Chinese Banquet

The brochure promised the ‘China of your imagination’, so how did my real China compare? Katharine Howe shares her memories of the Skedaddle trip to China. 

My desire to head East was based partly on Wild Swans, the story of a hard lines communist state, and partly on news reports of a booming China with huge densely packed and ever growing cities. The film The Painted Veil, set near Guilin, showed beautiful scenery, and then there was Katie Melua singing about nine million bicycles in Beijing. It was a strange mix of images that didn’t seem to fit together so it seemed like a good time to see what China was really like and indulge in a little biking.

It became apparent pretty quickly that bikes were actually quite a rarity. The sight of 14 brightly clad westerners on mountain bikes did raise an eyebrow or two especially during the first week in the remote hills north of Guilin.
It seems that in the new China there is only one desirable two-wheeled form of transport, the scooter. Within 10 minutes of climbing aboard the bikes on the very first day, we’d inadvertently caused one to crash. As we left Meixi village on our way to the awesome Bijioazhai National Park, one chap was so surprised to see us that he drove his scooter off the road.

Let’s hope the Chinese proverb ‘a fall into a ditch makes you wiser’ is true!

Although most people were similarly surprised to see us they were unfailingly welcoming. The roads and tracks we cycled along were mostly quiet and tranquil, linking sleepy villages where it felt like life hadn’t changed much in centuries and our amazing local guide Farmer Tang, kept us entertained for hours with Ronnie Corbett-esk, never-ending stories and route descriptions and his warnings of ‘little bumpies’ (unsurfaced sections) made sure we knew what lay ahead.

These were farming communities living off land that was beautifully terraced up steep hillsides for growing rice with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables squeezed in at the edges. Bamboo, corn and chillies were laid out to dry in the sun in every village we cycled through and the markets were packed with fresh produce brought down from the hills. This produce fuelled our days on the bikes and if I had been expecting dreary food then I couldn’t have been further off the mark. Every meal time was a delicious delight. Whether a roadside eatery or a riverside restaurant, the quality, variation and sheer quantity of food, rustled up and served banquet style, in what was always a matter of minutes, was simply incredible!

While the sleepy villages seemed to have been unchanged in years, in truth China has changed and is changing at an astounding pace. Bikes have been swapped for scooters and we couldn’t miss the massive road building projects as we cycled right through the middle of major construction sites (health and safety laws being some way off!). The only place I saw Mao’s little red book was in a market full of mementos for tourists, alongside comic books. No other sign of a communist state was really obvious particularly in the commercial centres of Guilin and Yangshuo with their brightly lit shops and café bars.

So the China of my imagination? Well it was certainly stunningly beautiful and I had the most amazing holiday. Whether biking through the remote hills or drifting along the Li River on a raft it was hard to imagine the mega-city image of China. The hard-line communist state is very definitely giving way to the pursuit of wealth and as for Katie and her nine million bicycles, well nine million scooters doesn’t fit the tune so well but it’s maybe more accurate!

Katherine has also recently booked onto our brand new coastal mountain bike trip in Montenegro this coming September!

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