Charades in Zhaoqing, China

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Phew.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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The Buddhist temple on Dinghu Shan.
Sticky rice dumplings are very popular in Zhaoqing, and all the village shops near Dinghu Shan were busy with preparations for the popular fast food. However, I have yet to try one I like.
Sticky rice dumplings are very popular in Zhaoqing, and all the village shops near Dinghu Shan were busy with preparations for the popular fast food. However, I have yet to try one I like.
A young boy helps his father buy meat at the street market.
A young boy helps his father buy meat at the street market.
Riding bikes around the park near the Seven Star Crags is a popular pastime for Chinese tourists.
Riding bikes around the park near the Seven Star Crags is a popular pastime for Chinese tourists.

Charades in Zhaoqing
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Kayaking in Yangshuo

To find relaxation amidst the chaos, Emily and I found peace in a kayak on a rare part of the Yulong river that wasn’t yet teeming with Chinese tourists on rented bamboo rafts. It was the two of us and our guide, gliding on open water through karst mountain scenery with an irredescent fog hovering above, threatening to break our sweat with a cool drop of rain.

We paddled along, taking in the fresh air, the silence, the beauty. It was an escape from the bustling “small town” of Yangshuo during the busiest holiday of the year – National Day. Due to the lunar calendar system, this, China’s Birthday, was combined with another popular celebration, Mid-Autumn Festival, to give most of the country an eight-day vacation.

We wanted to take advantage of our time off. Unfortunately, so did everybody else.

Bamboo rafting was so popular we opted out. It looked more like bumper boats.

The bus journey that took only eight hours on the return, wasted 16 to get there. Traffic was completely stopped and families were outside playing badmitton and relieving themselves on the road we were supposed to take, so we rerouted. When our bus finally pulled into the well-lit city around midnight, it became so lodged in traffic that our driver gave up and told us all to exit right there, in the middle of the street.

We awoke the next morning to a herd of Chinese tour groups renting bikes from the sidewalk business below our second-floor window. The noise sounded like somebody had slipped us into a packed amusement park as we slept, and placed us on a roller coaster full of screaming adults.

Later, we made our way back into the maze of traffic on our own rented bicycles. It was as if the roads never cleared and we couldn’t tell how many lanes of traffic were supposed to exist. Buses, trucks, cars, pedestrians, motorbikes and bicycles all weaved in and out in an attempt to remain in motion. Emily and I gripped our handlebars and plunged into the masses – an experience in itself – to escape the town and stroll through the picturesque countryside we had heard so much about.

It did not disappoint. The deserted villages (presumably everybody was in town, making money on tourists) provided a glimpse into Chinese life we hadn’t seen before. Chickens roamed about freely. Windowless huts sat barren. Narrow dirt and cracked cement pathways led us from one small village to the next, exposing bits and pieces of daily life: rice fields, dangling fruit, laundry hung to dry and lonely puppies eagerly awaiting the return of their families.

We filled our nights with local delicacies such as beer fish, beer duck, noodle soups, stuffed snails (which rank quite highly with the most unexpectedly delicious foods I’ve tasted) and plenty of actual beer. We checked out the city’s famous West Street, among  throngs of Chinese tourists, and popped into a club where a table full of locals filled our glasses until we could be encouraged to dance on stage to America’s top pop songs.

It was the next morning when the bike frenzy agitated our already-throbbing heads and we knew we needed an escape from the crowds. We rented kayaks and a guide who promised to take us to unpopular waters and we soared past grazing cows and water buffalo, small fishing villages, and even a bride out for a photo shoot, all against a backdrop of limestone mountains that, by sheer quantity alone, threaten to put the similar scenery in Krabi, Thailand to shame.

Yangshou would have been the ideal getaway, if only so many other people didn’t agree.

Brides in China take their pictures seriously. There were countless photography shops specializing in weddings.
These dragonflies mated on my kayak for nearly the entire journey.
Locals out for a fishing day.
The rice fields were in the process of changing colors.
Probably one of the ducks we ate for dinner…

Roller Coasters and Mini Skirts

What am I getting myself into? A theme park in Southern China, 300 miles from where I’m moving in one month, is offering a half-price discount to women entering the park wearing skirts shorter than 15 inches. They even have staff members prepared to measure the length, just in case any woman (they must be 18 years old to qualify) tries to cheat her way out of an $8.50 ticket.

The goal is to “break the world record of attracting more than 10,000 short-skirted women to the park,” according to a banner witnessed by staff members at CNN Go, where the entire story can be found, because we all know nothing goes together better than roller coasters and mini skirts.

Oh, China. I have a feeling you will never cease to amaze me.

I originally found this tidbit over at Vagabondish, a great site featuring quirky news daily. Check it out!