adventures and madness

China – Guilin & back to Bejing (3/3)

This post covers the portion of the trip running from reuniting in Beijing, taking the train to Guilin, seeing stuff in & around Guilin, and then returning back to Beijing to fly home.

You can skip back to other posts:
* Departure and Bejing(1/3)
* Big loop via train, including Xian, Chengdu, Zhangjiajie and Shanghai(2/3)

  

We awoke to the alarm clock at 5:15AM. We had to catch the 7:10AM G104 fast train to Beijing, to meet back up with Denise. I quickly showered, and made sure all of our stuff was packed up. The hotel provided a free breakfast buffet at 6AM, and I knew that we were going to be cutting everything very tight, as we had a 25 minute subway ride from the hotel to the train station. We came down to the lobby at 5:45AM, and the breakfast spread was mostly setup, but not completely. We waited another 10 minutes, and then started grabbing food. It was pretty good, and we somehow managed to stuff ourselves in 15 minutes. We got checked out of the hotel, and walked briskly to the subway. The two subway cards that I had purchased the previous night just to save time, didn’t work. I can only guess they are date restricted. We scrambled to buy two more, and ran down to the platform, where we just missed the train car at 6:20AM. We stood waiting a very long 8 minutes for the next train, and finally got on. We had 7 stops to ride, and each one felt like forever as the minutes passed. Finally the subway arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao station at 6:51AM, and we raced up the steps. I was dreading a huge line just to enter the station proper for the ridiculous ID+ticket check, but for whatever reason, it didn’t exist at this station. We found the huge electronic sign board, saw which waiting hall our train was scheduled to depart, and ran there. We managed to get in line at 6:58AM, and they started boarding at 7AM. The train was fine, we ended up in the first row of a train car, that had only 3 seats on one side of the aisle. We thought we had lucked out and gotten the 3rd seat empty, but a few stops later, a man took the seat. The trip was uneventful, and we pulled into Beijing South station about 10 minutes early. At this point we needed to get on the Beijing subway, and take it over to Beijing West station, to meet Denise for our 15:48 T5 train to Guilin that afternoon. For reasons that remain a mystery, there’s no simply, direct or straightforward way to take the subway between the two train stations. Instead we had to change trains twice, which was an annoying hassle, especially in very crowded stations. However, we got to Beijing West in less than an hour, and found Denise waiting as planned. We spent a little time outside the station stocking up on food for the 23 hour train ride down to Guilin. Then we headed back into the station, found our waiting hall, and got in the line at the gate. Amazingly, they started boarding the train early. We got on the train, and found our berth. Eventually an elderly couple claimed the top & bottom bunks across from ours, and then a younger guy took the middle bunk. The young guy actually spoke reasonably decent English, and spent a lot of the trip listening in on Denise’s stories of North Korea. The older couple didn’t seem to speak any English at all, but beyond that they were quiet, and kept mostly to themselves.

  

We slept reasonably well that night. I think I was trained out at that point of the trip, as the 2nd day on the train felt like it dragged on forever. The scenery was ok, but nothing stellar. We did manage to pull into Guilin about 20 minutes early. As soon as we stepped out of the train, the heat & humidity hit us like a wall. It wasn’t just warm, it was HOT. We had about a 25 minute walk from the train station to the hotel. The walk itself wasn’t too bad, it was a straight shot up the street from the train station, however finding the hotel was a bit of a challenge. We knew roughly where it should have been, and we had the address. However, when we got to the rough area that it should have been, we couldn’t find the place. I walked on ahead further up the street for a bit to see if it was further away, but still didn’t see it. This wasn’t an empty barren part of the city either. It was packed with tons of hotels, shops & restaurants, which, if anything, only made it more difficult to search. We back tracked a bit thinking perhaps we had missed the place, but still didn’t see anything. Then Denise suggested that perhaps the hotel was actually down a side alley, so we started looking down every alley in the vicinity of where the hotel should have been. Finally after searching 3 alleys, we found the place. Getting checked in was way more of a struggle than it should have been. The two women at the front desk (who looked to be maybe 18 years old) spoke almost no English, and clearly something wasn’t quite right as they were fumbling around, and making phone calls. About the only phrase that they seemed to know in English was “please wait 5 minutes”. Eventually one of them handed me the phone, and on the other end was some older sounding woman with a super strong accent. The best that I could figure out was that they were going to refund us some of the reservation room rate because they couldn’t provide breakfast (which was included). Once that hurdle was crossed, there was some confusion over how much I had to pay, including the (silly, annoying) 100Y security deposit. Finally everything was sorted out, and we headed up to our room only to find that the key didn’t work. Back down I went to the front desk, and thankfully they seemed to understand enough to know that my key didn’t work. Finally we got into our room, which was surprisingly really nice (although a bit on the gaudy side). The AC worked (although figuring out how to operate it was a fun challenge, since all of the buttons were not in English), the wifi worked fairly well, and the beds were a decent size. However, there were only two sets of towels in the bathroom, so I had to go back down yet again to request a third. Yet another struggle ensued, as, at first, the front desk ladies had no clue wtf I was trying to say. They handed me a pen & paper, so I tried to write down what I needed, but that also confused them. Then one of them whipped out a phone with an English/Chinese translator app, and that finally broke through. Apparently the point of confusion was that when I wrote “towel” in English, the way I wrote the letter ‘t’ looked to them like a letter ‘f’, and they had no clue what a “fowel” was (or maybe they though i wanted a bird in my room?). Either way, once they figured out what I meant, they told me to “wait 5 minutes in room” and thankfully someone knocked on our door 5 minutes later with an extra set of towels & pillows. Once it got closer to dinner time, we headed out to explore & find somewhere decent to eat. We ended up walking a decent distance until we stumbled into an area that was full of restaurants of different sizes. We checked out a few different places, but some of them had no English menus (not even a picture menu), others were ridiculous tourist traps (pizza, steaks, spaghetti, etc). Finally we found a place which claimed to be the “Forest Gump Restaurant”. They had a picture menu, which was all fairly decent looking Chinese food, so we decided to give it a try. Initially they seated us at one table, but less than a minute later, they started franticly gesturing for us to move. So we got up, and they moved us to a different table, all the way in the back corner of the restaurant. There wasn’t anything wrong with this other table, but it seemed odd that they forced us to move there. As we perused the menu, we noticed a note at the top that there would be a 3Y (about fifty US cents) per person service charge. Not a big deal, seemed reasonable, so we didn’t make anything of it. We placed our order, and immediately they brought out packages of napkins, and several (Korean) banchan like dishes (pickled cabbage, boiled peanuts, kelp, and a few others). Seemed a bit odd, but we weren’t going to object. However, later we did notice that the tables which were only Chinese people never got any of this stuff. Finally our food came out, and overall it was quite delicious. Eventually they brought us the bill, and it was about 25% higher than it should have been. Denise challenged them, and they admitted that the extra charges were for the napkins & side dishes, none of which we ever requested. So clearly there is a ripoff-the-Westerner tax at this place, which is unfortunate. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a tiny bake shop to buy a few things to eat for breakfast the next morning.

  

The next morning, we awoke at 7AM, showered & ate, and headed down to the lobby to checkout. Thankfully the checkout process went relatively smoothly after the previous day’s language barrier issues. We then waited to be picked up for our Li River boat cruise down to Yangshuo. The way this worked is that I reserved spots via a website a few months earlier, and paid a deposit. The previous night I had to call a local number to let them know which hotel I was in, so that they could tell me roughly what time they’d pick me up in the morning. We were told 8AM, so we waited. A few minutes after 8AM, this young man came walking down the alley, introduced himself, and confirmed the balance that I needed to pay for the cruise. I paid him, and he led us to a large tour bus which was parked not far away. As we were walking, the guy turned to Denise and asked how tall David was (in meters). We thought it was an odd question, plus we really didn’t know how tall he was in meters, so we just agreed to whatever the guy guessed. The boat ride down to the river took about 45 minutes, and was uneventful. As we were waiting in the boat ticket center, the guy suddenly approached us again, and this time claimed that we had to pay more for David because he was “too tall”. It then became obvious that they were running some kind of scam, and I strenuously refused to pay anything else. The guy seemed to back down, but then a minute later shoves his cell phone at me, demanding that I talk with his manager. I refused, and told him that we already paid in full, and any issues with their pricing will be his problem to sort out. The guy seemed really unsure what to do at this point, and seemed again to back down. We boarded the boat, and took a seat. Before the boat had even pulled away from the dock, the guy was back, demanding more money for David. Again, I screamed at him that we’re not going to be ripped off, and we’ve already paid in full. This definitely caught the attention of several others near us, and the guy noticed that he was about to lose face. He never said another word to us after that. The cruise itself was nice, despite the horrific air pollution. I had actually gone on the same cruise the last time I was in Guilin. The quality of the food served for lunch, however, was much lower than the last time. While it was all Chinese food, it was mostly tasteless, and very greasy. And, of course, all the Chinese people on the boat were pushing & shoving to get to the front of the buffet line. The boat ride wrapped up around 2PM, and dropped us off at the Yangshuo docks. We knew that we had a non-trivial walk to the hotel, which was a bit outside of the town of Yangshuo. On top of that, it was super hot & humid again. So adding in the fact that we were hauling our baggage, and it was not the most enjoyable walk. Despite that, we did get there in about 40 minutes (albeit, drenched in sweat). The hotel was quite nice, a good distance outside of the town in a farming valley where it was peaceful. Our room had AC & wifi, and the couple running the place were Australian ex-pats, so English was never a problem. That night, we walked back into town to find dinner. We ended up eating at a truly stellar Indian place. Then after some more wondering around, we headed back to the hotel in the dark. The road had almost no lighting, and we were prepared with headlamps. We relaxed for the rest of the evening.

  

We got up the next morning, ate a decent western style breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and then waited for our ride. That day we were going on a full day bike tour of the countryside outside of Yangshuo. Our guide, Andy, arrived on time in his SUV, and drove us back into Yangshuo to pick up the bikes. The bikes weren’t great, but ok. They were single gear, and a bit old, but functional enough. Despite that, we did have a really nice tour. In addition to the gorgeous natural scenery, we also stopped in tiny villages, and explored several hundred year old homes (which were in a state of gradual decay). We travelled down narrow dirt tracks, and occasionally primary roads with a ton of traffic. We had the most amazing lunch at some unsigned shack beside the river. The highlight was snail shells stuffed with this rice & pork concoction, which was a Guilin speciality. Once the tour was over, we were taken back to the hotel, where we grabbed our bags, and caught a taxi to Guilin airport. We had a flight back to Beijing, in preparation for our flight home the next day. The taxi ride went fine. The airport was still a fairly miserable place, with few dining options, no free wifi, and poor signage. We ended up eating dinner at the only restaurant (other than KFC), where the food was passable. Once we cleared security, we tried to locate the gate for our flight. Our boarding passes claimed it was gate #1, yet when we got there, there was no indication that it was the correct gate. Unlike most normal airports, there was no huge signboard indicating the correct gate number for any flight. After wandering the entire length of the airport, I eventually did find a small signboard at the far end of the terminal, which listed the correct gates for all flights. Its mind boggling why someone thought this was the right place for the sign. Thankfully our flight boarded & left on time, and we were in Bejing shortly before midnight. Next we found a taxi for the 15 minute drive to the hotel. We got checked in without any issues (plus got a ‘free’ upgrade to a larger room). We slept really well that night, on super comfortable beds.

  

We awoke the next morning, and got breakfast at the buffet in the lobby. This was a fairly mediocre buffet (and was 57Y/person, no less), but it was food, and there really weren’t any other nearby options outside the hotel. Afterwards we checked out, and caught the 10AM (free) airport shuttle. After some initial confusion over where we needed to check in for our flight (Beijing’s airport has a security gate *before* ticketing!?), we got through immigration & security and to our gate with a few hours to spare. We first had to fly back to Seoul (Korea), then catch a connecting flight back to SFO. The flight to Seoul/Incheon left on time. We had about an hour to make the connection, and raced through Incheon, to get to our gate with a few minutes to spare before boarding time. The flight home was uneventful, and arrived on time. US immigration was a complete zoo. We were in a crazy long line, which took nearly 45 minutes. Then there was yet another line after the baggage carousels. Then we had a 10 minute wait for our parking shuttle bus. Finally we were home at bit after 2PM.

Overall, I think it was a nice trip. Its difficult to proclaim a trip to China as awesome, amazing or great, because the pollution, cultural conflicts, and other oddities always seem to detract from the overall experience. David & I haven’t absolutely ruled out another China trip someday, but I think we’ve had our fill for now.

All trip pictures are posted HERE.

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