I have been looking forward to this day for years. There is little that I have wanted more in my adult life than to take a cruise down the Li River. The majesty of the karst topography is featured on the ¥20 bill and the landscape is renowned for being some of the most beautiful in the world. I did a lot of research. I knew how much it should cost and what to expect. It is China, after all, so there will be people spitting and nothing will be clean, but I was ready for that. I was ready for my Trip of a Lifetime.
I booked the cruise through a travel agent one week in advance. I didn’t understand everything she said, but it was clear that a bus would pick us up at our hotel at 7:00AM. We would then take a different bus to Yangshuo, with a couple of stops along the way at “parks.” Once at Yangshuo, we’d be given time to grab some lunch. The plan was to stay in Yangshuo for a few days, rather than return to Guilin, so I hoped we would also have time to drop our bags off at the hotel. After lunch, the bus would take us north up the other side of the river, where we would catch a large and beautiful boat, featuring a large dining room, complete with large round tables covered in white tablecloths. From there, we would be treated to a 1.5 hour cruise down the river to the beautiful town of Xingping. Finally, the bus would drop us back off in Yangshuo, where we could walk to our hotel. All of this for only $25 each!!! It seemed too good to be true…
At 7:30AM (half an hour late), our travel agent appeared at our hotel lobby door. In broken English, we heard “No bus. 9:00. Maybe 9:30 be bus.” China strikes again! But we were in a great mood. We told her not to worry and went for a nice early morning walk around the lake in Guilin. At 9:15AM, the “bus” arrived.
I know I specifically confirmed that we would be riding in a “da ba” (big bus), but perhaps she didn’t think I knew the difference between a big bus and a mini bus. This was a mini bus, which is really just a van. We spent about 45 minutes driving all over town picking up two other groups of people… all foreign… and all way too tall to fit in a mini bus.
I went out of my way to introduce myself to everyone in the car (Josh and I are in desperate need of some outside conversation). We were joined by a German man who has been begrudgingly living in Shanghai for almost a year for work, and his girlfriend who was visiting China for the first time. There was also a young man from Nigeria, who was studying as a medical student in China, that was traveling with a Chinese friend. Even though none of us knew each other before that van ride, we ended up being grouped together for the rest of the day. For the remainder of this story, we will be known collectively as “My Six.”
After only barely leaving town, the van pulled over and asked us to get out. We stood on the sidewalk for quite some time while the driver looked confused and frustrated that he couldn’t speak Chinese to all of his foreign captives and even more frustrated when he found out that the Chinese friend of the Nigerian also didn’t speak English. That said, he was very helpful to have around, as he would use his phone to translate the driver’s instructions for us. We were also a little frustrated, as we didn’t know where we were or where we were going next, and had our hundred-pound backpacks with us.
Turns out we had arrived a little early, and had to wait for the rest of the group to get there. We were eventually told to take our bags and “walk down the block. Just there. Yes, there.” My Six walked and hoped we would know where we were going when we saw it.
Dong Village (hehe)
Thankfully, we were able to work it out. We didn’t know what this place was, but it was different than everything else in the area. Also, it helped that there was a Chinese man in a blue jacket impatiently waving for us to hurry up. He haphazardly gave us a lanyard; then, as a large group of lanyard-wearing Chinese people started walking away from us, he told us to go with them and to be back by 12:30.
Everything was in Chinese, so we had no idea what was going on. At first, it looked like we were being ushered to bathrooms and lunch. Then, what we thought was a restaurant turned out to be a museum. After nearly half an hour, we put all of the pieces together. We were in a replicated village of the Dong minority group… and stuck here for two hours.
The Chinese group we were with were having the time of their lives. The village gave off an Epcot vibe, with people dressed in traditional Dong garb taking pictures with tourists and giving demonstrations. All of the little village buildings had rows of what looked like classrooms, with other tourists sitting down for the lectures (at least, we think that’s what was going on). We wandered around and took in as much as we could. I am sure it was all very interesting, but without any context, it was mostly just weird.
And of course, at the end of the village, a maze of gift shops selling silver trinkets, rock art, and other bits and bobs. The Chinese tourists were going nuts, with a line at nearly every cash register. In that confined space, it was super loud, with all the tourists yelling at each other, and the salespeople yelling at the tourists. In all the chaos we sort of lost My Six. I didn’t see them shopping, and we definitely weren’t going to buy anything.
After later research, I think I would have found the museum to be very interesting. The Dong people are a minority group of nearly 3 million that live in the area. I wish I would have known that this was going to be a stop on our trip and what it included, so I could have prepared and been able to really appreciate it when we arrived.
I also wish that this wasn’t our only surprise of the day.
TO BE CONTINUED…