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The Red Rock Gorge in Yulin

My parents had already braved one hard-sleeper trip from YiChang to Xi'An, and said they were game for another to Yulin.

We paid 40 RMB per ticket to have our hostel book the tickets for us, making sure that it was bottom and middle bunks and not the dreaded, 10-foot-high top bunks.

Trains, once aboard, are generally a nicer way to travel. Train tracks in China seem to be built along prettier routes than their corresponding highways, and train windows are nice and wide. Also, bathrooms and dining cars and easier communication with other passengers make the trip more interesting.

It was for this last reason that the trip to Yulin from Xi'An stood out. Using Dan's and my hard-earned defensive train-riding tactics, we had reached our train car quickly and secured our territory in the bottom and middle bunks. (Once, when we had not done this, a 98-year-old woman and her grandson had stolen our berths and we had a very uncomfortable time trying to straighten it out.)

We started out drinking some rum that we had brought from Zunyi and cola from the station. We were enjoying that when the two men who had the top bunks came by. We scooted over on the bottom bunk so that they could sit down and offered them a drink. Of course, being polite, they refused a couple of times, but on the third time one of them accepted.

At first, he denied knowing English, but as we kept pressing rum (and then, he begged for beer) on him his English got better and better. He was from Yulin, it turned out, had studied tourism at university but now ran a home appliances mall. He had been in Xi'an with the other man, one of his "team", on business.

Li Bo, his name was, drank and talked with us and soon decided that he was going to help us enjoy Yulin to the fullest. He called a hotel from our Lonely Planet, decided it wouldn't do, booked us in to another, called a friend with a 4WD to pick us up at the station, drove us around to all of the tourist attractions in town and organized a large banquet for that night. We couldn't express our thanks enough.

The first sight he took us to the first day was the most famous one-- a guard house that had once been part of the Great Wall. Five hundred years old but recently refurbished, the Zhen Bei Tai had stood against Mongol invaders and mustered troops to defend the empire's borders. Now, it's a squat, grey, disembodied tower looking a little like a castle. The wall that linked it east and west now has been eroded or stolen for building materials.

We ate lunch, including a lamb's head, at a nearby restaurant in a cave house. Many people in this area in China live in homes hollowed out of the loess hills. Seeing 'the cave people' has been a desire of mine since before we had come to China. I had first read about it in Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.

Next we saw something even more impressive. We had had no idea it was in Yulin and would never have found with out Li Bo's help. This was the Hong Shi Xia (Red Rock Gorge), a collection of more than 50 caves, or grottoes, scraped out of limestone cliffs over several centuries.

 Before the Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s, these had housed ancient Buddhist statues and paintings. Some new ones replaced them, but other caves were empty, ready for imagination to fill them.

Then, we went to the best, most unanticipated temple I have seen anywhere. The Qing Yun Si (Roughly, Green Cloud Temple) was a giant, labyrinthine complex of courtyards--sixty or seventy--that offered worship in China's three main religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Each courtyard had delicately decorated columns, roofs and stairways.

Although the temple wasn't open when we got there an old caretaker came to show us around. A team of carpenters were working in the back, creating eaves and statuary for the parts of the temple that had been damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Many of the statues had already been replaced, the man said, but they still had a long way to go to get it to it's former splendor.

Finally, Li Bo and his friend who was driving us around took us to the best restaurant in town for a huge banquet for us and his sales staff. We drank several boxes of beer (the local Hans beer) and afterward went to a bar for more.

The next morning we didn't want to abuse Li Bo's hospitality too much so we laid low in our hotel for a few hours and then met up with him in the afternoon. He took us downtown to the museum (which wasn't open, but he pulled some strings) and then to the Yulin Exposition center upstairs where we met the mayor of Yulin and got a tour (in English!) of the area's natural resources and industries.

That evening, more food, and on the walk back to the hotel we ran across a group of people singing local Shanxi songs and strumming hand-made instruments on the sidewalk. They wanted Mom to join in, so she and Dad sang 'Puff the Magic Dragon' and the alphabet song. The crowd of about 70 people clapped and cheered, then got back to their own style of music.

By the third day we knew we couldn't take up too much more of Li Bo's time--he had a business to run, right? So, we took off on a bus to Inner Mongolia that should have brought us to Genghis Khan's Mausoleum.


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