Friday, 14 December 2012

Yangshuo - Part 2 - The Rise and Fall of the Wooky's Cycling Career

Once we had settled in at the school apartment we trundled off to hire bikes from Bike Asia, conveniently situated next to Kelly’s CafĂ© (where we were seeming to spend most of our time) on Huigai Lu, the quieter and nicer road which runs parallel to West Street (which is all a bit noisy and sometimes a bit too much hassle constantly fending off the hard sell hawkers trying to sell you yet another bamboo boat trip). 
Floating down the river on a bamboo boat

I was finally going to get Paul on a pushbike and at his suggestion we hired them for 3 days.  I thought at the time that this was a little ambitious but I kept my mouth shut. Please remember neither of had ridden a bike for years.

On our first day (one of the few warm and sunny days) we headed out on our own, and tried to remember some of the route we had taken with Wendy the previous day.  We headed out of town and after about 20 minutes strenuous cycling we stumbled across the Giggling Tree Guesthouse and decided it was time to stop for a well deserved beer.  It really was warm in the sunshine and it would have been rude to pass it by but admittedly it was a bit pathetic for a first effort.

The view from the terrace at the Giggling Tree
We sat on the terrace with a Tsingtao beer each, overlooking the rice paddies with the karst mountains in the distance.  Yangshuo really is a beautiful place and it was just so lovely to escape the urban life for a while and actually feel the sun on our faces for a change.

After about an hour we decided it was time to head off again.  We ended up cycling for about 4 hours in total, finding our way through some back roads away from the manic traffic on the main highways, through tiny villages where the only other road users we had to look out for were chickens, ducks and the odd dog. 

Yangshuo without the mists
Although we really enjoyed cycling around the countryside, as we were both out of practice we were a bit saddle sore by the end of the day and Paul, in particular, was suffering.  And he wasn't suffering in silence!  This 3 days quickly came to be known as the farewell to his (very short) cycling career.  From now on, any mode of transport would come with an engine, as God intended.

The next day we went out with Jim and Laura for a long ride setting off at about 10am after a fine breakfast of proper coffee, and toasted Russian bread (baked by a real live Russian, which was delicious) with peanut butter, all courtesy of Jim and Laura.  They certainly knew where to find all the essentials! 

Paul, Jim and Laura
Suitably nourished, we set out and first braved the mania in the centre of town which is tame by Chinese standards but still complete mayhem.  There is no lane discipline and you just hope that everyone is driving slowly enough to stop at a moment’s notice.  It really is a case of “he who hesitates dies”.  You just have to go for it and hope that everyone is paying attention and will do their best to dodge you. 

Within minutes we had left town behind and soon found ourselves cycling through karst mountains, past paddy fields of rice and water chestnuts, and a multitude of other crops. We wound our way through acres of kumquat trees and orange groves, and alongside rivers bordered by huge bamboo, watching locals fishing from the riverbank.

Our route to us to a couple of out of town hostels run by friends of Jim and Laura.  The first was called Outside Inn which was a rambling complex of quaint cottages set within a beautiful gardens and surrounded by amazing mountain views. 

The Secret Garden
The second was the aptly named Secret Garden which was nestled in the middle of a small village at the end of a narrow lane.  This was Paul’s favourite and it was owned by a South African artist who painstakingly restores traditional mud brick houses and decorates them stylishly and sympathetically - it is clearly a labour of love for him.  Paul was green with envy – not only was this guy restoring old Chinese houses but in the 11 years he had been living in China he had learned to speak fluent Chinese, chatting away to the local craftsman he employed as part of his team. I think Paul would have happily swapped lives with him there and then.

The Secret Garden was again a complex of traditional mud brick houses set at the foot of a karst mountain.  All the rooms or suites each had private terraces or balconies with views across the old village to the mountains beyond.

Getting the hang of this cycling lark
Either of these places would be lovely places to stay during a visit to Yangshuo, and a perfect antidote to the relative hustle and bustle of Yangshuo town as they are both set in very peaceful surroundings, well off the tourist trail, set in small villages where birdsong replaces the usual traffic noise.  But they are both within about 5km of the town and easily accessible by bike or scooter so you need not be isolated.

We stopped off for breakfast at a farmer’s restaurant where I had scrambled eggs and tomatoes (Chinese style) and Paul had noodles of some description (probably pork), all washed down with copious amounts of green tea.  Batteries recharged, we set off again and spent the next few hours cycling through more countryside, villages and headed upstream along the Yulong River until we reached Long Qiao (Dragon Bridge). 

Over a weir - it's amazing we didn't sink

While we watched a newlywed couple posing for photographs on the bridge (a common sight since we hit Russia in even the most unlikely beauty spots) Laura bartered with one of the bamboo boat people to take us downstream to a point where we could continue on our way on two wheels.  We packed our bikes onto the backs of two rafts and travelled back down along the river by boat at a very leisurely and relaxing pace. 

The bamboo boats are long rafts traditionally constructed out of ten long lengths of bamboo (or increasingly blue plastic bamboo!) with two seats side by side facing forward with the  driver standing at the back guiding the raft with a long pole, gondolier style.

Definitely the way to travel
The rafts glide almost silently downstream passing  through the valley with imposing karst mountains either side and forests of bamboo stretching along the riverbank.  It was so relaxing we all nearly nodded off at one point but our respective drivers kept pointing out photo opportunities so we were kept on our toes.  There were hardly any other boats around which was rare (bamboo boats abound in this part of the world) but this was apparently the quietest stretch of river in the area.

Paul contemplating throwing his bike over the
side of the bridge
The journey seemed so peaceful although when we listening carefully we could still hear the sound of construction going on somewhere in the distance, and the drivers were chatting away to each other throughout the journey.  However compared with most places in China it was positively tranquil.  You just get used to the fact that you never hear silence in China.

We passed over a couple of weirs which was fun – feet up and out of the water until we landed with a  splash on the other side, amazingly still afloat.

We floated downriver for just over an hour and when we arrived back on dry land with our trusty bikes we started to head back to Yangshuo.  We think we must have cycled about 20km that day and our poor bottoms were feeling the strain.

Cycling through the Guangzxi countryside
On the third day, I was just about getting used to my saddle.  Paul, on the other hand, definitely was not.  We were due to return our bikes late in the afternoon before our class at 4.30pm so had decided to go for a short ride first and headed across the other side of the River Li with the intention of exploring the other side of the riverbank.  However after about an hour, Paul’s bottom just couldn’t take any more (and my ears were beginning to suffer) so we headed back to town and handed our bikes back to Bike Asia, Paul muttering under his breath that never again in his whole life would he ride a bike even if his life depended on it.  Personally, I loved it and it was a great way to explore the quiet countryside around Yangshuo and secretly, despite all his protestations, I think Paul secretly enjoyed it too. 

The deserted river from our bamboo raft
During the 3 days we hired them the bikes had also been useful when we went out and about in the evening.  We rode into town with Jim and Laura just as it was getting dark with Jim taking the lead following by Paul then me and Laura bringing up the rear.  It was quicker than walking and once you got used to the traffic and the lack of any recognised system of give way, lane discipline, or rules of the road whatsoever, it was quite enjoyable.  Riding home, after a couple of beers, with no lights was probably a bit risky but we survived.  I think if Paul’s seat had been a little more comfortable we would have kept our bikes for longer. 

Road signs in China!
At the end of the day we survived the experience;  neither of us fell off or were mown down on the busy roads which was no mean feat, particularly when cycling at night with no lights, but I suspect the next mode of transport we hire will have an engine.

We were also grateful to Jim and Laura for taking the time to show us around, spending the day with us on the bikes taking us on a tour of the some of the most beautiful and lesser known places around Yangshuo, as well as introducing us to their friends.  They were fantastic company and we doubt our time spent in Yangshuo would have been as enjoyable as it was without their help.

And, of course, they suggested we volunteer conversational practice with the Chinese students which also contributed enormously to our stay in Yangshuo and China generally but I will deal with that in my next post.



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