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China: Laoweis on Bikes--Cycling in Yangshou

Laoweis on Bikes—China
Cycling in Yangshou

"Laowei. Laowei! Rent bike? Cheap!" I tried to ignore the Chinese clerk. Since coming to China, I hadn't been Stephan, hadn't been a traveler. I hadn't been anything but Laowei-the Chinese slur for everyone foreign. I tried not to grimace and kept looking for a bike to rent on Xi Lu-West Street in Yangshuo, China.

Riding bikes in China is lunacy. Chinese zigzag on the creaking rickety machines that have pretzels for wheels and hinges for handlebars. Sure, bikes have flashy names-Flying Pigeon or Freedom Machine-but brakes tend to be high-tech extras, and, if they have gears, they break within a week. If this weren't enough, Chinese riders can be plain mad. While riding with no hands is a neat trick for 7 year olds, adults who do so on broken, hole-filled, always over crowded streets are just plain dangerous. For those reasons, I was about to give up on the idea of cycling in China. Then I took a hiatus from the crowds in Yangshuo.

Yangshuo lies in South China´s Guangxi Province alongside the Li River. For the 80 kilometers along the river, from Guilin to Yangshuo, Karst rock formations, cone-shaped limestone pillars, straddle the river. The pillars are sheer and without climbing equipment, which is as hard to find in China as free speech, the pillars just sit —lonely, untouched, quiet spires sitting beside terraced rice fields. Their presence is imposing, a feeling Chinese ancestors also noted when naming the peaks: "Eight Supernaturals Crossing the River" is one, "Nine Dragons Playing in the Water," is another.

While the landscape dazzles the traveler, the scene in Yangshuo pampers them. Yangshou is a traveler's hub. While most people in China live without flush toilets and pizza, recreational drugs and bikes with gears, Yangshuo is an oasis of the west. Burritos, Oasis CD's, "Life of Brian" videos playing on big screen TV's. Sure, a cartoon unreality permeates the scene. What else can be said about a town offering restaurants like Planet Yangshuo or Minnie Mao's Bar and Grill. Plenty opt for that trip, but it is not the only one.

I stumbled down Xi Lu in a hangover haze. It had rained. The clouds sunk so low that Beautiful Girl Hill, the Karst pillar in the middle of town, vanished. I spotted a vendor who reading a book instead swearing "laowei."
"How much?" I asked in my bad Chinese.
"Five quai," she said.
That would be 60 cents. What kind of mountain bike would that buy? Steel frame, 18 speed, basic components, back rack, basket, loose but working brakes. It looked like it could fall apart at any moment. So do most bikes in China but unless you ship a bike in from overseas, you're stuck with the local product.
"New," she said. That's why the tires are bald, I thought. But the wheels were round, the clerk wasn't screaming Laowei, and I supposed she was no less deceitful than another vendor. I did the business then pedaled toward the river.

Dozens of sightseeing barges sat on the river. Hoards of Chinese tourists voyage on them in the summer, but from September to May, they're empty. Foreigner travelers keep Yangshuo afloat, and even then, travelers are few.

I didn't see a soul, but still wanted every reminder of civilization out of sight. I steered onto the first dirt road, in the general direction of the village Pubutang. The mammoth bamboo arched over the road. A frail-looking logger sawed a big one. I steered past his cart, through the grove and shot down a muddy embankment.

I found the right spot to get dirty. As I sped up the river, mud splattered on my pants and face, and after a while realized there were no people. For the fist time during my six months in China, I was alone.

"Ten kuai!" I objected. "Meiyou!"- the Chinese equivalent to "Hell no!" I had followed the river until the road ended. An old man with an oversized canoe, both his home and his source of income, waited to ferry laoweis across the river. Ten kuai was robbery. Although it was only $1.25, I could buy a good dinner for the same price. I hated to be cheated, but if I refused him, I pedaling eighteen kilometers back to Yangshuo. He had me.

Once on the opposite bank, the road hooked around a big rock and away from the river. The clouds burned off. For the first time, I saw the steep slopes rising up to the summits. Most of the slopes were completely vertical, but I could spot a few cracks. Maybe I could climb one I thought as I rounded a corner.

"Laowei!" a girl cried. I expect her to point or scream. Instead, the girl held out her orange ball. I took it , bounced it in attempt to play two-square. Village kids crowded around. About the time I felt claustrophobic, I saw another laowei.
"You're a star," he said with a German accent. "Every laowei is a star in China."

Roland was a skinny blond cab driver from Munich. Every couple winters he ran away from Bavaria and warmed up in Yangshuo.

Roland was off to meet a local farmer, Wang Wei Wei. The man had offered to show Roland a cave. Roland motioned to the mountains and said most Karst pillars were honeycombed with grottos and underground streams. Fortunate Son, which lay across the rice fields from Wang`s village, was just one of many.

"Wang started coming here when he was a child," Roland said. We had parked our bikes and climbed through a slot between two boulders. I heard a leaking faucet sound and breathed in damp air. Light from the entrance that shone on the walls above us quickly faded. We descended sharply.

Roland's Mini Mag light shined on a rock that looked like Mr. Magoo-bulbous nose, squinty eyes and belly. Wang's Chinese torch was half as bright. It beamed on a trio of stalactites and gave them an illusion of being chestnut color. Above me fell straight, flat rock that looked like slabs of bacon. I touched rock then flinched. It had a slimy feeling like a cold, wet frog.
"This would be a great place to escape during a nuclear war," Roland said. "Air conditioned. Lots of room. A swimming pool." The air became soggier and I heard more water falling. The beam of Roland's light shot to the floor. He had kicked a LiQian beer bottle. It rolled toward the remains of campfires, a used condom and stack of peanut shells. "Chuli," Wang announced. "Here."
The lights crossed over the water and hit the far wall. Water dribbled down, but the stream looked too scant to fill the pond which was half the size of a basketball court.
"He and his brothers skinny dip here." Roland said.
"You want to take a turn?"
"I prefer Key West," I said.
Roland didn't jump in either.

By night, a thick mist had fallen on Yangshuo. I slipped into an Internet Café where I met Rao Yin, a cheery bicycle guide who wanted to practice English. Business was down. No matter. Summertime was very busy. "How busy?"
"Impossible to rent a hotel room or a bike".
"So I came at the right time."
"Anytime but summer if you want to ride bikes."

Although she was slight, Rao Yin claimed she peddled as fast as a Dutchman. She showed me a book of pictures local trails most of which looked remarkably similar to the rice patty paths I saw near Wang`s village. However, there was something to be said for renting a guide. Maps were few. Most look more like treasure maps than directions.
"Most people are too scared to go out on their own," Rao Yun said. "They think they'll get lost. They think that it is very dangerous, but I don't think so. All they will meet is Chinese and we Chinese are very kind."

By the following morning, the soil was Playdough. I had taken the road to Fuli, a no account town two dozen kilometers downstream from Yangshuo. I slashed through ankle deep mud that was supposed to be a road. I swore like a heretic, then broke out in a grin. Something about fighting the elements sparks my competitive side. And from that fight, springs an idiotic joy. I muscled my way through the deep and finally reached a cobblestone path.

Rock paths and walls crisscross the farmlands around Yangshuo. Townspeople claim the emperors built the roads. While I was reminded that China once was the world's greatest power, seeing the buckling cobblestones sadden me. Old China, like the rock gates I pedal through, is either being demolished or is deteriorating. Repairs to old roads and to old buildings are nonexistent. In China bent on modernization, the only good roads were asphalt just like the ones in Hollywood.

Yet, in the deteriorating, forgotten spaces, I saw the China I hoped to see. I pedaled into a village where oval stones make up every wall. A woman with salt and pepper hair had a strap around her forehead that held the basket resting on her back. In rice patties on the side of town farthest from the river, a squat, stout looking man slips off his shoes and steps into the mud. He hooks his plow to his water buffalo. He waved. Here, I realized while wiggling my bike between the rice patties, was the Taoist-like China that had hoped to encounter—serene, yielding and calm. I couldn't pause too long. Paths between the rice fields can be as narrow as a man's foot. If you loose your concentration, you'll either fall in the thick vats of mud one side, or the fishpond on the other. When I found a wide spot, I looked back to the village. Someone waved. I noticed the mountains ahead of me. Two cones disappeared into the clouds-Crab Hill and Gorgeous Girl Hill. I knew I could not climb either one. They both rose like knives into the air. But I eyed a route in between them where I believed I could ride.

There's only one reason I suffered though uphill rides once on top I can fly down the other side. I stood at the top of a saddle between the two hills. Each pillar disappeared in the clouds. Drizzle soaked everything-barbed underbrush, limestone that jutted from the soil, and a goat path.

While I was wary about riding down a goat path, I started anyway. I tapped my breaks, began to coast downhill. The rickety bike creaked. As I sped up, my front wheel shimmied. It was like riding on snow. I steered onto the banked corner, swerved through a hairpin turn, splashed through a puddle. I heard their cackle from somewhere in the fog. The goats were watching. Right then, my back tire skidded. I punched my boot to the ground but too late. A big triangular stone jumped out of the ground. I hit it, launched off my bike, and cart wheeled into thick briars which clawed holes in my jeans.

I heard the goats again. They laughed. I was muddy, scratched and a bit on the wet side, but, for the first time since arriving China, I felt I had escaped the plastic, overcrowded China. I saw something authentic. I heard laughter again. I looked down the hill. A Chinese man with a white Fu Manchu beard sat under a rock overhang. I knew what he was thinking. "A dai laowei"-stupid foreigner.

  Stephan Langdon


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