Pictures from this trip are a must see and are here.
Day 1: 27th October 2006
On the 28th of October 2006, I joined Francis on a trip to Yangshan in the Northern province of Guangdong. Vivian and Karen had also decided to join in the last minute. Requiring to be present at the Sheung Shui KCR station by 7PM, I had to literally run from my office in Central to try to make it on time! We had a bus to catch from Shenzhen to Qingyuan at 7.50PM! After having made Francis wait over 15 minutes for me at the Sheung Shui KCR station, we continued to Lo Wu and I found myself in the dreaded foreigners’ queue in Lo Wu border at 7.30PM. At that time, both of us were fairly certain that the chances of our making it on the 7.50PM bus to Qingyuan were fairly low! Keeping all that in mind, I still decided to run my way across the border. I was at the last of what seemed like an endless queue! Friday nights are always big nights for Hong Kong gwailos to cross into Shenzhen! I saw two of the ‘Mainland Chinese’ queues empty and I gestured to a standing policeman that the foreigners could actually queue up there since the foreigners’ queue was incredibly long. Call it a stroke of luck, but I succeeded! I soon found myself as the first person in the queue and I crossed the border into Shenzhen by 7.40PM, even two minutes before Francis showed up! We made a dash for the bus stop and managed to get on the 7.50PM bus to Qingyuan!
Qingyuan dinner and hotel:
Qingyuan is around 2 hours north of Guangzhou in the Guangdong province. We reached there at 11PM. After getting off the bus, we found a yum cha place still opened and so, we decided to grab dinner. I learned during this time that Karen had already made reservations at a nearby 4-star hotel at RMB 268 for a twin-shared room. The very idea of paying 268 bucks for 7 hours made Francis laugh! So, Francis and I decided to explore neighboring hotels leaving Karen and Vivian to enjoy a “comfortable” room at RMB 134 each.
Francis spotted what looked like a fleet of stairs leading to some attic. I was actually surprised to know that the stairs actually lead to the reception of a mediocre hotel! The charge for one night was indicated on a board at RMB 88 per night. Francis thought that a neighboring hotel that charged RMB 100 was better “value for money”! But, just as we began to walk off, the guy at the reception brought down the price to RMB 60 a night, well, that was a bargain! At 30 bucks each, that was indeed a great deal!
Day 2: 28th October 2006
After grabbing breakfast at a restaurant in Qingyuan, we headed towards the bus stop to catch a bus to Yangshan which is situated further north of Qingyuan. From Yangshan, we took yet another noisy bus to Shuihao. The scenery that rolled out from the windows was fascinating! We saw layers of mountains with serrated tops gracefully declining to form curve shaped valleys under an azure sky. Glitters shone from a river on the right – it was a fantastic experience.
On the 29th of October at around 1PM we reached Shuihao. Our baggage and Hong Kong clothes clearly made us look conspicuously different from the locals thus inviting plenty of sharp stares!
Francis and the tailor:
Like a Shuihao local, the first thing Francis did in Shuihao was to find a local tailor to get a custom bag stitched! It amazed the three of us that Francis could just belong to a place where he had just landed. But, knowing that Francis is one of those guys who travels around the world to unimaginable places and stays atop mountains in the freezing cold and goes without food or water for days, well, I guess this was a piece of cake!
Crossing an old and dilapidated bridge from the bus stop in Shuihao to the villages on the other side is indeed a scenic experience. Villages lie on one side of the bridge and a shanty town lies on the other. We saw two villages around 5 kilometers from each other. We had to make a choice of place to stay.
Choosing between Shangri-La (Dai Tong Tsuen) and Peninsular (another village) can always be hard. I thought Shangri-La which was situated deeper inside, had a better garden and so did Vivian and Karen. Francis also preferred Shangri-La and thus the decision was made in less than 10 seconds! After going through a shanty town, carefully ignoring each barking dog, we eventually reached a river we had to cross. A boatman with an antique boat gave us a stare from the other end of the river. We were waiting for him to start the engines when we realized that it was a “manually” operated boat! The boatman had a huge row with a pointy spear at the other end. He had to dig his row into the river bed and walk along the length of the boat to propel it forward! This was his job 365 days a year. The pay – RMB 10 from locals for the whole year and RMB 1 from all else for a roundtrip! Who wants his job?
After crossing the river, we walked along a trail surrounded by verdant grasslands and maize crops to reach our chosen village – our Shangri-La. We had to locate the reception at Dai Tong Tsuen (Shangri-La) and one old lady gave us a lead where we might have been able to locate a possible host. Fung Saan (Mr. Fung) was willing to open his doors to us for two nights and he was also willing to take us on a hike along several of the majestic hills located nearby. Francis’ haggling skills then came into effect. He started off at RMB 200 and eventually settled for RMB 300 (4 people, 2 nights). It amazed me how we had actually arrived at some remote place without knowing anybody and could just pick our village and our host for the trip! Things couldn’t be easier with a prior reservation in a 5-star hotel!
After putting our entire luggage aside, we got to inspect Shangri-La’s lavatory. I must say – it’s not the cleanest of lavatories that I’ve used so far! The toilet was largely unclean (won’t go into details) and there was a clay pot in the corner which seemed to hold some transparent liquid. Not being able to bare the smell, Vivian and Karen decided to use the second toilet that Shangri-La had upstairs. You ask me, the one downstairs was more spacious and there was certainly no risk of wrongly taking one backward step to an abyss of smelly leftovers. Well, after unpacking, we got onto our hiking gear and started exploring the place.
Our exploratory mission was indeed enchanting; we managed to traverse along villages braving the barking dogs and zigzagging our way through streets of freely roaming chickens and ducks. Lots of eyes were fixating on us and the word of 4 strangers from God-knows-where invading Shangri-La was indeed spreading like wildfire.
Obsession over sharp peak:
The peaks of the mountains surrounding this Shangri-La were as majestic as they were serrated. One particular precipice always caught our attention. Reminded of Hong Kong’s own 650m Sharp peak, we dubbed this precipice the Sharp peak of Shuihao. The shape of the peak was just daring enough to serve climbing it as a challenge, yet just scary enough to ward off the amateur hiker. We drooled over the thought of climbing Sharp peak.
Francis and food:
Francis, whose thirst for beer and love for fauna knows no limits, was excited upon seeing a grasshopper. The sight of chickens and ducks also let his imagination run wild – on a platter.
He wanted an edible version of these potential dinners on a platter. Such was the excitement on seeing this lone grasshopper that he chose to gobble it raw.
The trail eventually took us to an area surrounded by majestically tall bamboo trees where we just had to have our group photo! It was an amazing feeling just to be surrounded by trees breathing fresh air sans the noise and hustle and bustle of city life.
Day 3: 29th October 2006
I was awake by 6.30AM and after brushing my teeth and the smelly lavatory, I headed straight for the rooftop. It was quite a contrast – a pungent natural smell to the fragrant smell of pure air. What a feeling! The gentle and cool breeze soothes the senses so well that it seems like heaven.
Next morning during breakfast, we were discussing life in the countryside when Vivian pointed out her real reason for opting to use Shangri-La’s toilet upstairs. “The smell of urine is too strong downstairs”, she explained with disgust. I was wondering where this smell was coming from when Francis interjected with his observation of the use of “natural” fertilizers in the countryside. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fit! That clay pot I mentioned which was in the corner of the lavatory contained Mr. Fung’s prized possession – his urine. To come to think of it, I was going to use that to dilute the hot water for my shower!! Well, I am glad we had that conversation and I am overjoyed that I didn’t have an opportunity to use Mr. Fung’s cold water!
At around 11AM, we started a hike around the area with Fung Saan on the lead. The kids in the village were really fond of Karen and decided to follow us on the hike! We had to make a sudden maneuver at one point to lose them!
The trail was excellent. Several parts of the trail were flat and perfect for playing golf! Fung Saan told us that the locals had already informed him where he had been the previous day! In such a close-knit village, everybody knows everybody and news spreads like wildfire. We spotted some wildlife on the way, cows, goats, butterflies and red dragonflies.
One section of the trail was overgrown and it was a good challenge trying to force our way through the trail. Prickly thorns gave me a few scratches on my legs and hands.
After walking for around 4 hours, we reached a power station which supplied hydroelectric power to the village.
A wooden bridge on the way called for a group photo.
At around 5PM, we made a U-turn back to the village. Stimulated by beer, Francis and I decided to take our tricycles for a spin.
On the way back to Dai Tong Tsuen, we walked alongside the river and treated ourselves to even more captivating scenery.
We returned to the village at about 6PM and headed over to the town for dinner. Of course, on the way we had to cross the river again and the ambience being pitch dark, we had to coo like a pigeon to attract the boatman’s attention to get him to come to our side of the river. We also had to ask him to wait for us on the other side till 9.30PM when we said we would return. A couple of children were on the boat and generously gave us curious stares.
After a sumptuous dinner, we headed back to the village with two bottles of beer which we drank on the rooftop of Mr. Fung’s house. Life in the countryside may be slow, but it’s definitely more stress free!
Taking advantage of the economic condition
Francis decided to take advantage of the economic conditions prevailing in the village and got a haircut for RMB 4!! Seeking a bargain, he got a shave too and paid RMB 4 in total! In comparison, HK costs HKD 60 for a haircut and GZ costs RMB 25!
Day 4: 30th October 2006
I woke up again at 6AM and headed straight to the rooftop to breathe the fresh air. I would have paid over HKD 5000 for the experience of just breathing fresh air. Made me feel that money-making is certainly a challenge but one doesn’t need money to enjoy a blissful life!
Day 4 was rather interesting. Francis and I were still lusting over climbing Sharp peak but Vivian and Karen wanted to take it easy. They went exploring a cave and a nearby village while we went on one of the most amazing hikes I have ever been on.
Fung Saan wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of taking us to Sharp peak. We had to convince him to take us there and he hesitatingly agreed! We started walking on the other side of the village, across the river.
We passed through a small Tofu factory where the Tofu lady happily posed for the camera!
The beginning of the hike to Sharp peak was actually fairly easy. We started walking on a mud path that was gradually angling upwards.
The trail continued onto a level ground with just enough grass that you could play golf and lead to an area with very interesting rock formations. We took a group picture there.
Walking further, we reached the Tai Shuk Ping village where we saw a woman with a farmland outside her house.
This was the point where we had to find a trail that would lead to Sharp peak. Mr. Fung was given the honors! Armed with a machete that was dangerously hanging from his trousers, millimeters away from his butt, Mr. Fung, tried to clear the way for us to climb Sharp peak. I was third in line which made the path easier for me as the overgrown trees and shrubs had already been chopped off. We ascended further to the U-shaped saddle of Sharp peak and reaching that spot itself was an accomplishment!
By this time, the mosquitoes were biting every exposed inch of my leg and I was regretting not carrying my mosquito repellent with me. After around 20 minutes, I heard Mr. Fung protest that it was madness trying to prod on and we had to abandon the climb. Well, I have to say that I was actually a little happy to hear that because that meant no mosquitoes!
We didn’t want to return to the village so quickly so we decided to go on a hiking trail to a village called Ho Ping. The walk was a 2-booter and very pleasant. The day was, however, misty and thus the photos didn’t come out too well.
We continued the walk on this beautiful trail and came across marble stones and white bricks from a quarry.
This trail got MORE and MORE beautiful as we continued to walk along it. The grasslands, terraces and greenery were a feast to the senses of the body.
We soon hit Li Kung village where we saw a man farming in his land. Francis asked him if it was okay for us to have tea in his house! Well, coming from the city and believing in strangers not being nice, I was expecting a “sorry, no tea here” or a gentle rebuke but this man’s gesture clearly overwhelmed me. He invited us to his hut and offered us tea and hot water from his flask. The villagers are great hosts!
We passed by two more shanty villages which were largely uninhabited. One local told us that the majority of the inhabitants had moved to the city to earn money.
After passing by these villages, we arrived at Sha Ping village where a kind woman insisted that we yum cha in her house! Again, I was touched by the hospitality shown by the villagers. We politely declined the offer and explained to the woman that we had just had tea. She persisted that we at least sik fan at her place (have lunch!) Well! Does this ever happen in the city? We thanked her for her generosity and continued to walk along the trail. It was an amazing experience walking along the gardens and plantation, breathing pure air and enjoying the gift of nature.
A 2-hour walk took us to Hok Tong Tung village where a venerable woman came out after hearing our footsteps. By that time, we were a little thirsty and Francis did his tea routine again! He asked the lady if it would be okay for us to have tea in her house. This time it came as no surprise to me that the lady readily agreed!
She was excited that we were taking photos of her that she decided to share the fame with her grandson!
Here’s where I saw how silkworms were nurtured. Many empty rooms in her house had strange constructions across the room. Francis explained that these were for humans to walk across the room because during summer, the whole room would be full of silkworms. The worms would eat the leaves that were especially grown to feed them. During winter, the cocoons would be boiled in hot water to extract silk from them.
After drinking many cups of tea in her house and thanking her for her hospitality, we continued to walk the trail.
At about 5PM, we reached Ho Ping which was comparatively less clean than Hok Tung village.
Realizing that we had to make it all the way back to Hong Kong, we decided to take a motorcycle back to the village. After several failed attempts, we walked to Chiu Wan where we found a motorcycle guy who was eager to drive us back. Francis and I rode on the pillion while Mr. Fung had his own exclusive pillion ride on another motorcycle.
We arrived at the village at 5.30PM and took a quick shower. It was then time to return to Hong Kong and we took one last group photo in the village. The children were sad to see us go and one of them remarked ‘gam fai jau’ (leaving so fast?)
Crossing the river by boat for the last time on the vacation, all of us wanted to take turns at rowing the boat. We decided that we were going to apply for jobs at Star ferry!
Bidding goodbye to the tailor
Francis just loved the tailor and just had to get his heart stitched at the last minute. He made good friends with the tailor, exchanged addresses and left with a heavy heart.
Returning to Hong Kong
We took a tricycle back to Yeung Saan and waited 2 hours for a bus to GZ that never showed up!
Failing to see any bus, we hired a cab back to Qingyuan and shared it with a highly talkative lady. The lady was boasting about routes she knew and bargains she had had at Yangshan. It struck me that Francis and she would make a great couple. I conveyed my thoughts to Francis but he snubbed me explaining that she was like a “nonstop radio”. Well, I guess, Francis had lost his heart already to the tailor.
From Qingyuan, we took yet another cab to GZ and yet another cab to Shenzhen. We were at the border at around 1.30AM on Tuesday!
At 3AM, I reached home in Hong Kong and slept for three hours reminiscing the great hike, friendly people and fresh air at the village (I conveniently skipped the toilet part).
I would rate this vacation A++
A fantastic experience!