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Woa…that’s a big stone.

So I left Guilin and headed to Yangshuo. It was a pretty uneventful bus trip and I arrived without any problems. Upon arrival, I set out to find a hostel. Yangshuo is a very unique place, indeed. It’s not your typical Chinese city in that it was kind of a nice little getaway before and as word spread, it has exploded into a tourist Mecca. There is a bit of a run down area in the outskirts, but the majority of the town is filled with hostels, hotels, western restaurants, people selling cheap tourist junk, old women selling fruit, beggars getting money hand over fist from the old Europeans and the like. It was like any really touristy town in Southeast Asia, but with a unique Chineseness that can’t actually be described. The only way I can put it is that where the Southeast Asian towns had a kind of trashy and fake feel, Yangshuo has a more innocent and quaint feel – despite its touristocity. It’s a really laid back place surrounded by towering rings of limestone peaks with rivers flowing through and around the town. I eventually found a hostel and was walking towards the entrance when I caught a glimpse of a familiar face.

I looked. She looked. We both squinted…”Casey???”

It was Ale from Beijing. She started working for Berlitz about two weeks before I left and we’ve kept in touch as I’ve been traveling. She taking a weekend vacation and it just so happened that four months after I left, we randomly met up at the same place and had checked into the same room at the same hostel (and it’s not like there weren’t a hundred to choose from). She was leaving in an hour and we chatted for a while and got some food and then I was left to my own devices in the town. My routine here seems to be something along the lines of check into the hotel, figure out some things I don’t know how to say and then pester the hotel staff with these very questions – thus learning a bit of functional Chinese. So as I was doing this, I met some Columbians who needed to make a phone call but realized that it was around 50 cents a minute. I told them about Skype (check out http://www.skype.com) which allows you to make calls over the net from a computer to a phone for 1 cent a minute and I said they could use my account to make their call, seeing as I had nothing much to do. They had free net access at their hotel and they made the call, and as we were hanging out, we learned about this really amazing light show on the river where they light up all these mountains and have all these people on boats with lights and stuff at night. So we signed up for that (and it was indeed incredible) and promised to meet back at the hotel before the show in a few hours. I went out to the river to snap some photos seeing as the clouds had cleared (it was really cloudy in Kunming and Guangzhou) and tried to find an old man with a boat to take me around the river. I eventually found an old woman with a boat and she had a dutch girl waiting, so we split the 15 cents it cost to cross the river. The Dutch girl had some food so we sat and chatted and it was quite interesting. It was a really strange conversation though, actually. We talked about life and teaching in China (she was a teacher too) and stuff like that and the dialog was hilarious because we were both pretty witty in the conversation. When we finally crossed the river to the other side, she suggested that we since we got along so well, that we get married (to make a long story short). Seeing as I realized that she was a bit nutty even before that, I got away quick in search of the Columbians.

So anyways, I went to the light show with the Columbians and we had a great time. We got dinner afterwards and chatted the night away which I really enjoyed. That night, I met Nancy, a really funny English girl, and we ended up playing chess for the rest of the night.

That morning, and really early at that, an obnoxious Chinese guy burst into the dormitory and starting talking at full volume and smoking. When I complained downstairs, and they confronted him, he said that it wasn’t him that was smoking, it was the other Chinese girl (this quiet sweet little girl who had been in the room for a few days). What a jerk. So that day I didn’t do much but relax. Nancy and I went out and saw the mountains and a few parks, saw a few crazy food markets (Deep fried dog and rat for dinner, anyone?) and played a bit more chess. That night, I ran into the Columbians again and met some Chileans and we promised to meet up the next day for the lunch. The next day, we did that and talked all about Chile and Pinochet and stuff. I learned quite a bit. So then I checked my email. I saw my friend Colleen online (who I had traveled with in Nepal) and asked her where she was. Her response? Yangshuo! So we walked out to the street and saw each other and she was with my friend Zach. What a random coincidence, but like I said, they aren’t really a rare occurrence for me, so it seems. We chatted and caught up and then it was time for Nancy and I to head back to Guilin so that we could catch the train to Kunming in the morning. We did just that and I checked into the same hostel that I was at before and we got some food before getting to sleep.

In the morning, we caught the train, and 21 hours of hot steamy misery ensued. The train was soooo hot but we eventually survived by spending a lot of time sitting in the first class car (which was air conditioned) and playing card games with an English and Irish guy we met. It was pretty funny because the English guy had all sorts of purple dots all over his body. He said that in Yangshuo he went out for a bike ride, got some bad directions, ended up at some random town and slept in a really dodgy hostel and ended up getting bitten in about 300 different places all over his body. He went to the doctor and he gave him some stuff that turned all the dots purple and that was why he looked like a psychedelic cheetah. It was great, but it would have sucked had it been me.

When we finally arrived, we all headed to the same hostel and checked in. Seeing as I could speak the most Chinese of everyone (which isn’t saying much) I helped everyone get squared away, which would have been quite hard otherwise seeing as no one here really speaks much English. The dorm was pretty cool and it was me, a Swedish couple we had also met on the train, the UK guys and Nancy. Morgan the Irish guy, Nancy and I went to Shilin for the day and it was pretty incredible. This place is made up of hundreds of thousands of limestone pillars and you just wander around in it for hours. I was really impressed and had a great time. I mean, the place is otherworldly. You wander around these massive stones jagging out of the ground in awe and there are tables and stuff in little hidden areas to sit at. There are also hidden underground caves which blast refreshingly cool air on you as you walk by, taking the cut off the heat. Surrounding the area were thousands of rice terraces and on the way back to the bus station, I asked our tuk tuk driver to stop so I could snap a photo of the workers in the fields. He slammed on the brakes and literally squealed to a halt and all the workers snapped their heads up at me to look at what the hell I was doing. I didn’t get a very good photo, but my “sneak” attack sure was funny. Shilin was quite a few hours away though so the bus ride was a bit monotonous and Nancy had a look at my phrase book. She started laughing and pointed out some funny phrases like, “Hey, I think my ancestors are from this place. Is there anyone here with the surname of Cobb?” She was pretty embarrassed when I leaned over to the Chinese farmer and told some of the stuff to him with a straight face.

“Excuse me, sir. I think my ancestors are from this place,” I said in a matter of fact tone.

“Which place?” he asked, surprised.

“This one. You think it’s possible?”

He examined my face closely. “It’s possible,” he replied.

Ha!

So we arrived back quite late and we all went out for dinner. We chose hot pot, which is really quite good, but only the Swedish guy, me and Nancy seemed to like it. Tom, the English guy, screamed when he pulled out a boiled chicken’s head from the pot (*note: hot pot is where they give you a boiling pot of broth and raw meat and you cook your own food). The Irish guy was disgusted and after announcing that it was the worst meal he had had in his life, he got up and said he would find something else to eat. We all enjoyed the meal and talking though, and when he got back, we all split the bill. We headed back to the hotel past more crazy food markets (where they seemed to have a pitbull cut up and deep fried on display) I headed back to the hostel and passed out from exhaustion. The next day, Nancy and I wandered around Kunming for a while and I tried to find some shoes that were my size. I think China is one of the only countries in which I can walk into a shoe store and say to them, “I need REALLY big shoes. The biggest you’ve got!” and have them bring me back a size 8 1/2. I finally found a large 9 that my feet could squeeze into and I’m hoping they stretch. They seem to be, and seeing as I don’t have to go everywhere in flip flops anymore (I sent my boots home while in India), I’m happy.

There really wasn’t much to see in Kunming. It is just another big city. It is a lot cleaner and brighter than Beijing, but I really want to see the more rural stuff now, so I kind of zipped through it. We caught the bus in the afternoon to the “ancient” city of Dali and after fending off the touts and the old men who follow you around trying to get a commission for “bringing” you to the hotel you were going to anyway, we checked into our hostel. The dorms are always cheap and are a good way of meeting people so I always stay there and this place was really nice, although the bathroom, in stark contrast, was atrocious. The Chinese bathrooms at many places basically consist of a trough with cubicles built over it and water constantly flowing down it, if at all. You do your business while trying not to fall in to the trough. It’s rough. We spent the evening wandering around the city and I have to admit, I was amazed. There were so many Chinese tourists. I’d never seen so many in one place before. They outnumbered the western tourist 20 to 1 and were everywhere. It always surprised me how much the Chinese travel in their own country. They always go in a tour group, but they go everywhere. It’s a phenomenon I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.

Dali was really nice. It didn’t have much in the way of things to do, but it was jam packed with cafes offering a wide selection of pirated DVDs for your viewing pleasure, along with pool, foosball, free internet, large cushy couches and a huge selection of books. The city consisted of many stone cobbled roads and alley ways and a huge outer wall which marked the boundary of the “ancient” city. I spent the whole day just kind of wandering around and watching the people. It was different than Southeast Asia in that even though it was strictly a tourist place, there were local places too and it was still packed with tourists (that is, Chinese tourists) so you still got to see the way of life. It was touristy, but Chinese touristy and thus educational.

One thing that did shock me though was seeing old women walking up to me and asking if I wanted to buy marijuana. “Haaah Sheeesh?” they would ask in a hushed voice. This was very common in Southeast Asia and Nepal, but China was the last place I expected it. I’m sure the penalty for selling it is death here. It wasn’t all that uncommon, though, seeing as there were several mary-jay plants growing in front of dorm room.

So we spent a day there and then continued on to where I am now, Lijiang. The bus ride was 3 hours and I spent the better part of it sticking my nose out the window and trying not to inhale the barrage of cigarette smoke coming at me from the Chinese farmers in the back of the mini-van. Smoke is always annoying when you are locked in a bus and the ashes are falling all over you with the wind. The funny thing was that I had control of my window and I had it full-open to suck the smoke out. The Chinese guy behind me leaned over and snapped my window shut and I just snapped it right back open. The guys here can be so rude and they seem to respond well to you being “ambiguously” rude back to them. I snapped the window back shut (and would have done it again and again) without looking at him, which made it all right. Some vinegar was leaking out of the drum in the front of the bus and leaking all over my bag. I thought it was water and smelled it and all the Chinese guys laughed pretty hard (including myself) at the face I made. The ride was beautiful though. We zipped past low lying rice fields with groups of 20 or so workers picking and sorting neon green rice sprouts and transplanting them into other flooded sections of the field. It was absolutely stunning.

So I’ve arrived here to Lijiang and have walked around quite a ways with Nancy and am really enjoying it. There are even MORE Chinese tourists here and it’s great. The city is all cobbled with tons of stores and it’s quite ancient looked (despite the electricity, you know) and I’ve snapped hundreds of photos. I leave tomorrow for a 3 day trek in the mountains to check out “Tiger Leaping Gorge” and after that, it’s off the Chengdu.

Man, I’ve said it before, but I am really really glad to be back in China. This place is great. The people are so friendly and there is so much to see.

The food is incredible and there’s lots of good fruit to snack on – and it’s realllllly cheap. The portions are huge and you always pay less than a buck for a massive fill. It’s excellent. But of course, there are the famous Chinese spitters everywhere. Everyone spits and you hear the hawking noise everywhere you go. It’s really great to wake up to that – kind of like a Chinese rooster. I’m having a great time with the language and the jokes (like, saying my ancestors are from here) are really funny and I love having that comedic connection with the locals. Every day I’m learning more functional vocabulary and phrases and I can get around quite easily now. I still have problems with the tone sometimes and I’m sure I say some pretty funny stuff. When I think I’m asking for the bill at the restaurant, I’m probably asking for a fried cat, or something like that. Oh well, that’s Chinese!

Another thing that’s kind of interesting (I know, I use that word a lot, but I can’t think of any synonyms at the moment) is the fact that all the roads have miles and miles of tunnels in them. Where we go around and over the mountains, they just go straight through them – which is kind of indicative of the Chinese “can-do” mentality. I suppose that in our countries, tunnels are expensive to do for roads, but here labor is cheap so they just smash right through the mountain. It’s great that they are building the infrastructure while it’s cheap. China (again, I say it again) is transforming rapidly.

And so here I leave you.