Monica and Mike take the boat
Because it's important we wake at seven-thirty, I arrange an alarm call with reception. I set the alarm on the room clock (a complex process), and reset my mobile alarm. Overkill, you might think. The unfamiliar clock alarm fails: it's probably going now; the alarm call does not materialise: maybe someone else gets an unwelcome wakeup. The only mechanism that works is my trusty mobile. I would be a hero in Monica's eyes were it not for the fact that from 5.00 am onwards it bleats about running out of battery. This has a detrimental effect on her sleep pattern. Plus ca change....
The good news is we're on time for our guide, Jeff. We are his only two customers for the day and we have a minibus to ourselves on the way to the wharf – a forty minute journey. Jeff belongs to one of the many ethnic minorities that call Guilin home. The name of his group, translated into Mandarin, means 'strong'. But you can see I'm not strong, he says. People say I am cute. He is cute. He's about thirty-five and has a wife and four-year-old son. Monica elicits this information. He asks us about our family. When we tell him we have four children he says, you must be very happy.
Jeff is proud of his city, and loves his job. He tells us about the people who have come to Guilin like Nixon and Bush Snr., and what they said. “Bill Clinton left words when he visited Guilin. Do you know what they were?” We don't. The answer is “Guilin is like a beautiful girl in broken clothes”. Unusually inarticulate for Bill, this was apparently a reference to the dilapidated state of the town.. After Bill left, the city authorities put a lot of effort into cleaning up the rivers and lakes around Guilin and installed the fancy lighting that makes it so attractive at night.
We share a table with Katie and Ian and their son Mike and his wife Penny. At first glance they seem to be helpless tourists, like us. Appearances are deceptive. All live in Shanghai and this is merely a weekend trip for them. Mike speaks fluent Mandarin with no trace of a Scottish accent. He is an academic, as is his wife and father. He discusses university options with two Chinese men keen to secure the best for their daughters. As in most of Asia, in China, getting things done is often a matter of who you know.
Before the boat leaves, Jeff advises us on what to expect. The first hour, not so interesting, the second two hours, very beautiful, the last hour, we can eat lunch. In the event, it is all beautiful. It is a misty kind of day and the mist hanging in the valleys between the mountains makes the scenes even more picturesque. Jeff tells us to look out for Horse Mountain, and try to find as many horses as we can. He tells us that Chou En-lai, when he was Chinese leader, took a trip on the river Li. He 'saw' nine horses represented on the face of the mountain. An accompanying General could see only seven. When it comes to my turn, unprompted, I can find only two. This makes me unfit, in Jeff's eyes, to lead China.
We stop in Yangshuo for an hour to buy souvenirs. The ethnic goods we like are way out of our price range. We are assailed by street vendors selling cheap goods. We adopt the time-honoured practice of buying stuff we don't need. Monica buys another hat. Even when you buy an item, a straw hat, say, someone will ask what you paid for it and offer you another at half the price. I buy a miniature silhouette of myself, cut in paper with scissors by a man who follows me, studying my profile. He captures the baseball cap and glasses, but Monica has doubts about the chin and mouth. She says it looks more like George Clooney. That's good enough for me. I buy it.
No tour is complete without a trip to a pearl warehouse (government owned), or a visit to a government art gallery. In the first we are instructed in the South China Sea pearl industry, on the differences between fresh-water and salt-water pearls, and how to tell real from fake. “No fake here,” we are reassured. Then we are unleashed upon the display cabinets – we and an Australian girl who knows her pearls. Monica succumbs to temptation.
Next, it's on to the National Gallery where there is already a seated audience of American teenagers waiting for the lecture. A serious young man tells us all we need to know about Chinese painting in just ten minutes. He covers brushes, brush strokes, paints, technique, history and so on. His talk is animated by a young painter who, Rolf-Harris-style, dashes off a piece of work showing some bamboo canes. I buy a painting, and get the bamboo picture as part of the deal. It's a moment of madness. Will either survive our travels?
We take the taxi to the station, not knowing what to expect. Guilin Station is modern and civilised. There are escalators to take us up to the waiting room. Yes, there is the inevitable crowd waiting for the train but nothing on the scale of previous experiences in China. Getting onto the platform involves merely descending a few steps. Our train is quite modern – Monica gives the toilets the thumbs up. We find we are sharing with two men, neither of whom speaks. They occupy the top bunks, and try to get some sleep while I snore. My head cold is worse. I'm the last person anyone would want to share a carriage with.