There can be few places on earth more soul destroying than the tragic city of Guangzhou. Like a set piece from the relentless chuckle-thon, The Road, it boasts a grey sky, grey buildings, grey water, cockroaches and toddlers in dirty clothes gnawing on chicken's feet.
Mercifully, our time there is spent exclusively in the train station while waiting to transfer for our train to Guilin. We travel through the night, on the bottom of three story bunk beds. Getting them ready is flat out fun – like making a den or putting up a tent. But that's where the fun ends: people scuttle up and down the corridor, seats slam, mobiles ring, the chain bucks and chunters... China by hard sleeper.
We arrive in Guilin, bleary eyed and a little achy, but thankfully have two largely unremarkable days pass in another luxury hotel. The highlight is sneaking two 30p mega Pot Noodles through the lobby, half hoping to be spotted. Disappointingly, Guilin is far more industrial than advertised, although some of the locals are at least quite friendly.
Still, we're both happy to leave for Ping'an, a mountain village three hours drive away. We check into a new-looking guest house and get a new, pine room overlooking the valley for the princely sum of £6. This region is famous for two things – a minority ethic group who's women never, ever get a haircut (and who now subsequently demand money from gullible tourists for a photo) and the rice terraces.
There's something strangely beautiful about these things. Terraforming agriculture – they look like they should be the work of insects. Insects like this colourful chap:
Finding colour, though, is a difficult task, given the weather. We have arrived in China in summer, but also during the potentially deadly rainy season and every day that we spend here in Guangxi Province, it rains. Sometimes only for a few minutes, but more often for hours on end. At night the thunder sounds like someone throwing a fridge down a flight of stairs. It's dreich, to say the least and that's a particular disappointment when it comes to the incredible topography in and around the town of Yangshuo.
We check into new, trendy hostel for four days and spend the majority of it getting soaked as we explore the bizarre karst landscape. With all the rain it's too slippery to even attempt scaling one of these awkward looking jellies and as such, they remain somehow unreal. Even when standing under one – more often than not, one swathed in wisps of cloud – it never feels like I could actually reach out and touch it.
Instead we make do with very real, brutally tactile, cycling. We hire two bikes from the hostel and disappear for hours in the deluge, getting lost, destroying our arse cheeks, racing a couple on a tandem and becoming wetter than we thought possible. I don't know when I forgot that I love cycling, but racing around Yangshuo County takes me right back to tearing around the scheme, playing chicken with buses as a juice carton roars in my spokes.
“We will eat anything with legs, except a table”
In another, altogether unhappier lifetime in Dubai, Wee Mo and I were once asked to write a plethora of food reviews on Chinese food in the city. We visited 21 of those suckers in a couple of months – many of my views on which were disappointingly, though unsurprisingly neutered – and the only real conclusion I could reach at the end was that I'm not really a fan of Chinese fare. Naturally, though, the food on offer in Actual China is a good deal different what was served up in Bastard City.
Two and half weeks into our Chinese trip and we've already seen a loads of food that by Western standards, can only be regarded as a bit weird. In five star hotels, we've come across duck tongue soup, marinated frog and pork knuckle broth. In shops, they've got vacuum packed fish heads and half-kilo packs of ground ants, while out in the street they seem determined to sell only the boniest, grizzliest selections of mystery meat. It's little wonder KFC is getting more and more popular here.
Generally, though, the Chinese love to have their flesh as fresh as possible. This is best evidenced in restaurants that keep teeming vats of fish and prawns and crabs and frogs and eels. Elsewhere, chickens are sold whole and still warm, while one traveller told us of a friend having to wait for a pork dish while a pig was butchered out back.
Walking into a market in Yangshuo, past a guy selling bags of live frogs, past the woman selling pigs trotters and tails (disappointingly straight, at that) we stumbled across another fabled Chinese speciality. Neatly dressed, hung and slightly steaming there were two dogs. Grim, to say the least, and all I needed to see to know with certainty that I've got no interest in trying it. It wasn't so much the dead pooches that disturbed us, though – it was the three live ones in the cage behind, surely aware of the fate that awaited them too. We left, both feeling a little nauseous, but assured of what great people we truly were, lovers of all things, man and beast alike.