Travelogues .............................................................................................................................

Southwest Guangxi: The good, the bad and the beautiful
Editor: by DAN WASHBURN  Edited Date:2007-11-21 2:25:46   Visitors:3653   
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    This story is not part of The Trip series. It is based on a previous trip to Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.


    There were times during my pursuit of the worlds second-largest transnational waterfall that I began to wonder: Just how many transnational waterfalls are there in the world anyway? What if my trek through the rarely visited southwest section of Chinas Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region led me to a trickle instead of a fall? What if Detian Waterfall, which straddles the Sino-Vietnamese border, earned the second-largest distinction by default? What if the list is Niagara and not much else?
    There are a lot of what ifs when traveling in this often ignored corner of China. Most people who visit Guangxi stick to the well-worn paths of the northeast. There, the city of Guilin has long been a popular tourist destination Chinese, who visit by the busload, describe the city as famous and the nearby village of Yangshuo has evolved into one of Chinas only legitimate backpacker havens, with a decidedly un-Chinese feel. The regions landscape is truly breathtaking. But its popularity has spawned an atmosphere heavy on touristy kitsch, in which every foreigner and there are plenty is a walking mark, a dollar sign in the eyes of some budding entrepreneur. Travel southwest a couple hundred miles and the dollar signs are replaced by question marks. Stares are long and hard. But then they end, and no one has tried to sell you anything. Theyre too busy wondering what you are doing there in these parts, you can go weeks without seeing another foreign face.
    In many ways, southwest Guangxi is the anti-Guilin. It has similar scenery, but it is not well equipped for tourism. It is not famous. It is unexplored. It is unknown for now, at least. Some are trying hard to promote the area as a tourist destination. But their claims to fame are clunky and filled with qualifiers: The worlds second-largest transnational waterfall! One of eight leaning towers in the world! The best beach in mainland China!
    Not exactly slogans that will have them coming in droves. Which means now is the time to visit. The problem, as it is in most of uncharted China, is in the planning. Information is scarce. Suggestions are scarcer. And travel agencies are usually a dead end. To our request for advice, the response from one of the larger outfits in Guangxi was short, simple and of no help whatsoever: I am sorry that maybe we cannot do the service that you mentioned. At least a Shanghai-based agent was honest: I recommend flying to Nanning and using a Lonely Planet guidebook to help you make your way. So thats what we did.
    We set aside two weeks. Not because thats how much time we thought it would take to experience Detian Waterfall, but because thats how much time we thought we needed to experience everything else so that when the waterfall was a disappointment, which we were sure it would be, it wouldnt ruin the entire trip. Not one of my 400 or so students at Shanghai University had even heard of Detian. But its the largest transnational waterfall in Asia! I pleaded. They didnt seem to care.
    From Nanning, Guangxis capital, the area stretches west to Vietnam, south to the Gulf of Tonkin and east to Guangdong Province, famous in recent months for SARS and civet cats. Theres plenty to see: a white-sand beach with a hermit crab housed in every shell; a river that winds past cliffs still covered with paintings nearly 2,000 years old; and strange, sharp mountainous regions that look as though Mother Nature got bored and stopped the mountain-making process midway.
    The challenge, then, is actually getting to these places. Those who value comfort and convenience over ad-libbed adventure probably should avoid this region. Outside of Nanning, a city of 1.5 million that seems to get more modern every day, southwest Guangxi is an area seemingly ignored by Chinas recent economic growth. Roads, if paved, are often pockmarked with potholes. Transportation is perplexing and unpredictable. Accommodations, while generally clean, are by no means cutting-edge. (Get used to cold showers. And when nature calls, be prepared to squat.) But what do you expect for $5 a night?
    Little money can last you a long time in southwest Guangxi. And thats good, because two nights in a small town can quickly turn into three or four if you happen to miss the only minibus out of town or if it just never shows up. If you travel here, bring an open mind and an open calendar. It takes patience to be a pioneer.
    A trip through the Guangxi countryside is a series of contrasts. Its Chinas good, bad and beautiful, with no buffer in between. Most of the cities and towns in the region are dirty, and the filth hovers in the air. Aside from Nanning, every place we stayed in appeared to be stuck in some stage of depression. Buildings were either incomplete or in decay.
    One day, our bus paused in a village that epitomized the paralysis. It was midday in the middle of the week, but hundreds of people littered the roadside. Some were selling, some were buying, but most were just sitting and staring as if they had nowhere better to go. Stuck in the middle of this scene was a large metal sign labeled 1995-2005 Plans. On it was an artists rendering of a new town, a vision that perhaps seemed realistic back in 1995. Eight years later, the sign was covered in rust and a little boy was urinating on one of its posts.
    But then, around the next bend, you could have beauty scenes so spectacular you could point your camera in any direction and end up with a postcard. After every problem, a payoff.
    From Nanning a lively city with outdoor karaoke, packed public parks and side streets lined with stalls serving up the citys delicacy, dog meat we traveled by bus to the sleepy seaside city of Beihai, where cows roam free and people carry live chickens in wicker satchels like briefcases. Theres an aquarium in Beihai, but most people visit the city because of Silver Beach, touted as mainland Chinas best.
    The beaches on the non-mainland island of Hainan, an 11-hour boat ride from Beihai, are much better, but Silver Beach is wide and some of the sand is actually white. We walked away from the crowds, past the kids playing soccer, to a point where all we could see was sand and sky. We kept walking until we came upon an army of workers, hundreds of them, mostly female, scraping the sand with shovels, looking for signs of sea worms and crabs. At the end of the day, the mounds of sand they left behind made the beach look like a minefield. I approached one of the ladies to peek into her bucket filled with the days catch. She smiled a polite smile, quickly snatched it up and scurried away. She didnt work all day to have someone come and steal her quarry.
    After Beihai, we traveled back to Nanning and then southwest on to Chongzuo, a city memorable for a rather unmemorable leaning tower and a nightmarish night of little sleep. After two hours worth of firecrackers outside our hotel window, we were serenaded by the violent screeches and howls of a hog being tortured by a gang of laughing teenagers. We couldnt leave soon enough, and early the next morning we boarded a train headed further southwest toward Ningming, a small city with smokestacks, a lingering odor of sour milk and giant hogs that roam the streets feasting on giant piles of garbage.
    Ningming, not too far from the Vietnam border, is only worth visiting because its the launching point for a peaceful trip along the dazzling Zuo River. We walked from the train to a muddy dock underneath a nearby bridge. There, we hired a rickety skiff and traveled upriver two glorious hours to Huashan Bihua, where a single cliff wall is home to more than 2,000 strange stick figures believed to be painted by the Luoyue people during the early Han period (AD 25-220). We stared and wondered: How did the painters climb so high up the sheer cliff? And why does ancient paint last so much longer than the modern stuff?
    On the boat ride back, we got dropped off in Panlong, a village with stunning views and more chickens than people. Like an oasis, the Huashan Ethnic Culture Village exists here with a cheerful staff that cooks while singing during the day and performs traditional song and dance routines at night. In the mountains behind Panlong is the Longrui Nature Reserve, which has enough overgrown trails to keep the hardiest of hikers happy for hours, maybe days. Many come here hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive white-headed leaf monkey. But, the owner of the Huashan hotel told us, there arent any.
It was difficult to leave Panlong, but we had to march on. Back in Chongzuo, we caught a minibus north to Daxin, the typical jumping off point for Detian Waterfall. The ride exemplified the double-sided nature of the entire journey. The bus part of which was literally held together by tape was rundown and rusty. Windows rattled. A door popped open every time we picked up speed. A woman seated behind me held a baby who cried. Her husband held a rooster that cried, too. The driver smoked cigarettes and spit incessantly. So did the man seated in front of me, only his spit landed on the floor and eventually trickled back to where my feet were resting. I was reluctant to touch anything.
    Outside the window, however, everything was wonderful. Mountains, like jagged puzzle pieces without partners, created a jarring backdrop for a stunning series of pastoral scenes: tiny villages, fields of sugar cane, farmers guiding herds of oxen along the side sometimes in the middle of the road. Then it was back to reality. That evening, at a rundown Internet bar in Daxin, I sat beside a boy who couldnt have been more than 11 years old. He was playing a computer basketball game and smoking on a cigarette as though it was the last one in Asia. I looked at him. He looked at me. And then he spit on the floor and took another long drag.
    This was the night before we arrived at Detian Waterfall. The next morning, anxious to get an early start, we actually had trouble leaving our hotel. All of the exits were chained and locked. We roamed the halls yelling until someone finally let us out. Three modes of transportation later, we arrived at our destination. And it didnt disappoint.Detian Waterfall alone is worth the trip to southwest Guangxi. Niagara it is not, based only on size and force. But aesthetically unless you have a particular affinity for wax museums and casinos Detian wins the prize easily. With its many layers, and the lush mountains and terraced farmland that abut it, it looks like a giant wedding cake of water. It was impressive when we visited in February, but photos from the summer months, when Detians flow is at its peak, are fabulous.
    A sign at the falls entrance describes the scene as such: During the season of heavy rainfalls, one may feel that the mountains are moving and the rivers dancing, the drops appear to strike as powerfully as thunderbolts. On the other hand, during the rest of the year, the waterfall looks like a beautiful braid of white silk.
    The thunderbolts and braids are best appreciated from a distance, but a raft ride into the waterfalls spray is well worth its $1.25 price tag. Above the falls, past the vendors hawking Vietnamese chocolates and cigarettes, you can pose for a photo straddling the China-Vietnam border no passport required. Almost as impressive as Detian is the windy motorcycle-taxi ride it takes to get there. The rugged route felt like a fairyland where everything the vegetable fields, the banana trees, the pools of water was a vivid green.
    We left Detian on a high and headed northwest to Jingxi, the final stop on our trip. Known as little Guilin, this dusty city has the terrain mountains that make the horizon look like an EKG reading but not the tourists. We found that the best thing to do here is trek through the countryside. We took a 25-cent bus to nearby Jiuzhou and walked our way back, winding through picturesque mountains, patchwork farms and what must be some of the friendliest villages south of the Yangtze. Offer a ni hao (hello) and people smile, laugh and open right up. Often, before I was out of earshot, I could hear the villagers gathering, discussing with wonder the tall white man who walked through their neighborhood with ni haos for everyone.
    Satisfied, we boarded the bus to Nanning the following day. My mind drifted back several days, to our train ride from Ningming to Chongzuo, when so much was still uncertain. The train cars looked more suitable for cattle, but they were packed with people, their faces staring down at us solemnly through iron bars. And we squeezed right in, trying to find some pockets of open space.
    Thats when a man with a gold tooth emerged from a closed door, pointed at me and motioned for us to come his way. Without thinking, we pushed our way toward him. The man turned out to be the manager of the train, and we ended up with seats in his office. Already there was a Spanish guy named Frank, who smiled and said, Hello.
    Despite the obvious language barriers, the manager likes to handpick foreign passengers to ride with him in his office. Maybe its his way of reaching across borders. Or maybe he just likes showing us off to passers by. Whatever. We had seats. The man wanted to chat, too, no matter that we didnt completely speak a common language. He expressed considerable interest in three things: My height, my salary and whether I preferred Chinese or American women.
    We told him our travel plans. Told him we had been to Beihai and Panlong. Told him we planned to go to Detian Waterfall and Jingxi. He snorted and shook his head. You need to go to Guilin, he said authoritatively. Its famous. But what about Detian Waterfall? we asked. Not famous, he responded succinctly.
    I fumbled through my phrasebook but failed to find what I wanted to say: But sir, thats exactly why were going there.

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