Between Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi, China, the Li River and the classic landscape are the big attractions. Bumper to bumper tourist boats shuttle visitors among the famous karst mountains and overwhelm Yangshuo town. But a tributary of the Li, the Yulong River, is too shallow for motorized boats of any kind, let alone the behemoths that ply the Li, leaving it a peaceful backwater with nothing but bamboo rafts to carry the relative few who make their way there.
There aren’t that many places for visitors to stay in the villages along the Yulong so, while no doubt changed, as all discovered place are, it remains a largely local economy. There are very few shops with anything for tourists to buy, most restaurants are basic with a local clientele. It’s rural, most of the land under cultivation, roads are narrow, traffic light and almost nonexistent across the river, except for the occasional farm vehicle or motorcycle.
I, and some field rats, occupied a room at a hostel in Chaolong. The place was carved out of buildings in an abandoned portion of the village, leased from the local government and run by a Dutchman and his Chinese staff. The cook sometimes refused to make what I wanted but, that quirk aside, the food in the small restaurant was decent. The room was comfortable, if one didn’t mind sharing with the wildlife, so I decided to stay a while.
The possibility of rambles in the countryside is what drew me to the area and my walks got more ambitious as the days went on. The first consisted simply of following the drive between houses to the road, crossing and following the ever-narrowing track past a few buildings, winding through fields until it reached the river. End of the line.
Next day I got directions for a walk that would take me through another village and, if I decided to cross, along a road on the opposite bank of the river. That sounded good to me. Down the drive, left at the road and on until the fork. Then a right turn toward a village which, it was rumored, had an upscale guesthouse and a gallery. I found both were true, more or less. The guesthouse was, indeed, nice and they kindly let me use the facilities, no problem. The gallery was the studio of a local painter and, interestingly, open but no one at home. Onward.
After a couple of wrong turns and some giggles and pointing from local women, I took the only road I hadn’t yet tried and arrived at the river. A number of bamboo rafts were pulled up on the bank for tourists wanting a float down the river. I simply wanted to cross so the men directed me to a woman who happily ferried me across.
I walked up the path on the opposite bank, joined the road leading away from the river and soon realized that I was completely alone. I walked for a couple of miles, first through scrubby trees, then past a cemetery with small tombs in the woods going up the hillside. Then orchards with an occasional farmer working on his trees and then fields of vegetables and rice. The road had been running parallel to the river but some distance from it. In fields of rice it took a sharp right turn toward the river, then ran close to it until it turned right again and crossed the Yulong on a rudimentary concrete bridge. It ultimately arrived back at the road that led home, on the maps called 066 Country Road, through villages with few enough western visitors that people watched as I passed.
Partway back to Chaolong I stopped at a pleasant newish looking hotel beside the road with a sort of Swiss motif. I was again looking for a toilet and, as I entered, noticed a shiny espresso machine behind a counter in the lobby. Here, where I’d somehow least expect it, a friendly young woman made me a latte. It seemed a small miracle and propelled me happily back home.
The next walk was one I repeated several times with variations. It took in several villages, including one striking place called Jiuxian Ancient Village, set amid fields and against the mountains. A narrow new concrete road ran around one side of the village and all traffic within the walls was on foot through narrow alleys, ancient indeed and quite beautiful.
After taking a wrong turn the first time I set out for Jiuxian, I came upon a village well off the main road. It was the liveliest small community I’d seen and had no apparent relationship with tourists at all. As I up climbed through the place I was largely ignored, though not in an unfriendly way, more as if they just knew I’d lost my way. The path dead-ended and I retraced my steps until I found the road toward Jiuxian again. It was a memorable detour, as wrong turns can be.
One day walking back from Juixian I encountered a lady with the buffalo. I couldn’t tell whether she was actually taking the beast for a walk or whether she was posing by the picturesque little bridge waiting for the likes of me to come along and ask for a photo. It seems to me, considering how few people made it that far up the road, that it would be a scant living if that was the case. But ask her I did, and put her hand out she did, coin was exchanged and photo taken. A small price to pay.
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