Peaks and Val­leys



The emer­ald karsts, cas­cad­ing rice fields and ma­jes­tic rivers of Yang­shou, Longji and Guilin are best seen on two wheels. Story and pho­to­graphs by Lil­lian Chou

My back is drenched with per­spi­ra­tion from heft­ing my knap­sack up a thou­sand steps through wind­ing paths that lead me to a vista on the edge of mag­nif­i­cence. I’m scal­ing the Dragon’s Back, known lo­cally as Longji, an un­du­lat­ing land­scape of lay­ered rice ter­races home to a clus­ter of mi­nor­ity vil­lages within south­west­ern Guangxi prov­ince. My sore knees be­rate me for opt­ing out of the sedan ride I was of­fered at the vil­lage gates, but I feel vic­to­ri­ous, as if I’ve phys­i­cally earned this mon­u­men­tal view and de­cide not to feel guilty for em­ploy­ing an el­derly Zhuang mi­nor­ity woman to haul my suit­case in a bam­boo panier on her back for a 50-yuan note.

A decade ago, she might have been bent over these fields plant­ing rice in the rib­bon of ter­races that are filled with wa­ter and mir­ror the bright sky, like sil­very dragon scales. Lo­cal life is now carved dif­fer­ently from the depths of these pad­dies: China’s eco­nomic rise means rice im­ports from South­east Asia are now cheaper than home-grown grain, but the ter­races are still a com­mod­ity. Tourism is the new har­vest and lu­cra­tive through­out the year where ev­ery sea­son brings a dif­fer­ent beauty and con­stant flow of vis­i­tors. Late spring into early sum­mer is when the ter­race pools are ir­ri­gated to form mes­mer­iz­ing re­flec­tions that glis­ten, a re­mark­able man-made facelift that ac­cen­tu­ates na­ture’s beauty.

At just 650 years old, this bendy stra­tum of ter­races is young rel­a­tive to China’s age. The val­leys and vil­lages of Long­sheng County, where the ter­races are lo­cated, are com­posed of mi­nori­ties in­clud­ing the Zhuang, along with Miao, Dong and long­haired Yao. I am in Ping’An, a vil­lage that is home to 500 Zhuang res­i­dents whose homes dou­ble up as restau­rants or guest­houses. The vil­lage is best known for easy hikes through an ex­panse of ter­races that can be­come a full

day trek over to neigh­bor­ing Dazhai, where tour buses tend to stop for day trips and the ca­ble-car views, while Jinkeng is even fur­ther away. I want to see sun­rise and choose the Li-An Lodge poised above a strik­ing vista steps away from my bed. Owner and pho­tog­ra­pher Keren Su was so in­spired by the views that he pur­chased the land and built the wooden struc­ture as a high-end guest­house in the tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­tural style. Rus­tic guest­houses are plen­ti­ful in Ping’An and at times the so­lace is ru­ined by con­struc­tion sounds of fu­ture guest­houses as this area con­tin­ues to ex­pand, but short hikes and a lit­tle dis­tance si­lence even the most in­cred­i­ble panora­mas.

This is a form of preser­va­tion tourism my old friend Bruce Fore­man, who has made his life shar­ing dis­cov­er­ies along ru­ral parts of China for many years, ex­tols: slow, im­mer­sive, hy­per-lo­cal, ex­cep­tion­ally ac­tive. He and a part­ner, Scott Spencer, founded the Yangshuo Bike Fes­ti­val, to high­light the ro­mance—some might say fleet­ing, given the pace of de­vel­op­ment—of Guangxi, Guilin and Yangshuo, and I’ve come along for its fifth in­car­na­tion. This small but grow­ing cel­e­bra­tion of cy­cling through quiet trails un­der the shad­ows of karsts, idyl­lic rice fields, and quiet rivers with up­beat DJ tunes on wire­less head­phones re­veals the re­gion’s iconic won­ders and un­seen back­wa­ters. Luck­ily for me, the trip also in­cludes ex­cep­tional food—for­ti­fi­ca­tion for both my culi­nary soul and my weary limbs.

While I’m join­ing the rides and ex­cur­sions, I pre­fer to ex­plore some dif­fer­ent ho­tels and eat a few lo­cal meals with­out the group. At din­ner I try zhu­tong fan, a charred tube of bam­boo, black­ened from roast­ing over fire. When it’s cracked open, a heady scent rises from la rou, a lo­cal ba­con that is pre­served and smoked, then air-dried in bun­dles dan­gled off the eaves like silent wind-chimes. It is chopped and steamed with sticky rice and I dig in. I sip the lo­cal rice wine or bai­jiu, steeped in gi­ant glass urns with va­ri­eties of medic­i­nal herbs, pre­fer­ring the one with the fra­grant scent of drunken yang­mei, (my new fa­vorite fruit) also called the waxberry or Chi­nese straw­berry. It com­petes against the pas­sion-fruit in­fu­sion, a fruit that is a re­cent cash-crop grow­ing along the coun­try­side. Bruce and I leave the next morn­ing and I pass sedan chair ped­dlers, tempted—but in­stead stop and buy a dark­ened egg in its shell, fire-cooked by a towel-tur­baned Zhuang mi­nor­ity woman. It’s warm, with a deep roasted fla­vor, un­like any boiled egg I’ve ever tasted.

Down at the vil­lage gate, we group to­gether with other bike-fes­ters to don hel­mets and load our suit­cases into a van that will meet us at our next des­ti­na­tion. We cy­cle freely through breezy switch­backs and pedal through farm­ing vil­lages while chil­dren chase us shout­ing, “Hello! Hello!” Bruce and I rem­i­nisce of the China that is slowly dis­ap­pear­ing, the paths of in­no­cence that are fewer and far­ther be­tween as we ride through an­other new econ­omy: pas­sion fruit and a con­certed ef­fort at farm­ing lu­o­hanguo, monk fruit, a melon-like round fruit that is dried for use in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine and known to dis­pel heat, and clear lung and chest is­sues. It has long grown in these val­leys in smaller fields but is now gain­ing ground and will soon be­come a global su­per­food and ze­rocalo­rie sweet­ener with added health ben­e­fits.

THE NEXT MORN­ING, we ride up a few chal­leng­ing hills, paus­ing for breath, sur­rounded and hyp­no­tized by the sway­ing trunks of bam­boo forests. Af­ter a break, we as­sem­ble into a van and drive the rest of the way through Guilin city. Huge karsts ap­pear like an­cient spir­its in the hori­zon, a scenic moun­tain scape so revered, it’s en­graved on the back­side of China’s 20yuan cur­rency note. The ar­cane peaks are a grace­ful com­bi­na­tion of sed­i­ment, lime­stone, dolomite, acid rain and earth­quakes that were once the sea floor leav­ing fos­sils and caves within the net­work of karsts that jut out of the ground like colos­sal jagged teeth. Of­ten hid­den by mists and clouds, they have long in­spired po­etry, cal­lig­ra­phy and ink paint­ings.

Yangshuo is both a pop­u­lar town and county in the south­ern part of Guilin pre­fec­ture. Tour­ing Chi­nese tend to hover in Guilin city for its scenic karsts and neon-stud­ded parks, and to cruise the Li River on mo­tor­boats that re­sem­ble the man­pow­ered bam­boo rafts that once dom­i­nated the wa­ters. Yangshuo town was “dis­cov­ered” in the 1980s when West­ern back­pack­ers, mostly cy­clists and rock clim­bers, be­gan to fre­quent the un­spoiled ter­rain of quiet vil­lages, karsts and rivers. Yangshuo town has, in some parts, been dec­i­mated by tourism—too much of a good thing—and at night, restau­rants and bars light up with ag­gres­sive, bois­ter­ous crowds.

By day, though, the town is peace­ful and worth a gan­der, with some places def­i­nite pri­or­i­ties. Top of the list: the Rice Noo­dle Cul­tural Cen­ter. De­spite its mu­seum-like name it is ac­tu­ally a tiny sim­ple eatery whose noo­dle master chef Li makes Guilin’s best con­tri­bu­tion to Chi­nese cui­sine: mifen, fresh rice noo­dles. The ubiq­ui­tous noo­dles are on most menus, but here they are ex­cep­tional. Lo­cal rice is soaked in wa­ter with Chi­nese medic­i­nal herbs and stone-ground, then fer­mented for 200 hours be­fore be­ing pum­meled into a dough that is pressed through an old vat, us­ing stone coun­ter­weights. This tra­di­tional la­bor ceased to ex­ist about 50 years ago ac­cord­ing to Jenny Zeng, who runs the Mag­no­lia Ho­tel next door; the cur­rent process omits the fer­men­ta­tion, and the man­ual meth­ods of ham­mer­ing dough are now au­to­mated. Chef Li’s old-school ef­forts

re­sult in sub­tle noo­dles with a tooth­some tex­ture dif­fer­ent from what you can get from a ma­chine, and per­fected when sprin­kled with lo­cal pick­led long beans, smoked pork strips and a dab of Guilin’s sec­ond prized co­mestible: chili paste. It’s sim­ply de­li­cious.

The Yangshuo Bike Fes­ti­val is a uniquely spir­ited way to ex­plore the area’s mys­te­ri­ous lime­stone struc­tures far away from crowds. While there is plenty for non-bik­ers in the fes­ti­val, Bruce and Scott are right that see­ing the coun­try­side is best done on two wheels. Bruce, who is based in Hong Kong, and Scott, who lives in Yangshuo, met here in 2000. Each started his own cy­cling tour com­pany, be­liev­ing it to be the only way to dis­cover the dis­ap­pear­ing China—in­clud­ing Yangshuo—that they loved. Even­tu­ally they de­cided to col­lab­o­rate in the quirky fes­ti­val.

We mine through rocky trails past sweet scented os­man­thus trees whose ca­nary blos­soms are used for tea and cook­ing. Cross­ing over the qui­eter Yu­long River, we watch a flotilla of gon­do­liers hoist poles and nav­i­gate two-seater bam­boo rafts over gen­tle shifts and pass­ing be­neath the shad­ows of stat­uesque rock for­ma­tions. We fin­ish with a cel­e­bra­tion din­ner at the Se­cret Gar­den, an 18-room guest­house and restau­rant along a sin­gle dirt track that com­prises Ji­ux­ian Vil­lage, five kilo­me­ters from Yangshuo town. Se­cret Gar­den is the baby of Ian Hamil­ton, a South African tour guide and ar­chi­tect, who saw the demise of an­cient Qing Dy­nasty build­ings and was in­spired to re­claim and sal­vage a build­ing—a feat that seemed so im­pos­si­ble thanks to com­pli­cated Com­mu­nist bu­reau­cracy and the coun­try’s gen­eral for­eigna­verse sen­ti­ments that he was nick­named fengzi, mean­ing crazy. He part­nered with Faye Zhang, a Yangshuo na­tive and tonight they are our hosts.

At the fes­ti­val cul­mi­na­tion party, we feast on pan­long qiezi, aptly named dragon eg­g­plant, a vil­lage dish of thinly sliced fried eg­g­plant and coiled like a ser­pent, smoth­ered in a sauce of minced pork, veg­eta­bles and Guilin’s fa­mous hot chilies, and other lo­cal dishes, while a lo­cal band jams in the back­ground. The dy­namic mix of Chi­nese and for­eign­ers from all parts of Asia cre­ate a bril­liant week­end of kin­dred trav­el­ers and new friends.

IFOREGO THE NEXT DAY’S bike ride, opt­ing for rooftop tai-chi be­neath the tow­er­ing karsts fol­lowed by class at the Yangshuo Cook­ing School. It’s a per­fect morn­ing that ends with lunch in a tra­di­tional mud­brick house in the coun­try­side. Class be­gins in Yangshuo’s cen­tral mar­ket for a quick tour where I pick up a strange leafy veg­etable called ku­maicai that I’ve cy­cled past in fields. Stir-fried, it’s bit­ter and my new fa­vorite veg­etable. We make an easy eg­g­plant with minced pork that re­minds me of the ver­sion at the Se­cret Gar­den— slightly dif­fer­ent, but equally de­li­cious.

I head over to the Yangshuo Moun­tain Re­treat, a place I stayed in 2012, and an­tic­i­pate an­other meal at a lo­cal farm restau­rant in the mid­dle of a bike trail. Back then, my friends and I sat on plas­tic stools in the open air, feast­ing on lo­cal de­lights: pomeloskin dumplings, de­li­cious river snails, and pi­jiu yu, a lo­cal dish of river fish braised with beer, toma­toes, pep­pers and gin­ger that I find on ev­ery menu. Alas, there’s no déjà vu be­cause the path and restau­rant are gone and the road has moved. Spe­cial per­mits are now re­quired for cars to en­ter this new scenic zone. Although the Li River is pop­u­lar, I’m ad­vised to skip it and in­stead take the qui­eter bam­boo raft ride along the Yu­long River that runs along the re­treat. I catch a peace­ful sun­set cy­cle on the new, stone river­front paths be­fore din­ing on the same beer-braised fish as well as lo­cal taro with dried bam­boo at the ho­tel’s restau­rant.

Yangshuo is plum with small vil­lages that dis­perse vis­it­ing crowds. Know­ing where to go

and how to avoid crowds is cru­cial here. My friend, Terry Li, is a lo­cal guide and takes me to ru­ral Fuli Vil­lage for the mar­ket that hap­pens ev­ery three to five days ac­cord­ing to the lu­nar cal­en­dar. Fuli is fa­mous for hand­painted cal­lig­ra­phy fans, but for me noth­ing is more telling of a place than its lo­cal mar­ket. Ev­ery­thing is sold here in­clud­ing fine to­bacco shreds and al­most ev­ery form of bam­boo imag­in­able. There are veg­eta­bles I can’t trans­late and some I’ve never seen. Bas­kets re­gale full of red spikey yang­mei, the ir­re­sistible tart and sweet fruit that are now in peak sea­son. Nat­u­rally we find live fowl in­clud­ing ducks, geese and chick­ens. There is also dog meat, a spe­cialty meant to ward off chill, and in­crease viril­ity and body heat—it is ex­tremely con­tro­ver­sial but has long been a part of lo­cal life, ex­plains Terry, who is also a cook. Ev­ery­one is slurp­ing lo­cal break­fasts of mifen, or youcha—“oil tea,” a soupy wash of fried bits and condi­ments in­clud­ing pick­les and chili in a bowl doused with bit­ter tea. I pre­fer noo­dles, but the youcha is ren­dered more palat­able with crispy fried baba, a stamped green disk of chewy sticky-rice dough mixed with mug­wort that is filled with sweet bean paste and ei­ther steamed or deep fried in gi­ant woks.

I el­e­vate my sta­tus and head to the nearby Banyan Tree just a short bike ride away and am robbed of sun­set by the misty driz­zle, but the sky is still beau­ti­ful. Ev­ery­one is drink­ing lu­o­hanguo tea, and in the spa it is in­cor­po­rated as a part of their sig­na­ture treat­ment. Per­haps the finest restau­rant in town is in Bai Yun, the ho­tel’s Chi­nese restau­rant where I have my best and fa­vorite ver­sion of pi­jiu yu, and feast on an­other lo­cal spe­cialty, river snails that are ten­der and lovely with gin­ger and gar­lic. It re­minds me of the farmer’s lunch I once had and is equally de­li­cious if not bet­ter, plus this time, I am be­ing served in a for­mal din­ing room.

In­tel­lec­tu­ally, I’m aware that China will keep chang­ing, but that doesn’t pre­vent me from feel­ing a bit dev­as­tated at the rapid pace I face when com­ing back to places like Yangshuo. I’m grate­ful to Bruce, Scott and Terry and of course my lo­cal hosts through­out for re­mind­ing me that there re­main plenty of vil­lages to dis­cover—and pro­vide a new per­spec­tive on the mag­nif­i­cent land­scape of rivers and karsts.

Huge karsTs aP­Pear LIke an­cIenT sPIr­ITs In THe HorI­zon, a scenIc moun­TaIn scaPe

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOPLEFT: Sun sets over the karsts; mifen, Guilin's fresh rice noo­dles; Banyan TreeYangshuo; yang­mei, known as the Chi­nese straw­berry; class be­gins at the Yangshuo Cook­ing School; a scenic bike trail;zhu­tong, rice cooked in bam­boo tubes.

The rugged lay­ers of Yangshuo's moun­tain­ous hori­zon is re­flected into the Yu­long River at sun­set.

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