Friday, May 02, 2008

Day 10 –Yangshuo

Boat on River Li
Our boat to Yangshuo had around 60 people, including some
US high school pupils on an exchange. Locals on bamboo rafts, five log bamboo poles bent at the foot by heat, hover the boatman hooks himself onto the boat where they sell vegetables for lunch and souvenirs to tourists. It looks quite dangerous.

The scenery is beautiful because it is so strange. The landscape breaks all the rules of natural appearance and contour. Rock cones and pinnacles rise straight up from a flat floor unnaturally thin with rounded tops. The limestone fractures with rain and great blocks shear off the sides creating these surreal shapes. There are literally thousands of them and as the river cuts through them, ever more dramatic cliff are to be seen, created by river erosion.

Yangshuo is a hotpotch of shops restaurants and bars, part hippy-trail, part market, part local. You can buy LOTS of counterfeit stuff here, CDs, DVDs, clothes etc. I indulged by buying Sgt Pepper, 40 Licks and the latest Radiohead album at £1.50 each, along with a couple of rucksacks, at a tenner each, for the boys.

Minnie Mao’s Cafe
At a couple of time’s at the excellent Minnie Mao’s, the best Chinese food we had on the whole journey. The free pool and internet also provided some welcome light relief. Mao has become a figure, not of fun, but of irony. He’s on tourist tee-shirts and Mao china figures, little red books, posters and watches whose face shows him waving away time ca be bought anywhere. In Beijing there’s a whole floor in the market of serious collector quality Mao material. I only saw Chinese people buying, so there must be interest in him, either historic or ironic.

Rural China
We took a trip out of town and visited a tradition farmhouse. This was a bit of a shock. The main room had some primitive wooden furniture, a picture of Mao on the wall and a wooden ancestor shrine. The woman who lived here was 55 going on 70 and when I shook her hand on leaving it was as hard as a claw from fieldwork. The place was primitive with a bare concrete floor a bare light bulb hanging down on the end of its wire, and was a dispiriting a home as you could imagine. The kitchen couldn’t have been more basic with wooden fire under simple pots and a tiny stool for the cook to squat on. Snakes in the fields are seen as a good thing as they keep down the rats. Below this landscape are vast etworks of natural caves with may species of blind fish.

Sound and light shows induce in me a sense of dread but the Yangshuo ‘show’ is far removed from the normally awful tourist spectacle. Designed by XXXX, China’s most famous film director, it cleverly uses the landscape as its stage, the kart peaks as a backdrop, the lake as centre stage, the lad as side stages and the River Li as a surprise addition. The story is a rather dull tale but it is enough to sit back, watch and listen.

Most of the action took place on the lake with 100 boats and boatmen swarming from left and right and producing a genuine gasp of wonderment when the lifted red cloth screens from beneath the water to create ripples of cloth across the entire lake. Hundreds of flaming torches covered the banks of the lake, Water buffalo, farmers, fishermen littered the landscape while the strange Guilin Karst Mountains were lit in white or muted colours. At one point hundreds of individually lit singers strolled across the lake like diamante skeletons.

The songs were beautiful. The first, sung by a soloist in a sampan, drifting slowly across the lake in the moonlight. Others by what the Chinese call ‘minority groups’ (anything that is not truly Chinese is referred to in the rather alien language of ‘foreigners’ or ‘minorities’). This minority group were a major hit with songs that ping-ponged between the men and women in a series of questions and replies. These mass choirs were, at times a little over-choreographed, even North Korean, but the sound was wonderful.

Culture and chat
One curious cultural difference was the way the almost wholly Chinese audiences chat and answer mobiles during the whole performance, and even stand up in front of you before the performance is finished. The audience was awash with mobile phones being held aloft to video/photograph the action, blinding those in the row behind. The act of recording it was clearly, to many, more important than enjoying the real performance. I’m told that cinemas are similarly plagued with people who cheerfully answer and chat into their phones during the entire movie. This also happens in India, then again Bollywood is nothing more than second rate musicals, there’s nothing much to hold one’s concentration. The habit is also creeping into UK cinemas where popcorn munching, coke slurping and paper rustling can completely destroy one’s enjoyment of a film. The whole point of cinema is suspension of disbelief. Why go if eating is your aim? I could cheerfully, and silently of course, pop a line of chicken wire round their necks and pull to keep them quiet.


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