Every single car trip I have taken in China has been done with drivers. Between the cabs and the vans and the guys who worked only for me, I’ve always been a passenger and the continuity of the conversation has always been my responsibility. It’s a challenge to be in charge when you’re not the driver, and sitting there for hours in silence is never an alternative – it’s been up to me to keep things lively because in general these drivers are not used to boring long hauls down a bland highway. They’re used to dodging cars on choked city streets where you have to stay on your toes. So when my friend Ben asked if I wanted to join him and his wife Sasa on a road trip over the weekend I jumped at the chance. Not only would we be heading to the one local place I’d not yet visited, I’d be able to sit in the backseat of a car and just do what I wanted to do. No discussions about the merits of the prostitutes at each of the local bars (Driver #1), no painful garlic-scented silence (Driver #2) or simmering anger at being forced to go a way not of my choosing to a place I didn’t want to go (any one of a dozen hired van drivers over the years.) No, I would be the honored guest for a change.

There is more or less a fixed pattern to how expatriates integrate themselves into the region. Almost everyone starts by covering all the sights in and around Dalian – Tiger Beach, Xinhai Square, the Shell Museum before getting brave enough to take a road trip. The second outing is often a trip to Dandong to stare across the Yalu River at the frigid dissipation that is North Korea. Nearby there is a nice fake section of Great Wall there that lets you check that sight off your list. Invariably when people develop enough comfort to venture off the main highways, they head to Bin Yu Gou, a “geopark” that is a couple of hours north of our fair city.

We’ve all seen the canonical photos of China – eroded granite hoodoos bathed in mist, sticking their rocky heads out of a placid lake or river. I imagine that anyone shown that picture is going to guess China, especially if you throw in an old guy with one of those flying saucer straw hats propelling a wooden boat with a long pole. Those pictures are taken in the south of China near a city by the name of Guilin in Guangxi province. It’s one of those places hugely popular with people seeking the “China Experience” not only by way of the scene but due as well to the local Zhuang minority who provide a distinct opportunity to visit with someone other than the Han majority in the rest of the country. As it turns out, Bin Yu Gou is called the “little Guilin of the North” or the “inferior Guilin” (depending on the translation) because it shares a similar geology – replete with their very own glacier carved rocks crowned with trees sticking themselves out of a placid lake and river. Throw in a little mist and you’ve got yourself a little bit of the China Experience just up the road, at least from a visual perspective. My understanding of this place was that it tended to be hot, crowded and commercial. But off I went figuring I had to check that box on my “places I’ve visited” card.

Heading outside the weather was not promising – it was already sprinkling a bit so I found a place under a tree to wait for Ben to show up. It was not a boring wait as there was a pretty large wedding caravan being staged in my building’s parking lot. Twenty-plus black sedans and one bright red Audi, covered in flowers along with dozens of men standing around smoking cigarettes while yelling at each other. I began to think my pick-up was going to be compromised but the groom arrived, apparently a neighbor of mine, and once the videographer had staged him getting in and out of the little car a couple of times he drove away dragging the long line of black cars down the road behind him. Moments later my ride showed up and we were on our way.

Our route was straight up the Danda Expressway in the direction of the Yalu but probably less than half the distance. It was raining pretty hard now and I began to wonder whether we were about to spend a sodden day seeing the sights. But Sasa brought out a tub of homemade Sichuan beef jerky and so I turned my thoughts to chewing instead of the weather. The ride was not long – perhaps an hour – and we were off the highway and onto the local road leading into the town of Zhangue, the Gateway to Bin Yu Gou.

As is often the case here the signs made little or no sense which forced us to use the more traditional “Chinese Map” process of driving alongside people riding motor bikes and asking them where we should go. Little by little we made our way there, passing through little villages and by the pylons being built to support a regional high-speed train. From the state of them it was hard to discern whether they were new or abandoned. We reached a medium-sized town filled with tour buses which suggested we were on the correct track and after a debate about whether we wanted to go to the “holiday village” or the “remote forest area” that was settled by an ancient peasant sitting under a tree by the side of the road, we headed towards the holiday village.

The rain had stopped but the sky was heavy and overcast. The mountains rimming the valley we were driving through were cloaked in mist. On the shoulder of the road farmers sat under umbrellas selling baskets of apples and those giant round pears that are unique to China. We continued up into the clouds until we reached a gate that led to a giant parking lot.

The view in the distance was pretty spectacular – granite hills ringing a lake increasing in height up and up until disappearing into the mists. The parking lot was almost entirely empty – just a few cars and a couple of tour buses which gave me hope that the place would not be a mob scene. We grabbed our gear and after Sasa stopped to buy a smelly but inexpensive vinyl raincoat we bought our tickets and boarded the boat for a ride into the interior.

Our little ship was a steel-hulled affair stinking of diesel exhaust with rows of bright plastic cafeteria chairs. We grabbed the front row which was empty, left so by the smarter people who knew in advance that the rain would be blowing in the face of anyone sitting there. The ride was brief but the scenery was getting better – more and more amazing rock formations in the dark water, each covered in trees and bushes just beginning to show the early colors of autumn.

The first leg of the trip was short and we soon pulled into a dock. I took a picture of the waiting crowd and a woman standing in line thought that was pretty funny. She smiled and waved. A broad sidewalk led up and away from the boat, lined on one side by stall after stall of people selling cheap souvenirs – alligators carved from some kind of marled wood, imitation jade necklaces, umbrellas and cowboy hats, and even a table full of those chattering windup toys you see out in front of the toy stores in American malls. This is the one thing I hate about Chinese parks – they are designed to separate you from as much money as possible. And here we were in the Little Guilin of the North being shuffled by as much junk for sale as you could imagine.

The path led up and away from the boat dock, passing around the back of a small hill. Around the other side you could choose to be carried across the river in a harness attached to a cable (for a small fee) or on a bamboo raft (also for a small fee.) Or you could sit in a plastic boat with a colorful roof, of course having surrendered a small fee. We walked across a couple of bridges built from plastic logs intending to give the impression of being on a wooden span.

At the base of another small hill we climbed up a long flight of gray granite stairs past a billboard advertising Jet Skis and through one of those traditional Chinese temple gates. Up above us on a tiny peak was a small pagoda overlooking the valley below. At the top there was a broad plaza, one side occupied by a long line of stalls selling pretty much the same stuff as down below, here though joined by a man selling various odd species of dried fungi. Across from him was a small covered stand holding a golden Guanyin. A monk in saffron robes stood out front yelling at passersby to come over and pay for the privilege of praying. Another lake bordered the far end of the plaza and a dam went off to one side. At its base was another concession area with colored tubes, inflatable kayaks and a giant nest of bright orange life vests. A metal flue led from the rental spot down to the river below, waterless today but no doubt the site of much merriment in warmer times.

We boarded a second boat here for a ride further into the park. Sasa brought out containers of spicy Sichuan chicken pieces and a concoction of kelp and tofu. I picked my way through the chicken tossing the bone shards over the side of the boat. Looking down I noticed a school of tiny gray fish picking remnants off the bones. When the boat was filled we were on our way.

It was more of the same on the second lake – rocks and mountains cloaked in the mist. We went forward for perhaps fifteen minutes before cutting a sharp left turn to pick up some men standing on a dock. Once they were on-board we headed back towards the dock we had left from but veered to the right at the last minute and put in at a different place. A young man on the shore fired up a Jet Ski and made a couple of fast passes by our boat, apparently trying to entice someone into a rental. As our fellow passengers disembarked I stopped and motioned for a pair of couples to move ahead of me. We got into the standard “you, no you” thing that happens so often here before I said “Zou ba” which means “let’s go.” They smiled and went ahead, one friend lagged and filed in behind me. He told me that my Chinese was very good.

After almost tripping on a steel tie-off on the dock and nearly falling on my face we followed a path down beside the dam we’d seen from up above. At river level we passed a stand where you could rent a bow and shoot arrows at some targets on a set of straw bales. This is the thing about the commercialism here – often it has nothing to do with the nature or the spirit of the place. This little stand belonged at an American country fair, and perhaps that’s where the idea came from.

Our path doubled back toward the dam and it became clear that we were heading under it. We passed through a door and found ourselves at the beginning of a long corridor, water falling over the edge of the dam on one side, a long granite wall bedecked with carvings on the other. You had the option of staying relatively dry by remaining inside or walking out on a steel catwalk in the water. I chose the former. One of the windows that kept the water more or less where it belonged had been removed and the noise was deafening.

The granite wall proved far more interesting than the falling water – it depicted the various legends about the formation of Bin Yu Gou. Horses, Cranes, warriors, Bats and Dragons, all in various states of warfare or visitation lined the long walk. There were characters telling the story, but they were of the version that predated the “traditional” version that has now given way to the more modern “simplified” set that we know. Ben could only read a few of them.

On the far side of the dam we were shuffled by the tube and kayak rental spot before heading up the stairs to the plaza for one more pass by the vendors up there. The monk sat in his tent, head in hands looking worn out from a long day of yelling at tourists.

We took a stepping stone bridge across the water, not made of real stones but concrete blocks manufactured to look like tree cross-sections. Back down to the boat dock and after a short wait one last ride back to the parking lot where we were force marched through a store that was selling all kinds of dried fish and crustaceans. The floor in the store was covered in flattened cardboard boxes and the route was a seemingly endless series of zigzags designed to give the most possible retail exposure. The products on display caused the place to stink to high heaven and I wondered if I could make it all the way through on the one breath I had grabbed at the entrance.

The drive back was punctuated by alternating periods of torrential downpour and light sprinkles. It was fast though and it was not long before we exited the main road and headed into Kai Fa Qu. Yet another site visited, appreciated and relegated to memory.