Sometimes it’s the random experiences that one remembers the most. Even if you see beautiful scenery all day, even the unforgettable karst hills of the Guilin region, it may be some small interaction that you remember years later. Once I was staying alone in Yangshuo, and found myself spending too much time in the cafes and along the tourist streets there. I took a walk to the public park and happened to meet a man there who said he was a painter. I love Chinese painting, and soon enough we were fast friends, though he spoke limited English and I even worse Chinese. Rather than trying to sell me his paintings, he offered to teach me, and asked for no payment. We rode out to the rice fields where there was a nice view of the karst hills. There, we spread our rice paper over some boards and got down to work. Soon, I had stopped my feeble attempts to paint a single tree and settled down to watch him. It was amazing to see how he worked, so quickly and with so much confidence, capturing the scene before us with impressionistic skill. When he was nearly finished he took a sip of water and sprayed it from his mouth all over the painting, making it as misty and vivid as the magnificent hills.
The startling green hills rose up all around us, the sun came out from the clouds, a swarm of tiny ants crawled into my package of cookies and spoiled our snack. A farmer and his water buffalo were plowing his nearby field. I heard a horn in the distance and asked him what it was. He said it was for a funeral. It was terribly hot that day. But it’s possible that I’ve never been happier. A few tourists rode by on a distant road and waved to me, and I thought how lucky I was to be doing something besides looking from afar, which at times seems to be all that you do as a tourist. For this reason, I suggest finding something similar to do, whether it’s taking a course in Chinese cooking or volunteering your services as an English instructor.
I was given this painting as a present, which he later rolled up and inserted into a dried length of bamboo, perfect for storing in my luggage. We met up a few times after that, but too soon I had to go back to Beijing. I was surprised by how friendly the people of Yangshuo were, and while some wanted to sell me a bottle of water or a bicycle tour or a souvenir, there were others who were just plain friendly people, and if I had been overly suspicious I wouldn’t have been open to meeting them. The most important thing is to make the effort to learn some Chinese before you go. This opens the door to meeting the real people and not just those in the tourist industry, and will make all the difference for your trip.