An American holiday in China
When I’m traveling, I rarely know what day it is. And as for an actual date, well, that’s just crazy.
Ironically, one of my favorite vacations also includes my favorite Valentine’s Day. Ironic, because I truly dislike the holiday. I love conversation hearts; I even enjoy pampering people I care about. What I don’t like is the stifling commercialism of it and forced romanticism. Alas, I digress, back to the good stuff.
During one of my Chinese Winter Breaks – which can last from two to three months depending on the lunar calendar – I toured around southern China with four amazing friends. The five of us – four girls and a guy – started our adventure in Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Our taxi driver informed us that Guilin was famous because if it flies above the ground, walks or crawls on the ground, digs under the ground or swims in the water, it is eaten here. That seemed like a terribly long city slogan, and not really a selling point.
Turns out he was right. Anything you could think of to eat it was here. Usually in a cage or tank outside the restaurants, just waiting for you to take your pick. This type of ordering – as you may imagine – was difficult for our animal-loving crowd.
We found a place without cages that was famous for eel. Since I’d eaten rattlesnake, I felt confident I could get this creature down. It was smothered in so many spices, I still can’t tell you what eel tastes like.
Taking advantage of the amazing night temperatures we meandered the city, which took on a different personality when the sun went down. Two towering pagodas on the city’s lake shined like beacons and reflected off the water.
Walking all day on uneven Chinese streets puts a body out of whack. Thankfully, there are inexpensive massage parlors (not those kind) about every 50 feet. While my friends opt for the full-body, I go with just the feet and legs, and it’s heavenly. The young lady brought in an oaken tub full of hot water and let me pick the fragrances to add. Within moments, I was so relaxed and my feet were happy. More than an hour later, we all emerged from our various rooms, rested, relaxed and ready to face tomorrow.
Thanks to a friend’s amazing Mandarin skills and quick smile, we secured passage up the Li River to the scenic town of Yangshuo on a bamboo raft for less than $5 each. Our captain’s name was Mike, who seemed overdressed for the trip. There was a major farmer’s market at the docks that day, and he informed us how lucky we were to take part in it. We grabbed snacks for the trip and made our way to the raft.
The Li River snakes through rolling mountains covered in various shades of green. The overgrowth and light foggy haze gives parts of the trip a primeval feel. Fishermen used cormorants instead of lines and poles. The sleek black birds would dive down and snag a fish, but they were unable to swallow because of a ring around their necks. They’d spit up the fish in the boat. (I was glad we hadn’t ordered fish for dinner.)
After a lazy river trip and a butt-numbing bouncy taxi ride, we arrived at Yangshuo. The city is tucked at the bottom of green-covered monoliths. Despite its dense population, the city feels more like a small town. It has a mix of East and West as previous foreign visitors decided to settle there. There are numerous coffee and tea shops with English books. I could stay here forever.
While we are there, Feb. 14 showed up on the calendar. Of the five us, two were dating – I was not either of the two. So while those two went off for a traditional Valentine’s Day, we three girls were on our own.
Thankfully for me, if anyone duo had a chance of making this day a fun one, it was Kat and Heather. Aside from location and historical significance, the day was like any other with my friends. We spent it laughing, sharing and enjoy each other’s company. Nothing forced – well, there was the pedicure, but truth be told, I kind of enjoyed it. We shared a great meal and talked about life and laughed a lot.
It was a day full of conversations from the heart. A day spent with people I love.
It was the best Valentine’s Day ever.