We spent the day today riding bicycles around the villages south of Yangshuo, in Guangxi. It’s spectacularly gorgeous, as most of these karst landscapes are; they’re the areas that gave rise to that genre of Chinese paintings with the mist twisting around impossibly vertical peaks dotted with pagodas, weeping willows, and wizened sages, or, in the modern version, pandas being trained by tortoises to practice kung-fu. Vietnam has very similar areas, mainly in Ninh Binh around 2 hours south of Hanoi. But for reasons I can’t quite pin down, the Yangshuo area feels nicer. There less trash, for one thing. There are fewer gas-powered motorbikes and more bicycles, which I can’t explain at all, since China is significantly richer than Vietnam; Guangxi is a poor province, but the tourism industry in Yangshuo is going gangbusters, whereas it’s minimal in Ninh Binh, and I would find it difficult to explain if per capita income here were lower. People in China honk their horns less than Vietnamese do, which makes a really powerful difference. And there’s something about the feeling of moving through the fields here that’s just different. People leave you more or less alone, for one thing. Vietnamese are compulsively gregarious, and when you cross through a Vietnamese rural landscape it can be difficult to avoid getting stared at by crowds. The folks in Yangshuo seem much less interested, though of course this probably has a lot to do with the thriving tourism industry.
But the main thing I wanted to say was that I am in love with Chinese electric motorbikes. They’re not very powerful. They’re slow. But they are quiet and gentle, and they coexist with the spectacular limestone landscape in the complementary fashion in which sailboats coexist with the Chesapeake. And the bronchial infection I’ve had for 3 weeks in Hanoi’s filthy exhaust-choked air has already started to clear up out in the clearer atmosphere hre. It’s really not inevitable that places like this will ever have to see a dominant gasoline-powered era. If we help things along, people in China could look back at the gasoline era as a brief curiosity, the way we regard the Age of Steam or pneumatic tubes.
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