Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sailing and cycling in Yangshuo, Guilin.

River Li at dawn in Yangshuo.
I was shaken awake by a firm hand on my shoulder at 4am as my bus pulled into Yangshuo Town. I stepped down onto the quiet streets to be greeted by a tout. I hate touts and would normally do things the hard way than succumb to a salesman. I'd been recommended a place to stay called Monkey Janes by a number of people, so I told him I was heading there and had a reservation. 'Perfect!' he exclaimed, 'that's where I work, let's go!', so I climbed into his car. He began chatting frantically, I let slip that I didn't in fact have a reservation but wanted to stay there, and he gave faux concern that it was fully booked but his sister had another hostel with spaces available. I woke up and smelt the bullshit - but whatever, it was 4am, I was in his car and despite my best efforts to explain I wanted to go to Monkey Janes anyway, I reluctantly accepted to head to this alternative guest house. I was given a double room for £8 a night, not that I needed two beds, but at least I had privacy and security for a price I didn't mind paying. I was half asleep and he tried to sign me up for trips and excursions there and then, I basically told him to get lost and ushered him out of the room, before getting my head down to doze until dawn, where I wanted to head down to the river to take some photos.

I kept watching the grey light grow through the curtains, until at about 7am decided sleep could wait and I should take the opportunity to go and explore whilst things were quiet and the light could be nice. Without a map or any information I made it to the river, I read the geography instead. The dawn was beautiful, not quite perfect conditions but I do demand a lot. A group of women were washing clothes by the waters edge, and a few bamboo boats silently drifted through the misty waters. It could have been Charon, the ferryman of Hades carrying souls across the River Styx in Greek mythology. It wasn't. It was just local Chinese men trying to take a few quid off tourists.

Waterfall dawn.
The ferryman of Hades? Was I entering the afterlife?
Was I still dreaming?
Down by the river.

A coffee in McDonalds sorted me out - this was the view.
I'd been offered a few boat trips by locals and rejected them all, I wasn't sure what my plan was, so went off to find breakfast and ended up in McDonalds. They do a decent breakfast though. After a little stroll through town I decided to head back down to the river and take a boat trip before the hordes of tourists awoke from their slumber and cluttered up the river.

Yangshuo Town early in the morning.
The criss-crossing traffic.
I went with the first woman who approached me and bartered her down to £6. It was just me on the boat, her, and what I assumed was her husband at the tiller. The river was beautiful and I was grinning like a Big Brother evictee in front of the press pack as we silently slid through the morning water. The limestone kasts rose like the tower blocks I had been used to, but these were infinitely more beautiful. A white haze was draped across them like a bridal veil and we continued along the watery aisle.

The plastic bamboo boat glides across the mirror river.
The limestone kasts rise above the River Li.
The sun tries to pierce the veil of haze.
Fisherman on the river.
Fisherman smoke a cigarette as they socialise on the water.
Pretty, ain't it?
Good job I went early, the river belonged to me for a while.
Here I am, looking smug on the boat. I'd usually be at work by now.
 We made a couple of stops. Firstly was for a photo opportunity with a couple of cormorants, like from the HSBC advert apart from totally disingenuous and only a tourist trap. I was initially reluctant but decided to pay the 50p and go along with it. A second stop was in the ancient village of Fuli, which was picturesque in it's stone archways and cobbled streets, and although old had been turned over to art shops selling souvenirs and things I had no interest in. The woman I was with quickly realised she wasn't going to get any commissions from me; I explained I had no room in my bag, she didn't understand my words but she understood my intentions, and so went to get herself breakfast. I had a little wander and took some photos of an old man who had some more cormorants. It cost me another 50p. I wasn't interested in the birds, sure if I came across him just fishing then great, but when it's so contrived I'd rather photograph the character than the proposed picture opportunity. I shook his hand but it wasn't until I looked at the photo later that he had two thumbs on his hand. Never seen that before.

I detest things like this, but no one was watching so I went along with it.
Back streets of Fuli village.
The old man who had some cormorants - note the double thumb.
And with a bit of flash,  I felt the need to validate bringing my flashgun.
The local ox (or whatever it is) takes a bath.
The river ride lasted nearly two hours. They'd charged me another fiver to go a bit further to Fuli so I'd spent £11 in total, half the price of watching Posh lose. It wasn't even noon by the time I was back in town and I already felt I'd achieved enough for the day. I had a leisurely lunch and a little explore, before planning what to do the next day. I hadn't done any research, but the town is incredibly touristy, mostly for the Chinese market but it's still geared up to cater for all your needs, with restaurants, street traders and businesses offering excursions. All sorts of things are available; asides from river cruises are activities like rock climbing, and trips to huge caves filled with hot springs and mud baths. I'd feel like a weirdo if I went to a mud bath on my own, it seems more of a social thing draped with sexual undertones, I didn't want to be equivalent of the guy knocking one out in the corner at an orgy, so decided to sign up for a cycling tour of the surrounding valleys. I put my name down but was warned if no one else signed up the trip wouldn't run, but I could still hire a bike and go off on my own. This is what I ended up doing.

Cycling alone probably turned out to be better than having a guide who knew the way. I was free to stop and take photos, take whichever turn I wanted, and go at my own pace. My own pace seemed to be fairly quick. The Chinese seem to dawdle everywhere, it can be incredibly frustrating at times, especially when you're in a rush, but I found it amusing overtaking motorcycles and mopeds on my pushbike.

I'd been given a fairly basic map, which served no more as a rough guide and although half the time I didn't know where I was, it was just about enough to get me home again at the end of the day. I left the town behind me and was soon in farmland in the next valley over. The vegetation was quite jungle-esque with big broad waxy leaves and palm types, nestled on the flat river valley floor in between the limestone monoliths. The road was a mixture of smooth concrete, loose gravel and dirt track, and took me between paddy fields, orchards and dusty villages.

Out in the countryside.
Farmers doing it the old fashioned, and bloody hard way.
Looks like hard work.
I stopped by some young people harvesting in the rice and putting it in a thresher. I smiled and said 'Ni hao' and sought approval from the alpha of the group with a reciprocated nod, before watching the process and taking a few photos. They didn't seem to mind me gawping at their daily lives too much, and I spent a few minutes in their company before continuing along my way.

A family out threshing rice.
Don't worry lad, I mean you no harm.

Rice stem stacks, tied up almost an monuments to the surrounding landscape.
There were quite a few little villages along my route, which felt like they hadn't changed in generations, apart from the occasional sound of a television drifting out from an open doorway. Chickens cluttered the straw filled floors, and the mud brick buildings were as humble as anything I had seen in China. It was a stark contrast to the hyper modernity of the Chinese super cities I had previously been in, it was another time in another country. The people seemed fairly friendly, some smiled and returned a 'hallo' to my 'ni hao', others pretended to not notice me. Hunched old women with faces like scrunched up brown paper offered me a yellow toothed smile, their bodies wrecked from working a lifetime on the land were now stooped in retirement. Pruned people crouched in huddles on porches and in courtyards, tending to toddlers who tested their energy levels, while the younger parents were out on the farms.

Mud brick villages.
A young boy drives his cattle through the street.
Traditional village life.
Man power. 
Rice drying out the front of a house. 
I continued north through the valley, keeping the river to my left and the closest peaks on my right. I took a few wrong turns that I realised were leading out of the valley and doubled back. Rice paddies were ripe for harvest and farmers were busy cutting it down by hand. Birds sang from the bushes and butterflies fluttered by and I felt like a Disney princess, until I noticed that cannabis was growing everywhere I looked. I'd never seen cannabis in the wild before. I'd seen factories of it on police raids in my old job, but never in it's natural state. Smelling it you could tell it had none of the potency of the super strains cultivated for consumption, and here was just a weed no different to nettles at home.

Rice fields.
Farmers out at work.
More rice - I didn't know what it looked like previously.
My bike - £7 for the day.
Medieval stone bridge across a stream.
Lots of butterflies and dragonflies flittered and darted about.
Weed, growing as a weed.
This woman sold me some much needed drinks.
I continued to push north through the valley. There was a bridge marked on the map where I could cross the main river and so I headed there. It was a beautiful 14th century stone bridge, slightly overgrown with climbers and weeds, and looked like something from Lord of the Rings. There was no one about, I was hot and sweaty and it was about lunch time, although I only had two snickers for food, and so I stripped off to my birthday suit and slipped into the water. It was perfectly refreshing and a glorious place for a midday swim, but my irrational paranoia of water snakes or dick biting pikes was still whispering in the back of my mind to stop me from fully relaxing in the situation. I still spent 10 minutes in the water swimming up and down, and just as I got out two female peasant pensioners appeared to peer at what I was up to. They probably got more than they bargained for, as I continued unabashed to towel myself dry with my sweaty shirt and stand there grinning at them stark bollock naked. I was probably the talk of the dinner table that day.

The 14th century stone bridge.
A little overgrown but it added to it's charm.
Taking an exhibitionists dip. If only Alice Roberts were here. 
I'd crossed the river and was heading south through the valley. This side was less populated and frequently I was lost and ran out of track to ride on. I found myself carrying the bike through fields and across orchards, the only paths to follow narrow farmer tracks raised above irrigated fields, wide enough for my boots but too narrow for me to ride on. It was tiring work. The path varied from smooth concrete roads which I raced along, to dust tracks and then faint traces of trails through agriculture. A few times I came across unpassable obstacles and had to turn back. I fell off the bike twice. The first time I was filming, and as I approached a tiny bend wanted to reduce a little speed, as I was cautious for my camera, I tapped the brake with my free hand, my inexperience forgetting it was the front brake and I would go over the handlebars. Over I went. I scraped my knee and grazed my arms and was covered in a rust coloured mud but I was ok, and carried on. I later fell off again when cycling on a very narrow path no more than 8 inches wide and very uneven, I lost my balance and tried with all my weight to shift it back upright, and it felt like I hung at a desperate angle for a few seconds, before gravity won and I toppled over taking down a farmers crooked fence and landing in a cannabis bush, before tossing the bike off me and climbing back on the saddle. I was becoming exhausted and it took me ages to find a bridge to cross the river. I found one and was delighted, but it only led to a maze of fields and I had to carry the bike across them, before coming across some farmers playing cards in a shed. 'Yangshuo?' I asked and pointed my arms around. They pointed me in the direction and before long I was back on a path and soon after that a main road. It was great to be on tarmac again and I powered on the pedals overtaking almost everyone on two wheels, apart from the proper motorcyclists.

Here I am on the bike, before I started to fall off.
Here's the river, but it took ages to find somewhere to cross it.
River Li.
Cattle were brought to feed on the fields once the rice had been harvested.
Old tombs up in the hillsides.
It was about 10km back into town and I raced through the traffic. Once I'd handed the bike back, I was exhausted; I zig-zag staggered across the town like a drunk tramp through the night, my legs had nothing more in them. I caught my reflection in a shop window, and was reminded of Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard; bleeding, scratched, dirty and sweaty, with a grubby vest hanging off my weary frame. Yipee-kayay!

1 comment:

  1. Guilin sounds really good- worth another trip to China .The view in the photo shows you how amazing it must be.Looking for real Guilin