Despite the increasingly energetic efforts of Jonathan, my travel companion, to imitate cockroaches and butterflies, we are dramatically failing to communicate our desire to visit Shanghai’s Natural Wild Insect Kingdom. Neither of the women in the Tourist Information office speak English and both look increasingly distressed.
On the assumption that “sex” would be more readily understood, I ask for directions to the sex museum, which I’d heard was located in the same vicinity. One of the women frowns at us and places her hands on her hips. She turns to her colleague and proceeds to flail her arms around erratically, before clawing at the air with her hands and hissing quizzically, “Sex?” We exit the complex and crane our necks despairingly at the layers of architecture stretching across the skyline above us in an endless expanse of shimmering mirrors. The shocking contrast between the high-tech sophistication of our present surroundings and yesterday’s Huang Shan mountain range had tricked us into believing that we’d be more readily understood here.
It is our first day in Shanghai. Although we’d flown into the city from London seven days earlier, we had been met straight off the plane and speedily ushered into a bedroom within the airport complex where all clues of the futuristic metropolis were hidden.
Three hours sleep and a short flight later we were among the mellowing mists of the sub-tropical and sparsely populated Guangxi province. We sped through busy traffic and charred relics of abandoned crashes and round street corners where old ladies swapped tethered toads and terrapins for crumpled banknotes. I watched fish jump out of motorbike luggage boxes directly into street vendors’ ice-trays and neither of us blinked at the supernatural ease with which our driver dodged head-on collisions.
In the midst of all this madness sits China’s latest five-star Shangri-La hotel, an enormous and opulent marble complex on the banks of the Li River at Guilin [pictured overleaf]. Dazed but bathed in luxury, I fell asleep to mountain-framed cormorant fishermen floating across my windowsill.
The sun rising over mile upon mile of small and perfectly formed karst hills filled me with enthusiasm. A card on my breakfast table explained the box of complimentary luo han guo would ease my stools and phlegm enabling me to live a longer and more fulfilling life. Good to know. We take a cruise down the Li, gulping snake wine defiantly as our guide, Ruby, seeks to persuade us the snake in the bottle is unlikely to be real and the stunning, endless mountain peaks are the heads of English cats. Several hundred dauntingly shaped heads later the boat comes to a standstill at an apparently random, tree-lined rock.
In fact, we had arrived at Yangshou where the streets are lined with funky cafes and shops selling everything from personalised dough sculptures to barbecued duck-dispensing vending machines. Ruby marches us past them (“not real silk here”) and asks us to choose a bicycle from a pile of rusting metal inside a ramshackle courtyard. Terrified, we clamber onto them and race her through the town’s traffic and out into the paddy fields where smiling peasants lounge in the emerging sun.
“They’re actors,” Jonathan whispers to me. “The Chinese don’t do leisure.”
But half an hour later, we come to the mouth of the Yulong River. Hundreds of Chinese couples armed with cameras float past us on bamboo rafts. What surprises most is not the number of tourists emerging from the tributaries, but that they are all Chinese. Before we know what hit us we’re among them, heading dangerously quickly towards a weir, as a smiling stranger (a local farmer moonlighting as boatman) with a wooden pole laughs down at our scared white faces. The throngs in front of us scream in excitement before disappearing from view below us with a thud.
This is the landscape all Chinese aspire to visit. Depicted on the 20 yuan bill, there is even a popular song about their universal yearning: “I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the time I have no money. I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the money I have no time.” Now, it seems, several million Chinese have both. Despite its popularity, the landscape is so immense that a peaceful silence pervades the hillsides. The threat of weirs behind us, we float in harmony with nature, the occasional makeshift off-license or photo booth our only distraction from the bamboo-lined crystal clear waters.
Eventually, it transpires we are in fact on our way to the theatre; to a light spectacular by Zhang Yimou, of Beijing Olympics fame. The river is the stage, the moonlit mountains the backdrop, and an apparently inexhaustible population of hillside dwellers its dancing lights.
Gorgeous though Guilin is, as the Chinese say, “Once you have seen Huang Shan, no other mountain will do.” The clouds and pine-studded cliff tops morph in dream sequences all around you – dragons, successions of wise men, monkeys, all shrouding the never-ending staircases built 1,500 years ago – in disorientating mists through which yellow emperors ride carriages of smoke. I’m so visibly moved by the view from the summit our Confucian guide makes a point of telling the story of the poet Li Bai who allegedly died when he attempted, in a drunken stupor, to embrace the reflection of the moon in a pond.
Exhausted by the steps and mentally paralysed by the beauty of the peaks surrounding us, we stare vacantly at our dinner that night. A huge white butterfly – about the size of a large man’s hand flies into the restaurant. It flutters above the table in front of us. The Chinese dinner guests flap excitedly in response. Even the waitress gasps at the sight of it. A symbol of the soul in China, the waitress carefully lifts it from its resting place on a man’s elbow and folds it within a napkin before taking it away and releasing it into the moonlight outside.
“Did you see that butterfly, Jonathan?”
“If it was a butterfly, the whole thing was staged. Or it’s a moth. Butterflies don’t fly at night.”
But in China, I can confirm (once we manage to locate Shanghai’s Wild Insect Kingdom), they do.
An 11-day/nine-night private tour of China, with three nights at the Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai, two nights at the Shangri-La Guilin, two nights at the Shangri-La Hangzhou, a night on Huang Shan Mountain and a night in Tunxi is from £3,195 per person. Price includes all flights from Heathrow with British Airways, internal flights, transfers, excursions with private guide and rooms with breakfast. Contact: 0207 873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk