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A bike for every worker!
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"Serenely floating down the river"
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Hoisting the bamboo raft over the dam
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Pretty Chinese lanterns at night

Today we hired bikes to get out of town and round and about to see some of the local countryside. Not having a clue about where to go or how to find our way back if we got lost we had arranged to have a guide with us. This turned out to be the chap behind the desk of the tour agency company who simply left the office in the hands of one of his mates for the day.

The bikes came from a chap a little further down the road. I am not overly confident on a bike and seeing the racing saddle on the first one they brought out I declined and went for one with a more padded seat. It was a bit like a racing bike and the handles were on the low side. Stef stuck with the racing saddle, regretting his decision very quickly. We did a quick cycle up and down the street to check that all was OK and then we were off.

Our guide led us down some of the back streets in the non-touristy parts of town so that we avoided the main road as much as possible. Here people were going about their daily business preparing lunch, a whole cooked dog graced the table in front of one building, and sweeping the streets. We reached the main road and inched gingerly across between the bikes, scooters, cars, trucks and buses and we were then out into the fields. The route he took us on is obviously a well worn one and we probably did not really need to have the guide. A short distance down the road a small bamboo hut had a sign outside for “bicycle repairs”, not a good omen to see this so close to our starting point.

We passed through fields where crops were growing, mainly cabbage, pomelo, oranges and some cotton. The rice has now all been harvested and dried on the huge concrete slabs that line the road and only the straw remains in the fields, bundled into mini haystacks. It was calm and serene compared to the town but even here tourists abounded and there was a steady stream of people all with their bicycles heading in the same direction.

After about twenty minutes we turned off the concreted pathway and on to a lumpy bumpy dirt track. The locals were cycling up and down here without batting an eyelid but for us it was a bit of a different story. The last time either of us had been on a bike was this time last year on a weekend away in Holland. Before then it must be at least fifteen years ago since I was last on a bike.

Being the canny capitalists that these Chinese are, we were led down to the river where, for extra dosh, we could get a bamboo raft down stream for an hour or so. Compared to yesterday’s diesel fuelled trip it looked like it would be a nice way to while away some time so we duly parted with cash. The rafts are made of ten thick bamboo poles, strapped together and raised slightly at either end. A couple of wicker chairs are strapped on in the middle and the bikes simply get slung onto the back behind the chairs. A chap with a long bamboo pole then punts you downstream.

Whilst Stef has a slight touch of vertigo and does not like being near steep drops, I am not keen on small boats because I always think they will capsize. It is silly because I know that if it does I can swim my way out of trouble but it is the thought of actually falling in that I do not like. The rafts seemed stable enough but it was just a bit disconcerting that the water was not far below us. Stef standing up midstream to take a photo did not help and it was met with cries from me of “sit down, sit down”. As usual he ignored me and carried on snapping away.

As with the other section of the Li River that we were on yesterday the scenery here was mystically beautiful. Our boatman yabbered away to us in Chinese at several points, pointing out areas of interest or particular photo opportunities. Stef happily turned around to look at them but I was firmly eyes front keeping an eye t ensure that the raft was balanced.

The river loses elevation as it flows downstream and a series of dams have been built along the way. Each time the raft reached a dam, the boatman would ram the raft up into the dam wall and we would have to get off so that he could pull the raft over. Rather than putting the raft back into the water on the lower side and then people getting back on they use a more eventful method. As the raft teeters on the dam wall they indicate to tell you to get back on and to lift your legs up. The raft is then pushed down the wall and into the water below.

The first time we got a bit wet as our raft skirted the water but the second wall we passed with no incident, lulling us into a false sense of dry security. The third wall was a different matter. It was probably a two metre drop from the top of the wall down to the water and the force we whooshed down at pushed our raft below the water. AS we both realised what was happening the water rushed towards us and we got soaked.

A little way further downstream was big raft with people armed with digital cameras taking pictures of you as you come over the wall. They got great shots of us coming down, Stef with a “this is fun” look on his face and me with a “oh shit we’re going to sink” look. The bamboo is very buoyant though and we soon bobbed back up with much mirth and laughter all round. A couple of Chinese chaps on the raft behind us, seeing what had happened, refused to go over the wall on their raft and had it lowered into the water before they got on, sensible things. When I later explained what had happened to our guide he said that he had told the raft man not to send us over that particular wall on the raft so the joke was definitely on us.

As we went past the raft with the cameras they were ready to sell you the photos. They had a PC, printer and laminator on board all presumably powered by a generator. Stef spied the photos as we went past and they looked pretty good so we stopped to buy them. Other rafts along the way were selling cold drinks and beer and yet more were selling snacks and food. Sitting on a raft in the sunshine, but with a cool wind blowing and being soaking wet from the hips down was not a great way to spend the afternoon when I was still so full of cold!

All along the river were spots where rafts like this could be hired. In the summer it must be ridiculously busy. We had a few traffic jams with queues to get over the dams and there were not really that many rafts out and about. Most of the rafts were the same as ours but some came with parasols and other had little cabins on top as if people came for tea or dinner on the rafts. I have no idea how they get those ones over the dams.

This really was serene cruising down the river. As with yesterday, in parts it was quite shallow water and we got grounded once or twice. Other sections were a couple of metres deep. Reeds grown along the river bottom and the local people seemed to be harvesting them, presumably like seaweed to eat. As I was starting to get thoroughly board, the end was in sight and we were back on dry land.

Back on the bikes we took a short cut through a school and rode through some more countryside before again hitting the main road. We had come out close to Moon Hill, another local beauty spot. A village across from the hill provided a place to stop for lunch and also afforded us great views of the hill. It is another limestone karst but with a large circular hole in it at the top.

Our guide joined us for lunch and we chatted about the changes that China is going through. They seem to be generally seen as a good thing but there are also problems starting to develop. The biggest seems to be pollution. Certainly everywhere we have been so far we have not seen clear skies. We are not really sure if it just natural mist that hugs the landscape at this time of year or whether it is smog but we suspect the latter.

Both needing to dry out we decided to head back to town rather than going to see some of the local caves. It was a forty minute ride back, following the main road all the way. This got a little hairy the closer we got to town and when we had to navigate roundabouts but generally the traffic was quite quiet and we had an easy trip. Although our trousers had dried out, as I took off my boots I realised how wet they were and I had to peel off my soaking socks. As usual our room was cold so there was little hope of them drying out. We crashed under our duvets for a while both cold and trying to thaw out.

Later we stopped off at a local internet café to check our mail. It brought home to us how close it is to Christmas and I shed a little homesickness tear or two. We then headed out to warm up at a local restaurant before going back to our cold room and to bed.