Heaven on Earth, painful footwear and the first time that I have ever said no to pie

Hidden away in the south of China, in a province called Guangxi, lies a small town just outside of the bustling city of Guilin. Known as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the province, Yangshuo keeps its footfall going all year round with its endless options for fun.

I was first told about Yangshuo in 2008, by my (then) mother-in-law. According to her, Guilin and Yangshuo is known to the locals as “Heaven on Earth”. I saw pictures of the towering mountains and greenery to die for when I googled it, but my eyes were not prepared for the beauty that I witnessed when I arrived there. For years, since being told about it, I begged my boyfriend to take me. Every time that I flew to China, I always wanted to go, but sadly didn’t make it.

In the summer of 2013, the opportunity to travel there came up. It was a public holiday, me and my friends all had 5 days off work and my boyfriend was back in England, acting like a porn-star, humping everything with a face for 2 months. We booked our coach tickets and prepared ourselves for the 6 hour road trip that was coming our way.

Packed with the essentials (beer, cigarettes and underwear), me and 4 of my friends pushed our way into the bus station. If you have never seen a Chinese bus station, or a Chinese station of any kind, allow me to paint you a mental image of what it’s like: imagine that you are an ant and living in an ants nest. The ants nest is too small for the millions of ants that live in it. It is so packed full of people that you literally have to ether walk through like a robot, arms by your side, or you throw yourself into the army of ants that are in your way. Imagined that? A busy ant’s nest? Good! Now imagine that you’ve thrown 3 more ants nests inside of your ants nest, add a lot of humidity and you have your station.

After finally getting onto our coach, the journey had begun! I was so excited. I was finally doing something I had wanted to for years! The journey was a bumpy one. As you got further out of the big city, the road became rougher and more uneven. It felt like I was riding on a bouncy castle! I knew as soon as we were getting closer to our destination. Looking out of the window, whilst my friends had fallen asleep (amateurs), I was, much to my delight, presented with the view of the most big and beautiful green mountains that I had ever seen in my entire life. It was like something out of a dream!

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The dream was short lived when, out of the blue, the coach stopped, opened its doors and the coach driver’s assistant shouted at us in chinese to get off. No announcement to say that we had arrived, no bus station. Just a coach and a little woman shouting at us to get off, at the side of the street.

The smell in the air was fresh, unlike the smell of pollution and congestion that I was used to in my city. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know where we were. It was fun to be lost. We walked around the streets with our backpacks on (well, the 3 girls had their backpacks on….me as the token gay was using a fabulous Topman holdall).

We needed somewhere to stay, which we hadn’t sorted out prior to leaving the big city. We walked around the small mountain town, which was in it’s busiest tourist season, looking for somewhere to stay. There was no room at the inn, literally. After an hour or so of walking around lots of different hotels, we came across the smallest, darkest and dampest alley-way that was screaming ‘Horror Movie’. At the end of it was a hostel that had rooms spare. The 5 of us booked in and put out stuff inside the room, which didn’t lock, as the handle was broken. It was very simple; 3 massive bunkbeds and an air conditioning unit. Perfect.

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The morning after, we set about seeing some sights. We each rented a bicycle and began our journey around the mountains of Yangshuo. The journey, I was told, would take 2 hours. It took 6 hours of cycling in cheap sandals, whilst carrying my massive holdall which was full of bottles of water, because apparently, I don’t dress practically. It was only at the need of the trip, when I realised that I had been riding a ladies bicycle all day, thus leading to my genitals feeling like they were going to fall off.

Upon cycling around the mountains, we found ourselves suddenly at the Li River, which flows at a staggering 83km from Yangshuo to the busy city of Guilin.  The river and its surroundings look like something out of a movie. It almost didn’t feel real. We were going to sail a boat down it, but due to the amount of rain that the province had been receiving at that point, the river was too high to sail on.

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At some point in the day, we were still cycling, until it felt like our feet had  fallen off, when suddenly I found myself stopping the bike and letting the rest of the group carry on. I was surrounded by the most intense green that I had ever seen and there was a noise that was so loud. A noise that I had never heard before. It penetrated my ears and went straight into my brain. This was my first time to hear the sound of silence. In that moment, when the breeze was cool and the sky was crystal clear, surrounded by completely un-touched nature, the life that I was living suddenly became clear for the very first time. I knew that something had to give and that a change was in the air. I knew what it had to be, and whilst in such a peaceful frame of mind, I knew that I would be ok after all.

That night, we donned our best ‘travel-going-out-at-night-to-look-pretty’ clothes and headed to the hottest spot in town: The Rooftop Bar. We call it the rooftop bar as we’ve always been too drunk there to remember its proper name. We sipped on cheap gin, which then turned into jaeger-bombs, which then turned into jaeger-nukes, which eventually, resulted in tequila. Earlier that evening, we had met a gay guy in the town, who was out with his friends. We named him ‘pie’.

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We named him this because pie was something that I craved from back home and I couldn’t get it in china. It seemed like a fitting name at the time as what I really wanted was a guy to pay me attention and enjoy my company, which he did, but I knew that I couldn’t indulge as I had a boyfriend already. Later on that evening, as the tequila was going down a treat, I got a text from ‘Pie’ asking me to join him and his friends at the Reggae bar down the street, which I did. I got to the bar and sat with his friends, who were from Singapore. We discussed traveling and the differences between our countries whilst sipping margaritas. I was there for an hour before I thought it time to leave, as Pie was making his move and I really wasn’t interested.

Walking back to the rooftop bar, after leaving Pie, I felt as free as a bird. “This must be what it feels like to be happy and single”, I thought. I dismissed that thought and regrouped with the gang, who were at this point, flirting with other guys on the roof, all in the name of tequila! We crawled home (after an obligatory 4am KFC) and clambered into bed.

The next morning, we went shopping! Shopping in china is one of the most amazing experiences that you can have. They haggle a lot out there at the local markets, which to me, being able to speak the language, was the only sport that I have ever been good at. Silk scarves, key rings, ornaments and Chinese calligraphy paintings were amongst some of the things I bought that day at the market, before heading back for something to eat.

As an expat, living in a city like I did in China, where western food is almost unheard of, being able to purchase things like milk, hummus and cheese were enough to make my heart skip a beat. I savoured every last bite of the food that I consumed there and did not want to stop eating, at all. I could have quite happily stayed for a year, doing nothing but eating cheese!

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The whole weekend was so, so cheap to do. Hostels are ‘two-a-penny’ and the food and shopping is also cheap as chips. Getting back on the coach from hell to return home, I really wanted to stay and not bother going back. As the coach pulled out of the station, I looked out of the window and watched the mountains get smaller and smaller as I drove further away. It felt like I had an umbilical cord attatched from myself to Yangshuo, which eventually took me back again, and will take me back next year, too.

Yangshou showed me what it really feels like to truly be at peace. In those 10 short minutes, in the middle of nowhere, I felt calmer than I ever have before. When you travel to a place like that, things like concrete buildings, iPhones and Prada seem somewhat unimportant. Those aren’t the necessities of life. It’s only when you experience that purifying silence that you see life for what it really is: Not a choice, but an opportunity.

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Click here for the next instalment.

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