Traveling through Southern China

Hight Speed TrainEvery time I come to China I am astounded by the changes taking place in this country. If Britain is a "nation of shopkeepers", as Napoleon was famously said to have remarked, then China must be a "nation of engineers". Never in modern history since the pyramids has man built on such a scale from highways leading to nowhere, half-empty airports still waiting on customers to the high-speed rail system that is currently being expanded to all parts of the country. I always return to the picture in my mind of the last time I visited China and witnessed many modern highways, where along the side road peasants were driving rickety vehicles while Audis and Toyota Land Cruisers of the nouveau riche, their inhabitants hidden by tinted windows, were whizzing pass them.

China's High-Speed Railways (CRH) were implemented in April of 2007. High-speed rail services that run on existing lines that have been upgraded can reach a speed up to 250 km/h (160 mph) and on newer dedicated high-speed track they are rated up to 350 km/h (220 mph). The opening of the Guiyang–Guangzhou High-Speed Railway (HSR) upon which we will travel took place on December 26, 2014, will cut the rail journey from 20 hours to only about 5 hours. It links the economically poor, but ethnically and naturally rich, regions of Guizhou and Guangxi to the prosperous Pearl River Delta area. The part of the line that we traveled on starts from Guangzhou and passes through North Guangxi's Karst region (Guilin and Yangshuo), then the previously hard-to-access Miao and Dong ethnic regions of Southeast Guizhou Province. 81% of the route consists of bridges and tunnels of which there are 238 tunnels, nine of them are more than 10 km (6 miles) long.

We flew into Guangzhou, China and took the subway to our hotel in the Panyu district of the city, chosen more for it's proximity to the transportation lines we were taking. After checking into our room we went out to eat and found an excellent restaurant just a few doors down that specializes in mushroom dishes. The food was perfect and proved to be one of the best places we ate on our entire trip. The next day we took the train to Guilin and were met by a stampede of taxi drivers and tourist hawkers before we were rescued by our driver and guide Mercier Zeng.

Time passes, day by day. The greatness of this country lies in the inexorable journey it has taken through time.

Time is like an enormous pot, into which all ugliness and beauty are thrown, all happiness and grief, all life and all death.

Cycle follows cycle, living life and dying death. Only the great River rolls on, unending.


Daxu Ancient Town

Daxu Ancient TownMercier of Mercier Zeng Photography is a local photography guide. I found Mercier through his website and his knowledge and love for photography would prove invaluable. Mercier is an expert on the area and was also able to take us to places that he knew would result in wonderful photographs.

We were never rushed as Mercier drove us in his own car from place to place and it felt more like we were visiting with a local friend than being led as part of an organized group.

Are there cheaper tours available, sure perhaps one of the traditional shopping tours that China is infamous for but you'll never see China in the same way as we did with Mercier.

Daxu Ancient Town

Our first stop would be Daxu Ancient Town. Surrounded by lush scenery in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of Southeast China is the quiet and rural town of Daxu, one of China's little hidden gems. Located approximately 20 kilometers southeast of Guilin, near the bank of the Li River, Daxu is noted for its well preserved ancient buildings, worn bluestone streets and traditional culture. The history of Daxu dates back to over 2,000 years ago when it was founded during the era of the Qin Dynasty that ruled in China between the years of 221 and 207 BC. Centuries later during the Ming Dynasty, Daxu thrived as a leading trade and commercial hub due to its close proximity to the Li River. The thirteen docks that can still be seen in Daxu today are the remnants of this former golden age.

As industry, technology, and tourism grew and spread elsewhere in China over the next several hundred years, the ancient village of Daxu somehow managed to make time stand still and has maintained its antique architecture and traditional way of life within a small cluster of streets.

Li River

Dragon BridgeOriginating from Mao’er Shan (Mountain Cat) in Xing'an county, north of Guilin, the Li River, also called Lijiang winds its way south for about 437 km, passing through Guilin City, Yangshuo County, Pingle County and Zhaoping County, and finally meets the Xi (West) River at Wuzhou. The Li River is a famous tourist destination for mainland Chinese and is featured on the 20 Yuan note. It boasts one the largest and most beautiful scenic areas in China which attracts thousands of visitors each year. The 83-kilometer-long waterway from Guilin City to Yangshuo County is the most picturesque and where the landscape is decorated with the unworldly Karst mountains, steep cliffs, numerous caves, and picturesque farming villages, and much of its length is lined with bamboo. In a Chinese poem, it is written: "The river is a green silk ribbon, and the hills are jade hairpins". The Lingqu Canal along the Li River was dug in 214 BC. It is the oldest existing canal in the world and a symbol of ancient water conservation practices by the ancient Chinese. All along the river are vacation rentals attesting to the area's popularity. In the mountains, we came upon groves of tangerine trees covered in plastic sheeting to protect the trees from the winter cold.

Cormorant Fisherman

Cormorant FishermanIn the afternoon after shooting pictures from several vantage points along the river and adjoining countryside, we traveled to a spot along the Li River to photograph a type of fisherman famous on this river. We arrived at dusk and assumed our position on the river. Waiting for our meeting with one such fisherman, Huang Gaohui. The Huang name is quite common amongst the local fisherman at this spot along the Li River and Mr. Huang, after a lifetime of fishing from dawn to dusk and beyond, has worked with tourist groups for the last eight or so years. Beyond retirement age, if there was such a thing for this fisherman, Mr. Huang is very popular due to his net casting skills, a demonstration of which I was lucky to capture.

Cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing method in which fishermen use trained cormorants (large aquatic birds) to fish in the river. Historically, cormorant fishing has taken place in China and Japan since early in the 10th Century AD.

Cormorant FishermanA snare or noose tied near the base of the bird's throat prevents the birds from swallowing larger fish such as the local carp. When a cormorant has caught a fish in its throat, the fisherman brings the bird back to their bamboo raft and has the bird spit out the fish. The fishermen spend years training the aquatic birds to dive into the shallow water and then return to the raft with their catch. The birds are then rewarded with smaller fish. Most Chinese cormorant fishers operate either solo or with a single helper, at least today, though in the past, when fish were more plentiful and loomed larger in the diet, the crew may have been larger.

Cormorant Fisherman

Cormorant FishermanThe remaining cormorant fishermen of Guilin spend between two and three hours on the lake every morning guided by kerosene lanterns, and while cormorant fishing only produces about 4kg of carp per day, the men are determined to keep this historic practice alive. Cormorant fishing once prevalent along the Li River has, for the most part, died out. There are fewer fish in the river these days and it only survives as part of the tourist trade. The fisherman finds themselves in much demand, now actors on a river stage. With most of the fisherman past retirement age, it seems their way of life will die with them, replaced by actors who have never really fished in the traditional manner.

20 YuanFour years later we stayed for a few days in Xingping’s old town at the Autumn Inn. The town is small but we easily could have stayed there a few extra days rather than going to Yangshuo. Xingping is famous for being the site where the iconic image on the 20 Yuan note was taken.

We were there during Golden Week which is a national holiday in China where it seems a billion Chinese are on the move. This is a critical time of the year for many who are working away from home as it may be the only time during the year where they see their family.