The road ended at the edge of a crumbling cliff, after a series of abrupt structural adjustments: what had been smooth asphalt turned to dusty asphalt, then to pot-holed concrete, then to broken concrete then to gravel then to rutted, dried mud.
It was when we hit the rutted dried mud that we found the cliff, and from the cliff’s edge we could see the bridge we were supposed to cross.
On our bicycle route map of Yangshuo County, this bridge was neatly drawn in, taking us from the long, un-intersected tertiary road that we had been following for several hours out of town, across the river, and meeting up with another tertiary road that would take us back to our lovely hotel in the countryside. In reality, the bridge was only half built, stopping mid-way across the river.
We had a few options, all of them impractical, exhausting or absurd.
- We could carry our bikes down the crumbling cliff face onto the riverbanks and try to flag down a passing bamboo raft.
- We could turn around and cycle three hours back to the nearest crossroads.
- We could find a way up to the six lane toll-road that loomed high above the village we had just passed. Cut into the reinforced embankment that rose up behind the tiny village, we could see stone stairs leading up to a tunnel beneath the highway.
We asked two women and two small children sitting on stoops inside the village for directions in fractured Mandarin, in a lane narrow enough to reach your arms out and touch the wattle and daub walls on either side. We hauled out our bicycle map and pointed to the last intersection we had passed and pointed up to the highway roaring overhead and shrugged our shoulders and asked, ‘Where are we and how can we get out?’
The older woman shrugged and smiled. She was illiterate.
The younger woman shrugged and pointed back to the distant intersection we had passed three hours ago. We pointed up to the highway and asked, ‘How can we get up there?‘
We pointed down the narrow alleyway toward the highway and asked, ‘Can we get there from here?’
No, no, definitely not.
We looked at the highway embankment that rose up behind the village. We could push the bikes up there. Steep, to be sure, but not impossible. A three hour ride back to the intersection was daunting in the heat. My bare arms were pinkening already and our legs were tired from the hills. Yangshuo has many hills.
We wheeled our bikes down the narrow lane to the back of the village, along a concrete ridge barely wide enough for a wheel and a foot to be placed side by side, hauling our bikes up the stairs at the end of the ridge to the tunnel beneath the elevated highway. The arched walls were lined with sheaves of grain. The dark, grain-scented tunnel opened out onto a sudden and steep grassy hill rising up to a farmer’s field. Above us was the highway, the embankment blocked by barbed wire which was pulled back neatly.
There was room to slide the bikes under, and then for us to slide under. We could push the bikes up the steep, narrow concrete lip of the drainage ditch that ran up the hill, then lift the bikes over the metal fencing.
I pushed my bike under the wire, then crawled under, angling my bike’s front tires so they would follow the narrow concrete ridge as I pushed my way up the hill. About halfway up, the front wheel turned slightly, throwing off my balance. I couldn’t push any more. I was half tipped over in nettles and gravel and feeling utterly crappy, shirt fuzzed with burrs. I had a long scrape on my forearm. I really wanted a beer.
The hill was too steep, too unstably graveled, and the narrow band of flat concrete on the edge of the drainage ditch didn’t allow for easily turning around a heavy mountain bike. I was halfway up a steep hillside under an 8 lane highway at the end of a dead end tertiary road in rural China with a very hopeful but inaccurate map, trying to hold a bicycle upright and trying to keep myself from sliding down the gravel hill into a pile of scratched and battered indignity.
At the top of the hill, in the farmer’s field, there appeared the farmer and his cow. I waved and smiled; he waved and smiled. He looked at me, my bicycle, my awkward braced pose on the steep hillside.
After noting my situation, he led his cow down the hill, tethered her outside the grain tunnel, and casually shuffled under the barbed wire and up the steep, crumbling hill, lifting my bike onto his shoulder and carrying it back down. He was a good six inches shorter than me and wiry, with only flip-flops on his feet.
Back at the entrance to the grain tunnel he drew us a map in the dust. The cow watched from the side.
We could cut across his field and then down a dirt lane which would pass through a similar tunnel and at the other side we would find an entrance to the highway back to town. He hoisted my bike back onto his shoulder and carried it up the other side of the hill to his field. As we wheeled our bikes through the long grass toward the path, he waved furiously and shouted out enthusiastic goodbyes.
We pedaled down the dirt lane until it turned into a concrete lane, then a slightly wider asphalt lane that took us through the tunnel under the highway and onto an unofficial gravel on-ramp, a tiny slip road that met up with a narrow gap in the metal highway barrier. We felt absurd, cycling on a deserted 8-lane elevated toll-road. There were signs indicating the absolute illegality of horse carts, bicycles and scooters at regular intervals. Every few minutes a car whooshed by. Otherwise, all was still. Birds sang, trees rustled. We cycled until we crossed the river.
There were no off ramps in sight, no ways to rejoin any secondary roads nor tertiary roads. They all seemed to run through the countryside independent of each other, sometimes parallel, sometimes almost (but not quite) intersecting. We did a U-turn across the deserted highway and started pedalling back in the direction we had started from, hoping to see an exit or at least a hillside that we could throw ourselves down en route to an unconnected smaller road below.
After half an hour of no exits, we found ourselves at the mouth of a 2 km long mountain tunnel, leading to the next county. This was not where we wanted to be.
At the side of the highway, just meters from the entrance to the tunnel, was a small opening in the metal barrier, leading down a steep gravel embankment into a village, with another tangle of barbed wire at the bottom. We waded in the shallow, flowing streams, wheeling the bikes down on the concrete rim of the ditch. At the bottom, a village woman watched and chortled.
We wheeled our bikes as casually as we could through the village. It was half under construction and filled with men laying cinderblocks and mixing cement. Several were clad only in their underpants and were showering in an open room at the edge of the path.
“Nihao!” came the chorus from the men.
“Nihao!” we replied, as casually as we could under the circumstances, having just emerged from a drainage ditch at the dead end of the pathway. We were sweaty and dusty and sunburnt, decorated with burrs and twigs and scrapes.
We passed through the village and found a small, hilly secondary road running under the toll road and followed it back to the river that we had tried to cross hours earlier. It wound around the low mountains then along the coastline of the river. It was going nowhere that we wanted to be.
We turned around and pedaled in the opposite direction. There was nowhere else to go.
We pedaled for another half hour, deeper into forested areas, up higher, winding hills. We had been cycling since 8 in the morning and now it was mid afternoon. We were completely off our map.
Ahead was a tiny, dusty two shop village where we stopped for water and to confer with the shopkeepers about our location. They looked at our map, scratched their heads and summoned others to come look at our map. They shook their heads, dismissing our map. We were truly definitely off the map.
The crowd swelled until we had a full extended family and their friends assembled, huddled, trying to figure out what to do with the crazy stupid sweaty lost laowai who had washed up on their shores. One volunteered to drive us back to town in his old black Santana. We learned later that he was a low level government official.
We sped off in the old black Santana, down the winding hilly road we had used to reach the village. The low level government official put on a cd of pop music from Beijing. Windows rolled down, we cruised through the countryside with the music playing loudly, retracing our path back to the river and along the coastline, then beyond into more distant villages and down bumpy cow paths.
We were nearly two hours away from town by car.
The government official dropped us off at our hotel, gently unwrapped our bikes, and handed us a box of tissues so we could wipe the road dust from the frames. They were thick with it. He shook our hands.
We thanked him for his help and paid him for his time, energy and gas money. He had spent over two hours on his day off- May Day- carrying us home. He got back into his dusty black Santana, waved goodbye, and retracing his long route back home again.