Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Christmas Travels 2015 - Highlights from Li River Cruise

Lo and behold, I've been back home now for a week, after being away on a family holiday to China (Guilin + Guangzhou) and Hong Kong over the Christmas break! (Note to Self: It's not fun to wake up feeling sick in a foreign hotel, on day 1 of a multi-week trip. It's equally not fun feeling sick again - despite being fine the night before - at the start of a new year. Gah!)

While going over the photos, I decided to do things a bit differently this time, and instead of putting together long posts of photos + text, I'm going to try turning these into little videos instead. I'll still have a few posts based on the notes I made during this trip (for a change, I did all the note making during the trip, so it'll just be a matter of digitalising them this time), but I'll put those up a bit later on. So, in the meantime, enjoy the first highlights video, from a cruise down the Li River, from Guilin to Yangshou.

The towering karsts (i.e. limestone mountains) look like they came straight out of a traditional Chinese painting. It's quite interesting how they all have such weird and wacky shapes - it's a particular highlight seeing them from the plane... on a relatively flat plain of farmland, there's a cluster of these idiosyncratic pudding-like mountains sitting in the middle of nowhere!

About the Li River Cruise
The cruise takes 4 hours. There's a morning call at 8am, as the tour bus needs to do a loop around Guilin picking up passengers from various hotels, before finally arriving at the terminal 9:30am.
At around 10am, the boats start heading down the river. It's a one-way trip, as return journey would take 8 hours (as you'd be sailing against the current).

The boats have 3 levels: the bottom level has seats/dining tables (+ "Chinese toilets", *ahem*), the second has an open air viewing deck (along with more seating), and then there's a top-most viewing deck (where most folk went).

As part of the cruise, they serve lunch: a buffet of rather homely styled (aka plain/dull food... really Chinese styled stuff really, including plain rice, noodles, mantou, soft-cake, and steamed veges like corn + pumpkin). This is cooked on the boats during the cruise by the on-board chef (who has a cabin at the back of the boat). There is also tea (teapots are on the tables initially) and hot water (be careful with the paper cups). The main downside of the mealtime is that they timed it so that you'd actually still be eating when one of their "main" attractions passes by (i.e. the mountain-ranges which feature on the 20 dollar note).

Another word about the "attractions": While a few of them have some obvious/universal visual appeal that makes them stand out, it's harder to identify many of the others. It doesn't really help that the crew only speak (actually, it's more like loudly shout through speakers turned up way too loud, including during an initial 10 ) in mainland chinese that an attraction is coming up (though which one it is isn't always clear, let along WHERE it is).

They did however spend some time at the beginning giving a long speech about the attractions there would be, focussing mainly on the "9 Horse Mountain" (which seems to be their main drawcard). That's because there are actually 2 things happening here:
      1) The face of the mountain looks like it has a painting of 9 horses on it (you have to look really really hard at it, and then you might spot one or two... at the time, I did manage to kinda see one, but then by the time I gotten back to the hotel, I couldn't remember where they were anymore XD),
      2) The tops of the hill look like the silhouette of a person's face (chin/lips to left, nose/forehead to the right). This one should be a relatively easier to spot :)

(They also took every opportunity they could to monetize: crew-made photos with the landmarks, special fresh seafood lunches, souvenir fragrances, and activities in Yangshou... but then, you'd expect tourist businesses to try and do that with a captive audience anyway I guess...

Now we get to some of the not-so-good aspects:
  - When you get on board, you're assigned a seat at one of several long tables (4 a side) lined up against each side of the boat with a bunch of strangers. Truth be told, the decor inside the boats isn't actually that flash. Be warned that it's like you've suddenly walked in on a garden party staged in Great Aunty Macy's living room, except it's slowly floating down the river, with a mostly pretty geology lesson drifting past.
  - Also, a piece of advice: if you can really avoid going to the toilets, absolutely avoid going to the toilets! (Especially if there's just like 1 hour left until you land... Yangshou really isn't the "boring hole with just a few shops and nothing to see" that the tour guide may try to convince you that it is!)    The "toilets" on the boat were located just beside the engines, and were stainless steel "squat-basin-holes" (aka imagine your kitchen sink, except with a bowl the size of a large melon, filled with foamy yellow liquid, and plastered in the middle of a wet plastic floor). As you can imagine, they reeked really badly - the smell was almost strong enough to knock out everything I'd eaten that day, and the day before. You have been warned ;)

Overall Verdict:
The reason to go on this cruise is to see the scenery, which is worth seeing with your own eyes. It's one thing looking at pictures, and another standing in the freezing breeze (if winter; in summer, you'd probably just be simultaneously melting and baking... ugh) while coming face to face with a mountain ranges towering above you and passing just a few meters away from the boat. That feeling of being completely surrounded by these wonderfully bizzare mountains is quite an experience.

Photography Note
Managing light levels during the cruise (and actually, while in China in general) was a real challenge! That's because we had a mix of misty cloud cover (which was quite dark/dim at times), contrasting with periods where the sun came out and there was blue sky, and then later, just minutes later, you'd be back under fog/cloud but with bright sun lighting up the sky, and then the sun would shift or you'd get into a patch with thicker cloud cover, and things would change again. So, all in all, these were very challenging conditions.   (Guangzhou was much worse, but we'll get to that later, as that's another matter all together!)

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