Posted by: Sam Olsen | July 7, 2012

Visiting Avatar Country – Part 1

Being a bit of a movie fan, it’s always nice to be able to see where your favourite films have been shot. Although we thought Avatar felt like the Smurfs recreating Dances With Wolves, when we heard that there was some beautiful scenery only an hour away from Hong Kong that had apparently been the inspiration for this bloated ‘epic’ we thought it might be quite fun to check out.

Yangshuo locals

So after a quick flight from Hong Kong, we arrived in the city of Guilin, a city in the relatively wealthy province of Guangxi. Guilin is famous throughout China, not for its movie-connections, and definitely not for its size: at 4.8 million people, it is smaller than many Chinese cities, although it is still larger than Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Washington DC combined.

It is instead known as a major tourist centre, given its position alongside some of the most renowned countryside in the country. So beautiful is the limestone karst scenery that surrounds the Li River that the government used it on its banknotes. The picture on a 20-Yuan note (worth about £2 or US$3) has a view of a fisherman on his bamboo raft floating down the river Li through the spectacular mountains. We were quite looking forward to recreating this scene, although we guessed so were the other 200,000 tourists we had seen arriving at the airport. It was going to be a crowded weekend away.

Our hotel was in the heart of karst country, next to a small town named Yangshuo. The Li River Retreat, owned by an Australian-Chinese couple, is a Western oasis set amidst the mountains. As we had supper on the verandah, listening to the crickets and frogs, we were thoroughly enjoying being back in the countryside again. Until that is a tourist steamboat decided to serenade us with a 45 second toot, with what sounded like a dying rabbit. Peaceful.

If you take my advice, there’s nothing so nice…

Our second day started at 6am (thanks Larry), meaning we had plenty of opportunity to explore the hotel’s vegetable gardens before breakfast. After honey pancakes, fruit yoghurt and bacon of unknown providence, we headed to the river. Packed onto a 12’x5’ bamboo raft, our nameless local paddler guided us through the currents and literally hundreds of other rafts as we reclined in welded-on deckchairs. We had wondered why hunched-over old women had tried to sell us water pistols as we walked to the raft, and now we saw why: nearly every one of the other craft had a large armoury of water guns with which they blasted their neighbouring rafts with not a care in the world. This could go badly wrong if it was recreated in Texas, a bunch of strangers shooting at each other…

Every 20 minutes or so we would arrive at a weir which our paddler would guide us over, soaking our feet and making Larry (and us) a tad concerned. Ever on the lookout for a capitalistic opportunity, cameras flashed as we headed into the abyss, followed by yells of “Buy your photo! You look funny!” It probably sounded less abusive in Chinese, considering there was no shortage of buyers.

…As messin’ about on the river

After having stopped on a floating café for a snack of corn on the cob, we arrived at the disembarkment point to be surreally met by a camel and a couple of monkeys in fancy dress. Just the thing you want to greet you after a hard day’s lounging. The other tourists saw nothing wrong in this RSPCA-nightmare given the amount of pictures they were taking of them. I get the feeling that if this were in Britain a beer seller would have been more popular. Or at least an Avatar reference, like a tethered blue giant for example.

We spent the rest of the day testing out some bikes we had rented and looking for some rice. We had heard that the local Yangshuo countryside was replete with paddyfields, but it appears that capitalism has struck here too. There is far more money in fruit, so the farmers have ripped up the rice and planted mandarins instead. The farmers still wear conical bamboo hats though, so it’s not all change, change, change.

Hmm, not sure

Talking of the old days, we had been told that it was possible to see the traditional form of fishing on an evening trip. Nets? Rods? No, cormorants. The locals have managed to persuade these elegant fish-eating birds to dive down, pluck a hapless creature from the river depths, and then regurgitate it for the fisherman’s supper. Not quite sure what’s in it for the birds, but the leash around its neck may have something to do with it. Anyway, sadly the boat we were on was super-delayed so by the time it was ready to leave for the two-hour trip it was Lawrence’s bedtime. I don’t suppose we missed out too much by not getting to watch vomiting birds.

Worth the trip

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