I’ve clearly gone to war with my legs. Not content with a punishing climb up Huangshan last week, nor with a further testing trek up the Longji rice terraces last week, yesterday I decided to embark on a lengthy and not particularly easy going bike ride. My poor thighs are in shreds today.
The Chinese heat for the last few weeks has been relentless. I feel as if all I’ve done for a month now is sweat. Indeed, when I arrived in Yangshuo on Tuesday, two days ago, I was greeted not only by oppressive 30 degree temperatures, but also by pouring rain. The result has essentially been akin to walking around in a sauna. I showered three times on Tuesday, on one occasion a mere 15 minute bike ride into town being enough to leave my shirt soaked through with sweat.
So you can imagine my utter delight when I woke up yesterday morning to find that overnight storms had freshened the air up considerably. As I wandered onto my balcony yawning into the dawn, overlooking the stunning valley opposite, I even felt a delicious chill tingle up my spine. I even had to go and put on a jumper! It was absolutely wonderful, a cool, crisp morning.
I wasn’t actually planning a bike ride, and had intended to spend the day on the aforementioned balcony curled up peacefully with a book and a cup of tea. But in the soft morning mist that I now found around me, it seemed too nice a day to waste, an unusual case of cooler weather being the prompt for an adventure!
Thus buoyed I hired a bike from the hostel where I’m staying (a remarkably good hire bike, it has to be said, on account of having a range of different gears and working brakes!) and plotted a route which would, in several hours of gentle cycling, take me somewhere between 20 and 30 kilometres in a loop south, west and then north of Yangshuo.
Cycling Yangshuo is, indeed, one of the must-do things to do while you’re here. Yangshuo town itself is a pleasant enough place, but it is terribly touristified, packed with noisy crowds and crawling with touts flogging all sorts of rubbish. There’s nothing wrong with spending time there when you’re after something to eat, but in my experience that has been the limit of its use. I certainly wouldn’t stay in the town centre itself – my hostel, the Stone Bridge Hostel, is a pleasant 30 minute walk out of town along a riverbank, set overlooking a peaceful valley, and caters admirably for your every need.
No, the reason to come to Yangshuo is to leave the town centre behind and go exploring the surrounding quaint villages, dramatic valleys and towering hills. My route first took me south and then west, towards something called Moon Hill – a large mountain so called because of a cavernous peak in the shape of a moon. For a mere £1.50 you can park your bike and climb up to get a closer view of said peak, although the view back across the mountain ranges below are a much better reason to head up.
I then embarked on a pretty long cycle which took me north from Moon Peak, away from the main road, along the river bank and up towards the small town of Jiuxian Village. This route was nothing short of spectacular, away from the crashing coaches and billowing lorries, and through narrow lanes dissecting rice fields and herds of grazing cattle. A few times I found the path impeded by idle chickens or ducks. On one occasion two large bulls wandered past me in the opposite direction, politely ignoring me as I hurtled past. The scenery along the way is little short of spectacular. I know – I’ve said all this before, from the Huangshan sunset to the rice fields earlier this week. But this bit of China is effortlessly breathtaking. You could spend a week in Yangshuo taking on all sorts of different cycle routes, and you wouldn’t get bored.
All told, the ride took about six hours. In terms of finding cheaper things to do in China, this has got to be up there with the best of them. A day’s hire of a bike cost 30 Yuan (£3). Its possible to then do everything else for free, if you want to avoid going in the villages that charge for entry. Indeed, doing so is an excellent idea – they’re often little more than tourist traps lacking in any real authenticity, where you’ll be battling for elbow room with squads of Chinese tourists.
Instead, my advice is to get off the main roads and go exploring down the narrow little lanes that branch off them. The Chinese tour groups don’t venture far from the beaten tracks, and the rewards to be had from a little more bold exploration come in the form of small, time warped villages, picturesque river banks and some frankly spectacular views.
And if you’re picky, you don’t need to pay for any of that at all!