Bamboo rafting on the Yulong River, China
When we arrive at the dusty parking lot, full of motorbikes and scattered with wizened old ladies selling sunhats, its hard to imagine this as the starting point of a calm and relaxing journey. Other people arrive and get on their traditional bamboo rafts with no fuss, immediately floating away down the wide open river. For some reason though, we are asked to wait, so we sit on tattered wicker chairs beside the long line of rafts that are tied up and awaiting passengers to join them on their journey downstream. They are all fairly similar – long pieces of bamboo curving skywards at either end, bound together with wire with two seats in the centre and a colourful parasol raised overhead like a crown. A man walks past us carrying an especially rickety set of chairs and a very broken parasol whose spokes are poking through the tightly stretched, grubby fabric. He sets them up on a rickety raft and grins at us.
As we step aboard the water surges up between the bamboo and soaks our feet. We take off our shoes and relax back in our seats as we punt up stream towards the Fuli bridge. There are only two other rafts going this way and we soon pass them. We have the glimmering water all to ourselves. Green branches bend over the banks to dip themselves in the clear, refreshing water. Three local men are gathered in the water under the canopy of a large tree enjoying the cool water on this hot day. They point and smile and wave – as westerners we are constantly fascinating to the locals. With the river still entirely our own we approach the bridge, a simple grey arch of uneven stones that stands proudly casting a circular reflection onto the deep green surface below.
Here we turn and go back downstream towards our final destination – Xiangui bridge. There are a few more rafts on this stretch of river, but not too many and definitely not enough to disturb the peace. These boats are so quiet. They are propelled by hand, punted with a bamboo pole and the strength and knowledge of the boatman. It is silent apart from the steady splosh of the pole as it breaks the surface and the gentle buzzing of the dragonflies who play alongside us. The placid water opens and closes behind us as the raft ploughs un-erringly through the stillness. Every splash is stilled to a whisper.
The mountains – distorted and jagged karst peaks embellished with lush green vegetation – tower above us to either side. In front and behind, they line the sky with impossible spikes and irregular curves. The verdant trees that line the slopes are reflected in reverse in the gently flowing water. Such flatness of the river versus such majestic, towering disruption in the mountains makes for a special kind of calm. We let our feet loll over the sides of the raft, dangling in the cool iridescent water as we glide along. The sun is strong and the heat beats down, but the shade of our rickety parasol keeps us comfortable, casting a shadow tinged with a primary rainbow pressed through the coloured canvas. We move slowly. There is no rush. The changes in the landscape are gradual. Serene. We are floating in an endless vacuum of soft gentle water and imposing peaks.
Small waterfalls with drops of a metre or so are scattered along this stretch of the river where the water suddenly rushes white over hidden stony banks. The raft approaches boldly, hovering on the edge for a second, half suspended in thin air, its prow un-supported as it rocks before reaching the tipping point. And then suddenly it comes crashing down with a wash of spray and water which rises up your legs until the raft settles smugly back down on the silky surface. Like a fair ground ride, but much more beautiful, these exhilarating moments only add to this enchanting experience.
As we reach the end of our trip the bamboo rafts dotting the horizon seem to multiply by a hundred, the brightly coloured parasols flitting around as a testament to the popularity of this beautiful spot. We are so glad we chose the quieter stretch of river upstream, where at times our only companion was the water itself, throwing up our own reflections along with those of the mountains surrounding us.
We hire bikes from the pier and cycle back along the river through countryside and villages. Ploughed fields lie surprisingly flat at the foot of the towering peaks. A caramel calf lingers in the shade of its mothers shadow as she chews. A tiny old woman, with a brown smiling face carries great stacks of hay twice the size of her. She walks past, grinning, her load distributed on either side of her on a wooden pole. The roads are full of cyclists, the sun is hot and the mountains bring new wonder with every twist of the winding tarmac track. It has been a day that will not easily be forgotten.
Words and photographs copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.