No karst too great, Xingping
At 4:00am I am jolted from my slumber. Stumbling across the room, I pull open the curtains, half-expectant in the hope that yesterday’s rainclouds have already moved on. We are here in Xingping to walk the 1159 steps up Lao Zhai Hill, a proud shaft of rock jutting high above the riverside town.
Half an hour later we descend the staircase to the front door, tiptoeing past a ping-pong table and a newly-built counter in red brick. I turn the knob and carefully push it outwards. It’s locked. A second try and the night guard emerges from his bed, a four-poster draped in mosquito netting and tucked almost surreptitiously in a corner. Holding the key in his fingers, he approaches us with a low, gentle whisper. “Will you be coming back?”
“Yes,” I reply, “In an hour and a half.” The door swings open into the pitch-black silence. Flashlights switched on, we turn down the street, ducking through a rounded archway amid the barks of an angry guard dog. We can hear the wet ground squelching beneath our shoes, a trail of puddles marking the remnants of last night’s rain.
It takes us two wrong turns to find the path to the summit. Loaded down with our camera equipment, we zigzag up the hillside, brushing through tangles of cobwebs and who knows what else. Through the beam of my dying flashlight I see only an endless flight of steps, beckoning us between patches of moss and the drooping, overgrown foliage.
The previous day Fabricio had warned us of the potential dangers that awaited on the mountain. “Be careful – it’s very slippery up there. I fell twice in the first 100 metres from the top.”
“And the views?”
“Oh!” His eyes widened, sparkling with no small measure of excitement. “Impresionante. There’s a pavilion at the end where the view is not bad, but the best ones are from the rocks just beyond. You can even see the bend in the river!” He paused momentarily, offering a final caution. “Just be very, very careful.”
Hailing from Uruguay, Fabricio would become our travelling companion for this leg of the journey. We meet him on the way in from Guilin Airport, and instantly hit it off on the slow bus to Yangshuo. It’s another 40 minutes to Xingping, past looming karst mountains under the night sky, their outlines vaguely discernible over the fields and electricity poles. Our headlights briefly illuminate tan-coloured brick houses as we zip along the uneven route, kicking up a small cloud of dust. The taxi driver is apologetic. “The roads aren’t very good,” he tells me, “We’re quite poor here.”
His disarming friendliness puts me at ease after an eventful start to the trip, when a conductor tried to fleece us for an extra “luggage charge” before setting off from Guilin. I had spent the entire time dividing my attention between the passing scenery, a Hong Kong action movie from the early nineties, and the warning posted at the front of the bus in bold red characters: “Beware of pickpockets.” Occasionally I would glance over at my two companions, quietly and blissfully unaware of the sign. Sometimes knowing the local language can be a double-edged sword.
Our taxi driver alludes to the changes that continue to shape this part of the South, long celebrated in Chinese culture for its dreamlike scenery. Within the last 30-odd years, he has witnessed the transformation of Yangshuo into a backpacking haven and now a neon-lit playground teeming with domestic visitors. Here and there we see the signs of construction dotting the landscape – we are told a brand-new railway line will be operational in the next few years.
The driver breaks a temporary lull in the conversation. “So, why did you choose Xingping?” He asks me. It’s a good question, and one that I am left to ponder over the very next morning.
At the docks we are frustrated by the relentless hard sell of the local touts who follow us persistently down the street. “Bamboo rafts! Tickets for bamboo rafts! Little brother, do you want these peaches? They’re fresh! Buy a few, come on, buy a few! Fresh peaches, little brother! Fresh peaches!”
We hurry past a row of kitschy souvenir stalls, crossing the bridge out of town in an attempt to escape the chaos. But our relief is short-lived. The tranquility is marred by a constant roar emanating from the fleet of motorised bamboo rafts, each one a faithful replica in plastic.
That night we rub shoulders with Fabricio in the lobby of our hostel. He too has had a disappointing experience. “I rented a bike and tried to explore…. but the roads were blocked so I had to turn back.” He shrugs, almost nonchalantly. “I didn’t get to see very much today.”
Before parting ways, we agree to charter a raft for the cruise downriver to Yangdi. The nondescript town, hidden behind a screen of drooping bamboo, is the starting point of a six-hour hike back to Xingping via three ferry crossings. Here we confront a hurdle that nearly jeopardises the entire hike. Although the staff at our hostel had advised us to hand boatmen a five-yuan note per head, the locals were having none of it.
On the docks we are joined by a young couple visiting from the Northeast. The affable man, in a checkered red shirt and skinny jeans, bears an uncanny resemblance to one of my childhood friends. He approaches the pilot of a ferry that has just pulled up to the concrete ramp. “Could you take us across the river?” The middle-aged skipper snorts derisively. “No, I’m going to Beijing!”
For the next 45 minutes we become locked in a heated discussion with two elderly villagers, haggling over the price as the water lapped enticingly at our feet. In his frustration Fabricio stands gazing out at the opposite bank, declaring his intention to take the next boat back down to Xingping.
But the hike is worth the extra trouble. Away from the invasive noise of the rafts, we amble through timeless villages, down country lanes lined with orange trees and paddy fields, into a canvas painted a tantalising shade of green.
At a simple stall above the final landing stage, the three of us settle down for a late lunch of battered Li River fish and pancakes of diced taro and baby shrimp. I ask the beaming vendor if her thick taro pancakes are easy to make. “Oh yes, it’s very easy,” she replies, “But taro can be difficult to cultivate.” She offers us a pair of low wooden stools before immersing the next one into a bubbling, oil-filled wok.
Back on Lao Zhai Hill, Bama and I are pulling ourselves up the slippery steps, leaning against a set of bamboo railings for support. Eventually we reach the bottom of a steep, rusty ladder, where I am nearly unable to contain my sheer joy. I had read that this was a feature near the summit, and within no time we are under the pavilion’s canopy, catching our breath and guzzling down the last few drops of bottled water. Beside the lonely radio mast we scramble over the pile of jagged rocks, perching ourselves – as comfortably as possible – ahead of the steel grey sunrise.
But there’s a catch for ascending this hill in the wet conditions of an early morning at the end of May. At first light we hear an incessant drone that draws closer and closer, circling behind us with a menacing, bone-chilling sound. It is none other than a horde of mosquitoes, attracted by the scent of fresh blood from two small cuts on the back of my hand. Our only defence is a bright yellow mosquito band strapped around my left wrist, laced with the pungent smell of citronella.
For the next 10 minutes I raise my arm into the air, in a desperate measure to protect ourselves from the hungry swarm. I am painfully aware of our vulnerability but also filled with an adrenaline-fueled defiance, firm in the knowledge that we were not going to give up this spot without a fight.
Fruitless in their search for breakfast, the hunters leaves us in peace, their telltale drone dying away into the distant fog. We breathe a sigh of relief and turn our attention back to the landscape – and the view that Fabricio had described with such a glimmer in his eye.
Spread before us is a vision of classical China, with banks of morning mist draping the crest of each limestone peak. The air echoes to an orchestra of birdsong and chirping insects, heightened by the collective cry of roosters drifting up from the valley below. We sit in an awed, breathless silence, finally alone over the sweeping curve of the Li River.