It was the weekend before my first class, and my last chance to experience Yangshuo before much of my free time was to be absorbed by lesson planning, curriculum writing and other stress-inducing admin. Our group of foreign teachers had been talking about taking a long bike ride through winding, forested roads that Saturday. I can’t remember how long the ride to Moon Hill – a typical Yangshuo karst formation with a hole punched through the middle, would be, but it was certainly enough to put a few of us off, some of us acutely, at the insistence of some that we also climb the mountain. Four of us rebelled accordingly, and reconciled an interest in seeing the landmark with an aversion to peddling for endless hours through the searing 37-degree heat.
A small house a little off the main road harboured a number of mopeds which, fortunately, were for rent. The four of us each handed over 50 Yuan – equivalent to roughly £5.50, the price of a day’s rental. No passports were retained or other personal details kept, but the owner’s apparent confidence in our ability soon evaporated, as we insecurely jolted around his front patio. A few of us graduated to a path that ran alongside his home, and practiced running back and forth along the river bank. I inched along the road, struggling at first to build the momentum that’d stop me teetering from side to side and falling off. One of us failed to make it past this stage before the owner, having seen enough, rescinded a licence and booted a rider, replacing him with someone he must’ve thought to be a more cautious operator. We continued up and down the river-side path for 10 minutes or so, fighting the urge to twist the wrist as we turned tightly back on ourselves, inches from the fall into the water below.We lined up, bicycles and mopeds, at the end of the street where the narrow path met the main road. Anticipating the exhaustion of the cyclists in the punishing heat, bikes set the pace and we would follow, overtaking occasionally to have the wind in our faces, and to agitate the panting pedallers with our apparent comfort. We immediately lost one moped: the bike whose driver had been replaced by a ‘more cautious’ motorist was last seen tentatively pulling out onto the road with her passenger. I was lucky and stubborn enough not to have to worry about a rider. The struggle to keep myself from coming off at a corner was enough. I made the case that the addition of another, grasping for dear life at my stomach fat, would only compound my inherent instability and heighten the potential of a dual-hospitalisation.
With no conception of the planned route and a disastrous sense of direction, I kept well within our now 7-bike convoy and powered along surprisingly quickly – I’d underestimated how much of a hold-up the cyclists would be. We were fast enough to render the visor of my helmet necessary, shielding the impact of bugs and various other flying things, but not so fast as to put us in any real danger of collision with a local. So, I let my mind wander a little, and was especially glad to be riding alone in that moment. The complete peculiarity of the situation struck me. The China trip was a relatively last-minute venture, and in all honesty a large part of me had always doubted that I’d go through with it, in the months and even weeks before leaving the UK. The plan, then, was to spend a week or so at home, near Cardiff, before busing back to Birmingham for a Summer of work, just as I had last year: a lonely but financially necessary experience.
China, for me, epitomised a risky gamble. I’d worked all year and would sink all of my money into this one month. The thought of some indiscriminate Summer adventure had kept me afloat through a year-long juggle of part-time work and university study, a balancing act that, at times, had thrown my academic performance into jeopardy and had stopped me from coming home to my family for months at a time. In a sense, this was much more than a financial gamble. It wasn’t so much a question of whether I’d put my money in the right place, but of whether the countless, immaterial sacrifices I had made would be justified.
In that moment, and in countless more that followed, my question had a definitive answer. Here I was, atop a bike, hurtling through the middle of a green nowhere, amongst a small convoy of increasingly good friends. My shoes were soiled with dry dirt, most of my t-shirts had become stained with splashes of local delicacies, and my incessant doubt was similarly discolouring, increasingly besmirched by the legacies of incredible experiences that together vindicated a high-risk decision.
Moon Hill turned out to be much as described: a mountain with a hole punched through the middle. No epiphanies were had at what wasn’t an especially inspiring sight, and I, at least, was glad to have stifled talk of climbing the thing, a feat that would’ve taken at least another hour. I was still much absorbed in my newfound love for mopeding and, after snapping a quick few photos, hopped back on while others basked in Moon Hill’s apparent glory, and the cyclists enjoyed a well-earned rest.Before long we were on the return leg, intersected with a tour of local cave formations and some ice-cream, which also stained my shirt. It was rush hour, which made the ride home much more interesting. We emerged from rural plains into the urban hubs we’d whisked through so easily that morning, only now the roads were congested with construction trucks and the random chaos of countless little rushing mopeds. The ensuing madness further divided our group as some of us, our attentions undercut as survival instincts kicked in, took the wrong road and wound up lost.After 15 minutes of waiting and retracing our steps in search of the rest of our group, assuming self-righteously that we were on the right path and everyone else was merely slow, we concluded that the cock-up was ours and got back on the right road. As we neared our village, the cyclists peeled off to return their bikes. The three remaining moped-clad of us tore on past the school and into the whatever it was that lay beyond, but our speed soon devolved into a trundle. As flat village streets turned to steep rural inclines, our batteries dimmed with the falling sun.