TERROR ON THE YULONG RIVERBy
Today was all about the rain – and the river. Not the Li River this time, but the Yulong River . The Yulong flows along one side of a long triangle-shaped peninsula while yesterday’s Li River flows along the opposite side. The peninsula is home to Yangshuo and many other villages and towns. The Li is the river where the larger boats move goods and people. The Yulong is where I’m headed today. Today is the day I go rafting over nine sets of waterfalls. Cue the funeral music!
Unlike Canada’s, Ottawa River and it’s infamous, “Coliseum”, the rapids that could eat a tour bus, the Yulong is a slow moving emerald green river, fairly shallow and interrupted by weirs every so often which have been groomed for the bamboo boats to slip over and plunge a mind-shattering and gut-wrenching one metre! The worst that could happen is some of the women I have seen might get their patent leather high heels a bit damp. And yes! I saw a few pairs of these on the rafts! So silly! What were they thinking?
Unlike the boats on the Li River, these rafts actually are made of bamboo. They are about 10 metres long and bent up at the bow and stern. I suppose the slight upturn at the fore and aft gives a slight speed advantage – for those days when the boat drivers are feeling a bit frisky!
Also unlike the boats on the Li, these are completely powered by men. Sorry, no equal opportunity rights here! The rafting passengers sit in bamboo love seats strapped to the bamboo hull while the driver stands behind in bare feet, deftly handling a 10-metre pole. To propel the raft, the poles are stabbed into the water, and finding the bottom, are pushed until the poles almost disappear providing maximum forward thrust.
Today it was raining again, but that was fine since on this trip, one expects to get a little wet and dresses accordingly. The trip is two hours and well worth the 120 RMB per raft. If you decide this is something you can handle, then I strongly recommend you rent a bicycle (this in itself is a trip) and brave the cars, motorbikes, scooters, water buffalo and pedestrians to get to the river’s put-in point. Your bikes will be taken and await you when you finish the river ride. The bike ride to the river veers off the busy street and you find yourself almost instantly riding between verdant rice paddies and banana groves under the watchful stony stares of the surrounding karst mountains.
Eventually, all the rain soaked muddy paths lead to an area of pure pandemonium where dozens and dozens of rafts await, trucks unload and other cyclists look about in confused gazes.
When I went to pick a rental bike, I was dismayed to see rows of 60’s style bikes with high handlebars and medieval-looking seats. But deep in the darkness of a garage, I spotted a bike with some gears and a frame that looks like it might fit my height. Even then, the seat needed to be raised about two stories to fit me! Not bad! And the gears actually worked! The breaks were a bit mushy, but like most, applying shoe rubber to the ground quickly brings one to a halt!
But I digress!
Of the sea of rafts all bunched together, one stood out because the raft driver did not come on with the typically earnest sell job. He was a handsome man wearing of course, a suite jacket! I still just don’t get the whole suit jacket thing! He helped steady the raft as I maneuvered over the slippery wet bamboo to my waiting forward-facing love seat. As in an aircraft before takeoff, the regulations require that passengers suffer through a safety video and demonstration, including pointing out the emergency exits. No different here! The driver motioned and gestured that I put on a bright red life jacket before we set off. Waving my hands to a bit of resistance, I declined the life saving equipment. I’m actually an excellent swimmer and besides, in parts of the river, I can walk and still have my head above water! As for emergency exits, plenty of those!
Once settled, we put off into the flow of the Yulong River. Once the current found us, it began to sweep us along. Stabbing the river with his long bamboo pole, the driver was able to pick up a bit more speed. This was going to be fun!
Never say that machismo does not exists everywhere! Even here on the lazy river Yulong, the drivers tried to outdo others they came across! Not speaking the verbal language, I could not understand what the drivers would shout to each other. But reading the body language was very familiar. It went something like this…
…Driver-A would pole up alongside Driver-B. The side-long silent glances would signal a duel! Pistols left at home, the poles would come up, held high, then both would stab and lunge and push… faster. Again, stab-lunge-push (all the while the passengers were blissfully ignorant of the testosterone being heaved behind them) then even faster. A little banter back and forth – perhaps one asking about how the other one’s kid is doing in school and did they get the memo about new school uniforms. They’d smile, laugh a little and turn back to their rafting. This was the life of a raft driver.
Ahead the river seems suddenly busy. A lot of rafts were slowing down and jockeying for position. The first set of rapids loomed in a white frothy horror! As we approached, we also set our trajectory and aimed squarely at one of the places where the raft could slide over the rocks. Truth be told, it was pretty exciting. Not exactly the Coliseum, but all things are relative. Nonetheless, it was still a thrill to slip over the rocks, see the bow of my raft completely submerge and eventually surface after the stern passed over the rocks. The water we took on slips between the lengths of bamboo and again we float high and slightly dry towards the next set of rapids.
Along the river there are large rafts anchored and facing upstream. Some of these rafts have cooking facilities, beer coolers and even benches to sit on. Perhaps for those who are overcome with excitement and need a rest! Still, other rafts held small photo studios! As you slip over the waterfalls, photographers would take photos of your raft, hoping for a look of terror on your face, then the boat driver would slow while the photo studio would try to sell you a lasting memory of your experience, retouched, printed and even laminated in plastic for safekeeping! Ingenious! I waved them off and continued. No way I want my eye-popping look of fright being published all over the internet!
The rest of the river was a series of gentle floating, a bit more raft driver competition, a slip over more waterfalls, waving off another chance of laminated immortality, saying no to a beer and assuring the sales woman that my driver does not need a beer either! Imagine, drinking and raft driving! And its all legal!
At one point, we did pull over and watch other rafters go by. It was lovely to watch. One raft, and I have no clue as to how it happened, had a guy swimming and holding onto the raft. Did he fall in? Did he need a ride? Excitement on the river!
As promised, my balloon tired mountain bike with the mushy breaks was waiting for me at the take-out point! I’m not sure how they keep all the bikes sorted out, but I was impressed. The driver was paid and given a nice tip. Hopefully it will help with the school uniforms!
On the return bike trip back, I was beginning to seriously question my choice of transportation! Seems, though the gears were a good thing, the seat was, well, lets just say it would prevent future Tour De France cyclists! So numbing was this seat that I think I could imagine the effects of an epidural!
Back in the Venice Hotel on West Street, I recuperated by having a rare luxury, a long nap! The day was still raining when I awoke and I decided the noise on the street was enough to keep me inside feeling lazy, so I stayed put working on enhancing photos and writing. Before long it was time to turn in and wait for tomorrow’s action-packed day!