Beth, Cat and I arrived in Guilin on Monday morning. Our hostel was only a short walk from the train station so we should have been there within twenty minutes of leaving the train but, because we're idiots, we walked straight past it and instead spent a good hour hauling all of our bags several kilometres down the road. Everybody we asked for directions would point in different directions and suggest random arrival times, including the receptionist at a hotel which later turned out to be directly opposite our hostel. Brilliant. We eventually gave in and caught a cab to the hostel all the way back along the road we'd just struggled down. Our friend Kaye, who we'd met whilst staying at the Lazybones hostel in Chengdu, where he works, was waiting for us when we arrived and the four of us settled down in front of the hostel TV to wait for Hannah, who was due to arrive around lunch-time.
That afternoon was spent wandering relaxedly around Guilin city centre. Rob and Dan had visited Guilin about two weeks earlier and passed our phone numbers on to some of the friends they'd made and one of these friends, a tour-guide called Jane, got in touch with us to offer to show us around the city. First she took us to a busy undergound market because Beth, Cat and I had decided we wanted our ears piercing again; we found a tiny tattoo-piercing parlour and each forked out 10Y (yes, that is £1) to have our tragus pierced. It sounds very dodgy but it was all clean and as professional as anything ever is here. We may have been fighting ear infections of varoius intensities ever since, but I think this is more our fault for keeping jumping in dirty rivers and stuff than anything else. Next on our tour was going to be the famous two pagodas on the lake, but we were distracted by a bargainous pizza stand so stopped for lunch instead. Jane didn't have time to stay with us after this, but she pointed us in the right direction and we strolled along the promenade by the river, in the sun, until we reached them. We were waylaid en-route by an enormous tour group wanting dozens of photos together with us, which was about 50:50 funny and embarrassing, but we escaped easily enough into the skinny band of parkland which surrounds the pagodas and the lake they're set upon. This was all very pretty, especially with the blue skies we had that day, so we had a pleasant stroll about taking photos and haggling with the souvenir ladies before we headed back to the hostel again.
The rest of our party weren't due to arrive until late that evening, so we set about planning the next day's excursion to the Longji rice terraces whilst we waited. I don't know how we'd have managed without Kaye; because we were trying to save money by co-ordinating the trip ourselves, we had to go to the train station to hire a private bus, explain our plans, haggle about prices... which was all infinitely easier when we had someone fluent in Chinese with us! (Arranging things ourselves was worth-while, as it was 100Y cheaper than it would have been to go through the hostel.) Dinner that night was traditional Guilin rice noodles, but not before I'd been accosted on the street whilst trying to buy some fruit. I'd just paid for a little plastic bowl of watermelon chunks to snack on when a guy popped up on my right, grabbed my little bowl, stabbed a piece of watermelon on a cocktail stick and then offered it up to me... I tried to politely decline, but he seemed to be working on the fruit stall too and he was pretty insistent, so in the end I just let him feed me the bloody watermelon. Then he speared another piece of watermelon and offered me that too, and I can't remember if it was at this chunk or the next that I realised I was in danger of being fed the whole bowl piece by piece and snatched my watermelon back, but when I did this guy just trotted back off into the crowd. He didn't work on the fruit stall, he didn't even know the owner... apparently he was just a random guy who spotted an opportunity to be weird and seized it.
Nold, Alex, Naomi, Pete and Henry arrived at around midnight that night. We stayed up for a while to catch up, but we took the turning off of all the lights in the bar area as a hint that we ought to go to bed and peeled off.
Next morning half of us were up early to catch the first of the minivans we'd hired to go to the rice terraces. The second bus would leave later because it would wait for Bertie, the last of our party, to arrive that morning but in the end we arrived only about an hour apart from each other. This was all thanks to our driver, who had decided to bring his girlfriend along for a day-trip and wanted to do so without her actually paying for a ticket. I think he was hoping she could slip in amidst all of us and the guards wouldn't notice that our group was one ticket short but this was a stupid idea and obviously it didn't work. He bickered with the guard checking our tickets for a while, then drove the van back into the car-park, parked and disappeared. His girlfriend waited silently in the van for a bit, then she disappeared too, although we would see one or the other of them pop up somewhere across the car-park every now and then. I don't know how long we waited, but it was too long. After a while the driver reappeared, sans girlfriend, and we finally made it to the furthest collection of rice terraces, which are apparently the largest in the world. We had a plain lunch together in the little minority village at the foot of the terraces whilst we waited for the second minivan to arrive, and then we set off to hike up through the terraces to a peak from which we'd be able to overlook them all.
I'll try to upload photos of the rice terraces soon because I don't know how well I can describe them. I think the most impressive part of the terraces is just the scale of them - whichever way you look, for as far as you can see, every hillside has been clipped into dozens and dozens of meandering grassy shelves. It was nice to be doing something that felt like exercise after being cooped up on trains and buses so much, and it also didn't feel too touristy, which was a really welcome change from the majority of our travelling thus far. Maybe because we'd gone to the furthest set of terraces, there were practically no other visitors and no garish souvenir shops, just the odd local woman in a traditional head-dress and Nike trainers wandering about with a woven basket of post-card and scarves to sell.
For our last night in Guilin, we found a stall in the night market where we could sit outside and eat street food. We had spicy sea-snails and mini-lobsters, skewers of squid and eel, whole barbecued fish on sticks, garlic oysters... all of it really good and really cheap. After dinner we wandered back through the market and to the hostel, where we played foosball and chatted with the hostel staff who were really cool. One guy, Yang, had taught himself a British accent by listening to football commentaries, and we were trying to help him perfect his pronunciation of several of the key British phrases Dan had taught him when he'd visited the week before. For example: ""d'you wanna take this outside mate?" "innit" and "I'll shank you bled!"