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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.