This one day we spent in China - March 29th, 2016, to be exact - encapsulated so many stories and emotions that it is somehow representative of our whole China trip in miniature. So here they are, the highs and lows, documented for posterity.
phase 1: euphoria.
After 10 days spent only in megacities, I think we were all excited to arrive in the lush green of the Yangshuo countryside. Lonely Planet told us that this was a great area for biking, so we were equally excited for a day's excursion by bike - a welcome change of pace from days spent out and about by subway, train, and bus. So we outfitted ourselves with bicycles from our guesthouse, and off we rode!
For the first hour, we were all completely euphoric. It was beautiful! We were on bicycles! And at our first photo stop we invented what we were convinced was going to be the next big thing in photography - the panorama shot! Not new, you say? But in our panarama photos, everyone appears more than once, bringing loads of extra fun. The photographer would take a 360° photo using smartphone stitching, and then when someone in the photo was out of the frame (for the first time), they would run to the other end to appear at the other side as well. Pure, silly hilarity. Too bad the photo-stitching software does some weird things to your face when you're in a 360° shot, we could've had some real works of art on our hands.
phase 2: euphoria tinged with incredulity.
The first bit of incredulity crept in when we realized that a good chunk of our bicycle path was not more than a muddy rut strewn with rocks; it was like mountain-biking on flat land. But we were a hardy bunch, and had no problem with walking our bikes once in a while -- which for me, at least, was necessary. We had just finished a long stretch of mud and rocks and had found our way onto a paved path again when we ran into a couple of young white dudes. We stopped to chat about which fork in the road to take, and lo and behold, we actually knew one of them - Roman had gone to high school with one of them in Bühl (i.e., small-town Germany). What a coincidence, right?! I mean, here we were on a bike path in the middle of nowhere (albeit, a middle-of-nowhere that is fairly well known on the tourist circuit), and we meet someone we knew from Germany?! Crazy. Needless to say there was lots and lots of chatting and catching up before we decided it was time to get back on our bikes and make it to our lunch destination, Dragon Bridge.
phase 3: frustration, and more incredulity.
It was already late when we arrived at our lunch destination, around 2 pm or so, what with all of our stopping for photos and catching up with old friends. Lunch itself didn't arrive so quickly either, so when we had eaten, we were more than ready to get back on the road -- we still had half of our bike ride ahead of us. Dragon Bridge was our turn around point, and the plan was to bike back on the other side of the river. But when we went to get on our bikes again, Verena discovered that she had a flat tire. So we asked a local police officer for help, and he directed us to someone who could repair the flat for us.
This took forever, and we started inventing theories that the bike had actually been sabotaged by the people who were now going to make money from repairing it -- we had simply locked our bikes together on one side of the bridge, where some locals had been trying to convince us to come to their lunch place, which we didn't do in the end -- and now it seemed like the same people were doing the bike repair. Also, they found 3 holes in the tube, and apparently charged per hole. The price they named seemed awfully steep to us, so Roman got on the phone with the owners of our guesthouse for the first time that day, and they negotiated a better price for us. By the time all of this was over, we all had a bit of a bad taste in our mouths and were REALLY ready to get on the road again.
So we were off again, finally, and the next thing that happened is that we started getting lost. Well, not really lost, but we were having a bit of trouble finding our way. The concept was simple, follow the river back, but the proper path was not that obvious. More than once we went one way, only to have some local farmers to gesture wildly at us, indicating that we should turn around and go the other way. None of this was so bad, but we were starting to feel a bit of time pressure -- we still had a long ways to go and eventually it would get dark.
And then Rita got a flat tire. We were somewhere in a tiny village, but we weren't sure where exactly and didn't have any cell phone reception. So we went down the road a bit and found a local farmer who could repair the flat for us. (Mind you, all of this communication was done with sign language and Roman's relatively limited Chinese.) However, the bigger problem was that we still had a long way to get home, didn't exactly know how to get there, and by now it was going to get dark within an hour. And of course we didn't have any lights for our bikes.
phase 4: rescue! and even more incredulity.
At this point, I was convinced we needed a rescue. Basically, I thought our guesthouse needed to send a van to pick us up. The owners were the most western of any hotel staff we had encountered, spoke excellent English, and I figured we couldn't have been the first guests to ever get ourselves into this sort of fix. So while flat tire #2 was being fixed, I got on the phone with them. As it turns out, however, arranging transport for 7 people + 7 bicycles in rural China is not so simple. So I handed the phone to the nice farmer guy who had just fixed our flat tire, and the plan they worked out for us was this: he would ride on his motorbike with a big giant headlamp and guide us back to our guesthouse. That way we would have light AND not get hopelessly lost. For a moment, Rita was ready to tell him that this wasn't necessary, that we would be fine, but I was convinced - it WAS necessary, and it sounded like a good plan to me.
We were on the road again, this time with our new friend as a guide. He led us on a winding path that eventually dumped us out on a proper road, complete with auto traffic. Progress! At this point however, there were two more complications: (1) our guide told us he had to change out his motorbike battery and that he'd be right back, then disappeared, and (2) we had two more flat tires - Rita's (which apparently hadn't gotten properly fixed), and Katrin's. Punch-drunk laughter seemed to be the healthiest reaction here.
We weren't off the grid anymore, so Hannes' first thought was to hail down one of the mini trucks that were passing by, to see if they would give a couple of people and a couple of bikes a lift back to our guest house. However, the communication didn't really work, and the truck driver indicated that he could take us down the road to someone who could patch a flat tire...and we had had enough of fixing flats for one day.
By that point our new friend had returned, having switched out his electric motorbike for a diesel one. For a moment the plan was this: he would take one extra person on his motorbike, who would roll one of the bikes with the flats along beside them, Roman would ride one bike while pushing another, and Hannes would jog. I'd say we had 8-10 km to go at this juncture. Hannes actually did start jogging down the road while the rest of us biked/rode, but this plan lasted all of about 200 meters. Then we rearranged and did the following: two people got on the back of the motorbike, Hannes and Roman biked while simultaneously pushing a bike with a flat beside them, and the rest of us rode our bikes normally. What a troupe we made.
phase 5: relief, exhaustion, and awe.
And we made it! We biked/rode in this constellation a while in the dark, finally got to a road that we recognized, and knew we weren't far away. Up until the very end, we had been riding all together in a group, and we had tried to tell our guide that he could go a little faster on his motorbike, that the bicycles could keep up -- but the pace stayed relatively slow. Those actually riding on the back of the motorcycle later hypothesized that maybe our driver spent the whole time being unable to get out of first gear. Because around the last corner he shot off ahead, leaving us on the bicycles behind. When we pedaled into our guesthouse driveway, we were in for one last surprise -- our motorbiking companions hadn't arrived yet. It was our last "oh no!" moment for the day, but we didn't have to wait too long before the last of our crew showed up. Soon enough, they pulled in as well -- they had missed the turnoff to our guest house and had to turn around.
We tried to get our new friend and guide to stay for dinner, but he had to turn around and get back to his wife and baby at home. Without his help we would've been lost in more ways than one, and we were SO grateful. We had to insist to get him to take some money in return for his services.
Simon had missed all of the shenanigans, having stayed back at the hotel because he wasn't feeling well. In the evening recap and report, after everyone had showered and we were sitting down to eat, the elation came flooding back. The trials of the day made it that much more amazing in the end. I was impressed that, despite all of the complications of the journey, all of us stayed in good spirits throughout -- the only breakdowns were of the bicycle variety. Plus, there's nothing like needing to rely on the kindness of strangers to make me feel warm and fuzzy about humanity.
Meanwhile, Lonely Planet describes our bicycle route as a 20-km, 4-hour trip -- which turned out to be a 38-km, 8-hour trip for us. So much for truth in advertising. Of course, only 3 hours and 15 minutes of our trip were actually spent cycling, the rest we spent fixing flat tires. Oh yeah, and stopping for frolicking, taking pictures, and enjoying the view.