I should have played Charades more often when I was young, but back then, I couldn’t have known how useful the art of body language can be when traveling the world. My Chinese skills range between shoddy and nonexistent, leaving me up for a challenge whenever I leave the security bubble of Peizheng College, where nearly everybody speaks at least some English.
Two weekends ago, I had a serious craving for adventure. I flipped open my found 2002 Lonely Planet China in search of a day trip that would curb my appetite and give me a reason to get out of town. I landed on this description of a smallish city only hours away: “Home to some craggy limestone rock formations similar to those around Guilin…”
The beauty of Yangshuo without the nightmare of getting there? Sold.
I stepped off the bus in Zhaoqing where approximately nobody speaks English. Luckily, on the way in I noticed the limestone mountains known as the Seven Star Crags (named from the belief that the rocks were formed after seven stars fell from the sky and formed a pattern resembling the Big Dipper) only a few blocks away. I walked back, made my way around the beautiful lake and down tree-lined pathways to the entrance. I paid Y60 to enter and managed to lose more than half a day wandering through, up and around the scenic reserve.
It was late afternoon by the time I finished hiking to the top to see the view, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to go to the nearby Dinghu Shan area that Lonely Planet claims is one of the most scenic spots in all of Guangdong. I decided to take a solo walking tour of the city while I tried to find a hostel a friend told me about, though I had no idea I’d end up on a wild goose chase.
I had the address, and I found the correct street (or so I thought), but there were no numbers on the buildings. I asked several shop owners for their addresses by pointing to a business card and asking for theirs. It turns out, nobody knows their business address in Zhaoqing, but they’re eager to help. One nice lady pointed me in the right direction.
But she was wrong.
So I walked all the way back, and found a dead end.
Three hours and a few sidewalk snacks later, I stopped into another business, mimed to a nice man what I wanted, and showed him the hostel name I had written down. He Googled it and then gave me a motorbike ride. I was less than a block away, but the building lacked an English sign (despite the English website) and I knew I never would have found it on my own.
Once there, the woman asked me for Y80. “But online it’s only Y50,” I tried to reason with her. My friend had quoted the price from the hostel’s website.
She wrote 80 again on her paper, not understanding a word of my English. I pointed at her computer, said 50 in Chinese and made the sign for sleep and pointed upstairs. This incomprehensible conversation went on for a good 10 minutes, despite the fact I was ready to give her the Y80 she asked for. But she was determined and called her son.
“Room no have wifi,” he told me over the phone.
“I don’t need wifi in the room,” I said. “I was just trying to say that your website says the cost for the room is Y50, not Y80, so I’d like to only pay Y50.”
“We no have wifi in room. My mother say tell you we no have wifi.”
“I no need wifi.”
“Oh, you no need wifi in room?”
“No. I pay 50. Okay?”
“Oh! You want pay 50? Okay! You pay 50. I tell my mother now.”
The next morning I woke before the sun to give myself enough time to climb the mountain and return to Guangzhou before the last bus would depart for Peizheng. I found a taxi and asked him to take me to the local bus station where Lonely Planet suggested I start.
“Chi che,” I said in Chinese, without consulting my notes. “Qu Dinghu Shan.” Go Dinghu Mountain. I moved my hands as if I were steering the wheel of a bus, in my mind, and he told me it would be Y10 to take me there.
We drove around the corner, and he pulled over at the sidewalk bus stop and pointed to the number 21. I laughed and tried again to tell him to take me to the bus station where I could buy a ticket and actually know where my bus was headed, but I failed. I paid him and found another taxi.
Soon I was back at the Seven Star Crags, the driver having understood only the word mountain from my slaughtered pronunciation.
“No, no, no.” I said. “Bu yao jigga.” No want this. “Yao Dinghu shan.” I drew a mountain with my fingers, and again tried my charades for bus.
Eventually, I did take the number 21 bus to the end of the line and the first taxi driver was right – it took me directly to the base of Dinghu Shan. I paid another Y60 to enter the protected reserve and began my accent up the paved pathway.
I spent some time at the waterfall where locals were practicing Tai Chi and singing opera, then I walked further up to the Buddhist temple and bowed to the Almighty before continuing to Boading Park on top of the mountain, where one of the largest caldren replicas sits. Locals try their hardest to throw bouncy balls wrapped in lucky red ribbon into its center.
I was exhausted from the hours of walking I had done, so when I began my decent, I gave an empty tour bus a friendly smile and got myself a ride. I assumed he asked where I was going and so again I said chi che. He then asked me if I wanted to drive his bus. I know this is what he asked because he pointed to me, made the same motion with his hands on the steering wheel as I had that morning, and then signaled that he would stand near the doorway and I could sit in his seat. Then he asked again, several more times, pointing at me and then his seat and the wheel. I adamantly declined, but I was thankful for the ride.
Once I was finally headed back to Guangzhou, I pulled out my notes from Chinese class. It turns out, chi che does not mean bus. It means car, which could explain a lot of my confusion. While my Mandarin skills remain fairly stagnant, I am getting some good practice for Charades.
Charades in Zhaoqing