Triplogue - China I: Guangxi

31 July, Mong Cai/ Dongxing to Qinzhou, 100km (a)

The People’s Republic of China. We had no idea what to expect, arriving by bicycle into a supposedly closed area of the world’s largest police state. Remembering the carefully worded warning of the consular employee back in Vientiane ("China isn’t like other countries; you can’t just ride your bicycle anywhere you like"), we half-wondered if they’d summarily reject us at the border, turning us back to Vietnam, where our visa expires today. I envisioned a nightmarish bus ride all the way back to Hanoi, followed by an enforced tour of Vietnam’s many bureaucracies and paying a whole slew of fees.

On the other hand, I remembered my first arrival in China, eleven years ago almost to the day. After filling out a dauntingly elaborate customs form I had expected the worst, yet was amused to find the two male customs officers on duty at Beijing airport standing shyly in their ill-fitting uniforms and holding hands.

Today’s border experience held both a little of the scariness I had feared and a little of the softness I had experienced on that long-ago trip. First, we had to wait at the Vietnam side of the border for the better part of an hour for business hours to commence. While we went through the formalities, a whole army of Chinese came trotting across the bridge for a day of work in Vietnam. As if reading my paranoid thoughts, the officer processing our exit said in the most serious tone he could muster, "Since your visas are good only for one entry, you won’t be able to come back until you get another one, in Beijing, or wherever. Have a nice trip!"

On the Chinese side, a hundred meters away, we surrendered our documents and tried to downplay the bicycle aspect of our intended voyage. I chatted away with all the uniformed dudes in nervous Chinese while Fred kept an eye on the movements of the guy who had taken our passports.

We waited there for nearly an hour, and when we were cleared to go the instinct was to bolt, to get as far away from the immigration people as we could before they had a chance to change their minds.

Instantly we were plunged into China, finding ourselves in an old narrow lane crowded with people. And all eyes were on us. Right away I noticed the funky bicycle taxis that were unlike anything we’d seen elsewhere in Asia. Many of these were being driven by women. In all the other countries we’d been in, this kind of work is exclusively the province of men, and I found the change immediately refreshing. It was also impossible not to notice the many Land Cruisers of the Gong An –China’s "public safety" police—who cruised alongside us, presumably scrutinizing us from the other side of their tinted windows.

First on the agenda was changing money. We went back and forth on the people-filled street several times before finding the place that people had indicated to us –little more than a low table presided over by two women with a calculator and fistfuls of cash. In the two minutes that this transaction required, we attracted a staring, slack-jawed crowd big enough to hold up traffic going in either direction. Finding the road out of town was easy enough, and it was on our way out of Dongxing that we first witnessed evidence of the breakneck speed with which China is developing. Beyond the compact ancient core of town construction was rampant, with buildings going up everywhere along newly-established boulevards wide enough to land a 747 on. It reminded me of an ant farm I had when I was a kid.

We followed the bike lane out of town, which ended abruptly in ricefields that looked a lot like the ricefields of Vietnam. The road, however, was unlike anything we’d seen in a long time –nicely graded, recently surfaced and deliciously wide. There was even a line running down the middle of it. It felt strange to cruise down such a road out of a futuristic town like Dongxing and through agricultural land being exploited in pretty much the same way as it has for centuries. In spite of the tractors so prominently featured in communist China’s iconography (e.g. their money, their stamps), the fields of Guangxi province are still plowed by water buffalo and planted, tended, and harvested by hand.

One detail that struck both Fred and me as we cruised along (we had a good tailwind this morning) was how old so many of the peasants were. Truly ancient men and women, their hides tanned into heavily-wrinkled leather, their backs bent into the shape of question marks from so many years of agricultural toil. What goes through their minds when their grandchildren go whizzing past in brand new BMWs and Hondas, cell phones affixed to the sides of their heads?

Yes, passenger cars were also a feature of the sparkling new toll road. For the most part they passed prudently, though the high speeds at which they drove came as somewhat of a shock after slow-motion Vietnam.

We reached Fangcheng, about sixty kilometers from the border, in time for lunch. It’s a fairly huge town, and –like Dongxing—resembles a giant 3-D version of "Sim City." We stopped at the first restaurant that we came across. The woman who ran the place was so excited to receive foreign guests that I feared she might wet her pants. Obviously not many big-nosed, pale-faced foreign devils make it through Fangcheng. In a matter of moments we had attracted a considerable staring gallery. I had a craving for dumplings, and when I asked our hostess if she had any she said she didn’t, but could send someone to a place that did. Meantime we munched on vegetables and soup, avoiding the organ dishes that everyone else in the restaurant was noisily chowing down. As we ate, Fred and I looked at each other in astonishment at the sheer decibel volume of the conversations that surrounded us. Cantonese is not so much spoken as it is howled, screeched and bellowed.

As we finished our meal our hostess came up and asked coyly if we would mind waiting for her to run home and find a camera. For reasons unknown, she thought the novelty of serving two sweaty cyclists worthy of a snapshot. In return for our posing for a portrait, she said, the dumplings would be on the house.

A half an hour later she showed up with not a camera but a photographer in tow. He directed us and our gallery of onlookers for a photo. Afterwards, we presented our hostess with a crisp dollar bill as a good luck token for her new business. We pedaled off, marveling at the friendliness of the Chinese.

The ridiculously wide avenue leading out of Fangcheng led past a long strip of banks, karaoke parlors and half-finished apartment towers before dwindling to a narrow bumpy strip of road. We followed a couple of malodorous motorized carts hauling giant cauldrons of human shit out to the fields (they call it "night soil" here and use it as fertilizer), preparing ourselves for a long and uncomfortable forty kilometers to Qinzhou. Then we noticed a sign announcing (in English, amazingly) "Fang-Nan Expressway, 2km ahead". We envisioned another fabulous road like this morning’s and thought how we’d make record time to Qinzhou. But it was not meant to be, for the expressway was of the four-laned variety and prohibited bikes. Even from the distance we could see that it was a road worthy of Sweden, and we both longed to ride on it. We biked right past the very clear "no biking" sign to the tollbooth, hoping our powers of persuasion would win us access to the dream road. But the two girls working there nearly had coronaries when they saw us. They frantically explained "bu neng, bu neng" ("impossible") and pointed us back to the buckled old road which ran parallel.

The old road was in pretty bad shape, but it was nicely shaded and delightfully pastoral. The remaining kilometers to Qinzhou rolled quickly under our wheels. Soon we were surrounded once again by a forest of concrete monstrosities rising out of the ricefields, pedaling among masses of cyclists. The first hotel we saw was a huge and bizarre-looking place, an odd-shaped tower that looked on the verge of toppling over. I investigated and found the rooms to be wanting for hygiene. "We’d like to look around a little first. Does this town have any other hotels?" I asked the receptionist as charmingly as I could. She sullenly made a vague gesture towards the East and we quickly discovered that while we thought we’d already made it to the center of town, we’d barely begun to penetrate the huge city. If we learned anything today, it is that in China everything is built on an almost obscenely massive scale.

Just down the street we found the Qinzhou Hotel, a much friendlier and cleaner establishment that offered us a fairly luxurious room at just over ten bucks (we were both relieved to learn that China wasn’t going to ruin us pocketbook-wise). Though we both could have used a nap at this point, our brains were still very much abuzz over being in a new country, so we went for a walk instead.

The market was in the process of closing up but fascinating nevertheless. Many of the animals being sold were either completely unfamiliar to me or never previously considered as an alimentary possibility. Even the impecunious Chinese poke fun at the people of this region for eating "anything with four legs except maybe a table." Nearby we discovered a massive (and surprisingly luxurious) hotel complex straight out of Las Vegas. We found iced coffee here and told the receptionist that we might be back to stay the next day, depending on the weather and our energy level. As the sun set we walked down an older, narrower street and then along a canalside footpath. Though we were right in the middle of town, people were tending their vegetable gardens, washing their clothes in the river and minding their chickens and pigs. Back on the street near our hotel we were surprised to discover a lively red light district full of bordellos thinly masquerading as karaoke lounges, bars and hair salons. We also stumbled on a discothequelike substance, where we peeked in and promised we’d come back after dinner.

Which we did. Though it was only nine or ten o’clock the cavernous place was jamming. The raucous crowd included drunken revelers, the usual painted ladies, and a surprising number of families out with their small children. The many hostesses kept coming by and trying to sell us various items. When one offered "red watermelon" it sounded good to me so I said yes. When she came back with a little dish of watermelon seeds we were put on our guard and ordered nothing more. On stage was the biggest karaoke machine I’d ever seen, and this was thankfully dismantled for… the floorshow.

Both Fred and I were astonished by the show’s elaborate choreography, the quality of the singers’ voices and the fact that in a backwater town in a backwater province in a restrictive and uniform society one can find drag. Yes, there were drag queens. We didn’t get much of a chance to watch the show, however, since a few of the celebrants from a particularly raucous group at the table next to us decided to take us under their wing. One of them had seen us ride into town earlier (indeed, the whole town seemed to know that we had arrived by bicycle somehow) and they all wanted to make sure we got a favorable impression of their hometown. The guy that talked to us the most –and whose Chinese was the most understandable to me— said he was a lawyer and had obviously had a lot to drink. He was friendly in a demonstrative way and Fred was convinced that our new friend was trying to hit on him. Fearful of getting entangled in the long strands of "lucky hair" sprouting out of a mole on our new friend’s neck, Fred made special efforts to maintain a safe distance. After a while an especially rotund member of their party joined our table, saying it was his 26th birthday. Many toasts were made. Fred learned how to say "gan bei", or "cheers" and lifted his instantly-refilled glass of beer many times.

We made a narrow escape by insisting we had to be on the road early the next day. Since we were a fair distance from our hotel, we took a bicycle taxi back. Halfway home we instructed our female driver to stop for ice cream, where Fred insisted I persuade her to let him drive the remainder of the way while she climbed in back with me. She reluctantly agreed, worried that Fred would get us into an accident. He did well, though, and I could tell by the way that he was straining in the pedals that he’d developed a newfound appreciation for pedicab drivers’ work.

I hadn’t seen Fred so playful in a long while. We’d taken countless pedicab rides on this trip and he’d never wanted to drive before. And I was astonished to see him pick up his glass with such alacrity back at the bar. He was obviously having a great time in China. Sure enough, as we retired for the evening he proposed, "This is too much fun. Let’s stay in Qinzhou another day."

China: world's oldest peasants


Fangsheng photo op

Typical Guangxi village


Domicile and tire repair shop

1 August, Qinzhou to Nanning, 128km (f)

While hoisting beers with the birthday boys the night before we’d decided that Qinzhou deserved another night and resolved to stay to "soak-up" more of China before moving on to a big city. After breakfast today, however, we noted that there were big clouds blocking the sun’s rays and that the wind was blowing strongly in the direction of our intended travel. So we decided to abandon our rest in charming Qinzhou and head for Nanning, capital of Guangxi province and home to over two million people. We got a very late start; it was nearly nine before we were pedaling through the crowded bike lanes of this bustling provincial market town. In fact the bike lanes were so crowded we had to ride in the streets, which seemed to offend the sensibilities of the bike riding townspeople. Before we knew it we were thundering up the road to Nanning with the wind at our backs and with concrete road under our tires.

The beautiful six-lane road quickly diminished to two lanes, cement giving way to tar. The tailwind evaporated and the terrain became hilly. Villages we passed were of two varieties. The first type was made up of characterless roadside burghs made of brick, tile and cement. Many of the buildings in these towns were partially completed and those that were finished were largely unoccupied. Suburban Chinese development was obviously gearing up for busier times. The other type were brick and mud brick buildings with clay tile roofs nestled in craggy valleys on land that was too rugged to farm rice on. Sometimes we’d see a cement new town swallowing an older agricultural one. Despite the partly cloudy skies we had to contend with the heat that mounted as we gained altitude.

We stopped at a tire repair and drink stand only to down three bottles of cold water each. The store itself was little more than a few rattan panels supported by stacks of truck tires. The mechanic and his father lived and worked in the shack that reeked of burnt rubber. Their platform bed sat just behind the massive air compressor amongst the debris of tools and tire chunks.

Unlike the day before, more and more trees dotted the hills around and the roadside, dashing my theory that the Chinese had defoliated their entire country. The terrain was nearly as beautiful as Vietnam only there was something different I couldn’t place my finger on. A few days later Andy summed it up, "the land has been in use for a lot longer by many more people."

Thankfully sometime around the day’s midpoint we began to reap the rewards of the earlier climbs. Now gradual and long descents followed the ascents. The road surface got progressively better, enhancing our riding experience. As we approached the suburbs of Nanning the road widened and smoothed further and we both found ourselves starving for a snack. We’d eaten nothing but ice cream since breakfast and the hour was nearing three. We stopped in a strip-mall restaurant and tried to order food. Suddenly Andy’s Chinese had become incomprehensible to the locals. It seemed strange, for just this morning and even earlier this day people had managed to understand him. Andy too had difficulties understanding the staff at the restaurant so we were collectively reduced to gesticulating. When it became apparent that the problem was one of competence and not of understanding we moved on to another and another establishment encountering the same problem. Finally we met the son of a restaurateur who could speak actual Chinese and not dialect. We managed to order some food and drink before riding the last few kilometers to Nanning.

The town was vast by most standards but just a "middle-sized" Chinese town according to one of the hotel clerks I’d meet later. We had some difficulty finding the center of the town it was so big. Nanning seemed to have been built with some consciousness of its future growth. The streets and boulevards were huge, all designed to accommodate massive amounts of vehicular traffic --including the throngs of bicycles that clogged the bike lanes. What they didn’t plan for well is the pedestrian traffic that spilled into the bike lanes this Saturday afternoon, causing huge traffic problems. We wove through the streets in search of a hotel to rest at for two nights, finally settling on the stateliest looking of them. After an excessive amount of drama over the housing of our bikes we found our room and showered off our road grit.

We’d planned to take a nap before hitting the town but found it to be too late for that. Walking along the riverfront we found a beer and a game of pool in open air taverns there, causing much commotion among the locals who were decidedly unaccustomed to seeing white-faced tourists in their midst. We settled on dinner in our hotel hoping for an English language menu. There we found dinner in the grandest of rooms this side of San Francisco but no English menu, so we were reduced to pointing to the tables of those around us to choose our meal.

We decided to have a night on the town in Nanning after our dinner; it was, after all, Saturday night. Saturday night here was something to behold. All the cars save a few taxis had disappeared and the entire town seemed to be hoofing it. Here comes another chapter in my wonderment over time and space in Asia. Here it was nearly eleven o’clock and people were shopping for all kinds of goods in the streets. Everything from dinnerware to CD’s to furniture was being hawked at impromptu stands. One woman was hawking plastic inflatable furniture. She had several air-filled samples on the street and all of them were full of families trying them out. We ourselves were on a mission to consume some ice cream and nearly fell over in shock when we came upon a branch of Arkansas’ own TCBY. There we had a yogurt sundae.

We’d scoped out a bar called the Hot something-or-other earlier and descended the stairs to have a beer and hobnob with the youth of Nanning. The floorshow had just began as we entered. Two girls and a drag queen were lip-synching some "B" American tune dressed in rainbow colored Pipi Longstocking wigs. We were adopted by a group of Army boys celebrating another week without war. Another boy introduced himself and began speaking uncannily excellent English. He admitted to have taught himself our language --a fact that shocked both of us for he seemed to have a southern accent. I found sleep begging me to indulge it sometime around eleven. Andrew remained a few moments longer. In that short span of time he was introduced to a girl with a dress so short it caused some embarrassment. His English speaking friend told him to be careful, she is a "shame girl."

1-8 August, around Nanning and on to Guilin (a)

What we thought would be our only full day in Nanning was devoted to computing, relaxing and sightseeing. Since it was Sunday, I thought the park would be interesting to see. But once we got there we were shocked to find it practically empty; have the Chinese abandoned wholesome family recreation in favor of shopping? The park was phenomenally well-kept and a delight to cycle around. After exploring its many lakes, gardens and vistas, we decided to check out a garish Disneyfied fake cave, which turned out to be the entrance to a former underground military post, since converted to the cheesiest attraction we’ve seen in a long time. Down an endless flight of stairs, dozens of tableaux of scenes from Chinese mythology fill dank hallways and cubbyholes. Most of these are hooked up to motion sensors, which spring the cheaply-costumed mannequins into life. Back upstairs, we chatted with the extremely friendly family who runs the concession. They invited us to join them for dinner (we declined) and told us that yes, they actually live down in the cave among all the goddesses and Confuci.

We had turned down a free and potentially hilarious dinner in favor of a buffet feast at the Majestic, the fanciest hotel in town. During the short pedal there, we noticed several white couples (the first Westerners we’d seen since arriving in China), all of them promenading little Chinese babies. One of these couples was carrying a pair of beautiful little girls, obvious twins, and we stopped to admire them. "We’re taking them back with us to Ohio in a few days," the couple explained, telling us that China was a great place for Westerners to adopt babies, providing that they wanted little girls. Fifty years of supposedly gender-blind communism has not fully suppressed the traditional Chinese preference for male offspring, and many infant girls are still given up, abandoned or worse.

While the dinner tasted all right, we wonder if we should have avoided the sushi.

On our way back to the hotel, in the midst of battling Nanning’s insane traffic, a friendly young man expressing a keen interest in our machines stopped us. He introduced himself as Yin Ling and insisted we come visit him at his bike shop the following day. "Well, there’s always the chance that we stay another day," we stated as politely as possible, "but our plan was to leave as early tomorrow as possible."

Our plan, it turns out, was seriously compromised by both of us feeling ill the next morning, and we ended up staying six nights in Nanning all told. No longer can I gloat that I have yet to be afflicted by intestinal disorders on this trip. Was it the sushi?

In any event, we did actually make it to Yin Ling’s shop the next day. He insisted on replacing my handlebar tape and cleaning both our bikes free of charge. All we had to give him was an "honorary BikeBrat" bracelet made of a bicycle chain. We hung out at his sweltering shop for a couple of hours, observing how the place serves as a meeting place for the young cycle-crazed of Nanning. We met several finely turned out young men who were provincial champions of mountain biking and cyclecross events, as well as a bird-boned girl who had won many long-distance road races. They invited us to join them on a sunset ride in the hills outside of town. Had we not felt so lousy we would have accepted in a heartbeat. Instead, I asked Yin Ling about the state of cycling in China, explaining to him that our visit here was in some ways a pilgrimage, since China contains well over half the bicycles on Earth. He told me that while he and his friends were bike-crazy, the majority of Chinese would eagerly trade in their bikes for a motorcycle, and that Nanning has the highest percentage of motorcycle owners of any Chinese city. (I had been distressed to see in Qinzhou that a new motorcycle retails for the equivalent of $350). Eventually, I suppose Nanning and other towns like it will resemble the beeping, stinking, scooter infested hells of Taipei and Bangkok.

Following our visit to Lin Ying’s I felt worse and worse. Three days in bed followed, punctuated only by twice-daily visits to our hotel’s (free) clinic. A sturdy, friendly doctor/nurse repeatedly took my temperature (it was frighteningly high) prescribed and supplied various traditional and Western medicines and jabbed my butt with a big scary needle. Fred felt only slightly better and we can only wonder what the housekeeping staff on our floor thought of us, holed up in our room like a pair of hibernating beavers.

Fred felt better before I did and developed a healthy dose of cabin fever. He couldn’t wait to get out of Nanning, a city remarkable only for its hugeness. Since I wasn’t yet up to riding a bike, the train looked like our best option. We scored a pair of tickets to Guilin with remarkable ease, told that our bikes would follow us on a slower train.

It pained me to look out the window and see the picturesque countryside roll by, but I suppose the train ride was an interesting cultural experience in itself (one old dude had boarded carrying nothing but an enormous jar full of pickled geckos). We were on the Beijing express, dozens of cars long and packed to the gills with people. While we had insisted on the most luxurious seats, our ride in "soft seat" was hardly comfortable. We were packed in six across on upright benches covered in vinyl, and we spent the entire ride providing entertainment for our fellow passengers. A guy sitting next to Fred was so absorbed by the book Fred was reading that when Fred began to turn the page, his neighbor stuck his hand in the book so he could finish reading. His behavior worsened when we played a game of cards, when he made comments on Fred’s every move. After enduring a couple of hours of this, we decided to escape to the relative sanctuary of the dining car, some twenty cars away from ours. I felt like a runway model braving the flashpods as we walked through the long series of crammed carriages (and we didn’t even get a look at "hard seat"). When we got to the restaurant we sat down and said in unison, "beer!" The dining car staff was both incredibly friendly and brazenly familiar, sitting down with us to chat as we munched on the delicious chow. I found that my proficiency in Chinese increased with each glass of beer, and found no reason to decline when a group of drunk revelers next to us invited us to drink some of their rice wine. They said they were from Harbin in China’s brutally cold Northeast and were on their way back from a vacation in Yunnan. This meant something like a five-day train ride and they hadn’t even booked sleepers. No wonder they were drinking…

Our new friends had supplied us each with a healthy dose of baijiu, far more than we could drink in one gulp (as required by their repeated cries of "ganbei!"—meaning "empty glass"). Indeed, I was surprised to see that Fred had finished his while my own glass seemed bottomless. It wasn’t until I had finally finished it off –feeling quite woozy—that Fred confessed to emptying the contents of his glass into mine while I wasn’t looking.

Our Harbinian friends had seats several carriages away and invited us to join them there. After a few more minutes of playing performing seal for them (I looked up at one point to see a sea of heads of other passengers, hanging on my every word) and virtually exhausting my conversational repertoire, I was informed that a woman sitting right across the aisle was an English teacher in Shandong province. I relaxed and let her do the rest of the work, much more ably than I ever could. Though the train had only been in motion for a few hours, everyone on the carriage seemed to know each other, like a big family. How is it that this largest nation on Earth is able to maintain this sort of chumminess? Sometimes it feels like one gigantic (and racially exclusive) private club.

Somehow I made it back to our seats in time to get off the train in Guilin, but not before being heavily cruised and unabashedly groped by a young queen seated diagonally from us. He was wearing an outrageously girly outfit –not at all in keeping with the uniformity of most male Chinese apparel—complete with a pair of shoes so outlandish that they could only be homemade. Strangely, none of our fellow passengers seemed even to notice his non-conformity and apparent perversion, causing me to wonder what the general attitude is towards homosexuality here. Unfortunately my rusty Chinese wasn’t up to the task. I did try asking him where we should go out in Guilin (he said he was from there) but his response was so slang-ridden that I didn’t understand a word. I suppose I should find a dictionary that includes the Chinese expression for "gay bar."

Nanning's cycle club


Fast train to Guilin


Train queen models her shoes

Deep in the belly of Guilin's tourist hell



Andy and noodles

8 August, around Guilin, 38km (f)

Who knows what time our bikes arrived at the train station the night before? In any case we were not there to greet them. Andy was snoring long before their scheduled arrival time and I was out for an evening walk when their train pulled into the station. They did arrive safely and were waiting eagerly for us when we arrived to retrieve them the following morning. All of Siegfried and Roy’s fingers and toes accounted for, we set off for a day’s ride around Guilin.

On our pedal to Flute Cave we were accompanied by all forms of transportation --the most annoying of which were the tourist busses and trucks. Passing us with great authority in both directions they leaned on their horns and approached us menacingly, making it hard to concentrate on the spectacular scenery. Great greenery-covered limestone peaks rise everywhere, leaving the horizon looking like the teeth of a moss-mouthed dog. A tree canopy covered the narrow road blocking the sun and cooling us. Sun or no sun, this was one of the milder days I’d felt in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the temperature was lower --or was it the humidity? I had no complaints whatever the cause. I’d read that the cave itself was a tourist nightmare and was reticent to go to it much less into it. When we made the last turn towards the entrance all my fears were realized. There were so many busses and taxis that they had to park them up to a kilometer away. Vendors noisily hawked everything from water to whistles hawked. We stopped for (what else but?) some ice cream and water. I snapped a photo of an Asian girl posing for a photographer on a live camel and one of the tenders of the beast was noticeably upset. She immediately ran up to me and shouted "HELLO MONEY!!!" I assumed it was a greeting and retorted "hello honey." We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

We continued past the cave only to find that the road dead-ended just after a few hundred meters. Doubling back past the busses and vendors again (they were shouting "hello money" as we passed) we headed in the opposite direction away from the cave. There was no traffic save a few tractors and horse carts --just a great road through the karsty formations and rice paddies. Only one car passed us just after we crossed a bridge that hailed from another era. The blue and white Chinese jeep with blue lettering warning people that it belonged to a driving school. Andy and I grimaced; just what the region needs, another driver – not! The jeep swerved and shuddered as it passed, the instructor propping the passenger door open with his foot while he shouted at his female student. Why was the door open anyway? So the instructor could bail out at the first sign of impending danger. Andy conjectured it was to keep the pedestrians and cyclists out of harm’s way.

Somehow the road circled us back to, where else?, the cave. There we saw our old friend Mrs. Hello Money. We gave up and headed back to town, only by a different route. This one was tree-lined as well but was decidedly lower on the socioeconomic scale. Dump trucks thundered through this suburb full of limestone throwing a coating of gray dust over the houses and people we passed. Entering more inviting suburbs we found a market street and pushed our bikes through, ogling the fake Nike, Pierre Cardin, Versace and D&G goods in search of the Li River. Just before reaching its banks we came upon curtains of drying noodles on racks in the sun. The savory smell of drying wheat made us hungry and we decided to indulge ourselves with a bowl of noodles at a stand just in front of the swaying pasta fringe.

As we rolled back into the city the sky darkened and a light rain began to fall just as we passed in front of our hotel. We took that as a cue to have a nap before our afternoon walk. That excursion took us along the Li, which had transformed into a huge beach where Chinese tourists cooled themselves after their frenetic day of tourism. The favored swimming attire, at least for the males (which outnumbered females 10:1), was underwear. Most of the underwear was entirely inappropriate for this purpose and exposed the butts of the swimmers just as soon as it got wet. Unhindered by their immodesty the crowd seemed to be having a great time wading out into the water and letting the swift Li sweep them down river. From here we hiked up to a peak some hundred meters above the center of the town while the sun slouched towards the horizon.

At the top we enjoyed sweeping views of the town while our fellow climber Francesco Cieli lectured us about the role of the Jesuits in Chinese history. This now retired engineer was traveling on his own in Guilin. His daughters, old enough to be on their own, and his wife too frail to travel in Asia gave him his freedom to see China. He complained that he’d studied the wrong languages – Aramaic and Latin were not as practical as Chinese. After our hike together we sent him off in a cab to meet his friends, promising to look him up if we ever make it to Brussels again.

We wandered in search of a meal and found just the spot. An arch-kitsch Chinese tourist restaurant was our pick. Hewn from stumps and varnished, the tables gave a rustic feel to the eatery. Some tables even sported tree seats that hung from the ceiling like a porch swing might from the eaves of a house. On the way in you could, if you wanted, choose any number of live animals in cages to be killed and cooked for you --mmmm, fresh meat! Birds, snakes, various mammals and some things we couldn’t identify were all available to be sauteed, stir-fried, boiled or baked.

Speaking of baked, I was. All the hectic tourism had worn me out. I retired early in preparation for our first day on the bikes in over a week…

9 August, Guilin to Yangshuo, 69km (a)

It took forever to ride out of Guilin, mostly due to the peculiar riding habits of Chinese cyclists. One would think that a crowded nation full of people who ride their bicycles daily would make for disciplined, safe riding. Not so, we’ve found, as the urban Chinese cyclist tends to practice all of the worst possible habits. Swerving, sudden braking, riding the wrong way down the center of a bicycling lane, and general obliviousness: we encountered all of these on the way out of town. Finally on the open road, we were dismayed to find that the lane generally reserved for bikes, oxcarts and duckherds had been invaded by cars. The reason for this was a massive road improvement project which consisted in building (or rather hand-crafting) a concrete road directly over the existing asphalt, two lanes at a time. I blocked out the immediate unpleasantness of fume and dust-choked air, constant horn blaring and dangerous passing by trucks by gazing at the distant hills. Poking directly out of the plains, they resemble an e.k.g. or seismograph printout.

After not too many miles we made a stop at a roadside stand serving up drinks and bike repair. The place was run by a person matching my favorite Chinese archetype: the sturdy Chinese peasant woman. With amazing economy of motion and without a hint of femininity, this amazing creature yanked off tires, trued wheels, greased bearings and purveyed cold drinks, snacks and cigarettes to the local peasantry. I could have watched her all day if time and weather permitted. As it was, we had forty kilometers to go and the temperature was climbing rapidly.

Another hour’s pedaling through the dust brought us to a strange roadside attraction marked by dozens of stone statues of snakes. While I’ve forgotten many Chinese characters, I recognized those on the giant sign announcing "SNAKE WORLD." We had to check this place out.

After giving up a few yuan at the entrance we were assigned to a woman speaking excellent English for a private tour. Without a trace of inflection or emotion, she gave us her spiel how Snake World is a breeding facility for some half-million snakes of many varieties. Raised mainly for medicinal and gastronomic purposes, the majority of the slithering beasts are left to roam about the large walled compound, while the venomous species are confined to their own areas. At the end of the tour we were invited to taste some snake wine (we declined) and to buy a snake for a fight with a mongoose. "What if the mongoose loses?" I asked, to which our guide responded matter of factly, "The mongoose never loses." Again, we declined, at which point our guide scurried off without so much as a goodbye.

Back on the bikes, we soon came across a rural traffic jam lifted straight out of Jean-Luc Godard’s "Weekend." Two wide trucks coming from opposite directions were unable to pass each other. On one side was the concrete ledge of the new road while trees blocked the other shoulder. To alleviate the problem, peasants were laboriously sawing down the beautiful old trees, but it looked like the traffic would be stuck for a long time yet. This bode well for the rest of our trip to Yangshuo, during which we saw fewer motor vehicles than can be counted on one hand. The lack of trucks and tourist buses (no cars here) made for sublime riding, along an unusually quiet, deliciously shaded highway through rolling countryside.

We knew we were in Yangshuo when a group of women swarmed around us touting hotels and thrusting fliers into our hands. We told them we didn’t need a hotel and sat down on the sidewalk for a long, cold drink. One of them was especially tenacious, though, and since her manner was quietly obsequious, we let her show us our options. Following a time-honored BikeBrat tradition, we looked at a few dumps before sitting down for a delicious lunch and finally settling on the best place in town, the ill-named "Paradise." Both lunch and our room were located on what is known as "Western Street" a narrow gauntlet of shops and cafés catering to budget-minded tourists. By some miracle, the place has managed to retain a certain charm. Bicycle taxis weave their way through the crowds, locals promenade their bald children up and down the street and there’s even the occasional peasant driving his cow out to pasture. It’s definitely a nice break from the characterless cities. Another bonus is that no one stares at us here. All in all Yangshuo seems a good place to leave our bikes for a month while we "vacation" in the States. Unlike Nanning and Guilin, it’s a Chinese town to which we’ll gladly return.

The snake lady gives her python a bath




The view from Snake World

The perfect riding day?


Ancient covered bridge


Fred strikes a bargain

11 August, around Yangshuo, 58km (f)

Last night at dinner we had no idea that we’d be in for a show as well. Just after ordering the entire restaurant was beckoned into the back to see the snake dance for someone’s supper. The French couple just across from us had ordered it and part of the deal was that you get to see it, play with it, watch it slaughtered, drink its blood, eat it and, if you want, take home its skin as a souvenir. I ran back to our seats just as the old cook got out her scissors. The wife kept looking over at us nervously and giggling while she waited for her snake saying, "you must try everything once." She seemed to have little enthusiasm for the whole affair while her husband was obviously titillated. The first course of their meal was snake soup. If she had exhibited any reticence before it turned to glee upon tasting the broth. "C’est bon!" they both exclaimed.

We retired early in preparation for our last ride in China for a while. We both were hoping for a rural ride and we would have it. First we had to backtrack on Andy’s least favorite road in China. After ten kilometers we turned off of it onto a pretty good but crowded dirt road. Everyone from the surrounding villages was arriving to or departing from the market with some form of produce, animal or vegetable dead or living strapped to their bicycle. Within a few kilometers of leaving the main road the bulk of the traffic dissolved and we were left to see the karst limestone formations of Yangshuo on our own.

For the first time in China I felt as though we’d found the countryside. We passed mud brick village after mud brick village. One nice thing about the ride is that there had obviously been some cyclists through before so we weren’t plagued by crowds of poking and prodding locals at each stop (with one exception). A few more kilometers and the road lost its level character and we began mounting and descending the sides of the lovely karst formations getting a newfound appreciation for their height.

After our first water stop we hit pay dirt. Across a winding little stream, just off the road an ancient wooden bridge crossed the water. We left the main road to explore it. Clearly it had been grander at one point with benches set into the sides of the covered bridge and an intricate railing. What was left was beautiful. Set against the limestone peaks and an expanse of terraced rice paddies, all that was missing to make the perfect China pastiche was a little kid on the back of a water buffalo playing a flute. (All kidding aside, this was one of the most beautiful riding days since the Croatian coast.)

Soon the clouds moved in, shading us from the sun and making the constant ascents and descents all the more pleasant. As we approached the end of the riding day the only thing we found ourselves wanting for was a little smoother road surface. The roughness did make it all the sweeter when we finally hit pavement again, but not before stopping for water. As soon as we did get off of our bikes we were immediately surrounded by folks of all ages wanting to have a look at our now very dusty selves. The oldest member of the delegation was dead set on Andy giving him his helmet. We sipped water in their store with an audience of ten inside and perhaps forty outside sitting on little stools that barely cleared the floor. The old one with an interest in the helmet fooled with my bracelet, pulled Andy’s leg hairs and prodded my tattoo while we drank. Finally as we were getting ready to pedal back to Yangshuo he made his last desperate plea for the helmet. This time he produced a rather scrungy five yuan note and indicated he wanted to buy it. I couldn’t resist. I was planning on buying a new one in the States anyway so I traded my helmet for the five yuan (less than a dollar) and made his day.

Just a few meters after the store we rejoined the road and deeply appreciated the smoothness of the bitumen. Riding the last eight kilometers into Yangshuo we realized where the tourists who had rented bikes were going. There were three or four huge signs advertising various caves with throngs of vendors trying to sell postcards, water and other items to the arriving travelers. We sped by a few on their way to these sites knowing we’d seen part of "real" China already.

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