Stepping groggily into the early morning darkness of Guilin, after a 12-hour journey on the sleeper bus up from Shenzhen and Hong Kong, a blast of cold wind and rain quickly had us digging for warmer clothes. The city wasn't the warm one I had left just ten days previously to go down to Zhuhai with Mark and then meet Ellie in Hong Kong. In our absence, the wintry northeast monsoon had arrived. The rest of the day was spent preparing for our departure the following morning and chatting with an international consortium of cyclists at the hostel. Our warmshowers host Phil in Hong Kong had described Guilin and Yangshuo quite accurately as China for beginners. International and domestic tourism has been embraced in this region of the country with its beautiful karst landscape being the primary draw card.
Ellie's first day back on the bike marked the end of a five month sabbatical from her Brookes saddle and barring occasional forays across downtown Tokyo and then a tentative return to cycling in Norwich and Brighton, it has been a more or less continuous break from her Surly Long Haul Trucker since we rolled into Sandra and Nigel's front yard in Vancouver in early July. While a combination of physiotheraphy, her mother's cooking and the odd medicinal pint of ale ensured her broken elbow a swift recovery, Ellie developed a frozen shoulder in her injured arm while she was undergoing physiotheraphy. It's a painful condition that is generally treated with a combination of analgesics and physical theraphy. While cycling itself is not necessarily too painful, any sudden jolts can cause a lot of pain. And since what appears as a beautiful road on a map in China can become a free for all mudfest and rocky horror show in reality, it was vital that our initial route be carefully researched. Once we had porridged and packed and with Ellie downing a couple of preemptory painkillers, we set off from Guilin in our convoy of six with Jonathon and Cynthia from Canada and Maarten and Lina from the Netherlands. I hadn't looked into the road we took and unfortunately, despite being a beautiful karst landscape of conical peaks, it also turned into the roughest road I'd witnessed in China and we bounced our way along the ever deteriorating rocky road and finally made Xing Ping an hour after nightfall. Ellie suffered a lot that afternoon and for her not to say I've had enough or get the next bus back to Hong Kong says a lot about her determination to persist with this cycling folly as well as the incomprehensible timetables.
We spent the next three days in the Yangshou area, hiking a river, floating back down it, and doing unloaded forays into the pictuesque surrounding valleys where the water buffalo grazed on the cut rice stalks and farmers prepared the intricate dykes and channels that would fill their now empty paddy fields with water when the rains come again.
Fortunately the roads improved as we were blown southwest from Yangshuo, bound for Guangxi's provincial capital of Nanning, we covered the few hundred kilometres in five days riding and a rest day in Laibin. There were some bumpy backroads through the cane covered hillsides of cental Guangxi but both Ellie and her shoulder appear to be settling into life back on the bicycle. Once we collect our passports from the Vietnam consulate tomorrow afternoon, the end of this part of China is just 200 km away as we head for a communist Christmas in Hanoi. I'm not sure I'll be shedding any tears as we get stamped out but it has been a fascinating couple of months and while many aspects of culture and politics are, of course, as inscrutable as when I arrived it has been a wonderful insight into how life in eastern and southern China is evolving at this important period in the country's history, where the pace of change is so fast in many respects and yet so stagnant in others. The western expanses are calling to be pedaled but we'll have to wait for a warmer climate, both phyiscally and politically, if we are to cross through Tibet anytime soon.
Nanning, Guangxi, PRC
Pedalled: 54,267 km