I knew that in addition to being some of the inspiration for the "Halleleujah Mountains" in Avatar (something I made sure my l'il sis knew, too <grin>), we would essentially be traveling through some of the same scenes we'd admired in reproductions of centuries-old Chinese paintings, a part of the Li River Valley known as "the hundred mile art gallery"... In short, part of the essence of what "China" meant to us (at least before the paperchasing had begun so many years earlier). Just like a few days earlier at Juyongguan, the amazing experience of adding a member to the family was getting the added bonus of my being able to check off another item on my Bucket List; I'm afraid I was a bit less concerned about the possibility of being trapped for hours on a boat with nowhere to go if Miri decided she was going to be unhappy than AJ was... but (as I had suspected) our little travel pro wasn't the least bit bothered by the experience, as you shall see.
A quick note: there's a very real difference between seeing photographs of these landscapes and actually being in the middle of them; I'm going to be posting quite a few photos of what we saw, but no matter how carefully I chose the images I have to admit none of them truly captured more than a fraction of what it all really looked like. If you're the kind of person who likes natural beauty and enjoys the occasional laid-back travel day, then you absolutely must go on one of these cruises if you get to this part of the world.
During the drive, Effie continued telling us a little about the area, adding that she was herself of the Zhuang minority. Although the majority of Chinese are from the Han ethnic group, there are 56 registered minorities in the country; three of these are so large that their home provinces are actually considered "self-governing," with the Zhuang being one of the largest -- thus the true name of "Guangxi Province" is "Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region" (although one must seriously doubt the ability of any part of the country to counter the wishes of the Party authorities in Beijing). Effie was also proud to point out that the Li is China's 3rd longest river, beaten only by the Yellow and the mighty Yangtze.
We boarded and made our way carefully up, then down, slippery metal stairs to find a long, sunny room lined with tables set for six down each side. Our companion families occupied one table while AJ, Miri and I grabbed the window seats across the aisle along with Lisa & Effie and a young European couple who didn't seem to speak much English. There were only minor overtones of the craziness we'd come to expect on the roads as all the boats (which were moored three deep against the stone walls lining the riverbank) jostled their way into the main channel, and the cruise began.
We had barely left the daredevil river vendors astern when the passing scenery began to demand attention. The karst hills jutted upwards at odd angles, looking unlike any topography I'd seen anywhere before. There were unique, undulating parallel "sheets" of stone jutting out at angles from the hillsides where they met the water, formed when softer layers of minerals eroded & left behind only the harder layers. These odd shapes reached right down to the water's surface, making it look like the hills were melting into the river (which, in a sense, really is what they were doing).
Although the sun was strong and it was (as usual) hot outside, the constant strong breeze kept it comfortable so pretty much the entire group joined me on the forward observation deck for a while. This was where we learned a couple of new things about the newest member of the family. First, she wasn't a big fan of hats; strong as the sun might be, the Pipsqueak insisted on pushing off the sun bonnet AJ kept putting on her. Eventually my sister surrendered to the inevitable and just left the bonnet hanging from its ties, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the Pipsqueak would consent to wear it once she got used to it being there. (Yeah, right...!) Second, Miri doesn't like loud noises. The ship's captain would sound a loud air horn (mounted just beyond the rail directly in front of where we were standing) every time another boat passed going in the opposite direction; there were a lot of boats on the river, and every time he blasted that horn the Pipsqueak would jump a bit, getting progressively (and obviously) less happy each time. AJ finally decided they'd both had enough and retreated back inside where it was a lot quieter. The other mommies followed suit, leaving just the menfolk (and often just me!) outside for much of the cruise.
I'm going to be quiet for a moment and let you see some photos I took during the first hour (give or take) of the cruise:
I have to admit that at one point, when AJ had rejoined me outside with Miri and we were passing a particularly sharp & craggy stretch of hills, I jokingly asked, "Where's Toruk Makto when you need him?" and my sister (without saying a word) let me know in no uncertain terms that she'd heard more than enough Avatar comments from me -- there were none made for the rest of the trip, I assure you.
After my sibling & niece returned to our table in the cabin, I noticed that the boat traffic on the river had grown even heavier... but that the channel had, if anything, narrowed, and that the Chinese boat captains seemed to enjoy the same "there's no such thing as too close" attitude as Chinese drivers on land. I also began to notice large stands of very tall, very fluffy-looking plants on the riverbanks. Later during lunch, I learned that this was Phoenix Tail bamboo, which was not native to the region. Apparently, this species of bamboo is native to Chou En-Lai's home province; back when he was Premier, he had taken one of these same river cruises and made a comment about how beautiful that type of bamboo would look against the backdrop of the karst landscape and... Well, let's just say that when the head of the Chinese government says a plant would look good somewhere that it doesn't grow naturally, a whole lot of it gets transplanted from its native habitat! The Phoenix Tail now grows in the river valley on its own, often reaching heights of 50 feet or more. (You can see some of the natural forests of Phoenix Tail in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- that's where the famous "treetop" duel takes place.)
We were leapfrogging some of the other tour boats, so I got a good view of lunch being prepared. It looked harmless enough... sort of like a big barbecue, just on a moving boat! I soon realized that while the occasional smell of cooking food came from one of these "kitchens," the sizzling I thought I could hear was yours truly getting thoroughly sunburned, so I retreated to the air conditioned cabin for a while. We were all just talking about this & that, admiring the passing scenery, when Effie brought over a large bottle of one of the local delicacies she'd told us about earlier: snake wine.
You might think "snake wine" is just an expression, or a brand name, or an attempt at tying something real to an old myth. You'd think wrong: it's real liquor with real snakes in it. This isn't your typical one-inch gusano in the bottom of the Mezcal bottle -- this is a large bottle of intensely strong liquor (kinda sorta white wine the way moonshine is kinda sorta barrel-aged whisky) with two or three well-preserved (supposedly) poisonous snakes in it... And yes, you're actually supposed to drink the stuff. Once they realized the snakes were real, the two girls distanced themselves from the bottle rapidly while the grownups took turns either holding the bottle and turning down a sample, or not holding the bottle and turning down a sample. The exceptions were Papa S and Papa B, each of whom bravely bought a glass. They insisted it was actually pretty good, but the stuff smelled so strong I decided that getting a little more sunburned might not be a bad thing. I swear, when they came out onto the observation deck a few minutes later with the last bit of the stuff in their glasses, the paint on the wall of the cabin began bubbling...!
I knew that lunchtime was close so I went back in, and the Pipsqueak made it well worth my while. She'd latched onto a plastic cup (transparent things fascinated her, especially if they made noise when crumpled) and had been enjoying herself thoroughly... but now she was beginning to interact & play with AJ in a much more open, much more intimate manner than before. They were making faces at each other, really interacting closely, and every now and then Miri would try to rearrange her mommy's nose, a habit that lasted through the rest of the trip and beyond and that always provided great entertainment to all those watching. Even better, she was smiling those amazing smiles of hers, and actually laughing out loud & just having a grand old time. We'd gotten used to her wanting to be held by us, but this was a whole new baby girl -- happy and bubbly with a smile like a thousand-watt light bulb. (Of course, she would occasionally stick her tongue out this way or that way or over there, but now she was laughing the whole time.)
My niece proved quite the showstopper, attracting attention from most of the folks in the cabin. I was having so much fun that I only took a few pictures, but Effie and Lisa joined in on the happy ruckus and got a few snaps of their own. My sister had been worried that her new daughter might not like being "stuck" on a boat for several hours -- but they were both literally having the time of their lives. There had been some real bonding happening almost from their first meeting, but now I was seeing Miri and AJ really connecting on a whole new level as the Pipsqueak's real personality began to come out.
Shortly afterwards, lunch was served... which involved a careful climb back up the slippery metal stairs, braving the other hungry travelers trying to fill their plates without dropping anything, and then negotiating one's way back down those slippery stairs with a paper plate holding any number of items that all looked tasty but that all seemed to have a special affinity for gravity. Even the uber-cool twenty-something guy in the corner who'd plugged himself into his iPod the minute we left the dock and pretty much slept for the whole trip woke up long enough to go through the balancing act. We all managed to have a pretty good lunch -- Miri actually let her mommy eat a few bites between attempts to fling plate, napkin, utensils, and/or everything else around the table -- and soon the crew was picking up the remainders and we could all get back to some serious landscape-watching.
It was about this time when I had one of those, "Whoa!" moments. I'd heard a number of different languages being spoken by the travelers on the boat; in addition to English, there were couples or whole groups speaking Spanish, Italian, Tagalog, and both Mandarin & Cantonese dialects of Chinese. One particularly interesting conversation (yes, I admit to eavesdropping -- it was interesting!) involved a slightly older couple and a middle-aged man who combined English, Cantonese and Tagalog almost at random; the trio sort of kept to themselves, but I would've loved to know more about their backgrounds! In any case, I was trying to pick up on how many languages I could identify when I found myself thinking how strange it seemed to hear a local Chinese guide speaking in Spanish... and then caught myself with the realization that English was just as "strange" for the local guides as any other language! (Dude, you are the foreigner here, remember...?) It had been a long time since I'd had to think like that for any real period of time, and I was bemused at how out of practice I had become.
Before going back out onto the observation deck, I tried to strike up a conversation with the European couple who'd been sitting nearby. Earlier, I'd heard their Chinese guide talking to them in Spanish so I decided to see how much of my own Spanish vocabulary I remembered. I did pretty well; in a combination of (rough) Spanish and (semi-rough) English, I spent about 15 minutes speaking with the young woman sitting across from me while her husband added occasional comments. They were part of a group visiting from Spain, and we quickly found common ground speaking about adoptions; her mother actually worked for one of the larger adoption agencies in Spain. I explained we had originally been told the wait would be about 18 months but lasted five years; she said that her mother had to warn Spanish families seeking to adopt Chinese children that they could now expect to wait as long as 7-8 years for their adoptions to go through! (I'm sorry to say that as I'm writing this in February 2011, the wait for non-special needs children here in the USA has grown equally long.)
I decided to brave the sun & wind again, and here are a few more glimpses of what I saw:
The water buffalo were one of the sights we'd been told to keep an eye out for; they are considered local families' most prized possessions, and actually live lives of leisure; once the planting or harvesting are done (most often of rice), these animals spend all their time grazing, bathing in the river, and watching all the silly tourists oohing and aahing at them as they go past on tour boats. Something else I began to see more of was small water taxis running up & down the river between towns. Just like the vendors' rafts we saw at the start of the cruise, the older ones were made of bamboo while the newer ones were based on PVC pipes -- but they all had a series of bench-style seats and were "driven" by someone sitting near the stern, where an exposed motor drove a propeller mounted at the opposite end of a long metal pipe serving both as motive power and steering.
Man-made distractions aside, I turned my attention back to the amazing formations the river was now passing through, including steep cliffs where the river made sharp turns and more of the erosion-based stone "sheets" hanging off hillsides, sometimes all the way from the waterline to the peak...
Something else I had begun noticing, on the rocky shore any time the hills were farther from the river, was little tents or sunshades. It turns out these are temporary stores & snack bars -- people either walk from nearby towns (some of which came almost down to the waterline) or take a boat until they find a likely-looking spot, and set up shop. Their clientele is all the passing small boats, water taxis, and fishermen -- they just pull up on shore, haggle a couple of minutes, and then continue on their way -- no fuss, no muss, no landlords, and no shortage of parking! I'd also noticed occasional groups of children or older women, usually in twos and threes, picking among the rocks on shore while carrying buckets. Effie explained they were harvesting another local delicacy: small freshwater snails that would be boiled in broth and served in their shells. I also would periodically spot platforms built out into the river from the shore, which turned out to be "scenic overlooks" for the local tourists!
All of a sudden, after one of many unintelligible (to me) announcements in Chinese over the boat's PA system, it seemed like everyone was coming out onto the forward observation deck as we approached a turn in the river. There was a particularly tall & wide cliff here, with different types of minerals making unique black-and-white patterns on its face. Effie & Lisa explained that this cliff could be found in ancient Chinese paintings and travelogues going back several centuries; according to legend it was here that the hand of nature took a knife and carved the image of seven horses into the hillside. The same legend said that the wiser the observer, the more horses could be seen; only the wisest could see all seven. (Of course, there was a lot of commentary about the role snake wine might play in being able to see horses on the hillside...!) Everyone took the challenge to heart, and I'm proud to say I'm an extremely wise man (wise guy?) because I found all seven horses and was able to point them all out to Lisa... although I'm not sure I can see them any more! Here's a photo -- how many horses can you see?
Once past the cliff -- which towered overhead as we made our way around the bend -- the landscape began to change. There were still a few of the unreal hills that had dominated the landscape so far, but they were becoming more widely spaced and it wasn't long before the long line of tour boats was making its way through more gently rolling country, with more sandbars in the river and more farms & fishing nets along the shore. (One of the photos below shows an older man who was sitting directly in the river as he repaired his nets.)
After a few miles of gently rolling countryside, the hills began to close back in on the river, with the more fantastical shapes becoming common again. There was one formation that AJ and I dubbed "the sleeping man" (we don't know its Chinese name); can you see him...?
We also began to see more signs of civilization coming right down to the water's edge, passing many stone walls from which young children were jumping into the river. We also got a quick lesson in why the region's primary draft animals are called "water buffalo" -- they don't seem to mind even being completely submerged! (I watched one particular buffalo swimming across the river get swamped by the wake of the boat ahead of ours -- then climb onto shore a few moments later, looking none the worse.) I also began to spot the last of the "river sights" we'd been told to look for: fishing cormorants. Once common, fishing cormorants are slowly disappearing as locals turn to more mechanized ways of making a living, but some families still follow the old tradition. The birds are treated like valued members of the family, with carefully-monitored diets, days off to rest, and (even nowadays) honorable burial when they die. They are trained to dive for fish underwater, with small metal bands around their necks preventing them from swallowing their catch so that their owners can collect the fish when the birds resurface.
By this time, most of the young 'uns had had enough and were napping (after all the smiles and laughter, the Pipsqueak had gotten downright crochety as her naptime came & went with nary a glimpse of crib); this gave their mommies a chance to come back outside for a while as we approached the end of the cruise at Yangshuo. As usual, my niece didn't seem terribly concerned with normal definitions of "up" or "down" but by now AJ was used to it and managed to hold onto her sleeping beauty while admiring the again-unreal landscapes around us.
Oh, and we had also been passing increasingly large flotillas of ducks, which my sister insisted I take pictures of -- so here's a sample. These guys weren't just floating in the water, they were also chasing some chickens up & down the stone staircase!
By this time, pretty much everyone aboard had retreated to the air conditioned climate inside the cabin (my own complexion had taken a noticeable turn in the ruddy direction after several hours in the sun), and we began to see many more buildings along the shore, with boats & barges sometimes anchored 3 and 4 deep. The Pipsqueak woke up and seemed quite content to just snuggle with her mommy; Yangshuo (and the end of our cruise) was now just a few minutes away, and everyone began to gather their things. It had been a hot and windy cruise filled with unforgettable views of almost unreal landscapes... and soon it would be time to brave the crowds on shore.