What are the lingering images of a ‘Golden Week’ holiday spent in China' For an Indian woman, functioning toilets remain the pervasive memory. Smelly and wet mostly, sometimes just a drain with a series of partitions, but always, with enough water and flushes that work, these toilets make road travel in China hassle-free. Besides toilets, most petrol pumps also have restaurants or at least stores where unfussy travellers can buy a cup of noodles and cook them right there under a tap of boiling water.
The old picture-postcard image of the Chinese peasant with straw hat and a bamboo carrier slung across his shoulders is very much alive; only, the peasant could as often be a she as a he. Much like in India, the peasants walk across highways, bent under the weight of overflowing baskets.
When China ‘opened up’ in the Eighties, many poor peasants prospered, thanks to their lands being converted into new cities where they had opportunities to make money. Today, the increasing state-of-the-art expressways do nothing for them. Huge concrete bases of new flyovers cut across their fields; lorries carrying cement and sand cast a brown haze over the once-green land; some rivulets are caked green with industrial waste. After miles of undulating narrow roads skirting lush green mountains, you suddenly come down to the hot, dusty, barren plain where all you can see are cranes, mountains of stones, broken tiles and wilting trees. Quarried hills are among the commonest sights; bare, corroded and sometimes reduced to little more than brown mounds.
Sights and sound
As in India, here too, the hotel industry does its best to ruin the landscape of most touristy places. So with Guilin, a once-charming city situated on the banks of the Li river, surrounded by odd-shaped, huge, rocky mountain peaks immortalized in poetry. At the start of the Labour Day Golden Week, all one could see and hear in Guilin was traffic jams, blaring music from stalls on the street, and throngs of Chinese following their group leaders, each of whom held a small loudspeaker and a flag as a distinguishing sign. A day-long tour, including a half-day river cruise and lunch, was priced at 380 yuan per head.
Prices across the board, including airfares, are officially raised for every Golden Week holiday. Most Chinese get cheated by agents who book them in two-star hotels charging five-star rates. One such hotel in Guilin, charging a princely 600 yuan per room, revealed its character as soon as you entered: on the tariff board placed at the reception were its “o’clock rates’’ (rates for rooms hired by the hour). Inside the rooms, you could buy small packs of “sex oil’’, “female and male hygiene wash’’ and condoms.
Most sensible tourists prefer staying at Yangshuo, a smaller, prettier town down the river, with one main road, aptly called West Street, given the number of Westerners who live there. Here you can get cordon bleu dishes, Russian Borsch, pizzas baked in a wooden oven, American apple pie and so on, all day and night. Early morning, Westerners of all ages — and now, many young Chinese too — take off on bicycles to explore the countryside: rice fields, old villages with Mao’s pictures still adorning their walls, mountain peaks with stunning views. A really wondrous sight is the Silver Cave. Stretching below 12 mountain peaks, with some breathtaking formations of stalagmites and stalactites, only two kilometres of this limestone cave have been opened to the public.
The Chinese, like Indians, are huge eaters. Yangshuo’s tables groaned under huge plates of its signature ‘beer fish’, spicy rice noodles and stuffed snails, as old women selling embroidered purses and old men selling pirated DVDs beseeched you to buy, and the occasional destitute stared longingly.