that I had the local beer (included with the price of the buffet), the famous Guilin rice noodles, mussels and snails, steamed buns, dried pork and beef, while Lynn enjoyed some of the spicier offerings like Indian curry food. I only saw two other non Chinese couples among the hundreds of people partaking of the giant buffet in the Li Cafe of the Shangri La.
Read what happens next at “Yangshuo and the Li River cruise”
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