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A change of heart, Guilin

“I dreamed about Kweilin before I ever saw it,” my mother began, speaking Chinese. “I dreamed of jagged peaks lining a curving river, with magic moss greening the banks. At the tops of these peaks were white mists. And if you could float down this river and eat the moss for food, you would be strong enough to climb the peak. If you slipped, you would only fall into a bed of soft moss and laugh. And once you reached the top, you would be able to see everything and feel such happiness it would be enough to never have worries in your life ever again.”

– The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

Guilin – or Kweilin in the old-fashioned romanisation – means the ‘Forest of Sweet Osmanthus’. More than any other place in China, it was this landscape that had captured my imagination as a child.

But on the journey from the airport I am given a biting reality check. Guilin, it seems, has not escaped the onslaught of China’s development at warp speed. Here and there giant slabs of concrete, cranes and highways have risen up to challenge the age-old hills; one has even been carted away, its naked core standing forlornly above a row of brand-new apartment blocks.

The downtown area is even worse. Above the waves of scooters swarming through the zebra crossings, Guilin comes across as a soulless spread of white tiles so typical of the modern Chinese city. We escape by bus to Yangshuo before moving onto Xingping, resolving not to come back in any great hurry until necessity dictated otherwise.

But four days later we meet Tommy somewhere above the village of Dazhai, standing in a modest pavilion overlooking the rice terraces. He’s a local translation student, bright-eyed and outspoken – eager to talk and gushing with an infectious enthusiasm. Together we share a minivan back to Guilin, where he becomes the tour guide for our one-night sojourn in the city.

Our initial misgivings brushed aside, Tommy is keen to introduce us to its easygoing charms that we had failed to see. After dark the tree-lined avenues come alive with octagonal lanterns, leading us to the landing of a stone bridge, its squat circular lamps as full as the moon. Here a man serenades a captive audience with the soulful strains of his violin. “He comes here every night in his suit and tie, when the weather is nice.” Tommy tells us.

At nearby Osmanthus Lake, we take in the Sun and Moon Pagoda, their dazzling appearance reflecting in the waters plowed by the occasional pleasure boat. Meanwhile a two-man band is crooning romantic melodies across the rippling lake, backed by a shoreline lit up in a kaleidoscope of green, yellow and purple. We make a full circuit before strolling down a pedestrian avenue in search of a quiet drink. Crossing the road, even the green man seems to be doing the moonwalk.

Earlier on we had sat down for dinner at a restaurant well-known for its spicy fish head hotpot. Tommy insists on footing the bill, despite our calls to split it evenly. “No, let me do this,” he affirms with a smile. “You are my guests.” The meal turns out to be quite the feast – we are served up a punch bowl-sized portion of steamed rice, marinated sea snails, sliced vegetables and a tall jar of freshly blended Hami melon juice. Over the bubbling, ochre-coloured stew, Tommy laments what he sees as the moral decline of modern China. There is a mention of propaganda, his disillusionment with the political system, and at one point he even breaches the forbidden subject of Tiananmen.

Every trip into China yields the same, powerful lesson. Beyond the material comforts of home, there’s a renewed appreciation of the rights and privileges that we so often take for granted; the free flow of information, the right to assemble in large groups, and the ability to express our opinions in public.

While waiting for the bus that will take us into the centre of town, Tommy politely asks if he can have a peek at my Hong Kong Identity Card. I will never forget that intense look of longing that crossed his face when he gazed at the weightless hard plastic cupped in his hand. “To have this card,” he declares, “that’s my dream.”

Mood lighting, China-style

The Sun and Moon Pagodas

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Tiananmen incident makes me wonder about the rest of history and how it was rewritten, or forgotten, to suit its writers before the invention of social media. May we continue to help the truth live on, and hope that one day all people in the world will be exposed to the true history of their nation and this planet!

    July 12, 2012
    • As they say, history is written by the victors. But now that we have the internet it’s much harder for repressive governments to keep things under wraps. As a travel blogger with a more journalistic slant, I feel a deep-seated responsibility to seek out the truth and share it with everyone.

      July 13, 2012
  2. It’s a tragedy, isn’t it? We can only hope for China’s sake that all her Tommy’s don’t jump ship, leaving the way clear for more of the same. A country in search of its soul, it seems …

    July 12, 2012
    • Unfortunately many of her most progressive citizens do have the tendency to jump ship – that has been a constant feature for the past 150 years of Chinese history. Moving abroad always seems to be the most attractive option in the face of political and financial difficulties. But what encourages me most is meeting the urban youth, who are increasingly aware and independent-minded. They are the ones, I think, who will eventually reclaim China’s soul.

      July 13, 2012
      • That’s encouraging, James – that you’re meeting young people who make you feel optimistic about their vision of China. Lets hope they can prevail in the end:)

        July 13, 2012
  3. A beautifully written piece James. Had to smile at the “mood lighting’. Seems to be an Indo/China thing, this penchant for psychedelic lighting!
    Oh yes, we do take our freedom for granted, especially that of free speech. And China has disappointed on that score. I wonder though if the government would be able to clamp down as hard if there was another revolt. From what I read, they have given just enough rope to the urban youth at least, to keep them quiet if not happy.

    July 12, 2012
    • Absolutely Madhu. We turned up in Yangshuo at nightfall and even the hills were bathed in those psychedelic colours!

      What I found on this trip to China was an underlying disquiet among the populace – it wasn’t just Tommy but a few others I spoke to alluded to the pain and hardship endured in recent decades, and also the widespread corruption in all levels of government. A man I’d just met in Guangzhou whispered in my ear about these very issues as we took the metro. It’s amazing just how outspoken the Mainland Chinese are compared to their Hong Kong counterparts.

      July 13, 2012
      • Corruption is the main thing holding back the Indo Chinese Juggernaut. And I see no hope of eliminating it, at least in our lifetime.

        July 13, 2012
  4. James, what a very poignant post. It’s sad when a place loses its core soul in favor of modernity. At least, you discovered some of its redeeming elements left. Your last two paragraphs were very moving. Sometimes we don’t realize that what we normally take for granted means the whole world to some people. I hope that someday they achieve that dream world.

    July 12, 2012
    • I think a big part of my disappointment stemmed from my expectations that Guilin would be very similar to how it was perhaps 50 or even 30 years ago. It’s the image that you come to expect from photos and old landscape paintings, but it’s now increasingly hard to find in reality.

      Being a descendant of two political refugees from Shanghai (both my paternal grandparents fled in the wake of the Communist takeover), Tommy’s words really struck a chord and made me understand just how privileged we are to be living in such different circumstances.

      July 13, 2012
  5. I’m glad we met him. Otherwise our trip to Guilin would be less enjoyable. And that conversation over dinner was both disheartening and eye-opening for me. On the lighter note, I still remember how the tofu tasted!

    July 12, 2012
    • I don’t know how we would have found our way if it wasn’t for Tommy – we were already hopelessly lost when we came in from the airport. Meeting him made the biggest difference to our stay.

      As for those chunks of tofu, they were hands down the best part of the hotpot… I was sorely disappointed when there were none left!

      July 13, 2012
      • I have to admit, I think I ate most of them. Sorry!

        July 13, 2012
  6. I love this post! I think China is the only place where I’ve ever met random strangers and traveled the rest of the day with them as if we were old friends. Chinese people are so friendly! And he wouldn’t let you pay for the meal–so typical. 🙂 I’m glad that you met him, because now we all get to hear a little piece of his story and his hopes for the future, and remember how lucky we are to be living in freedom!

    July 13, 2012
    • Actually now that you mention it… that hasn’t happened in any of my recent travels outside China! There’s a good chance that he’ll be coming to Hong Kong in a few months’ time so I’ve kept his email address just in case.

      July 13, 2012
  7. This is a beautiful post weaving politics and ideology with a sense of place. Kind of unrelated, but my parents went to Guilin when I was very young and brought back wooden toys that I still have. As a kid, they were magical and kind of scary, too.

    July 17, 2012
    • Thank you Susan – I can imagine how different Guilin must have been when your parents were there! Love the title of your blog by the way; the lemongrass is an instant identifier for Southeast Asia.

      July 18, 2012

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