Our last week on mainland China was spent in the beautiful Guangxi province, in southern China, famous for its striking, karst scenery - which is best explained by our pictures! This was the China we knew of from pictures before arriving - stunning rice terraces with views to match, impressive limestone peaks in lush valleys, rice farmers working away in straw hats, bamboo rafts gliding along shimmering rivers….and all felt another world away from what we had seen in China so far.
We set off from Guilin - a small and pretty city which provided a good gateway for further treks out - for a night in the village of Tiantouzhai, a village set up high amongst the Longi - or 'Dragon's Backbone' - Rice Terraces. These rice terraces are a beautiful 3-hour drive through huge peaks and hairpin turns, and reach up to 1000m high. We knew the steep 40-minute climb up these terraces to the village where we were staying would probably be a tough one in the June heat, however I don't think we have ever sweated so much, and had to wait outside our guest house to 'drip off' before finding our room. Luckily it was all worth it as the view from where we were staying was absolute stunning, and despite the heat it was a good time to go as the rice fields seemed to sparkle in front of us after the summer rains in May. The guest houses and village buildings dotted amongst the terraces look like Swiss chalets, all wooden structures perched on the hill slopes - and some snow would certainly have been welcome to cool us down. Once the heat of the day had subsided we went off exploring further up just before sunset, to admire the panoramic view of the shimmering terraced paddy fields around us - unfortunately the blog's Photography Director (Simon) forgot the camera battery back in Guilin, so there were a lot of mental photos being taken and don't be surprised if some of our pictures look like they have been uploaded from the internet…it was too beautiful a sight to not try and share it!
Most locals here are Zhuang or Yao people, where traditional dress (for the women anyway) seems to consist of extremely long hair, wrapped high upon their head several times round like a turban, and earlobe-stretching rings in their ears. The women are also absolutely tiny yet put all the tourists to shame by acting as porters up to the villages (I guess their husbands are busy in the rice fields) carrying what looks like double their weight on their back, up these incredibly steep slopes, while both Chinese and foreign tourists are literally limping and wilting - without their bags - behind them. Yet these were some of the most beautiful, smiley people we had seen so far, and I think we would have felt too guilty paying them to carry our backpacks so were very relieved we had packed lightly and could manage our own bag, even if it meant we weren't supplementing their income. The other thing we wished we could have taken a photo of is the well-dressed Chinese lady who was carried up, I kid you not, in what looked like a rustic chaise-longe, by four men, while she happily sang away (yes) and they struggled with this people carrier up the hill.
Next stop was Yangshuo, a smaller and even prettier town near both the Li and Yulong Rivers, and where the surrounding scenery - more peaks and shimmering rivers - was even more impressive. We stayed in a beautiful farmhouse-turned-guesthouse outside of town, surrounded by lush vegetation and chickens hopping about, with a constant orchestra of crickets and frogs filling the air. We spent a blissful four nights here, exploring the local area by bike, going for cooling dips in the river before sunset, watching women take their buffaloes for dips in the water (different river to us luckily), and taking in the amazing scenery with a different perspective from a bamboo raft.
We had a great day out on a 6-hour bike ride with a local tour guide, Shandy, and her husband, a Russian-Jewish baker, who were both interesting company and great guides, taking us off-road and on a route we never would have been able to find ourselves: through little villages and fields, over tiny bridges, to caves and then to a local primary school where the school kids were certainly not shy and took great delight in creeping up behind us and suddenly whacking us all on our bums, as you do. We loved exploring by bike, and despite aching backsides (from cycling not the over enthusiastic school children) Simon and I went out again the next day by ourselves, to cycle to Dragon's Bridge, a scenic point a few kms away where you can then take a more leisurely route back, by putting your bikes on the back of a bamboo raft and then be punted down the river and back home….a well-deserved rest and once you get through the crowds of Chinese tourists also on bamboo rafts, who love taking pictures of us, shouting "HELLO!" and using their 'supersoaker' water pistols on us, it is then a very peaceful and magical float down the river amongst beautiful countryside.
It wasn't all a bed of roses though: I have never been a natural at off-road cycling, and it has never been more obvious than over these couple of days. The day before I managed to veer off one of the narrower paths and careered head first into a ditch - luckily I landed in soft vegetation so no damage done, and Simon managed to have enough time to take a photo (after checking I was ok, of course) before pulling me and the bike out of the ditch, and we laughed at the thought of anyone seeing me as I know it would have been quite a sight. The next day my tumble wasn't so hidden from view: after a torrential downpour we had a tricky path over rocks and mud, and I was feeling very wobbly after a few near misses, and then when I braked too sharply alongside a rice paddy I subsequently face-planted into the field right in front of some local villagers and school kids. This time I wasn't so amused, having landed on all fours in muddy water, my face hot with embarrassment and sweat, and on this occasion Simon wisely decided that taking a photo was not a good idea, so luckily no photo evidence of that one.
Cycling mishaps aside, this area was probably the highlight of our month in China, but it would be fair to say we loved all of China - it was certainly far easier to travel around than we thought, the history and culture are fascinating and there are some amazing sights. The people are also both interesting and amusing in equal measure: we loved their shouty comms (are they angry, are they joking…who knows?), their habit of squatting everywhere (not just over the hole-in-the-ground toilets), the trend for couples to wear matching t-shirts… and they seem to find us as curious, judging by the amount of photos we were asked to be in. We were also pleasantly surprised by the food, which is totally unlike Chinese food back in the UK, and we seemed to avoid any major mishaps (eg ordering a male animal's certain gland) - probably due to the helpful picture menus, as opposed to our master of Mandarin. And finally, it's probably a good thing that our skills - or lack of - with chopsticks will get further practice when we re-enter China after a couple of months in South East Asia, and on our way to Central Asia (as the plan currently stands).
Until next time…and thank you to all those who have left messages and comments, we love every one and love hearing from people following our trip with us! Xx