Yangshuo is just like it’s mountains: strange and spectacular
– Molly Jackson
Arriving in Yangshuo
I flew into Baiyun International (Guangzhou), and it looks like every other airport. The metro from there to Guangzhou city centre was also pretty much like every other metro I’ve been on! I was preparing myself for things to be quite difficult, particularly the lack of English, but I found most signs had English translation, and I had downloaded a map of the metro lines before I left Australia. The main differences were that the tickets weren’t tickets - they’re tokens. Also queues are a trap and they don’t actually exist here. Other than that, the bustling, busy, messy China I had imagined never really came to be.
When I made my way out of the tram station, everything looked 10000% different to the China of my imagination. There were gardens, blue skies, and it was 20 degrees! Lawrence, a man I met on my plane, said Guangzhou is where Chinese people come to eat great food. We had lunch up a super-tall building where he introduced me to a few local dishes. We had taro cake, and dumplings, and an odd century egg rice soup, and chicken feet... To be honest if was all a bit rough on my belly but I did my best! It was worth it for the view and to spend a couple of hours swapping stories with a stranger. Most of my experiences in China have been like this – odd, but spent with beautiful, kind people.
At Guangzhou train station, the China of my imagination did start to emerge. There were just SO MANY BODIES. It’s just really hard to describe how many people there were. The train station expanded in so many directions. It was so big, and so impressive. Escalators were running in every direction across too many floors. Almost felt like a modern, Oriental Hogwarts.
I had bought my ticket online through Ctrip, and I had my ticket number written on my hand, which I used to collect my actual ticket, and then make my way to gate 28A, on the third floor, to my train to Yangshuo. I was definitely pretty excited by this point. Boarding the train was so easy, and my seat was really big, with a power point for phone charging. I got myself comfy, and stared out the window as the city started to fade away into smaller, run-down buildings, which faded into countryside farms, which grew into lumpy mountains - like the ones from Avatar...
"The train does not stop for long so if you are not at your door you will miss the station”. At 230+km/hr, it’s a quick, 2-hour trip to Yangshuo. So after chatting to a particularly squishy baby playing by the exit for a little while, my train stopped and I was out. Out on my own! I remember the smell of Yangshuo – the strange, magical land that has been my home for the last month. It was late afternoon, around 5pm and the sky was pink, and the air smelt like smoke from a fireplace. It was cold. Much colder than I thought it would be (this will become a running theme of time in Yangshuo). But it was fresh in the evening air and ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS.
The stairwell echoed really loudly as I dragged my bag step-by-step down to the exit. We may all like to think of ourselves as intrepid travellers, catching public busses between small towns, living life like the locals. That’s not always feasible in China -just because of the communication barrier. I don’t even just mean my poor Chinese language skills. I’ve noticed many Chinese people are not familiar with foreigners speaking Chinese.
Even if you say something correctly, an assumption that they won’t be able to understand, and a general fear of miscommunication, prevents them from really listening in the first place. SO, I was happy to take advantage of the taxi offer from Omeida. After a long travel time, sometimes we just want things to be easy. I reached the bottom, and a taxi man was waiting for me with my name on a sign. It’s a first for me, but it was a big relief. And I did also get a feeling that I was definitely where I was meant to be. (Clearly, unless there was another Molly Jackson arriving on the 5 o’clock train!)
The drive was magical. I was a little delirious from sleep and everything seemed new and exciting. The scenery was so different to anything I’d ever seen. Women rode by on scooters with patterned umbrellas to protect them from the sun and the rain. As we left the villages behind and started driving through the city centre, everything was so bright: China loves LED lighting. There were even laser lights painting pictures into the mountain side. Like I said, strange and spectacular.
When you arrive you a given a welcome pack which includes many random things you definitely need but definitely forgot to bring. Like coat hangers, a face washer, a towel, and some paper. Derrick, in student services, took me to my new room, on the fifth floor of a building just around the corner from school. My room is big, and there is lots of wardrobe and desk space, with a wall-size window looking out on the mountains peaking over the top of the buildings across the road. I’m sharing, so there is a private bathroom between two people, and a bunk bed against the wall. I was alone for the first night so I took the bottom bunk, tied a sarong across two of the bed posts and made myself a little screen. I thought I had really lucked out – but I found out last night (after four weeks of freezing on the bottom bunk thinking our heater, set at 30C was broken) that the top bunk is super toasty and directly in the firing line of the heater. So that’s something I’ll keep in mind for next time!
Derrick took me out for dinner in West Street. It’s very cool. And at the time, because I had no idea how cold Yangshuo could really get, I also thought it was pretty chilly. Derrick was telling me about the many adventures you can have here, as well as the school’s weekly cultural activities and social nights. I was beginning to realise that 4 weeks was nowhere near long enough to properly experience life in Yangshuo. But I was determined to give it a good go.
I couldn’t wait to see what the next 4 weeks would bring me!
I’ve only had morning classes, starting at 9:25. And I was Level A1. Luckily I can say that I am no longer a complete beginner, although of course 4 weeks is nowhere near enough time to become fluent in Chinese! The beginner textbook, called “I Can Travel” is really practical, and it’s tailored to exactly the kinds of communications I was hoping to learn. I can comment on the scenery (everything is hĕn piàoliang) and I can order tasty food (Hăo chī ma? Hĕn hăo chī!). What more could a girl want?
I have experienced the two “extremes” at Omeida as far as class size is concerned. I spent the first week alone in class with my teacher. It was fantastic because he was able to take his time teaching me the basics – especially tones and pronunciation – and this gave me a really good grounding when heading into the next lessons. On the flip side, it was tiring because there was nobody else to carry the load, and every question had to be answered by me. Overall I thought it was pretty special to have a one-on-one class as a beginner. I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone and I felt confident that I could improve quickly.
The next week, however, I was joined by 4 more students. 5 is the maximum number of students per class which is a really great policy. Although this meant sharing class time with more people, I really enjoyed making friends from the other side of the world, and practicing our Chinese together. It was easier to learn with more people to bounce off.
And through both weeks my teacher was absolutely incredible. Twelve (my teacher’s name) has so much energy, is so kind and patient, and will try many different ways of helping you learn. I never felt pushed in his class, but I also never felt patronised. He seemed to go at the perfect pace, and also taught us so much about Chinese culture. We made obvious progress every day and I’m really proud of how much he helped me learn.
I have also been enjoying helping the Chinese students with their English. It’s easier for me to learn Chinese quickly because I am surrounded by it every moment. My brain can tell that I need to use the information I learn to exist day-to-day here. As soon as the Chinese students step out of class, the bubble bursts and their brain filters out the useless English words they can’t use in their everyday life. So they absolutely eat up the chance to have an English conversation.
Everyone, was always eager to hear about the world I’m from. And I love hearing about theirs. In some ways it’s so different, and in other ways it’s so similar. We talk about families, and food, and love, and social expectations. We also talk about politics and our hopes for the future. We talk and compare and try to solve problems by meeting in the middle. Whatever the topic, you can feel how incredibly valuable it is to give someone your time. It means so much to be patient while people speak, and to help them learn the right words to express what they’re feeling.
Life in Yangshuo
I think managing expectations is important whenever you’re travelling. I didn’t have many for Yangshuo. And the expectations I did have (gorgeous scenery, easy-breezy language classes, Chinese people) have all been met. It’s generally a perfect place to come to “cleanse”, spend time in nature, and relax. There are heaps of health retreats and Tai Chi schools, for example.
Of course the scenery is incredible. I’ve never seen mountains like this. They’re so lumpy and pointy and tall and thin. Weird! But very beautiful. And every day I managed to walk around 15ks!! Just into town and back, around Yangshuo, doing some little hikes. I have also been dancing with the old ladies in Yangshuo Park. I feel very healthy here – and a little exercise really pays off with incredible views.
In the morning I have Baozi for 1 quai at a local store, with the primary school kids. The school lunches and dinners are super tasty, but if you get bored there are SO MANY restaurants nearby. We all have easy access to mini supermarkets, stationery stores, cafés, and lots of people selling fruit.
There are even some small markets just up from the road where most dorm buildings are.
There’s also a really strong expat scene here, and it’s obviously very popular with climbers. So there are loads of funky bars in the main street and hidden away near the river. There is also an English “pub” just across from the English school that has trivia on Thursdays. I hadn’t really thought about any of this when I came to Yangshuo – but it offers so much more than I had expected.
What I didn’t realise is that I had expectations for myself. I thought I would come here and immediately feel part of the quiet town. I thought I’d take the opportunity to slow down and look after myself. I’m actually busier than I’ve ever been. There is so much happening here, as far as classes, social life, nature-related activities. There’s so much to “do” that for the first couple of weeks I found it hard to stop and smell the – cabbages (?) – you know?
You could fill every day with new experiences and still feel guilty sitting down for an hour or so and having time to yourself.
On top of this, unsurprisingly, everyone speaks Chinese, and difficulty communicating wore me down more than I expected it would. I am fascinated with communication (i.e. I love talking) and I found it difficult being the last person to understand a joke, or just being an observer in a conversation that had gone way beyond me. While so many friends were patient with my poor Chinese, there are just as many people who are so keen to help you, they will interrupt you before you have finished speaking to guess what you want to say and correct your mistakes.
Even in Yangshuo - which I expect runs at a much slower pace than the big cities - young people are still caught in the frenzy of perfection. It’s better to do less, quickly, than to do something complex, slowly. And this is the same for conversation, which can be a bit difficult to adjust to if you’re used to a “that’ll do/that’s good enough” way of learning.
The lack of patience, just culturally in China, has made learning a little difficult for me, and often made everyday experiences a bit stressful. Having spoken to many foreign students here, I think this is a very common experience. Everything goes at such a fast pace, my brain was overwhelmed before it has had a chance to process information. It’s all part of culture shock, I guess. The subtleties of communication are different to what I’m used to and that’s a whole other level of language you also have to learn when you move to the other side of the world.
This difficulty ended up being the best part of my time here. My experience in Yangshuo has been overwhelmingly positive, and made so amazing because of the people I have met.
Making Friends in Yangshuo
The absolute best thing, without a doubt, about the time I’ve spent here in Yangshuo, is the gorgeous group of friends I have made. Chinese friends really are so sweet. A keenness to hear about and be part of their life doesn’t go unnoticed – it’s paid back tenfold.
For example, I signed up for a Language Partner – a Chinese student from Omeida English School. The idea is to spend an hour or two each day practicing English and then Chinese together. I really lucked out because my Language Partner, David, has been living here for almost a year and has a scooter, a great sense of adventure, and is massively interested in learning English. He is also very kind.
He hasn’t been taking classes in the afternoons since I’ve been here so he’s been able to take me out to so many cool places. He took me to the supermarket when I first arrived so I could stock up on some necessities. He bought me different kinds of sweets so I could decide which was my favourite. We spend hours and hours in different coffee shops around town, going through what we learnt in the morning, talking about our lives. We both play guitar so we practice together sometimes and he also taught me how to play Chinese Chess. The first day I met him he took me cycling around the Yu Long river, and on my first Friday he and his girlfriend took me out for Indian and drinks so they’re really my kind of people.
They’ve taken me to heaps of restaurants around town. They’ve introduced me to Oil Tea which we often have for lunch. We’ve tried at least 20 different kinds of jaozi. And they even took me to Guilin last Sunday where we tried every snack on snack street.
My last week here with them has been so beautiful – but of course a little bit sad. David and I went for a bike ride again. We climbed a tree in the middle of a field and talked about how much the scenery had changed in a few short weeks. Today, they both took me on another picnic by the larger Li River. They made sandwiches and brought me my favourite tea, and – best of all – they brought their cat “Nicole”. I don’t know if heaven can exist on earth, but spending a sunny afternoon by the river with two beautiful friends and a snuggly cat named Nicole, has to get pretty close.
I will be sad to leave them, but I know I will see them again somewhere in the world. David and Shirley both have massive dreams and big hearts so I can’t wait to see where they’ll go.
Demi my roommate/angel
Another absolute blessing during my time here has been my gorgeous roommate Demi, and the group of people she brought me in touch with. Demi is probably the kindest, smartest, sweetest person I’ve ever met. Right now she is in the top bunk trying to figure out the best way to send my backpack direct to Hong Kong.
We first bonded over a mutually bad decision to join the Yangshuo Fun Run. I honestly thought she was going to die at one point because she was struggling so much. I’d told her she could do it and I was beginning to really think that neither of us were going to make it home! But we did. And Demi was so proud of herself. She pushed on and didn’t complain once.
AND, as I collapsed on the bed at home and probably cried for a few hours, she still had energy to order me takeaway. There are some things that really transcend borders, cultures and language barriers - strong women and takeaway food. 💕
Demi is full of energy and always looks after me. My heart is very heavy leaving her tomorrow but I know I have made a lifelong friend. We’ve hiked up three mountains together since I’ve been here. We watch movies together in our bunk. We laugh a lot. Study. Take a lot of photos. She always wears the same pink puffy jacket and she tells me we are like a pair of crazy baozis.
She bought me a calligraphy set. And then we went to the boy’s room next door and I found out Devon bought me a panda toy in a cute box that said “I love dogs, I love sunshine, I love you”, and bizarrely Alex had bought me a 30cm high minion that dispenses toothpaste and can stick to the bathroom wall. Hence the need to send a bag straight to Hong Kong.
I had been worrying a little over the last week that I’d not done everything I had hoped to do. I wanted to spend some time climbing. I’m a big fan of cycling but we only went out twice. I definitely haven’t danced enough with the old ladies, and I have probably only had 3.5 beers since I’ve been here. BUT, I realised just now sitting in the boy’s silly pink room, watching them eagerly watch me open their gifts, that nothing else really matters.
These hilarious, gorgeous people have left a massive mark on me. They’ve taught me a lot about humility, and persistence, and how to put others first. And these friends that I love and respect so much, really enjoyed my company too. So I definitely don’t think I’ve missed out on anything. Only now my cheap koala key-ring souvenirs I brought here from Australia seem like totally inadequate gifts to repay the extraordinary kindness I’ve received
As different as China is from home. So many things are the same...
I have been talking with an American friend about the way we see the “outside” in Western media. Unless we’re watching documentaries, we don’t normally get summaries on the news about what a place is really like. We hear about all the bad stuff - wars, disease, death. Or if there’s nothing bad enough today, we’ll just hear about the “different” stuff: anti-democratic political parties, the one-child policy, dog festivals. We never see a news headline that says “today Chinese kids went to school and their parents went to work and they all have normal hopes and dreams and like K-Pop and nap in the day and eat dinner together as a family”.
News media is not often just sensationalised, but newsworthy content is handpicked in a way that leaves out real people from the story. We normally only hear about China as a whole - as an entity - what’s its economy like today, does it have opinions on North Korea. I’d fallen so far into this rabbit hole I almost expected all of China to be a dirty concrete office full of people wearing the same uniform and working on yellow-ing computers from the late 90’s. I thought conversations would be limited and people didn’t know how to think.
The opposite is true. What I have seen of China is gorgeous. Not just the natural landscape, but the attention to detail on so many ornate buildings, and the perfectly-curated public parks. The people are spectacular. Laughing all the time. There are jokes everywhere. On water bottles and cute pens, and on hats with ears. People are clever and want to learn new things, and have big plans for the future. They’re brave, and strange, and quiet, and loud, and hard-working. And all love a good laugh. These are qualities I’ve noticed in everyone around the world.
People exist in so many different contexts (war and peace, freedom and oppression, good dancers and bad dancers - whatever!). But PEOPLE exist. Everything else we have just made up to help us understand the world better. Which is great! But don’t let the tools we use to help us, become tools that can be used to manipulate us. That’s another similarity we share everywhere in the world: pressure to replace your open mind with the words of someone with more power than you. The only solution is to see the world, eat great food with lots of unique, real people, and decide for yourself.