I went from Hong Kong into Guangzhou and on to Guilin, in southern China. By the time I got there, I never imagined that I would spend several weeks all around China.
This article is part of a diary based travelogue from a six month journey in 1985 to several countries in East and South East Asia: Japan, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Tuesday 12.2.1985, Guangzhou
It was seven in the morning when we stepped ashore in Guangzhou (Canton), China, from the ferry that has brought us from Hong Kong. Already here on the pier we noticed the Mao-uniforms, but neither here nor later in the city did we see as many as we had expected. Chinese clothing has been modernised and diversified over the last few years.
It was remarkable how the staff of cabin ladies had gone through a transformation, from stylish feminine uniforms to boring, grey, sexless China-clothes. Nobody sticks out in China.
From the pier we took a bus to the railway station, through dirty, impoverished parts of the city. The bus was, like all buses in China, overcrowded. The Danes I had joined on the ferry from Hong Kong would rather continue to Beijing right away, while I was thinking of venturing deeper into Southern China. We split.
The tourist information office (CITS) could not help any of us with tickets, so I joined a queue. For a couple of hours. (The station in Guangzhou is notorious of this.) Standing there I got in contact, in English, with a semi-Hong Kong Chinese who was sneaking in the line. He offered, and I accepted, to buy the train ticket for me. It turned out we were going to the same city – Guilin.
An introductory remark on currencies and trains in China
China has one currency – the Yuan – but two sets of coins and notes: Renmimbi (People’s money) and FEC (tourist money).
1 USD corresponds to 2.8 Yuan.
The latter we get when we cash in our traveller’s cheques. FEC is used for shopping in stores with privileged goods, the Friendship Stores. They are in contrast to ordinary stores always well stocked and with imported merchandise not available at all in ordinary shops.
Because of this it is popular among Chinese to get FEC, enabling them to get hold of a TV set or stereo faster than else. The way of getting FEC is often on the black market. By selling our FEC we can get 150-190 RMB to 100 FEC, depending on the city and how good you bargain.
Officially foreigners are obliged to pay in FEC everywhere, but there is usually no problems paying with RMB. All in all: The exchanging on the black market is an important means of keeping our expenditures down.
China also has two price systems on trains, where the Chinese pay half the cost of what we tourists must pay. Therefore it is an advantage to have a Taiwan student card or getting a Chinese to buy the ticket.
In other words I saved a good deal by letting the Hong Kong Chinese buy the ticket for me, even though I only had FEC. The ticket directly to Guilin cost me 26-27 Yuan. (Yuan is also called “kwai”.)
I could have exchanged black, but felt a bit too “green”. Actually I lost some money being “nice”, exchanging a couple of hundred with the Chinese at a non-profit rate. He had a desire to shop a few things.
We took the train the same day. This guy told me that I would have to wait a couple of days to get a direct train if I didn’t. As Guangzhou was not very tempting I joined him. We left a bit before six in the evening and arrived in Guilin 20-21 hours later.
Trains in classless China have four classes: Hard seats in big carriages, hard sleepers in open (no doors to the corridor) cabins, soft seats (compares to Norwegian tourist class) and soft sleepers (four people in a cabin). We left in hard sleepers and I got the upper wooden berth. It proved quite alright.
Wednesday 13.2.1985, Guilin
The Chinese guy and I went into the restaurant car. It was a pigsty without comparison. The waiters and cooks had aprons which hadn’t been washed for a couple of years, at least. The table manners of the locals are also little “developed” – spitting, slurping and sucking. The food was however good and cheap.
When we finally arrived in Guilin we found Hotel Osmanthus, one of the selected tourist hotels.
- OSMANTHUS HOTEL: Along the main street facing the railway station, to the left and on the left hand side. 7 Yuan for a bed in a dormitory. OK place. Possible site on map.
Guilin was the home town of my guide so he went to his place and we agreed to meet the following evening. We did not find each other so I went out on town on my own. I walked up and down the main street, posted a letter and found me a place to eat.
With the assistance of the two-three words in my guidebook the ordering went fine. China has little or no night-life and I went early to bed.
Thursday 14.2.1985, Guilin
When I came down in the lobby in the morning the Chinese was sitting there waiting for me. He had bought himself a nice dark suit for “my” FEC. He was mighty proud of it, even though it had not much to it, by my standards. It is however modern and great for China, but then the country is on a stone-age level compared to us when it comes to fashion and that kind of stuff.
We went up to the railway station and bought a hard seat ticket to Kunming on Friday evening. There were no sleepers for sale. According to what I later heard that is because they are only sold on the first station on the line, and on the train. I paid around 27Y. It is a great advantage to let my pal buy for me.
We rented bicycles and went up to some grottos about 8 km from the city, the Reed Flute Caves. They were very good and the lighting was particularly impressive. My guide told me that a lady there switched the lights manually on and off, soon a few lights here, then some there and even in multiple colours. One shouldn’t think they were up to such advanced things.
There was by the way no lack of translators for me. Several Chinese came over wanting to practise their English.
After that I and Chinese no. 1 bicycled around town and he persuaded me to go to a small restaurant for lunch. Damn it, what a price they came up with! I paid and was completely ripped off. I later found a cheaper restaurant for dinner.
The next day I wanted to go down the Li River to a place called Yangshuo. It was supposed to be very attractive. We bought tickets for a Chinese tour – cheaper.
Friday 15.2.1985, Guilin, Li River
Sailing down the famous river
The boat trip formalities were so unlucky (to put it mildly) that I will recommend others to take the standard bus tour for tourists. The price will be about the same as I had to pay 8Y extra for a bus down to Yangti where the boat departs; lunch was not included and the bus home I lost because of wrong information and language problems. I took a local bus home (2Y).
Apart from these moments of irritation it was a fine day. The scenery around the river was beautiful. Limestone cliffs everywhere and it is funny how the Chinese like to find parallels in the fauna from the shape of these formations.
Yangshuo itself was in my opinion too touristy. There were heaps of vendor stalls along the river with all kinds of souvenirs. I took a little extra trip behind the glamour and discovered a dirty, poor city. It seems, by the way, like all towns here have muddy streets even though some are asphalted. Yangshuo is however popular among travellers, as the scenery is fine (better than Guilin’s) and one gets pretty close to the daily life of the common man and woman.
Getting on board a train to Kunming
For my part I took the train to Kunming already that same evening. It was some experience!
Together with a couple of white people and hundreds of Chinese I ran for the train to secure myself a seat. Unfortunately I was too late and when the train started to roll I found myself standing in between the seats like a tinned sardine. There were people and luggage everywhere. To be sitting in such a “cattle car” for more than 30 hours would be bad enough in itself, but to stand would be intolerable.
So did seven other foreigners also think. We tried to get a sleeping birth as some empty ones are being sold on the train. Luckily we were able to secure seats in the dining car, with a little extra payment of course. One of the girls coughed up a few extra money and bought a soft sleeper ticket. A couple of hours later a smiling conductor came and said we could have six hard sleepers to Kunming.
The train ride was secured.
The introduction to this journey to East and South East Asia.
Previous chapter: Hong Kong, a wonderful city state at a time it was still a Crown colony.
Next chapter: Sichuan: Hot food, exciting street life and a stone forest in Kunming. New Year’s celebrations and pop music in Chengdu. And a drastic change of plans.
I brought this one with me as well, but did not use it much.