Cycling the Lí River
Chased from Fènghuáng by holiday tourist crowds, soaring room prices and – last but not least – the rain, we set off back to Huáihuà to take the train further South to Guìlín, in Guǎngxī province. We were traveling on the last day of the Qingming festival holiday, so it was not surprising that when we wanted to buy the tickets, there was no more seats available. There is just one daily train going directly from Huáihuà to Guìlín and as staying longer in overcrowded Fènghuáng was not really an option, we had to bite the bullet and purchase a standing ticket for the 11 hours journey. A standing ticket is the same price as a reserved seat and holding one doesn’t necessarily mean you will be physically standing the whole time. If you are lucky, you will be able to grab a free seat for part of the track, but one has to be quick and there is no guaranty. For the first 5 hours we were luckily seated, but then the train filled up and as the coach was too stuffed with people to sit on the floor, we had to remain standing to the rest of the time. It was an authentic China experience, but definitely something we would try to avoid for the train journeys to come.
Famous for its exceptional natural landscape of limestone peaks, Guǎngxī province is perhaps one of the most representative panoramas of China in foreign minds. Remembering old black and white Chinese movies, set around rivers in the midst of green hills and rice fields – this is where they were made.
The city of Guìlín doesn’t offer anything particularly appealing besides fair transport connections to neighboring provinces. Situated next to the Lí River and some limestone peaks, the town seems to rely totally on tourism and features a completely artificial, dolled up centre, stuffed with Chinese souvenir and fashion shops. In line with what we’ve already figured out seems to be a Chinese vice, disproportionate entrance fees (minimum 70 Yuan) are charged for watching limestone hills from the riverside bank, while some kilometers outside town the landscape is full of the same kind of limestone peaks – for free!
So we preferred to quickly move to Yángshuò, a smaller town about two hours bus ride to the South of Guìlín and situated right in the middle of a spectacular limestone valley. The small town as a such is also very touristy, prepared to receive crowds of both , Chinese and Western visitors, even though it is far more charming than Guìlín. This doesn’t really matter, anyhow, as the best thing to do in Yángshuò is renting a bicycle and setting off towards the numerous cycling routes through the absolutely breathtaking countryside, along the rivers of Yùlóng and Lí.
The well tarred streets meander around valleys of rice fields, fruit tree plantations and small villages and the good new is: as most of the times, 90% of the visitors were cycling on 10% of the trails, so once one had got out of this main traffic area, one had the scenery completely unspoiled, on his own.
It took us however one entire day of the two we spent in Yángshuò to figure this out, and so the first one we spent in the middle of smiling Chinese girls on pink bikes and girdles of flowers in their hair, elderly local ladies selling those flowers on the street and even other local ladies waiting for a bicycle to pass to jump up, run towards it and shouting “bamboo, bamboo” – in order to convince you to take a bamboo rafting tour down the river.
Once we left the bamboo mafia and the flower girls behind us, the scenery reveiled its real magic, with peasants silently working on their fields, buffaloes drinking and having a bath at the river bank and all of this set in the midst of endless seeming ranges of limestone peaks.
Unfortunately, we were not particularly lucky with the weather, as it was foggy on our first day and rained cats and dogs half of the second day, so that we didn’t have the privilege to enjoy the scenery in the sunlight. On the other hand, as far as we could detect from other travelers’ pictures, this kind of misty weather seems to be quite typical for the area, another attribute which reminded us very much of Halong Bay in Vietnam.
But even though we cycled for quite some hours, we didn’t get too wet, but hungry as a bear and were rewarded at night with the discovery of something we had been wistfully looking for: an authentic and delicious dumpling restaurant! Not necessary to tell that we easily could have finished the supplies with all the rounds of dumplings we had on that evening (one round basket comes with 8-10 dumplings and cost 7 yuan = 85 Euro cents), under the wondering eyes of our fellow restaurant guests (all Chinese), who must have thought: poor Westerners, seems they don’t have much proper food at home, given that they are that delighted with something as ordinary as dumplings…