Jun 27th 2008
A booming country’s quiet corner
CHINA may be rushing toward superpower status, but not all of it is in a hurry. Life in the country’s south-west glides along rather sedately. The road into Guilin, a smallish city of 650,000 people in Guangxi province, was strangely quiet as I looked out at the countryside through rain-streaked taxi windows. The driver could see nothing: her windscreen wiper scraped to a halt. She pulled to a stop in the middle of the highway to fix it, and as she returned it to life, nothing passed in either direction.
The sense of a slower life continues when we reach the town. The heavy industry that propels China’s economy is largely absent from Guilin, which relies instead on tea, tourism and traditional medicines. It has proved a lucrative mix, and people can afford to amble along the streets with time to spare.
Watch for the birdie
Even the name of the town suggests a more gentle pace: Guilin means “forest of osmanthus trees”-and osmanthus wait until fall to blossom, rather than bursting into flower in spring. But modernisation has not bypassed the town entirely. It may be more than 2,000 years old and boast 600-year-old Ming-era buildings, but little of the town looks like it has passed its twentieth birthday. One local proudly points out an expensive new apartment block just being finished near the town centre.
But along the Li river, which runs through the centre of town, fishermen ply their trade in the same odd manner they always have. They battle the current in bamboo boats-flat platforms of up to a dozen thick bamboo trunks lashed together.
Instead of rods, they fish with trained cormorants, which dive into the water for fish and return to deliver them to the fisherman on the boat. Strings tied around their necks mean they can only swallow the smallest-anything larger and more saleable get no further than their throats. A cormorant can catch 15kg of fish a day, but only after three to five years of training.
Similarly venerable is the local tea ceremony, which can last several hours. Bundles of leaves are dropped into small clay pots, which are filled with hot water. The outside of the pots are also doused in the water, which drains down into the slats of a wooden tray. The tea is ready when the outside of the pot is dry.
The choice of tea is mind-boggling to my coffee-soaked palate. Each stage of a leaf’s growth can provide a different style of drink, with only the toughest, oldest leaves being relegated to the humble teabag. Long before that, leaves can be pressed together into bricks from which you can chip off a lump to produce a striking orange brew, or bundled into small balls and mixed with the flowers of the town’s ubiquitous osmanthus trees, which give a sweet, perfumed taste. The liquid served later that day at a local restaurant is thin and underwhelming.
I am told to consume the small cups offered for tasting in three sips. Apparently, only water buffalo down a drink in one go, and dogs take two sips.
The limestone mountains surrounding the town have been eroded away into strangely shaped fingers of rock, which locals have taken to identifying with some imagination. Their perspective eludes me. Camel Hill looks to my eye like a fist, closed except for a thumb pointing to the sky, while Elephant Trunk Hill looks like a simple arch. My concerns are soothed when I spot a hill which really does look like an elephant, but dashed again when I find out it is actually meant to resemble a tortoise.