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XINGPING

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There is no alarm today. I wake slightly unnaturally to the construction of a new hotel across the road from my room. It doesn’t matter though. The day ahead is full. It’s my final day in this beautiful village of Xingping. Not only does that mean one more day to explore but it also means packing and preparing for my next adventure. In search of coffee and breakfast I begin my checklist of preparations. Forever nervous about missing a fight I plan to be at the airport with double the time required. So not to exhaust myself hiking is off the table. Instead I’m going to attempt to find my favorite fisherman again and discover the original part of Xingping village, the Old Street.

The escaping fisherman

Xingping it seems, often referred to as a village, has grown to become a quaint town. Full of charm set in one of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen, this has been the most rewarding place I have traveled to thus far. From the traditional cormorant fishermen, the hikes to several villages and the openness of the locals to give a glimpse into their lives. It has also been my first opportunity to volunteer whilst traveling. A desire to travel more ethically inspired by the discovery of Workaway. A website that facilitates cultural exchange, with accommodation being offered in return for work. Although I intend to move towards causes that will have more of a positive affect on the lives of those I become entwined with, this has been a perfect platform to move on from.

Cormorants resting on bamboo

After packing my life back into a suitcase and ruck sack I head to the ferry ready to seek out the fisherman. As my feet land on the stones of the other side, I look back to the pier I have just left and glimpse my fisherman headed directly for it. It would seem the universe feels I have had my moment with him and so I laugh to myself and move towards the rivers walkway. Again taking to the stones it is not long before I come across a string of bamboo boats, half on land and half dancing on the water, the magnificent cormorant birds stand asleep.

resting cormorants

Cormorant fishing is a traditional ancient technique of using cormorants to fish in shallow river waters. The birds have a snare near the base of their throat to stop the swallowing of large fish but allows the consumption of small fish. Once a successful industry, cormorant fishing now serves mainly the tourism industry. During my visit, China is within its three month fishing ban to protect fisheries and ensure the industry’s sustainability. So although there are plenty of fisherman on the waters of the Li River they are mainly here to pose for eager tourists wanting a glimpse of this traditional fishing technique.

 

Stalls of Old Street

Returning on my regular ferry I reach the pier and follow the road down to a alley alive with tourists, cafes and stalls. I’ve entered Old Street, the ancient part of Xingping town. With all the charm of every old street found in China’s towns and cities I wander through its winding alleys, now and again glimpsing mountains through the ornate rooftops. There are more people here than any area I’ve explored despite its size. Before long I’ve reached the end of Old Streets alley and I’m back on the route to This Old Place Youth Hostel. This hotel has been my home for the last week and its staff have become more than people I work with. I will miss Xingping more than I could have imagined but it’s time to prepare for the next adventure.

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local basket weaver
Old street with mountain views
Old Street Alley
alley of Old Street

After five days of hiking I decided to have more of a relaxed day. My feet were starting to ache and I feared my legs would loose all momentum. I felt it worth revisiting Nine Horse Hill after utterly failing to recognize any of the nine ancient murals on the cliff face. As it is a route I’ve done before I take the Li River walkway to my destination. I follow the upper path back as it occurred to me after visiting the famous landscape printed on the back of the 20 yuan note I failed to take a picture. This time a 20 yuan note sits in my wallet waiting for its moment of glory.

sleeping cormorants

I take to the river stones rather than the paved walkway. Allowing their uneven firmness to slowly massage my feet. A type of remedial reflexology. This allows me to stay close to the water. I’m looking for the elder fisherman I passed yesterday hoping for an opportunity to recapture him but today I’m out of luck. However, I do stumble upon two sleeping cormorants on a grounded bamboo boat with its basket sitting still. The image is beautiful. The eyes of these magnificent birds are wide open but their beak stays nestled into their wings. Incredibly tame and unnerved by my presence, I glance around for their keeper and quietly move closer. In a flawless synchronized motion they raise their heads, a caution perhaps so I take a picture and leave them be.

rousing from slumber

There are several rustic boats floating alone on the water. Abandoned except for the few clothes that hang to dry. I’m unsure as to whether these are homes or vessels of temporary life for the boatmen out all day, transporting tourists on the motorized bamboo rafts to and from various scenic destinations. The surrounding landscape is alive with the sounds of birds hidden among the mountains. Combined with the gentle knocking of rocks under feet and the rippling water that trickles by there is a moment of pure tranquility. Of course a ferry full of tourists soon passes by and test their vocal cords in the echo of the mountains.

 

river rafts

Glancing with a frown at the ferry I spot another rusty house boat I wish to capture but it is at too far of a distance. I decide to cross at the ferry point again at Nine Horse Hill, something I had no intention of doing following my near disastrous hike that resulted in a friendly couple coming to my rescue and popping a tyre! Day 2 of my Xingping adventures for those of you who are curious! Across the river gives a better view of Nine Horse Hill anyway and will allow me to capture the charming if some what disheveled boat.

rustic abandoned boat

I stand opposite the sight of Nine Horse Hill. Straining my imagination past its usual creativity I fail again. There is not a single image that gives shape of a horse, to my eyes at least. For the second time I give in. I follow the narrow path to the left and settle on an image of the boat. Along the way I come across a horse grazing freely. The scene is perfect. Cautiously approaching I’m able to capture the beautiful animal with the back drop of Nine Horse Hill. In my opinion I have succeeded beyond my original pursuit. A second horse comes into view as I come around a corner. This one is attached to a chain and has a spirit slightly more wild than the other. Still, the image is too perfect not to capture and I draw closer slowly.

Nine Horse Hill

After a while of standing surrounded by this perfect vision of nature I capture the house boat hoping not to rouse any occupants. The ferry does its duty and I return to the other side. I’m disappointed not to see the helpful old woman with her sticky rice steaming away. This is the upper route that I’ve wandered before. The last time I was on this path it was full of stalls and tourists but today is much quieter. It’s how I prefer it. I’m always drawn more to villages and small towns for their gift of solitude. Xingping, although a popular destination, has offered many treks to surrounding villages where the only people I’ve met are the locals, always small in numbers and usually within trees!

horse of Nine Horse Hill

I finally come to the landscape that’s printed on the back of the 20 yuan note. The area lies between Xingping and Yucun. Unlike in the note, the Li River is void of a fishermen floating down the river with his faithful birds but is a stunning landscape regardless. Capturing the landscape with my 20 yuan note I feel very much the tourist. This is the last time I will take in this karst mountain landscape, from this view at least. These mountains haven’t failed to move me since my arrival. They hold an ethereal and evocative beauty that hasn’t been matched yet in my experience of this fascinating country. As the wind rises gently to bring a chill to the air I continue ‘home’ content again from the days roaming.

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charming rustic boat
wild horse views
20 yuan landscape
old cormorant fisherman

Today I’m taking what’s become my regular ferry across the Li River. This is my third time taking this route to find yet another scenic area that Xingping has to offer. I’ve decided to trek to Shawan village. I’ve crossed this path the day before on my way to Tengjiao Nunnery. As I’ve ventured through the orchards and organic farmland twice already, I decide to take the slightly shorter river route. Within moments I come across a fisherman with his two cormorant birds. He is in simple clothing and wearing a straw conical hat, in China called a dǒulì (斗笠). Under the shadow cast by the hat emerges a long white beard. His feet are bare and he’s leaning on his basket looking quite content with the world.

 

stone path begins

Wandering through these familiar villages I reach the point where the road splits in three. To continue ahead I revisit the rural farmlands up high where the only company for a while are lizards and the song of birds. To take the concrete route to the right is to wander close to homes of the villagers and I’m pretty sure a dead end. It’s the narrow route to the left I need to take where the orchards intertwine over head and you feel you have stumbled upon a secret garden. It is this way to the Tengjiao Nunnery. What I hadn’t realized the previous day is that the stone staircase I glanced to the right, but continued past would actually take me on an adventure to Shawan Village.

stone staircase
tunnel of trees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For around 20 minutes it’s a steady road of broken, uneven stone steps ahead. The trees create a tunnel and there is a variety of songs sung by different types of bird. Although tempting to keep eyes down on this somewhat hazardous path every now and again the trees part and give way to the stunning karst mountainous landscape that surrounds this entire area. So far I have met no one on this trek. It’s a challenging journey that gives no direction in Chinese or English to the intended destination and yet you can’t ignore just how peaceful it is.

glimpse of views

Before I reach the peak of this steady incline the stone staircase slips away to a dirt track. As I hit the top the road divides into two. Both roads follow parallel to the left for a while. The top path gradually continues upward further into the mountains. It’s the lower ground I follow, descending into a lush green valley. Surrounded only by nature I feel as though I’ve stumbled across an untouched land. But as I continue on a small collection of houses emerge. After mistakenly taking a high path directly to a locals doorstep, I double check my direction is correct and push forward.

view through trees

The hillside now is steep and laid with loose rocks that cause every muscle in my legs to tense to keep me upright. With a heavy sigh I reach the top. It’s incredibly beautiful. Even though every view point has the same landscape of mountains and the river, they are all unique in their own right. The mountains take on different forms and the river bends in different ways. The hills form unique patterns created by the land being farmed. Even the same picturesque view takes on a new light in the changing hours of the day.

green valley

Descending towards Shawan village that is set among the greenery, I keep the river to my left and the dirt track below my feet. There are several opportunities to veer off into grasslands which, I’m sure magical in their own right, would send me into a forest and away from the quaint little village below. As I’ve mentioned there is very little information on how to get to Shawan village from Xingping and with a poor sense of direction and inability to read maps I rely entirely on common sense. I can see Shawan and know I want to reach the waters edge to take a break before repeating my footsteps back to Xingping.

simple architecture

When I reach the village it is almost deserted. A few farmers linger in the trees but I meet no one on the road. The architecture is simple and traditional holding the utmost charm. The streets wind and narrow in all directions so I keep heading to the right and downwards until I hit the main road. It’s here I meet the first locals of Shawan village. An elder man and the smallest boy with the largest spirit I have ever had the opportunity to meet. Following his (I assume) grandfathers voice his ‘hello’ is infectious. Full of joy and life his hello’s continue and I can’t help but parrot them, he breaks into laughter and claps his hands. If this was all I was met with when entering this village it would be enough to make the entire journey worthy of it. His little legs speed off at an unsteady pace before I am able to photograph him and so I continue following the faint roar of the river.

farm house

Taking a moment to rest I listen to the gentle crashing of the water on the rocks. There is a breeze and, although pleasant, it slightly irritates my mosquito bites. Many other visitors I’ve met during my stay here are passing through just for the night before heading on to more well known tourist locations. But Xingping and it’s surrounding villages are one of China’s hidden gems. If you are heading this way and considering a short stop over I would highly recommend extending your stay and truly make the most of what is on offer here. Taking the same route back to Xingping there is no disappointment in repeating these views. They are truly breathtaking.

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river resting point
village house
Shawan farmland
view of Shawan village
view from the top of the stone steps

Today I’m starting late. I needed to send emails, catch up with friends and I’m feeling a pull towards my kindle and This Old Place Youth Hostel‘s rooftop lounge. It’s not long before I get that usual itchy feet feeling, and it’s not just the mosquito bites! No longer able to sit around I head out the door to Xingping pier and in less than a minute reach the stone steps that will take me all the way to the top of LaoZhai Hill, a view I’m told is worth the arduous journey.

beginning of Mount LaoZhai climb

A few minutes in I reach a pavilion with views of Lijiang River holding the usual cluster of bamboo boats and ferries bursting with tourists. The steps are wide and incline steadily. I deceive myself into believing this maybe a fairly easy climb familiar to that of Gushan Mountain back in Fuzhou. But LaoZhai Hill is not Gushan and the steps are slowly becoming narrower and uneven with some areas of the steps resembling piled stones.

 

early pavilion views

I notice the circular stone graves that I’ve seen so frequently venturing out to mountain rural areas. It has recently been tomb sweeping day, a festival that honors the dead and so the graves are littered with red from the firecrackers that have been laid. I rest here a while and notice all the fallen leaves that almost bury the steps. I hope we don’t have rain as it would be the most uncomfortable fall down. I continue on, sweating through the inappropriate dress I have chosen to wear today back when my feet were comfortable having a lazy day ahead.

graves of Mount LaoZhai

The incline feels as though it is becoming more vertical with each step and the few people I do pass on their way down are out of breath and now obstacles. Not every point allows for ease of crossing another and there are a few awkward embraces that occur. LaoZhai Hill itself is not very high, maybe only 300 meters. It’s difficulty comes from the terrain. Over 1000 uneven, slightly broken steps that are the only route to the top. 15 minutes in and my calves are burning. Fortunately each step higher is rewarded with glimpses through the trees of the view that is the climax of this expedition.

iron ladder of Mount LaoZhai

I soon come to an ancient stone archway. Passing through I follow the red painted arrows that someone has felt the need to graffiti on this beautiful archway. The downside to tourism is it’s effect on the landmarks we are encouraged to flock to. What was once untouched landscape is now a selfie on every wechat moments. But I am here also with my phone camera firmly in hand at the ready and so have no right to pass judgement.

The next part of the route is slightly unnerving. There is a steep, rusted iron ladder that seems to be the final requirement to ascend to the top. In contrast to its appearance the ladder is actually quite stable. Its now a narrow path around a protruding rock that is the next obstacle. After the ladder I assume the iron railing is just as stable so I barely assess it and just continue forward. Of course the railing shakes unbelievably and I’m immediately off balance. Error of judgement noted! My panic is calmed by a pavilion coming into view. I’ve reached the top.

xingping views mount laozhai

The views are breathtaking, as they are everywhere in Yangshuo. I’m looking down on the village of Xingping and can’t help but smile. Grateful that I am here in this moment and proud that I’ve overcome my anxiety to do it alone. Feeling confident I hike up my dress and climb over a rocky area that will give me 360 degree views, much to the dismay of the tourists below me. Although I’m not necessarily recommending others do this I can say that the view you are rewarded with is nothing short of spectacular.

Li river views laozhai

After I while sitting perched on a rock and lost in my own thoughts I decide to head back down LaoZhai Hill. Although the route is faster and less sweaty, the fallen leaves prove dangerous and there are a few moments where I nearly lose my footing. The view would be spectacular at sunset but I don’t recommend venturing up alone and without a flashlight if you intend to see the views at dusk.

famland views

Reaching the bottom I feel slightly torn. I’ve waited to long in the day to adventure out so another hike is out of the question. But it’s far to early for me to head back to the hostel and I’m already at the pier and so I catch a ferry. Initially I’m not exactly sure where I am going but I was told the route I took to the view point yesterday, if slightly altered, would take me to Tengjiao nunnery.

 

woman and cormorant birds

Following the river again through the organic farm lands I come across a woman sitting on her bamboo boat with her cormorant birds. I can’t get over how tame and unfazed they are by the world around them. Her two dogs are jumping on and off the boat and even with her protests at their behavior the birds are still and simply watching the water. Further down the road there are horses grazing on the other side of the river. The entire area is so peaceful to wander through.

adorable children on the road

I meet farmers tending to their plantations as always and the most adorable gathering of children who seem so excited to practice their “hello” with a native speaker. We entertain each other for a short while and part with a photo. It’s not long before I find the narrow path that leads to a stone bridge and the walkway to Tengjiao nunnery.

I arrive and quickly note the nunnery is set in a cave. It’s old, humble and a beautiful place of worship and example of spiritual fulfillment. There are open rooms full of books and statues. The simple garments of the monks are hanging to dry and the small stools and table for eating are stacked in away that I find quite charming. The cave is quite cold in contrast to the balmy heat that surrounds the rest of Xingping. This adds to an almost ghostly feeling as apart from myself the temple seems abandoned.

Tengjiao nunnery archway entrance

I meet no one else while here and so wander freely, finding sanctuary. I want to open the books and feel the fabric of the clothes but it seems disrespectful and so I take my leave to catch the ferry back to Xingping. This time, instead of being greeted with the laughter of the children I meet a farmer on the road walking his cows. I pass them feeling slightly anxious as they pause to watch my movements. I hurry my step feeling unwelcome by the cattle and almost take up the offer of a passing tuk tuk for a lift to the pier. But these mountain views are best seen from the river walkway so I regain my composure and wander contently after another day exploring this beautiful village.

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Tengjiao nunnery entrance
Tengjiao nunnery
buddhas Tengjiao nunnery
table and chairs Tengjiao nunnery
monks clothes Tengjiao nunnery
statues and books Tengjiao nunnery
worship at Tengjiao nunnery

12pm, the work day is done and I have another filling lunch in front of me provided by the chef as part of my volunteering benefits at This Old Place Youth Hostel. I’m debating whether to hike or not as the last two days have been exhausting though adventurous. I search my newly discovered app for the closest sight to visit. I glimpse the word viewpoint down the list and forget about my tired feet. It’s decided. Trekking to a viewpoint through organic farmland is today’s agenda.

Dirt road ahead

The hostel is in a perfect location for the expedition ahead. Stepping out and turning right, within 30 seconds I’m at a ferry point. Crossing the Li River within minutes I jump off and follow the signs for Nirvana Organic Farm Inn. The Inn is the third property owned by This Old Place and sits at the foot of the Yuanbao Mountain, which is painted on the reverse side of the new ¥20 note. I’m lost in this stunning scenery. Surrounded by ecological farms, gardens and orchards, my company on the road are the village dogs and chickens. The architecture is traditional Chinese style, many have open walls where clothes are hanging to dry. The river is full of bamboo boats drifting peacefully around the mountains.

farm houses and mountains

Now and again I pass the farmers in the trees tending to their plantation. I’m relatively alone on this hike, wandering slowly through the mountains, lost in an ancient world. The dirt track path I’m following is a poor imitation of the beautiful mountains around me. I hope it doesn’t rain as it would be like trekking through murky pools. Every bike that passes I stay clear out of the way to allow them to navigate this assault course.

organic farming

The sounds of birds and the scatter of lizards as I intrude their path all adds to the feeling of being in some tropical jungle away from society. The mountains are a lush green and for the most part untouched. Life is simple out here, peaceful. That’s not to suggest the work that farmers do here is easy. Every generation is involved in maintaining the lifestyle here. I imagine the area could suffer quite considerably from Southern China’s volatile weather conditions, particularly as the area is so remote.

Cattle on the road

As the road becomes steeper I’m grateful for the light rain that begins to fall. The mountain viewpoint will not be at its most spectacular with the haze that is falling but I have no doubt it will be worth the near two hours it will take to reach. The final stretch of the journey is on an actual road, not the uninviting dirt track that seems unsuitable for any mode of transport. It’s not long before a small bus pulls up on the side of the road to try and usher me inside. From what I can tell they think my destination is Yangshuo. I reassure them it’s not without being able to tell them the name of where the viewpoint lies. They reluctantly continue on their path. The locals here have been the warmest people I have met so far in China.

lone farmer

Further down the road I peer from under my umbrella to answer the familiar “elo”. Every Chinese person seems to know the English for hello. There are two women perched on an unbelievably small stool. They are ushering me over. We are all using our hands and our native tongue to try and communicate. They want to know where I’m going, again they think I’m attempting to walk to Yangshuo or at least to a bus stop to get there. I try my best to explain I’m walking to an unknown viewpoint to take a picture. They look at each other, look back to me and point to a motorbike abandoned behind them. I smile and start to gather that hiking really isn’t a thing in China.

organic farm land

I walk on, there is only 15minutes left to my intended destination yet it just seems like I’m following a regular road. I start to think the journey and not the destination will be the most scenic part of this route. Of course I’m wrong. I turn a corner following a steep incline and can see a stone platform ahead. With a little skip in my step I walk onto the platform. I can’t help but smile, the view is breathtaking. All the view’s in this area of China are breathtaking yet every time I reach a new viewpoint it’s like seeing these mountains again for the first time.

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untouched landscape
village surrounded by mountains
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Viewpoint

It’s 2pm. I’ve done my work for the day. I’ve eaten lunch and allowed time for the food to settle. I’ve decided upon a hike to a fishing village to satisfy today’s need for adventure. The air is sticky and the sun is beaming. I have a photograph on my phone of a picture map that sit’s at the reception desk of This Old Place Youth Hostel  where I’m volunteering. They promise me the destination is worth the journey. I pack my rucksack and head out of the hostel to start the day’s expedition.

fishing village map

Around 10 minutes in I become aware I don’t have my umbrella on me. There is no hint of rain, quite the opposite. The heat is overpowering and the absence of my umbrella for shade reminds me I also forgot sunblock. The weather in the south of China is unpredictable. I can be in jumpers and thermal leggings one minute and sweating in a light summer dress the next. Today it’s the latter. The sweating not the dress. This terrain is not suitable for a dress. The track is mainly dirt and rocks and at one point I feel as though I’m walking through a jungle.

The route starts by wandering through Pomelo plantations. Farmers are in the trees tending to the fruit, the blossoms shake to the ground around me as they chatter, pausing to peer through the branches at the foreigner who is quite unsure as to whether she is on private land or not. I trust the direction of the picture map and its simple instructions and push on avoiding eye contact in case I’m asked to turn around. It’s not long before the houses are replaced by open rural land enclosed in these mountains that I have already fallen in love with.

start of the route

The ground is all dirt and loose stones that slide inside my merrel sandals at every opportunity. These are the only shoes I’ve brought with me and they have got me this far. The sun is unforgiving and I can feel the sweat drip down my back and my skin becoming red under the intense heat. Most of the instructions are simple enough to follow. I get to one point though that absolutely throws me.

The picture shows two mountains and a single tree surrounded by rocks. There is a path to the left and one straight ahead. The arrow on the picture map is pointing to the far right at a “track” that seems unlikely to be the way. I decide in must have been careless digital editing and press on forward. There is an old man on the track to the left that is watching me like a hawk, completely expressionless. I decide that maybe he hasn’t seen a foreigner out this way and ignore it. 15 minutes later and I’ve hit a dead end. It appears that emotionless expression was most likely hiding the thought of “where does she think she’s going”.

mountains for miles

I turn and around. Still defying that far right arrow and take the left route. I reach the man and see that not far behind him there is also a dead end. I approach holding out my phone and begin the visual communication of expressive hand movements. It would seem that the unlikely “path” to the far right is in fact the route I need to take to reach my destination. Getting closer to this rocky pathway I realize there is a painted arrow in yellow on a rock. The same yellow arrow that has been photoshoped onto the photograph of the map. Feeling slightly ridiculous at my error of judgement I continue on.

Pomelo farmer

Lizards scatter around my feet. Branches force me to almost crawl through at certain points and the rocks make for an uneven climb. Just as I start to think this is an impossible route I pass a man with a stick across his shoulders with two buckets either side full of vegetables. We look just as shocked as each other to passing in such a place. This part of the route seems to last forever and I’m hoping the fishing village is worth the mosquito bites and injuries my toes are sustaining every time a rock fails to hold it’s place.

As the rocky path returns to a dirt track I’m able again to look up and the landscape opens. The view is spectacular. The mountains and trees are varying shades of green and I no longer care if the fishing village is worth seeing. This view alone has been worth every step. Turning the corner the mountains part and I’m now looking down on the Li River. This place is truly amazing. It’s like something out of an ancient hidden world and I feel humbled by being able to see it for myself.

Mountains and nature

Although satisfied in this moment it seems logical to continue on to the fishing village. It is after all my intended destination. I’m finally shaded from the sun by towering bamboo trees that start to close in around me. They creak as they sway in the wind and the sound is hypnotic. I’m almost waiting for monkeys to appear and start swinging over head. It’s not far now until I find myself entering this quaint little fishing village that I’ve walked two hours to see.

village views

By this point my face and chest are glowing red. I walk through the familiar stalls of trinkets to reach the waters edge. Immediately I’m being ushered over by a woman on a food stall. She gestures to a bench and moves her umbrella over it to give shade. I sit there for a while and do my best to explain I’ve walked here by myself from Xingping village. The woman and her friend look at each other and repeat my actions to confirm. I smile and get a big thumbs up. I purchase a shrimp and vegetable snack that resembles a pancake but on a stick and devour a cup of berries. It’s not long before a ferry of Chinese tourists appear. They flock to the stall and attempt to talk to me, the woman now speaking on my behalf. Many of them buy snacks and I feel her good dead has been rewarded.

route to the fishing village
fishing village entrance

Saying goodbye I venture into a maze of buildings that echo the tour guide and the ferry group of tourists. Deciding this must be worth seeing I follow the ringing sound of voices , navigating around the walls and secret gardens. I’m ushered into one building by a woman pointing to an internal wall. It appears former President Clinton was here some time ago and his picture is standing proud as evidence. I go up a narrow stair case and reach a rooftop with stunning views. It quickly becomes crowded and I’m losing light so I don’t linger much longer.

walls of the fishing village

Unfortunately the route back to Xingping is the exact same way that I’ve taken to reach the fishing village. Although incredibly beautiful it is always nice to have the opportunity to discover more of this amazing landscape. I arrive back. practically drenched with sweat and glowing red. I pass a market and buy a light summer dress and a baseball cap to hide my face. At dinner I’m famished and can’t help but look over the days photos. I have never felt more at peace as I do know wandering alone through this rural village discovering the beauty of China.

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alleys and secret gardens
amazing local woman of the fishing village
House visited by former President Clinton
Clinton and family with the locals

6:50am. I’m awake before my alarm, anxious that I may oversleep on my first day of work. I have company in my dorm. I rush to quiet my alarm and practically fall off the top bunk and stumble into the shower. Emerging with energy and a coffee sachet in hand I head to the kitchen for a quick breakfast. The hostel is split in two, today I’m over at the reception side. My hours are 8am to 12pm leaving me with ample time for lunch then off to explore. The work is simple, the people are lovely and the guests are interesting. For my first place volunteering I couldn’t have picked a better location or group of people to work with. After a conversation on where to explore, Gerda (English name) tells me of an offline app (MAPS.ME) I should use for a map with sight locations. This is where I discover Nine Horse Hill.

Li River views

A slow google search with temperamental VPN functionality shows me my intended destination. It appears the cliff face of Nine Horse Hill has a mural of a group of horses assuming various poses. These images have been present on the side of the mountain for centuries. Former President Clinton was able to identify all nine horses on his visit to the area and I intend to attempt the same. Although the advised view is from the Li River cruise but I am in the mood for a hike.

bamboo boats on the Li River

Leaving the hostel I turn around the corner following the Li River and crossing a beautiful bridge I photographed on my first evening. There are endless tuk tuks that stop to try and sway me in. The tour buses zoom past me at a confusing speed. Why are they rushing? The views are stunning and the weather perfect. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t walk. I see other foreigners who have rented ebikes. I don’t blame them, when I bought my ebike in Fuzhou it took maybe six months for the novelty to wear off. But today is a day for walking.

fishing birds

The streets are lined with markets selling their usual food and trinkets. The first view point though has something new. A woman with a stick across her shoulders where her two fishing birds sit. They are completely tame. They do not move even when children stroke them. People line up to pay for a photograph. I would love to see the birds in their true setting with the fishermen. I move onward. The views are captivating. This karst landscape is something that not that long ago I never thought I’d see for myself outside of ink paintings.

fruit picker

The villages I’m wandering through are full of curious eyes. The children stare wide eyed and the dogs are unsure of walking along side me. The smell of what I believe is jasmine is enhanced by the heat. The fragrance lingers in the wind sweetly. There are workers shaking the trees picking fruit and conversing with others who’s voices are the only sign of their presence, otherwise hidden by branches. Farmers are walking their cows through the street and many buildings seem abandoned or simply half constructed.

I reach a path that leads me to the water. My app is pointing further up to the right but I only see a narrow entrance behind a stall of street food. I pause debating. The elderly woman at the food stall ushers for me to sit on the stool beside her. I do this and there is an immediate realization that we will not understand each other. She pulls out a map and gestures for me to point out where I’m intending to go. I show her Nine Horse Hill and she points to the path that leads to the water. I show her my app and move my fingers to suggest walking higher up what, if you have an open mind, could be a path. At this point we are joined by several curious village men. The fun begins.

river view Nine Horses Hill

I understand the question of where I started my route. My fingers again move to gesture walking and I tell them Xingping. The woman uses her first English word and points to a building and almost shouts “Bus!” They laugh at me and shake their heads. After a little while of pointing and waving my phone showing the map the men begin to use their hands for gestures. The message is clear, the cliff is steep and if I try I will fall, their fingers show that I would no longer be able to walk and have to take the bus! I sit with the woman for a while eating some of her sticky rice. One of the gentlemen senses my disappointment and walks me along the river away from the mountains. We get to a point where the stones create a path out further into the water. He points to the cliff face of Nine Horse Hill and says “ok”.

Nine Horse Hill
Fishing Birds

This is the first time I realize I’ve actually reached my destination I was just at the wrong angle to see it. We wander back to the food stall and the woman is persisting I take the bus back. I point to the incoming ferry and say “boat” with a smile. She laughs and waves me off. The crossing is minimal and although the view is better I am unable to make out the mural of horses. I’m distracted by the near collision with another woman and her fishing birds. Rather than go back the way I came I use the app to find an alternative route back to Xingping. I have a 3hr hike ahead of me and it is already 4pm.

The start of the hike is similar to the earlier route. I wander through villages and become surrounded by the scent of jasmine. Losing sight of Nine Horse Hill I enter more rural landscape and the path opens to a dirt track with potholes that later become muddy pools when the sky opens up to sudden rain. My app is marvelous for the route but shows no indication of the terrain. It is quite the incline for the foreseeable future and light is fading as the rain strikes at intervals. I have the sudden memory of reading that the boats stop at 6:30pm. I can’t recall which boats the guide book was referring to. The ferries or the bamboo boats. Either way I panic and start to enter a jog as I wander how I will make up 30minutes on my hiking time.

rural karst landscape

The rain is heavy now and the road is becoming harder to tread. I haven’t decided if my energy was weakening or the steepness of the mountain was increasing with every step. A car passes. As I’m silently cursing their transport they stop shortly ahead. I pass and they offer me a poncho. With my umbrella standing proud I smile but decline. They drive on and seconds later pause again. This time they offer me a ride. I jump into the back seat before releasing my umbrella fully and manage to soak my lap. I don’t care though. I’m positively beaming. The driver speaks fairly good English but his wife doesn’t seem to. I show him my app and we climb upwards.

jasmine and mountains

I watch my app race ahead on the map. Then we stop. After a discussion with his wife the driver suggests we head back down the hill. I hold my phone up again saying that we are going the right way but it seems they need to go to Guilin. Ahead they know of a bus where I can go to Yangshuo and take another bus to Xingping. I don’t like this idea. He tells me this route was not the correct one for walking and asks why I don’t take the sensible option of returning to the ferry to walk the way I came. I give in. He offers to drive me to the boat. My heart sinks a little as we drive down the steep path I raced to climb. Suddenly we meet a bus on the road at a corner.

Dirt track hike

There is no way the bus will reverse and we don’t seem to be stopping. I’ve witnessed a huge amount of impatience when it comes to driving in China. I open my mouth to suggest we reverse but the bus defiantly moves forward narrowing further our path ahead. Clinging to the seat and holding my breath I feel the back tyre come off the road completely. The acceleration roars and we manage to get back on the road and I laugh more in disbelief than humor. My laughter is quickly silenced by that familiar sound of a flat tyre rolling along the road. The guilt hits my stomach and we exit the car to assess the damage.

Not quite knowing what to say at the situation I’ve essentially put them in the couple continue to give me walking directions and tell me not to worry. I walk on mentally willing good karma to find them and head back the exact way I came. The route has been seen but is no less beautiful. The ferry is full this time with children returning from school and I’m still unable to pick out the horses of Nine Horse Hill. I cross and pass the woman who smiles and says “no bus”. I’m starting to think the opposite by this point. Soaked from the rain and tired from my little adventure I climb into a little tuk tuk after walking half way and take in the view of the setting sun.

My second day has been wonderfully eventful, slightly nerve racking and yet full of lasting memories. I think I’m falling in love with this little village called Xingping.

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Rolling my suitcase sleepily I head to the end of my road. Fuzhou is for the most part asleep at 4:30am. Although I have an incredible adventure ahead of me, I to could quite happily fall back to sleep. Instead I’m holding out hope that a taxi will pass me by. Suprisingly, within minutes I’m driving towards the bus pick up point for the airport. My destination is Guilin, temporarily at least. It’s then a bus to a small village called Xingping. It’s here I will be experiencing my first working holiday.

Plane views

I’ve talked about traveling for most of my life. For anyone who has read my post on Solo Beginnings you will know that it took me 28 years to find the courage to travel alone. Now at 30 I’ve been living in Fuzhou, China for 9 months and yet I’m here again. Anxiety is robbing me of any appetite. My much needed coffee almost has me vomiting and I’ve reached into my bag to feel my passport several times already. I’m traveling alone in a country who’s language I have still not managed to learn and I have a pit in my stomach.

This Old Place

Subsequently, discovering Workaway I realized how easy it was to be a more ethical traveler. After falling in love with a friends photographs from her holiday I decided to seek out the stunning karst landscape of Yangshuo. After a few emails the destination was confirmed. A village called Xingping to volunteer at a youth hostel called This Old Place. The profile was inviting showing images of a quirky abode that was offering accommodation and meals in exchange for 4 hours work, 5 days a week. And so here starts the journey.

Fuzhou airport to Guilin airport was simple enough. Arranging the airport bus to Guilin city, still simple. Knowing my stop once in Guilin city…slightly less simple. Fortunately a very friendly Chinese girl who spoke English helped me talk to the driver and I got off at the correct location. Instructions from the hostel say after the drop off at the Swan Hotel (actual hotel not found) there are several bus options to get off at the next stop for Guilin bus station. This is where less simple becomes confusing. I can’t find a bus stop with any of the numbers. After passing the same taxi driver three times I finally gave into his gestures and let him usher me into his car. I show the address for Guilin bus station and off we go.

Hostel interior

We’re winding down several alleys. As time passes I lose confidence in the driver and start trying to find the address for the bus station on google maps. Before my maps can load we stop down a back alley and the driver is getting my suitcase out of the boot of the car before I’m able to protest. He calls to a bus and points at it, turning to me saying “Ok”. A statement not a question, which is probably for the best as my anxiety is reaching it’s highest point. I wander on expecting to go to Guilin Bus station, 30 minutes in I’m confident this is not where I’m going. I get the drivers attention and just keep repeating “Bus station, Guilin?” for a while I get a yes. Another 30 minutes passes and I continue my mantra. This time the reply is “Yes, Yangshuo bus”. Fortunately the hostel provided me with multiple route options. Instead of getting the intended bus direct from Guilin bus station to Xingping my route has been altered for me. Now I’m going from Guilin to Yangshuo bus station to Xingping bus station to walk to find the hostel.

Hostel interior

After maybe 90 minutes I’m at Yangshuo bus station. It’s unrecognizable as a bus station compared to the ones I’ve frequented in China. I’m searching for a ticket office when I’m approached by a private driver who speaks English. Relieved I decide to pay the 100yuan for a taxi rather than the approx 20yuan a bus would cost me. It’s on this part of the journey that my anxiety finally fades. The surrounding landscape is breathtaking. I’ve somehow managed to get to where I need to be and I’m finding that spark that ignites my wanderlust. For anyone, particularly a woman, traveling alone can be daunting. The only way I get past the fear and do it is to read travel blogs for inspired confidence and book the tickets in that moment. Once the tickets are booked I’m not changing my mind and so I nervously go through the motions of making preparations. Although I hope to lose the solo travel anxiety altogether, I do recommend impulse booking to anyone who is unsure of whether they can travel alone.

Rooftop Views

The driver pulls me up right outside the hostel in Xingping and says his goodbyes. The excitement sets in. However it was briefly dashed when at reception they weren’t expecting volunteers. It seems they have added a third hostel to their chain (one in Guilin and the other in Xingping) making it now two hostels in Xingping. Not in the mood to take a ferry across the Li River and search for another hostel I keep my fingers crossed as phone calls are made. It’s quickly settled, I’m staying. Determined not to let the confusion open the doorway to anxieties return I go and shower. I come down for dinner and wander the streets to get acquainted with my local area for the next week.

The hostel sits a moments walk away from the Li River. Ferries and bamboo rafts are lined up waiting to take tourists on a journey through the ethereal karst mountains. The streets are alive will stalls selling food and trinkets and I find the bus station, an ATM and several small convenient stores. My anxiety has dissipated. This is the life I have always talked about living. Exploring the world, experiencing new cultures and ways of life. Not being held back by fear or constrained by lifes commitments. I’m wandering around Xingping and feel completely free.

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Chillout balcony
Li River views