For some insane reason, we decided to buy bicycles and ride them through China. This is the tale of our first trip: Nanning to Yangshuo in the Guangxi province. It was 450 kilometres and took us six days.
Map of the trip:
Day 1: Nanning to Binyang (87 km)
The training for our journey consisted of a couple of leisurely cycles around Nanning city, the flat, well-paved road and slow pace seeming all too easy. These ‘training sessions’ did in no way prepare us for our first full day of riding. I had expected that I’d be tired, but wanting to die wasn’t a feeling that I had planned for, nor particularly wanted.
We decided to do a rather ambitious stint on our first day. I’m not entirely sure what the recommended distance for a beginner to go on the first day is, but none of the forums we looked at seemed to think that 80 kilometres would be a sensible choice. So of course, we cycled 87 kilometres. The first 20 kilometres were mostly spent getting out of the city, and we pulled into a little park with very appropriate bicycle sculptures to take our first rest.
We snacked on the food we’d bought for the journey – cashew nuts, bananas, and crackers, and we both felt like the full 80 kilometres wouldn’t be such a big deal. The first 20 had been fine with very gentle occasional inclines.
After about 10 more kilometres a big sign on the road informed us that bikes weren’t allowed on this section, so please go an alternate way. The alternate way was where things began to get difficult. For a seasoned cyclist this section would be totally fine, but for our baby-legs the up and down of the rolling hills was extremely difficult. Eventually there were a few rises that were too steep and Caroline found herself getting off to push. I stuggled in first gear, my legs spinning like a washing machine, not making much progress, sweating stinging sunscreen into my eyes. My heart was racing and I was guzzling water. Were we this unfit? This detour went on for about 20 kilometres and then smoothed out again when we joined up with the main road.
For a time it was good, but then we came to a series of consecutive uphill slogs. They weren’t as steep as the rolling hills we’d already passed but they were much longer. Here we learned that while I had the extra power to get up the short, sharp hills, Caroline had the stamina required to not collapse on the longer hills. I began to get a tingling feeling in my hands and got shaky legs. She reassured me as I stopped for breaks. Perhaps it would have been easier if our bikes weren’t laden with stuff (tent, computer, sleeping bags, clothes), but then again our loads seemed lighter than some other touring cyclists we’d seen. Perhaps my chicken legs were to blame.
It’s prudent to note here that the first day wasn’t a very scenic ride. The weather was mostly dull grey with patches of killer sun, and the road contained lots of heavy traffic. The buildings were cheerless utilitarian stone cubes, and various construction work littered the landscape. An interesting aspect were the explosions coming from the graves of dead Chinese people. More on that later.
By the time we rolled into Binyang I was ready to collapse. We’d ridden from 8.30 a.m. and had arrived at 5 p.m. We checked into a hotel – any hotel – and after showering off an unsettling amount of disgusting grime I promptly fell into a temporary coma. An hour later, awake, we staggered around the town (in New Zealand we’d call it a city) and realised China truly comes alive at night. When we’d arrived, Binyang had seemed bleak and empty but when a multitude of neon lights illuminated and thousands of people took to the streets to eat and shop, it became a totally different place.
Day 2: Binyang to Laibin (90 km)
When we awoke there was a surprisingly small amount of pain. I was all ready to throw my arms in the air and claim that my legs weren’t working but it would have been a lie. Apparently, we were ready to cycle again.
The second day was much, much easier than the first with nice, flat roads, but I began to notice a few painful spots that I wasn’t expecting. Pain in my wrists was a surprise, as was a sharp pain in my lower back. A bit of a seat adjustment seemed to fix the back, but nothing could curb the worst pain of all: the pain in my arse. This is the most common issue for cyclists (apparently), and it is not fun at all. The chaffing rubs the area raw and the rash that forms can develop pustules which are jauntily named ‘saddle sores’. I changed position often to reduce chaffing in the same area, and I could only imagine the horror behind me. I imagined an acne-covered teenager eating strawberry ice cream and crying.
This day marked the beginning of the Qingming – or tomb-sweeping – festival. The explosions from the day before were just a taste of what we witnessed on this cycle. The scenery started becoming more appealing with limestone karst hills, and all throughout these hills people were setting off extremely loud fireworks as part of the tradition of honouring their ancestors.
Apart from the various stabs of pain all over my body, the ride was very pleasant. Eventually the half-built city of Laibin could be spotted 15 kilometres away as a backdrop of unfinished skyscrapers. Cycling into the city revealed it to be vast but quiet. Brand new multi-lane roads led either to nothing or to a cluster of cranes and ugly high-rise residential apartments. The streets were strangely void of people and many of the shops were closed. We decided this was due to the festival.
We splurged on a fancy hotel (143 RMB – $22) and did not regret that decision in the slightest. The price included free laundry and a free buffet breakfast. Both were very much appreciated by us.
Day 3: Laibin to Liuzhou (90 km)
‘Rough and beautiful’ is the best way to describe this cycle. We took a smaller road that began by snaking around the huge expressway. There were many ruts and pot holes, and we saw a guy on a motorbike in front of us blow out his rear tyre. We offered him our pump and puncture repair kit, but he didn’t have the tools to remove his tyre.
Shortly after that we met a spandex-clad man who had stopped for a rest. He spoke a little bit of English and introduced himself as Chang. Chang told us he had been cycling on and off for a year and had started by cycling in Tibet. He joined us as we rode, and occasionally we’d attempt a broken conversation.
“I come from Yulin,” he said. “Every year is dog festival.”
“Meat of dog festival. Many foreigner come for…” he searched his phone for the word, “…protest.”
He was referring to the ‘Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival‘ where, during the hottest part of the year, local people enthusiastically devour over 10,000 dogs and probably a good many more lychees.
“Do you like to eat dog?” Caroline asked.
“I don’t like,” he replied solemnly.
The day wore on with a couple of biggish hills, but none of them were as bad as the first day – or at least they didn’t seem that bad now. The last half of the road was wonderful; the entire horizon was covered in odd-shaped limestone outcrops and the foreground was filled with the new growth of lettuces, oranges, and lotus. The explosions continued, and it was the first time that I ignored the pain and enjoyed my surroundings. Progress!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city of Liuzhou; it’s always difficult to tell on a map. I thought it might be another small town a bit like Binyang. How wrong I was. When we reached the outskirts of the city we still had an hour of riding before reaching the centre. The city was dotted with limestone hills and many of them had beautiful pagodas on top. Gondolas carried visitors up to one of the high peaks, and pink plum blossoms filled the streets. The entirely modern downtown area was encircled by a river, and as we approached one of the bridges I thought, “This is no small town. I think I’m going into the future.” As it happens, the city is home to a number of people that is just shy of New Zealand’s entire population.
It took us about an hour of searching, but we finally found an affordable hotel which allowed us to take our bikes into our room. In the evening we took a 2-hour walk (argh!) with Chang through the striking city, marveling at the beautiful lights, the live Chinese opera in the middle of the river, the large musical fountain, the 13th century wall, and the endless supply of delicious food. It was Wednesday night and the city was pulsing with energy.
“Is it this busy all the time?” we asked Chang, “Or just because it’s a holiday?”
“Every day is a holiday,” he said grimly. “Too many people with no job.”
Day 4: Liuzhou to Toupai (98 km)
Yes. Essentially one hundred kilometres. After days of slow, sometimes agonizing rides, we decided that the best course of action would be further punishment. Since I think my stamina was increasing by this point I can’t say whether or not I would have found this ride harder if it were the first day, but by the end of it I once again felt like dying.
At about 8 a.m. Chang knocked on our door.
“I cannot get money back. They say we arrive together we must leave together.”
Chang was cycling 40 kilometres further than us so he wanted an earlier start, but because of some very weird hotel policy they wouldn’t give him back his deposit (which he’d paid separately from us) unless we all left at the same time. It made no sense, but we had to quickly get ready and rush downstairs so Chang could leave.
After a quick breakfast of tasty, oily pao, Chang led us to the fringes of town. He then rode off ahead at his own pace – a pace much faster than ours. Sadly, the natural beauty of the previous day didn’t continue. We followed a new, wide, practically empty highway through what will probably soon be another enormous city. They’d already build an epic convention centre and scores of high-rise towers were under construction. Concept art on various walls showed a futuristic wonderland. Coming soon.
From there it was just hills. Oh, the hills. The agonizing hills. Mostly up. For a seasoned cyclist this would probably be a cake walk – it was certainly not as steep as many of the roads we traveled when we had our motorbike – but for us cycling newbies it was a whole lot of pain. I was making audible grunts as I pushed on the pedals, trucks and buses honked past furiously, pot holes tried to gobble us up, and Caroline’s bike blew over when we were having a drink and squashed our bananas. Both of us had to keep standing on the pedals to give our burning bums relief.
We arrived at around 5 p.m. and found a small, two-street town. The hotel we stayed in was clean, quiet and cheap, and while shopping at the local supermarket the friendly owner followed me around pointing her phone at me, presumably filming me while I bought a bungee cord and a lunch box. This is probably a good place to note that we saw no other westerners between our start and finish points of Nanning and Yangshuo.
Caroline managed to order snail broth noodles which certainly hit the spot.
Day 5: Toupai to Lipu (42 km)
We woke up to heavy rain and pulled all of our waterproof covers on, but by the time it came to actually leave the rain had eased off. Next to the hotel was a row of identical food stalls and we chose one at random to eat luo si fen. This dish seems to have many incarnations, and the one in question was kind of herbal-tasting bowl of noodles in broth. Pickled condiments waited in dishes covered with glass squares and we piled some of these into the noodles along with chili. Spoons aren’t given with soups in this part of China, and so once you’ve scooped out all you can with chopsticks you pick up the whole bowl and suck down the remaining goodness.
Caroline did some research and discovered that there would be a lot of uphill riding between Toupai and Lipu, therefore we decided to balance that terrifying fact with half as many kilometres. The first ten kilometres went as promised: they were the steepest hills we’d ridden up so far and went into the mountains that had only recently been a nice eastern backdrop to the town. The climbs were long and difficult, but we managed to get up without stopping. Once we’d ridden about 10 kilometres the steep hills flattened out and the scenery became lovely. We were among the misty mountains and the light rain helped to cool us down.
The road began to climb steeply again after another 5 km, but after 5 more we cycled over a rise and enjoyed a couple of kilometres of speedy downhill cruising. At this point I think I finally understood why people cycle – they do it for the downhills. We whizzed past trees and streams along the nicely sealed road, the wind whipping past our faces and the quiet, satisfying hiss of tyres on damp tarmac, and when we stopped at the bottom we were both feeling very happy with everything.
The road was practically flat for the remaining 20 kilometres and we checked into one of the many nameless hotels in Lipu that surround the bus stop. We still felt surprisingly fresh, and so we took a little walk around the town to buy steamed dumplings, Portuguese egg tarts, and nappy rash cream.
Day 6: Lipu to Yangshuo (45 km)
Once again we woke to the sound of heavy rain, and once again that rain mostly subsided by the time we were set to leave. Breakfast consisted of my current favourite thing: dumplings. These were served with a nice seaweed soup.
The road on our final day was a mix of moderate uphills and downhills, but we barely noticed. One reason could have been because we were now getting used to the cycling. Another reason might have been that the nappy rash cream was working its magic. The third – and probably most likely – reason, was that it was just beautiful. The limestone karst mountains jutted everywhere and we cycled through villages that were set at their bases. Soon, the sun appeared, and just outside of Yangshuo we came upon a cluster of vehicles jostling for good parking spots. Whole families were walking towards a path that led up a hill containing large, floating balloons. People had picnics and cameras.
“You want to see?” asked a man. We had stopped at the entrance to investigate what was going on.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The bull fight!” he declared, butting his hands together. Sure enough, from a certain angle we could see a small colosseum which everybody was heading to. Displayed at the gate was a statue of two buffaloes with their horns interlocked.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said, and turned to Caroline. She shook her head. Ignorance, we decided in this rare case, was perfectly acceptable.
The approach to Yangshuo, a town which features on China’s 20 yuan note, was stunning. It was as beautiful as everybody had said it would be. It was also our first Chinese tourist trap.
“DO YOU WANT TO SEE INSIDE CAVE?” bellowed a woman as I cycled down the designated bike lane, weaving around hundreds of Chinese tourists on tandem bicycles. I shook my head and smiled, but she’d already moved on to someone else. This whole approach was dotted with caves, rock climbing walls, carts selling steamed tofu and grilled fish, authentic tribal minority experiences, and pony rides. We stopped several times to join the masses in taking photos of some wondrous scene or another, and then we battled our way through the busy streets of the city centre.
Eventually, we found our way out the other side of the bustle and located our hotel; a peaceful little place called Stone Bridge that sits 5 km out of town next to a frog-filled field with an unobstructed view of the surrounding mountains.
And so we had arrived after our first long cycle. We decided to spend three nights in Yangshuo before heading off on another cycling adventure through China. Our bodies would thank us for the break.
Update! Now you can read about our second, even longer cycle from Yangshuo to Macau.