I think they ought to send all Control Freaks to China. A week here would cure them.
You have to expect the unexpected. You can never be sure if you are going the right way, or getting the right advice, or hearing the true story. Everything is chaotic, at least from an outsider's standpoint. But the Chinese just take it all in stride. Control Freaks would blow a gasket. The Chinese even have an expression: "Meibanfa?" Which means "What can you do?"
We asked about taking a boat down the river Li from Xingping back down to Yangshuo. It sounded like an innocent question. You just take a bus up to Xingping and ride a boat back down. It's a shorter ride and you'll see the best of the mountains this way. Our hotel manager walked us to the bus station and got us on the right bus. We got good seats because we kept picking up people until folks were standing in the isle. The bus is really a 20 seat diesel van.
Few people spoke any English and Bill and I had just finished a Qingdao beer at lunch. I had dumped most of it. But Bill began to ask how far and how long the bus would be bouncing over all these rocks? We were told 40 minutes. Will this bus make stops along the way? Yes, sure it would. Of course the "stops" they referred to were stops to pick up more people. Like the man that ran alongside and jumped aboard. Then Bill asked the discrete question: "Xishoujin zai nar ma?" (Is there a bathroom there?) A huge wave of laughter swept through the van. Excited Chinese people began talking loudly among themselves. Some were turning their heads back toward us and pointing at Bill. He turned several shades of red. Whereas the bus was fairly quiet before (except for the loud engine), everyone was engaged in great discussion and made animated gestures toward the meiguoren that needed to stop to pee.
The bus is managed by a woman and her husband, he's the driver, she's the money agent. She yelled up toward him in rapid Chinese and soon we were stopped at a brick wall that meandered toward a small building. Bill got up and pushed himself toward the front. Gesturing toward the small building Bill asked if that was the bathroom. No, right here by the wall she gestured. More laughter. Bill rolled his eyes, no way I'm going there with a busload of people watching my back. Besides, it's on Dave's side of the bus! He has a camera. He put both hands up: meiguanxi, meiguanxi (It's okay, it's okay) and went back to his seat. By this time the entire bus was hysterically laughing. They were having a great time. When we left the van the woman in front of us said: "Thank you for giving us great entertainment." "Yeah, sure don't mention it." Bill muttered.
We arrived at Xingping town but it was nowhere near the boat. Where are the boats? We found a "taxi" that was no more than motorcycle with a seating shell on the back. For a single yuan they'll take us to the boat. So we took it.
This thing blazes through narrow streets that are only slightly wider than a motorcycle. There are people mingling through the shops that have to jump out of the way as the driver flies through full throttle honking. No one seems to mind. They just take it in stride. Meibanfa?
We arrive at long narrow boats with little folding chairs. I mean little. These are what we used in school when I was in first grade. We took a few seats in the back and waited. There were two girls sitting in front of us that were very friendly. One spoke a little English. Her and her friend were on a holiday. They reminded us of Yuki and Chisato, full of giggles and lots of energy.
We had grand views of the mountains going up the river. I was caught up in snapping pictures of the beauty and didn't realize that we were traveling up the river not down. That would mean that we'd have to take the "taxi" and the 40 minute bus ride back. I'll remind Bill to go to the bathroom before boarding.
We had a grand touring excursion. At one point the boat pilot stopped at an island to let old woman sell us trinkets. I knew what was happening as soon as he slowed toward the shore. It's a pattern. The old woman with baskets of trinkets flood the shore as the boat touches the rocks. At first you can't see them because they huddle in the shade under the few trees available.
The boat tour is supposed to be an hour an a half. But after having turned around and about an hour into the tour he made another stop. He looked over our head toward the back of the boat and gestured toward the shore. (Even if you don't speak the language, gestures are universal.) What was going on? The girls asked a few questions and discovered that the police were scouting for illegal boats. This is an illegal boat? What? Turns out that the bigger boats that passed us were the only authorized boats to take tours. They held about 100 people and had several decks to them. (I was cursing at them earlier because they kept blocking the good shots.) I later learned that the larger boats go the full length of the river and take about 4-5 hours. The smaller boats just take about an hour (sans the time to get to them by bus) and show the best of the river. But I was never told that we were stowaways.
How long is the walk back? Thirty minutes? What? Are you joking? These were the responses that came to mind. But the Chinese just obediently exited and began the trek back along the rocky shore. How much did I pay for this? I thought is was round trip ticket.
The girls tried to negotiate with him for all of us. Some decided to lay down in the boat so the prowling police wouldn't see them. They didn't want to walk. They got in, folded the chairs (now I know why they were folding chairs), and laid on top. That sounded like a good idea to me and I started toward the boat when Bill grabbed my arm and suggested that we'd be party to illegal activities. "Yeah, but it's not MY boat. He'd be the one fined or taken to jail." "Are you sure the authorities would view it that way?" Yeah, well, you may have a point there Bill. Sheesh.
So we started walking along with the girls. It was actually a great walk. We could stop anytime for pictures and the weather was a warm, comfortable 20 degrees centigrade (68 degrees fahrenheit). And it was quiet. We didn't realize just how loud that shuttering diesel boat was.
Just up the river there were all kinds of empty rafts with people offering to take us up the river by push-rod. These are bamboo rafts made with four shaded chairs. Two people at either end, usually husband and wife, will push you down the river using long bamboo poles. For just a few more yuan we wouldn't have to walk. We passed. Now I had doubts about the police. I asked the girls but she said No the police are for real. It has been a problem. Looking out at the river I could see how this is true. The river was choked with boats of every size. I was glad to be on shore.
We walked for about 15 minutes. When we rounded a bend who should we meet but our old boat pilot friend. He had gone ahead of us, the police had gone up the river, the coast was clear. All aboard!
The ride back to the hotel was less eventful, at least less entertaining because Bill had gone to the bathroom before we left. Getting into the bus was a crazy mob attempt though. We had been standing at the side of the next bus to Yangshuo. It was locked up, there was no driver. But this, in fact, was the correct bus. We waited. We were just a few people back from the side door. A bus had just left, crammed with riders. A woman screamed out at what proved to be the driver (maybe her husband?). He ran out, jumped into the driver's side, started up the bus and drove off, leaving us standing there. Well, some of us. The rest of the mob ran ahead alongside and joined another mob in an attempt to squeeze through his opening doors. Our new Chinese girl friends pushed through the crowds and saved us seats. I let someone else take mine. The long and short of it was that I was left standing.
I didn't mind standing. We drove off. I began to ignore the incessant beeping of our driver warning throngs of people to move aside. I poked my head down at the windows and watched the sun dip below the ridges. I was soon lost in the beauty of the moment. There is nothing like the landscape here anywhere in America.
I heard the lady money collector yell in quick Chinese at her driver and then out the window at an old man sitting at a stall. He jumped up, grabbed his small stool, and ran alongside the bus. When it slowed (it never stopped), she leaned out, grabbed the stool, closed the door, and handed me the 12 inch stool. I was dazed by the kindness. I couldn't refuse even though I felt as though I'd taken it from the old man myself. I said: "xiexie nin." (Thank you.)
We had B52 cocktails for dinner and afterward watched a man make 30 minute wax busts of tourists for just $6 each.
Only the guy who isn't rowing has time to rock the boat. -Jean-Paul Sartre