The gorgeous Yulong River meanders pretty slowly down to its meeting with the LI River – perfect for taking a bamboo raft and opting out for two hours while a bamboo-poled boatman guides the raft along.
The raft station is not far from our digs at The Giggling Tree. As soon as our bicycles turn into the gate we are gently besieged by aged local women selling a very odd assortment of items. Firstly, there are woven floral head-dresses made that morning from fresh flowers. You can wear these as you raft, if the fancy takes you, and for some reason they are most popular amongst young men – I suspect it’s a kind of dare-double dare-you thing, they certainly look completely ridiculous and all their mates laugh at them. But they wear them anyway, so perhaps the old ladies tell them it’s a sign of virility.
The second odd item is a plastic walking stick. Why you’re going to need a walking stick while sitting on a raft is a mystery to me, until someone dips one in the river, then squirts me head to toe with river water. It’s a giant siphon with a plunger inside- having never really grown up, Chinese tourists pay a fortune to act like kids again.
Our chifu (boatmaster) chooses us, rather than the other way around, and off we go. Our bamboo raft has two reclining chairs, two worn-out orange life-vests, and a large, rainbow
sun umbrella, with our bikes balanced on the back. The boatman picks up an easy rhythm – the bamboo pole plunges deep into the water, strikes bottom and he pushes us off, then gently pulls the pole free and repeats the same manoeuvre on the other side. The first few minutes pass quietly by with just the sound of the water lapping the sides of the raft.
Up ahead I see a a lady sitting on her raft in the middle of the river, fishing I think. As we near, I realise she’s fishing for business. Her cries of ‘Pijiu! Shui! Kele!’ turn to ‘Helloooo! Helloooooo! Beeeeeeeer you want? Watuh! Kellllluh!’ as she waves a bottle of Pepsi at us from her tub of drinks. There is a drink seller stationed every twenty metres along this stretch, about fifty in all. The peacefulness evaporates.
Not far from where the drink sellers end, I see what looks like several rafts lashed together with a tent over the top. It’s a floating barbecue fish restaurant, with a tiny chargrill barbecue and miniature chairs. He calls out to us as we pass – ‘ Hello! barbecue fish? beer? kelluh? Hello!’ I politely decline but there are another twenty to float past. This could be a really long boat ride.
Then something different appears, although at first glance it looks like a barbecue fish raft, only slightly bigger, and with a larger tent. We get closer, and I see someone is perched on the edge of the raft taking our photograph as we tilt down a small weir. Our chifu motions for us to stop, and we clamber off our raft and into the floating tent. Inside? A 160gb pentium processed computer, a photo printer and a laminator, all powered by a floating generator. Churning out photo after photo of floating tourists just like us for 20 yuan a piece. If there is anyone out there who thinks China is some sort of third world backwater, get real. Not long after this our neighbouring boatmen takes a call on his iPhone.
It is eventually very peaceful again, once we’ve passed the Yulong River High Street and settled into a stretch with nothing but other boats, and the glorious sunshine, blue sky, and mountains.