River Rats

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Minutes before dawn, Dan and I are drenched in sweat and standing on top of Yangshuo's smallest peak.

I look at the city below us, wrapped in rising blue mist from the famous river it borders.

Wait. That's a little too misty, or are my eyes blurring from all that cheap local beer we drank just a few hours before?

No, it's my glasses, which, like my camera lens are completely fogged over from the shock of going from our beautifully air-conditioned hotel room to the muggy mid-summer weather. The heat I generated by walking up the hill didn't help, either.

Even now, before sunrise, Dan and I have pearls of sweat trickling down through the coating of bug repellent and under our T-shirts.  The short but steep climb up to this crag in the city park has us huffing for breath. I think forward to our plan for the day--relaxing on a raft going down the river--and I mentally pat us on the back for planning something that doesn't require too much movement or too many layers of clothes.
Wiping off our lenses, Dan and I perch on the edge of the small cement pagoda at the top of this crag. We're about 25 stories up, it seems, as we look out over Yangshuo town, but our small peak is dwarfed many times over by the dark giants to our left, right, and rear. We  face the valley where the town lies and the banks of the river to watch the town wake up: first the streetlights switch off and cars begin to move.

As the sun struggles to rise above the mountains on the east, we take pictures and enjoy the beginning of another day by the Li river.

Boating in XingPing

The day before also found us hunting a sunrise, this time in XingPing village, a small town about a half-hour minibus ride from Yangshuo.

Heralded as one of the most beautiful places to take in the karst-formation scenery along the Li River and a short way from the famous mountain cluster immortalized on the Chinese 20-yuan banknote, XingPing was a fun stop for us.

We seemed to be the only foreign tourists in town, and definitely the only ones who wanted to take an early morning boat ride. In a  few minutes conversation in choppy Mandarin by the XingPing riverbank, Dan and I organized a sunrise tour with a crazy-haired riverboat pilot.

The afternoon before our river trip, we wandered around the town's sunbaked streets taking pictures of the mountains and houses and spraying bug repellent at anything that flew near us. The town showed all the signs of tourism, but none of the tourists. We ate in a restaurant that had an impressive menu of Western foods, but what came to the table, while tasty, was unrecognizable.
In the morning we took off with our smiley riverboat man . He pleased me immensely by insisting on trying to converse with us in Chinese.
At that hour, when the high-rise peaks above us were blue in the twilight, the river was hardly busy. We waved at several unresponsive raft fishermen, who stood on their long, thin rafts pulling net after net.  After a time we passed a man walking his water buffalo and calf along the riverbank. The buffalo looked at us wild-eyed and decided we were safe enough to swim beside.

A group of tourists had beat us to a point a little farther upstream, where a cormorant fisherman posed for pictures.
Cormorant fishing is apparently something the region is known for--the fisherman has two trained cormorants with strings around their necks. The birds dive for fish and bring them back. The string on their necks prevents them from swallowing the fish. We hadn't wanted to shell out for a tour showcasing cormorant fishing but were happy to take free shots with our zooms of the fishermen in their unwieldy woven costumes.
Meanwhile the sun made its way up the mountains and turned our once-indigo hills into giant sentries of green jutting into the blue sky. A multicolored hot air balloon floated overhead, and we were in bliss with our private boat and own captain.
Rafting in Yangshuo

This taste of travel by water was so enjoyable we planned to take a bamboo raft all the way down river from XingPing to Yangshuo, as something we had read said that was possible. We started to ask around in the village though, and after being followed for an hour by a lady who wanted to sell us a trip in the wrong direction, we decided to take a minibus back to Yangshuo and spend our last two days there.

Yangshuo itself is unremarkable as a Chinese city. I'd say it ranks with Prague's Staromestke Namesti and Key West for the level of touristy-ness. Anyone who wants to see China and goes to Yangshuo is beautifully deceived. That's not to say it's not a fun place to stop. The scenery is gorgeous, the services were top-notch and we found happy hours at restaurants all over town. It's just not a Chinese city, that's all.

At our one happy hour (which lasted several) we met some Canadians who had just come up from Vietnam. We drank some with them and then went to the local food market to eat some barbecued meat, vegetables and try out a dried rat a cook chopped up and fried with hot peppers for us. Delicious. 

After so much fun it was hard to get up for the sunrise, but we were determined to maximize what we did on our short trip.

Immediately following our sweaty sunrise, we caught a quick Western breakfast a West Street cafe and met a guide at Uncle Sam's Travel--fitting, I thought, since it was the Fourth of July.

Dan and I were headed for the mother of all bamboo rafting rides, the longest one that money could buy, or that we could find, we're not sure. We were in for 5 hours on the river, under a small umbrella and propelled by a very wiry man.  

The guide put us on a  minibus to a place called Dragon Bridge, where we were met by a young man on a white motor scooter. Dan and I both squeezed on the back of his scooter, and the three of us bumped along down an unpaved road to a dock layered with bamboo rafts.

A sun-burnt boatman with a wide-brimmed hat situated us and our plastic bags full of beer and water on two deck chairs mounted to a flimsy-looking raft. Minutes later we were off, floating down the utterly quiet river, the boatman poling us through the shallows, over a carpet of hairy algae and through the most impressive scenery I've seen in China. The raft was more buoyant than I thought, with water coming through the cracks to our feet only once in awhile.
Every several hundred yards we'd come to a short weir in which case our boatman would try to launch us over the fastest-running section. Usually, this worked and the raft slid over with only a little bit of laughter from us because we were sprayed with water. A lot of times, though, we got stuck and Dan had to get off and push us along with the boatman.

Most of the weirs were small enough that the bump of going over the waterfall wasn't much worse than riding a jerky elevator. But once we got to the part of the river that was more populated, with larger rafts moored in the middle selling beer and barbecued foods, the weirs got taller and taller.

We were going over a particularly busy and high one when our boatman misjudged the current and the raft started to go over sideways. The whole raft tipped toward me. Dan and the boatman started flinging their weight to the upward side. I tried to steady my drink. I was sure that all of us, our open beer cans, our cameras and our passports were all going for an unwanted swim in the river. Meanwhile, the other rafters and the people selling goods along the river started cheering and snapping photos.
Somehow, we ended right-side-up only minus a few water bottles we'd been keeping under our chairs. We bought an in-action photo from a business in the middle of the river, who printed and laminated it for us right away.

That afternoon, while our boatman said goodbye to us (probably happy he didn't have to push our fat Western rear-ends over weirs anymore) we felt dazed. Hours of sun and beer and too many things to look at had worn us out. We made our way back to Yangshuo town to have one last draft beer and some Western food before going to catch our plane back to Guangzhou.

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vanessab on

thank god the drink didn't spill!
LOL when I read the lines 'The whole raft tipped toward me. Dan and the boatman started flinging their weight to the upward side. I tried to steady my drink.'

It's just like you're here telling the story! Glad to hear some things don't change. Bottoms up!

x vanessa

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