Our train had rattled through fields and industrial cities, over rivers and dust coloured hills. China had sped past our window like an accelerated comic strip, a continuous rectangle of still landscape and imagined stories. I looked out, trying to take it in, to make sense of the scale. It was endless, silent and scentless. It struck a sharp contrast with the inside of our carriage, busy with people eating, talking and sleeping. Food and body smells lingered, and the noise from the rattling compartment was compounded by the announcements giving the next stop and salesmen dragging their carts up and down the narrow corridor. One of our neighbours showed us pictures of places to visit and told us his daughter had moved to Europe. A teenage girl sitting next to the window scrolled glumly on her phone. People got on and off at the countless stations we passed heading south, through Henan, Hubei and Jianxi provinces.
In China, after boarding, an official takes your ticket and gives you a token. Just before arrival they return, to reverse the exchange, and wake you up if needed. I do not remember how it happened, but by the time the train rolled into Guilin our tickets were safely stowed and we pulled our heavy bags down from the rack. We crossed the station in the dark, and exited into a courtyard. The luggage office was closed and we would have to wait for several hours to collect our bikes. This gave me time to fret with unfounded thoughts of broken forks and frames. Finally the blinds rolled up and after the paperwork, the bikes rolled out1. We tore off the protective wrap and cardboard, ready to set forth. Guanxi province awaited!
“Guilin’s hills and water are the best under heaven” is common knowledge in China, and mentioning our destination to any that inquired was met with vigorous nodding and smiling. Everyone wants to go to Guilin. And everyone seemingly has. What used to be a provincial town renowned for its beautiful landscape has now been obscured by the expanding concrete and cement that hides the skyline and engulfs the surrounding land. It still has kept some charm of course, and as we pedalled towards the centre, flocks of mopeds swarmed around us and the larger traffic. We enjoyed the feel of the place and its relaxed atmosphere. The messy and constant onslaught of visual novelties kept us looking around as we slipped into a new rhythm. Dancers waltzed beneath the trees, treading to the music and enjoying themselves. Markets and shops cater to everyone and sell everything, from an endless choice of local food to the latest digital gadget out of Shenzhen. Reaching the focal point of the town, a small lake encircles the Sun and Moon Pagodas. Like most of the buildings they are in fact modern, having been rebuilt less than 20 years ago. The original towers dated back 1000 years. The view would have been quite different then, without the heavy skyline. Perhaps it was possible to see the mountains. Because it is the mountains that have made Guilin and the surrounding destinations famous, their razor sharp shapes creating a magical horizon.
In contemporary times the well-known adage concerning the regions beauty has taken on a new twist: “Guilin has the best scenery under the heaven, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful.” As the capital city was built up, travellers started to migrate south, down the river Li to a smaller, quieter place. Here the peaks rise up even steeper. The river runs beneath the impressive karst precipices that are reflected on the surface. They are formed by the acid in the rain which has slowly eroded the sides, leaving the more resistant core. Heavy industry is increasing the acidity of the precipitation meaning the process in being accelerated and they are in fact becoming sharper. The flanks are covered in small shrubs and vegetation, and the green triangles pile up on the horizon. Yangshuo is a second Guilin, and even if it hasn’t grown so much, it has also been eaten up by the mass construction catering to visitors. The houses go from limestone wall to limestone wall. Nowadays the recommendation is to go even further. Xingping is a bit more remote, on the outskirts of the traveller’s guide where the magnificent scenery can be enjoyed without busloads of camera flashing hordes.
The pattern is clear: the spread of concrete extends inexorably and permanently through the valleys eating its way deeper into the landscape. There is little effort to try and preserve the original beauty. The golden goose is being plucked and roasted. With everyone wanting to get on-board the expanding business, every small village wants to strike gold. And who can blame them? It is of course understandable to want to cash in. But like the fable, it may have consequences in the future. Cement is very hard to take away once everything has been covered.
It was perhaps no surprise therefore that when we reached Xingping it was already in the claws of heavy construction equipment. A new station has been built. Apartment blocks were rising up fast, each higher than the previous line, cutting off the view for their unlucky neighbours behind. There will only be one winner, for a little while. The rest will have to content themselves with the rear of some badly build hotel, even once the crowds have moved on to the next unspoilt place.
We only miss that which we have experienced. Arriving in Guilin we were not shocked and enjoyed it, having no preconceptions we therefore took it in our stride. Seeing the landscape around Xinping being built over was much more depressing because we could still imagine what it looked like before.
Even though the main villages are evolving at a rapid pace, the countryside is still there to be explored. It is one of those places where the journey is indeed better than the destination. To get to Xingping we had decided to take a route through the centre of the limestone regions. We started off in the morning, riding in the bike and motorcycle lane where the mopeds and trikes jostle and dodge each other. We would often find ourselves with the same group at the traffic lights, their faster acceleration leaving us behind before we would catch up again. At one point we greeted two kids perched on their dad’s knee. They would wave every time we overtook them, until the traffic light, where they would gain on us. This went on for quite a while, but we finally lost sight of them and started to exit the city. Several villages later the hills rolled towards us, rising from the ground. The mounds started to become higher, more vertical. The road, climbed gracefully up a first slope and then a second.
Some switchbacks, with newly planted trees by the side of the asphalt allowed us to gain some height. We slowed down to appreciate the view. As far as the eye could see the jagged shapes repeated themselves again and again, fading into the misty clouds. They were teeth trying to bite the sky. Far down below we could make out the river, with some white buildings poking out of the green carpet. It was a scenic, peacefull ride, twisting and turning through the cliffs2.
To get a better view, one morning in Xingping we decided to climb one of the peaks to watch the sunrise and see the surroundings from higher up. Setting off in the dark we took the steep path that zigzagged between the slopes. It seemed impossible from below but the track found its way between the weak parts of the face and climbed higher. The thick vegetation made it feel more protected than it was as we went up in the dark. About two thirds of the way a steel ladder allowed us to surmount a vertical section. From there we followed the path to the top. As we neared the summit there were less trees and we could see down below. After the exciting ascent the view was impressive but the low laying cloud stole our sunrise. Even so we enjoyed the panorama in the still, almost breathless warm predawn moment.
We watched the people on the river down below, as the town started to come alive. The old section, made of darker brick and smaller structures, could be distinguished from the new buildings sprouting up around it. On the water, it was too early for the tour boats, but some fishermen had started to cut across the green surface. Later as we walked along the bank we were to see them close up, and looking back could see the small peak from whence we had descended. The almost geometric shapes were again reflected in the river.
Why do we look for unspoilt habitat, what is it that makes us shun those places that have been exploited? Is it the need for individuality? We feel much more unique when were are in nature. As we watched the local tourist’s stream through the streets, they did not seem to be shaken by the changes wreaked by man; their aesthetics were not the same as ours. It is most peculiar to realise that we strive for a novel and different experience whereas they were content to live exactly the same story as their fellows. We may spurn their reality and felt ourselves judging their way of life by our standards. But can we really? Of course not, but we can voice the concern that it is not sustainable and in the long run, the same things that attract all the visitors will disappear too. It is not to be experienced, it is to be consumed.
Over the next few days we stayed in a place on the outskirts of Yangshuo. The bikes needed some loving care and we enjoyed the peace and quiet on the fringe. We changed the chains and tightened screws. One evening the neighbours were celebrating and we looked out of the window to see them light hundreds of fireworks. The kids jumped around and clapped, before they all went back to the table. Not all the roads were paved and several new houses were being built on the street. Going out for a ride I was able to explore some of the small paths and pedal between the rice fields. They had started to collect the grains but most of the fields were still a beautiful golden colour.
Passing through little villages that were probably standing in line for the goldrush, I could try and imagine what the region was like hundreds of years ago. Poor and rural. Some purple flowers had sprung up between the weeds, and added a splash of colour to the sombre palette of the rice, rock and cloud. The stone teeth smiled. It is perhaps still the most beautiful place under heaven. For a little time at least.
1 Train travel in China is efficient and cheap. You will need to consign your bike and pick up o arrival. You should do it a day or so beforehand to make sure it is sent on time, but we were always able to collect ours after arrival. They are quite dusty on arrival but seem well treated. Do check them properly though, someone had stolen 3 of 4 chain ring bolts of Sandie’s on one ocassion. We only found out a few days later when the chain ring almost fell off! Luckily I was able to take one off mine and it held until we were able to make repairs.
2 Follow the Tieshan Road to exit Guilin (the is a bike path), then take the X068 towards Caopingxiang and then continue on the X097 which will enter the hills all the way to Xingping.