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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.