Bamboo boatmen

Attack of the bamboo river boatmen

Bamboo boatmen

When floating down the river Li in the Guangxi region, the last thing one expects is a group of men on bamboo rafts to edge towards you. In an almost attacking formation these local men donning triangular linen-hats line the riverbanks, wait for a liner full of Europeans to flog their wares. Yet these attackers are harmless, smiling at the crowds in search of a few Yuan for their produce. Beaming up at the passengers, they can only but charm them, Spanish and Germans like. Months of practice must be put in to enable these men to hook their rafts onto the mini-liner, without compromising their stock as well as their safety at times.

River Li

The shape of Li

One of the most iconic areas of China, the river Li is a world of its own. Hundreds of tourist liners jet through the narrow passageways beneath the mountainous limestone-crags dispersed along the route. Locals opt for low-level bamboo constructions – mini-scooters of the water as they almost effortlessly form a line of movement towards their destination – whether it may be a wooden hut hidden beneath the hillside caves or in the local villages spread out along the river. I can’t help but pretend to be a professional photographer, snapping various angles to create shapes out of the rocks – exercising the power of mental creativity.

Destination Yangshuo

Hong Kong haven

Yangshuo is much like an Oasis town. Not quite a Las Vegas in Death Valley, but a haven of Westernised consumer shops run by the Hong Kongese and hostels for eager backpackers to rest their heads before tackling some limestone rock faces. And no, it’s not raining, it’s so hot in China that people use umbrellas to keep them in the shade. This one Westerner is doing the opposite – walking in a white vest with no defences against the suns cursing rays.

Chinese just want to have fun

Delayed marriages

After a lengthy boat trip and tour of the local area we had a more candid chat with our guide about life in China today. I should not have been surprised that young people (like most places in the world) like to party at the weekend, play basketball (and a bit of soccer) but they don’t have compulsory military service. Something which I only recently found out today, which may be contested but it seems China has the oldest age at which couples can get married. Men have to wait until they are 22 years old before tying the knot, while women have to have reached the age of 20 before marriage. Next there is the issue of the One Child Policy. Minority groups enjoy exceptions to the rule  because they can have more than one child, but our guide told us many Chinese people go to Hong Kong to give birth so that their children can have more freedoms not granted for their area. As in any country there are cultural problems, but as far as I have seen in Guilin, they are at least well hidden. The children are polite and respectful of adults – a group came and watched us eat and chat – fascinated by our Western ways, but asked to do so.

Lovers in Guilin – mystery advert

Guilin Lights

Strolling around in Guilin at night is like walking onto a warm-up session for a non-competitive mini-scooter Grand Prix. Couples glide around on electric scooters embracing as they pass subtly lit bridges, with hues of green, purple, red and yellow reflecting off newly laid tarmac bridges and winding lakes. The Chinese young men chat as they effortlessly motor around the city – almost travelling in circuits, narrowly avoiding lonesome pedestrians and wayward cars. But no-one is in a hurry. This isn’t Shanghai any more. This is a more southerly part of China located in the Guangxi Autonomous Region.

Markets for miles

Miles of market stalls line the central area of the city, somehow all managing to co-exist if not profitable, it provides at least a social event for the locals. There is barely another Westerner in sight, but one does still not feel bothered by intruding glares. The centre of Guilin is a safe area, even at 11pm. The only bother comes from pedal taxis offering to take you home, but it is not the same thrill as scooting around on an electric powered bike. The locals charge their low-powered machines up at newspaper-style kiosks and can last for 6-7 hours, ready for a glide around town. Under and over the bridge, these aimless travellers pass the time through experiencing the city as it changes before them.

Cave lights

Colour is also infused at the Reed Flute Caves, a setting the bikers would feel comfortable in as low atmospheric lights bring shapes of imaginary mushrooms, peanuts, cities and snowmen to life. In the “Crystal Palace” the epicentre of the caves the reed flute was played with a light show, causing a Chinese wave of “wows” through the crowds of visitors.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese character. Polite, even if communication is very much limited or lost in translation. A glass of sparkling water became a can of coconut milk, a plate of braised chicken became bony lumps with a claw thrown in. Some cultural differences aside, what makes the Chinese, Chinese? What makes the British, British one might ask. It is still too early for an assessment. But a few things can be said. People here are not overly religious, perhaps more spiritual than religious, they are economically savvy, not brash or showy, they are incredibly talented and hard-working. Some of the more difficult questions still have to be asked, but social harmony really is a feeling I am getting from the place at the moment, at least in Guilin. For example, felt completely safe in this city of 1.9m people, walking around at night.

And finally…

O, yes and I need your help – who is this in the photo?
Ronaldo said he was going to sue over a similar advert…

Who is this footballer?

I got quite a shock when I saw this prolific scorer holding a packet of throat sweets in China!

Jewish Shanghai

During WWII the Archbishop of Canterbury lobbied the UK government to let Jewish refugees into the country before the onslaught of Nazi Germany would cause thousands of families to be sent off to concentration camps. Many were accepted but many more were refused with the exception of the kindertransport mission. Indeed few governments across the globe were prepared to allow a flow of migrants, especially at a time of economic hardship. But there was one government and one city in particular that welcomed ships of refugees to their shores. That city was Shanghai.

Over 30,000 men, women and children escaped to the East on ships set-off from Italy across the globe. The journey took them below the tip of Africa and past India on its route to the Eastern shores of China. There was momentary refuge for these Jewish families in Shanghai as the Japanese were soon to round them up into a Ghetto in the Hongkou district, where the memorial museum stands today.

Documentaries and personal documents tell of how people survived and interacted in the Ghetto area, policed by the Japanese. Michael Blumenthal was one such Shanghai resident who went on to become the U.S. Treasury Secretary.

Nanjing Road

It was surprising, but today I got a dose of more traditional, commercial communism. Department stores with rented-out sections reminded me of communist Russian shops. Nanjing street was not the force of commercialism I had perhaps expected, but it enlarged my perspective of shopping in Shanghai. There is clearly huge demand, hundreds of people filtered through clothing stores to pick their favourite t-shirt or pair of shorts. A stroll to the end of Nanjing Street takes one to People’s Square, at the epicentre of metro activity.

Yet Shanghai is not all riches and glam. From the overground metro I took this picture, showing more shanty-town constructs even in the heart of the city…

Shanty Shanghai

The evening ended with an all-you-can-eat meal at a Japanese restaurant beside the hotel. A Kiwi with his tall Chinese wife told us a few (expat) truths. He spoke of how the Chinese children study six days a week and have tests on the seventh, how in-laws live with the partner after a marriage and how incredibly difficult it is to learn the language.

And with that the Shanghai chapter ends. Tomorrow involves an early trip to Guilin. On the TV Hillary Clinton has just visited China and has spoken of dealing with the debt problem in the USA and three officials from China railway have been sacked after a fatal collision involving high-speed trains.

But tomorrow will bring more of historic China to life.