It turns out that toilet paper was the least of my worries in Guilin.  Though the scenery was stunning and well worth the trip, we ran into other problems that we hadn’t anticipated at all.

limestone karsts, yangshuo

The problem with taking a package trip anywhere is, you generally don’t have a good idea of what you’re getting yourself into before you go.  The other travelers can be anyone from old fogeys to little kids, and generally they’re catered to the lowest common denominator for that reason, unless you’re going on a specialty trip.  While the people on our trip were pretty varied, we did run into the distinct problem of being on a trip with people who were very culturally dissimilar from us.  Namely, they were Hong Kongers and we’re, well, not really.

elegant stalactite formation

Don’t get me wrong, some stuff was pretty interesting.  Besides enjoying the scenery, we also visited some pretty wild caves.  Since the karsts are made of limestone, they’re easily eroded, and one of the caves we visited is the biggest tourist cave in Asia.  We also got to watch demonstrations of things like traditional fishing techniques — using trained cormorants — and Yao minority customs, which, while contrived, were still fairly interesting.  We had little contact or information about any of China’s ethnic minorities while in Beijing.

fisher with cormorants, yangshuo

The interesting thing about the Yao is that I guess there was some very popular movie that came out in Hong Kong about a Yao girl and her romance with her husband, and so this was a point of interest for some of the younger Hong Kongers on our trip.  What I find especially weird is that the custom that we were told was pervasive among the Yao — that women pick their husbands as opposed to the other way around, as in patriarchal societies — doesn’t seem to be the case at all.  I’m starting to wonder if this has been made up for the benefit of Yao women working in tourism.

One thing that we were constantly warned about was the fact that Yao women in elaborate traditional dresses would approach men and ask them if they’d like to take part in Yao marriage rites.  Afterwards, they use the performance to convince the tourist to give them money, usually somewhere on the order of fifty kuai.  We were told this was a direct result of their matriarchal society, but I’m wondering if this method — and apparent myth — is just another way to get money out of tourists.  Considering the area around Guilin and Yangshuo is fairly poor excepting the tourism industry, it doesn’t seem out of the question.

Many of the tourist sites scattered throughout the countryside were alarmingly contrived.  Though many of the workers and performers are ethnic Yao people, I wondered the whole time who was actually making money off the operations.  In a particularly bizarre stop, we took a boat ride around a karst, were attacked by “savages,” and then herded through a complex where traditional Yao handicrafts were pushed on us by costumed performers.

Plagues of Yao women and halfhearted costumed performers aside, we were also troubled by the poor food.  There’s something about tasteless (literally, without taste!) food that seems to completely defeat the purpose of eating to me, and I have never eaten so much bland food in my life.  Especially now that we’re back in Hong Kong, it seems like it was worlds away in terms of cuisine.

But maybe that’s an effect of the local culture.  The places that are not tourist-oriented around Guilin and Yangshuo are largely poor farming and fishing areas.  People still use old-fashioned tills pulled by water buffalo to plant their rice crops.  People still use tractors and pickup trucks built in the fifties to do basic hauling work.  It was weird, after spending a month in Beijing, and then Hong Kong, to come to the Guangxi Autonomous Region, which seemed like a different country entirely from the capital.  Maybe that’s part of what unsettled me so much about the entire experience — it’s a different China there, and it’s hard to imagine that there are parts of the country that are entirely inaccessible by tourists due to the extreme poverty of the region.  It boggles my mind that Beijing can be pouring all this money and effort into hosting the Olympics, for example, and fail to pull up the people in the rural areas.