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Bettering Busby
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September 30 to October 3

Bettering Busby

During our 35-day China gymkhana we sometimes got tired…  

but we never did TIRE OF China’s grand and grandiose tourist attractions.

One after another, day after day, awesome scenery—mountains, rivers, lakes, caves---and human achievement—temples, palaces, walls---in their own time spectacular, now restored and augmented, simply stunning.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge

In Yunnan province, the mighty Yangtze crashes through a narrow chasm between two steep mountains, thundering around an enormous rock that pierces the water nearer one shore. Legend has it a tiger once leaped across the gorge using the rock as a springboard to the opposite shore.

 At 3,900 feet beneath the mountaintops this gorge is deeper than our Grand Canyon. In recent years the Chinese (remember there are millions to put on any one job) hacked and blasted clear through the mountain on one shore, making the gorge accessible to more than just climbers. Now walkers (and rickshaws bearing altitude-sick tourists) pass along, and in some cases through, the mountain, around sharp corners and under craggy rock overhangs, snapping shots of the swift currents, the surf crashing over the rock, the aqua waterfall pools—and the stone lion planted on the hill in mid-spring. (That’s the Disney part.) 

 Shangri-La: Yes, Virginia there is a Shangri-La

Driving to the Tiger Leaping Gorge we passed by Tibetan farmhouses, grazing yaks and a latticework of fields nestled under velvet green mountains, their summits steeped in mist and cloud. So that the hokey name—Shangri-La—suddenly seemed quite apt.



 Quaint—perhaps too studiedly quaint

Old Lijiang is cobble-stoned, canalled, water-wheeled and crammed with eateries, cafes, chattering young people and live, rock-the-rafters bands.  

Contrasting all the cute are the local Naxi (pronounced Lashi) people—part of a 1400-year old culture—who wear their navy blue and white native dress and still practice the ancient Dongba religion. 

 Shilin Stone Forest

This massive landscape of petrified limestone peaks, pillars and pinnacles, said to have been submerged under water millions of years ago, has been carefully preserved by the government and accented by a serene (except for the vacationing tourist hordes) man-made lake. 



Guilin and Yangshuo: Bettering Busby

Guilin is a bustling city on four lakes and the River Li. Possibly a second river too. I forget. Have I mentioned that China overwhelms?

 Guilin’s limestone mountains, called karsts, are unforgettable. More than 3000 of them ring the city: tall, discrete, fancifully shaped and in no way resembling ranges we’ve ever seen.  Several thousand more flank the Li River’s shores, which we viewed on a five-hour boat trip.

Graceful “phoenix-tail bamboos” grow from these mountains, arching over the water and sky in immense plumes. Startling. As were lazy water buffalo lolling in the mud, curlicue-bowed sampans, trolling fishermen and bamboo water taxis carrying tourists on deck sedan chairs. About 30 other large tourist boats also plied the river around us.  

 The splendor and scale of the scenery somehow compensates for the lack of privacy.


Yangshuo, at the other end, was a multiple orgasm of a shopping spree. Some 50 blocks of gaudy trinket, tee shirt and calligraphy shops crumpled into two crowd-packed avenues. A claustrophobic's worst nightmare. Rarely have I seen so many people thronging narrow streets quite so late and with so much vigor. Yet another Chinese homage to capitalism.

 I forgave Yangshuo for two reasons: One, I experienced every Western foodophile's fantasy: without benefit of guidebook we came upon a fabulous restaurant packed with local people.


 We ate scrumptious Chinese food and regional specialties, including the locally famous fish cooked in beer. Under protest, we skipped the snake coddled in who-knows-what… (Well, maybe it’s this Western foodophile’s fantasy.)

 Second, in Yangshuo we experienced a monumental piece of theater: a spectacle mounted, just after dark, outside of town on an indentation of the Li. This watery proscenium “stage,” maybe 200 feet wide, is surrounded by 12 mountains alive with bamboo masses glowing from within. The mountains too were lit like pale white fire. The Chinese, masters of so many other arts, including gunpowder and firecrackers, also triumph at imagination-defying lighting. Anything--from a small statue to an entire city.

Some 400 amateurs--area farmers and villagers—supplemented by a chorus line of about 200 trained dancers, put on a sound, light and operatic extravaganza for over an hour in this outdoor theater that seats 2000.

 River and sky reverberated with glorious music (and I'm no fan of Chinese music, which mostly sounds like a regrettable mix of flute, lute and banshee.) Lights glimmered, shimmered, pulsed, faded and changed color across the actor armada and panoramic natural stage. Rows of costumed coolies, 100 or more, glided past in sampans, brandishing river-wide spans of undulating, translucent red fabric. Metallic floats loomed from the mist—fanciful junks and Cinderella palaces--eerily crossing the river and disappearing. Children cavorted across the sandy foreground and farmers in traditional straw hats led live water buffaloes. Finally, 200 ethereal visions, radiant in silver and gold costumes, glided out from behind a mountain, one after another, until they formed a zigzag chorus line that appeared to float on the water itself. 



 Call it Busby Berkeley's wildest fantasy squared. No, cubed, then expressed in Chinese peasant life—except this vision and its subsequent reality comes courtesy of Chinese film director Zhang Yimo, who also gave the world Raise the Red Lantern.

Better we didn't understand Mandarin because it’s a local legend recast in Communist propaganda: illustrious third daughter of poverty-stricken farm family inspires peasants with wondrous songs, defeating evil landlord for the glorious good of all.

Guilin overkill

We thought we’d seen all this area had to offer, we were wrong yet again. The next day we drove back through stunning countryside, arriving back in Guilin in time for

1) a late-morning walk through the park, with lawns decked out in scores of Disney characters and comparable Chinese cartoon archetypes. Included in the price of admission, a live-but-lazy panda walk-by. As compensation we got thousands of adorable Chinese kids to ogle.


2) a detour to a hill our guide, Li pointed out (and only three of us could see) resembled an elephant. This is excellent practice for

3) an hour-long walk through the Reed Flute Cave, dripping with enormous stalagmites and stalactites, which the same hyperactive Chinese imagination likened to more animals, storybook characters…even a city skyline.  This mountain cave, 1/2 mile long, 60 feet tall and 300 feet wide, is so vast one of its chambers easily housed an orchestra and audience of 1000 for a concert…

 Between these activities, we squeezed in 

 4) a sumptuous 6-course Chinese lunch, a KFC dinner for Gary and David, plus for me two fine examples of a delicious street-food pork sandwich called a "Mo." China’s answer to the pulled pork sandwich, a “Mo” is made with a hunk of long-cooked meat, hand-shredded with a cleaver then set on the hot grill, moistened over and over with big dollops of hot gravy. When the consistency is just right the mush gets slid inside a bun resembling an English Muffin, topped with hot chili paste and a layer of cilantro, closed up and popped in a neat little “eat-in bag”  I did away with the cilantro and somewhat priggishly avoided the donkey-meat Mo.  


 The day finally ended at 11PM after 

 4) a nightcap boat romp through all four of Guilin's lakes. During this hour-long ride we passed

    a) more mountains lush with local trees resplendently lit in greens, blues and reds

    b) under 12 (really, 12) bridges, including replicas of the Golden Gate, the Arc de Triomphe and a usable all-glass wonderment 

 Alas, no Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridge facsimiles. Instead we had to settle for

    c) three multi-story, never-used pagodas, glowing homages to incandescence

     d) several in-use floating teahouses

     e) two waterfalls, man-made

    f) two stylized, costumed Ming Dynasty dance performances


     g) two shoreline stringed-instrument performances, plus

    h) an onboard musician twanging away at another ancient Chinese instrument.

We also floated by

    i)                     two wobbly bamboo rafts manned by two skinny Chinese fishermen who, for theatrical effect and possible economic aggrandizement, unleashed eight swimming, diving cormorants—their  job to capture an assortment of lake fish, which were then forced from their gullets by near-strangulation. 

 I need to say here that, try as I am wont to do, it is impossible to exaggerate China.

(Not) inspired seclusion

The parade of spectacular, over-the-top Chinese scenery and tourist sights continued In Hangzhou, the massive 970 AD Six Harmonies pagoda,  

supplemented by a “garden” of more than 100 scaled-down (to two- and three-story) stone replicas of every famous pagoda in China.  

 Next, the Temple of Inspired Seclusion—a Chinese misnomer of even greater proportion than, say, the “Cultural Revolution,” which was truly the antithesis of culture--in fact, championed its destruction.


Surrounding this Temple is a mountain where, over the centuries, 100 or more enormous Buddha figures were carved into the rock.   

 Lining the access road, a gauntlet of beggars and impossible-to-ignore unfortunates baring grotesque physical deformities. Inside the temple complex one hall housed 500—count-‘em-if-you-can--life-size statues of seated arhats (disciples of Sakyamuni Buddha) illustrating a variety of Buddhist attitudes and attributes. Not a single facial or physical repeat; the figures were carved by university art students in a project that spanned some 20 years.


Seclusion in China is truly hard to come by. After all, 1.3 billion people take up a whole lotta room. After a while touring with a cast of millions can interfere with any budding relationship to the natural beauty. The crush of people everywhere in China is truly unbelievable. They are pushy in the extreme—maybe it’s the only way to get any personal space or get anything accomplished amid 1.3 billion neighbors. Plus, countless thousands of tourists. The Mandarin language, too, is harsh and we frequently tired of the shrill jabber, of feeling shouted around, of being grabbed and pulled to look at some trinket, exhorted loudly to buy.

Adding to the hubbub, we were traveling over National Day, October 1, the official anniversary of the 1949 Communist takeover, which turns out to be a whole holiday week where kids are out of school and everyone who can travels. Parks, restaurants, tourist cities, streets, temples, palaces were all teeming with people. Even at the tops of remote mountains, we were part of a parade, though sometimes a single-file parade. And even on magnificent peak-tops, at 6,000-foot, Chinese guys were yakking away on their cell phones.


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