Friday, 13 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 11. Kweilin: Fever From The Li Jiang And The Aussie Builders Deflect The Mind Away From The Tourist Trap

Operation Ichi-Go was the Japanese offensive against the Chinese Guomindang which ran between  April and December 1944. Its aim was to smash the Chinese Nationalists, open a land route all the way across to French Indochina (Vietnam) and close down all the airfields which were being used by the American Air Force, from where B-52's could easily bomb the Japanese mainland. Kweilin was one of these airfields. The speed and decisive Japanese vicories of the invasion meant that there had to be a fast retreat and ultimately a complete evacuation of Kweilin.

'Look at the map,' Brigadier General "Casey" Vincent is supposed to have said. 'It's the worst strategic defeat ever suffered by an American air force.'

Peering out of the Trident's window at the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, it was hard to comprehend that there had been such a time of violence.

'It always rains in Kweilin,'announced our new guide. As he led us out of the main airport glass doors towards our bus, the heavens opened and we were drenched before we had climbed the steps. The rebellion had gathered pace against our teacher/leader Toad. He had delayed the tour, got up late and wanted to do as little as possible on this trip, making it a relaxed holiday for himself. The guide turned to Toad on the bus and said:

'Tomorrow wakeat 7. Breakfast 7.30. Leave 8.15.'

Toad frowned and started complaining.

'Lazy bugger,' one of the two accompanying lady teachers said rather too loudly, but it had the effect and Toad accepted the schedule.

The group was beginning to separate into groups. There were the Good Time Boys, the Irresponsibles, the Deadly Seriouses, the Moansandgroans, the I-Wannagohomes and the KeepquietIwannabeleftalones. You can guess which two groups I attached myself to. I learnt that it was good to sit on the same table as the Moansand groans at mealtimes because they complained non-stop about the food and ate very little, meaning that I could satisfy my ample if greedy hulk by hoovering up every plate.

Everywhere we went I just adored the food. Everywhere we went it was different. It made a mockery of the restaurants back home, which announced that they served Pekinese, Cantonese and Szechuan food. I have been faddy and particular about Chinese food in England ever since.

Our first night in Kweilin ended up in the usual mandatory visit to the cinema to see a propaganda film about a local hero and Chinese fairytale type of legend. This time it was done by a local opera company and was bizarrely amusing for all the wrong reasons. The ones who stayed awake laughed. even our lady guide couldn't understand what was going on.

It rained again as we came out of the cinema, but the good news was that the typhoon had changed course and was heading for Shanghai and not Guangxi Province. We could get a good night's sleep.

The next day was a boat trip down the River Li Jiang. There were some Thais working by the boat, who when they saw me fell about laughing and said to me:

'You are one big joke.' I gave them the benefit of the doubt that it might have been flattery rather than insult. Who knows? At least they said it with a smile.

Having seen the 100th person climbing up the needle like vegetation covered rocks to collect firewood and been round the 100th bend in the river, the trip began to become boring. The wind whistled around the boat and it started to feel cold. A visit to the tourist trap of Yangshuo did not improve the mood. We saw all of twenty other tourists but it was full of traders selling cheap tat. You knew what it would be like when China opened its doors properly to tourists and I imagined the bus loads taking pictures of the view which is seen in every brochure about China.

Even lunch was disappointing. It was the Chinese equivalent of Irish Stew. Perhaps they had made a bold attempt at copying it to make the English tourists feel at home. A visit to a cave where all the stalactites and stalagmites were lit by different coloured lights and where we were asked to ooh and ah if we recognised the shapes of elephants, horses, mice and Chairman Mao, seemed to put the group in a worse frame of mind.

Arriving back at the hotel and feeling ill was not a surprise. I thought I was going to self-combust during the night and as I was no better in the morning, the guide took me to hospital. The Chinese authorities were frightened of any tourist falling ill and whipped them off to see the doc at the first opportunity. I love Chinese doctors and the whole concept of their preventative medecine. You go to a doctor in China when you are well, not when you are ill. They are pragmatic and don't say much.

There was no wait. I was ushered into a clean examination room. The windows were wide open and a variety of insects were flying around the bright lights. The doctor felt my pulse, looked at my eyes and tongue and said to me via the guide:

'Fever from boat. Take these. Better soon.'

He handed me some horrible looking brown ground up herbal root, some pills and some tea. They tasted vile, but true to his word, I was much better by lunch. Well enough to visit another cave with 1200 year old writing. Recent political graffiti had been written over the ancient writing which was supposed to contain the history of China. This was followed by a visit to see a depressed Panda at the zoo, who mournfully and seemingly reluctantly came out of his hole to collect some bamboo leaves.
The Miraculous Cure From The Kweilin Doctor

We never stopped. A trip to the factory where they made people out of flour and water, a climb to a viewpoint up a hill and the jade factory where we saw a 12" x12" carving of four galloping horses and had taken the artist eleven months so far. Most things were for export, for the American. Even in 1979, the prices were vast.

My Preferred Cure - Mao Tai (Rice Wine)
Just before leaving Kweilin, the Irresponsibles and the Good Time Boys went off to the local bar which was crammed full of Australian builders, who had just finished their day's work building the large hotels which were going to house the tourists in the future.

'Isn't it boring here?' asked one of the group.

'No, mate. We make the most of it,' replied the burliest of them. 'And besides, we're paid a fortune, the beer's cheap and there are plenty of sheilas.'

Soap From The Train. (Note The Communist Uplifting Pictures)
The night sleeper for Changsha was already standing on Platform 1 of Kweilin Station. I hadn't been on a sleeper since going to Aberdeen on The Aberdonian. Chinese railways were extremely comfortable and harked back to the golden age of British railways. we were even woken with a cup of tea and Chinese bun.

It was an understatement to say that we getting tired of Toad and his ways. The feelings were mutual and he seemed to be fed up with us, possibly wondering if it had been a mistake to take this motley crew. He snapped, shouted and waved his arms around wildly for a while and confined us to our sleeping compartments, forbidding us even to stretch our legs in the corridor.

It didn't matter. The Australians had shown us where to stock up on beer, food and cigarettes. We were well prepared for the long night ahead.

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