"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
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 encounterserene, 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