Biking, Boating, Hiking and Sweating in Rural China
29.08.2007 - 30.08.2007 33 °C
After a light breakfast, we headed out to Moon Hill on the poorly maintained bikes we had rented from the Retreat. Lloyd’s back brake didn’t work so well, and the frame of my bike was so large my feet barely touched the ground, but the bikes were appropriately sturdy for the millions of pot-holes that – together – are called ‘roads’ around here. While our map was drawn with the best of intentions, we found ourselves a little off-route, which turned out to be simply perfect as we cycled through small picture-perfect villages with many Chinese in bamboo hats bent over attending to their rice paddies.
The pot holes were taking their toll, however (I think the Mongolian horses were more comfortable!), and we finally joined a main road about 1 kilometer or so from Moon Hill. As we drew closer, Martin and I observed a young Chinese racing after Lloyd (actually on a distinctly better bicycle than any of us were riding). When we pulled up to Moon Hill, the young lady was still hovering around us, only now with two friends. As we paid our entrance fee, I assumed that they were looking for tips to look after our bikes while we climbed, but someone else took 1 yuan each to lock up the bikes until our return. As we left the bike parking lot, all three ladies walked with us, and – with wide, un-rejectable smiles – indicated that they would be pleased to guide us and sell us cold soft drinks if we needed them at the top.
As I said, they were so engaging and pleasant that it was unthinkable to shoo them away. We started the climb, each of the three of us closely attended to by one of the young ladies. It was extremely humid in Yangshuo, and the hundreds of winding stairs quickly took their toll on us all. The ladies – as out of breath as we were – focused on their potential customers, however, and each fanned us furiously. Our discomfort at being fanned would have been obvious to any western outsider, but at the same time, we so desperately needed the (marginally!) cooler air that we could do nothing but accept it.
With our legs trembling as we approached the top, we still had little idea whether the view from the top of Moon Hill would be worth the extraordinary effort it took all six of us to get there. Happily, the wonderful karst scenery stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction, and – although we had brought plenty of water – we celebrated the view with cold drinks purchased only to ensure that our guides would be rewarded for their efforts.
A young Chinese couple at the top confused us a little by offering to take a photo of the three of us and then asking not for a picture of them in return, but a picture of me with the young Chinese lady, and then a picture of Lloyd and Martin with the young Chinese man. We graciously went along with the scheme, although the fact that they gave me and had me wear a fresh floral tiara had us all wondering whether I had been selected as the sacrifice for some mysterious Chinese ceremony later that night!
As we descended the hill, our three Chinese guides invited us to lunch with them in the nearby village. At 20 yuan each (about US$2.50), we figured that it had to be worth the experience even if (i) this turned out to be a horrid tourist trap or (ii) the food turned out to be completely inedible. As we pulled our bikes up to their house, it was clear that they weren’t expecting to ‘sell’ lunch that day; chairs were hastily cleared and young children sent away so that we could be seated, and all three ladies disappeared into the kitchen for the next thirty minutes to prepare our lunch. Everything was cooked from scratch: squash and potatoes were peeled on the kitchen floor by one lady, while red onion and tomatoes were chopped by another. It was only when the ‘beef’ was prepared that the door was closed to us visitors; I was keeping a close eye on the cats in the vicinity to make sure none disappeared, and the beef really did taste beefy….. Our spread was wonderfully fresh and tasty, and I think we all surprised ourselves (especially me!) by the amount I was able to eat.
Yangshou is primarily a Chinese tourist destination. The ladies claimed that there were so many guides waiting for the opportunity to take “people-not-like-us” (i.e. non-Chinese) up the hill that they only made the trip twice a week, making 20 yuan per cold drink sold. So, we were very pleased that we were able to share lunch and contribute a few more yuan to the family coffers. It was a feast that we will never forget.
With only two days in Yangshuo, I felt guilty not getting out and about on Wednesday afternoon, but the fact is it was so hot and humid that it required superhuman amounts of efforts to do anything – even nothing! We rested up and headed out early on Thursday morning for an hour long drive out of XingPing where we rented a boat to cruise to the ‘Fishing Village’. This had been highly recommended as ‘unspoilt’ in our guide-book, but really that couldn’t have been further from the truth: food stalls and tacky souvenir stalls lined the winding, narrow cobblestone alleyways, and we had to seek out areas of the village that might reveal how it once was. Fact is, these villagers rely now on tourists more than fish, and we thought it a great pity. Areas of the village once devoted to industry were abandoned, and tens of villagers simply lay around – literally – waiting for a tourist to part with a couple of yuan.
Me Investing Two Yuan in a Mobile Air Conditioning Unit
Bill Clinton Was Here!
Perhaps the fault lies with Bill Clinton who – in 1998 - visited the village while US President and put the Fishing Village on the tourist map. We took our photos for 5 yuan each (and endured being shown where the President stood – exactly – and how many secret service agents there were and where they stood – exactly), and headed out just as three or four large boats of Chinese tourists pulled up.
So, if the Fishing Village wasn’t the highlight we had hoped for, the boat ride certainly was. Karsts flew by us on both sides, while cows plunged into the Yulong’s waters, anxious to cool down as indeed we were. Over time, the karsts have earned names based on their shape (e.g. Lion on a Carp’s back, Five Fingers), but as our Chinese boat-driver’s English vocabulary was limited to “hello”, he resorted to sign language to share the names with us. Boats with hundreds of Chinese tourists looked bemused as they passed the three white people in their own private boat, apparently playing charades with their Chinese minder. Each new round punctuated by “hello, hello?” with a vigorous point to the next subject karst.
Once back in XingPing, we took a stroll around the town, and actually felt as if we got closer to ‘real’ Chinese life by walking down some of the back-streets than we had at the Fishing Village. Just as we were finding our way back to our taxi, we heard some fire-crackers in a nearby street and dashed to see what all the noise was about. We’re still not quite sure, but we assumed that we were the very fortunate witnesses of a ceremony for a new home or business.
Feeling quite pleased with our day, we headed back to the Mountain Retreat for much needed showers and some cold drinks. The only thing left on our ‘Yangshuo To Do’ list was a ride on a bamboo raft, and that would have to be left for our final morning.
View From Our Room at the Mountain Retreat