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The first part of an article on a bicycle trip with Backroads from Guangzhou to Wuzhou to Guilin in southern China and a tour of the North.
It's a Sunday morning in July and Pat is saying something about a bicycle tour of the Loire Valley in France. I mumble that it sounds interesting. Within the week we are signed up for our first bicycle tour with just six weeks to get in shape.
It's a Sunday afternoon in October two years later. Pat and I have bicycled the Loire Valley and the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. Pat and a girlfriend have toured Tasmania. Now we are on a non-stop flight from L.A. to Hong Kong heading for a bicycle tour of southern China. Because of the distance involved, we have added an escorted tour of northern China, as well.
We lose a day as we cross the international date line so it is Monday evening when we arrive at the hotel in Hong Kong.
Most of the group arrives Tuesday morning on a flight from San Francisco. We join them for the first of what is to become our morning ritual for the next two weeks: breakfast, a briefing on the route, things to do and see, the where and when of dinner, and a description of this evening's accommodations.
Our tour has been arranged by Backroads Bicycle Touring with assistance from the China Youth Travel Services (CYTS). This is Backroad's first China tour. We have two experienced Backroads guides: Alan Jay who bicycled the route two years ago, and Jim Grass who was a guide on Pat's tour in Tasmania. They will be assisted by Su Zhi Wei from CYTS who will join us in Guanzhou (Canton). Alan and Su have just completed a route-check by car.
There are 17 members of our group plus the three guides and three drivers. Self introductions show that this is a diverse group from Arizona, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Several people are on their first bicycle tour but most have been on one or more tours with Backroads, either in the U.S. or overseas. A couple of people have fresh passports and several have been to all of the major spots plus unheard of outposts. We have a firefighter, nurse, doctor, restauranteur, motel owner, Christmas tree farmer and an assortment of other occupations including retired. There are four couples, three single women and six single men. We will learn over the course of the trip that the group ranges in age from 31 to 68 with most of us in our 40's and 50's-old enough to appreciate the support of China Youth Travel Services.
We are given a set of instructions for each day's ride. We will begin bicycling in a suburb of Guangzhou. Our route will take us parallel to the West River as far as Wuzhou. We will then turn northwest and parallel the Li River to Guilin.
Today is a free day for sight seeing in Hong Kong and dinner tonight is at the hotel.
This evening's dinner is the first of many multi-course Chinese banquets. Alan and Jim provide a brief introduction to Chinese table manners including how to deal with the fact that most restaurants don't provide napkins-wipe your fingers on the edge of the tablecloth. They also introduce the uninitiated to chop sticks. There are some real success stories over the next two weeks, but a few die-hards will manage to get a fork at almost every meal.
Wednesday is another sightseeing day in Hong Kong. This evening we will depart for China on an overnight steamer up the Pearl River.
The Chinese government has given Backroads permission to use their own 21-speed mountain bikes. However, part of the arrangement is that each person, their baggage and bike must clear Customs together. At 9 p.m. we help load baggage and bikes on the 289 foot M.S. Tian Hu and set sail for Guangzhou.
The China Adventure Begins
The next morning we leave the boat and clear bikes and baggage through Chinese Customs. We are met by our local guide and the three drivers who will support us. Our Chinese guide asks us to call him Su-shades of Johnny Cash and A Boy Named Sue. He takes us on a quick city tour on one of our two busses while the bikes are being unpacked.
Our hotel is the White Swan on the man-made island where the British were first allowed to trade with the Chinese in 1715. It is a first class hotel with a great view of the river and city.
After lunch we get a chance to try the bikes, get seats adjusted and prepare for tomorrow's ride. Su gives us each a security blanket in the form of a single page with the name of each destination city and hotel written in both English and Chinese. Only one or two people will use it-even if unused, it is reassuring. The rest of the afternoon is free for sight- seeing.
We walk across a small bridge and down the street to the Quingping "free market," where farmers sell the produce they don't need to meet their state quotas. We are clear this is a different land after we have walked a block and a half with food displayed everywhere and haven't seen a single thing that we recognize.
We walk for blocks and find lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. We see live chickens, fish, possums and animals usually found in pet shops. With little or no refrigeration, people shop every day. If it is alive, it is obviously fresh.
On the Bikes
At last the day we have been preparing for, our first day of riding. Guangzhou has more than 5 million people so we bus to suburban Foshan. We take time for a brief visit to a silk factory and our first serious shopping for souvenirs at the factory store.
The traffic is still heavy and it is 99 kilometers (62 miles) to tonight's hotel in Zhaoqing. Several of us opt to leave our bikes on the truck and stay on the bus for awhile. In the traffic, two people become separated from the group. As we leave town, Su says something to a policeman and is assured that our missing two are up ahead.
After a discreet silence, I ask Su how he described us to the policeman. He replies, "I asked if he had seen any Westerners but he didn't know what I meant . . . so I said guai-lo and he assured me they came by just a little while ago." Su then apologetically translates guai-lo as "foreign devils." We are now the guai-lo cycling to Guilin.
The first day's ride gives us a taste of Chinese traffic, mostly buses and trucks and light tractors pulling overloaded trailers. Chinese drivers deal with anything on the road by honking at it. Fortunately for us, the Chinese drive and ride on the right-hand side of the road. There is only an occasional car, and of course, lots and lots of bikes. In the U.S. we have a car for every two people. In China, at least in the cities, they have a bike for every two people; they have a lot more people and a lot more bikes. All of the bikes are one speed (no gears) and they range from sparkling new to rusted ancient.
We have been taught to say knee how, the Chinese equivalent of "how are you" or "hello." However, many of the people shout hello-hello. Over the next few days we discover that even in the remotest villages the Chinese know-and correctly pronounce-hello and bye-bye. However hello, like bye-bye, is almost always a double word.
The members of our group have spread out. Throughout the trip we each ride at our own pace. Some of the women will ride by themselves for hours and say they feel quite comfortable on the road alone. Pat and I are riding at a pace that allows us to get used to the mountain bikes and observe the world that is unfolding around us.
We arrive in Zhaoqing at about 5 p.m. and get a taste of "rush hour" on bikes. Now the horns of buses and trucks are joined by the bells of bikes. No one except us appears to be paying any attention to the noise.
Our hotel is a notch or two below the White Swan but still nice. We have clearly left the western tourist circuit. From here to Guilin we will be staying at hotels for local businessmen and "overseas Chinese." All our hotels have air conditioning, television, showers and western style toilets. There are toilets at the side of the road, but they are all Chinese style with a slit in the floor and nowhere to sit. Pat says thank goodness for lots of bushes.
During the trip we will pass many small villages and towns. However, we will stay in cities that range in size from 50,000 to 300,000 people except for Guilin which has a population of 680,000.
Backroads uses one of the two busses to move our baggage from hotel-to-hotel. In hotels for western tourists, people tip. In hotels for overseas Chinese they don't. No tips, no bellmen. We carry our bags from the lobby to our rooms. Fortunately we were forewarned in Hong Kong and left some of our luggage with the Concierge.
In the cities there are regular shops, many of which stay open late. In addition, there are thriving night markets set up on the sidewalks with bare light bulbs strung from any convenient post or tree. Zhaoqing has a large night market and the shoppers in the group start practicing the art of haggling over prices. The lack of a shared language simply adds to the challenge.
One brave member of our group gets a haircut and rates the shampoo and massage terrific. The price is good and so is the haircut.
Day five begins with our first Chinese breakfast: a selection of dim sum and congee which is a thick rice soup with bits of onions and fish or other leftovers. Not bad, once in a while. Instant coffee and powdered creamer are provided by Backroads.
We take one of the busses to a kindergarten for three to five year olds. There are 800 students, of whom 150 live-in six days a week. The school specializes in the performing arts and the children put on a great show. The best part of the visit is playing with the kids and the sing-along. A quick city tour and then back to the bikes for a grueling four mile ride with a break in the middle for lunch.
We ride into the Seven Star Park, past pagodas and around a lake to a restaurant. This is our first view of the limestone formations we will see periodically from here to Guilin. After lunch Alan encourages us to take our bikes and explore the countryside.
People drift off in groups of two or three. Pat and I start down a road that turns to dirt then narrows to a trail and eventually is nothing more than a path along the top of a dike between rice paddies. The people we meet are surprised-guai-lo with fancy bikes and yellow helmets are not seen in rice paddies. Surprised, but still friendly. We eventually work our way back to a trail and then a road and back to town. Shared stories at dinner are all about successes. We are starting to feel like "old China-hands."
After dinner, we meet three 12 year old girls in the lobby of the hotel. They say they often stop by to practice their English with tourists. English is now mandatory starting in the fourth grade and there are English lessons in the evening on educational television. There are also television programs in English with Chinese or English sub-titles.
Young people are learning the courtesies such as "How are you," but they don't yet know how to use them. One young lady asks, "How are you?" But when we ask her the same question, she had not yet learned any of the possible answers. We are often surprised by the extent to which English provides for the exchange of pleasantries but it is not yet the functional language it is in other parts of the world. The Chinese have just begun.
Su has promised to take us to the amusement park. Ten of us choose to go and we invite the girls. There are bright lights at the entrance and then near darkness. They turn on the lights and we ride the Ferris wheel. They turn on the lights and pumps and we ride in fiberglass logs down water slides. But, there is something missing in a private amusement park-crowds and noise and excitement.
Day six is 76 miles through rural China to Deqing. The road is mostly paved, but there are patches of dirt road and construction.
It is Sunday so traffic is lighter. Like the U.S., Sunday is the most common day off. Unlike the U.S., Sunday has no religious or other significance in China. Many people take some other day as their day off from work. Even on Sunday, almost all shops and services are open.
We ride past terraced fields that are the rich green of nearly mature rice. There are also fields of sugar cane, banana trees and lots of small, neat vegetable gardens. China has a quarter of the world's population but less than 14 per cent of its land is arable, the rest is mountainous, barren, or usable only for light grazing. Arable land is precious and they go to extraordinary ends to use it intently.
Pat and I stop to watch a casket maker hollow out logs and paint bright designs on the ends.
Hello-hello greets us from all directions. We are challenged to bike races as we pass or are passed by Chinese. Today is a long ride so we gracefully decline the challenge and then pass them on the next hill. Twenty one gears really come in handy.
Most days we have a road-side picnic for lunch. Bakery products are very good so we have fresh bread for sandwiches. Alan came well prepared with an imported stock of peanut butter and jelly. There is tinned meat, Coke, Sprite, local beer and boiled or bottled water. There are also lots of bananas, mandarin oranges, pears and apples which prove to be safe if peeled or washed with vodka.
Today the picnic is across the road from a village of mud-brick buildings. In the poorest villages, the buildings are made of an adobe-like mud brick. As villages move up the economic ladder, some adobe homes are replaced with homes built of fired brick. The next step up is to add decorated tile on the ridge-line, roof ends and the corners of the buildings. Villages above the mid-point usually have a flat area that is paved with concrete for drying rice-most of these areas have a basketball backboard and hoop.
The village where we stop for lunch is at the low end of the economic scale. The people are poor, but even here there is no evidence of the grinding type of poverty portrayed in the history of China or seen today in other parts of Asia.
Whenever we stop near a village, old people and young children gather; the others are working in the fields or at school. China is working hard to encourage and enforce a one child per couple rule. They may only allow one child per couple, but we almost never encounter just one child. At lunch today there are about a dozen children from three to six and 7 or 8 older people standing around.
Pat has balloons for the kids. Jim shows them how to blow up a balloon and then hold the end so that the escaping air whistles. It only takes one lesson and our picnic area is filled with whistles and laughter. By the time lunch is finished, only one balloon has popped.
Six of the 17 in our group bicycle the entire 76 miles; the rest of us take advantage of the bus for at least part of the way.
Tonight's hotel has mosquito netting. We see a mosquito or two in almost every hotel room. Mosquitoes usually attack Pat, but these don't bother her. From time-to-time we see a few flies, but no more than in the U.S. There are almost no unpleasant odors except in toilets.
The city of Deqing is high above the river and there is a 15 foot dike to provide added protection against floods. The top of the dike provides a great place to walk and see activity along the river and in the town. We meet three old ladies and Pat prompts me to say knee how rather than hello. Their response, in near perfect English is, "Hello, how are you this lovely evening?"
Next morning, the guides have sensed potential displeasure at the prospect of dim sum and congee for breakfast every day. They have worked with the kitchen staff and from here on breakfasts include congee, noodles, scrambled eggs and French toast made in a wok.
During the route check, Alan and Su found a new hotel so the itinerary in the catalog has been changed. We will leave the main road and cycle to a small town known as Little Guilin, so called because it has some of the same picturesque limestone formations and caves as its larger namesake.
As always, we review the written directions for the day's ride at breakfast. Generally, they have been fairly simple because there are a limited number of roads. The total directions for today's 51 miles of riding are: right at the T intersection and then right at the Y intersection. The first half is on the main road and is paved. We have mountain bikes for the second half.
The paved roads are generally in good condition with two lanes for traffic plus plenty of room for bicycles. We see several self contained road construction crews. They prepare t he road bed, cut trees for fuel to heat gravel and tar, lay the tarmac and then move on. This is an equal opportunity country and we see women working side-by-side with the men. Lots of hello-hello's, especially for the ladies.
It's time for lunch. After 25 miles of paved road and 6 miles of dusty dirt-road at 85 and about 90% humidity, this is the best ice cold Coca Cola I've ever had. The weather has been in the mid-70's to low-80's most days with high cloud cover. Today it is a little hotter with intermittent sunshine.
Perry has his Polaroid camera out. The Chinese tell Su that they have never seen Americans up close before. It turns out they haven't seen pictures of themselves either. They look at the Polaroids with eyes full of wonder and quickly sort out who is who.
One of the most poignant moments of the trip occurs when one little old lady recognizes herself, sees a smudge on her blouse from this morning's work, and is clearly embarrassed when she cannot brush it off.
All of the people we see in China are adequately clothed and their clothes are clean. The people we see are wearing a mixture of clothing appropriate to rural life. We see very few uniforms, even in the schools.
One young woman appears to be carrying a spear that is pointed at both ends. It is not a weapon, but a stick to carry dried ferns that are used for fuel. Each end is stuck into a bale of ferns and the stick is carried across one shoulder. The bales are so large that the person carrying them almost disappears. People in this part of China burn ferns as an alternative to wood. A major effort is being made to conserve existing trees and reforest the hillsides. There are check points along the road to be certain that trucks aren't carrying illegally cut trees.
Tonight's hotel in Little Guilin is a year and a half old. Last year they had a group of seven people from France. We are the first Americans and the only other Westerners who have stayed here.
The hotel has about 30 rooms. It is run by a young lady who was assigned the job of manager when she graduated from college. Chinese college graduates are assigned their first job by the government and given a five year contract. After their contract is completed, they can seek other jobs. She makes US$30 a month plus room and board.
Several of us walk through a near-by village that has a mixture of adobe and brick buildings. Two of the women in our group meet a little old lady who walks back to the hotel with them. She pulls a plastic bag of tobacco from her tunic and offers to roll a cigarette for anyone. No takers, but she has one herself. Through the hotel manager, we learn that she is 79 years old-she was born when China still had an emperor. She has no family left but is part of the village.
The next morning we walk to a snake farm. They raise snakes in this part of China for food and medicine. Then we explore two of the nearby caves as part of a tour that includes several overseas Chinese from Taiwan.
The Taiwanese are also staying at our hotel. We are told 40% of the tourists that come to China are overseas Chinese from Taiwan, 30% are overseas Chinese from other parts of Southeast Asia, and the remaining 30% are from the rest of the world; Americans are a relatively small part of the total. During the trip we meet several people from England and occasionally hear German spoken in large cities.
When we return from the caves, our little old lady is waiting for us with a friend and several young children. We have gifts of Tootsie Pops, balloons and Coke cans for the kids. (They know about money for recycling.) As we leave she is crying. She tells the hotel manager that being with us is the most exciting thing she has done in a long time, and she is sad to see us leave.
Today's ride is a short 30 miles to Fengkai. But, the first part is uphill on a dirt road and the day is already hot. Several of us take the bus just beyond the top of the hill where we set up the day's picnic.
After lunch we walk down the road and across a draw to an adobe village. An old lady comes out to meet us. It seems to be a fairly common practice to send out an old lady. We don't know whether they trust the judgment of old ladies or if old ladies are simply the most expendable members of the village.
As always, we are welcomed into the village and offered tea. One little boy of about three has a clean, fairly fresh, full-leg cast. Even in remote villages like this, medical care is available. Throughout the trip, we don't see any unattended medical problems. Some of the older people have a lot of teeth missing, but middle aged and younger people have bridges and other evidence of dental care.
This village has a washing machine and a refrigerator. They share a common cooking room that is old and stained with smoke but clean. We are certainly the first Americans to visit this village.
The rest of the day is down hill or level-my kind of biking. The scenery keeps getting prettier.
Tropic of Cancer
We ride into town and along the river for several miles. The town is built well above the river to allow for floods. In front of our hotel is a marker on the Tropic of Cancer; that puts us as far south as Honolulu, the tip of Baja California, and Havana.
Pat and I walk through the busy sidewalk markets. The slightest show of interest leads to an invitation to stop and look.
Among other things, we see large glass jars with snakes in a clear liquid. I start to take a picture of one of them and the shop keeper stops me so she can wipe off a few finger prints and straighten the top. The next shop keeper meets us on the street and through gestures assures us that his snakes are larger and worthy of a photo. They are larger and I take a picture.
For a while, Pat walks about 20 feet in front of me. She is wearing neon green shorts and black bicycle tights. I have total freedom to take candid photos-every Chinese eye is on Pat.
As we get near the river, we say hello to a lady carrying some vegetables. Later we see her below us on one of the houseboats. She sees us, waves and offers us tea. It is a steep hike down to the boat and getting near dinner time so we decline.
For toasts and special occasions the Chinese have rice wine. It redefines the term wine and tastes like medicinal alcohol. They fortify rice wine with snakes, and sometimes other parts of animals, for "medical" reasons. The photographs we took this afternoon were of snake wine.
Three of us try snake wine with dinner. It is a beautiful light emerald green in color and it still tastes like medicinal alcohol. It is supposed to be great for arthritis; I am sure it kills the pain of anything that ails you.
Liter sized bottles of beer are usually served with lunch and dinner in restaurants. The alternatives are tea or local orange soda. The orange soda ranges from not-bad to terrible. A few restaurants have Coke; but, sometimes they charge extra.
Out on the streets after dinner, we see them making snake wine. A young man takes a live snake out of a burlap bag, puts his foot on the snake's head, holds up its tail, and uses a pair of florists scissors to unzip the snake's tummy with a singe cut. A second pass with his thumb nail and the snake is empty, a quick wipe with a cloth, a gentle splash into a large glass jar of rice wine, and a new batch of snake wine is started.
During our evening walk we meet an English teacher from the middle school we are scheduled to visit tomorrow morning. We walk and talk and sightsee a bit. Mickey says he will meet us at the hotel in the morning.
Day nine is a short 14 miles to Wuzhou so we have time to visit front of the room and introduces himself as "Emperor Steve." The kids love it and the energy level in the room starts to rise. Conversations start between some of us and groups of students. Students from near-by classes start to join us. Someone signs an autograph and suddenly all 19 of us are rock stars with a couple of hundred teenagers demanding our autographs. What an exhilarating feeling!
Eventually they go back to class and we walk back to our bus in the rain. It seems strangely quiet.
We return to the hotel for our bikes and then ride along the river in an on-again, off-again light rain-too light to even bother with rain gear. We ride into Wuzhou past a new hotel that is almost complete. It should be ready for those who come next year.
Old Like Charming
This is the oldest looking town we have been in. In some ways it is old like depressing and in other ways it is old like charming. We check into our hotel and then go out to walk the streets and markets.
Three of us are found by another English teacher who asks if he can accompany us along with some of his students. We agree and now have guides and another opportunity to explore the thinking of the Chinese. They walk with us back to our hotel and ask to re-join us after dinner.
Arrangements have been made for the group to visit a 400 bed general hospital-"The People's Hospital," of course. The visit begins with a meeting with three of the senior doctors. Many of us are sitting in overstuffed chairs and couches just like the ones in news photos from China. We are given a tour of the facility including a stop in the new-born ward. Most of us have colds, that is OK. However, they ask us to wear slippers so we don't track in dust.
After dinner we go to the dance hall in the hotel. As agreed, the students and their teacher have rejoined us. Two members of our tour pay about 30 cents each for 17 of the students and the teacher to come dancing with us.
Ballroom dancing has been allowed here for about 2 1/2 years. The music is typical ballroom music but we don't recognize any of the songs. When the band takes a break, the music is from tapes and it is all-American. There are five or six couples who dance very well. The other 30 or 40 are a bit stiff and bodily contact is limited.
Our student guests have completed high-school and taught for a couple of years. They are all about 20 years old and have qualified for a two year course in English, psychology, philosophy and the history of the party. They are about 3 months into the course and are fluent with the basics of English.
We give the students introductory ballroom dancing lessons. The girls are shy and physical contact, particularly with foreigners, is clearly awkward. But, they are good sports and we all enjoy the evening.
Wuzhou's markets are lively and interesting. We are getting close enough to the end of the trip that several of our group have chosen to go souvenir shopping instead of dancing.
The Road Back
Day ten is an all day bus ride, 200 miles to Yangshuo. We have been bicycling west along the West River. The bus ride takes us in a more northerly direction parallel to the Li River. As we move north, the countryside changes from mature green rice paddies to fields that are golden and ready for harvesting.
We hear several stories about why we can't cycle from Wuzhou to Yangshuo. The most plausible seems to be that the Chinese consider the accommodations inadequate for a group this size. We stop several times for sightseeing and pictures.
Between the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin the Li River flows through some of the most scenic country in China. There are boat rides downstream from Guilin to Yangshuo and the tourists are then bussed back to Guilin. Guilin is therefore "the" tourist spot. It is our final destination, but for the next two nights, Yangshuo is home.
Yangshuo is a tourist spot of another sort. This is probably our worst hotel. Like Wuzhou, there is an air conditioner that drips condensation in one corner of the bathroom and it flows slowly to the drain in the far corner. The bathroom floor is always wet.
Day eleven is for sightseeing by bike. We ride to Moon Rock. This is clearly tourist land, even Richard Nixon has been here. Tourist area or not, the fields and rock formations are spectacular.
In the afternoon, three of us ride out of town and see people thrashing rice. They say hello-hello, so we walk into the field. A Chinese rice thrasher is a wooden box about the size of a small desk with a foot pedal in the front and a drum with wire loops inside that spins very fast when you pedal. You hold a bunch of rice against the loops and the grains of rice are knocked loose. Each of us gives it a try. Not a bad job for 15 minutes but I wouldn't want to do it all day. We received a big round of smiles and ding-how's (well done) for our efforts.
Some more sightseeing by bike and then back to town in time for a parade and dragon fight in front of our hotel. Chinese dragon fighting is a bit like a bull-fight. Everyone, including the two people playing the dragon, are in costume. Just like the bull, the dragon always looses. There are drums and gongs and people on the roof of the hotel are showering the dragon with firecrackers-wonderful sound and fury.
Guilin is for the jet setters. Yangshuo is for back-packers and other low-budget western tourists on the "Coca-Cola Circuit." Throughout most of China and Southeast Asia there are restaurants on this informal circuit where backpackers find friends, leave messages and exchange stories about what to do and how to save money doing it. Lisa's Cafe is the circuit restaurant in Yangshuo. We spend part of the evening swapping bike-riding and sightseeing stories with several Englishmen, a German and his Japanese girlfriend.
Yangshuo thrives on the thousand or more tourists who arrive by boat every day after 2 p.m. and are gone before 4. It is a shoppers paradise after the boat people leave and prices return to normal-there is still room to negotiate as much as fifty per cent off the price of almost anything. There are even genuine Ming vases for as little as US$24-sure!
We have clearly left rural China and are heading back to the China of tourists. Yangshuo serves as a kind of decompression chamber.
Day twelve is an essentially flat, 43 mile ride on a major new road, compete with bike lanes. This is a showcase highway to bus the boat people back to Guilin. Two of us make it with a few miles left in our legs so we cycle around the city. We see a Catholic church; the only western church we see on the entire trip.
Guilin was bombed heavily by the Japanese. It has been rebuilt and is laid out like any other large city with wide streets and traffic circles. We are told that all of the nice hotels, mostly joint ventures with U.S. and European chains, have been built in the last 4 years.
Tonight we have a terrific hotel. What a great way to be ending the trip. In addition to really clean rooms and white- white sheets, the hotel has terrific ice cream. China produces almost no milk. We only see butter in the best hotels and all of it is imported from overseas. The ice cream we bought along the way was probably made from soy beans. It was like a sherbet and came in such tasty flavors as banana and "beano"- it was at least refreshing. Real ice cream is either imported or made by a hotel from imported milk and cream.
In Guilin we find a respectable Chines wine: Dynasty. Pat and discover another in Beijing: Dragon Seal. Both are the products of joint-ventures with French wineries.
Day thirteen we join a thousand or more people on a fleet of sightseeing boats for a 4 1/2 hour cruise down the Li River. In terms of weather, it is the worst day of our entire trip with very low clouds. Fortunately we have had a wonderful day of sightseeing in Yangshuo. For two thirds of the trip the scenery teases us about the possibilities. In good weather it must be stunning.
We see cormorants and cormorant fishermen but we don't see cormorants fishing.
In the evening we have our last Chinese banquet together. After dinner we move to the lounge for a wrap-up meeting. Each of us is given a certificate, a title, and a gift from the guides. Pat is designated "best dressed" and given a lovely yellow cotton dress with black polka dots. I get the "laughing Buddha" award for my smile and a carved jade Buddha statue.
It is our opportunity to acknowledge Alan, Jim, Su and the drivers for the success of our trip. The hotels and other arrangements have worked as promised. The food has ranged from reasonable to very good-one nice thing about the multiple course banquets is that we can skip a dish or two and still have plenty to eat. Our only problem with the bikes was a broken bell and that was promptly replaced. We were well cared for from start to finish.
The "official route" in our daily directions was 325 miles. Five people rode their bikes the entire distance. All of us added miles to the basic route with side trips for exploration and sightseeing.
The next day we clear customs at the Guilin airport the same way we arrived: person, baggage and bike go together. The plane is over an hour late so they give us each a bag of "Yuppie Peanuts," (sort of a peanut M&M), a box of cookies and a Coke.
Back in Hong Kong, Backroads treats us to a final meal- great western food at Jimmy's Kitchen. The group has gotten along extremely well. There is the shared joy of having completed a challenging endeavor and the sadness of endings and parting. Some are going to visit Beijing or Thailand, or even Papua New Guinea; most are leaving for the U.S. tomorrow. This part of the adventure is over.
A short night at the our hotel in Hong Kong, an exchange of luggage with the Concierge and then Pat and I catch a flight to Shanghai. Our northern tour will take us to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi'an then back to Hong Kong-planes and busses and a train, no bikes.
A trip to China requires a spirt of adventure and a willingness to do something different. Those who have that spirit are rewarded with a brief insight into an ancient and different culture that is changing rapidly.
The trip offers a wonder filled blend of history and change. The history includes bitter lessons that are part of the living memory about the chaos that can follow the overthrow of the existing order. The change is fueled by the gains that have been made and the promises seen on television and represented by the overseas Chinese who have the money and freedom to travel.
Part of the success of our bicycle trip came from the insights of our guide, Su. In 1988 he bicycled across America with a group of Chinese. On our trip he was able to use that experience to offer insights about America and provide comparisons with China. If China can find the courage to allow young people to see the world for themselves and can use insightful and experienced people like Su wisely, both China and the world will be well served.
We wouldn't have seen the country of China if we hadn't climbed the Great Wall and visited the Forbidden City and the Terra Cotta Warriors. We wouldn't have seen and enjoyed being with the people of China if we hadn't bicycled. Both are China.