A travel moment in Southern China

“Bamboo beautiful!” yelled another trader trying to sell us her tour. This lady stood out amid the general commotion for two reasons. First, she was younger than average and had a broad, complete and pleasant smile that could have been quite sexy in some circumstances, but mostly because she was wearing a huge crown of red and pink flowers topped with a screaming yellow sunflower and a necklace intricately woven out of reeds and other frenzied foliage.

We quickly learned these items were, of course, for general sale as well as elaborate decoration. “Beautiful lady flower?” she requested of my girlfriend, then of me, then of the two American guys cycling with us. But we had not come here to buy organic jewellery.

“Dragon Bridge? Please – direction – dragon – bridge?” We adopted the ‘less-is-more’ principle and added some garrulous hand gestures (possessing neither the skill nor the energy for a more thorough exchange). She understood, but pointed us back the way we had just been, towards the river, “Bamboo beautiful!” she repeated, but more insistently.

It was midday and getting hot, really hot. We had left our hostel in Yangshuo, China, three hours ago to look for this blasted bridge and we had been cycling in circles for about the last hour. The signposts that featured in our guidebook instructions were no longer present and the hand drawn map our hostel gave us was entirely baffling, so the locals were our last hope.

We continued cycling down the dusty road, passing by an abundance of half built houses, water buffalo, rice paddies and the trundling waters of the light brown Li river. We soaked up amazing views of the stunning Chinese karst scenery, vertical, thin, green topped mountain peaks that arise out of nothing and are packed very tightly together. It’s as if this part of the planet was designed as a vast bear trap set to catch mythical gods or monsters were they to misstep and fall out of their cloudy realm and down to the hard earth below.

Then we saw another person. This time a slightly older and more portly lady was sitting alone under a sunshade, casually flicking her homemade fly swatter side to side to protect her tray of seasonal fruits. We greeted her and tried again, “Dragon bridge?”

As before, she clearly understood but pointed us straight back the way we had come. Politely, we challenged her and said (using less-is-more) that her direction was not, in fact, the way, as we had tried it already. A pause. Some silence. Hold on; clearly rising on her face was a subtle but entirely perceptible smirk. We finally understood our conundrum, and their conspiracy. She wouldn’t tell us; the village business plan apparently determining that no bamboo raft should mean no direction! A triumphant defeat by commerce of common decency! Reluctantly impressed and laughing, but thoroughly trumped, we relinquished our quest and retired back to town for lunch and a cold beer.

R Murray

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