The traffic on the river began to resemble what we'd seen on land; there was still an amazing landscape to be seen, but it seemed to recede into the distance as the long line of tour boats compressed and the captains began to navigate through an increasing number of other tour boats and smaller vessels. Although we'd passed the occasional riverside town during the cruise, most of what we'd seen was either rural or completely undeveloped -- now there were buildings and wharves in view almost all the time. Most of the passengers returned to the cabin, and there was a definite feeling of journey's end in the air.
There were now boats moored along the riverbank on both sides (sometimes 3-4 deep), and buildings & people on shore everywhere we looked. We passed one wharf that seemed strangely deserted, and then began to catch glimpses of the town itself. Yangshuo seemed to have spread itself out along the riverbank while tucking itself into the nooks & crannies between karst hills, and almost everywhere we looked we saw people... People walking, people sitting, people shopping, people watching us watch them... (A sign of things to come, only we didn't know it yet.) It was interesting to see the mixed architecture in the town, with many buildings made to look much older than they really were; there was one particular pagoda that poked out through the trees that I thought was a wonderful example of historical preservation until I zoomed in with the camera and noticed the plate-glass windows and signs of air conditioning! (Oh, well, people gotta live here, too!) Still, I appreciated the way the town seemed to be part of the landscape instead of apart from it; there was lots of natural stone, almost no motor vehicles in sight at all (aside from the boats on the water), and a thick layer of huge trees everywhere. Despite all the new building, this was a town with a personality all its own.
The river traffic was now snarled almost as badly as what we'd seen in Beijing; tour boats, barges, water taxis, canoes, rafts, powerboats, police boats... you name it, it was on the river and yet somehow they all avoided each other and we kept moving. We began gathering our things together when I noticed -- for the first time in over four hours! -- a gently diplomatic warning posted overhead in typical Chinese fashion; good advice warmly given. <smile>
Looking out the river-side windows as we began to dock, I noticed a couple of small rafts with more cormorants on them and wondered how anyone could possibly do any fishing in the immediate area (most cormorant fishing is done in the quiet time at dusk or early in the night, when torches would attract fish; the river was busy and we were still hours away from sunset). I got my answer when I turned to the shore-side windows; a few meters apart on the wharf were older men in traditional fishermen's garb, carrying the cormorants in traditional fashion, charging tourists the traditional 2 Yuan each for photos. I didn't want to interfere with the gentlemen earning a living, but I did sneak a shot from the boat when they weren't looking...
We disembarked and joined the mass of humanity moving into the town from the wharf area. Away from the open river, down between 2- and 3-story buildings, there was no cooling breeze; the heat & humidity were astonishing, leaving my shirt soaked through with sweat in just a few minutes. We moved through the crowd, stopping once in a while to close up ranks, marveling at the sights & sounds of the town around us (Okay, so that's what they mean by a "bustling" marketplace...) After a short walk we turned onto the famous West Market Street and began a long uphill trek through the town.
As we moved along -- dodging vendors selling fake Rolex watches and "hand carved" statuettes that looked exactly like the hand carved statuettes every other vendor was hawking -- I caught occasional glimpses of the scene behind the scene with each small alleyway or side street we passed. (When I say "street" I'm actually referring to pedestrian areas; the largest vehicles in sight were bikes and motorcycles.) The side streets were even narrower, and a lot less crowded... and every one of them seemed to have at least one hostel or inn somewhere in view. Since returning home, I've read that Yangshuo is the main jumping-off point for hikers, backpackers, and cyclists from all over the world who want to see southern China -- after seeing all the places to stay, it's not hard to believe those reports.
Moving along West Market Street was an experience; there are small shops, restaurants, bars, and scores of businesses aimed at the tourist trade, all in a soup of blazing heat and the sound of many hundreds of people all talking at the same time. I was uncomfortable and loud -- and interesting and exotic and attention-grabbing all at once. We passed one silk shop with a sample stretching frame out front, but it was too small to actually be producing any of the cloth it was selling. We also passed some distinctly non-Chinese businesses whose proprietors seemed to know who their main clientele would be -- many business names, and even more signs, were in English, and a few places even made a point of advertising that it was quiet inside... a welcome break from the heat and noise in the street! We were a little short on time so we couldn't stop long in any one place, but were kept busy absorbing the sights & sounds of the marketplace around us (along with the occasional touch of whimsy).
As we worked out way up the street, every now & then there was a reminder of the incredible landscape the town had nestled into; looking up toward the end of the street, or up over shorter buildings, we could see the steep hillsides marking the edges of the town. The crowds were thinning out a little but the street was still crowded, and the heat seemed to be getting worse... we were beginning to wonder if we'd be able to make it all the way to our bus waiting at the edge of town.
I was distracted from my own concerns with one of those "hey, waitaminit" moments... The steet opened up into a small square, where the oddly-named "Cafe del Moon" advertised cold beer, roast chicken... and wood-fired pizza. I decided that if Marco Polo could take spaghetti from China to Italy, then it was only proper that someone had taken pizza from Italy to China. (Now, if someone could only explain why there wasn't a word of Italian on any of the signs...!)
As we continued up the street, Miri didn't show many signs of discomfort; it was as if she'd always spent her days in hot, crowded shopping streets... there was just an occasional moment of crochety behavior but mostly she just watched the passing scene, absorbing the sights & sounds as if it was just another day at the SWI. We were constantly distracted by the sights & sounds around us -- steep hillsides, shopkeepers in traditional costume, vendors hawking their wares, tables & cases filled with a bewildering array of goods... and she just watched it all calmly from her stroller, probably wondering what all the fuss was about. After the crazy bus ride and all the hours on the boat, I was increasingly impressed by my nieces' capabilities as a traveler... the Pipsqueak was a pro!
As I sat looking at the closest business, wondering why they'd chosen such a weird-looking character as a mascot (and thinking I'd be a little afraid to eat there) when I had an experience unique to the adoption of a child from China. Out of the crowd came a tall Caucasian man accompanied by two little Chinese girls. He glanced in our direction, did a double-take, and came walking over quickly. Just as our driver started the tram's motor, he pointed to Miri with a big smile and asked, "How old?" I replied "Thirteen months" but the tram began moving before I could say anything else. Just as we pulled away, the man pointed to the smaller of the two girls and said something I didn't quite catch (I think he was saying she had just joined the family) and then yelled out, "Congratulations!" and waved goodbye with a big smile. I've often wondered since then who he was and how things have worked out for his family. (If you're part of that family, please let me know!)
The ride to our bus was itself a bit of an adventure; the tram was open-sided, with open benches a little lower than many of the nearby cars on the road. In short, it was perfectly designed to give its occupants a thoroughly intimate relationship with the surrounding traffic. As we all took turns holding our breath or nervously laughing at near-misses, I kept thinking I should try to take a picture but was too worried about falling off to let go of the handholds. At one point, a huge tour bus came swinging past, missing us by only a couple of feet (the "Long King" badge on its grill will remain clear in my memory for years to come). AJ kind of yelped and leaned as far back from the side with Miri as she could. Her breathless comment to me as we finally climbed onto our own bus a few minutes later was, "I wanted to tell him I didn't have my daughter long enough to get run over yet!"
We got all our things stowed away, the air conditioning kicked in, and our driver pulled away. A couple of minutes' worth of traffic, and we were on our way back toward Guilin and our hotel... but we still had one more stop to make that day.