(Photo: 5 years ago on the Yulong River, Yangshuo, China)
My blog, on this occasion, is digressing a small bit from my usual updates on where I am on my travels as “Irish Granny on the Run”. Today, I am so excited to be afforded an opportunity of entering a competition where I am hoping to win a Safari Trip to Tanzania.
The competition asks that I write about the best holiday that I have ever been on. Well, there’s no prizes for guessing where that is folks! .. China!
The reason I’m entering is firstly, the obvious one, that it is beyond my wildest dreams to even ponder on the idea of visiting such a beautiful part of our planet, to see nature at its rawest and to witness so many wild animals in their natural habitat on a safari trip to Tanzania. On my journey around the world right now, I am loving every bit of learning and knowledge I am gaining by visiting different countries around the world and learning about the many diverse and colourful cultures and traditions in meeting so many beautiful people as I travel. I am also really enjoying sharing this with you all in my blog! I remember I used to follow news articles and social media stories about world travel at a time in my life, as a lone parent, when it was impossible for me to even consider holidaying in Ireland, let alone the world, and how I yearned to be able to travel to all the different countries I read about. Reading those articles brought many destinations alive for me, and I would get lost in daydreaming about the places I would visit “some day”. These articles most certainly contributed to and inspired me to do what I am doing today in my fifties as a Grandmother, i.e. taking time out of my career and life at home to travel the world for two years. If I won this trip to the safari, I could, through my writing and pictures on my blog and on social media, bring this safari experience in Tanzania alive for you all to consider as a place to visit. And for those who, like me a few years ago, may not be in a position right now to do such a trip, well you might just put it on your bucket list to do in the future, as I did with many places I read about over the years.
And so, to the competition itself, and the story of my favorite holiday destination. Well, for me, it has got to be one of the most magical places on earth and it’s most definitely China, and in particular Yangshuo in Southern China!
Now the first question is, how on earth did I find this magical place? Out of all of the places to visit in the world for a holiday, how did Yangshuo, China enter the equation for a holiday destination for me in the first place?
Let me give you a bit of background! You see, five years ago, in the run up to my birthday, my only daughter Alison (who was living in Beijing at the time), was sitting in her apartment, wracking her brains trying to think about the ideal gift to give me for my birthday that year. Receiving birthday gifts is wonderful as we all know. But of all the gifts we receive, there is always that “one” that we love most. From someone who knew and loved us so much that they just nailed it and gifted us just what was needed. A gift that you may not have even realized that you needed so badly. Well, Alison’s birthday present to me that year was just that and, little did I know, it would change the path of my life forever! My present was a trip to Yangshuo in China, for just the two of us! We hadn’t seen each other for a long long time as she was living and working in Beijing, and so this was just the right time for me to pack my bags and join her on a “Mammy and Daughter adventure”
I arrived in Beijing from Ireland on a balmy August morning, after an 11 hour flight, to be greeted by Alison, with two bicycles in tow! Our first adventure, she told me, was a cycle around Beijing, (to make sure that I didn’t sleep until the evening time and therefore avoid the serious jet lag that I could already feel creeping up on me) and of course to feed the mosquitos with some new foreign blood. They feasted on me from the time I arrived, until I realized that wearing strawberry flavor lipgloss probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had 😱. Mosquitoes are inclined to have a sweet tooth. My lips paid the price. Free Botox basically 💋. That cycle lasted 9 full hours! I kid you not!
(Photo: Alison and me cycling around Beijing on my first day in China, before the Mosquitos got me) 😂
This is the only way to see Beijing by the way! With the culture shock hitting me and the absolute uniqueness of this city, the jet-lag faded as we cycled around visiting spectacular sites. We took in the most colourful Buddhist Temples, the Forbidden City, the little Chinese “hutong” side streets with the essence of Chinese culture around every corner. I was hooked! I wanted to know every little piece of history about every place we visited! I was like a child in a candy shop! The excitement was indescribable as we went from place to place. Some of its Temples go back to the 1300s, with fabulous tales of Emperors and their Empresses and concubines no less! The media coverage in the western world is not often very complimentary to China and there are many reasons why, however there is an abundance of beauty and wonder about the place that just must be seen to be believed. In a nutshell, you experience what can only be described as “a whole new world” and very different to any other country in the world in terms of its customs and practice. It’s spectacular to experience and nothing like you might imagine it might be, before you arrive.
Having spent a couple of wonderful days in Beijing, she informed me that she was taking me next to another part of China called “Yangshuo”. I knew nothing of this place, but happily went along with her plan and boarded a flight to Guilin to visit, what I discovered, was a wonderful hidden Utopia nestled between lush green karst mountains, some 70 kms from Guilin City in Southern China and the nearest to paradise I had ever been.
Our home for the week was a traditional Chinese hostel, in the midst of the karst mountains! Alison had our activities planned for our stay, and on day one, after a hearty breakfast at “the Giggling Tree” we took a bamboo raft along the Yulong River with our very own Chinese rower steering the boat with one huge bamboo stick, and his tanned face smiling under his large Coolie hat. He would plunge the stick into the riverbed and push the bamboo raft down the river and over the weirs, listening to our excited screams as we approached each weir waiting for the raft to drop down yet another level into the water below. Large colourful umbrellas attached to the rafts, sheltering the passengers from the sun as they floated along, with the lush green karst mountains reflecting on the glassy water, created the most picturesque views of this beautiful corner of the world.
Exploring this part of China is like opening a beautiful Pandora’s Box of nature. It is a backpackers’ paradise on earth! It is so spectacularly beautiful that it appears on the back of the 20 rmb Chinese banknote. Yangshuo town is bordered by the Li River and Yulong River and surrounded by lush, soaring karst mountains. It is in these mountains that the locals bring their deceased loved ones to bury after the most colourful ceremony that goes on for twenty-four hours after their passing right up to the moment of burial. Family members go out into the mountains during this time to carefully chose the “perfect” burial place nestled in the mountains. The “wake” can be heard for miles around, with Chinese musicians commissioned by the family to play Chinese dirges and requiems on wind instruments. Fireworks can be seen and heard going off right through the night in honor of the deceased. The bereaved families dress in white to resemble the white clothes worn by the corpse, and carry the coffin of their loved one covered in flowers, respectfully and in silence through the town to their place of rest. They scatter yellow square pieces of paper and red rose petals along the route as they go. Having witnessed such a funeral during our time in Yangshuo, I can only describe it as almost tribal, and such a celebration of the deceased’s life. It is extremely moving to witness, even for a stranger in its path.
The scenery in the area is breathtaking for miles and miles around! For me, it is most definitely the “Shangri La” of Southern China. In 1998 President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Guilin and Yangshuo. President Clinton said after his visit that “nowhere is like Guilin, it has the best scenery under the heavens, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful”. Throughout Yangshuo you will find small farms and rice fields scattered everywhere. But you won’t find any farm machinery! Everything is done by hand, the ancient way, and elderly women and men in their bamboo hats can be seen crouching in the fields tilling the land by hand, and carrying the fruits of their labor in two large baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balanced across their shoulders. The main mode of transport is bicycle and getting lost down dirt tracks, along riverbanks, is all part of the huge adventure when cycling around. It almost feels like you’re a child again, setting out on a scavenger hunt each day, not knowing what you will find along the way. At the end of every road is yet another soaring mountain, and around every corner you will find jaw-dropping scenery and colors of nature that is every photographer’s dream. But even photographs of this wondrous place do not do it justice. I often had to blink twice to be sure that my eyes weren’t tricking me into seeing such beauty around me.
(Photo: Yulong River, Yangshuo, China)
Day two of our stay, and the best was yet to come. Alison had mentioned she was taking me to see “The Fisherman’s Light Show”, a nightly event that takes place in Yangshuo on the Li River. With tickets prebooked and a taxi ready to collect us to bring us the short distance to this magnificent venue in the centre of Yangshuo, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of seeing this performance. Now trying to explain the enormity of this event is difficult. Suffice to say that the guy who choreographed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympic Games is responsible for the production of this magnificent musical performance which takes place once darkness falls, outdoors, on the river, with the mountains lit up as the backdrop/stage. The orchestra begins and suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of Chinese fishermen make their way out onto the river, with lanterns lit, on their bamboo rafts. They line up along the river and perform a synchronized movement with fishing nets illuminated with red light to the Chinese music echoing from every corner of the venue. It is spectacular to watch. We were absolutely stunned! On and on it went, with lines of performers (600 in total) with illuminated costumes performing various synchronized dances on the river. A large half moon then sailed out, representing an old Chinese romantic legend of a beautiful woman dancing naked on the moon, with her Chinese lover transfixed with her beauty looking on from the ground below. We were informed by the local people that the performance once had a real naked Chinese woman dancing on the yellow lit moon, however, following objections over the years to her performing on a live show naked, she now sports a full neutral color body stocking to appease those complainers. I can’t help wondering what the gender breakdown of the complainants were? Ha ha. The show takes place twice every night, and from then to now people who know me back home have heard me raving about this show for the past 5 years, and I kid you not, if you ever travel to these parts, make sure not to miss it! The Fisherman’s Light Show…you heard it here, you’ve been warned! 🤪
(Photo: Sunset over the Yulong River)
A huge plus to being a female tourist in China is that crime is practically non-existent. The fear of punishment is much too great and so we had the luxury of absolute freedom to explore and venture around both Beijing, Yangshuo and later Shanghai with the comfort and security of knowing we were totally safe. The Chinese people themselves are kind and caring in the extreme. They are excited to meet with “foreigners” and couldn’t do enough to welcome us to their country. It is not unusual to be accosted by an excited Chinese person as you walk along the street, pleading to allow them take a photo with you. We could all take a leaf from their book!
After another few days of exploring this beautiful part of the world, with girly nights of face masks, wine and meeting the most fascinating people, we travelled on to Shanghai where we visited the famous “Bund”. While it was a spectacular part of China too, part of me remained in Yangshuo! I fell in love with the place to the point that I vowed that some day I would come back to visit again, and stay a little longer.
Five years later, those day-dreams that I used to have of travelling the world have at last come true! Having been in the lucky position of being able to take a sabbatical from my work in Ireland, and with my new husband of two years, (and becoming a first-time grandmother to Alison and her husband’s two year old son Harry), I decided I wanted to travel the world and return to the beautiful town of Yangshuo in China. It was a bit like the scene with Gene Kelly at the end of the movie “Brigadoon”! I had to return to see if it was still there and still as beautiful as it had been five years ago. In the summer of 2018, two teaching jobs came up in the Omeida Language School in Yangshuo. My husband and I applied and were successful. We began working at the school from July through to September and spent the most memorable and fantastic summer teaching English to Chinese children. Part of our job description..”taking students out to explore the beauty of Yangshuo”! Living proof that “dreams do come true”..if you want them badly enough. A holiday that changed my life’s path for the better, made me want to explore this beautiful part of the world further. Since coming back to China, I have climbed the Great Wall of China, I have visited the Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu to learn about the near extinction of these beautiful animals and the efforts that are being made to reverse this. I’ve met Tibetan monks at the worlds largest Buddha statue, carved into a mountain in Leshen (Western China) over 1200 years ago which took the Buddhist Monks over 90 years to complete. I am still here in Asia, in Vietnam. Learning more, making more memories and living my life now as a Grandmother to the absolute maximum, documenting every moment of it on my blog “Irish Granny on the Run”.
Now you don’t get any better holiday experience than that! A holiday that changed the path of my life forever!
As the famous poet William Blake wrote in his poem “Auguries of Innocence”
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour”
I am fortunate enough and soo happy to say that this is exactly what I am doing now. Taking in a trip to Tanzania on my travels, and learning, writing and sharing it with my readers would be another dream come true!
(Photo: Back in Yangshuo after 5 years, teaching English with my husband Colm)