The city is well designed for defence, armed with both a ring of hills and two rivers that form a sort of moat. Nonetheless, the Japanese bombarded the city in 1944 and occupied it successfully.
At the centre is a tall hill with a pagoda on top.
Dad mentions that he visited a cave that was used as an air raid shelter and could hold about 15000 people. He is referring to Seven Star cave, which is another feature of the extraordinary limestone landscape. It continues on and on under the hills and at one point it is on two levels so that, if you stamp your foot, it sounds hollow underfoot. These days the cave is lit up like a Christmas tree.
One small part of Seven Star cave
We also visited Elephant Trunk hill, which looks like an elephant dipping its trunk into the river. We had the most delicious lunch at Chunji restaurant – scallops with chilli and garlic, with beans, aubergine and spring onion, followed by water chestnuts in toffee batter – yum (I think I’m going a bit native)!
Elephant Trunk hill
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see a panda, in the zoo at Guilin. They seem to engage with people and have rather similar body language, particularly when it comes to lounging postures.
The flight to Guiyang was delayed and then turned out to be more like a bus, with a 10 minute stop on the way. Turned out that the stop made the journey equivalent to flying from London to Edinburgh via Paris. Didn’t get in till midnight, but Guiyang looks much more modern and sophisticated than I was expecting. It is on a plateau at about 5000ft and is the meeting place for cold winds from Siberia to the west and warm winds from the pacific to the east. The result? Near constant cloud and fog. Super.
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.
View from my room at Li River Retreat
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.