IT WAS WEDNESDAY. I was seated in this flat-bottomed boat, chugging downstream on a smallish river in China’s tropical south, enjoying some of the weirdest scenery on earth. And I was about to do something I’ve never done before on a Wednesday – I was about to eat a snail!
The Li River it was, in the Guangxi Province. A gentle waterway, twisting and u-turning between banks crammed with bamboo, sugar-cane and patchwork rice-fields. Here, at the river’s edge, is a village: barefoot farmers ploughing mud the way their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers did it, with patient plodding water-buffalos … mums squatting on their haunches scrubbing clothes … happy kids splashing naked in the shallows … rusty bikes and prehistoric tractors and girls bent over in knee-deep water … a sampan ferrying picnic-makers across the current to a sandbank … a fisherman balanced on a skinny bamboo raft, casting his net for a meal of bony fish.
But looming everywhere, dark and weathered, are the towering, pointy, stand-alone peaks that have, for yonks, made this region famous. They erupt from otherwise flat land, sprouting even from the downtown streets of Guilin, where we boarded our riverboat. They stand guard like an army at every bend, shrouded in mist and daring us to take aim with our cameras.
No one knows exactly how long ago these limestone lumps were eroded. But for countless centuries this imaginative landscape has been attracting imaginative names – like ‘Five Tigers Catch A Goat Ridge’ and ‘Boy Worships Buddha Peak’ and ‘Nine Horses Painted Hill’. (Nine horses? You’re kidding! I could only see three …)
We eventually drifted down to the lower deck for some ‘Tourist Feeling Hungry Lunch’ … a yummy concoction (soup, pork, fish, rice, bamboo-sprouts and seaweed-tied-in-knots) prepared by the crew. Some bottles of rice wine were doing the rounds – fortified with ‘Once Were Live But Now Dead Snakes’ and potent enough to kill the worst toothache.
But then came a piled-high plate of steaming black river-snails …
I purchased some to try on our group, and was bullied into sampling one myself. With a muttered apology to my snail, I poked at him with a toothpick, pulled him out roots-and-all, and carefully bit him in half – gag!
“What’s it like?” they wanted to know. “A bit tough and chewy … but nice in that spicy sauce.” (At least, that’s what I told THEM!)
On the way home, ‘Charles’ (our Chinese guide) entertained us with tales of other local delicacies. Like rat-babies caught in the paddy fields. “They squeak when you pick them up with chopsticks,” he said. “They squeak when you dip them in soy sauce. And they squeak when you pop them in your mouth!”
(Yeah, sure! Something else I must try …)
That evening, after a ‘yum-cha’ banquet back in Guilin, we headed back through dimly-lit streets to the river. There, we hopped onto a small ferry and motored quietly out into midstream to watch some cormorant fishermen at work.
These guys are good, and so much fun to watch. Each man and his five or six trained cormorants worked from one of those long bamboo rafts we’d seen earlier – with a powerful light slung over the bow to attract the fish. Up close, these cormorants were big, strong swimmers – with rings around their necks to discourage them from swallowing their prey. And at their owner’s command – “Yaahh!” – they would hop into the water and dive.
More often than not, a cormorant would get lucky, surface with a splash, and swim back to the raft with a small, silver fish flopping and flapping in its mouth. The bird would be hoisted on board and upended – the fish dropping neatly into a basket. Then, after a shake-your-feathers-and-catch-your-breath, it was “Yaahh!” – back in the water for the clever cormorant.
Somewhere, you see, in those misty-mountain waters, was the BIG fish that, just the night before, had got away …
Later that evening we ambled lazily through the town, wall-to-wall hawkers, bars, food-stalls and pedestrians spilling out onto ancient cobblestones, and the aroma of stir-fry filling the air. A wrinkled, toothless old granny sold me a fistful of cheap postcards, and a persuasive “hello-hello” kid almost talked me into buying a bicycle bell – until my wife reminded me that I haven’t even got a bike!
We passed a tiny restaurant promising “great food, nice toilet inside, safe to leave your backpack”. I bought us an ice-cream from the Mei You Café: “bad service – warm beer” said the blackboard. And I thought to myself … there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.