Riding the Dragon's Back


The following morning I was on the road again.  A little later than intended because I’d got into a conversation helping an aging though handsome-looking French lady with a twinkle in her eye who was staying in the hostel but could speak no English or Chinese.  I must have chatted to her for an hour.  I didn’t realise my French was up to it.  I was quite surprised.  Struggling along in a totally foreign tongue like Mandarin does make the languages of which I do know a little seem pretty natural.  


Today was all about the bike.  Or the ride.  A glorious day from its outset, everything went right on this day.  Sunday’s are no quieter than any other day in China and by the time I was on the road, the city was well on with its day. 


I found the road out of town with no problem – back on Route 321, a road of which I had become quite fond.  Traffic wasn’t heavy even though it’s the main route north from Guilin and north out of Guangxi province.  Quite quickly I left behind the friendly limestone peaks and entered into more open rolling country.  Although there was still some terracing in the farmland, the fields were bigger and the slopes shallower than elsewhere I’d seen.  I started seeing tea plantations, big tractors, barns and quite modern agricultural paraphernalia along the roadside.  Rather like vineyards in the great wine countries, the tea plantations would often have a shop front and placards inviting people in for tasting (and buying) of their different leaves. 


The rolling road soon started to straighten out.  The valley sides widened and widened till I was humming along beautiful straight stretches of tarmac, lined with trees that were turning to their autumn colours, raised above fruit orchards that were laid out either side.  In the distance, the valley sides rose and rose from rises into hills, and hills into mountains.  And then there were two ridges, then three, then four - rising higher and higher over either shoulder into the hazy sunlight.  Tea turned into melons, and melons into oranges and tangerines.  The road was joined by a fast-running stream to its left, clear and clean, and I sped along with a smile on my face. 


Around lunch time I came to a service station.  I still hadn’t decided where I was going to stop for the night.  I had heard about a placed called the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces that were located about 80km north of Guilin which looked in photos to be spectacular.  The fruit stalls in front of the service station looked too refreshing to resist so I pulled up – had a pit stop taking in a few drinks and buying a day or two’s supply of fruit – bananas, apples and tangerines all of which are delicious.  The stall-owner is pretty friendly and she tells me a little about the Longshen area (Long – Dragon; Shen – Backbone).  She says it’s beautiful and accommodation is cheap.  She tells me it’s in its own national park and the turn-off is about 20km further on to the right, but then the villages in the park are another 20km climb uphill.  I check my distance meter – that would mean just over 100km for the day, and most of that uphill.  That would be plenty for me. 


I thanked her and on I went.  The straight and wide valley quickly began closing in on me and the road surface started rising up in front of me.  “Hello legs!” I thought to myself after a few minutes steady climbing.  There always comes this moment each day in the mountains when your legs say “Do we really have to?” and the response is “You’d better believe it!”  The road snaked this way and that, and the ridge tops became more angular as the stream dropped into a gorge to my left. As I climb, I start seeing the distinctive field terracing in the landscape and little villages made of dark wooden huts and houses, distinctive to the culture of the local minority – the Dong people. 


The road carries on climbing occasionally giving me some respite with a kilometre or two of downhill before resuming the ascent.  Everything looks like Switzerland to me now.  The shape of the valleys, the ridge tops, the trees – everything except the terracing.  Even the buildings look similar – certainly a Swiss log cabin would not look out of place in this landscape. 


I’ve been climbing for at least an hour now and done probably 12 of my 20km before the turn off.  I stop for a drink and some food since I have no idea when the uphill is going to stop.  There is a little cabin with a store out the front like a million other shop fronts in rural China – a fridge, some drinks, cigarettes, bizarre snacks.  I sit on a little concrete ledge a few yards to the side of the building and let my legs dangle over the side.  The whole valley is spread out before me – I gaze up and up to the receding ranks of ridge tops that fade away from me into the haze, munching on an apple.  It feels great. 


Replenished I set off again and it’s another 20 minutes before I can see the final turns in the road before I reach the pass.  At the top I stop and look back.  Although it’s hazy, the sight is awesome.  I can see probably 40 miles back down the deep valley that plummets away from my feet.  Although the boundary between Hunan and Guangxi is further north, this is the real watershed between the two regions – this is the highpoint.  Turning my bike down the other side, the landscape has changed again.  A mass of terraces now covers every slope as far as I can see and I am treated to every cyclist’s delight after a hard climb – 8km of steady downhill.  Turn after turn with no traffic around and a beautiful surface, the heat of the afternoon sun on my back now warming my shoulders – it probably takes a cyclist to know how enjoyable that is.


As I rounded out and finally saw the sign into the national park, I noticed a little roadside “diner” just by the junction.  It was full of locals so I figured the food must be clean.  Everything was made of wood and they’d put down a glass of tea, a plate of food and a cold beer almost before I’ve opened my mouth.  There were about 4 women serving up food, both for me and for themselves at the same time it turned out.  They were very welcoming and had two little twin 4 year olds – a boy and a girl – who were being made to eat and drink up their milk.  They were tiny (it seemed to me) but very cute.  I told them about my nephews back in Hong Kong and showed them a picture and tried to explain how I wished my nephews would gobble up their food as well as their little children – but I don’t think they got that.  We were then joined by an older lady who was dressed in some traditional garb and had her exceptionally long hair tied up in a complicated looking knot.  It turns out she is one of another local minority – the Yao people – well-known for their “long-haired women”.  Once married a woman no longer cuts her hair – of course the men get off easy.  She offered me some very cheap accommodation in one of the two villages in the park.  I can’t see any problem so I accept – and at least now I had a destination.


Thanking the ladies for their kindness, I got on my bike and free-wheeled round the bend down into the ticketing area to enter the park.  Within a few minutes, I was back on the bike and off up the road again – a narrow little way, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass one another.  Everything is up again.  Almost immediately I pass a waterfall, and then find myself following cliff faces, rock overhangs, and drooping tree branches bending into the road.  Moss and lichens are spread over the rocks and hang off the branches in the dark patches of woodland beside the road. 


Before long I pass the first little hamlets and habitation in the park.  The same dark wooden buildings with men, women and children out beside the road in the mid-afternoon sunlight.  The road bends around a few rock faces before it settles down following a fast-flowing river upstream – deeper into the park, deeper into the valley.  The valley sides are spread over with dark woodland, the slopes with lighter shades are always terraced.  The water plays and breaks over boulders and round rock pools, slewing down shale banks.  It reminds me of Scotland and Canada.  By now I am riding with a big lump in my throat, what I am seeing is so staggeringly beautiful.


By this time, the effect of the whole day has lifted me higher and higher into an existential high that is difficult to express.  I completely had not expected this.  I had heard that Guilin and Yangshuo were beautiful and I imagined that the best was behind me for a while.  And yet, no.  Today I had seen things so wonderful, so shining, so glorious that I was reduced to a state of worship.  The physical endeavour of the day, the human encounters I had had, the glory of the nature that surrounded me, the priceless gift of the present, the absolute, the now  – all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of love, weighing down on me, lifting me up, bursting out of me.  I found myself declaring in my heart “I love China, I love the Chinese people,” (I mean, we barely know each other) “I love the world, I love its beauty, I love its people, I love the Lord God Almighty – the awesome Creator of it all and the lover of my soul.”  


The earth is His, and the fullness thereof

The world and those who dwell therein….” (Psalm 24:1)


“For you shall go out in joy

And be led forth in peace;

The mountains and the hills before you

Shall break forth into singing

And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)


So you can see – I was quite carried away!  Awe is a beautiful thing – and this was certainly the moment for it.


I carried on, passing more and more little villages with minority gift shops and restaurants for the busloads of tourists that come into the park every day.  I watched the faces of the people carefully and they were always smiling – sharing a joke with each other or just sitting down to a family meal.  They were always ready with a smile for me too.  There were also sawmills, and the smell of freshly cut wood, and men gathered together on patches of land under timber pillars – like the scene of a barn-raising in the mid-West. 


But evening was coming on now and my legs were getting tired.  Soon a sign said 10km to the little village of Jinkeng where I would stay but I knew I would make it.  I passed fewer vehicles now, but each one would give me an encouraging toot as they had just come from my destination and knew what lay ahead of me.  The road bucked up steeper once more, the stream fell away further and great waterfalls of hundreds of feet plummeted into the valley bottom. 


Eventually I toiled the last two or three kilometres into the little village, counting it down 10m at a time on my distance metre. 


Jinkeng was not quite as expected.  There is a big entrance gate to go into the village beyond which no vehicles could pass and my ticket was checked again.  I was then met by the old lady’s daughter who led me along a stone path pushing my bike.  I looked up at the hillslopes and the distinctive terracing is everywhere.  What makes it different to other terracing is its intensity, its scale and also the size of the actual terraces.  


Each ledge of terracing is no more than 5m deep and many are much smaller – even as little as 2m back to front.  This gives an amazing rippled effect as you move your eyes up and down the slopes that surround you.  And dotted amongst these shelves I could see people moving, stooping down and grappling with the earth with a trowel, or pulling together cut grass or crop stalks for burning on the edge of the terraces.  The smoke of these little fires swirled up into the darkening evening sky.  Certainly, these farmers are oblivious to the tourism that ventures up here.  They just get on with the jobs that need doing as they always have done. 


Forgive the digression, but I remembered from my degree that agricultural practice was very similar to this during the era of the Roman Empire.  The undulating Italian landscape was filled with these little terraces in times of peace – and then as the empire fell apart, so too did the maintenance of the terraced agriculture in the landscape and before long weather erosion would collapse the whole hillside, stripping it bare and leaving much of what you see there now.  But I’d never quite been able to picture this.  Now at least I have a great visual representation of what that must have looked like.  I suppose so long as there are farmers to look after the Dragon’s Backbone it’ll be fine – but if it falls into neglect, all this beautiful landscape will just slide away downstream.


The village was “charming” with a homely little stream running through its middle spanned by a little stone bridge.  The daughter steered me to a building to the right where she told me to unload my bike.  I was a little loathe to be separated from my bike but I understood why shortly.  Waiting patiently there were two tiny old ladies cackling like ancient crones and shuffling from foot to foot on their bow legs like Sumo wrestlers squaring up.  It was only when they started grabbing my panniers and other kit off me that I realised they were “the help” and they filled up the baskets that fit on their backs till they were overloaded.  I refused to let them carry the two biggest bags out of concern that they would collapse.  That didn't seem to bother them and they just gave me another toothless cackle.


We then set off walking up the hill.  It was another 25 minutes stomping behind my two little pack-ponies up a jumble of stone steps before we reached yet another little settlement nestled high on the hillside – almost hanging off it – where I was to stay.  I understood now why the old lady was waiting for me down in the valley - I couldn't imagine many tourists making it up there - but I didn’t really care.  It was cheap and I was here. 


The view was stunning – although by now the clouds had come in and smothered any evening sunlight, so the whole scene was now under a rather dull light.  But from up there you could look out across the whole collection of hilltop terracing and see other little hamlets dotted about the folds in the valley uplands. 


The room was old, the house a creaking collection of wooden boards and hoardings that felt like they would barely hold together through the night.  All the electric wires hung about one’s ears and when I turned the shower handle to try to get hot water it came off in my hand, the gas burner didn’t light and I could smell gas gushing out into the bathroom that was really just a closet.  Determined to get my hot shower after all that, I pulled out my tools and tinkered around until all was lit, warm and I stood for long minutes under the hot water, looking out of the window across the valley at the gathering darkness – savouring, just for a few moments, my conquest of all the landscape that lay below. 


Once darkness fell, there’s not much to do up there but get fed and watered and go to sleep.  After a day like that, the simplicity of this end to my journey seemed to me completely appropriate and welcome. 

Comments (3)

Said this on 11-10-2010 At 06:18 pm

Go Theo!! Love the stories. Keep em coming. Hope the ankle is recovering. Lots of love xx


Said this on 11-11-2010 At 11:56 pm

Just finished reading all your entries. Really enjoyed the writing... I shall keep tuned in.

Make sure your sliver of Switzerland includes Wollerau!  Althought that seems to be half a year away at least!

Keep up the pedalling.



Said this on 11-23-2010 At 12:39 am

I am lifting you up today Theo.

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