The 2008 Great China Ride “The Limestone Trail”

Thursday 20th March – Melbourne

After 12 months of planning our plane finally took off from Tullamarine airport at 9.20 am aboard Cathay Pacific Flight CX134 for the ten and a half hour flight to Hong Kong. Because of changes in the time zones we arrived at about 3.30 pm local time. As we wandered around the huge new Hong Kong International airport it gave everyone a chance to share their impressions of the trip so far. One thing we all agreed on was that the quality of the food and in flight service provided by Cathay Pacific was really first class.

My only disappointment with the flight was caused by the inconsiderate passenger in the seat in front of me who immediately insisted on reclining his seat to its furthest extremity leaving the top of his seat about 30 cm from my face and both my knees concertinaed against his seat back. When he stood up some time later I reached forward and returned his seat to the upright position. When he returned to his seat and tried to resume his previous position I was ready for a “space war” and braced both my knees firmly against the back of his seat so that it could not move. After a brief impasse I think he soon got the message and realised that I could be just as stubborn as he was. The rest of the flight was quite comfortable, or at least as comfortable as any long haul flight in sardine class can be.

Since we had a couple of hours to spare before our connecting flight to Guilin we set about exploring the airport. It took me about 30 seconds to decide that it was just about the same as airports the world over, albeit on a grander scale. Endless flashy shops selling brand name consumer goods that no-one needs but, for some unknown reason, obviously a lot of people feel compelled to buy whenever they are about to board a plane.

It was a relief to be finally called for Dragonair flight KA700 for Guilin. Not so welcome was the revelation that the short one and a half hour flight meant that we would not be served any food before landing in China.

The weather in Hong Kong was cloudy and with a fine drizzle of rain. This condition followed us all the way to Guilin where we landed just as nightfall was approaching. The air was so moist that it seemed to be just dripping with water. Visibility in the foggy atmosphere was reduced to only a couple of hundred metres, adding a strange air of mystery to the place. If the temperature had been higher it would have been oppressively humid but the relative coolness made it quite comfortable.

The relatively small airport at Guilin was a welcome change from the acres of glass and steel at Hong Kong. We cleared customs quickly and gathered eagerly at the baggage carousel where we waited to discover whether our luggage had also made a safe trip. To our amusement the only luggage to arrive was Paul’s didgeridoo. Yes, that’s right – he had packed his impressive Aussie didgeridoo to help inculcate some Australian culture into China.

We tried not to look too anxious as minutes passed by without any further addition to the baggage count. Eventually the luggage did arrive and we quickly assembled at the exit, hoping that our transport would be waiting to take us to our hotel. By this time we were all understandably tired and hungry and looking forward to finally getting to our destination. It seemed an eternity ago that I had set off from home. Was it really less than 20 hours ago ?

Fortunately our contact was waiting outside the airport and a very comfortable minibus carried us at a surprisingly slow speed the 20 km distance to Guilin and the Ronghu Hotel which was to be our home for the next two days. So far everything had been going well and I was finally starting to relax, feeling that I would soon be able to hand over responsibility (and worry) for the rest of the trip to the people from Bike Asia.

This turned out to be a case of “premature relaxation” as I soon discovered that we were not out of the woods just yet. It appeared that the hotel had no record of our bookings and the smiling receptionist at the counter just stared at me in confusion when I tried to explain that we had come to take part in a bike ride around her country. This was NOT a good sign.

A few hasty telephone calls were exchanged while I nervously tried to gauge what was happening. Finally they seemed to solve the mystery of our arrival and decided that we could stay after all. At about 9.30 pm we were allocated to our rooms, even more hungry and exhausted.

The rooms were most comfortable, clean and inviting, but (as we had discovered on previous trips) their selection of mattresses is quite different to what we are used to in Australia. Although at first they feel as hard as concrete, you do quickly adapt and a clean bed at the end of a long day is always welcome, even if the mattress is filled with asbestos shavings.

A few of our team indicated that they were too exhausted for dinner but about 12 or so were hungry enough to venture out into the dark streets of Guilin in search of sustenance. The Ronghu Hotel is magnificently situated right on the Rong Lake in the centre of Guilin. As soon we left the hotel we stepped right into the midst of a magical wonderland of coloured feature lighting. With the cloudy late night air reflecting and accentuating the multicoloured lights it was certainly a memorable introduction to this fascinating city.

We wandered about blindly for some minutes looking for a restaurant that might still be open at that late hour and soon started to fear that it might be too late to find anything. It was at that precise moment that the endless magic of serendipity once again took over. As we were crossing a steeply arched stone bridge a young Chinese girl almost slipped and fell. Someone in our group spontaneously asked “Are you all right ?” which elicited the immediate response “I’m OK”.

Although this would not have been a normal response in Australia, in a country where very few people speak English, it caught me by surprise. Obviously she understood what had been said. I took the opportunity to ask if she knew where we could get something to eat. Within a few minutes we were all seated in a dimly lit tea house/reading room. Huddled around a couple of miniature tables, not knowing what to expect next, we had been thrust headlong into one of those experiences that travel always seems to provide.

The diminuative tea shop where we had our first late night meal in Guilin

Although the proprietor had obviously closed for the evening, it did not take long for the kitchen to spring back into life and start producing a succession of delicious dumplings and other food. It was at about this time that the lights in the building went off, leaving us giggling in the dark. Soon candles were produced and our late night snack proceeded with even more magic than before. What an unforgettable start to our 2008 China adventure !

At about 11 pm we finally bade farewell to our new friends and made our way back to the hotel. It did not take long to settle into a satisfying sleep, no doubt dreaming and anticipating what other adventures we would all face over the next 18 days.

Coordinates of Ronghu Hotel – N25°16.681′ E110°16.944′

Friday 21st March (Good Friday)

I awoke early to the sound of Paul’s alarm which stirred me from the middle of a rather confused dream starring some of the Ghostriders and a few big and very scary hills. Was this a prophetic vision, I wondered. I persuaded Paul to unpack his didgeridoo and blow a few salvos out of the hotel window and over the rooftops of Guilin. Was this the first time that such an instrument had been heard in this place ?

After a relaxing shower under the largest shower nozzle I had ever seen (obviously no water restrictions here) we made our way down to the dining room for breakfast. A wide assortment of hot and cold dishes were waiting to challenge and confuse us.

We then set out to explore Guilin in all its mystery. The weather was perfectly still and the air was laden with what must have been close to 100% humidity. I was actually grateful for the thick cloud cover as it prevented what would have otherwise been a very sultry day. As I looked about through the low lying clouds I could see dozens of the spectacular limestone karsts which have made this area so famous. Some of these karsts rise several hundred metres into the air and have sides which are almost vertical.

I discovered that much of the area near the Ronghu Hotel is filled with a network of interconnecting canals and lakes. Their surrounds have been brilliantly landscaped with gardens, paths, ornamental bridges and pagodas of varying sizes. It was obviously a very popular place for locals to meet, walk, play music or just relax.

Rong Lake just outside our hotel

A few of us went in search of the Guilin Museum but with so many eager prospective advisers trying to tell us the correct way to enter the building, I eventually lost interest and went off in search of other sights instead. The remainder of the day was spent wandering around town and enjoying some of the life and culture. I was repeatedly amazed at the openness and friendliness of the locals and regularly stopped to “chat” with many of them during the course of the day. In situations like this you quickly discover that there are many ways to communicate – even if you don’t speak the same language. A couple of young Chinese students took the time to teach me some Chinese while I helped them with some English words.

With tired feet I finally returned to the hotel at about 4.00 pm and went searching to see how many of the others had made it safely back. There weren’t any ! Since we had been advised that our briefing meeting with Scott from Bike Asia was not to take place till 6.00 pm I was not too concerned.

Panorama over Guilin with Limestone karsts in background

Over the next two hours small groups of worn out wanderers staggered back to their rooms, no doubt with loads of stories to tell of their first full day in China. At the appointed starting time for our meeting we only had nine riders accounted for and the rest still AWOL. By 6.30 pm the “Awesome Foursome” arrived leaving just Paul, Lisa and Wendy still missing. When they eventually arrived at about 7.00 pm the meeting finally got underway. Scott explained how the trip would be conducted and gave everyone a brief overview of what to expect over the next two weeks.

Just as it looked like the weather might be clearing, the skies opened up with a deluge of Biblical proportions, and this continued, accompanied by an impressive display of thunder and lightning, for the rest of the evening. Since none of us wished to get drowned this early in the trip, we all huddled into a convoy of taxis for the short ride to dinner.

With four passengers in each taxi, the windows immediately fogged up and the driver seemed either unable or unwilling to turn on the demister. Apart from the occasional blurred image of a taillight ahead, there was absolutely no visibility for us or the driver. Apparently he must have known the road well for we all managed to get there safely. The cost for the trip was 7 RMB each (about $1). Naomi Skinner from Bike Asia had also made the trip from Yangshuo to join us for dinner. I knew Naomi well from our previous China trips and it was great to see her again.

When we had eaten our fill and were ready to return to the hotel it appeared that all the local taxi drivers had decided that it was too wet to drive and had gone home for the evening. We had no alternative other than to walk through the watery cascades all the way back. It had been a long, long time since I could remember being in rain that was so heavy or so persistent. Although it was certainly wet, it was fortunately not cold and the deluge was not as big an issue as we otherwise might have imagined. Even so, it was nice to be able to discard the wet clothes and slide into the bed for a good night’s sleep. We were all looking forward to another long day ahead.

Saturday 22nd March – Guilin

Once again we awoke at 6.00 am to the persistent tones of Paul’s alarm and hastened to see if the rain was still pouring down outside. To my relief I could hear nothing, although it was still too dark outside to see what conditions were really like.

There was an obvious communication breakdown on the way to the dining room for breakfast with the door attendants not believing that we were entitled to a “free” breakfast, and insisting on lightening our pockets to the tune of an additional 30 RMB each. By the same token the vast array of food available each morning meant that breakfast was the most popular time of the day.

After breakfast we all joined Scott for a walking tour of Guilin. The weather had improved markedly and a steady breeze had blown away most of the humidity from the air. As we walked alongside the road we passed a succession of landscaped gardens where we observed groups of locals involved in diverse forms of meditation and exercise (often accompanied by shouts and grunts of exertion).

Elephant Rock is something of a tourist trap but an impressive spot nevertheless. Situated right on the majestic Li River it mainly consists of a huge limestone karst interspersed with walking tracks and temples. It is named after one section which has the unmistakable likeness to a large elephant. This elephant theme is reflected throughout the park.

Once we had entered it did not take long for six young ladies to take advantage of my naiveté and con me into parting with 30 RMB for a photo shoot. If that wasn’t bad enough I was then asked for an additional 50 RMB for a copy of the resultant photograph. I told them I was not interested and started to walk away. It was only then that the price dropped to a more realistic 10 RMB and I finally relented.

It was a short but quite demanding walk up a very steep staircase to the summit. This rewarded us with a glorious view down over the Li River and ouit onto Guilin itself. After leaving the park our group separated and spent the next few hours catching some final memories of this town. I took the opportunity to find a good coffee shop where I enjoyed a nice cappucino while watching the happy crowds wandering by on this holiday Saturday.

Our flight to Guiyang in adjoining Guizhou Province was due to depart at 7.10 pm and I was keen to catch a short rest in the hotel room before departure. It would be nice to say that our short flight with Xiamen Airlines was uneventful but that would not be quite true. In fact it almost precipitated an international incident.

Internal view of our hotel in Guiyang – not so rough !

While I was standing on a pedestal in Security and being thoroughly violated by an overly enthusiastic young female security officer with a hand held metal detector I heard a shout from nearby. “You have a knife in there !” the guard yelled. His comments were directed at Joan (hardly the typical stereotype for an international terrorist). The source of the alarm was the large Swiss army knife that she had secreted away in her hand luggage. “I forgot that I put it there”, was her only defense. I immediately had visions of her being manhandled away to spend the next 10 years languishing in the “Guilin Hilton” as punishment for her serious breach of airport security, however the officials seemed to believe her unlikely story and let her off with a smile and a warning.

No sooner had we cleared security than Henk loudly started opening his hand luggage and pulling out (and boldly displaying) all the banned items that he had just walked through with. As I sat with my mouth agape he proudly unpacked a large bottle of water, toothpaste, sunscreen, razor blades, knives and the like – in fact just about everything you could need to take over a small country. I could only shrink down into my seat in horror and hope that no one else had noticed. I was starting to doubt the wisdom of travelling with these people.

As it turned out, the flight itself went by without a hitch and we were soon descending for a landing at Guiyang Airport. Guiyang is a large city of some 3 million people and is the capital of Guizhou (pronouned “Gway – Joe”) Province.

We were met at the airport by “Mr Wong” the bus driver and “Winnie” his young, attractive and very enthusiastic assistant. Unfortunately Winnie seemed to mistake us for a group of Chinese tourists and spent the next 30 minutes in a continuous, highly amplified lecture – all of it in Chinese. Of course none of us had any idea what she was talking (and singing) about. We were soon all wishing she had an OFF switch.

Her lecture only finished when we arrived at the very impressive Hotel. This was a 4 star hotel in the centre of Guiyang which provided us very clean and comfortable rooms and a fantastic buffet breakfast the next morning.

Coordinates of Hotel in Guiyang– N26°36.096′ E106°42.680′

Sunday 23rd March (Easter Sunday)

We awoke to find that the Easter bunny had been busy during the night distributing Easter eggs outside all our rooms. We had been forewarned that the day would begin with a long and taxing bus ride and this turned out to be a very accurate prediction. The first three hours or so were along a large multi-lane tollway, but we then turned off and slowly proceeded along an assortment of very twisty and narrow rural backroads.

The continuous bumping and turning eventually took it toll with everyone starting to wish that the ride would finally come to an end. The highlight of the ride was a most enjoyable lunch at a hotel we stopped out somewhere along the way. I would like to tell you the name of the town but I didn’t have a clue where we were. It was not until sometime after 3.00 pm that our journey finally came to an end. We were shown our bikes and introduced to our support crew for the first time. I think that everyone was pleasantly surprised by the standard of the bikes – they even had disk brakes (which many of us had never ridden with before).

It took another hour or so for the bikes to be adjusted and pedals and handgrips fitted. By this time it was already late afternoon and there was some concern over whether we would be able to make our destination before nightfall. What a relief it was to be finally on the bikes and actually doing what we had all been looking forward to for so long. The ride for this first section was only about 38 km long but gave most of our team their first experience of riding in China.

Most of this first section followed a large river downstream but we did have a couple of short, sharp climbs to keep us from getting too complacent. The late afternoon weather was still and fine and provided perfect conditions for riding and for soaking up the sights that were all around us.

Following the river downstream

We arrived at Rongjiang just as the final light was disappearing from the day and we were checked into a modest hotel for the night. The biggest problem I soon discovered with the hotel was that our room was on the FIFTH FLOOR and the absence of a lift meant that the entire luggage had to be carried up five full flights of stairs. Fortunately the bed was clean and warm, ensuring that I slept soundly till the next morning.

(Coordinates of Hotel in Rongjiang N25°56.439′ E108°31.030′

Monday 24th March (Easter Monday) – to Congjiang

We awoke with the knowledge that we would have our first real day of cycling ahead of us. With a little over 85 km to be travelled to Congjiang we would soon be discovering whether our training had been sufficient for the challenges that lay ahead. The route followed the large Dului River downstream for much of the way so we knew (ie hoped) that the overall gradient would be downhill.

This bit’s really steep !

Glenda and Gael were so eager to get riding that they both forgot to set their clocks to China time, awakening to their alarm at 3.00 am in the morning! Rather than quickly realizing their mistake, they got out of bed, showered, packed and waited in the foyer for the rest of the team to arrive. This might seem quite strange behaviour for any normal person, but the colour of their hair ensures that they march to the beat of a completely different drum to the rest of us. After a couple of hours of waiting the truth dawned on them (just in time to hear the correct alarm going off). Travelling overseas can be a complicated business at times !

At the correct appointed hour we climbed on the bikes and left Rongjiang behind us. It was a delightful feeling to be rolling along with the prospect of a long day in the saddle ahead of us. As we followed the winding river we could see many fascinating insights into village and river life, including numerous fishermen working the river from their diminutive 2 man canoes.

The road surface was mostly good quality, allowing us to ride along at a respectable speed – even with the large knobbly tyres the bikes were equipped with. The midday lunch stop was particularly welcome and the food was delicious. My lack of chopstick skills ensured that at least half of my food was spilled onto the tabletop.

After another stop for afternoon tea we arrived at the hotel in Congjiang at about 5.00 pm, a little sun burnt and saddle sore, but all in high spirits. Gael was still recovering from a bout of gastro and spent the day in the sag wagon but we could all see that she was very keen to start riding.

Not long after arriving at our hotel Andrew shocked everyone by heading off to his room, deciding to beat nature at its own mean game by shaving off all his hair and appearing for dinner with a spectacular new shiny “chrome dome”. With three shaved heads in the team we were beginning to look like a group of the Delai Llama’s monks. Seeing Andrew and Paul together I could not help think of the Me and Mini Me characters of the Austin Powers’ movie.

We had been warned that the following day would see us confront the first real climbs of the ride so we all went off to bed early, hoping for another fine day ahead.

Congjiang Coordinates N25°44.478′ E108°54.292′

Tuesday 25th March – to Zhaoxing

During the night I was awakened from my sleep by the sound of VERY heavy rain on the roof. That was not a good omen for the day ahead and by daybreak there had been no improvement in the conditions outside. We had no alternative other than to rig up for wet weather riding. Several riders unpacked their brand new UNO wet weather jackets and hoped that they would serve their purpose.

With the rain dripping from our chins we were soon turning off the main road and onto a rough , unmade rural back road. The road steadily began to climb and each rider searched for a suitable gear and for the climbing legs they hoped they had prepared for this type of work. With the sticky clay surface it was hard to get a good roll going and, although the gradient was probably no more than 5 or 6%, it was quite slow going.

Peaceful river village

It took an hour or so of hard climbing to reach the first summit and the welcome sight of the support vehicle waiting for us with hot drinks and morning tea. Gael, who had been sick as a dog only 24 hours previously, surprised everyone by completing the climb in her stride, hence earning herself the Lazarus Award. Unfortunately sometime during those past 24 hours she had passed the bug along to Glenda who had now succumbed to the same malaise and took Gael’s place in the sag wagon.

At this point Henk decided to throw good sense to the wind by bolting off down the hill without a guide. When he did not return several minutes later, Mr Tang (affectionately referred to as “Mr T”) had no alternative other than to head off after him to make sure he did not take a wrong turn.

The following section consisted of a long descent in which we quickly lost all the altitude gain we had worked so hard for earlier in the day. We passed through a succession of small picturesque villages, each one populated by friendly waving locals who greeted our arrival with happy shouts of “Hello”. In these smaller villages there are no signs of the ugly multi story concrete and masonry block buildings that plague all the larger population centres. This is where you see the classic Chinese architecture of timber homes with their ornamental grey tiled roofs.

At one stage on the descent I was stopped by two men in a small minivan. When they pulled up their car and beckoned for me to stop I was slightly apprehensive that all was not well – after all I was riding well separated from the rest of the team and had no idea what was about to happen. Their beaming smiles soon put my mind to rest. They simply wanted to take my photo and spent the next few minutes posing with me while the cameras clicked. Another magic moment before we parted with hearty handshakes and hugs.

After about 30 km on the unmade section we emerged at a T intersection and were relieved to see smooth bitumen again. Even more welcome was the fact that the road was just about deserted. A couple of kilometres further on we pulled up at our lunch stop – muddy, cold and wet to the bone.

The remaining distance to hotel at Zhaoxing was undulating and presented us with a long, gentle climb to the village that was to be our home for the next two nights. Our first impressions of Zhaoxing were of a quaint but apparently prosperous town with elaborate 3 and 4 story timer homes huddled together along the banks of a narrow stream. What followed next was a meandering walk along a narrow series of lanes and alleyways that followed the riverbank to our hotel.

The sight that we were then presented with was one of the most startling of the entire trip. The hotel looked more like a multistoried tree house than a modern hotel but, after we had struggled to drag our luggage up several flights of stairs, we soon discovered that the hard work was worth it. Not only were the rooms better than we expected but the ensuites were spacious and the hot water was endless. After a long warming shower it was a treat to be able to sit at one of the small tables on the balcony and enjoy the panoramic view out over the entire village.

Stairway to our Hotel in Zhaoxing

After an enjoyable dinner in town I went off to bed at about 8.00 pm and slept soundly till 7.00 am the next morning. During the night I was serenaded by the happy sound of the nearby river and enjoyed the type of sleep that is well earned after an honest day’s labours.

Zhaoxing Coordinates – N25°54.536′ E109°10.790′

Wednesday 26 th March – in Zhaoxing

After the rain of the previous day I was glad to awake to a fine morning with the sun just starting to break through the clouds. We enjoyed an ample breakfast of noodles, orange juice, bread and eggs. It was also the first time since the start of the ride that all 16 of our team members had been fit and well at the same time.

The free day in Zhaoxing was spent wandering the township and enjoying the warm sunshine. In fact is was quite noticeable how quickly it heated up once the clouds had parted. Henk and I took a chance by ordering a mushroom and cheese pizza for lunch. It took a long time to prepare but when it eventually emerged from the kitchen it was worth the wait. It also can’t have been too lethal since neither of us suffered any evil side effects afterwards.

The central canal in Zhaoxing

While exploring the far end of town we met a well dressed young man who introduced himself as Mr Wu. He explained in broken English that he was a teacher at the nearby school and invited us to meet him at the school at 2.00 pm that afternoon. He didn’t warn us about the backbreaking climb up to the school. Henk stopped after the first half dozen steps and loudly announced to the world “I’m already buggered”. It was not a promising start – after all we were supposed to representing a group of highly trained and extremely fit Australians who were completing a cycling challenge across China.

Somehow we battled our way to the top of the never ending staircase and emerged puffing and sweaty at the schoolyard. We still had no idea where to find the elusive Mr Wu. We tried asking a couple of teachers for directions but they just looked back at us and smiled politely. Just as we were on the point of giving up we saw Mr Wu on the opposite side of the courtyard and he led us on a short tour of his school. We managed to get into a middle school Maths class and cause complete mayhem for about 10 minutes. As an ex Maths teacher myself I almost felt sorry for the poor teacher who saw his well planned class disintegrate into chaos. The kids themselves seemed very keen to see us and were in no hurry to return to their lessons. We almost certainly left the indelible impression on them that all Australians are crazy.

After dinner we all went out to a cultural show put on by the Dong Minority people of the village. This show took place in a open courtyard under the stars and we were all grateful that the evening was fine and the northern stars shone done brightly to add their contribution to the light coming from dozens of lamps and lanterns scattered around the stage. The performers all lined up in their ornate and colourful national dress and proceeded to entertain us with singing and dancing. They also acted out a simple musical play on the universal theme of unrequited love. Although we could not understand a word of the dialogue, the actions and facial expressions were enough to convey a clear message of what the play was about.

Towards the end of the show Paul was invited on the stage to play his didgeridoo. I am sure that none of the locals would have ever seen anything like it before and I am just as sure that they are unlikely to ever see it again. We wandered back to the hotel, tired and happy at about 10.00 pm

Paul demonstrates a didgeridoo in a village show

Thursday 27th March – to Chengyang

Once again the clouds descended and the morning dawned grey and with a fine drizzle of rain. Sometime during the night Joan had become the latest victim of the bug that had been doing the rounds among some of the team members. She had no alternative than to take up a position in the sag wagon for the day.

The ride began with a gentle climb out of Zhaoxing, giving us a perfect view down the valley. Fortunately the road surface was excellent and this helped to make the climb pass by quite quickly. To everyone’s surprise Neville bolted off the front of the peloton and was not seen again until he reached the summit, a good few minutes before anyone else. This amazing act of willpower earned him the polka dot jersey and he calmly explained the secret of his dramatic improvement. “You guys trained too much” he said. Perhaps so.

The remainder of the riders arrived at the summit over a period of about 25 minutes. The climb had involved a vertical gain of about 400 metres and we all looked forward to the prospect of a long downhill ahead.

Once down the other side of the mountain the road continued to follow the river downstream for many kilometres. This meant that we could roll along and soak up the surroundings without expending too much energy. The early drizzle quickly dried up and provided us with quite pleasant riding conditions although the sun stayed well out of sight.

The river steadily grew in volume and width over the next few kilometres. Scattered along the river were fishermen, somehow managing to stand upright in their tiny canoes while they threw their nets into the water. Small timber villages dotted the surrounding hillsides. In many respects this area reminded me of Nepal.

Soon after the lunch stop we could proceed no further on the bikes and we were all instructed to unload our gear and get into the waiting bus. Scott informed us that we were about to embark on an uncomfortable 4 hour bus ride. We all squeezed into the bus, along with all our luggage, and braced ourselves as best we could for the challenge ahead. It did not take long for us to see why we had been stopped from riding any further on this road. The road itself quickly degenerated into a deeply furrowed mud heap with the poor driver kept busy trying to dodge huge rocks and deep quagmires while at the same time keep an eye out for oncoming vehicles.

With each new bend in the road the bus was filled with exclamations of surprise, fear and shock. In some sections I seriously began to doubt whether we would be able to get through without the bus sinking up to its axles in the mud.

After about 2 hours or more of this tortuous progress the road finally improved to a smooth but very narrow concrete surface. Outside we watched an ever changing landscape of terraced rice fields and large tea plantations. Most spectacular of all were the large Wind and Rain Bridges which are a feature of this area of China. These elaborate structures provide not only a passage over the river but also a meeting and sheltering place for the local residents.

Impressive Wind and Rain Bridge

After 4 hours we staggered out of the bus into our hotel in Chengyang village. I was a little taken aback to enter my room and find it full of steam. The hot water tap to the shower had been left running at full tilt for some time prior to our arrival, presumably to warm up both the water and the room. This was a real shock for people who had come to cherish the value of every drop of water. Apparently in China there is no water shortage and hence no need to worry about it running out.

The room itself was Spartan but clean and sufficient for our needs, although a western style toilet would have been appreciated. The complete of any form of rail or shelf in the bathroom also made showering interesting to say the least.

Chenyang Cordinates – N25°54.025′ E109°33.099′

Friday 28th March – to PingAn

Like most days on this trip so far, the morning began overcast and drizzly but we were moderately confident that it would improve as the day wore on. After breakfast we went off on a short walk around the nearby Dong Village. The highlight of this town was the famous wind and rain bridge but the rest of the village gave the impression that prosperity had passed it by. Open drains and dilapidated buildings were the order of the day. What a contrast it was to the order of Zhaoxing. Back at the hotel we loaded our bags back into the bus for another 90 minute ride to take us to the place where we would be reunited with our bikes.

To our relief this ride was along a good quality concrete roadway and once again mostly followed the course of the river. Along the way we passed through some substantial, though rather unattractive, towns. Like everywhere else we had been the amount of building and roadworks being undertaken was staggering. It is not hard to believe that the whole country is in the process of pulling itself apart and reassembling itself into something different before your very eyes.

It was a pleasant sight indeed when we finally pulled in beside our support vehicles and saw our familiar bicycles again. Although we had only been riding for less than a week it is impossible not to develop an affection for the bike that has been your mobile companion for the past few days, even (as was the case with my bike) it sounded like it was in a deal of pain. My trusty #14 bike had been progressively developing a major creak in the bottom bracket area and this meant that on every climb I sounded more like a one man band than a silent cyclist.

The first 20 kilometres of the ride followed a gentle uphill gradient as we now followed the river upstream. It was a relaxed atmosphere that prevailed as we rolled along, happy to just enjoy the experience. I think we were just glad to be out of the bus and back on two wheels again. We finally turned off the major road and joined a much quieter winding side road. Although the gradient increased it was still quite easy to maintain good progress.

The villages soon took on a rural aspect which again reminded me of the villages I had seen on my trips in Nepal. All around us the steep hillsides were heavily terraced to allow every possible square metre to be used for cultivating rice.

In the late afternoon we crossed a large bridge and started to climb in earnest. The gradient quickly increased to between 10 to 13% in places and left everyone scrambling for the lowest gears their bikes could offer. My bike decided to behave in a most unwelcome way when it started to jump between gears at random intervals. Soon I could not engage the lowest gears at all. This was not the ideal way to climb up the steepest section we had so far encountered.

There was not much I could do other than to just find a gear that worked and try to keep pedaling. I am well aware that, for someone of my body type, this type of hill climbing will never be a specialty so I am happy to just admire the scenery, soak up the experience, listen to my own breathing and aim to reach the next hairpin turn.

It did not take long to leave the bridge far below us. The Garmin GPS unit showed the altitude steadily increasing and I was now thankful that the cloud cover provided a very comfortable temperature for this type of strenuous climbing. After a few stops for photos I reached the top after about 45 minutes. The total altitude gain was about 400 metres, but the steep gradient made it feel a lot harder than it otherwise would have been.

There was a slight confusion over entrance tickets at the gate and then, once we gained admission to the large complex at the top of the mountain, we had no idea of how to find our hotel. We stood around for 30 minutes or so until Scott appeared to show us the way. W ethen had a long climb up a twisting labyrinth of stone staircases and I was very thankful that I did not have to carry all my luggage as well. For that task we had paid some of the local women to the hard work for us.

This area is famous for the amazing rice terraces that cover all of the surrounding hillsides. At this time of the year they were obviously preparing the terraces for the next crop by burning off the dead foliage on the surface of the ground. The top of the mountain is covered by a large complex of tourist hotels, shops and houses. Local Yao minority women are proud of their extremely long hair and are keen to offer photo opportunities for the tourists’ cameras. Of course this service comes with a price tag. Presumably posing for photos is a much easier way to earn a living than carrying someone’s luggage up the side of the mountain.

The hilltop village of PingAn – nestled among the rice terraces

The Liqing Guesthouse was our home for the next two nights and the GPS informed me that it was an altitude of 826 metres above sea level – the highest we would reach in the cycling trip. The hot showers and change of clothes was a godsend at the end of a long hard day. The prospect of another rest day tomorrow was very welcome.

Total distance cycled – 52 km, total ascent – 738 metres
(Ping An N25°45.580′ E110°07.278′)

Saturday March 29th -in PingAn

With no riding scheduled it was a great tonic for mind and body to be able to spend the day resting, reading and wandering around the township. Actually “town” is probably not the right word as the main activity is tourism in every possible form. There are ample chances to spend money to purchase handicrafts of uncertain quality and origin, buy food and drink or partake in one of the guided walks on offer.

The hotels, bars and shops seem to be haphazardly scattered around a confusing tangle of stone staircases and alleyways. On several occasions I was grateful that I had the GPS in my pocket as it was easy to feel disoriented and most of the buildings had a very similar appearance.

The terraces that cover all the surrounding hills are apparently over 700 years old, or so the guide book says. It was interesting that most of the physical labour seemed to be done by the women. The men were conspicuously absent.

Sunday March 30 th – to Hudie Gu

It was not encouraging when the alarm went off to the accompanying sound of heavy rain on the tile roof. The temperature had also dropped markedly from the previous day giving us the coldest morning of the trip so far. Fortunately the rain, once again, petered out by the time we were due to leave but the temperature was still very cold. For the first time on this ride I went searching through my luggage for the long fingered gloves and leg warmers. With the steep downhill at the start of the ride I was not going to risk hypothermia. I had also decided that the best way to tackle such descents is VERY CAREFULLY. I still had vivid recollections of Daryl’s accident on last year’s trip and I had no desire whatsoever of emulating the feat.

The initial descent drops over 400 metres and is accompanied by numerous steep blind corners. I had not gone far when I heard a loud rumbling noise behind me and was passed by a large flying blur. It turned out to be Neville, obviously trying to set a personal speed record on the downhill section. He was soon out of sight leaving me to continue at my own snail’s pace.

After a few more turns I caught up with Mr T and we rode down and chatted together. It was obvious that several other riders had already passed him on the way down, even though Scott had pointed out the dangers of this section and announced that Mr T was to be the front marker.

For the next ten minutes or so everything went smoothly until we turned a corner near the base of the mountain and I saw a large tourist bus stopped on the road with a small crowd gathered around it. A feeling of dread and déjà vu came over me. As we drew closer I could see that the bus had a badly shattered windscreen and a dented front end. When I asked what had happened I could hardly believe the answer I was given. Neville had apparently ridden straight into the front of the bus as he rode around a corner on the wrong side of the road! The most amazing thing was that the bus had apparently come off a lot worse than he had.

The shellshocked driver standing next to his wrecked bus after the impact with Neville – note the broken windscreen, grill and dented panel

Apart from a sore elbow he didn’t seem injured at all. He seemed more upset that the bus had interrupted his record breaking descent from Pingan to the river. When some of the locals tried to check him out he told them he was fine and wanted to get going. Considering the force of the impact we were all extremely relieved that he had survived, let alone come off so lightly. What we did not know at this stage was what was going to happen next. I think everyone, including the driver, was just standing around too shocked to know what to do.

Over the next several minutes the crowd increased as a succession of other riders reached the scene. Like us they could not believe that anyone could ride into the front of a bus and walk away unscathed – but Neville had somehow achieved the impossible. By the time Scott arrived the conversation turned to matters of a financial nature. It was obvious that money would have to be paid for the damage to the bus and no one wanted to get the police involved because of the long delays that would incur. Eventually the price of 2000 RMB (about $280) was settled upon. I thought it seemed like a cheap settlement and that we would be well advised to get going before it was recalculated.

After Scott handed over the requested amount we were able to continue the ride, shaken but not deterred. We retraced our route back to the main road and then turned onto a quiet back road which afforded us some of the most enjoyable cycling of the trip so far.

The road then started to climb steadily at between 4 to 5% gradient. Probably due to a combination of improving fitness and a good road surface all of our riders were able to maintain a good cadence up this climb and enjoy the beauty and peaceful tranquility of the area. There were virtually no other vehicles of any sort on this road, possibly indicating that the locals had heard about our altercation with the bus and were keen to keep out of our way.

It was a surprise to find a camel in China

The climb brought us back to over 700 metres in altitude, then we followed an undulating route for most of the remainder of the afternoon, finally turning off onto a small side road which again climbed steadily to the quaint collection of buildings at Hudie Gu. This was our stop for the evening.

Once again our efforts were not over for the day as we had to carry all our luggage along a rough stone path and up countless steps before we reached our hotel. By this time we were exhausted and the unwelcome revelation that there was NO HOT WATER was enough to send some of our team into a state of near despair.

Total distance ridden 60 km, 894 metres total climb.
Hudi Gu coordinates N25°32.234′ E110°05.398′

Monday March 31st – Back to Guilin

Overnight two more team members had succumbed to the wandering virus. It seemed that we were destined to always have at least 1 or 2 people in the sag wagon. I was thankful that, so far, I had managed to keep the bugs at bay. In the previous two China rides I had ridden the entire distance and I was determined that I would also complete the third ride in its entirety.

Neville was also experiencing an increasing degree of soreness following his accident and it looke doubtful that he would be able to complete another hard day in the saddle. On the positive side the weather was showing signs of improvement and the prospect of another long, but comparatively easier day ahead brightened everyone’s spirits.

The first section was flat and smooth and it was fun to be able to cruise along at a relatively high speed. Later in the day we turned off onto a muddy minor road which gave us a chance to exercise our limited mountain biking skills. We were obviously in chicken country as evidenced by the large number of poultry farms all around us.

Joan and Gael riding one of the quiet backroads

After somehow managing to stay upright through the deep mud we stopped for afternoon tea by a large dam. The road was completely deserted and we all enjoyed the novelty of having such a place all to ourselves. Unfortunately the number of people crammed into the sag wagon had now risen to five ! If this continued there would soon be more people huddled in the wagon than on the bikes.

When we left the muddy section we moved onto a magnificent smooth but narrow concrete road that wound its way through farmland and a series of small hamlets. It was a delightful contrast to the rough section that preceded it.

As we approached the outskirts of Guilin we were led off the main road and into a succession of lovely back roads which provided us with some unforgettable views of the surrounding limestone karsts. It was the perfect way to approach the city. We gradually wound our way closer and closer to the city and finally entered through busy main roads and bustling intersections which only a week ago would have given us all nightmares. Now our riders took it all in their stride.

Heading to Guilin with Mr T trying to figure out what gears are for

Our home for the evening was the Golden Elephant Hotel, a couple of kilometres from the Ronghu Hotel that had been our first home in Guilin. After the time we had already spent in this city it really seemed quite familiar to us this time. The water in the hotel was hot and plentiful and a long hot shower was what we were all looking forward to.

Total distance covered 71 km, total ascent 419 metres
Coordinates of the Golden Elephant Hotel – N25°16.276′ E110°17.436′

Tuesday 1st April – Guilin to Xingping

Our stay in Guilin this time around was only short as we were scheduled to ride on to Xingping the following day. The weather was, once again, wet and misty but the drizzle soon stopped and we were able to ride along in still, moist conditions. The easy riding conditions lulled us into a false sense of security as we felt that our second last day on the bikes would be quite a doddle. In fact I think that I psychologically packed my climbing legs in my luggage and looked forward to an easy couple of days “winding down” after the earlier hard work.

Our early expectations of an easy day were challenged when we finally reached a long climb that soon had everyone (apart from Mr T) clicking down through their gears once again. At the top Scott explained that we would be descending a long steep slope for our lunch stop (at least that was good news). The problem was that, after lunch, we would be coming back the same way UP the hill, all the way back to where we were then (That was NOT good news).

On the positive side, the scenery was superb, all around us were busy farmlands interspersed with the amazing limestone karsts which make this area famous the world over. In fact this area was recently recognised as one of the top ten scenic locations on the entire planet !

We raced down the steep 8% slope for several kilometres however, since I was feeling slightly off colour, I decided that I would give lunch a miss for once. There was ample opportunity to explore the town. During a short visit to the toilet at the rear of the lunch café I discovered that it was right next to the kitchen where the food was being prepared. It was not a toilet that I would have any desire to revisit.

The reverse climb out of the town was just as bad as we had feared it would be. After a break it is always difficult to get the legs working again and we all laboured hard to regain the elevation that we had so easily lost on the way in. At the top of the climb we gathered by a small dirt road which was to be the next part of our route. To our dismay the road quickly went steeply uphill and very soon our team members were spread out over a large distance. As we huffed and puffed up the hill we entered a magical world of mist and mountains. It was indeed a strange experience as each hard earned bend in the road slowly revealed a new vista materializing out of the clouds.

Life on the Beautiful Li River

The riders had separated so far that each of us was riding alone in our own world with only our thoughts and heavy breathing to keep us company. Since none of us had been expecting this sort of climb, this turned out to be one of the most taxing challenges of the entire ride. At least I could be thankful for the fact that my ailing bottom bracket had been tightened and was no longer accompanying each turn of the crank with its squeaky symphony. The road twisted and wound its way, at times very steeply so that I was soon just wishing that I could reach the summit.

When this point finally came, the views that rewarded us made all the sweat and effort worthwhile. Before us lay an incredible panorama of steep karsts as far as we could see into the distance. In the foreground was a large lake far below us, with an unrippled surface that perfectly reflected the surrounding peaks. All this without another car or traveler in sight.

Our participants progressively gathered and savoured the incredible beauty and unique nature of this spot. Cameras were produced and shutters pressed furiously but I doubt that any photo would be able to really capture the essence of this view. More than anywhere else it encapsulated the spirit of China that we were all seeking. You just had to BE there in order to know what it was really like. I guess that some experiences just have to be earned by hard work (or pedaling) in order to be fully appreciated. You can never capture this feeling by looking at a photo, no matter how expensive the camera or how expert the photographer.

Resting at the top of a hard climb

The next section allowed us to coast for some distance as we quickly lost the altitude we had worked so hard for. Our hard work for the day was still far from over as there were still subsequent climbs that had to be overcome as well as a long “off road” section along a muddy and rutted back track that soon had us covered from head to foot in a thick layer of red mud.

As we bounced and swerved in a vain attempt to dodge the worst of the obstacles even Toni was heard to say “I have to admit that I am ready to stop now”. Coming from such a strong and experienced cyclist I knew that I was not the only one feeling the pinch.

With our energy reserves rapidly approaching zero and me starting to realise that having missed the last three meals I had next to no fuel left in the tank we finally reached the small town of Xingping. We spent the night in a very basic inn with the smallest rooms we had so far encountered. In fact the combination en suite shower/toilet was so small it was difficult to shut the door behind you when you entered. It was even harder to shower without putting one foot down the toilet opening which was right in the middle of floor.

Even so, the beds were (relatively) clean and physical exhaustion ensures that you sleep the sleep of the just. The next day would be the final day of the ride. Could we possibly hope for a fine and sunny day to finish the ride ?

Distance Traveled – 77 km Total ascent – 609 metres
Xingping coordinates N24°55.156′ E110°31.353′

Wednesday 2nd April (Xingping to Yangshuo)

It would have been nice to wake up to a clear blue sky but, alas and alack it was not to be. With the now familiar overcast skies and drizzling rain we set off on the short ride where we were to join a river cruise down the Li River. Mr T assured us that it was “only a 10 minute ride”. About 10 kilometres later, after a winding and scenic ride along the riverbank we pulled up alongside the waiting boat. All the bikes were loaded on board and we huddled inside to enjoy some warmth (and morning tea).

The cruise lasted for just over an hour and gave us a spellbinding and ever changing vista of rocky peak after rocky peak, each one appearing mystically out of the clouds as we approached. I suspect that in many ways this is actually the best type of weather to view these marvels of nature. It is not hard to see why they are so special to the Chinese psyche. Sitting on the boat was a fantastic contrast to the previous days of cycling and added yet another dimension to our experience of Guangxi Province.

When we reached the end of the cruise and unpacked the bikes back to the shore we all knew that our cycling trip was nearing its end. In a couple of hours we would be saying goodbye to our trusty bikes for the final time. We rigged for wet weather, pointed our handlebars to Yangshuo and started pedaling.

Nearing the end of the ride

After the strenuous climbing of the past few days it was a change to be riding along smooth and flat roads for most of the way to Yangshuo. It’s weird to say but in some ways I almost missed the mountains. For the final 20 km or so we joined the major highway, offering us a broad bike lane and a smooth concrete surface. All too soon we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, diligently keeping an eye on the rider in front lest we get separated in the traffic.

My first impressions of Yangshuo were of a medium sized cosmopolitan town with a significant degree of western influence. As I turned a corner, only a few hundred metres from the final hotel, the silence was broken by an ear splitting bang. At first I thought that some of the locals were welcoming our arrival with fireworks, but to my dismay, I soon realised that it was my rear tyre exploding. How ironic that my only puncture for the entire trip would occur so close to the end of the ride! Up to that moment I had been inwardly congratulating myself for having ridden evry centimetre of the three China Rides I had participated in. They say that pride goes before a fall, and although I didn’t fall, I was forced to dismount and wheel the bike for the final short distance to the hotel.

Lisa’s Hotel belied its rather humble sounding name and offered us large, clean and well equipped rooms with impressive private facilities and great views out over the town and surrounding area. It was also a surprise to find heaters that actually worked. It was the perfect place to clean up and relax after the ride we had just completed.

Later that afternoon I had a chance to go and explore the town. It did not take long for me to come to the conclusion that it was a place I could easily grow to like. With its numerous restaurants (both western and Chinese), wide diversity of shops and markets and a thriving tourist industry, the place had a tangible buzz in the air. For the first time in the trip I was seduced into grabbing a fistful of Yuan and heading out on a shopping spree. The shepherd’s pie that I ordered from the China Café was excellent and a very welcome change from rice, spice and noodles.

That evening we all joined Scott at the Bar 98 for a celebration dinner, accompanied by a few thankyou speeches and presentations to the faithful crew members that had looked after us so well. Joan stood and shared that she had dreamed of coming to China for over 40 years and now her dream had been fulfilled. The tears streaming down her cheeks reinforced the strength of her sentiments. I was just grateful that we could all share a small part of this journey with her.

When I retired to bed I was able to reminisce over the past two weeks and be thankful that everyone had been able to safely complete the adventure. Although we had experienced a couple of mishaps and a wandering stomach bug, they were of a relatively minor nature and would provide the raw material for much story telling in the months ahead. I was sure that all of the participants had grown personally and learnt a lot about themselves during the ride. The challenges of this type of travel take many forms – in many ways the cycling is the easiest and simplest part of the trip. All you have to do is to keep the pedals turning and to stay upright. Other challenges are much more complex and can keep us all searching for inner strength and determination to see it through to completion.

Distance Travelled – 56 km Total ascent – 249 metres
Coordinates of Lisa’s Hotel, Yangshuo N24°46.918′ E110°29.418′

Thursday 3rd April – Free Day in Yangshuo

With the ride now officially over, it was something of a release that we all had an entire day free to do as much (or as little) as we wished. I chose to have a sleep in till about 8.00 am before setting out to explore the environs and also to do a little more shopping. Yangshuo is a compact town with several prominent landmarks, making it relatively easy to wander about freely without fear of getting lost.

My first stop was at the Bank of China to exchange a fist full of Aussie dollars into Yuan. This bank is situated at the far end of West St which is also the main shopping precinct for the town. There is also a bustling market along the banks of the Li River. A new “Rolex” (or was it “Wolex”) set me back the princely sum of 50 Y (about $7). At that price I was confident that it would serve me faithfully over many years. Some nice coffee in one of the local cafes set me back almost the same sum.

The streets were filled with a significant proportion of camera carrying tourists, both young and old and from a wide range of countries. Back at the hotel I met a mature Canadian guy who had been travelling around China with a group of much younger backpackers. He intimated that there continual state of partying was starting to leave him wishing he was back home in the wilds of Canada. A couple of hours later he was still sitting in the same chair in the hotel foyer.

I quickly felt at home in Yangshuo and, in some ways, it reminded me of the great time we hade experienced in Li Jiang on our previous China rides. If I had to choose between the two towns I would still rate Li Jiang as one of the most exciting and energetic towns I have ever visited. By the same token the wide variety of eating establishments would certainly guarantee that no one in Yangshuo need ever go hungry.

Another pleasant and welcome surprise was the Chinese laundry. The young proprietor cheerfully weighed my bulging bag of filthy washing and quoted 12 Yuan to wash, dry, iron, fold and pack the lot. A few hours later I collected the results and I was astonished at the incredible job they had done. Even my filthy white socks (that I had wasted 20 minutes vainly trying to wash in the hotel sink) were glowing white like new. If they ever open a shop in Emerald I will be the first to give them my business.

By the end of the day I was shopped out, walked out, talked out and just about worn out. The local restaurants had prospered greatly by my patronage during the afternoon and, with a full tummy and tired legs I was ready to hit the sack. It was a little sad that this was to be the final night on mainland China but we still had three days in Hong Kong to look forward to.

Friday 4th April (Yangshuo to Guilin)

Since we were not flying out of Guilin till after 9.00 pm we had most of the day to spend in Yangshuo before we were to catch the bus to Guilin. After my wanderings the previous day I felt that I now had a good idea of the layout of the town and set off determined to lighten my wallet a little more.

I never cease to be amazed at the skill and patience of the Chinese artisans and I was particularly impressed by one artist who made a living painting images on the inside of small bottles. The entire painting is painstakingly done with a miniature brush through an opening of about half a centimetre in diameter. All this without the aid of magnifying glasses or any artificial aids! The resultant images were breathtakingly brilliant. In his halting English the artist told me that it was a skill that had been passed down to him by his father.

After purchasing some of the exquisite “art inside a bottle” examples I went off in search of some Chinese puzzles. After all, where would there be a better place to but Chinese puzzles than in China itself? A short later I was the proud owner of a wooden box and a number of other brain teasers. The only problem with the box was that I couldn’t figure out how to open it myself. I was soon wishing that I had asked the seller for some instructions. After passing the box around some of our team members it was soon obvious that nobody else could open it either! It was not until I went back into town and found another shop selling the same item that the secret was revealed to me.

Somehow during the course of my final few hours my luggage increased in volume by two shirts, two pairs of trousers, several other works of art, another “Rolex” watch and a plethora of other items and gifts. My remaining stock of Yuan rapidly diminished almost to zero to, leaving me just enough for a snack at the airport.

In the late afternoon it was time to manhandle our luggage down to the foyer for the final time. Glenda and Gael needed a troop of porters to assist with theirs since it had expanded to such an extent that it almost filled the entire foyer. I could only wonder what was going to happen when they fronted at the Cathay Pacific check in desk in a few hours time.

Soon we were all seated in the bus for the 80 km ride back to Guilin. The driver would certainly never be in any danger of a speeding fine as he was content to sit on about 40 kph for the whole distance, even though the road was quite a modern highway. Maybe he was being paid by the hour, or perhaps it just exemplified his unhurried approach to life.

Back at the airport we were efficiently processed at the group check in counter and even the massive amounts of luggage carried by some of our (female) team members did not seem to worry them. Fortunately there were no scares at the security check and by 9.30 pm we were on our way via Dragonair Flight KA701 bound for Hong Kong.

The flight was only about 90 mins duration and soon we were descending for a landing at the massive new airport at Hong Kong. Since we were no out of the hands of Bike Asia we were about to discover whether the organizing skills of Emerald Lake Travel were up to their usual high standard.

After waiting anxiously for my bag to appear at the luggage carousel I headed out into the public concourse looking for someone with a sign with my name on it. There wasn’t one. I walked from one end to the other. Still no sign in sight. Just as my mind was starting to torment me with horrendous scenarios of what we would do if there was no one to meet us, I spied a friendly face emerging from the crowd. To my relief it had “Ghostriders” written on it in big bold letters. After brief introductions were made I headed back to signal the rest of the team that our lift was waiting.

Within 30 minutes we were all loaded onto a modern air conditioned bus and speeding along the wide freeways towards our hotel on the Kowloon Peninsula. The huge contrast between mainland China and Hong Kong was obvious. Not only were we driving on the left hand side of the road, but the driver was speeding along at about double the speed that our previous driver had achieved. All around us, the amount of exorbitant lighting that festooned the buildings and freeways looked like it would be sufficient to guarantee global warming, even if everyone else in China was sitting in the dark. How different it was to the subdued and conservative use of energy we had observed everywhere we had travelled.

Our bus trip ended when we arrived at the Salisbury YMCA. I had to admit that when I first heard that we would be staying at the YMCA I had visions of sweaty dormitories filled with pot smoking back packers. In fact nothing could have been further from the truth. The Salisbury Hotel might be owned by the YMCA but it is a very well equipped 4 to 5 star hotel which offered the highest standard of rooms and services that we encountered in the trip. Situated on Salisbury Rd in the Kowloon area of Hong it was conveniently located next to the famous shopping of Nathan Rd and a short walk from the Star ferry terminus where there were regular ferries leaving and returning from Hong Kong Island.

We had also been informed that the hotel next door was one of the most famous (and expensive) in all Hong Kong. The Peninsula Hotel is apparently the place where all the world’s political and business leaders stay when they are passing through. If the number of new chauffeur driven, Rolls Royces we saw over the next couple of days is any indication, then this is probably true. Since it had been a very long day I climbed into bed and was soon happily reposing in the arms of Morpheus.

Coordinates of Salisbury Hotel, Hong Kong – N22°17.670′ E114°10.293′

Saturday 5th April (Hong Kong)

After enjoying an amazing buffet breakfast I wandered out of the Hotel to explore some of the surrounding area of Hong Kong. Directly opposite the Hotel is the Hong Kong Space Museum which has an interesting collection of displays and presentations concerned with Astronomy and space exploration. Unfortunately I could not spend too long there as we had to be back at the hotel on time to meet our guide Rosita for a bus tour of Hong Kong Island.

The next few hours were spent cruising around some of the famous attractions. We left Kowloon and travelled via the tunnel under Hong Kong Harbour to Hong Kong Island. The overt display of wealth was apparent all around us, with incredible skyscrapers souring above our heads and expensive cars clogging the roads. Fancy name brand shopping Mecca’s were all around.

Our first stop was at a Buddhist Temple where we shown how you can secure a more comfortable afterlife by buying a prime position for your soul to reside in a special niche on the wall. The more money you pay, the better psychic real estate you can enjoy for eternity. It didn’t seem all that fair to me and the stench from the burning incense made my throat hurt so I made an early bolt for the door.

After the Temple we drove through narrow streets to the cable tram which apparently takes you up the steepest ride in the world to Victoria Peak. The station was packed with tourists waiting to get a seat but somehow we managed to jump the queue and save about an hour wait. The ride up the side of the mountain is certainly spectacular and, as you move higher and higher, the panorama of towering buildings and blue water harbour starts to take shape before your eyes. The summit is called Victoria Peak and this is now the site of a large tourist complex, complete with viewing platforms, shops and eateries.

Looking down over Hong Kong Island from Victoria Peak

We stood for some time, trying to absorb the fact that we were standing looking down on one of the world’s great cities. I had to admit that it was beautiful but could not shake the feeling that the place was rather superficial compared to the other places we had visited over the past two weeks. In a place where everyone’s worth is judged by the size of their bank balance, I am not sure that I could ever wish to call this place home.

Some of the female jetsetters enjoying the sun on Hong Kong Harbour

Later in the day we saw the huge mansions and gigantic personal yachts owned by the super rich. Impressive maybe, but I would still prefer the far simpler ways of the villagers we had shared experiences with. I wondered whether these people were really happy or had their single minded pursuit of material gratification blinded them to some of the simple truths of contentment and personal satisfaction.

When the bus made a rather obvious detour to take us to a “jewelry factory” we soon discovered that it was just an excuse to ambush us to pressure us to buy their overpriced products. I was pleased that none of our travelers were seduced by this tactic and we all escaped without spending a Honk Kong cent.

While on the subject of money it is worth mentioning that, in the absolute ultimate example of free enterprise gone mad, that the currency in Hong is not issued by their reserve bank but by an assortment of their retail banks. This means that you can have several different notes, all of the same denomination, but issued by different banks. I wondered what would happen to their commerce if one or more of these banks happened to become insolvent. At the time we were there the value of the Hong Kong dollar was similar to that of the Chinese Yuan (about seven Hong Kong dollars to one Australian dollar).

Neville remembers what it was like to have hair on his head – Night market Hong Kong

The rest of our tour allowed us to take a cruise around the harbour and to visit a couple of markets. As the afternoon wore on I began to feel more and more that Hong Kong was a naturally beautiful location that unbridled capitalism and materialism had tarnished. There was no doubt in my mind that the South China Sea and the peaks on the island would have remained so much more beautiful without the stamp of man’s greedy hands upon them.

As the evening drew on the buildings and streets exploded with so much artificial illumination that I suspect the glare must be visible for a hundred kilometres in every direction. If our world is suffering the energy death throws of “peak oil” and our atmosphere is about to meltdown with an overload of carbon dioxide, then the inhabitants of Hong Kong seem to be blissfully unaware of it. Excessive and conspicuous consumption seems to rule the way of life.

It had been a interesting and informative day but I was exhausted and really starting to look forward to getting back to my own patch of ground in Emerald.

Sunday 6th April (Hong Kong)

Our only planned activity for this day was a dinner cruise on Hong Kong Harbour so I had the vast majority of the day to wander and sample some more of the sights. I started to walk up Nathan St but the continual harassment by the touts trying to sell me suits and fake watches started to wear me down. I turned back to the harbour and caught a ferry across to the Island instead.

The Star ferries leave every few minutes and provide an efficient and inexpensive means of transportation between the two main population centres. It was amazing to see that much of the normal ground level pedestrian walkways had been replaced with an interlocking network of overhead paths. This served to completely separate the people from the vehicular traffic below.

After lunch I returned to Kowloon to have another look at the Space Museum and also decided to have a look in some of the many large and impressive camera shops near the hotel. It did not take long for me to almost become the victim of an apparently very common scam. The shop windows are filled with the latest model cameras of all the well known brands and when you enquire within you are quoted a price that is really too good to be true. The problem arises when you actually place your order – you are then informed that the item has to be collected from “the warehouse” a few minutes away. While you are waiting for the goods to be delivered you are then subjected to a high pressure sales pitch trying to sell you a “much better” camera (usually of much lesser known brand). If you are stubborn and hold out for the original camera they will eventually throw your money back at you and tell you to get out of the shop. Strange but true !

The undoubted highlight of the day was the dinner cruise. This took place on a large and colourfully decorated boat fitted out with a full floating restaurant and live band. I had to admit that the food was exquisite, with a huge variety of both eastern and western food. We sat around the table, thoroughly savoring the occasion as a true “once in a lifetime experience”. While my other experiences in Hong Kong had left me a little flat I had to admit that this was a night that I would remember for the rest of my life.

At 8.00 pm every night the city puts on a huge and impressive light show with coloured floodlights and laser beams flashing across the sky in an orchestrated display. This continued for at least 15 minutes. While one side of me kept saying that this really was a waste of energy, another (darker) side secretly admired the spectacle. It was a warm, clear and still night and the reflection of the thousands of lights sparkled on the calm harbour waters. We all knew that, with only had one more night in Hong Kong, we would all be soon returning back to our everyday lives. In the meantime we could try to soak up as much of the experience as we could. In many ways it was a fitting celebration and ending to the adventure that we had been planning and anticipating for so long.

Monday April 7th – back to Melbourne

With our planned activities no all completed there was little left to do but pack and spend the day waiting for the airport pickup. I spent some relaxing time in Kowloon Park which I found to be a wonderful oasis of green and peace in a crowded city. The sun was warm and, when I found a suitable bench to sit down on, it did not take long for me to doze off. It was the perfect way to pass the time.

Tuesday April 8th – Melbourne

By midday the following day we were landing at Tullamarine, after the 10 hour flight from Hong Kong. Our 2008 Great China Ride was over. Now it was time to start planning and dreaming of our next adventure.

The Team

  • Lisa Barstow & Wendy MacPhie – the ever cheerful schoolteachers
  • Paul Barnard – the didgeridoo maestro & my roommate for most of the trip
  • Dennis Dawson – the teletubby
  • Andrew Dunne – the head shaver 
  • Gael Driessen & Glenda Wise – the two blondies and shoppers extrordinaire
  • Neville Hoare – the destroyer of buses
  • Joan Horton – great “Grannypeg”
  • Toni Moylan, Kelly Thorn, Ravi Wijeratne, Rienzie Wijeratne – the awesome foursome 
  • Henk Thyssen – the crazy dutchman
  • *In addition there were two other team members who, for obscure personal reasons, requested their names and pictures be withheld

Note – I have included the latitude and longitude of all key locations so that the reader can follow our journey on Google Earth.