My First Solo Trip: Yangshuo and Nanjing — China
TLDR — Broke and alone, but more Alive than ever before.
Day 1. Wednesday. Guilin.
I took the bus to Incheon Airport for my 9:40 PM flight. I checked in and went through security. I got nervous at immigration though. Basically I have dual citizenship so I technically have to serve in the Korean military because my parents forgot to renounce my citizenship before I turned 18. So if I try to leave the Korea, they could potentially detain me and make me complete the standard Korean military service of 2 years. Yes, this happens. I did a lot of research and found that I could receive a military exemption stamp that would allow me 3 years, in and out of Korea. Even with this, I was scared. As I walked to the front of the queue, all of the negative thoughts rushed through my head. She took my passport and looked through it, for what seemed like forever. Then she stamped it. Thank God. Now I knew I can go home in the future too.
I landed in Guilin International Airport at 12:40 AM. You would not believe how creepy it was in the airport. We were the last arriving flight and the airport was completely empty. It looked like there had been a zombie apocalypse. The brusque military members and the tired immigration clerks got us through. I was pretty scared about being Korean, especially with the tension between China and Korea/U.S. But I got through and got in a cab. It took an hour and a half and cost 190 Yuan (only maybe like $25), but there was plenty on the ride to keep my preoccupied.
Also, I have to mention at this point, that I arrived with 200,000 WON, which is about 1,000 YUAN after conversion fees. This foolish lack of foresight will be a major theme throughout this story.
Anyway, The cab drivers named was Luo Li. She spoke very little English but we somehow managed to scrape a conversation together — mostly because she was so kind and we both just made the effort. Her son is 15, and he is a good boy. Also, as we drove, she pointed out massive, dark silhouettes encircling the city and its buildings. I didn’t really know what they were, until a lightning bolt flashed through the sky and I saw that they were the karst mountains! The mountains looked so different! They are much skinner and chopped up — they really do look like a plateau towards heaven. Also interesting, was that there was no thunder clap. I asked like 10 people about it throughout my trip, but they either didn’t know what I was saying or didn’t know the answer. I’m gonna Google it later. Anyway, I arrived at the Sky Palace Hostel, and walked to my room with some anxiety — the floor and walls of the hallway wore ripped up and torn down and there was a moth-eaten couch in the corner. But my room wasn’t bad! It was small, humid, and sticky, but the beds were clean. Sleep sucked though cause I swear this one mosquito was feasting on the fresh meat. I had to declare war. But it won. I never found it. I just wore all my clothes and went to sleep.
Day 2. Thursday. Xingping — Yangshuo
I woke up at 7:00 AM the next day for my Cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Xingping — which cost me 150 Yuan. I took a van, to a bus, to the cruise, to an electric car, and finally, to one last bus, that took us to Yangshuo — my final destination. The cruise was incredible though! I was grouped with 3 English people — Dan, Juliet, and Alex. Dan had lived and worked in China for the past two years, but was already fluent in Mandarin! He had the air of someone that was very important and successful, but he was very kind and congenial. Juliet was his mom and Alex was her partner. It was nice to talk to them about where we were from and where we’ve been and what we’re doing in life. I got to talk about California and I realized just how proud and lucky I was when I saw their faces go green with envy and they learned where I was from.
The river itself, was gorgeous, and the Karst mountains loomed on all sides. It was amazing to see mountains like I had never seen before. It amazes me that even the mountains are different in other countries — something that I believed to be so durable and unchanged, could be sculpted by nature into something so different. We stopped in Xingping, the city marking the beginning of the scenic views of Yangshuo.
Anyway, combining everything, I had been traveling for about 5 hours, and we finally arrived in Yangshuo, the small village-turning-city where I would be staying for the next 3 days until leaving for Nanjing.
Everyone just started leaving! I was terrified. I was in a new place, in the middle of nowhere, knowing nobody, and all the people were leaving in their groups, with their friends or family, and seemed so sure and confident of where they needed to go. I looked around hopelessly until I realized I wasn’t that alone — I had google. So I Google-maps’ed it (there’s plenty of WiFi everywhere). Luckily, my hostel was only a 5-minute walk!
Le Attendant Godot Youth Hostel
My hostel was squeezed in between a small alleyway. Always anxious, I walked in with some anticipation. It was a small, but clean and comfortable-looking front room. There, the hostel owner was handling business with two Chinese gentlemen, who seemed to be in some distress. After they went up to their room, slightly disgruntled, I paid another 150 Yuan for my room and a deposit (If you’ve been doing the math, I’ve already used around 500 Yuan. I also bought food and a toothbrush at the airport, a small gift for someone, and other meals, leaving me with around 400 Yuan, or, $57…). When I got to my room, I found that I was sharing with the 2 Chinese guys!
This is where the story lines vastly changed due to my solo situation. If I had been with Kyle, or another friend, I might have said “Hi.” Most likely, I would have said nothing, and just talked to my friend, commenting on the room or the view. Instead, I immediately decided to dive in. Why not. We introduced ourselves (their names are Julian and Henry), I learned why they were disgruntled (their itinerary had changed and they only had the rest of the Thursday afternoon in Yangshuo), and I picked up a little of their personality traits — Julian was much more social and confident, while Henri was quieter and more reserved. But they were both cool!
After, I went downstairs to find out the WiFi Code. I realized that I could not survive on $57 for the next 4 days because there were expenses that I NEEDED to pay to get home. I’m not even talking food. I’m talking like the bus fare back to Guilin airport. Anyway, I was looking to see how much of a transaction fee I would receive for withdrawing money, or if I even could with my Korean bank account. As I was using the computer, Julian and Henri told me they were going to bike around the city and asked if I wanted to go.
Again, the story would have been so different if I had been with people. Even alone, I considered lying or making excuses. I said that I needed to go to the bank and that maybe if they were still here I would see them. Then I realized how pointless this lie was. Just to avoid some discomfort or potential initial awkwardness. So I said, “Nvm, let’s go!” The hostel owner, Martin, walked us to a cheap restaurant that gave us a bowl of noodles for 10 Yuan (like 2 bucks). The portions are tiny though. Honestly — smallest I’ve ever seen. Not the noodles, but the meat they promise is literally less than the crumbs at the bottom of a bucket of KFC — not an exaggeration. But what did I expect for 10 Yuan. Martin went back to the hostel and we actually had a great lunch! I found out they were from Paris and had sexy Paris accents. They thought their accents were horrible and annoying and they hated it; I told them that in America, the girls would love it. They said they would be visiting asap.
After eating we went out to try to figure out where we were going to bike too. But we didn’t have to! Who else was waiting for us but Martin! He kindly offered us a bike tour that was probably more than most tours that other foreigners take — he had lived in Yangshuo his whole life and knew what was up. He showed us all the touristy places like Moon Hill, the water caves, the Butterfly Cave, etc. but also showed us the off-beaten tracks like a cool rock wall in the forest, and, my personal favorite, Cock Rock — named so because it is shaped like, well, like a cock.
The best part was riding along the bike path on the Yu-long River, which breaks off from the main Li River at sunset. I must tell you, that if you ever go, the Yu-Long River is much better. As you ride along the path, you enter an alternate reality where magic exists. On the left, the Yu-Long drifts by lazily, carrying bamboo rafts; on the right, a flurry of white butterflies dance on the flower fields of the farmers; in front, the sun begins to settle down behind a rows of Karst mountains going back as far as the eye can see. In a place like this, you begin to understand why the Chinese have so many stories about mythical creatures and magical events — the landscape truly feels like a World where these fantasies can exist.
We went back, ate, and tried to go see if I could withdraw some money. At this point, I was sitting on 200 Yuan after renting bikes and eating. That’s $30. I needed 60 yuan to get back to Guilin airport, at which point I would not even be going home, but to Nanjing. I would need to find a ride downtown in order to see anything, which is an hour and 45 minute. I wasn’t sure about transportation, but I wasn’t sure if I would even have the money to leave the airport. Also, I still needed to eat, and do the stuff that I wanted to do in Yangshuo for the coming days. I needed money. Badly.
Nervously, I walked to the first ATM. I got all the way to
West Street. You wouldn’t believe your eyes. All of a sudden, there is a massive touristy street filled with the bright lights of street carts filled with anything from oysters, to hot dogs; rows upon rows of the neon signs of restaurants and stores; loud, pulsating EDM beats from the many clubs, bars, and pubs; the overwhelming smell of durian stands; crowds gathered around street performers or salespeople luring in tourists, and all the Western fast food you could want (McD’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc). We enjoyed a beer on the top of the Bad Panda, talking about relationships and life, while watching the venerable, majestic Karst landscape clash with the bright LED lights of the Westernized market of West Street.
We got back to the hostel at around 1 AM, and said our goodbyes as my 2 French friends and benefactors would be leaving tomorrow at 6 AM. I thanked them and expressed my gratitude for their time with me, and for basically saving my broke ass from being stuck in Yangshuo with no money and no help. I just think how different things would have turned out if I had refused the bike ride and I feel blessed that I was able to understand the turnings of the World in this one instance.
Day 3. Friday. More like the Yu-Lost River.
Day WHAT?! I swear it had been 7 weeks since I landed in China. I woke up and saw that Julian and Henri had already left and I was alone. Again. I felt the pang of sadness that comes from those you have created a bond with. I realized I had grown attached to them, and how eager the heart is for love and security.
I decided to go to the bank and try to talk to the tellers to see if I could withdraw more money. While I had around 700 yuan, I still wanted to be able to do all the things that I came to Yangshuo to do — and 700 would be cutting it close.
I walked to the Bank of China (the only bank where international funds can be drawn in China). With the help of a teller, I found that I had been pressing the wrong button the whole time. HAHA. I laugh about it now. Irritated, but also relieved, I drew out another 300 yuan, and now had around $150 — I was a rich man.
I walked through the Yangshuo Park which is characterized by a bounty of beautiful trees, and clusters of tables surrounded by Yangshuo citizens playing the same card game. I asked around but there was no English name. They played with these long skinny cards with Chinese characters, but I loved watching. I really wished I could play. Random people would just join tables and everyone would talk and laugh. What a way to enjoy a beautiful Saturday afternoon!
After, I decided to walk the second half of the Yu-Long river. We had biked for three hours the last time, and still only made it through half. I believed that since I had all day, I could walk it. I could not. After three grueling hours of walking in the hot sun, I found a crook in the road, and had no idea which way to go. In Yangshuo, random people on motorbikes would ride alongside and offer rides. I decided to take them up on the offer, and enlisted the services of a squat, middle-aged lady who whisked me away to my destination — going by, I realized I probably would have had to walk another 3 hours, and I laid back in my seat feeling very safe and secure as I basically straddled the driver.
I realized that I actually had a lot more to walk to get back into Yangshuo’s main city — it looked a lot closer on the map. It took me another hour, hour and a half, to get there. This walk really took its toll. I started to feel really lethargic, and depressed, and began to think about how miserable I was. I recorded this part, and I can see the misery all over my face. I remember it clearly. I became homesick for the first time since I’ve been away from home. Not only was I in China, but I was also in Yangshuo, an isolated country town in the middle of nowhere. I felt so alone — I had no way of connecting with my home, or even with Korea — there’s no Facebook, Google, Youtube, Snapchat, or Instagram in China. And also, I just had so much time. TOO much time. Time to think about how much time I had left. Time to think about how miserable I was.
I realized I needed to do something that made me happy. I thought maybe I would just get back and play some basketball, as I had seen a court in passing. As I moped, I turned on my music. This didn’t help, as my phone is filled with American indie folk songs and sad ballads of home and love and the road. But all of a sudden, I heard the glorious piano chords that were oh, so familiar and then — “She can say, in her voice, in the way, that she love me…” Together, with Chance the Rapper, I began to think about my loved ones, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone. I sang LOUD, and as I reached the city, earning curious stares from passerby’s, I felt revived. I realized that singing is what makes me happy — and that’s exactly what I did, all the way back to my hostel.
The day wasn’t over though! I had booked tickets for the Liu Sanjie Impression Show — a famous Chinese performance on the Li River that I had really been looking forward to. I paid 170 yuan. As I was leaving to go eat first, there were new hostel guests — three Chinese young adults — talking to Martin. Martin asked me if I wanted to go eat with them. Again, I initially processed 15 different excuses in my mind and 10 reasons why I didn’t want to, before saying “Yes.”
As it happened, they spoke a little a bit of English — or at least one of them did. I was always grateful for even the littlest bit of English, and felt sorry that I came to their country and imposed upon them, making them have to work harder to communicate and risk sounding less articulate.
Still, they were very kind and congenial. Their names were all in Chinese, and difficult to pronounce, but they were wonderful and they told me their favorite places in China, where to go next, and their relationship statuses. We walked in between small streets and dark alleys and arrived at this tiny structure the size of a shipping container on the edge of the river. It had no kitchen. They cooked in their house that was nearby and then brought the food. It was perfect. It was a warm Spring night, with nothing but our conversation, a choir of cicadas, and the gentle trickle of a creek to break the perfect stillness and serenity of the atmosphere.
I was really concerned about how much it would cost. They were ordering a lot of delicious food: sea snails, shrimp, sauteed spinach, and the famous, beer-batter fish. It was delicious, but I knew this hearty meal was gonna punch a hole in my pockets. It came out to 300 yuan, or like 72 per person. This was tough news, because I was usually paying around 25 yuan for a meal. As we made to leave, one of them immediately flew to the restaurant workers and paid for our meal. I was horrified. I ran over and tried to pay, insisting that we had only just met and that it wasn’t necessary. I dropped my money and tried to leave. One of them ran after me and handing it back. I was very touched, accepted the honor, and thanked them.
Next up was the show! It was now 9:00 and the show was set to begin at 9:20. As I walked past all of the families and couples and friends, I again grew a little sad and wished that someone could be there with me. The show was so beautiful. The first scene was the most captivating. On the still, dark river, one single boat is illuminated to reveal the main protagonist, Liu Sanjie, a woman whose hand is pursued by a military officer, but whose heart already belongs to a simple farmer. She sings the saddest, sweetest song — although I knew none of which she said, I was sure that I understand what her song meant. Worth every penny.
I went home, exhausted, finally was able to contact the person I missed most, and went to sleep.
Day 4. Saturday. Xianggong Mountain.
With homesickness and loneliness lingering, I decided that I needed to do what I had been longing to do. I thought I would have to sacrifice it as a luxury, but I realized it was a necessity — I had to rent a motorbike and ride to Xianggong Mountain at sunset. The pictures on the Mountain were really what I came for. But it sounded like a lot of work and time and money, so I thought about skipping it. But no. I realized that I would probably never come back, and it was something that I absolutely had to do for myself.
It cost 100 yuan to rent the bike, but also entailed paying for a river-crossing at Nine Horse Fresco Hill, and then an entrance fee to the Xianggong Mountain. Would I make it? Who knows.
The first time I got on the bike, Martin told me to take it down the alley about 50 feet. I wobbled and jerked to the end, tried to attempt a U-Turn, and incorporated a pretty solid bashing of a parked motorbike. I got scared, and limped away. How the hell was I going to ride for 1 hr to Xianggong, and 1 hr back in the dark, and brave the lawless streets of Yangshuo. I was actually terrified. As I ate before I leaving, I literally could only think about dying on the bike. But I was excited. I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t wait to face that fear. I embraced it. I ate quickly, walked to my bike, stuttered and jerked — then, I took off.
Can I just say, that if you must do anything, definitely put riding a motorbike through the countryside on your bucket list. Any countryside. I felt like Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button. You feel so FREE. I felt liberated. I felt like I had the means to go anywhere that I wanted. I looped around mountains and forests, passed through towns and villages, dodged cows and dogs, caught whiffs of sage and manure, while listening to the Lumineers and John Mayer — ahhh what a moment. I was really glad that I decided to do the things I wanted and I felt like I could handle whatever consequences or obstacles would come my way. Life is so much better that way.
I crossed the river (twice because I accidently thought that they were giving me too much change and gave them a ton of money and then realized so I went back to get it and then rode across again). I rode through the valleys and villages and somehow made the right turns and ended up at Xianggong Mountain at around 4 pm. The hike was a short flight of stairs. It was very simple and quick, and I was at the top in half an hour. The sun was due to set at 7 pm, and so I waited. Also, someone had asked me for a picture of my ass on the mountain. I felt like it was very disrespectful but I had to.
So, I took a nap, read a book, people watched (man Chinese tourists are loud, but I enjoyed watching them have a good time!), and wrote in a journal. Some guy thought it was the greatest thing ever, because I write in cursive, and probably thought I was doing calligraphy. He took pictures of me and kept trying to ask me questions in what I believed was Mandarin. I nodded and kept writing.
Then, I realized that the sunset was behind me on the other side of the mountain. I was indignant for a second, but then I realized that I didn’t really care. The view was great, but the journey was much better. Instagram photos never capture the adventure of getting there, and I think that was much more valuable than the picture I got. Anyway, here is Xianggong Mountain.
Also, there were less people, so I pulled my pants down for the promised picture. I must make an apology to the great country of China, the majestic mountain of Xianggong, and to the elderly trio who may or may not have been horrified.
There was a long ride back — about an hour. It was now 7:00 by the time I got to the bottom, and I had an hour ride back. Martin also said he gets lost on the road back (my road was a loop so I wasn’t going back the way I came), and I realized, knowing me, I was sure to get lost.
Frequently checking Googlemaps, and realizing I had made wrong turns, I grew a little worried. Not because I was scared of the dark or of being lost, but because my headlights didn’t work. I was turning tight corners with cars coming in the opposite direction in a country that had little respect for lane lines. I realized this was a problem. But I turned up my music, and tried to remain positive. Then it got pitch black. I really couldn’t even see, and resorted to turning on my blinker for some light and to announce my presence. I started button-jamming like I was playing Marvel vs. Capcom. Suddenly, my display lit up, and I hit the headlight button again. Thank God. It came on. There was another button to press before switching on the headlights. I felt fine again and enjoyed the ride in the dark.
Got back, received comfort from Martin, and went out to eat at West Street while listening to some street performers by a beautiful pond covered in decorative Christmas lights. I ate kimchi fried rice. Sue me.
I went home, and slept peacefully.
Day 5. Sunday. Nanjing
HOLY COW HOOVES I STILL HAD ANOTHER DAY. This was a busy day and I was sure that something would go wrong with all the transfers and modes of transport I was expecting. I took a van to the bus station, took the bus to Guilin, and flew at 11 AM to Nanjing. At Nanjing, I had no plans, except to see the Nanjing Memorial (the site of the Rape of Nanjing). I had a 19 hour layover, and I wanted to do something though. I asked the tourist desk and they gave me a lot of things to see. There is a subway and a bus that goes into the city. I took the subway. SUPER clean and simple to use. Buying the subway ticket, I thought I was receiving change. Turns it, it’s the subway token.
Another hour, and 3 transfers later, and some walking, I arrived at Nanjing Memorial. I didn’t want to pay for the museum, because let’s face it, they usually suck. But I walked around the side and found that you can get a great view of the actual Memorial. So unless you enjoy the historical background (although I remembered a lot from school and my parents always talk about it because Korean women were infamously taken as sex slaves, along with the Chinese), I would recommend just walking to the side and looking at the Memorial. Here it is:
I thought it was amazing that the statue simply said “Peace” in both Chinese and English. Despite the suffering and atrocities committed, the Chinese chose to erect a statue that represented peace, and I believe, forgiveness. I thought the dove, a common symbol of peace, being set free was very touching.
Next was Xuanwu Lake. I took the subway and it took me another hour to get there. But WOW was it worth it. For sure, it was one of the most beautiful parks I had ever been. Massive. There were a lot of people, and many touristy things to do, like boat pedaling. But also, there was another side where it was so still and peaceful. Friends, couples, and individuals walked in silence, or sat on the benches overlooking the lake. Made my top three after the Yu-Long River bike ride and the Xianggong Mountain adventure. Here are some pictures:
After, I went for dinner. I thought I was ordering Kung Pao, but ended up being a plate of potatoes. So I also ordered some duck. It turned out to be around 50 yuan. That’s about $7.25. There was so much food I couldn’t finish. I had a lot of money left, so I started ballin’.
Turn the subway back straight to Nanjing Lukou Airport. I slept on the floor at the passenger lounge. I had the foresight of snagging an airplane blanket when I first arrived in China, so I was comfortable. Also, there were many others doing the same, and I just imagined it was a slumber party.
Woke up at 5:00 AM, went to the bathroom to wash up, ate one last meal, and boarded my flight home. At 11 AM, I touched down in Incheon. Home, sweet home. I got on the 11:15 AM bus to Madu Station, and got home at 12:30. I ate, and then went to go teach... Maybe China wasn’t so bad…