After the grueling overnight bus ride and subsuquent Lonely Planet proven journey to fend off hotel planted assistance, we landed our incredibly nice and ridiculously cheap off-season room and freshened up with a much needed shower and the intent of snagging a nap. The plan backfired and we felt so refreshed after that we decided to be ambitious and seek food and the day's activities.
We wanderd down West Street and found a neat looking “multi-cultural” cafe for breakfast. Before our food arrived, several agents of tourist hawking wandered by and tried to push their products. Luckily for them, the first was a lady selling a gorgeous book of area photography and she hit Sarah's weakness, along with a well bartered price, and both parties won. The second was a very patient and polite gentleman named Alan who's timing was excellent as he was pushing the exact services we had intended to purchase – bike rentals and bamboo boat trips. He, of course, ultimately wanted to sell his tour guide services as well, but we fended him off in the light of taking care of the sorely needed bodily function of nourishment.
Alan actually waited through our entire breakfast, without a single interruption, so we entertained his offerings. Though we did not want to spend the money on a tour guide, we heard him out and his initial offer for a package price was so reasonable that we haggled him down to $20 USD each for 5 hours of guidance in addition to the bike rentals and boat ride (wow.)
The day's agenda was to ride bicycles about 4km via “local routes” out to the small Lu Wi River, have a leisurely bamboo rafting experience followed by the option for a tour of the Moon Cave and a “The Real China” return trip. After our progressive education in the Philipines about “offers” that had pressure and guilt-based prices attached at the end, we ensured that everything was clear and were imediately impressed with Alan's integrity.
Although the Lonely Planet recommends that tour guides aren't necessary and our experience in getting to the hotel supported this argument, in hind-sight we're monumentally glad we hired Alan. The initial ride out to the river was stunning and probably not something we would have found on our own. When we arrived at the river, Alan introduced us to his uncle (who did not speak a lick of English) and esured us that he'd be at the end with our bikes. After a series of relatively efficient grunting and hand gestures, we wrapped our day bags up in plastic, securely attached them to the backs of our seats on the bamboo rafts and set off down the river for an admittedly leisurely 2 hour scenic experience.
Other than being blasted with endless offers for cold drinks, pictures of us going over the repeated “falls” and wonderful scenery, the float was great. Something of interest: they actually have little bamboo rafts in the middle of the river offering full food and drink services, as well as little wi-fi fed stations complete with power and die-sub printing for on-the-spot pictures! Hey, we may not have bought anything (interesting enough per Alan's suggestion stating that we'd get ripped off), but we were admittedly as impressed as we were annoyed with the non-stop barage.
At about the 80% point in our float, we went over a fall as usual to be suddenly broadsided by another bamboo raft. Alan's uncle jumped in pain and started splashing river water over a good gash as the sloppily guided raft moved on with hardly an apparent apoligy by it's local raftman. Though his wound was not incredibly severe, he was definitely leaking some blood cells and Sarah whipped ou the first aid kit and helped to disinfect and bandage his leg. He thanked us in Mandarine and the tour continued, with Alan at the end as promised with our bikes.
Next, Alan offered to take us by Moon Cave as promised (and without strings attached), in case we wanted to procure a tour. He negotiated 20% off the price of the tour for us and the cave seemed pretty neat, so once again he set off to patiently wait as we took the little “bus” out to the cave. Surprisingly, it was located much further out than we had anticipated in the middle of a really gorgeous, but incredibly remote farming area (complete with rice fields – yay!)
Our tour through the cave was, once again, worth the paltry sum we had paid for it. As the somewhat crude other American group we ran into in the caves put it, “this would never have happened in the states – someone would have bumped his head and although the helmets they made us wear would have protected them, they would have been sued and shutdown.” Wow-the cave was a great adventure, ending with a view that can not be beat.
Our guide during the cave tour, Cassie, was absolutely fantastic and we enjoyed a tremendous amount of creative interpretation of the cave's structures, as well as even better conversation that turned to various fascets of cultural sharing. The cave's end offered precisely the delicious view of rice patties and agriculture that we had been seeking for photographic opportunities and the pro body came out introducing a note of converstation surrounding our jobs as photographers. We offered to show Cassie an example of our work via taking a portrait of her (oh my gosh was it easy against THAT backdrop!), and she took us up. We showed her the (always) mediocres in-camera results and we could tell she was excited, so we offered to send the portraits to her via email and are very much looking forward to doing so after we return to the states and can process them appropriately.
After a 500% increased wait of “10 minutes” for the bus back to civilization, we finally arrived to find Alan waiting patiently for us with our bikes. We tried to argue him over his promise to take us back via a route that would show us “the real China”, stating that a quick route would do just fine, but he insisted. Once again, he did not disappoint, giving us yet another taste of mind-blowing scenery, as well as a great tour of the farming land and one of the “minority villages” in the area.
By this later-than-expected point in the evening we were not only feeling the strain of 8km of biking along with tons of squat crawling through caves for over an hour, but we also had the unique experience of heading back into town as the sun set. Don't worry moms, not only was the ride not terribly scarey, but Alan really earned every cent of inflated tip we gave him – the man not only delivered an incredible product and saw every bit of his word through, but we felt amazingly safe and comfortable under his care.
After yet another sorely needed refreshing shower, we begrunginly left our room to seek dinner (and yes, we mean that-wow we're sore and tired.) The only net bad result of the day was Jim's painful oversight to apply sunscreen to his legs requiring a trip to the market to seek out some moisturizing “post-sunburn” crème. D'oh! :)
And now... BED.