Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Guilin - Day 3 - Fengyu Cave, Yao Minority

A picture that worths 20 Yuan

semi-overcast 30 °C
When we say we're going to Guilin to see the world renown limestone karst landscapes, we actually mean Yangshuo where most of these geological wonders are heavily jostled one another for attention of wide-eyed, mouth-gaping admirers. The coach trip allowed us to have a whirlwind view of these amazing landscape as we entered deep into the Yangshuo country and finally to the Li River for a trip on the bamboo raft. The trip can't be considered complete without being floated across the Lijiang on a bamboo raft.

The 2005 edition of RMB banknotes contain heads of people on one side, and famous scenic spots on the reverse side. The drawing of Guilin karsts with its mirror reflections on Li River (don't forget the fisherman on the raft) is on the reverse side of a 20 Yuan banknote. The picture of the national treasure of Guilin hence worths 20 Yuan multiplies by the number of issued notes in circulation = a few billion Yuans. Bill Clinton once commented that the scenery of Guilin reminded him of the Chinese brush painting the most while he dropped into this place (by Air Force One) during his premature presidency.

Speaking of RMB banknotes, it has been few months since I heard the news about the counterfeit 100 Yuan notes with serial numbers beginning with HD90. It was said to have first appeared in Yangjiang and Guangdong and was suspected that they made their way from Taiwan. But the counterfeit ring has yet to be apprehended. We decided to swap some RMBs before we departed Singapore in a money changer in Pearl Centre in Chinatown (Singapore is one of the few countries where bank branches don't do forex). We were told that this money changer gives good rates, and I don't doubt that as Chinatown is a haven for bargain. There are a few money changers here, a few were run by Indians. The long queue at one of the money changers signalled me that this must be the one, and a few quick enquiries confirmed that they do give very competitive exchange rates. When I was handed a stack of 100 Yuan notes, I asked if I can have other denominations. The staff said they ran out of other denominations and re-assured me by putting it through a money counting machine. She explained that this machine can detect the fake 100 Yuan notes. I saw a label on the machine that says, "this machine detects counterfeit 100 Yuan notes". Of course I trust the shop as it's an old shop and this is Singapore after all! Just out of curiosity, I checked the serial numbers and none started with HD90.

When we bought some souvenirs in Yangshuo, our 100 Yuan note get a free forensic treatment: it was held up in the sky to check for watermarks and looked at from different angles for the holograms and other built-in counterfeit measures. And the vendor didn't show any favouritism, every note from a 100 down to 5 Yuan get a thorough strip search with her detective eyes.

They can solve all these problem by simply adopting plastic banknotes - a technology from a Melbourne firm Note Printing Australia, invented by professor David Solomon of CSIRO (nothing to do with CSI). NPA also applies similar technology to the Australian passport. To forge these plastic banknotes requires cutting edge propriety technology, and not to mention the very expensive hardware. The start up cost is very high. It's that, and not just the polymer technology that minimises if not prevents counterfeiting entirely. It's practically impossible to forge. Some of the counterfeiters of US currencies in S. America run their operations in their basement or garage. I don't think they can do that with polymer money.

Singapore already has its SGD polymerised. My wallet now contains a curious mixture of paper and polymer cash, sitting side by side in my wallet in perfect harmony like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. The mixture of paper banknotes and its polymer alter-ego suggests that the new plastic notes are introduced relatively recent and the paper SGD bills haven't completely been removed from the circulation just yet. As far as I can tell, no polymer 50 SGD banknotes have yet been printed (not that there're a whole of 50's flying through my hot little hands). Polymer money has all the advantages over paper ones except for the traditional smell of money (some would say another advantage). More than 15 countries are already on board with this polymer banknotes the last time I heard. The countries taken up these polymer trend should be on the up and up.

Okie dokie, back to my trip. As more and more local villagers in China are migrating to the cities - the largest human migration in history - for a better living, they are leaving their traditional ways of life behind. Many traditional way of life is surviving because of tourism. The Guilin cormorant fisherman of is an example. They now perform for the tourists as they fish (or as their file of cormorant soldiers fish). Some people say this kind of survival is superficial. You either put the tradition on artificial life support or let it die. Most people prefer the drips ("Pull the plug and let me RIP, come on papa!", "Over my cold dead body, sorry my lil'uns! Over my cryogenic body...")

Fisherman lifing a cormorant from water after its catch, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China

Fisherman lifts a cormorant from water after its catch, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
This fisherman has 4 sidekicks. He lifted one of the foot soldier that just caught a fish in its throat with his bamboo pole. Cormorants - several species - are quite common in Sydney (probably a common bird around the world). You can find them anywhere near water in Sydney. I even spotted a few of them in the artificial pond just outside Sega World building in Darling Harbour. But I've never seen a white one. When I spotted this white one on the left of the raft, I jumped the gun and thought it's a lazy, sitting duck getting a free ride on the raft. A zooming in of the photo revealed that it's a cormorant. If I'm not wrong, this is a youngling, and after moulting its white feathers (as seen by the snow flakes all over its feet) it would turn into a black adult (Michael Jackson in reverse. Moon walking?). Some speckles of black feather already appear on its neck.

Fisherman removing a fish from the cormorant's throat, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Fisherman removing a fish from the cormorant's throat, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
A fish is being removed from the cormorant's throat. He then put the fish back into water, not his basket. He's not fishing, but performing. In fact, no basket on his raft to be seen.

We destined Fengyu ("Abundant Fish") Cave, about 95km from Guilin in the afternoon. The cave was nice, but it didn't top what I saw yesterday in Silver Cave. Far from it. So you get fed a dose of anti-climax. Since the cave spans 9 hills, I dildn't think we were going to cover its whole length on foot (for the sake of a few of elderlies in our tour group. OK, for my sake, I was overtaken by few sexagenarians and even a septuagenarian on more than one occasions. Should have tailed them closely to take advantage of their slipstream. Swoosh). After an hour or so of spelunking on foot, we arrived at a cave harbour to board a canoe, which traversed a subterranean river for the rest of the trip. There was no light and we were given torches to shine on the cave walls as we cruised along. The darkness adds some mystery and thrill. Some parts of the cave are so low that if we didn't have the torches we would suffer severe headaches several times before we exited the cave. Only kowtowing to these million years old stalactites saved us from having freshly bruised heads.

After dinner, our hotel provide some evening entertainment performed by the Yao (瑤族) minority people. Numbered in 2.6 million, they are mountain people, tree lovers.

Yao women performing their traditional dance, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Yao women performing their traditional dance, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China.

The Yaos' costume is quite diverse, but the blue and black is quite popular. These little black numbers that these girls are wearing consists of collarless jackets with plaited skirts, fringed by beautiful Yao's traditional silk embroidery and brocades. These dresses are good for dancing, knitting, sewing, working, shopping, dating or simply for a leisurely walk in the English countryside, available at all good Yao households.

Speaking of dating, a lot of these Yao gals (and a few other minorities) get dates (boys, not fruits) by singing, usually across the river. The tourists would get to see these in action as mountain songs are being sung while we floated gently across the river. Other times, we were asked to belt our these folk ballads ourselves, killing the songs and the tranquil ambience the same time - 2 birds with 1 stone (or the equivalent Chinese expression "2 condors with 1 arrow". Hang on a cotton picking minute, they're both Chinese expressions!).

Most Yao people live in the south west regions of China spanning Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong, but heavily concentrated in Guangxi. They also live in Vietnam, Thailand, and Loas, not surprisingly as these countries bordering south and south west China where Yao people dwell. In Vietnam, the Yao is called Dao (and pronounced the same as Yao. 'D' in Vietnamese is pronounced identically to 'y' in English). As the consequences of the Vietname War (meself is one such inconsequential individual in such historical consequence), some Yaos are now living in USA. Most live in the west coast of the U.S. in the states of Washington (not D.C.), Oregon and California, making California more diverse than one can possibly imagine.

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