In a dimly-lit wooden room with a window looking to the darkness outside, we find our place to stay in a small Chinese town called Xingping. Two men are busy working downstairs, starting to build something with red bricks and mortar. It is already past nine – too late to find any open stores around this tranquil place. Located 40 minutes away by taxi from the more touristy Yangshuo, Xingping is a town I had barely even heard of a few months ago. But now I am here.
The next morning after getting out of bed, I slowly pull back the curtain to find the picturesque view that has always drawn visitors to this part of China. Towering karst peaks covered in lush vegetation, separated from other hills and mountains by a winding river. A few minutes later we go downstairs to start exploring the interesting corners of this small town. Before pulling the door, I notice one thing that wasn’t there the previous night. The red bricks and mortar have evolved into a brand-new counter. “How did they do it so fast?” I ask James. “It’s China!” he replies.
We stroll around Xingping, finding a much more relaxing part of town just across the bridge, where pushy vendors are less prevalent. The breeze from the surrounding hill makes my mind wander and imagine how thousands of years ago people found their way into the heart of this rugged terrain. The karst formations are clearly inspirational – even the reverse side of the 20 yuan banknote bears an image of this very location.
In the wee hours of the next morning, when even roosters are still asleep, we go through an arch just a few meters away from our hostel. It is the start of the hike to Lao Zhai Hill, the one hill we desperately wanted to summit after seeing magnificent photographs from those who had gone before. With two flashlights, we navigate our way through a slippery staircase, muddy steps and well-worn path to get to the top of the hill.
After two wrong turns and countless stops to catch our breath in the cold and humid air, we finally arrive at the viewing pavilion. However, James spots a higher point not far from the pavilion reachable through a trail of jagged rocks and a small communications tower. Hesitant at first, I follow suit, hoping that the view will be much better from that point. It pays off – greeting us is a seamless view of the Li River, circling the floodplain with white houses dotting the left bank and series of mist-covered karst peaks as the backdrop. But the unthinkable happens. Bees and mosquitoes appear out of nowhere and hover above our heads, making silent, undisturbed contemplation all but impossible. Strangely, a few minutes later they are gone, leaving us alone with the view.
The sound of our camera shutters is the only thing we hear, until roosters from the villages below start to do their job: waking people up. Even though the sun is hiding behind the clouds, the view is just as majestic as I could ever have imagined. We linger on top of Lao Zhai Hill until we hear the first horn from a boat, the cue for us to go down as we know that the town has already been awakened. Xingping ― albeit a small town ― is like any other place in China, where bustling business activity is the norm.
Walking past the ever nagging vendors, we cross the bridge again just before lunchtime to find some friendlier locals offering a cruise of the Li River in a look-alike bamboo raft, made of a plastic. This time Fabricio ― a traveler from Uruguay who we met in Guilin ― comes along. As the boatman turns on the engine, the deafening noise becomes the soundtrack for the next thirty minutes, marring the calm journey to an extent. Slowly the boat takes us down the Li River, following every turn and revealing some unique karst formations. Local people use their imagination to name them according to their resemblance to more familiar things – such as apple, dolphin and thumb.
We arrive at a small village called Yangdi, the start of our hike back to Xingping. But first we must wait for 45 minutes to haggle with locals – only to get the cheapest price possible to do three river crossings along the way. Two other Chinese tourists are also trapped in the same situation. Being unable to speak Mandarin, I helplessly watch James and the two Chinese people trying hard to push the cost as low as possible. After the price is finally settled, we make our first crossing which in fact is just meters away from where we were before. Well-marked by signage, the path is quite easy to follow, even for a beginner like me. Orange plantations and humble houses are a few things we pass along the way, while we occasionally see the river and the ever shuttling boats below. But the highlight of the hike is actually the conversation I have with Fabricio which enriches my knowledge of Uruguay and his adventures all over the world. Isn’t that the beauty of travel? Sharing stories and insights with people from different cultures.
Before we make our last crossing, we buy some snacks near the riverbank where a woman with a modest cart sells skewered river fish and fried dough ― a little adventure for my hungry stomach. After five hours I can feel the exhaustion. Still, I keep pushing on, hoping to see the pavilion atop Lao Zhai Hill – the sign that Xingping is merely a stone’s-throw away.
The sun sets beautifully, but I am too tired to even care. I keep walking to the hostel, finally finding some comfort after the grueling six-hour trek. At journey’s end I make myself a promise: “Once I return to Indonesia, I will do more hiking.”