National Week, Part Three: The Bike Ride
So National Holiday was, as a whole, one of the best and—frankly, most bizarre—weeks of my entire life. This day was one of the major reasons why.
Our second full day in Yangshuo, we decided that we wanted to bike up to a place called Dragon Bridge on the Yulong river. And, because we are all apparently sadists, we decided that we would take the 40 kilometer back-road scenic route. “A three-hour bike ride? Sure, why not!” we all cried, all inwardly cringing at the thought but none wanting to back out.
Bear in mind, please, that previous to this adventure I had not ridden a bicycle in over 10 years, and I was not the only person in that situation on that day. Relearning the bicycle is fairly easy—I do not, however, recommend doing so on a Chinese highway.
Because remember how I told you in the first National Week post about Chinese traffic? And how it is completely insane? Yeah. Let me refresh your memory and put this bike ride in context for you.
We set about renting mountain bikes from our various hostels (cheap, cheap, cheap!) and after a couple false starts, and a second breakfast, we headed out. Part of the reason the bicycle rentals are so cheap, methinks, is that they wouldn’t really pass any kind of inspection. Sometimes the gears worked. Sometimes the chain fell off if you tried to switch gears. Three of our number were all stuck in 3rd or 4th gear for the entire ride, part of which was up a massive hill.
Oh, also, no one wears helmets in China. They weren’t even offered.
So we truck out to the main highway, where we will begin our journey. No big deal, just riding against (mostly truck) traffic through the downtown of Yangshuo. Then we get out on the real highway, which is where it starts to get really interesting. Remember how I mentioned that China traffic is at least two lanes of traffic to every painted lane? Now add to that 9 foreigners on bicycles riding amidst an absolute horde of Chinese tourists, who sometimes stop right in front of you for no apparent reason. And the tuk-tuks, which also sometimes stop in front of you, usually because they’ve hit a patch of about 30 or so Chinese tourists who are all massed in one clump, and the tuk-tuk is too large to get through them. Unlike your crafty self on a bike; I relearned pretty quickly how to dodge and weave on two wheels. Still though, watch out for that motorcyclist who nearly clips you on the left, and also don’t worry too much about ducking out into traffic to get around a slow group, an advantage which the slow-to-accelerate tuk-tuks do not have—but make sure that it’s a car behind you first, because while the cars can slow down easily, the buses take a bit more time.
And if you really want to make things interesting, go ahead and miss your turnoff for the scenic route and decide to turn around and ride against traffic back to it, not just through the throngs of bikes and swarms of motorized vehicles, but also over a bridge which narrows the maneuverable area considerably. Harrowing. Absolutely harrowing.
At least there’s a guy wearing butterfly wings to keep you giggling.
Finally you make it to the turnoff and breathe a sigh of relief, only to realize that now you’re on a narrow back-country road about as wide as one army-surplus jeep, with extremely narrow gravel shoulders. So every time one of those said jeeps which have been converted into farm- and field-labor transport comes trundling down the road, you have to dive into the narrow gravel shoulder and hope that your tires don’t come shooting out from under you because a) there’s a truck right there and b) remember, you’re not wearing a helmet. (Incidentally, for a little while the working title of this post was “Dumb Things I Would Never, EVER Do In The States.”)
This continues for about 10 kilometers or so, at which point y’all have been biking for about an hour, when suddenly you come to a place that is absolutely lousy with little vendor stands, bicycle racks, and a blessed, blessed public restroom. There’s only one reason for all of these vendors to be here—it’s a tourist trap of some kind. Uh-oh, you think, did we come the wrong way after all? We can’t possibly be at the bridge…
And you’re not, because as you round the corner (walking your bike, because there are way too many guys with umbrellas and wooden helicopter toys wandering around for riding to be in any way logistically possible) you suddenly see before you a fleet of little bamboo rafts, and the continuing path across the (presently not very wide) river.
So you shell out the ridiculous price of Y15 each (about $2 US) to get you, your bike, one of your tripmates, and their bike, and possibly one more bike just for good measure, loaded onto a bamboo raft. These rafts, I think I should point out, are made of about 12 to 15 bamboo trunks strapped together with wire. Some of them have little seats; many do not. I got on one that had no seats, so my raftmate and I crouched over our little pile of bicycles trying not to get too wet from the water lapping through the voids between the bamboo trunks. Luckily, at that point the river—which there is actually probably either a tributary or feeder of the Yulong, and not the Yulong itself, to be quite honest—is a mere 15 yards across, so you can wave at, yell at, needle, and cajole your friends on the opposite bank as they also embark upon this slightly ludicrous endeavor. You are all, meanwhile, being called all variations of “fat,” “heavy,” etc. by the skinny river people poling the boats.
Once you’ve all crossed over (some of you cranky about having damp shoes, some of you are cranky about the insults about the size of your person) you hop back on your bikes and start pedaling once more. And this is where you realize why you came out on this adventure in the first place.
Across the river, there is no motorized traffic. You’re biking down a path that winds through the limestone hills, and it feels like it’s just you, your friends, and the beautiful wilderness of Yangshuo county. There are flocks of birds, a gecko now and again, and myriad butterflies of every conceivable color flitting about as you wend your way down the (nicely paved) path. The sky is a shade of blue that just never quite occurs in Shenzhen because there’s a bit too much pollution; out here, though, the sky is a true cerulean and between that and the jade green hills, it’s jewel-toned scenic paradise.
We ran into other groups of bicyclers now and again, overtaking each other as we all wandered through the Yulong River back country. At one point we reached a massive, steep hill, full gravel on the road because it was probably too much trouble to try to pave. We were joined at that point in the trip by a group of people from Boston and we shouted encouragement as they bravely tried to pedal their way up the hill. We did no such thing—we walked. This seemed the only sane course of action because a) the hill was ridiculously steep and b) as previously mentioned, some people’s bikes didn’t have actual gears. So we got out and pushed, as it were. Once we got to the top, we got back on and gleefully raced down the other side of the hill.
Which, as it turns out, was perhaps not the smartest course of action, because again this particular part of the road is not paved. Going over potholes at 15-20 miles per hour with your butt is not exactly the most comfortable activity in the world. And as it turns out, the rest of the ride to Dragon Bridge, about another 10 or 11 km, is not paved either. So it’s potholes the rest of the way. Glorious. Not to mention at this point you have to cross the river again, thankfully this time on a bridge, but it means that you rejoin the back-roads traffic, so you’re trying to do a bunch of things at once:
- Not get hit by traffic.
- Not dive into any potholes.
- Not get hit by traffic because you’re avoiding potholes.
- Not go headfirst into any potholes because you’re avoiding traffic.
- Not bruise your tailbone any more than is absolutely necessary.
After a bit, you start to notice houses coming up along the sides of the road. It’s interesting, because out here the people live pretty far away from the bustling commercial tourist center of Yangshuo, and it definitely shows. Houses out here are small, dirty, and dilapidated; sometimes they’re missing walls, sometimes the roof has holes or hastily slapped-on patches, often the doors are hanging badly on the hinges. Obviously these people don’t see much, if any, of the tourist money that floods into West Street at times like National Holiday. I have a sneaking suspicion, actually, that a lot of the people who live out in those houses are actually some of the merchants whose stalls line West Street and the market along the Li River where it borders the town, because it seems to be the way to make any money at all in the district.
This scenery continues until you reach what looks sort of like a cross between a concrete labyrinth and a ghost town, and also looks distinctly like a dead end. Magically, though, if you take a right down one specific street, all of a sudden the Yulong appears before you once again, along with a quaint little cobblestone sitting area, a fleet of parked bicycles, and a host of street vendors hawking fruit and steamed corn and roasted nuts.
We were pretty stoked to have arrived, and we set about locking our bikes together and sat for a few minutes in the shady sitting area. Then the more adventurous souls decided to go and jump off the bridge, because, after all, that was one of the attractions.
The Dragon Bridge is basically just an old stone bridge, not too much to look at but at least a little picturesque because of the location. It’s about 25 feet or so off the water, so by the time you stand on top of the stone wall to jump off, you’re probably jumping somewhere between 27 and 30 feet into the water. Most of us hung back at first, and the three bravest of our group went first, to such admonishments as “Don’t land on your belly! Or your back!” and “Make sure to clench your butt!!” I’m pretty sure the group of European tourists thought we were nuts. So did the Chinese people. They seemed both fascinated with and horrified by the fact that we were jumping off the bridge into the river.
The three who went first whooped and hollered and fist-pumped so much, that it inspired those of us who had been hanging back to go ahead and get up there. Our friends back on the bank were taking pictures– they told me after I jumped that I had gone too quickly and hadn’t given them enough time to take good pictures or video. Basically I scrambled up the wall and jumped before I could think about it. There is, however, a nice action shot and the person I went with and I got a good photo of the triumphant jumpers afterward.
Side note: biking for 30+ kilometers leaves you with a bit of a sore rear, let alone when you smack it with a jump from 30 feet into water. We were not wild about the idea of biking back immediately, so we sat on the far side of the river for a while and had a China approximation of sandwiches for lunch. (Bread, lettuce, egg and tomato. No dressing, no condiments, and no meat of any kind…) We were still sore after sitting for an hour, so we decided to once again hire bamboo rafts, this time to take us down the river back towards Yangshuo.
We were at this point sitting across the river from where the boat hiring dock was located, but the gnarled old woman who haggled with us over the price of the boats kept waving at us to stay where we were, they would go get the bikes, it would all be fine.
So we relinquished our bike lock keys, and watched as the old woman pointed and yelled and gesticulated at 5 boatsmen who proceeded to pile 7 bikes variously on their boats and head over to our side of the river.
The catch: we had 9 people. Therefore, 9 bikes.
So one of the gals who spoke better Chinese raced over to the other side to make sure that all of our bikes got collected and put on a boat. Alas, she didn’t get over there before the last of the boats pulled away, so then there was a mild circus on the other side while we shifted around two of the boats that only had one bicycle apiece, put one person on the boat that had no bicycles and sent him back across the river to the opposite side where the two stray bicycles and one stray bicyclist were waiting. Finally all situated (and again, all of us having been called some variation of fat by our boaters, who obviously didn’t think any of us spoke any Chinese, at all) we began our float down the Yulong.
If biking through the Yulong river country at midday was beautiful, it was nothing compared to floating down the Yulong at late afternoon. The sun was just low enough that as we passed the hills, the sun would hide just a little behind them, casting long, purple and blue shadows over the water and deepening the greens in the hills. There were plenty of people on the water, too, so the river was a parade of bamboo rafts with brightly colored umbrellas. For the most part it was incredibly peaceful, but there were a series of smallish—maybe 2-4 foot—man-made waterfalls about every 2 kilometers or so that you’d have to go over, and the strategy here was for the boatman to get a good start, aim for a smooth point in the rock and concrete wall, and hope you didn’t get stuck. If you did get stuck, it was usually shallow enough on the top side that he could get out and push. If you didn’t get stuck, you tipped precariously into space for a moment before the front of the raft crashed down into the water, miraculously not getting you too wet if you managed to bring your feet up into the seat with you.
When we landed, we wrestled the bikes back up to shore and took stock. There was a water buffalo sitting in a water hole, chewing grass and looking quizzically at us. We looked quizzically back at it. Then a little girl came up to us and started jabbering excitedly in Chinese about how there was a man with wings, and was he our friend? And why was he wearing wings? which just added to the peculiarity of the situation. At some point during all of this, we also realized that we were on the highway at the second crossing of the river– on the back roads, still at least 20 km from comfort; on the highway, probably 11 km.
We chose the highway.
And bumped and jarred and cursed and swore and joked all the way home. One of the more painful experiences I’ve ever had, and mostly just for the prolonged torture of it. I don’t know if I have every biked that far that fast, just trying to get as many miles chewed up as possible, so to find a soft place to sit and a good, stiff drink as anesthetic. The perils of the traffic had nothing on the discomfort of the bike seat.
We did eventually make it home, with daylight to spare, and all went our separate ways to wash up, and find one of the many happy hours all over town. Five of us wound up at a rooftop bar, and around midnight made a pact that the following day we would go to the mud caves and hot springs.
On to Part Four. Later.
Photographs courtesy the rest of the group. I had very little to do with them, except in the pilfering of them. Apologies to the photographers.