As we’d agreed the day before we met Esther, our friendly bicycle guide, at about 9.30am at East-West Music Cafe. We hadn’t really discussed whether we would take bicycles or scooters – I wanted to get scooters as it was stinking hot and humid and the idea of pedalling away didn’t appeal, while John wanted bicycles as he doesn’t like scooters and wasn’t comfortable riding one in what he thought was traffic. He wasn’t game to ride on the back of mine, and so in the end we got bicycles.
For the record, there wasn’t really anything resembling traffic around.
Esther led us up the main road and across, and around a few streets until we came to a smaller paved lane that we imagined [incorrectly] wouldn’t fit a car. The path was lined with trees providing much-appreciated shade, and our company consisted primarily of a few other bicycles, a hunchbacked old man and a couple of motorbikes. It was quite nice, and we rode through some small villages and past the luscious green rice paddies. As Yangshuo is decidedly flat for the most part – what my legs and I considered hills could not reasonably be construed as such by anyone not on a bicycle – they weren’t photogenic terraces but flat paddies divided as seemingly arbitrarily as usual.
Esther tried to convince us to go bamboo rafting, but the exorbitant prince of 200 RMB each and the fact that we’d both been bamboo rafting before caused us to decide against this option. Instead we rode beside the river and across the bridge where the rafting ends.
After about an hour and a half we arrived at the Dragon Water Cave. Having listened to Esther yesterday I realised we were stopping here and had brought my bathers. John, having not paid attention, did not. Unfortunately what I’d overlooked was that we could have bought tickets at the hostel for 80 RMB each. At the caves they asked for 250 RMB each but we bargained them down to 130 RMB each. I’m not sure if there’s even an official price as there wasn’t prices listed. Welcome to China!
The water cave has three main parts. At the start, you take a guided tour through the caves where stalactite formations are garishly lit in bright colours and named, mostly, with extreme imagination and possibility under the influence of some decent hallucinogens. I couldn’t quite see that something was an ‘under the sea’ scene, or an elephant-horse. The only one that was obviously named was ‘A Mother’s Love’ – a bunch of stalactites that looked like rather large breasts. However, with the lights on some of the formations did look pretty amazing.
The next part of the caves was the part I was interested in – the mud baths. I went and got changed into my bathers, while John opted to wear his jocks. When we’d gone in they told us that photos inside would cost 50 RMB, so we decided against it and didn’t take any money. Inside we were told 15 RMB, and regretted not bringing our wallets [we'd left them locked in the lockers]. $3 for a photo of us bathing in the mud would have been OK!
As we knew there were hot springs coming up, we naively imagined that the mud baths would also be warm. We were mistaken. The mud – thick with minerals and salt and deliciously silky – was cold. And not cold like a refreshing swimming pool – COLD. Still, we braved the cold mud and slowly moved further in – where, of course, it was even colder. It was quite dark, being underground, and the mud was only about two feet deep at the deepest part. The bottom was thick and sludgy. We slowly lowered our bodies into the cold liquid, and I’ll admit that there may have been some squealing involved.
However, the coolest part was that despite our best efforts, we couldn’t sink. Only when walking – or dragging ourselves through the shallowest parts – could we reach the bottom. The mineral and salt content of the mud was so high that it was almost like swimming in the Dead Sea – there was nothing you could do to prevent yourself floating on the top. We had a great time rolling around on top of the mud, and floating with our heads on our hands. Fortunately the mud wasn’t as painful as the salty water of the Dead Sea, which burns your lips and tortures any scratch or cut you might not have known about. As the sludge at the bottom wasn’t as silky as the liquid mud at the top we gathered handfuls of sludge for a mud exfoliation, which of course left our skin feeling rather nice and smooth.
Eventually we figured we needed to get out and head to the also-cold showers. It’s amazing how mud sticks to you – after about 10 minutes under the showers we thought we’d got it all, but we discovered later that day that our clothes were still covered in mud!
Next stop was the hot springs – and after the cold mud we were both looking forward to this. Only about fifty metres further down, it turns out that the springs were much more popular than the mud and unfortunately they were popular with Chinese families. The pools were quite packed, and they let their kids run wild – splashing and fighting and using water cannons and running around kicking people and stepping on legs and generally being seriously annoying. The pools aren’t that large, and it’s really fucking annoying when you’ve just got comfortable and relaxed, and have an eight-year-old jump on your legs. It also hurts. John was getting quite pissed off with all the kids, and the parents who failed to attempt to control any of them, and so we only spent about fifteen minutes in there. To be fair though, his legs were incredibly sunburned from the day before and the very hot water of the springs wasn’t very comfortable for him.
Getting dressed – using our t-shirts as towels – we headed back outside and got back on the bikes. We rode over to see the Moon Rock although decided against hiking up to it in the heat. After this, it was a long meandering ride through the countryside heading vaguely in the direction of Yangshuo. Riding down smaller dirt trails and through little towns, passing by farmers and small houses – it was beautiful. However, Esther did seem to get a little annoyed when we stopped to take photos. She didn’t really pay much attention and would keep riding, eventually realising that we weren’t behind her anymore and pulling over to wait for us.
When we had only about a half hour left before getting back to Yangshuo the rain came rolling in. We stopped by the side of the road for about ten minutes, and when it became clear that the rain wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon we got back on the bikes to continue. By this time I was absolutely exhausted. The gears on my bike only partly worked, and it had been a very long time since I’d ridden a bike. We seemed to be going eternally uphill…although what my legs interpreted as hills were probably inclines of about 5 degrees. It was certainly enough to make that last half hour almost too much, especially in the rain. Both John and I were very, very happy when we got back into town and handed back those bikes! We’d spend about four hours riding, and that was just plenty.
Back at the hostel, we enjoyed the view from the rooftop garden. We’d previously tried to watch the sunset from there, only to find that the sun set on the other side and there was really nothing to see. However, the view outside of sunset was quite charming.
Later that night we both treated ourselves to full-body Chinese acupressure massages. I can honestly say that I did not enjoy the experience at all. The whole right side of my body seems to be a mass of knots, and every touch caused such pain that I was actively fighting the masseuse. All I could hope for was that I’d feel better in the morning!
Afterwards, we headed back to our favourite cafe for a very late dinner and a few cocktails. We’d decided that our hard work cycling had earned us a few drinks!
A bit more of a wander along West Street and the markets, and we were planning a sleep in for the next morning!