It curved and clawed away from me as I stared down its spine, the spine of the dragon. Taut, terraced and terrifyingly green, air hooked into my lungs, tearing up from the bases to excoriate my throat. But I would not, I could not, let this path defeat me.
After all, I’d done it before.
We first met ten or so years ago. And since then, I’d changed.
Before, I brimmed with youth and unfiltered excitement. I stood, near quivering with the thrill of just being here. At the realisation that I could taste, touch, see and feel places that first came to life for me through the pages of a book or the whispers of a story.
I’d faced the confusion, drawn symbols on my palm, shared unmarked scrunched leaves with strangers in hot jars (the leaves, not the strangers) as we slept in the space that shuddered with the quake of the earth.
Parents brought their children to me, shy but wanting English. Just scraps, a few words, a sentence or two only. When that was the only option – and one of the few ways out (successful students could travel abroad to complete their studies.)
But that was then, and this was now, and I had changed.
What I hadn’t expected, though, was that I wasn’t the only one. China had changed too.
This particular dragon’s backbone rises out of the spiky yet swampy plains of Guilin. Long famed by poets (and Hollywood too,) a lilting journey along the Li River ranks as one of the Unesco highlights of the world. Karst peak after karst peak, it’s like watching the sugar loaf of Rio sprout up again and again amidst a cloud of grey-green shadows.
The last time, the terraces buckled under the green. The sun blazed with such ferocity that green was all I could taste, hear or smell.
Now, it was April and a cool grey shroud fluttered between the karst.
That was the first difference.
Last time, the spine stood empty and alone. This time, I strode to simply find the space to breathe.
China Has Changed
Time in China seems to follow the B.O. calendar system: the Beijing Olympics.
Slums were cleared, signs translated and officials even tried to tackle the smog burden problem.
The result is a cleaner, easier, more manageable place to visit. This is good news, really, for almost all who want to come here.
Last time, people queued to take my picture in Tiananmen Square, fascinated by my white skin and blonde hair. My soul flushed with pride as I deciphered scripted maps with not a Roman letter in sight.
Instead of being sold to, we were invited out for dinner
More importantly, instead of being sold to, we were invited out for dinner. The people we met simply couldn’t get enough of us, of contact with the outside world, and they didn’t let the lack of language get in the way.
I slurped intestines from black-brown slop in a red plastic bowl. I sipped murky hot water as a sign of friendship. I saw terracotta warriors during peace, clocked pandas without the crowds and, yes, floated along the Li River bathed in beauty and tiredness as karst peaks drifted past like sails.
This time, I was met at the airport by a guide who spoke English.
This time, maps, menus and signs had an English version too – unless I made a perverse effort to find an alternative. Hawkers lined the streets and Colonel Sanders grinned like a maniac over the crowds that swarmed the pagodas.
And I fought for breath on the dragon’s backbone.
I reached the top, flamed with frustration, both at myself and at the world.
Above the dreamlike mist, I let myself cool down.
I was, as ever, overcome by my immense good fortune on a global scale of having visited this place once never mind twice.
And it remained, without question, achingly, utterly beautiful.
On the way down, we stopped for lunch. I was handed a plastic English menu and chose something “sweet and sour,” which I hadn’t seen here before. The waitress spoke to my guide, not me, and when his food arrived, he went to sit elsewhere. As I glanced around the restaurant, the segregation became clear: guides didn’t eat with foreigners.
I’d had enough. I told him everything.
The segregation became clear: guides didn’t eat with foreigners.
I asked him to sit down and to tell me about his life. I told him about mine. And in particular, my last visit. About the changes. The ridiculous divide that was currently in place and how advances in language had removed communication. That a relentless sales machine had replaced what had once, to me, felt genuine.
He paused and sat down. “China’s one of the most capitalist countries in the world.”
And so he spoke, in detail, about a range of things. The one child policy (he was not an only child.) The state of healthcare and a modern education. The inability to protest. The tax breaks and other benefits given to those of “ethnic race.” The importance of red and gold, and the fascination with prophetic names. The slang for different ethnic groups (the western whites are “ghosts.”) A little on Chairman Mao. A lot on Santa Claus.
And so our trip continued, along the river, in the caves. My journey through contemporary Chinese culture with this teacher who realised his 20-year mortgage could be done with in two if he switched to guiding ghosts.
That night, with Google monitored and Facebook briefly unblocked, I untied my bootlaces and let myself fall far into a deep sleep.
But in my dreams, the dragon returned. I stared down its spine but it hissed at me, a forked tongue cleaving my sleep into two.
“Are you sure it’s you who’s changed,” it asked, “with your armour of ambling tourists and your guide as sword and shield?”
“Is it you who are no longer struggling, not quite so nervous, not so held in thrall by me?”
And in the darkness, it prevailed.
“Or is it I who am no longer enthralled by you?”
My travels in China continued…
On this second occasion, I visited China as part of the #dragonroute with Cathay Pacific UK and the excellent China Odyssey Tours. As ever, I remained free to write about whatever I like. As usual. As always.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com