16 March started early. Alf had arranged to come and pick me up outside my house just after 06:30 for the drive up to Guilin. We were to meet two of his clients there and then cycle from the outskirts of Guilin down the countryside on the far (East) bank of the Li River to Xingping. It was a ride I had long wanted to do and the day looked just perfect. A little cloud cover but otherwise just cool and fresh.
Xiao Su, the driver, and Alf arrived right on time. Everything had been arranged the day before; bikes, food and water were all loaded in the back. I just needed my camera and a change of clothes.
The drive to Guilin is normally just a chore but at this time in the morning the road was clear and the hills were glorious with a rosy sky behind. We made good time and met the two ladies at the Universal Hotel in Guilin. I stayed there many times as a tour leader so it was strange to see it now in a different light.
Eight O'Clock was still a bit early for most people leaving to do the famous Li River Cruise. They were still at breakfast and so formalities were soon over and we left, heading for the start point. Before we even got there, Alf had a call to say that someone had left a wallet in the room. Though Amy had to return and miss the start of the ride, that averted a possible disaster.
Georgina, Alf and I set off on our mountain bikes, using the relatively flat first section to warm up and get to know each other. Alf had taken the two for a Guilin City Tour the day before but this was my first meeting.
The kilometres rolled away under our wheels with Alf pointing out the local crops and giving a run down of local issues. We soon arrived at a small town where we stopped for Guilin Miefen (local rice noodles - a favourite breakfast). Still no sign of Xiao Su and Amy so we carried on.
We stopped at the first section of Li River and watched a local lady busy at her laundry. We could just about make out the Li River Cruise Docks at the end of the straight. The car caught up with us not long after we had passed there. Amy was amazed by the distance we had covered but none of us was really feeling it yet. Good bikes make all the difference.
The four of us now carried on together. We stopped again at an abandoned temple now used as a community centre. The pool table at the back looked like it could have done with a brick or two for levelling off. No-one seemed to care.
The flat ended soon after that. Alf considered the first hill just a warm-up and told us that the day included two much bigger ones. The first of those started as we left the road heading to Crown Cave and turned left. The sign clearly said Xingping though no road is marked on any local map. No wonder - the tarmac gave way to dirt and the switchbacks ahead soon became obvious.
I ride a fair bit and so the relentless up was no great hardship. Georgina was coping well and Amy did after we sorted out her gears. Alf, cheeky chap, dropped back until he could use the support car for a lift - a fact we would not have noticed had Xiao Su stopped further back as instructed. Fortunately for us he either didn't understand or was having his own little laugh and Alf had to make excuses.
With the height gained we could now see for tens of kilometres all around. The best views were to the west, over the Li River and to an absolutely stunning backdrop.
We passed Da Tian (Big Field), a charming little village with a style of porch over the doors that I had never seen before. New breeze-block buildings were going up all around so, no doubt, this innovation will disappear before long.
Despite the noodles, hunger struck not long after twelve. We could see the lunch spot, a small lake, far below and had great fun free-wheeling all the way down and around to a patch of green grass that would serve as our picnic site.
Alf had a couple of bags of goodies to fill our bellies to bursting. We didn't eat it all but certainly felt heavy as we set off again. We took it easy for a while but then, with the next big hill on us, had no choice but to drop down the gears and go for it.
At the top, the scenery was quite different. The hills were more open and the road contoured around on an almost treeless landscape. We could see big mountains off to the east but not the conical ones that have made the Guilin/Yangshuo area so famous.
The next descent was welcome but less enjoyable. The road here was very bumpy and arms and bums began to ache. We stopped just before reaching the valley floor as the views out over the now lush looking paddy fields was well worth a photo stop even if none of us had the camera or skill to quite capture the beauty completely. Cows and goats took the opportunity to get snapped too, on their way back from a drink down in the brook below.
The run into Xingping is pretty much flat. We went past a couple of great swimming spots but, it being only March, we were not tempted in.
We entered Xingping but did not head to the guesthouse straight away. Alf had one more activity planned first.
We took the bikes on the short ride out of town to a spot now famous, especially with domestic tourists. After a day of stunning scenery it was hard to say that this spot was better than any other - but since the view we were now looking at had been chosen to decorate the back of every 20 Yuan note we decided it was worth a visit. Like everyone else we took a couple of photos holding up the brown note just to mark the occasion.
We celebrated the end of the bike ride with a beer on the guesthouse rooftop. Alf and I then headed back home to Yangshuo to freshen up and collect our respective boys from school. The two ladies stayed in Xingping as Alf would return next day to cycle with them the rest of the way to Yangshuo. I would have to miss out on that; other work to do.