Expedition to a sleeping beauty, Huangyao

Posted By: Véro Debuyser In: online On: Comment: 0 Hit: 790

Going off the beaten track is sometimes a real adventure.

I heard about an old Ming Dynasty city away from all the tourist routes, called Huangyao, and here I am in search of this little unknown gem.

Going off the beaten track is sometimes a real adventure.

I heard about an old Ming Dynasty city away from all the tourist routes, called Huangyao, and here I am in search of this little unknown gem.

Step one: interview all my Chinese contacts to learn a little more. People are amazed that I know this place that no guide mentions, already a good point. Everyone assures me that it is beautiful but far, very far. After all, distance does not matter to me, I have the time and the idea to really sink into deep China to discover a place that even few Chinese know excites me to the highest point.
Second step is not the easiest: find out how to get there. I am assured everywhere that there is a bus or at worst I can take a bus to the nearest city and change there. At the bus station, I am told that there is none in Yangshuo and that the only way to find a bus is to return to Guilin. The Chinese logic: Guilin is in the North and Huangyao in the South! My logic dictates to me that the bus that leaves from Guilin must necessarily cross Yangshuo. So I go back to the station where I am told that, yes, the bus goes through Yangshuo but does not stop at the bus station - they could tell me the previous time! Morality: in China, always ask the right questions, if not additional information.

It remains for me to find the place where I can make the bus stop.

In addition to the official railway stations, there are known places in each city and all along the roads, but they are not indicated - do not look for the beautiful colorful sign, it does not exist except in the collective knowledge - where the buses look for the passengers who go up all the way. There, I am really happy to speak Chinese because otherwise, I would be in trouble. It seems that it is towards the gas station ... goes for a reconnaissance of the places before the departure of the following day. There are indeed people and packets waiting, an indisputable sign - especially packets - that long distance buses go through here. For more safety, I have it confirmed by the employees of the gas pump: banco, I found the magic place. As for schedules, that's much more uncertain ... Many, that's all I managed to know. As long as it's true!

The next morning, here I am, my backpack on the sidewalk, to use my eyes to decipher the characters written on the buses before they reach my height, just to have the time to do them sign. I get seriously stared at by all the people passing by me who have to wonder how a stranger finds herself alone, waiting for a hypothetical bus that, well, is slow to arrive. And if, despite what I was told, there was only one at the end of the afternoon ? I cannot see myself hanging around all day ! Patient, ok, but there are limits.

Fortunately, the characters I have memorized are on the horizon. A big silent thanks to my guardian angel and I climb on a bus ... which is not very young. The ticket clerk, who takes care of the passengers on each bus, stares at me as he squints behind his glasses. Yes, I am really going to Hezhou, it's only been three times that I repeat ! Shrugging, he tells me inside. I show him my backpack ... no, there is no more space in the trunks, so it will have to go with the boxes and bags that are already stacking at the entrance. I'm lucky, there are two empty places left. The first seems more comfortable but after trial, it turns out that the backrest does not stand right. Well, too bad, I resign myself to the central square on the back row and there is the cushion that is no longer attached to the backrest and has a clear tendency to slide forward. I have known more comfortable and reassuring but at least I am sitting in the bus that will make me time travel the history of China !

By the way, my research on the net has taught me that Huangyao has just been listed this year by the government on the list of "50 sites that deserve to be visited by tourists" (sic). I can already see the highway and the merchants of so-called local crafts. So, let's go quickly before it is completely distorted and emptied of its authentic appearance!

At the exit of the city, new random stop of a crossroads: 3 new passengers ... but only one seat. Two of them only go to the next town, 8km, they can stay upright. We put them on and take away other passengers and other cartons tied up, other bags that start to form a mound behind the driver in the space that was very judiciously provided for this purpose but is still insufficient most of the time. The attendant pulls out his magic wand, in this case small plastic stools, which are certainly the same age as the bus and accumulate in the alley at the pace of people waiting at the exit of a dirt road .

The bumps succeed to the bumps, the sections of road in repair alternate with the completely broken sections. Securely anchored on my two feet, I resist. An eye on the beautiful but unfortunately misty landscape that scrolls, the other riveted on the pieces of the bus that threaten at any moment to dissociate from the whole.

The clips on the luggage rack, which usually contain the loudspeakers that constantly play music or the sound of the movie on the TV - well, not mine, no TV, nor speakers ... are they so old? - ended up giving way under the effect of rust . Rust inside the bus ? It says a lot about the external state and it's not meant to reassure me - and the bus vibrates impressively over more than half of its length. When will be the final break? The sliding windows with exhausted joints, too, rattle, producing a rattling background that would cover any attempt at conversation. The noise is deafening. This is probably why the passengers are silent.

The driving of the driver is exemplary, calm and regular, which is rare. Despite the bumps and the ambient noise, which finally isolates the outside world, I finally doze. Woken up by a stop in gas station. Given the agitation that suddenly takes the entire bus, I understand: it's the pee stop. The driver does not stop the engine, bad sign. Not even time to smoke a cigarette. And it's gone for a ride. Actually, I have only a very rough idea of the travel time, and the atmosphere of the bus is not the conversation but considering that it is about two hours that we drive, I deduct that we are about halfway through.

Arrival in Hezhou where I have to find another bus; at this point I still have at least two hours to go. Just landed, my first instinct is to go to the counter. To eat something, we'll see later, I'll probably have to wait. Foreigners here must be really rare, people stare at me as if I was an alien. I read on the faces expressions ranging from disbelief to the desire to communicate, a smile, a hello to which I respond with pleasure. The Chinese are very communicative and curious and if by luck you speak a few words, you recive back a lot of questions. Where are you from ? Traveling or working in China? Do you like China? And the cooking? You know how to eat with chopsticks? You can eat spicy? Where did you go? Where did you learn Chinese? Oh, how well you speak! You are very strong! Start the conversation and the luck smiles on you, I'm going to experiment it again today.

A lady comes to me asking me where I am going and replies that tickets for Huangyao are not sold here. Aie, aie, it gets complicated, other wanderings in perspective. But no, another woman enters the conversation and tells me to follow her, she will help me. She takes me to the back of the bus station and after discussions in local dialects with the drivers of small buses entrusts me to one of them. I sit down, all the seats are already full, I sit on the boot at the front, just behind the driver, back to the window, placing my feet and my bag between the chickens who travel in boxes. A useless attempt because the driver drops all the passengers who have no regular place and tells us to go and wait for him after leaving the station. I follow the movement, slightly -but a bit anyway- worried about my belongings that stayed inside. I understand quickly: the number of passengers is limited and checked at the exit; after the check, the rules are out of order, the magic stools come out of the trunk and we fill the bus as much as we can.

It's like the road rules. The rules exist but no white line has ever stopped a Chinese driver, nor any bend; sometimes three cars pass at the same time, in a situation where I would patiently wait for miles before overtaking. But fortunately the high speed is not part of the problems of the Chinese circulation, there are others and it is already enough. It is the law of the strongest or the fastest. And our driver obviously does not support being slowed by slower than him. Adventurous overtaking in bends -after all the horn has to be used for something-, attempts followed by urgent braking, I'm not bored! No vehicle can withstand the will of our driver, even if it brings dangerously close to the ravine its rickety bus and passengers who silently try to maintain their precarious balance. Especially since the road gradually turns into a narrow and winding mountain road, lined with stones on one side and a strip of plastic supported by posts on the other. At crossings of villages, the roads look like a dirt or gravel road, if however they have ever been paved.

I watch with attention what happens between the driver and the attendant, the phone rings regularly, and some time later we stop to drop a plastic bag in a shop, we meet a motorcycle that comes take delivery of a metal part, we stop at a junction to deliver another package to someone waiting for us. The bus also makes small deliveries that come from the city. These stops that will improve the average time! It's already two and a half hours since we are driving and no one gets off, I have the impression that the final destination is gradually declining as we move forward. Finally a real village, the bus leaves half empty.

A girl comes to sit next to me and starts the conversation in a very hesitant English that she gives up as soon as she understands that I speak Chinese.

She introduces herself as a guide to Huangyao, she is 16 years old.

Miles away, a village in the middle of nowhere, Lao Yanfang announces that we are getting off here. She takes me in charge of authority, brings me to a small hotel (the only one in the area?). The bosses suggest me to take a room on the top floor, they are right, the view of the old town is splendid. Black roofs on white or yellow facades, a few red lanterns far and wide that pierce the mist that creeps between the karstic peaks that surround the village, virtually no sign of modernity to denature this plunge into an immemorial past.

I drop my things and Lao Yanfang takes me immediately. A little reconnaissance round, then go to her house. I will eat in her family, no question to discuss.

Huangyao is definitely worth a visit (and what a detour!). The city was built under the Song Dynasty, in 1036. But the dwellings date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and it has some remarkable trees, banyans, which are over 500 years! The old town is not very big but extremely well preserved and the tourists still rare. Peaks all around and a river that runs through the village, idyllic! Four entrance porches mark the four directions, with altars to the local deities. The streets are paved with large blocks of blue stone that glow (and glide) in the rain, the mud houses are covered with a white coating that is peeling in places and black tiles. One floor in general and tired lanterns hanging from the roofs. The majority of them are still inhabited, some stalls with rare objects but no shop for tourists. The city seems a little sleepy, a few people walk down the street, a farmer with his cow, a woman returning from picking vegetables of the day, some women laundry squatting in the wash ...

A wishful wish: that the awakening of the Sleeping Beauty is not too brutal and that it retains for a long time the magic of another time!

Although the visit takes only two or three hours, I decide to spend a second night to take the only bus that goes directly to Guilin by the main road and stops at 8am, to avoid the long way to go. I eat again at Lao Yanfang, who did not give up, and then spend part of the evening talking with the bosses of the hotel and show them some pictures of France. It's so romantic, France!

The next day, I am gently brought to the corner where the bus stops .... In fact, where it is supposed to stop, because it rushes past me without stopping. A moment of panic! In the afternoon, I have my train to Kunming and in this lost place, buses are rare. What to do ? A young man who returns to university is in the same situation as me and we decide to share a car that will take us to a junction of roads where we can hail a bus in passing. The chance is with us, just 5 minutes after our "taxi" has dropped us about thirty kilometers away, here is a bus that stops and whose attendant screams around "Guilin, Guilin" and more, that's perfect ! Finally, we arrive in Guilin, even faster than expected. Which goes to show that every problem has it's solution and I would say even better, the problem has this enormous advantage to relegate far away the hordes of tourists who will not fail in the future to transform this secular village into a fair to the bimbeloterie!


Kunming 2009


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