Intoxicating Guizhou

Posted on 2019-12-26

Luzhou is famous in Sichuan for its liquor, of which we tried a little at our Couchsurfing host's place. Little did we know that, as we made our way into the next province, Guizhou, liquor would remain a recurring theme. However, it was not the liquor that intoxicated us the most, but the beautiful natural landscapes that awaited us. 

From Luzhou, we cycled up into the mountains on small village roads until we reached the city of Chishui, our first city in Guizhou province and a base for exploring the Chishui Danxia Scenic Area. A large area covered in dense forests, with deep narrow valleys, spectacular rock formations, and hundreds of waterfalls, properly exploring the area would have needed a good few days (as well as entry fees into each point of interest). After considering our options, we decided to only visit the Chishui Great Waterfall, taking the tourist bus to avoid the 17km uphill detour to the site. From the site entrance, it was a pleasant 4.5km walk along a forested river valley with few other people (as many visitors take the internal shuttle bus) to reach the Great Waterfall, passing by another beautiful waterfall on the way. At 76m high and 81m wide, this impressive waterfall is one of the largest in China. 

Beauty Comb Waterfall in the Chishui Great Waterfall scenic area

Beauty Comb Waterfall in the Chishui Great Waterfall scenic area

Chishui Great Waterfall, at 76m high and 81m wide, one of the largest waterfalls in China. The rocks in the foreground are shaped like a (massive) turtle looking at the waterfall.

Chishui Great Waterfall, at 76m high and 81m wide, one of the largest waterfalls in China. The rocks in the foreground are shaped like a (massive) turtle looking at the waterfall.

Chishui is also the start of a bicycle lane that runs along the Chishui river for 150km to the town of Maotai. Hannah had found this bicycle lane by random chance while planning, and we knew we had to take full advantage of this rare find - and it was even better than expected! Not only was it well maintained and had rest stops every few kilometres, the lane was properly separated from the road, sometimes even on its own elevated lane, making it difficult for cars and motorbikes to use - a common occurrence on other "bicycle" lanes we have used in China. To top it all off, the lane runs through a gorgeous valley full of bamboo forests, waterfalls, old towns, and scenic viewpoints. However, we were surprised by the number of cameras on the mostly empty bicycle lane, the furthest reaches of the omnipresent surveillance system that we have encountered in this country.

Hannah's upgrading her bicycle to this one we found beside the bicycle lane along the Chishui river!

Hannah's upgrading her bicycle to this one we found beside the bicycle lane along the Chishui river!

The bicycle lane along the Chishui river passing through Tucheng Ancient Town

The bicycle lane along the Chishui river passing through Tucheng Ancient Town

Cycling through an impressive karst landscape on the bicycle lane along the Chishui river between Xijiu and Meijiuhe

Cycling through an impressive karst landscape on the bicycle lane along the Chishui river between Xijiu and Meijiuhe

The Chishui river is also well known in China for its role in revolutionary history. During the Long March, the First Red Army under Mao Zedong retreated along the river, crossing it four times, and by doing so, escaped the encirclement of the nationalist Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-Shek. Although it was a military retreat, these events are seen by the Chinese as heroic, since they demonstrated the perseverance and dedication of the Red Army, as well as allowed it to regroup and later force the Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan.

Taiwan is invading?! Students at an experiential centre in Tucheng, presumably re-enacting the Red Army's and Nationalist's battle over the Chishui River during the Long March in 1935.

Taiwan is invading?! Students at an experiential centre in Tucheng, presumably re-enacting the Red Army's and Nationalist's battle over the Chishui River during the Long March in 1935.

The Chishui river is also nicknamed the "river of beautiful liquor", as the valley is home to several famous distilleries. From Xijiu onwards, we often noticed the distinct smell of fermented grains in the air, although we couldn't always see where the smell was coming from. When we reached the end of the bicycle lane, we mourned its end with a bottle of Maotai we had arrived in the town of Maotai, where China's most famous distillery is located. Known as the "National Liquor of China", the whole eponymous town is now a AAAA tourist site packed with liquor shops and hotels. We couldn't visit the actual distillery (a huge complex) but only their exhibition centre, where the exhibits focused mostly on various aspects of Chinese drinking culture, plus a section detailing their highly labour-intensive and specialised production process. The bar was closed though, and we certainly didn't want to buy a whole expensive bottle for ourselves, so we didn't actually try it. 

The steaming buildings of the Langjiu (郎酒) distillery next to the Chishui river between Xijiu (习酒) and Meijiuhe (美酒河)

The steaming buildings of the Langjiu (郎酒) distillery next to the Chishui river between Xijiu (习酒) and Meijiuhe (美酒河)

A massive bottle of Maotai liquor flowing freely in the middle of the town

A massive bottle of Maotai liquor flowing freely in the middle of the town

Maotai, the liquor for all important occasions in China

Maotai, the liquor for all important occasions in China

Continuing south from Maotai, we were sadly forced back onto the road, which was thankfully not too busy, but very mountainous (harder than the Hard Roads to Shu) and not as scenic as before. This, combined with the cold and cloudy weather, made for several exhausting and unmotivated days. Even though winters are not so cold in southern China, houses here rarely have insulation or central heating, and indoor temperatures are basically the same as outdoors (which often fall to below 10°C). To deal with the cold indoors, people keep their thick jackets on and sit around a small table with a stove below, their only source of heat. After a long day of cycling in the cold, we usually like to enjoy some warmth in the evenings, but some of our hotel rooms have remained cold even with the (air-con) heating at full power, as if it was trying (and failing) to warm up the whole hotel building. We know that the Chinese way is more environmentally friendly, but this is one first-world comfort we really cannot get used to living without.

Our ride didn't go smoothly either. On our first day out of Maotai, on a bumpy stretch of road next to a construction site, one of Heiko's rear spokes broke. To replace it, we needed to remove the cassette, one of the few things for which we did not pack tools with us. To lighten the load on the rear wheel until we found a bicycle shop, Heiko moved his heavy, unbalanced panniers to the front rack, which resulted in rather funny steering for a few days. On our second day from Maotai, we originally planned to cycle from Jinsha to Qianxi, but were making such slow progress through the relentless hills that, when we passed through a small town in the early afternoon, we calculated that we would not make it to Qianxi that day and decided to end our day there. The next day started off on the wrong foot (quite literally) with Hannah spraining her ankle. After cycling sowly for a few kms, we tried hitchhiking to Qianxi instead, only to end up waiting in the cold for an hour before giving up and cycling anyway. Our long wait was followed by an unexpectedly long downhill, during which Heiko cramped and collapsed from the cold. When we finally reached Qianxi, at least we found a friendly bicycle shop where we could borrow the tools we needed to replace Heiko's spoke. By then, we were so exhausted that we decided to take an extra rest day in the city.

The town of Zhongxin, in between Jinsha and Qianxi, where we decided to stop after a short day of cycling as it would have been too long to reach Qianxi on the same day. We took a hotel overlooking this long street market, where most vendors had their loudspeaker ads (i.e. their own voice recording) on an endless loop on full volume, and it sounded like there was some mass protest going on the whole afternoon!

The town of Zhongxin, in between Jinsha and Qianxi, where we decided to stop after a short day of cycling as it would have been too long to reach Qianxi on the same day. We took a hotel overlooking this long street market, where most vendors had their loudspeaker ads (i.e. their own voice recording) on an endless loop on full volume, and it sounded like there was some mass protest going on the whole afternoon!

When we left Qianxi, the weather was a bit warmer and sunnier again as we cycled a still mountainous, but more interesting road past a large reservoir to Zhijin Cave. This massive cave is 13.5km long, about 4km of which can be visited, and is believed to possess the largest unsupported roof span of any cave worldwide. Walking through the cave, we passed through one hall after another of fantastical cave formations, a spectacular underground world. The route was regularly signposted with signs suggesting what the various formations resembled, some of which we agreed with, while others we had different interpretations for. We were also in a Christmas mood and thought that some of the stalagmites looked like Santa Claus and his elves, or like Christmas trees. In the midst of such natural beauty, we were sad (though not surprised) to see some local tourists smoking (despite no-smoking signs everywhere), spitting, and touching the cave formations, acts that all affect the growth of these formations.

Serpentine road just after the Hongjiadu hydropower dam, with Lake Zhiga Alu in the background, on the way from Qianxi to Zhijin cave

Serpentine road just after the Hongjiadu hydropower dam, with Lake Zhiga Alu in the background, on the way from Qianxi to Zhijin cave

A tiger baring its teeth in Zhijin Cave

A tiger baring its teeth in Zhijin Cave

Amazing Christmas tree shaped stalagmite in Zhijin Cave

Amazing Christmas tree shaped stalagmite in Zhijin Cave

The "Overlord Helmet" in the "Moon Palace" in Zhijin Cave

The "Overlord Helmet" in the "Moon Palace" in Zhijin Cave

An impressive gathering of massive stalagmite formations in Zhijin Cave

An impressive gathering of massive stalagmite formations in Zhijin Cave

The cave is part of a wider karst landscape - with sinkholes, natural arches, steep cliffs, and deep canyons - that we found quite impressive as well. We cycled through this landscape on another nice bicycle lane that ran from our hotel near the cave most the way to the closest city, Zhijin. From Zhijin, we bailed out of the mountains and took a bus straight to the provincial capital, Guiyang. 

Expressway bridge across the Liuchong river canyon, nearby Zhijin Cave

Expressway bridge across the Liuchong river canyon, nearby Zhijin Cave

Karst landscape (and bicycle lane!) along the road from Zhijin Cave to Zhijin city

Karst landscape (and bicycle lane!) along the road from Zhijin Cave to Zhijin city

Guiyang is not a very bicycle friendly city, and unfortunately, the bus dropped us off on the other end of the city from our Couchsurfing host's place. So we had to cycle all the way across this hilly city through a combination of traffic jams (including a major one leading to IKEA) and a number of tunnels where cycling is officially forbidden, but where we saw no alternative to just dashing through. We were relieved to finally arrive and meet with our Couchsurfing hosts, a lovely Canadian-Chinese family, with whom we stayed for three nights. We took this time to relax, explore the city a bit, publish the previous blog post, and update our plans for our last weeks in China.

Jiaxiu Tower, a landmark and cultural symbol of Guiyang

Jiaxiu Tower, a landmark and cultural symbol of Guiyang

Our host in Guiyang, Matt, and his two children Charlie and Hudson, making a gingerbread house together on our last evening in Guiyang. We wonder if the house will remain intact until Christmas :P

Our host in Guiyang, Matt, and his two children Charlie and Hudson, making a gingerbread house together on our last evening in Guiyang. We wonder if the house will remain intact until Christmas :P