CYCLING THE LI RIVER VALLEY
Based on a tour by Tyler Folsom and Fran Solomon in September, 1984. Some details are obsolete.
I had always wondered how Chinese artists could have imagined those fantastic landscapes with mountains that abruptly reach the clouds but have less girth than height. It turns out that they're real. China's Li River valley contains some of the world's strangest geology: a flat river valley studded with craggy limestone pillars.
It is no longer necessary to join an organized tour to travel in China. You can take a discounted flight to Hong Kong, get a Chinese visa there overnight, and then hop on the train to Guangzhou. Individual travellers will typically spend less than half the cost of an organized tour and will be using the same hotels and restaurants. There are about 40 Chinese cities that are open to foreigners; unfortunately few of them are within cycling distance. Thus cycling in China generally requires a group tour.
In many cities it is possible to rent bicycles. This is an excellent way to get around. The bike will be a heavy one-speed model. Mechanical problems can develop but there always seems to be a bike repair stand on the next corner. Bicycles and buses handle most of the Chinese people's transportation needs. The city traffic is very slow and mellow; not at all like Tokyo, Bangkok or other big cities. The typical Chinese street has four lanes, with two lanes reserved for bicycles. [That was in 1984].
Guilin, People's Republic of China
Tropical weather; can get quite hot in summer. Possibility of heavy but short rainstorms. Would be pleasant in winter but if you're going to Beijing, winter is not such a good idea.
Train connections from Guangzhou (Canton) are not convenient despite the relatively short distances. Thus most people wind up flying: 40 minutes vs. 24 hours. Train connections in other directions are more reasonable. If you have a dedicated travel agent, it is possible to book domestic Chinese flights from the U.S.
Several hotels of all grades in Guilin. One inexpensive hotel and a youth hostel in Yangshuo. No accommodations in between. Camping does not exist in China.
TERRAIN & ROADS
This is an unusual tour since you get to enjoy incredible mountain scenery from a table-flat valley. There may be an occasional slope, but nothing serious enough to require a multi-speed bike.
Road conditions can vary considerably. It is mostly good pavement, but you may encounter extended stretches of construction where you need to deal with dirt or rough gravel.
Road signs are usually in Chinese only. This is no problem since you are always following the main road and it doesn't make any turns.
It is best not to drink unboiled water. In China, your hotel always provides you with a thermos of boiled water for tea. Pour this into your water bottles at night and you will have plenty of drinking water for the next day.
There are many villages along this route where you can buy tea, soft drinks or beer.
In order to do this tour, you will have to limit your luggage to what you can carry on a bike or else arrange to leave some of it in Guilin, perhaps at your hotel. Be sure to bring water bottles. A few basic tools could be useful.
Brian Schwartz - "China Off the Beaten Track".
"Guilin Tourist Map" Cartographic Publishing House, Beijing. This map can be obtained in the U.S., but it is much cheaper in China.
Day 1: Arrive in Guilin (variable distance)
Find a hotel and book a ticket on a boat down the Li River, which will leave early in the morning. There are about a dozen shops that rent bicycles and they have signs in English. Bike around town a bit. A trip out to the Reed Flute cave is a very pleasant excursion.
Day 2: Guilin to Yangshuo by boat
Take your bikes onto the boat and enjoy a scenic cruise down the river, arriving in Yangshuo in the afternoon. Lunch is served on the boat. Most of the other tourists will probably be Chinese and the guide will be speaking Chinese, but the sights are enough. Yangshuo is a crowded place for about two hours until all the tourists pile onto buses for the trip back to Guilin. It is not possible to do this trip the other direction since the boats do not carry passengers for the return to Guilin. After they leave, Yangshuo is a very relaxed and pleasant town. It is one of the smallest towns in China open to tourists.
Day 3: Cycle in the vicinity of Yangshuo (variable distance)
Make a leisurely exploration of one of the roads you won't be on tomorrow. South to the old banyan tree and Moon Hill is interesting.
Day 4: Yangshuo to Guilin (42 miles)
Get an early start since this can be a long day despite the short distance. Most Chinese live outside cities and most China tours go only to cities. This is a great chance to see rural China. This is a strenuous 42 miles due to heat, rough roads, a heavy bike, and being constantly stared at by the local peasants.