I started writing this post last week and it was shaping up to be a neatly-formed essay. Then the 7.8 earthquake hit New Zealand and for a few days after that, I couldn’t concentrate on much else. The stuff I’d started working on before that didn’t seem to make sense. So I looked through the notes I’d written in Yangshuo, mostly half-sentences scribbled on the train. It seemed better and realer to do it this way. This is how I really am when I travel, anyway: scattered and excited, in a daze trying to remember everything.
This is one of the most beautiful places I know.
I first came here when I was thirteen. I don’t remember much because it was a school trip and we were too preoccupied with stuff like whether we’d get to sit next to our crush on the bus. I do remember fresh mango juice and fierce sunburn on my arms after mountain biking in the sun.
Yangshuo feels different. West Street is no longer a sleepy little pedestrian street; at night you can barely move, squeezed in on all sides by tourists and vendors trying to sell you flying plastic toys and foot massages. West Street now has a wax museum (!) and a virtual reality arcade. The limestone mountains loom above the street like sleeping giants. Yangshuo hasn’t been “ruined” by tourism; it’s just changed, like everywhere else. In China, you can’t hold on to past versions of places you’ve visited or soon you’ll have nothing left.
As our bus rolls into the station, my first thought is: what a relief to be surrounded by hills again, to have something to look at other than skyscrapers, to look around and see green everywhere. The rich green of rice fields and riverbanks and bamboo trees hanging over the river.
We walk just twenty minutes away from the main street and come across a dirt road with no one else on it. Only a few grey birds skimming the river with their wings, just visible through the trees. Sunlight turns to soft gold around four o’clock. No sound except our footsteps.
Today I climbed a mountain and I didn’t die.
I’d read about this particular mountain, Laozhai Shan, and decided it wasn’t for me (“near-vertical climb” and “iron ladders in some places”) but I did it. Even though we passed a middle-aged Chinese couple who warned us “太危险，真的太危险” (it’s too dangerous, srsly). But the path was so quiet. There were graves dotted along the track with pink plastic flowers laid on top. It made me think of Kota Kinabalu, where my mum comes from, where colourful graves are set into the hillside. It could have been eerie but somehow wasn’t, only peaceful, with the soft sound of our breathing and cool wind coming through the trees.
We scrambled over uneven, unstable rocks on our hands and knees to reach the peak. At the peak itself: a red pagoda, wasps the size of dragonflies, butterflies with huge shiny blue wings. Stretching out below us, a sea of mountains beyond mountains. We stood on the rocks and didn’t speak for a while, just looked. Up there in the sky, we got our breath back.
Ever since I was little I’ve always wanted to see a blue butterfly and now I have.
At the foot of the mountain we bought a kilo of tiny mandarins from the ladies selling fruit by the road. For lunch we ate famous Guilin rice noodles 桂林米粉 with crispy pork and coriander while firecrackers exploded in the distance.
Later, another brightly coloured butterfly resting in the sun, this time small, the same size as a cabbage butterfly, with bright orange wings that have black and purple patterns on them. My friend points to the tattoo on my arm (a girl with moth wings) – “the markings are like yours,” she says.
In Shanghai in November there are crushed leaves on the streets. In Yangshuo there are crushed butterflies.
After a breakfast of mango juice and mini steamed buns (which the locals call xiaolongbao but are really just tiny baozi 包子) we bike along a dusty road that leads out of Yangshuo towards the rice fields. Women in pink hats sell mangoes and persimmons by the side of the road. Moon Hill, a mountain with a giant crescent-shaped hole carved through it, is just visible from the road. I am grateful that there are no earthquakes here.
Chaolong Village, late evening. The dust in the distance is beginning to settle. Yangshuo Cooking School is nestled in a corner of the village next to apricot trees, a veggie patch, and pink bougainvillea flowers climbing over the garden walls. Head chef Sophie teaches us how to cook steamed chicken with goji berries, pork and mint dumplings, and stir-fried eggplant with ginger and garlic. Sophie is the same age as me and is so excited that we can speak her language she conducts the class almost totally in Chinese.
I’d forgotten the joy of crushing fat cloves of garlic, the feel of smashing something to pieces in a single blow. Sophie convinces me to add an entire fresh chopped chilli to my wok. “You can take more than you think,” she laughs. She’s right.
It’s a relief to be back in a kitchen, focusing on nothing but chopping carrots and peeling garlic. The open-air cooking classroom smells like rice wine and ginger, just like my mum’s kitchen. I look up from my wok every few minutes and note how the light has changed. The mountains on the other side of the valley are slowly turning dark blue.
In the morning, one last trip to the café that sells mango ice cream, mango yoghurt, and mango shaved ice. I sit on the upstairs balcony eating a giant waffle with ice cream and fresh mango on top. I write postcards to people I haven’t spoken to in forever. I buy a giant honey pomelo for the 17-hour train home.
I first bought a pink-flesh honey pomelo a few weeks ago just because it looked pretty and I wanted to write a poem about it. Right now I’m living the kind of life where doing this makes total sense, for which I’m very grateful.
I’ve begun to notice that one way you can tell the seasons apart in Shanghai (other than the colours, the leaves, the rain) is according to the seasonal fruit:
late winter: tiny sweet mandarins
spring: seedless green grapes
late spring: papaya, nashi pears
midsummer: watermelons, watermelons, watermelons
late summer: pineapples, nectarines, black plums
autumn: bright red persimmons, green mandarins
late autumn: honey pomelo
Sitting in my top bunk on the overnight train, I make another list.
places in Shanghai where reality is altered
never-ending escalators with mirrors above them
the weird corridor between the movie theatre and the mall
campus at night, full of animal noises and soft colours
wide avenues surrounded by empty apartment blocks
Walmart at closing time
strange bedrooms just before dawn
empty subway trains full of fluorescent light
empty subway platforms just before the last train leaves
These places used to make me feel lonely but they don’t anymore. They’re all places of temporary existence (of waiting, coming and going) where you aren’t meant to stand still. In the city you’re supposed to keep moving all the time. But I let myself be still. Everything around me is disappearing and reappearing at the same time and I can’t keep up, and that’s fine, because I can write about it.
The peace and quiet (and fresh air) has been good for me, because it’s hard to breathe in the city sometimes. But I’m looking forward to going back home to my room, to season 6 of Gilmore Girls, to my bowl of 葱油拌面, to my city where it’s never dark and it’s never quiet.
Just after nightfall I look out the window and see a ring of fires burning in the middle of a field. The train speeds past but I can still smell smoke.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.