• Sarah Royal

Guilin & Yangshou, China… and India thus far

Greetings, faithful readers. Last I left you was in Guilin, China, after taking a 12-hour bullet train ride down there. I stayed at a super friendly and awesome hostel, and immediately signed up to get into a van in the morning to ride to the Longji rice terraces for a “tour”. The “tour” really meant that the driver would drive through weird dirt/mud roads and then drop you off at the entrance to these rice terraces, and then meet you back in four hours to drive you home. I ended up walking through pouring rain, and then misting rain, and then blazing sun (and then repeat) with a Spainiard, an Egyptian, two Germans, a Russian, and an Irishman, and we had an illegal amount of fun exploring the terraces and watching the clouds roll out to show them and the Chinese mountains in their full glory.

We all decided to head out and explore Guilin over drinks later that night, of course, so after eating not-Chinese food, I wasted time at the computer a little bit looking up phrases in Hindi for my upcoming India trip, and laughed about it with the front desk lady (who had an awesome combined Chinese & Australian accent when she spoke English. On a page of “useful phrases”, such as “where is the bathroom?” and “how much does this cost?”, our favorite was “there is a large insect in my room.” Our new Russian friend spoke (and read) very good Mandarin, which was useful for navigating the bus system. I tried a powerful Chinese liquor, similar to sake, and then switched back to beers as we wandering through outdoor cafes, dance clubs, and a restaurant where a guy was singing songs in Chinese and playing guitar. I asked him if he knew any English songs, and after a prolonged conference ended up with me singing “Hey Jude” and leading ten tables of Chinese people (and my faithful travelers) in endless “na na na NA-NA NA NA na-na na na hey jude” rounds. Somewhere on the internet there’s a video of the spectacle floating about, probably. The following day, my new friends convinced me that instead of spending an additional day in Guilin – which was a quite small city – that I should join them on a bamboo raft tour down to Yangshuo, on the basis that “People come to Guilin JUST so they can go to Yangshuo.” All right, people who know more about China than me. Sounds great. Our ‘bamboo’ rafts were actually giant PVC pipe rafts with motors attached, but damn, it was worth it. The view of the mountains was ridiculous, and we had an incredible two hour ride through them. The view we saw is actually the scene depicted on the 20-Yuan Chinese bill, in case you were wondering. I figured that in all of gigantic China, if where I am is literally on the money, I’m doing something right. In Yangshuo, we visited a 1400-year-old 'dragon bridge’ (where I remarked that to me, the American, it seemed really old… though it didn’t impress the Egyptian or the Spaniard all that much), took a float on an actual bamboo raft (where our raft driver refused to accept the tip from me and the Spaniard, the two ladies – it looked like he was trying to point to the Egyptian guy, who was on another raft, to tip him, but we decided to just let that one be), and fed a water buffalo (where, yes, I participated in activities involving animals). Oh, and we also went to KFC for lunch, given that that was really my only filling and safe option, and the Egyptian and Spainiard joined me, saying, “Just between you and me, it’s really nice to get a break from the Chinese food once in a while and have the comfort of some Western grub.” However I can help you out, folks. It reminded me of Seinfeld, of course. I bid my new friends farewell and headed to the airport, to spend a few hours on a layover in Guangzhou, China, and then I boarded my flight to NEW DELHI, INDIA.  India has always been the centerpiece of this trip – I think I’ve seriously attempted to go at least twice before without it working out. But now, I was on the flight, and, seated very comfortably in an exit row, I struck up conversation with the Indian businessman next to me, talking about China, Canada, the U.S., and, of course, India. He seemed pretty excited that I was on my way to experience his country for the first time, and told me some great spots to check out in Mumbai and Pune. When the plane landed at around 11:00 p.m., after we’d all been sleeping, he turned to me with the hugest grin on his face and said, “Welcome to India."  I keep having great luck with immigration officers, because this one – again, stone-faced at first – folds my passport over and says, ”'Royal’ is your surname?“ I said, "Yeah, and I didn’t even change that – that’s real.” He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips in a Robert DeNiro kind of way, and nodded his head in delight and approval.  A driver from my hotel (and yes, hotel, as India doesn’t have too much in the way of hostels as hotels are so damn cheap) picked me up from the airport, name on the card and everything, and drove me through the insane and amazing streets of Delhi at night, where dudes were riding on the tops of colorfully-painted trucks and tuk-tuk auto-rickshaws were weaving in and out of the lanes – which no one really paid attention to, anyway. Since coming from China, though, I actually found the Indian traffic to be slightly more tame. In Delhi, it seemed like you actually could see the few seconds of hesitation on the part of one or both of the drivers just before you think there’s gonna be a crash. In China, I never could see that, no matter how hard I tried to decipher the traffic. My hotel, recommended by a friend from India, was like night and day compared to the surrounding neighborhood. I was staying pretty much right in the middle of Old Delhi, the pre-British area, which felt like I was back in 1800 or something. Hand-pulled carts, crumbling rocks and dirt and garbage everywhere, cows and horses and donkeys (and their shit) scattered about in the street, people preparing food on the ground, washing laundry on rocks… everything. I even saw a kid on a bicycle with a block of ice mounted on it, for christsakes. Amazing stuff, and I fucking loved it all. In direct contrast, my hotel (and much of actual New Delhi) was pristine and white and had Apple products in the lobby. I’ve never felt like more of an imperialist in my life. Walking around was exhausting, actually – if not for the people trying to sell you something everywhere, then for the innumerable stares I got for being blonde and white and a woman. I escaped into the Delhi Metro, which was super slick and modern, and would have felt like any other major city save for the 'Women Only’ cars at the front of each train. It was a major relief, of course, to just be anonymous in a city once again – and it also was kind of nuts that such cars existed in the first place. I explored some of the quieter, New Delhi British areas, where compounds that now belonged to Vice Presidents were teeming with monkeys just playing around on the trees, gates, and street. I wandered up to India Gate, sort of India’s version of the Arc de Triomphe, and immediately was approached by another blonde white American girl, asking me to take her photo. I made a joke asking her if she’s sure she didn’t want a photo with me, and we chatted for two minutes before she invited me to come with her and her private driver for the day (she was here on business) on to do some sightseeing. It sounded great to me, and even better when the driver had some ice cold water in the car. We saw a couple spots around town before ending up at a restaurant, where I, of course, ate some plain naan. I asked them if they had beer, since it wasn’t on the menu, and the waiter gave a sort of nervous smile. “Uh, we do have beer, ma'am, though we are not allowed to sell it, but we do it anyway. Can you give me ten minutes?” Ten minutes later, he came back with two glasses filled with cold Kingfisher beer, covered with napkins so as not to show the contents. Amazing. It was delicious, and really brought out the very complicated and intricate flavors and spices of the plain naan. Blonde gal’s driver dropped me off at a park, where I had aimed to find people playing cricket and immediately succeeded. I managed to get back to the hotel just before sundown (another success), and planned my Golden Triangle tour with a travel guy at the hotel to head to Agra and Jaipur over the next three days. I finally got my iMessages to work once again (say hello, folks!), and, once I announced to my family that I had made it to India, received a text from my brother that said, “If I had to go to India, I wouldn’t go to the bathroom the entire trip.” The next morning, I woke up stupid early to get to the meeting spot for a Delhi by Cycle tour, as I actually could not believe I hadn’t yet done a bike tour on this trip (have I been gone for weeks at this point? months? years? I have no clue). Six of us wove through the insane Delhi streets, starting early “before it gets too crazy,” and it was the best possible way to see – as they say – 'incredible India.’ No one caught as much as an elbow shove, somehow, as we dodged cows and tuk-tuks and other bicycles and pedestrians and chai stands and spice carts and dogs and cats and and and and and everything. There is SO much going on, I could just find a rooftop and stare at it for days on end. 

After wandering around New Delhi some more after the ride, and after telling many stories of my husband “who’s just around the corner waiting to meet me, here on business,” (His name is George, by the way, and he’s in the tech industry. We really wanted him to get a job where he got to travel a lot, so that me and the kids could join him. Oh yes, did I tell you I have kids, too? Well, see you later!) I rode in a tuk-tuk back to the hotel, and got to bed early to prep for getting up early again the next day to head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. But first I watched a Bollywood movie, of course. My driver was a really nice guy, and had been a tourist driver around these parts of India since I was one year old. I watched the crazy scenes of the morning commute from my car window, and then the plains and farms from the new super-highway as we cruised to Agra at 6 a.m. After stopping for some chai, we ended up at the entrance to the road to the Taj Mahal (complete with many cows and the same insane street scenes from Delhi right in front). Unbeknownst to me, I ended up with a guide, who hopped into the car with us and we cruised onwards. I was pretty surprised that there weren’t many people lined up outside, and even inside the compound it was relatively tranquil. It was quite the sight when I rounded a corner and peered through the original brown-stone entrance gate, which displayed the bright white Taj Mahal through it. It really is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen – that is not up for debate. It’s insanely intricately carved (22 years time was spent on it), and even though I thought that all of the colorful detailing around it was painted onto the marble, it’s actually precious gems like rubies and sapphires cut and placed into the marble perfectly, so that the surface is smooth. You think I would have remembered that from the sixth grade project I did where I made a model of the Taj Mahal out of Model Magic™ and did a report on it, but my memory was fuzzy on that one. Anyways, another tourist site that was 1000% worth it. That’s my vote.

Heading further west, we eventually arrived in Jaipur after listening to Hindu prayer songs and origin story narrations on endless loop in the car. My driver brought me down the block to check out some textiles made by friends of his, and where I walked in expecting a tour guide to show me around, I found four Chileans and two Indian guys sitting around drinking 22 oz. beers. So, of course, we pulled up some chairs and joined them. Turned out that their driver was also a friend or relative of the textile folks, and everyone was just swapping India stories and travels and history and so forth. We stayed there well into the night, me firmly securing a place to stay in Santiago when I eventually make it there, and our hosts ended up ordering some sort of Indian takeout, which one of the guys was adamant about me trying despite me trying to inform him of my allergies. I eventually lied and told him I had already had some, and boy, was it delicious. Good thing he was drunk. The next day, my driver took me around about half the day and half the day I walked around on my own. I saw the Amber Fort and the Pink Palace and all sorts of other Jaipur sights. After getting caught in an elephant traffic jam (yes, an elephant traffic jam), I said something about how that was cool, and suddenly we ended up at a nearby NGO called Elephant Village, where very nice but very intense employees tried to get me to purchase all sorts of “elephant fun packages” for “once in a lifetime experiences.” One of the ones that they were really pushing was 'elephant painting’ – paint an elephant! Yes, I understand that back in the day, elephants were painted for special occasions with pretty detailing and such, but literally the photo in the brochure showed a bunch of white girls painting, “HI MOM FROM INDIA” and “YOLO” on the side of an elephant. Lordy, humans are stupid. If they forced me to do that, I was planned on writing, “THIS IS SO WEIRD” and sending it as a postcard to you all. But I managed to escape with only a 5-minute elephant ride ('are you sure you don’t want 30 minutes or an hour, ma'am? it is really once in a lifetime’), which was very cool but plenty of time for me and my backside. Back at the homestead, the Chileans and our drivers and textile buddies and myself all wandered back to the textile spot, but went upstairs into the showroom this time. The Chilean guys ordered some custom-made shirts, and I think the textile dudes felt better that the sales part was over, and that they could just drink beer and hang out. One of the guys was cooking some sort of special chicken for us, and after confirming three times with him, I discovered I was actually able to eat it, and it was some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. We all got rowdy and had an amazing time, sitting on the floor of a textile showroom, eating Indian food and spilling beer on their silk handmade carpets, enjoying the dimming light from outside when the power kept going out. That’s a memory that I’ll not soon forget.

The next day started casual and slow, with some more solo exploring through a market (my favorite hawker come-on was, “HELLO MISS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SPEND SOME MONEY TODAY?”), and after that we headed back to Delhi. My driver and I, at lunch, were talking about India’s roads, and he said, “You really have to be ready for anything to run across at any time,” and as soon as we got back in the car, in the next 30 seconds a cow ran across the road, and then a dog, and then a camel. We were laughing so damn hard. “Incredible India,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. Heading back into Delhi, and after my driver stopped on the side of the road to feed some monkeys some bananas, we waited in double traffic – once for rush hour, and once because the Chinese President was visiting the Prime Minister. My driver, at this point knowing my allergies very well, invited me back to his house to eat dinner with him and his family. We climbed to his fourth-floor apartment, which was New York City in size, and I sat and ate a ridiculously delicious meal of EVERYTHING at the table with him, his wife, his son, their neighbor, and their neighbor’s daughter. And there was a cricket match on TV. It was too great. Everyone was so ridiculously nice, so interested in what I was doing in both life and in traveling, and by the end of the night the two 17-year-olds were vowing that I would be invited to their respective weddings in 10 years, and that I should get them all plane tickets and visas to mine so that they can come and cook for me and my future husband.

Ah, yes. Phew. That brings us to this morning, where I woke up early yet again to do a different route of the bicycle tour (they have five different routes), I liked it that much. We watched street scenes from more rooftops, climbed through holes in the walls in alleyways with our bikes when we couldn’t ride, visited a small temple, drank chai, and again dodged every single possible object or living thing that could possibly be on one roadway at once – successfully. Following that, I took another walk, showered up, bought some gifts, and wrote you this intense update – and in a few hours, I’ll be heading on a night train towards Shimla in the mountains, which should be like another world, though it’s still in India.  Until then, folks – send me more texts and comments, and know that I endlessly appreciate them.

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