Yangshuo II: Exploring the Yulong He

Written by Feb 10, 2007 22:02
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Yangshuo II: Bicycles and banana pancakes

After six months of trying to order Chinese dishes from Mandarin menus, I only felt a little guilty at the double pleasures of both Western food and English menus. By 8am we had eaten a grand breakfast of banana pancakes, fruit juice and fruit salad, collected an assortment of food for a picnic and were looking to hire a bicycle.

The streets of Yangshuo are full of bicycles and every few paces a different vendor has a selection of bikes for hire. We parted with just 10RMB each for two reasonably sturdy mountain bikes and a return deadline of 7pm.

Steely nerve is required to enter the traffic system and the first five minutes were mayhem as we were caught in a dizzying throng of motorbikes, lorries, taxis, trucks and assorted vehicles heading out of town. Only a few minutes later however and we were cast into a world that seemed not only a thousand miles away from Yangshuo but from the 21st Century too.

[Image: Old Bicycle, Yangshuo]

Yangshuo II: 100 years ago...

The traffic disappeared and we were alone on a wide road heading into a scene that would not have been out of place a hundred years ago – or more. The famous Yangshuo peaks themselves thrust skywards in irregular, humpbacked forms that began wide and rocky at the bottom and narrowed upwards to end in bushy dark green summits. At their feet were a chessboard of rectangular fields, knee-deep in water, in various shades of green, yellow and browns.

We paused to watch and take photographs:

A man balanced expertly on a wooden plough, most of which was under water, and held the reins of the water buffalo that stepped through the muddy depths. The only sign of modernity was the telephone and electricity cables slung overhead and punctuating the fields with tall poles. This scene was repeated over and over into the distance, alternating with fields where the backbreaking work of the rice planting itself was underway.

[Image: Farmer & Water Buffalo]

Yangshuo II: Locating the Yulong River

We headed south from Yangshuo along the main road until we came to the Yulong River that bisects it. A white bridge carried the road over the river and away. The bridge was busy with the ubiquitous blue trucks carrying bamboo rafts easily twice their length.

We turned west before the bridge onto a dirt track that lead away from the road and into the heart of the rice paddies and limestone peaks. We were joined by the occasional cyclists, motorbikes and blue trucks but otherwise we were alone. We followed the placid Yulong River and its dark waters, sometimes crossing it on low, narrow bridges and other times winding far away from it and into the villages that lay scattered around.

Despite a map and few options regarding which path to take, we never quite knew where we were. We didn’t let this bother us, in fact, it rather added to the feeling of stepping back into a time beyond the reach of our map.

[Image: Blue Truck Carrying Bamboo Rafts]

Yangshuo II: A rural scene

The weather was muggy and the sky dotted with clouds. An odd shower dropped from nowhere from time to time, soaking us, though just as quickly disappearing and leaving the sun to dry us out.

We stopped regularly at small way-stations where locals sold fruit and, more importantly, water. At one such place a group of curious children surrounded us eager to practise their English and investigate these two foreigners passing through. We were always greeted with smiles and offers to buy an assortment of locally produced wares.

Villages sprang up unexpectedly and seemed to be deserted. The houses were low and either white-washed or built from pale orange bricks; the roofs shallow points of dark stone tiles. Washing hung outside the doorways and chickens strutted down the quiet gravel paths. Behind them, as everything, the green triangles of the landscape cut into the sky.

One village was centred around a murky green pond dominated by a single short, fat pinnacle. Bamboos clustered, lush and tropical, at its base. A water buffalo calf had been tethered close by and stood surrounded by straw. I tried to feed it but it remained shyly distant. We felt alone and timeless and agreed that surely no more rural a scene than this could be found.

[Image: Water Buffalos, Rice Fields And Bridge]

Yangshuo II: Cycling versus rafting

We spent hours cycling, stopping at various locations to admire the buffalo swimming with only their heads visible in the brown-green pools or watch the roadside cows tugging at the grass. The path we took was edged with crops or bamboos or ancient looking dwellings that were being assimilated into the undergrowth. There was little evidence of civilisation or modernity, rather an endless sweep of a time gone by nestled between the coarse limestone pinnacles.

The day moved ever onwards. The farmers in their wide-brimmed straw hats began collecting and herding their cows home along the narrow pathways between the rice fields. It was a sign that the afternoon was closing and we were a long way from where we started.

We’d previously passed a flotilla of bamboo rafts and decided that we would take a ride back down the river though we weren’t even sure if it was possible with our bikes in tow. We backtracked to the rafts that were moored, appearing like a great wooden platform stretching into the river. A quick discussion with a ‘driver’, some haggling over the price and we were handing over our bikes to his capable hands. He secured them at the back of the raft, asked us to remove our shoes and then beckoned us on board. After many hours of cycling it was a singular pleasure to sink into the two bamboo seats as our driver hoisted his pole and manoeuvred us out onto the Yulong He.

[Image: Taking The Cows Home]

Yangshuo II: Rafting the Yulong River

We were to make a breathtaking journey back along the river that we had cycled up. The earlier cloud vanished and the sun appeared casting the land into pools of gold and shadow. The driver poled us with strong strokes through the water and we drifted in the splendour of the landscape.

The afternoon heat showed no signs of abating and the river was looking more and more inviting. I asked our driver if we might go swimming and he assured us this was no problem. I’d neglected to bring my swimsuit and so jumped in fully clothed, the river was perfectly cool: the driver slowed the raft to allow us to swim around for a while.

It wasn’t long before we passed an enterprising local on her very own bamboo raft complete with its own cool box, she waved a can of coke at us. I yelled across to see if she had any beer and bought three bottles, one each for Shane and I and one for our hard-working driver.

[Image: Floating Beer Seller]

Yangshuo II: Negotiating waterfalls...

Our adventure was not to end here however. Suitably refreshed, relaxed and having dried out from our swim we reached an area of the river where it began to get busy. A number of other boats joined us, most with Chinese families on them and many with children. Thus began a number of water fights between our boats and a great sense of shared relaxation connected us all.

It was shortly after this that we met our first waterfall. Looking ahead we could see a procession of bamboo rafts negotiating the waterfalls that appeared across the river. At first I thought it would be possible to go around but it soon became apparent that we would be going over them. The driver advised us to sit down as the first waterfall approached.

No more than half a metre high, it was still enough to fill us with excitement and a little trepidation. The rushing sound of the water increased and the driver poled us increasingly swiftly towards it. We were there and over, the boat hung in the air for a brief moment before gravity caught hold of the front and it plunged down into the river. The water rushed up the raft submerging the first third and explaining why it was necessary for the rafts to be so long as it enabled the passengers and driver to remain dry.

We would ride another eight waterfalls on the course of our journey; each time the building anticipation of the noise of the water was accompanied by the driver increasing our speed and the eventual nosedive downwards. Like many others we got stuck from time to time, the boat grounded on the waterfall’s rock and we were left suspended, hanging out over the drop. The driver would wiggle and rock the boat using the pole until it tipped over the edge and we sank in slow motion down to the next level.

[Image: Rafts And Waterfalls]

Yangshuo II: Heading home

As evening descended and the light began to fall out of the sky we reached the white bridge where we had begun our journey. Boats clustered as passengers dismounted. A man sat nearby on a tiny raft he shared with 5 cormorants that sat silhouetted like bats.

The bridge rattled and hummed with the returning traffic and it seemed as though we had woken from a dream. Reality brought its noise and speed into the peace and careless flow of our river journey, a part of me resented the intrusion.

In front of us the land grew pale and indistinct, a faint mist gathered and began its climb of the peaks. Behind, the karst landscape was cast in shadows of blue and black, otherworldly, the river like a wide vein of silver.

We exited from this tranquil world with reluctance. We collected our bikes, waved our driver a last goodbye and headed home to the town of Yangshuo, nightfall and civilisation.

[Image: Evening Light On The Yulong He]

 More Yangshuo Travel Reviews
1. The Green Hills of Yangshuo -- Part 2 CHYNAGYRL from CA Dec 2, 2006 22:12
2. The Green Hills of Yangshuo CHYNAGYRL from CA Nov 30, 2006 10:11
3. The wonderland in China ALICEGAO from CN Sep 27, 2006 21:09
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