Peak into heaven

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The scenic county of Yangshuo City in Guilin, China, is fascinating and full of contrasting images, writes Ewe Paik Leong

TOUR guide Chow announces: “This is Seven Lotus Peak. “Former American presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton stayed here when they visited Yangshuo.”

Rising 300m, the peak is the highest point in Yangshuo City in Guilin, China, and resembles a lotus bud. Not willing to climb to its peak, we view instead the rustic pavilions and calligraphy-inscribed boulders punctuating a concrete pathway running round the foot of the hill.

Next, Chow leads us to a dock to board a motorboat. The cold morning wind makes our teeth chatter as we glide down the Li River to Fuli, an 800-year-old village located three kilometres away.

Parts of the river have silted, creating ox-bow lakes and flood plains where water buffaloes graze. Rounded hills peep from mists as we pass under a bridge topped with three pagodas. Later Chow alerts us to three boulders, called

Rock Of Three Sisters which, according to local legend, appeared when three sisters were turned into stone.

Not long after passing the rock formation, the motorboat drops us off at a pier. Leaving the river behind, we climb up a cement stairway and enter the arched gate to Fuli.

ANCIENT FULI

Tired, old houses with peeling stucco and decaying tiled roofs are alive with human activity. A few toddlers, wrapped in oversized jackets, toss pebbles, playing a traditional game. A chow dog sleeps in a wooden kennel in someone’s garden. Everything smells of mould, night soil, grapefruit and rotting vegetables.

We disperse to go exploring on our own. Stores, interspersed among houses, sell collectibles, huge fans, scroll paintings and oil paper umbrellas. At a makeshift stall, old comics and books including copies of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung which grab my attention. Out of curiosity, I flip through a copy. It is bilingual.

The stall-owner’s face is a mass of wrinkles, his back is hunched, advanced in years he certainly is. “Forty renminbi,” he croaks, his voice sounds as if it comes from a 12-inch LP microgroove record.

“I’m just browsing,” I say and shake my head. “It’s no use to me.”

“Maybe you want a collector’s copy? I was a soldier and served under Marshal Lin Biao. I fought in Hainan in 1950. When Mao became chairman, I memorised his Red Book. I still have an original edition. I keep it locked in my room. It’s antique. You want to see it?”

Sensing an exorbitant price offer coming, I smile and move on.

I take a breather at the Three Sisters Cafe, drink tea from quaint cups, munch mantou (buns) and take in the hillocks.

TRIBAL ENCOUNTERS

Our tour van arrives and I climb aboard. Fields with yellow blooms appear on my left and pale green hills in the shapes of elephants and camels crouch on the horizon on my right.

The wheels of the van crunch gravel as we hit a dirt track running parallel to the bank of the Yulong River, and stop at a wooden pier.

Moored at the edge of the water are bamboo floats, each manned by a Yao aboriginal girl and a boatman who punts with a pole.

We board a raft, settle on wooden chairs and listen to the girl sing folk songs. She hands us laminated cards containing the lyrics and soon, everyone joins in the singing.

Our downstream journey is short and we head back to our starting point.

Action now replaces scenic hills as a fisherman demonstrates cormorant fishing. Four birds are leashed to his bamboo raft. He beats the water surface with a bamboo pole. At once, a cormorant dives into the water and, seconds later, surfaces with a fish in its beak.

Faithfully, it returns to the master who pulls the fish out of its beak and places it in a basket. A cord tied round the bird’s neck prevents it from swallowing the fish.

On the river bank, a Mongolian camel and a kiosk renting traditional costumes for photography stirs excitement among the children.

Shortly, we spend an hour at an aboriginal complex,watching traditional dances.

“Think twice before you marry a Zhuang aboriginal girl from Guangxi Province,” Chow tells us as the maidens, dressed in everything silver — medal-decorated jackets and jewellery — stand in a row for our clicking cameras.
He smiles and explains: “They have an unusual marriage custom. After spending the wedding night with her husband, she returns to her family home. In the first few years, as long as her parents are still alive, she visits her husband only during the farming season and festive occasions.”   

BACK TO SHORE

Time wears on as our van passes Moon Hill — a cliff with a round hole in its centre — on its way to Butterfly Cave, ensconced in a limestone hill connected to another hill by a canopy walkway.

The rather demanding climb up one hill and down another takes its toll on my legs and sweat beads form on my forehead.  

Boasting two rock formations shaped like butterflies glistening in dark shadows, this enormous cave, much to my surprise, also houses souvenir stores and a photographer’s kiosk for visitors to pose beside a magnificent rock outcrop.  

From Butterfly Cave, we journey back to Yangshuo and to its famous drag, West Street. A pedestrian mall, West Street throbs with shopping and food stalls. There are several Western cafes serving burgers and steaks.

From street stalls, I attack with gusto fermented beancurd, oval kumquat (fortunella margarita), cosvenor mormordica juice (commonly referred as luo han guo), ginkgo dessert, and ping tong wou lou (Chinese hawthorn coated with rock sugar).

The highlight of the evening is the Impressions Liu San Jie, a sound-and-light spectacle, directed by Zhang Yi Mou, the choreographer of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics 2008.

The open-air amphitheatre faces the Li River, equipped with hidden sound equipment and lighting. The cast of 500 performers are farmers and fishermen by day.

As the show begins, the audience hush to a silence as the sweet notes of a stringed instrument floats in the air. Lights reveal the karst hills in the background and fishermen paddle bamboo rafts in rows.

The story, divided into seven segments, moves from folk music to depictions of everyday-life activities to ballet to traditional dancing. Intermittently, vaporous and mysterious lights flick translucent tongues against the night’s curtain.

Elusive, they leap, waver, rise and fall, and change from green to gold to blue. Enjoying the performance, I alternate between fascination and anticipation.
 

Zhuang aboriginal girls posing for the camera after performing a dance

A fisherman with his faithful cormorants which fish but cannot eat the catch

Bamboo rafts on the Yulong River waiting for passengers

Panoramic view of the countryside from Butterfly Cave - Pictures by Ewe Paik Leong


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