Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day 9. The bicycle tour

I finally got my wish of devoting a day to a big bicycle tour around Yanshuo. We started pedaling east, toward the town of Fuli. It was a busy highway, full of buses and trucks, and the 5 km there were not particularly pleasant. But then we turned north, toward Xingping, on a much smaller country road. This is where I felt we had finally reached agricultural China. The main crop is rice, but there is enough variety in vegetable plots and orchards to give a feeling of prosperity, all framed by the spectacular view of the karstic mountains.

Here they get two crops of rice. One is being harvested right now, and the second is being planted for harvest in October. So, on one hand we saw plenty of farmers working on cutting the loaded rice stalks, and threshing the rice out using a very clever type of threshing machine. The left over stalks are then dried in small bunches, but it is unclear to me what they are used for. One use is to cover the bikes and motorcycles of the ag workers, so they won’t be cooked by the relentless sun. The end of the harvest process is to spread the rice on small concrete pads, for it to thoroughly dry out. The rice is raked every now and then with big wooden rakes, to make sure that it is thoroughly dry before it is taken to market.

The big sacks of rice are transported on an interesting type of vehicle: a one piston light tractor, which pulls a medium size truck bed. Just like one sees in the county fair, these one-piston engines use a fly wheel to keep the engine turning in between the firing of the piston. They have a distinctive rhythm to them, that goes well with the general scene (but they leave behind big black clouds of diesel fumes—the smell of money!).

Did you know that peanuts are the root and not the fruit of the plant? I had always imagined they dangled from the plant, like green beans. The plant itself is quite unremarkable, so I could die of starvation in a field of peanuts and never know any better.

The planting of the new rice has its own charm. First, you plant the rice in trays, with one plant to each bump in the tray. While the nursery plants grow, you harness your water buffalo and plow the parcel. Then you flood the parcel, and use a kind of paddle wheel (once again pulled by your water buffalo) to break the clumps of soil into an even-textured bed of mud. By this time the little plants are ready to come out of the tray and go into the ground. Rookies place each plant in the mud by bending at the waist over and over again, but old crafty farmers throw them like darts at remarkably precise distances.

Once we arrived to Xingping we faced the challenge of crossing the Li River. Fortunately there are a large number of bamboo rafts to choose from. Not so fortunate is the fact that they all want to sell you the scenic tour, so it took some firmness on my side to negotiate a simple crossing of the river. By now it was getting close to noon, and the sun was shining relentlessly on our backs, so after crossing the river I dropped my shorts and went for full body dunk. Luke was shy and contented himself with sitting under the shade of a bamboo. Incidentally, big bamboo trees have a heavy canopy of leaves, so heavy in fact that under their weight the tip of the tree bends down. From my vantage point in the river, they looked like a herd of brontosauria coming to drink at the riverside.

Resuming our bike ride, we found that our black top road had been transformed into a narrow dirt trail that meandered through the fields. My cup of joy was full to overflow! With my conical Chinese hat, I could adopt the persona of a farmer of old, driving his bike toward . . . the mountains? Hmm, this doesn’t look so good. These mountains are beautiful to behold, but they look pretty steep. Onwards we went and, yes, the path took to the mountains. That it was a regular traveled path we could not doubt, because from time to time a moped would pass us, but if biking is much superior to walking, walking is much superior to walking your bike up the steep slope. Don’t get me wrong, we were in the midst of incredible beauty, but it was hard work. Finally, huffing and puffing we reached the top of the hill and there, like a mirage, was a little store.

The store here is the meeting point of everyone in the small hamlet, so there were many welcome grins when we gasped “Ni Hau”. The owner of the store immediately came out to welcome us, and promptly put out two small stools for us to sit down. But first things first and we made a beeline for the cooler, where I found an ice-cold Iqe beer and Luke found a big bottle of Sprite. We sat down to be the center of attention, the lady of the house brought out a small electric fan, and between laughs and hand gestures we explained that we were visitors in a tour of Yangshuo. This was the small hamlet of Daopin, and our hostess explained that we had the option of taking the long road to Putao, or the much shorter route to Yangshuo. By now the short route seemed the best option, but from her gestures we understood that there were several forks in the road so we had to be careful.

With much regret we said goodbye to the good people of Daopin and embarked on three hours of grueling mountain biking. Every time we reached an intersection we stopped and waited for someone to come by to get directions. Luke commented on how friendly everyone is here in the mountains. They stare at you like a strange animal, but as soon as you say Ni Hau or Hello they break out into smiles and words of greeting.

Together with many breathtaking views of the distant river and the mountains that rise into the air as “piloncillos” we saw many signs of prosperity. Many farmers are building beautiful roomy houses two or three stories high. I think that these enormous houses are meant for extended families, so they are built like small hotels. Also, after what seemed miles and miles of gravel paths, we reached a brand new concrete roadway. China is indeed on the fast track of development.

A final word regarding this bike ride: It is not for the faint of heart, but it is the most beautiful thing we have done in this trip. We must have gone a good 50 km (20 miles), and we got back to Yangshuo completely exhausted but completely satisfied with the result of our adventure.

No comments: