It had all began when Mother Nature had told Lisa it was time to discharge the waste products produced by drinking beer.
When you wake up in the night with a burning desire to go to the toilet, it is not a feeling of "You need to go but you can hang on for ten minutes or so". Normally, your nether regions have been trying to tell you for the last twenty sleep-filled minutes that you need to pay an urgent visit to the nearest WC, so when you finally wake up, you have to run to avoid embarrassment. Such was the case with Lisa.
The lights were off when she jumped out of bed and she landed, barefoot, on hundreds of left-over shells from the strange seed-like objects being crunched by our fellow passengers. The floor was almost totally covered in them and Lisa tried to desperately to find her shoes, not just to avoid tearing the soles of her feet apart on the shells; there was absolutely no way she was going to set foot in the toilets without any protection.
I haven't told you about the toilets on the train, have I? Well, basically they were straight from Satan's prison. I could barely stand to set foot in them even for a pee. Being standard holes in the floor, Lisa would have to squat, a task made more difficult by the fact that the train was moving from side to side as it sped through the Chinese countryside. Men are normally terrible at taking aim at stationary toilets which have a bowl but when confronted with a hole in the floor in a moving carriage, there is absolutely no chance. Basically, every hellish toilet on the train I had tried the night before was the same: it reeked and was covered in urine and a substance I could not even begin to describe (but seemingly came from one or more human beings). So you can understand Lisa's need for shoes.
Time ticked on as she frantically searched and her body screamed "FORGET THE SHOES! GO NOW!". But it was worse than that; she needed toilet paper as well. Thankfully, she found her shoes and was sensible enough to place the toilet roll where she could easily find it. Fully armed and ready for the hellholes in the floor, Lisa made her way along the carriage just as the train slowed to a halt and the lights blazed on. Lisa checked her watch - 3am! I was so tired that I was oblivious to the lights - something for which I am thankful, given what happened next.
By the time Lisa had reached the toilet at the end of our carriage, the train had stopped. She tried the door and it was locked. Assuming that someone was in there, she moved onto the next carriage and tried the door of the next toilet. It was the same story. The door was locked on that one too. A voice began to get louder in Lisa's mind: "OK. Stop messing about. FIND A TOILET!". Getting more desperate with every stride (which, incidentally, was getting smaller than its predecessor) Lisa hurried along to the next toilet - and the next - and the next. Every single door she tried was locked. Surely there weren't people in each hellhole at 3am in the morning. The train remained motionless on the platform and the lights continued to blaze. Nobody got on the train and nobody got off. Every bunk Lisa passed contained a sleeping traveller. There wasn't a guard to be seen. Lisa was totally desperate at this stage and considered her options. As far as she could tell, four options were open to her: she stand there and wet herself. Not an option. The embarrassment factor would be too high, especially if I found out about it. That was a non-starter.
- she find a quiet corner and answer the call on the train. Not an option. It was too risky. Murphy's Law dictates that if she had done that, a guard would have miraculously appeared out of nowhere and, probably flung her off the train. Another non-starter.
- she jumps off the train and relieves herself in a toilet (or behind a bush) on the platform. Again, too risky. The train could pull out of the station leaving poor Lisa stranded in the middle of nowhere clutching nothing but a toilet roll. Yet again a non-starter
- she runs through the train in a blind panic.
Mother Nature had no time for thought and blind panic ensued. Lisa sprinted down the carriages trying every toilet door she could find. Every one was locked. Just as Lisa was about to scream in anguish at the hopelessness of her situation, a guard appeared on the scene. The situation was clear. The guard had locked all of the toilet doors on the train to prevent them from being used while the train was at the station. Now, with the appearance of the guard, it seemed that salvation was at hand. Lisa gestured towards the door, trying not to appear desperate. The guard shook her head. "BUT I NEED TO GO TO THE TOILET DESPERATELY!!", forgetting that the guard could probably not understand English, let alone the English pouring forth from the mouth of a deranged tourist. Lisa pushed the door and tried again. to get her message across. Once again the guard shook her head, unmoved by Lisa's plight. "WADDAYAMEAN NO?" said Lisa. Ignoring Lisa, the guard moved on, leaving Lisa standing helplessly outside a locked toilet, thinking about her next move.
Then the lights went out.
Picture the scene. Lisa, standing in pitch blackness desperate for a toilet and unable to find one. I wish I'd seen the look on her face.
The train began to pull out. Lisa took this as a sign that the guard might open the doors. Thinking that the doors would be opened from a central point, Lisa tried to open the adjacent door. It was still locked. The only thing to do was to find the guard. Lisa set off at a sprint, oblivious to any obstacle in her way in the darkness. After a few minutes, she found the guard, who was opening a toilet door. Lisa pushed her aside, went into the hellhole and slammed the door shut.
Twenty minutes later … not really - a few minutes later, Lisa began the long and difficult journey along the train, searching for her bed in the pitch blackness.
Lisa was just unlucky enough to have a desperate need just as the train was about to arrive at its next destination. It could have been worse. Imagine if she'd woken up ten minutes earlier? By the time Lisa eventually found her bed (a further fifteen or twenty minutes had passed by this time), her body was so full of adrenaline that she couldn't sleep. I, on the other hand, was sound asleep and completely unaware of Lisa's plight.
Before I'd gone to bed the previous night, I had told Lisa that I was concerned about missing our station. According to the schedule, the train was due to arrive in Guilin at around 7.30 in the morning. I had visions of us oversleeping and missing our stop (provided by none other than my nemesis, Captain Paranoia). I needn't have worried. The guard came along at 6.30 am asking for the plastic tags we had been given. Lisa, having managed half an hour of restless sleep since the toilet episode, was woken up instead of me. I was left to sleep on.
I'm a kind-hearted person. When I wake up early I leave Lisa to carry on sleeping. Lisa, on the other hand, feels that when she is awake, the rest of the world should also be awake. This is why she roused me from my slumber at 6.30. Shocked, I sat up and, for the third time, smashed my head on the ceiling. "What the fuck are you doing?" I shouted irritably, rubbing my bleary, bloodshot eyes. Although I didn't have my glasses on I sensed my mistake as I tried to focus on Lisa's face. Something told me that Lisa was annoyed. Looking back, I think it must have been the low, menacing growl emanating from her throat; the kind of noise made by an angry Rottweiler, just before he tears your face off. It could also have been the immediate change in the colour of her face, from a normal fleshy colour to a deep shade of crimson, all in the space of about five seconds. At this point she literally exploded.
“HAVE YOU ANY IDEA WHAT I’VE BEEN THROUGH TONIGHT?” she barked. Such was the level of malice and venom in that question, that the other passengers in our compartment decided that it was safer to queue up for the toilet than stay in the vicinity.
Lisa was angry (boy was she angry), tired and frustrated. She told me about the events of the night in about two minutes, punctuating each sentence with a hiss reminiscent of the world’s most furious snake. Each word was a growl spat malevolently through clenched teeth. I just sat there and listened, too afraid to say anything and too scared to comfort her. I was attempted to rub my sore head to gain some sympathy for and appeal to warm and kind creature deep within her soul. All I got was a glare as she grabbed her towel and marched off towards the nearest toilet. A few seconds later, a group of terrified Chinese passengers ran past. They didn’t really. I made that up.
By the time I had found my glasses and packed up our things, Lisa returned from the toilet, having calmed down a little. I resisted the urge to crack a joke for three seconds, before earning my second thump of the holiday, my prize for asking “Was the toilet open this time?”. I made my way to the toilet cum bathroom and freshened up.
At 7.30 precisely, the train pulled into Guilinbei. We were a bit concerned because we didn’t know whether this was the right station, so I asked the guard, pointing at my ticket to indicate our destination. Using sign language and shaking her head, she told me that Guilin was the next station and we would be there in around five minutes. Sure enough, the guard was right and we disembarked at the next stop. The station was much smaller than the labyrinthine masses of chaos in Guangzhou. One or two freight trains stood at adjacent platforms. This was more like a suburban station than a major railway hub, which was a blessed relief after Guangzhou. What’s more, we could see the exit and a CITS office (China International Travel Service). Although our plans were fluid and subject to change, I preferred to book some things in advance and the CITS office provided the means to do so, assuming we could communicate our itinerary and needs to the staff. In this case, the travel agent spoke fluent English so we decided to take full advantage and prepare ourselves for the next few days.
I said earlier that the exit from the station was obvious. It wasn’t. We left the CITS office fully laden with tickets and reservations and promptly got lost trying to find our way out of this small, open and uncomplicated railway station. For ten minutes we wandered around aimlessly, before spotting an exit leading to a road. When we reached the road, there was a minibus and a few travellers hanging around next to it. Except they weren’t travellers. They were touts. One thing I will never forget about our travels in China are the touts and peddlers who pestered and annoyed us. This was our first encounter and, though it was a reasonably benign confrontation, it set the scene for what followed on the rest of the trip.
The two women homed in on us as soon as we started towards them. My first instinct was to veer away from them, thinking that they would be beggars or sellers of useless trinkets, but they approached us inexorably as if there was an irresistible magnetic force between us. One of the women grabbed my arm and said something. Trying to be polite yet at the same time determined to ignore her, I shook my head frantically and waved my arm dismissively. She totally ignored me and grabbed my arm once more, pointing to one of the minibuses parked nearby. Looking directly into my eyes, she slowly spoke the same word trying to get her message across. Once again, Lisa’s linguistic prowess came to our rescue.
“She’s saying ‘Yangshuo’, I think,” said Lisa triumphantly. This was our destination. As soon as Lisa said the word, the woman began asking for money. She pulled out a 20 yuan note and waved it in front of us. The message was clear: they would take us to Yangshuo, roughly one and a half hours away from Guilin, for 20 yuan (approximately £2). Our initial plan had been to catch a normal bus or grab a taxi, but the price seemed more than reasonable. Lisa nodded to confirm that we would go with her. I started towards the minibus but the women gestured us to follow them. And we did, like two lost sheep.
Within a few yards, the road opened out into a huge square, full of buses, cars taxis bikes, minibuses and people. The women led us towards a line of minibuses and pointed to a fairly big white one. Inside, a scruffy and rather sinister looking driver stretched as he saw us approach and waved us to step aboard. As you can imagine, I was a bit wary and tried my best not to allow Captain Paranoia to get the better of me (“You’ll be driven to a deserted road and mugged by Triads”). As we passed the driver, I looked at him to try to evaluate his intentions but he simply yawned, stretched, scratched himself and looked away. There was nobody else on the minibus. The two women waved to us and walked away, presumably (and hopefully) to drum up more business. After a couple of minutes, another man stepped into the bus and began talking to the driver, casting the occasional furtive glance in our direction.
“I don’t like this,” I said to Lisa, allowing Captain Paranoia to surface and take complete control. “Are you sure that woman said we were getting a ride to Yangshuo?”
“No,” said Lisa irritably. “Don’t worry. It sounded like Yangshuo and it is a popular place for travellers to go from Guilin. We’ll be alright.”
Sometimes, I wish I had Lisa’s optimism. I always tend to look on the dark side. Although I claim to be a realist, people see me as a pessimist - Lisa included. My philosophy is that pessimists get a better time overall; if the worst fears of a pessimist are realised, they have usually prepared themselves for the expected disappointment, whereas if their dreams come to fruition, pessimists are ecstatically happy because they were didn’t expect it. Optimists on the other hand fully expect things to be brilliant and have to suffer a major blow when they are not. I still maintain that I am a realist., though, in this case, I was definitely expecting to be mugged and murdered. I tried to dissolve the image of Triads stealing all of our money and torturing us mercilessly by watching the activity outside Guilin station.
The scenes were nowhere near as disorderly as Guangzhou, though it reminded me of the area outside Guangzhou station. In front of the small station building, the main concourse appeared to be a combination of a car park, a shopping area, a taxi rank, a bus stop and a general place for meeting and chatting. Taxis raced up to the main station entrance, searching for travellers, while buses waited patiently for people to drift aboard; peddlers wandered around the main square in front of the station urging people to buy their wares; women, weighed down with bags, ambled here and there, with no apparent destination in mind; others just drifted around chatting with random people. Despite my inner turmoil at the imagined prospect of a horrible death, I felt strangely relaxed watching the people of Guilin going about their daily business.
While I was daydreaming, the bus filled up with people. I looked around and all of the seats were occupied. There was no room for anyone else but the bus refused to move. A few minutes went by and the shifty looking driver continued to jabber to one of the passengers. What was he waiting for? My fears of being kidnapped, mugged or killed (or all three) began to surface again. Three more people arrived at the bus and I smiled as the driver held up his hand to signal them to stop. He stood up and craned his neck to the back of the bus, to check that all of the seats were occupied, then began to take money off the passengers. I handed over 40 yuan and settled back for the journey ahead, relieved that we were finally getting underway. Then the driver got off.
My mind worked overtime. Was he robbing us, having collected 20 yuan from each person? If he was, it was a bold thing to do. None of the other passengers batted and eyelid so I guess my initial paranoid assumption was incorrect. Instead, he went to the side of the bus and began fumbling around with the door. One of the other passengers got off and, together, the two men brought on around eight stools and placed them in the aisle. A few more people had arrived by this stage and the driver invited them on, taking their cash as they boarded the bus. These unfortunate travellers had to sit on the stools between the seats. According to the guide book, it was at least an hour and a half to Yangshuo and I didn't envy these latecomers, who would have to squat in the crammed spaces between the seats on little wooden stools. I think I would rather have walked, given the choice.
Eventually, all stools were occupied and the driver finally pulled away. On the stool next to Lisa's seat, a middle aged woman, carrying a shopping bag, regarded us with interest. I returned her gaze and smiled, keen to appear friendly and not to be just another gweilo. She returned my smile and made a strange squeaky noise, which took me completely by surprise. Except she didn't make the noise. Together, we both looked at her shopping bag and, for the first time, I noticed movement within. She unzipped the bag and plunged her hand inside. What on earth was she going to extract? And was she going to offer it to me? She fumbled around for a few seconds and pulled out a small string bag containing a kitten. The poor creature was struggling to escape but was tightly wrapped up. The string dug into the cat's fur and its legs were cramped up beneath its body. The holes in the bag were about the same size as the kitten's eyes and they bulged against the string, bringing tears to both its eyes and mine. I thought for a second that the woman was going to release the creature from its prison of thread but she simply plopped it on her lap and held it down to minimise its movement.
Cat's are amongst my favourite of God's creatures and to see this wretched animal, bound up, squirming and mewling in total frustration and discomfort, filled me with a mixture of anger and revulsion. Lisa was visibly affected by this and looked at me with the same intense feeling. Our limited exposure to China so far had shown us that the people kept dogs and cats as pets but, in this case, it was clear to me that this woman intended to have this cat for lunch. Lisa and I expressed our mutual disgust at the treatment of the kitten and tried to focus on the scenery outside as the bus made its way to Yangshuo, a task made extremely difficult by the constant, pathetic squealing coming from the stricken animal. I have heard a variety of noises made by cats in my life but I have never heard such painful howls and screeches before. It was with some relief when the woman signalled to the driver and finally left the bus after around twenty minutes of travelling.
The remainder of the bus journey was uneventful apart from the fact that the bus kept stopping to pick up another person for every one who disembarked, maintaining the number of passengers at its maximum. As the bus continued on its way, and we gradually pushed the kitten to the backs of our minds, we began to take more notice of the change in scenery.
Guilin, and the area between Guilin and Yangshuo, are home to some of the most beautiful scenery in China. Limestone peaks, covered in green vegetation, are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, sheathed in mist, presenting a surreal, almost alien, landscape unlike anything I've seen before. The peaks are miniature mountains and stand majestically surveying the surrounding countryside. Guilin and its neighbouring countryside have inspired many Chinese artists and writers to honour and reproduce its beauty in paintings and books. The closer we got to Yangshuo, the closer the limestone peaks seemed to be. When we reached Yangshuo, the scenery was breathtaking.
Yangshuo is a small town, thriving on the tourist trade brought to the area by the local countryside. We left the bus at the hotel we had booked at the CITS in Guilin Station and took a few seconds to take in the surroundings. Around Yangshuo, the peaks were very close together and towered over the town like giant sentries protecting the citizens and buildings from outside dangers. As I marvelled at the scenery, I tried to recall ever being in a more beautiful little town. I turned to Lisa and said "Isn't it gorgeous?". She just nodded, clearly as impressed as I was.
We were brought back to reality with thump. A hotel tout tapped me on the shoulder and said "Hello, where you from?".
"Manchester," I replied, initially (and foolishly) thinking that he was making conversation.
"Ah! Manchester United!", he exclaimed with a wide grin. I bit my tongue, nodded benignly and turned to Lisa, saying "Let's check into the hotel."
The tout was having none of this. "I have a good hotel for you, over there. It's called Fawlty Towers."
I almost choked. "Fawlty Towers?" I said incredulously. He took this to mean "Yes I am VERY interested in your hotel.". He grabbed my arm and tried to pull me towards the hotel.
"No! No!" I exclaimed, struggling to keep a smile on my face and pulling my arm away. "We have a hotel already. The Golden Leaf."
"Golden Leaf bad hotel," he replied. "Fawlty Towers much better."
He grabbed my arm again so I just turned and walked towards our hotel. We had barely managed two yards when another tout stopped us and said, "I take you on bike ride to Moon Hill." This tout was female and she showed us a book full of pictures and accounts of what a fantastic guide she was. Lisa took over and started to say that we weren't interested, when the Fawlty Towers tout, caught up with me again. We stood there for about three minutes trying to persuade him that we were not interested in his bloody hotel and that we did not want to take a bike ride to Moon Hill at this precise moment in time. Lisa managed to fend off her would be guide by saying that we may do this later but we were tired and needed a rest. I just walked away from the tout, dragging Lisa with me.
To my horror, there were more touts approaching us as we got to the hotel. I couldn't believe it. Didn't these people know when to stop? "Quick," I said. "Let's just run."
A few seconds later we were in the hotel waiting for our room. To my increasing disbelief, there were touts actually hanging around outside the hotel door, waiting for us or other tourists to leave so that they could hassle them more. We were relieved when we finally managed to get into our room and lock the door behind us. Compared to the Friendship Hotel in Guangzhou, this place was extremely basic. However, it had everything we needed; a bed, a clean bathroom with a shower and hot water, and, most importantly of all, a western toilet, which I used immediately to maintain my record of avoiding holes in the floor. We were both extremely tired, especially Lisa, so we decided to have a couple of hours sleep before braving the touts and exploring the town.
After experiencing life in a major Chinese city, I was ready to immerse myself in the rural side of life. After an hour's sleep, I was ready to explore Yangshuo and sample the part of Chinese culture I had read so much about.
We left the hotel and once again bumped into the young woman desperate to be our guide. My patience was beginning to run out but I didn't want to shout at her. My aim was to be as friendly as possible to the local people, no matter how much they tried to annoy me. I smiled at her and told her that we had only just arrived, that we were here for a few days (a little white lie) and that we may be interested in being shown the countryside and Moon Hill (whatever that was) at a later date. All we wanted to do was get something to eat and relax. To my amazement, she bought what I'd said and allowed us to leave her at the front of the hotel, whereupon another tout confronted us. My patience by this stage was at snapping point. When asked if I wanted a guide, I pointed out tout number one and said "We will probably be going with her, but we are tired and need to relax". She started to say something but we walked away before she could pester us further.
The main street of Yangshuo stretched out ahead of us. A few decrepit old trucks and cars drifted down the road. Many people were riding round on bikes and motorbikes but it was a relief that the amount of traffic was significantly lower than that of Guangzhou. People were definitely more relaxed and laid back as they went about their daily business. Lisa and I stood out a mile as we walked down the street, not just because we were obviously foreigners. The mountains dotted around the immediate vicinity, towering over the small buildings of Yangshou, absorbed our attention. The two of us walked down the street staring up at the limestone peaks standing guard over the town. In the distance, more limestone peaks stood out through the mist. I had the feeling that they were slowly moving towards the town to watch over and protect it. Each one was covered in vegetation and had patches of white limestone jutting out.
Lisa practised her photography skills, taking pictures of the majestic peaks. I hoped that the resulting photographs would do justice to the sheer splendour of the scenery, capturing the size and proportion of the peaks in comparison to the surrounding man-made constructions.
The river Li runs through Yangshou, flowing all the way from Guilin. One option for this trip was to catch a boat from Guilin to Yangshuo down the river, an excellent way to experience the beauty of the area, but we had other plans to take a cruise later on the trip. The guide book had a map of Yangshuo and, being such a small town, it was almost impossible for us to get lost. Therefore, it was with some relief that we managed to exorcise Tonto for the day and stroll along the river, breathing in the fresh air and share our thoughts on the town and its surrounding beauty.
Eventually, we chanced upon a street full of restaurants, bars, tacky souvenir shops and, strangely, internet cafes. The local people had been replaced by American, English and German tourists. For a second, I thought I was in a small European seaside resort. I later heard that this particular street was referred to by the local Chinese community as "Foreigner Street". The Chinese were clearly prepared to exploit the tourists and turn Yangshuo into a home from home for westerners, pampering to their every need in coffee shops, pizza restaurants and bars, whilst extracting as much cold hard cash out of them as they could. It was a shame really but I understood the reasons for it. People came here to enjoy the scenery and, given the relative cheapness of the place, it wasn't a major trauma to spend a little money to enjoy oneself. It didn't take long for us to succumb to the smell of steak and pizza, so we sat outside at one of the bar cum restaurants and watched the other tourists as we drank cheap local beer (called Liquan - a give-away at 5 yuan, or 30p, for a huge bottle), ate a lovely cheap meal and marvelled at the Green Lotus Peak towering above the buildings opposite. Life couldn't have been more perfect … until the tout came along.
When you appear to be in a hurry, it is easy to escape from touts. The more persistent ones will chase you but most give up as soon as you turn and run away. Unfortunately, when you are sitting outside a restaurant, relaxing, giving the impression that you have all the time in the world, escape is difficult. Such was the case now. To make matters worse, we recognised the woman who had twice hounded us outside our hotel. Call me paranoid, but I suspect that she had followed us, keeping a discrete distance behind so that we didn't hide. Within seconds of our meal arriving, she was onto us again. An ill-chosen set of words used earlier came back to haunt me: "if we want a guide we will definitely come back to you".
This time, she sat down at our table and showed us her book of reports from other satisfied tourists and explained that she was the best in Yangshuo. "Everyone I show says that I am the best. I will show you Moon Hill and take you on a good trip to see our beautiful countryside."
I really didn't want to agree to anything so I said that we would see her tomorrow … maybe. But she was persistent. Very persistent. Too persistent. My temper was beginning to rise, so was Lisa's.
"Look," I said in exasperation. "We haven't decided what we are going to do and when we are going to do it. So please leave us alone. If we need a guide, we will see you."
Fortunately for her, she took the hint and got up, saying "I will see you tomorrow … or later." She walked down the street and harrassed another group of tourists.
"Thank God for that!" I said, just as another tout sat down with her guide book and photographs.
This time, Lisa took over. "We have already got a guide," she lied. "You're too late."
This worked and the second tout left us alone with a slightly disappointed look on her face. Eventually, we managed to finish our meal and drink and continued up "Foreigner Street". The shops were selling all sorts of trinkets at reasonable prices and seemed to be very busy. Owning a shop or restaurant in Yangshuo was clearly a lucrative business. As we reached the end of the street, we spotted a bar with an advert stating that it was showing "Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace" tonight at 7 o'clock. The film was not due for release worldwide for at least another six weeks and there appeared to be no additional cost for seeing it. I asked the manager, who was hanging around outside, if it was the genuine film, the one about to be released. He nodded and told me to come early to get a good seat. Our evening was planned!
Yangshuo is a small town and it didn't take us long to see everything it had to offer. After an hour of exploring the narrow streets, we decided to return to the hotel for a while.
A couple of hours later, we returned to the bar showing the new Star Wars film and settled down with a menu. Incredibly, the bar was almost empty and when 7o'clock arrived, there was no sign of the film coming on. By this stage, we had ordered our food and were beginning to get impatient. Another two or three people drifted into the bar and this prompted the manager to put the film on. This wasn't an easy task. The manager and one of his employees fiddled around with the television and the CD player, pulling out wires, pressing buttons and scratching their heads. An eternity seemed to pass before they finally got it right. Lisa and I settled down to eat our food, drink our beer and totally escape into a science fiction world.
It took about two seconds to discover that something was wrong. I watched Liam Neeson and Ewan MacGregor flash their light sabres at their enemies but I had absolutely no idea what they were saying. The picture quality was far less than perfect and the sound was so awful that initially I thought the actors were speaking in Klingon. I know what you're thinking and you're wrong. The film was not dubbed in Chinese. We were watching a very, very bad pirate CD put together from a video camera filming in a cinema. The picture was shaky and the sound completely distorted. I had had enough. I would rather have paid £10 see the film in the cinema than watch this totally dreadful reproduction.
I got up and asked the manager to change the film. Nobody else in the bar seemed interested, so he obliged. So much for Star Wars. The manager did return with a book full of other films and insisted that we select one. In no mood to watch a film, we opted for one we had both seen; Twister. This film, however, seemed to be perfect quality but after we had finished our meal, we left.
By now all of the tourists had come out. Westerners now outnumbered the local people from Yangshuo and the touts were out in force. Luckily for us, there were a lot of tourists ripe for the picking and we managed to avoid them as we searched for an establishment to rest and wash down the excellent meal with some fine Liquan beer.
The town looked even more surreal as daylight gave way to night time. The Green Lotus Peak was standing proudly over the town, still visible as a huge black shadow as darkness fell. "Foreigner Street" was thriving; people were drinking, dining and relaxing in the warm evening air, generating an atmosphere more suited to a Mediterranean holiday resort than a small town in Southern China. For a while, we strolled, lost in the ambience of the place, until we chanced upon a restaurant and bar called "Lisa's". Well we had to have a beer here - any excuse really. We sat down at a table outside, ordered a couple of large Liquans and watched the world go by, chatting about life, the universe and everything.
I checked the guide book to see if the bar was mentioned and, sure enough, there it was; the guide book claimed that this was the liveliest bar in Yangshuo and the proprietor, Lisa, was now famous enough, locally, to be "a tad cheeky". We didn't have to wait long to discover this for ourselves.
As the beer came and went, and conversation flowed, and speech became more slurred and our voices became louder, it didn't take long for Lisa, the owner of the bar, to notice us.
"Are you from England?" she asked, butting into our slightly inebriated ramblings.
"Yes. We're from Manchester," I slurred.
"Oh great!" she said with genuine enthusiasm, and then sat down beside us. I was a bit wary having spent most of the day trying to persuade touts that we really weren't interested in seeing Moon Hill just yet, and immediately went on the defensive, expecting her to try to sell us something. To my surprise and deep inner shame at having once again been wrong about somebody's intentions, she proceeded to tell us why she was truly interested in us.
"My name is Lisa, and I own this bar," she began, "and next year, I am coming to England to visit my sister in London.".
She told us about how excited she was about leaving China and how much trouble she had had trying to get a visa for Britain and permission to leave China. Every sentence was tinged with emotion as she described how she missed her sister and how she couldn't wait to see her again and explore another country. The broad smile, which had greeted us, never once left her face and her heavily accented English was almost perfect. She was relatively small, but well dressed and her long, black hair flowed down her back. It was difficult for me to say how old she was but I guessed a little younger than myself.
We told her our plans for tomorrow and she simply took over. To be honest, we had made no firm plans and were toying with the idea of exploring the countryside for a while before leaving. We were too drunk to resist as she began planning our day, from the morning until we left in the afternoon. Listening to her, as she dictated times and transport possibilities, was like riding a verbal rollercoaster. Her words entered through one ear, rattled around my alcohol-soaked brain, and departed through the other ear to fade in the cooling air. All I recall about our last hour at Lisa's was a discussion about how brilliant it was to be called Lisa (I could not relate to this part of the conversation) and how we would meet her when she arrived in England, whereupon Chinese Lisa and her sister would cook English Lisa and myself a traditional Chinese meal. The last thing I recall is handing over my telephone number and email address before settling the bill and shaking hands vigorously with a very excited and very happy woman. We left Lisa's and as we wobbled back to our hotel, my brain still rattling round in my skull from the handshake, I turned to my Lisa and asked "Just what did we agree to back there?".
Lisa looked blankly at me and told me. But by the time we had arrived back at the hotel, all memories of the answer (and most of the evening) disappeared into that place where memories of drunken antics, ill-chosen drunken words and cringingly embarrassing drunken deeds go to, deep in the subconscious mind until such time that your mind decides to release them.
We would find out what Lisa had planned for us tomorrow.