Greg's Occasional News & Views

22 October 2017

Well, we’re back after another great trip to China. I say, “we’re back,” but that’s not really the case. I am back for a couple of weeks while Pen continues her adventures visiting her brother and sister and an aunt while travelling with her sister J in Australia. I’m here for another week and then it all kicks off again. No rest for the wicked.

Our trip to China was fantastic. We flew to Hong Kong and then on to Guilin (not without some adventure) and made our way eventually to the Outside Inn just outside Yangshuo where we’ve stayed before. It’s run by a Dutchman friend of Adam’s and is a lovely place of renovated traditional adobe brick farmhouses. It always has such a friendly atmosphere and the staff are almost like family.  

We spent our days riding the 3 km or so into Yangshuo along the canal path and participating in various excursions under Adam’s expert guidance. Too many highlights to share but some worth mentioning would be the wild swimming in the Lijiang and Yulong rivers, cycling the Yulong Valley and visiting the ancient Fuli and Yulong/Dragon bridges, spending time again with Ava’s parents not withstanding our complete inability to communicate with one another, Dr Lily’s massage not to mention the great meals both at the Outside Inn and at Ganga Impression and The Brew in town.

Cycling in Yangshuo is an adventure. It’s the sort of activity of which my mother would definitely not approve – actually, it’s probably the sort of activity no western mother would approve. My mother used to get cross with me sometimes when I cycled across our home town in California where there was significantly less traffic than in Yangshuo and where the cars and motorcycles obeyed the traffic lights and other conventions of the road. Not so in Yangshuo.

To be fair, there have been many traffic calming measures introduced since our first visit in 2004 – there are even traffic lights at a couple of the main intersections now, a couple of well-laid out roundabouts and some of the main roads have barriers in the middle to separate traffic going in opposite directions. These improvements, however, are merely a basis for negotiation as far as the traffic is concerned.

While most of the cars, buses and lorries obey the traffic lights and wait their turn, the scooters, motorcycles and push bikes go anywhere they like, at any time so that intersections are frequently awash with traffic going in all directions, both with and against the lights. Crossing an intersection is somewhat like playing Frogger on an old gaming machine – try to get to the other side without getting splatted.

Perhaps even more unsettling than traffic flying around you in all directions is the propensity for scooters, cyclists and motorbikes to travel the wrong way on the divided roads. In theory if one is on the “wrong” side of the barrier one should proceed to the next intersection or roundabout and reverse direction. This, however, is simply too inconvenient so riders proceed the “wrong” way up the road until they reach their turning. It is very unsettling indeed to have successfully negotiated the chaos of the traffic at a junction only to be suddenly confronted by a scooter or motorcycle heading straight toward you on your side of the road!

The accepted practice seems to be that the vehicle that is travelling the wrong way stays as close to the curb as possible. This is the space that we on bicycles also tend to occupy and so a new game of Frogger ensues as you try to dodge each of the oncoming vehicles without swerving out into the main part of the road to be sandwiched between a lorry and a coach. Still, once you get used to it the chaos all seems to make perfect sense and thankfully we suffered no mishaps.

The temperature in Yangshuo was in the low 30s and the humidity was about 800% – it was hot and sweaty and here we were cycling all over the district. So, swimming in the river was an excellent distraction.

The Yulong River is only about a ten minute cycle ride across the rice paddies from the Outside Inn and there are a couple of excellent spots for a refreshing dip, even though there are signs warning you that this is dangerous and imploring you not to have fun. The first time we went for a soak and a swim we met about eight or nine young village boys swimming and larking about at the weir. While several of the lads were decently clad, two or three were completely starkers and, while they showed an initial flash of embarrassment, they decided it would be much more entertaining (for them, at any rate) if they danced about flouting their respective incipient manhoods at these white foreigners. We laughed and proceeded to ease our way down the weir and into the water, which perhaps not surprisingly hastened their departure. Ironically, as they walked past us to get their clothes those who were naked modestly attempted to cover both their front and backs as they shuffled past us. After they were dressed they flamboyantly whipped out their cigarettes and proceeded to have a smoke before riding their bikes off back to the village. I guess kids are similar all over the world.                      

One of our excursions was a “mammoth” bike ride up the Yulong valley to see the ancient Fuli and Dragon bridges. We started in a leisurely fashion – a simple three km stroll to the Secret Garden Inn for lunch. Adam and Ava joined us with the gorgeous Jessica and we had a lovely meal. The Secret Garden Inn is a masterpiece.

The Secret Garden story begins with a South African architect named Ian. On arriving in China in 2002 he didn’t remain Ian for long, with his Chinese friends soon renaming him Fengzi – literally ‘crazy’. Which is exactly what the local people of Jiuxian thought when he approached them in 2009 with a view to renting the remnants of a gorgeous Qing Dynasty courtyard house. At that time tourism had yet to be developed in the Yangshuo countryside, and Jiuxian itself was difficult to access on the small dirt roads.

Enlisting the help and friendship of the Jiuxian village leader to help navigate village politics, and after five months of negotiations with six separate landlords, Fengzi successfully rented the ruins of his dreams.

However, up-front payment of 20 years rent had left Fengzi without the funds necessary to restore the buildings. Enter Faye, Fengzi’s ex-colleague in the travel industry, whom he approached with the idea of opening a hotel. In this way they hoped to generate income to lease and renovate further buildings.

And so the Secret Garden was born, with Faye and Fengzi working together with the twin aims of preserving a small piece of Chinese history and culture while providing a unique accommodation experience for their guests.

After lunch we four – Ben, Brex-Anna, Pen and I – set off for Fuli Bridge. Following instructions from Ronald, the hotel owner, and Adam along with a map and GPS on the iPhone, we managed to go wrong within ten minutes of leaving the Secret Garden. We eventually found ourselves on the right track (and “track” is the operative word here – parts of this cycle track were indeed a track in the truest description – about 18 inches wide, snaking its way across the rice paddies, rutted and littered with stones). Thankfully, the track gave way to a paved road and after only one or two more false turns we found ourselves at Fuli Bridge, built in the Mind Dynasty (AD 1412).

When Pen and I were here last year we visited Fuli Bridge – it was essentially deserted. There was a small group of old village men playing cards under the tree and there was only one Chinese family who arrived while we were there. This time, because we were visiting during the Autumn Festival, it was positively heaving with folks. The ambiance was spoiled somewhat but it is still a magnificent sight.

After Fuli Bridge we crossed over to the west side of the Yulong River and made our way a few kms south to Yulong (Dragon) Bridge.  Even more rammed with tourists than Fuli Bridge, partly because it is a bit closer to Yangshuo and marginally easier to get to. Bamboo rafts littered the river – we stopped, took a photo or two and made our way on down the road back to the Outside Inn.

As we made our way home we heard explosions which echoed throughout the valley – fireworks and fire crackers as the populace celebrated the climax of the Autumn Festival.

More to come next time.

Love to you all,


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