MAO, MICHELANGELO & LAWNMOWERSBy
Today was my first full day in Yangshuo. I think I am recovered from my zombie-like, sleep-deprived sleep of the previous day.
Before moving on with my observations, I do need to put on my art critic’s cap for just a moment and give you a verbal tour of the hotel’s art collection! In the lobby of the hotel, there is a bit of a gallery happening. Above the cashier is a massive, relaxed & grinning Mao wearing his usual tunic, staring down on all the foreigners. Its not bad actually, but the expression is awkward and just wrong. Spotting a grand piece of kitsch, the French hotel proprietor picked it up for a song. Equally as disturbing, and I’m sure cheap, was the frightening Mona Lisa hanging at the head of my bed. It is also painted by the same proportionally-challenged artist. The painter tried – and his skill and handling of a brush is admirable, but poor old Mona looks more ghoulish more than serene. Sadly no picture exists since I accidentally deleted it. But maybe that’s a good thing as Michelangelo rests a little bit more at peace tonight!
So what is there to do in this town? Plenty! There is no end of the locals wandering the streets, shouldering bags filled with brochures and maps, trying to sell you on any kind of trip you can imagine. Want to rent a bike? Plenty of those around to be sure – even the tandem bikes. Watching fresh tourist meat on a tandem is always good for a laugh. A word of caution though… start from the curb, don’t start in a crowd and make sure you are on speaking terms with your fellow rider. If not, it is cycling carnage! Want a boat ride? Any kind of boat can be had here, as Yangshuo is a river town and the river is the bringer of all life. I read that somewhere!
Beside locals selling you on tours and excursions, there are several, more official kiosks and storefront offices where trips can be put together, paid for and cars hired to ferry you around. Best you use one of these, as they are more legit’ and they will take care of all the details – something that is missing in the rush to push pamphlets in the hands of deer-caught-in-the-headlights western tourists!
Today I eased into the groove and settled on a boat trip up the Lijiang River – the Li River. It was raining pretty steadily on the river as the plastic drainage pipe, faux-bamboo-hulled boat chugged and wheezed on the start of its two-hour trip. The Li was choked with craft of all sorts, apparently unaware the rain was unrelenting and soaking all the dry tourists.
The air hung heavy with brooding mist and fog. Out of the mists you could make out all the other awning-covered skiffs and their put-put-put lawnmower engines powering ridiculously delicate 2-bladed propellers at the end of 4-metre drive shafts. Despite the tiny blender-like propellers, these boats could move with great agility! Need to slow down?… Just tip the engine down, raising the shaft’s propeller out of the water and you quickly come to a stop in the on-coming current. Got to admit, it’s all that is needed here. No hi-tech gearing – that would just be overkill, and frankly a little garish!
The ride up the Li was stunning despite the weather. The meandering river wandered through and around the karst mountains and sheer cliffs that plunged hundreds of metres right down beside the boats. It was a bit of a spooky feeling seeing these landforms. Like Apocalypse Now, the river had it’s own life and rhythm, you could here the moan of Martin Sheen and Marlin Brando through the foggy drizzle.
Today, all colour had been drained out of the landscape in place of grayscale landforms. Colour would almost have been too much. The humped and rounded karst shapes, formed by water eroding the massive mountains of limestone left elegant and feminine shapes as far as the eye could see. Other than a similar type of geography in Vietnam, there is nothing like this anywhere. So when you are shooting these mountains, forget about getting the colour right, go for the subtle gradations in tone as the mountains overlap each other long into the distance. This is one area where well-exposed black and white photography is absolutely the right way to go, especially on a drizzly day!
At the end of the boat trip, you land at the shore of a tiny village where you are descended upon by people selling you fresh flower headbands (quite pretty actually), postcards, rain ponchos (more like brightly colored garbage bags with arms and what passes as a hood), and long pump-style squirt bazookas! I opt for a cinderblock room facing the street and drinking tea while keeping an sharp eye out for the local buses heading back to Yangshuo.
Back in Yangshuo, after a bus ride so full that passengers sat on wooden stools provided by the driver, I shower and take a quick scan through my days photos before heading out to dinner. I didn’t shoot too many today, only about 450 so far – it was after all, a pretty dull day!
Out on the streets I noticed there were several places in town catering to western tastes. On such place was the Red Star pizza restaurant. I ordered a small pizza and a bowl of pasta carbonara. The pizza was a surprise. It was hot, well cooked and tasty. The pasta on the other hand was a complete watery disaster though! No intervention, short of getting into the kitchen myself and demonstrating could bring the carbonara back to life. I left it almost untouched in the thin red plastic bowl. Not bad though, a 50% success rate in western cuisine!
This morning I switched hotels due to booking issues with the Mid August festival. Just down the street was the Venice Hotel. To my knowledge, other than the stream running beside another street in town, there were no canals here, nor varnished gondolas. Ah! Yes! But there are vaguely Italian-style balconies above the street! My room is 303 and looked over West Street below. It is tireless form of entertainment – watching the garbage-bag-wearing people from above. Some walk hand-in-hand, others with hands behind their backs (these are mostly the Chinese), and still others picking at themselves, unaware they are being observed and even photographed! The fun never ends!