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Published: March 6th 2017
China is full of progress. Mostly this means new concrete buildings, concrete roads and large cars. We are fortunate to find ourselves in Yangshou County, Guangxi province in the small village of Chaolong where we are volunteering at Zhou Yue English college where although concrete hotels abound there are some tastefully renovated mud brick houses which hold in the heat and keep cool in Summer. Not so the concrete, uninsulated, single skin brick or concrete monstrosities popping up all along the Yulong valley.
‘When I came here 15 years ago there were only a handful of hotels along the whole Yulong valley. Now there are over 150 with many more under construction,’ Ronald, a local hotelier tells us.
He has converted some beautiful old mudbrick buildings into the welcoming Outside Inn
where we like to go to eat and sit in the sun in the garden and have a coffee looking out at the ever present karst mountains. Surely there must be whole villages left like this, I think?
In search of the ‘old’ we set off for Shangri La. I don’t know too much about it. I read that there are some
craft rooms there and from the picture on the map it looks like either a well- preserved or restored village.
After careering up and down the new highway on our e-bike a few times we find a sign leading to Chinese Wonderland which starts the alarm bells ringing. This is nothing like the preserved village of Tongli we had visited near Suzhou last time we were here. It is a full-on Chinese tourist attraction with an entry fee of 80 yuan each which we decline to pay. The bus loads rumble in – I don’t think they care that we don’t go in.
Next stop is back down the highway and to Fuli Bridge which is an absolute delight. We sit on top of the impossibly arched granite bridge and exchange a few mumbled words and peanuts with an old gentleman selling pomelos. This is a true Shangri La, very few tourists, unspoilt waterways and very little concrete. I will need to research a little more next time.
The next day our friend from Yangshuo suggests that we cycle to LongTan village. Unable to find this on the map we ask
where it is. It is not reassuring to know that she has never been there but would like to visit. So, mileage uncertain, we head out on our trusty mountain bikes we had bought second hand from a hotel for 80 Yuan each ( A much better deal than the entry fee to Shangri La!) and meet Li Yi Dan (Debbie, her English name) at Gongnong Bridge.
We of little faith, soon find ourselves in Longtan village with a rather unprepossessing 20 RMB entry fee 10 of which is returned to Debbie as her ‘commission’ for bringing us! This is a 500 year old Qing village with many ancient dwellings and lanes winding through. Courtyards take us into houses now being used to shepherd Chinese tour groups into for a lecture and massage demonstration presumably to drum up business. We avoid these or rather we are not invited in but see the judge’s house, the opium den, sadly with no atmospheric remains inside, the mayor’s house and the governor of the district’s house instead.
Like sore thumbs new buildings poke up amongst the beautiful tipped roofs and the grey stone walls, small vans navigate
the granite alleyways scraping side view mirrors in the process and causing us to flatten into doorways. Life proceeds. An old gentleman selling trinkets explains how important this town used to be, how far its influence stretched, outstripping nearby Gaotian Town and Moon Hill. Apparently opium contributed to its demise.
‘Look up there,’ he says pointing to a karst mountain looming behind his house, ‘that is the dragon’s head. This used to be called Longtaotan. (Dragon’s Head Pond)’
I peer past the tiles and see a craggy rock on top of the karst.
‘Perhaps it looks more like a dragon’s head from the river?’ Graeme offers. Maybe, just maybe.
With a bicycle basket full of gifted pomelos from one of Debbie’s friends and a simple picnic of raisin bread, bananas, peanuts and brittle we sit amongst the vegetable gardens leading to the village and talk about our next meeting. Debbie would like to take us to meet her parents near Xingping and cook us food there but she doesn’t want to take her very active four year old son. She laughs.
‘My mother wants to
see him, though. He loves it there. When he was there for Spring Festival holidays I had to go several times before he would come home with me. He loves being with his grandparents.’
Our next meeting up in the air we return along the bicycle/hiking path and stop for coffee and cake at The Giggling Tree
, another mudbrick conversion also run by Dutch people.
The yellow canola flowers spread out along the valley as far as we can see. Planting along the path continues each time we pass, roses, azaleas and bouganvilleas. Previously bare branches a week ago are unfurling bright green. We hear that the canola has been planted as a government initiative to increase tourists. The area by the river used to be under water for rice paddies but the waterways run dry now and tourism obviously pays more. The Chinese flock here in their thousands.
Each one rents a bike, a tandem or an e-bike and takes over all the local highways and byways. They buy the obligatory fresh flower headband and take their thousandth selfie in the canola. They are glad to be breathing fresh air and
making the most of their five days of annual holiday. Never let me hear you complain of how little annual holiday you have!
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