Given the torrid time I had cycling along the coast of eastern China, I decided it was best to skip cycling through the Guangzhou area. [wiki]Guangzhou[/wiki] has a population of nearly 13 million and is also surrounded by a number of prefecture cities, including Foshan, Dongguan and Shenzhen. The area contains around 34 million people (3x the population of London) and is heavily built up. From reading around it represents one of the worst cycling experiences possible. By skipping it I would miss out on around 200km of cycling which I could easily make up in Guanxi and Yunnan.
Back To The Village
The village experience and living with a local given me a much richer experience of China compared to if I had been travelling alone. To thank Jingwen and also pay her back (when at her home village my credit cards didn't work for 2 weeks) I offered to take her (for the first time out of China) to Vietnam to see my brother in Hanoi for Christmas. This meant getting a passport for Jingwen, something you have to do at your registered home-town in China.
We once again had to return to the village we had just been in for two weeks! This actually worked out well as this time I took my bicycle, which would allow me to skip Guangzhou and pursue cycling across western China. Once again we took the sleeper bus from Futian Bus Station to Guigang (500km for £15 per person) and got off early (at 0400) in Shilong. The bike-taxi ride in the darkness, with my bicycle stuffed in the back, to her home was far less daunting this time. In fact I actually managed to film part of it.
We (Jingwen, her mother, both grandmothers, cousin and I!) set off to Guiping passport office and arrived at 1500 just as it opened. Once inside, one of the passport officers asked who I was, but I thought nothing of it and sat in the corner. Jingwen filled out her passport application (twice, the Chinese require two copies for some reason... and it takes ages) and had her id photo taken then went over to hand in her application. The passport officer refused to allow her to apply for a passport until he saw my passport (which I wasn't carrying). Wtf!? It turned out Jingwen's mother had earlier told him I was a friend of the family and staying with them. As a consequence, he wanted to see my passport, visa and have me fill out a temporary residency form!
We tried begging, bribing, promising we'd return at a later date and complaining, but he wouldn't budge. At this point a lot of people started speaking Chinese and I got lost in translation. Jingwen's decision making under pressure isn't one of her strong points and next thing I knew I was on the back of a motorbike (3 of us on it in total and for a cost of £7!) riding back to Yongxing to get my passport. Time was a factor as the passport office closed at 1800.
Why I Hate Motorbike Taxi's
To put it into perspective, we had to try three bikers (normally the first one is game) before we found one willing to make the long one and a half hour journey to Yongxing and back. To cut journey time our rider decided the construction road out of Guiping (a sandy, dusty, gritty road used by large trucks and lorries) was the fastest route. Being at the back of the bike I was bouncing a good few inches off the seat as we went over pothole after pothole. Trucks in front of us would kick up massive just clouds that would fill my lungs, eyes and hair with dirt. At one point he made us get off the bike to ride passed a police patrol as you're legally not allowed three on a bike. This meant running along the construction road for a good 200m with trucks whizzing by! To make matters worse it started to rain quite hard. Of all the times to have both hands on the handlebars this was it. No, not a our biker. He was going along at 40mph with one hand on the bike and the other holding his colander-like helmet down so his hair wouldn't get wet!
At the half-way mark we had to all get off the bike to stretch out the aches and pains in our joints. It was hard going. We got back to Shilong and met Jingwen's brother who had brought my entire 6kg bag instead of just my passport. So the journey back involved all of the above, but now with an additional 6kg resting on one of my legs. We finally made it back, fractionally late at 1803 but luckily the office was still open (they were closing the shutter). We quickly got all the paper work finished and handed in before it closed. We had done it, what a relief! As a result I was left with a Val Kilmer quiff hairstyle (from facing into the wind for nearly two hours), dirt on my face, dust all over my clothes and a weazy cough. I made a point to tell Jingwen we would take a taxi next time.
Cycling Around Guanxi
To start with, I spent a few days cycling around Shilong. Around the town I could venture off into all the small villages, but no more than 5km before the roads started to deteriorate from concrete to gravel. Once I had exhausted all the possibilities and become a little bored of the area (cycling around 50km in total), I set off along the S304, the main road linking Guiping and Guigang. I spent a day cycling to Guigang and back (75km), and a day cycling to Guiping and back (70km). It wasn't particularly enjoyable cycling as the road was fairly busy, but it was something to do rather than sit in Yongxing and added distance to my mileometer.
Guigang was a fairly average Chinese city with little to offer, although did have the best selection of shops in the area. Given I only had one pair of trousers which weren't terribly smart and not very warm, I grabbed myself a pair of jeans for £15 in the Chinese equivalent of Gap. It was a slightly embarrassing experience given my un-Chinese-like legs as with many pairs I could only pull them half way up my thighs, or all the way up but I couldn't fit inside the flies/zipper (so to speak). The store girl was left in shock, and the next thing I knew I had three store girls running around, giggling trying to find me a pair of jeans that would fit. Nine pairs later they found the largest pair that would fit, but with a 38" leg (!) were far too long. Not a problem, one of the girls whisked them off to get adjusted, and 10 minutes later I had a perfect fitting pair of jeans.
Guiping was a far more interesting town compared to Guigang. Having cycled there, I found a hotel and paid them 30RMB to look after my bicycle for a few hours. I then set off to see the Buddhist temples overlooking the town. There are a number of footpaths winding up into the steep hills leading to various temples. It's a good walk and can take an hour or two to reach the top. Along the way they even sell "magical" water for 10RMB, which is basically rain water that has collected in a hole. It started raining heavily as I reached the top, so the downward journey took a little over two hours, the stone steps polished from over-use were like mini ice rinks. Because of this I had little time to do much else in Guiping and had to quickly cycle back to Yongxing in the rain before it got dark.
Having cycled a lot of the area, I decided to push further. Yangshuo, a small tourist town I had visited on my previous trip to China, was three days cycling away. A short day to Guiping (30km), then a very long day to Mengshan (150km) and finally the last stage to Yangshuo (70km).
If ever you visit Yangshuo, unless you're a climber (it's a climber's paradise) at first you'll most likely hate it, especially if arriving in the evening. By night it becomes a garish, tourist trap full off loud clubs, stalls selling all sorts ranging from fake North Face jackets to fake jade ornaments, and so many people it's hard to move. For a night out, it's great. You can go to numerous roof bars, drink £1 beers (larger than a pint), play pool, beer pong, darts and then end up in a club. But beyond that I have never enjoyed Yangshuo at night.
If you spare Yangshuo a little time though, you can find all of its hidden secrets. During the day, especially early morning, it is a quite and a pleasure to walk around. Hiring a bicycle for the day for £1 (it used to be 50p) allows you to set off and see the surrounding countryside without all the tourists around you. While I don't rate the cave experiences, Moon Hill is worth a visit (take a rental bike instead of your tourer). You can actually walk up on top of Moon Hill despite the "no entry" sign at what you think is the top.
Another gem nearer Yangshuo is the TV tower. If you can find the market in Yangshuo (near the roundabout), behind it winds a path that will take you to the top of one of the limestone peaks over-looking Yangshuo. Unfortunately at the top they've now blocked off some areas but the views are still impressive. Being with Jingwen (she had come to meet me at Yangshuo where she previously used to work), she spoke to the guard at the top. He seemed to take a shine to her and was kind enough to let us in and show us around. The wonders of being with a Chinese local! Previously, my brother and I had to sneek into the guarded TV station area, climbing around a barbed wire fence and tip toeing on top of the guards house. They would always hear/awaken and we'd get caught then have to bribe the guard 100RMB. So it made a nice change to be shown around, in fact the guard even cooked for us and offered to let us sleep up there (which we politely declined).
Aside from Moon Hill and the TV Tower, the best thing to do in Yangshuo is to go cycling (or via river boat if you can't cycle) and if you see an interesting looking road or trail, take it. It's definitely worth taking a rental bike instead of your tourer as you'll feel more inclined to throw it around a bit more (if you know what I mean). If I were to live in China it would either be in Yangshuo or Shanghai, which reflects how much I like Yangshuo.