The hotel beds in China are thinly disguised floorboards – I have to make myself into a sausage roll with duvet pastry in order to be able to sleep. This morning it is misty and grey for my Li river cruise. The landscape is one of Slartibartfast’s finest – limestone outcrops (karst) in the shape of snails or horses or dolphins or woman with baby on her back or clutching hand, dotted about like a sculpture park. The local tourists were glued to their iphones or tablets but I just stood on deck for 3 hours feeling overwhelmed by beauty, oblivious to the rain and wind.
We arrive at Yangshuo and head down West Street, home to a ribbon of tat-erias with the odd jewel thrown in. Most interesting is the handicraft shop selling work by the ethnic minorities – the Miao and Dong peoples, who are in much the same state as others around the world – by turns marginalised, romanticised, disenfranchised, patronised and held up as symbols of human rights magnanimity by the ruling elite. They produce intricate and numinous textiles, in spite of it all.
The Li River Retreat is my home for the next couple of nights. My gorgeous room has a balcony overlooking the river and the mountains and is disturbed only by birdsong and crickets. I shared a glass of wine or two with a couple of Aussies who I met on the boat and who are also staying here. It’s great to have some company – so far I have been the sole European/English speaker. Peter has fluffy Pooh Bear complimentary slippers from his room, while I only have standard issue plastic jobs. Am I a second class citizen? Should I get over my slipper envy? I think I might need a little lie down.
I’m reading “The Magnetic North” by Sara Wheeler at the moment. I’m thoroughly enjoying her mix of travelogue, science, history and ethnography of the Arctic, but it is also reminding me of the context of Dad’s youth. He was born in 1914 and in the ‘20s and ‘30s the papers would have been full of Mallory’s exploits on Everest, aviation feats and endless attempts to reach the North Pole. It was an age of adventure and exploration. It wasn’t just Dad’s duty as an officer to escape from the Japs: he was a mountaineer, he’d been learning to fly, he was a fearless rider – he wanted an adventure! He must have been happy as a pig in muck to be striking out across the unknown interior of China in wartime.