The bus dumped me on the streets of Yangshuo at about five-thirty in the morning. The roads were empty, and large limestone cliffs encircled the town and sheltered the buildings from the sunrise.
I was exhausted. My one-week bender in Hong Kong was tiring enough, but trying to sleep in the tiny metal shoebox on the “sleeper bus” drained out any energy I had left. I needed rest, and I needed fresh country air. I ate a bowl of Gullin noodles, found a cheap hotel, and slept for an entire day.
The next day I awoke refreshed and ready to explore the surrounding countryside. I rented a bike, grabbed a bike, and took off down the road.
The area around Yangshuo was littered with hundreds of karsts. I am tired of describing what karsts look like. This is how I know I have been in SE Asia too long, when the beauty of these awesome (yet ubiquitous) limestone cliffs no longer conjures up my powers of description. They are great, to be sure, but I think I am running out of ways to describe what is essentially a single landscape that stretches from Thailand to Southern China. I apologize for my apathy.
I rode on until I found a place called Yueliang Shan, or Moon Hill, in English. A handful of old ladies waited for tourists in the shade at the bottom of the hill. They approached me and said, ‘Hello! Water!’ Hello. No water, thank you.
I started walking up the hill, and one of the ladies started following me, fanning me and repeating two words, ‘Hello! Water! Hello! Water!’ I noticed that tourists returning from the summit had old ladies following them, fanning them, and repeating the same two words as well. Hello! Water! One tourist told me he bought a water just to make his lady go away. What was this? I would have none of it.
I turned and faced the old lady and told her No as politely and firmly as I could. It was not my words, but my beard that spoke to her. She looked into my eyes, then into my beard, and took a step backwards. From within the depths of my whiskers she heard the rejected cries of trinket mongers and water vendors from Malaysia to Vietnam. No, my beard said, your pleas are futile. Abandon all hope, ye who try to sell water to this beard; we buy our water at the supermarket. She turned and walked away.
I summited the hill. It was nice. I took a few pictures and tried to relax, but the other tourists’ Hello! Water! ladies chatted loudly only five meters from the viewpoint, waiting for us to start walking down, waiting for the opportunity to sell just one bottle of water for a profit of less than a dollar.
I managed to evade the Hello! Water! ladies once again, and I hopped on my bike and started riding along the Yulong River in search of something called Yulong Qiao – the Dragon Bridge.
It took a few hours to ride along the Yulong River to the bridge. My guidebook said there was a small dirt road tracing along the river through rice paddies and small villages.
But the road was not dirt, it was paved. Truck after truck passed me, all carrying large bamboo to the half dozen ferry landings scattered along the riverbanks north of town. The road passed dozens of construction sites for new hotels and luxury resorts that sprawled across the valley from the river to the foot of the surrounding cliffs.
I finally emerged from this jungle of development and I saw the river clearly for the first time. There was a long string of bamboo rafts carrying tourists in bright orange life preservers. I passed a ferry landing where dozens of rafts were moored while their pilots sat idly in the shade playing dominoes and waiting for customers.
I passed a small tree with three old ladies squatting under the shade. I waved at them, but they did not wave back. Instead, they popped up, put on their lampshade hats, jumped on their bikes, and began chasing me down the road. What had I done now?
It is an odd feeling, being chased by a 70-year old lady. It is an even odder feeling when she catches up to you.
She pulled next to me, waved, and screamed at me, HELLO! Oh no, I though, not water again… Hello! Bamboo! BAMBOOOOOO!
What the heck? Bamboo? Ahh, bamboo rafts! There was no way I was going to ride on one of those things. I yelled back at her, No! No bamboo!
It didn’t work. Hello! Bamboo! NO HELLO! NO BAMBOO!
Then the road dead-ended – right into a ferry landing. The old lady jumped off her bike, smiling as if she knew she had won. There was no escaping the bamboo rafts now. More old women hobbled up to me, surrounding me like zombies from a B-grade horror film. Hello…bam…boo…bam…boo… I gasped and pointed to something over their shoulders and when they turned their heads I darted off on my bike. Escape! Glorious freedom!
I peddled onwards for ten minutes through the rice fields. No matter how far I went, it seemed like I could not escape the hammering of new developments. The whole valley was literally covered with construction sites. I pulled off the road, looked over the fields and thought about what it all meant.
I could see China’s recent history in these rice paddies. Fifty years ago, these fields were the stage for one of the largest economic experiments in history: Mao’s so-called ‘Great Leap Forward,’ that created agricultural cooperatives across the Chinese countryside. He abolished money and private property, and tried to force productivity through pro-revolutionary ideology. Mao’s plan failed miserably and as a result an estimated 30-60 million people starved to death.
Many things changed after Mao’s death in 1975. It was widely acknowledged that Mao’s communist plans had failed and that something else must be done. Den Xiaoping stepped up and ushered in a new era of market reforms. He opened China’s doors to international trade and prescribed a program of “Four Modernizations”: agriculture, science, technology, and defense. Within a few years, many of the communistic ideals of Mao were replaced with the American free-market principles.
Beginning in 1979, the ‘people’s communes’ were dissolved, collective farms were divided amongst the people and productivity skyrocketed. As a result, there were plenty of farmers with nothing to do.
So they built factories in the countryside to employ the farmers made redundant by increased productivity. These were very successful, so Deng Xiaopeng decided they needed to take it a step further. Deng Xiaopeng listened to the advice of his free-market economic advisers and created China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong.
I went through Shenzhen on my way to Yangshuo. It thirty years ago it was just a small fishing village, but today it is an extremely prosperous city full of Gucci stores and Mercedes dealerships. This is because the government offered businesses tax-breaks, freedom from government regulation, and a free hand to experiment with new market ideas. They attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment, created many joint-ventures with foreign companies, and everything was made for export. Shenzhen is one of China’s success stories, and many other SEZ’s have been constructed along the eastern seaboard, facing towards the Pacific Ocean and the world markets beyond.
This model has been replicated along China’s eastern seaboard and it has brought prosperity in its wake. But it is not the same story in the inland provinces. From where I was standing in Yangshuo, I could see the enormous gap between the wealthy tourists from Beijing and the poor old ladies who were trying to sell me water bottles.
These women were old enough to be my grandmother, yet in this ‘communist’ country where everyone is supposedly taken care of, they were chasing down tourists to supplement their income. How could the prosperity of Shenzhen and the desperation of these old women exist under the same communist system?
I got off my bike and took a closer look at my surroundings. Hotels and resorts were springing up across the valley as far as I could see. The rural tranquility that draws visitors here was being devoured by development. As I wrote in The Luddites’ Last Stand, tourists can not complain if local farmers turn their farms into guesthouses or restaurants. But this was different – the farmers didn’t own these massive resorts.
Beijing is confiscating the land of farmers and awarding it to developers, often evicting entire villages and offering the farmers little in return. Profitability seems to be the bottom line in China, with little attention paid to equality. Had similar injustices occurred here? Were all these Hello! Water! ladies former farmers displaced from their lands by privatization?
There are many other social costs of privatization. As the State-Owned Enterprises are dismantled and turned into private companies, the former employees lose the benefits they enjoyed under the public companies – the so-called “Iron Rice Bowl” that provided workers with wages, education, healthcare, pensions, and housing. Many have lost these privileges, many have been fired, and millions have left the countryside in search of work in the cities.
It is estimated that between 130 and 250 million rural Chinese migrate within China each year in search of work (that upper estimate is almost the population of the USA). This is the largest migration in human history. These migrants take the worst jobs, the ones that urbanites refuse to do, and they get paid little for their labor.
It was noon, and the laborers rested for lunch. They set their hammers aside and silence fell over the rice fields. Finally, I experienced the tranquility I sought. Then I felt a bony hand grip my shoulder. I turned around to see an old lady with a face wrinkled from a lifetime of hardship, from the upheavals of collectivization, privatization, and now this current situation, whatever it was. She looked me in the eyes, then said, Hello! Water!
Good lord. There is no way the central government planned for this: scores of luxury hotels and hundreds of Hello! Water! ladies. Deng Xiaoping said it himself, “Some must get rich first,” arguing that the SEZs and the rural areas must “eat in separate kitchens” instead of pooling their resources in a “common pot.” I had not been in China long but it was easy to see which kitchen served better food.
I rode my bike back into Yangshuo and grabbed some dinner. I chatted with a few other tourists, and they asked me where I was heading next. I told them I had no idea.
I felt like I was drifting. I needed a plan of action, or else time and money would slip through my fingers until my visa expired and my checks bounced.
I pulled out my guidebook and looked at a map of China. The distances between the attractions were vast. There was no way I could see everything I wanted to see in less than six weeks. After all, I had the Trans-Siberian Railroad to catch. I had to travel to Europe in less than two months.
My heart started thumping in my chest. Was this really happening? Was my trip coming to an end? Only a few weeks ago I was riding The Minsk across Vietnam, free as a bird. Now I could feel the constraints of Time and Money entrapping me, forcing me to make difficult decisions about my itinerary, my budget, my future! My freewheeling vagabonding days were finished for now. I realized I would have to plan out the rest of my trip on almost a day-by-day basis.
One thing was obvious to me – China was huge and transportation was expensive. I needed to pick one part of China and I needed to stay there until it was time to go to Beijing. I found the most interesting (an affordable) region in China – the Yunnan province. I packed up my bags, took a bus to Gulin, and caught an overnight train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.