Yangshuo County, Guilin, China
September 4, 2017
Indeed, I crossed the bridge when I got there. Yulong River, a tiny tributary of the iconic Li River in Yangshuo, flowed through ancient villages that had mostly remained as they were during the Qing and Ming Dynasties, including their stone bridges: Fuli, Yulong, and Xiangui. The last one was the oldest at 1,000 years old, but somehow it escaped the radar of my friend and host, Quinn. No matter, it was my pleasure to have joined generations of locals and visitors alike that crossed Fuli and Yulong, both standing for about 500 years and counting.
I had always hailed the meandering Li River amidst jagged limestone peaks as the paragon of visual harmony of mountains and river. Chinese scholars, needless to say, knew better to ascribe this lofty description to Yulong River. Unencumbered by global fame, the river quietly watered farmlands. There was none of the ear-drilling noise of motorized bamboo rafts ferrying tourists. Crossing the ancient bridges of the quaint villages on its shores led us to Yangshuo of dynasties past – an agricultural settlement blessed with spectacular, otherworldly views.
Quiet did not mean reserved, though. The Yulong displayed fluctuating temperament: languid during dry season and ferocious during wet monsoon, causing flash floods. Villagers harnessed this force of nature by building breakwaters, or weirs, across the river every kilometer or so, which conveniently doubled as bridges for livestock too awkward and bulky to climb up and down the arched ones for pedestrians. Yulong River Valley was flat and fertile enough for rice fields and, more recently, cash crops such as tangerines and mandarin oranges. It was how the valley remained mainly agricultural despite the onslaught of tourism.
But no doubt, the long arm of tourism would reach this picturesque valley. Our presence alone was evidence enough. At Baisha town, we came across a funny warning that went: “For your safety, do not swim and have fun in the water. It is pretty deep.” Quinn could not resist wading, at least, and having fun in its clear shallow waters. The cobbled street into the 1,000-year-old town of brick houses looked invitingly quaint and rustic, but we visited solely for the bridges.
Fuli Bridge was built half a millennium ago. Its ten-meter single arch was imposing up close, but, from afar, the dark slabs laden with hanging vines blended with surrounding trees and distant jagged peaks. This marriage of form and material in ancient Chinese engineering proved sturdy to withstand time and the elements, ensuring the bridge’s longevity as well as harmony with the environment.
It boggled the mind why this magnificent bridge was the least visited in the area. In a way, its low profile in the tourist trail served the local community well. We chanced upon two men taking a break from farm work in the shadow of the bridge. One said that touching the centuries-old stone foundation would bring good luck. Koller, Quinn’s friend, proceeded to caress the wall. He denied being superstitious, but there was nothing to lose and everything to gain, just in case. As we climbed the stone steps, a local couple and their photographer were preparing for a pre-nup shoot. I wished their love would be a strong and enduring connection as Fuli Bridge had been.
Xiangxi or Xiangui Bridge was the most ancient in Guangxi Province, but Quinn skipped it, perhaps for time, and led us instead to Yulong Bridge, a more recent one at 400 years old. Legend had it that a scholar was on his way to the capital to take the all-important national exam but was stopped in his tracks by the river. He prayed for a miracle and promised to build a bridge should his earnest pleas be answered. His sincerity touched the heart of the gods who sent a dragon to whisk him across the river. The scholar topped the test and kept his promise. For this reason, the river was called Yulong, dragon in Chinese.
Perhaps Yulong Bridge’s proximity to the town center of Baisha decided its popularity among tourists. The bridge itself was no less charming than Fuli – a curtain of vines also cascaded from its flatter arch – except that in its shadow was a port of sorts for dozens of non-motorized bamboo rafts with colorful picnic sunbrellas. It was a case of a rustic scene marred by modern capitalism. The sheer number of rafts meant business was robust. So who were we to judge?
All told, the bridges and villages of Yulong River struck a delicate balance between the romance of the past and the livelihood of the present. In the words of Chinese scholars, this river valley was “where man and nature have met in perfect harmony.” Both Fuli and Yulong allowed us to cross over to a distant time and a remote place. Wasn’t that the point of the visit? I, thus, captioned my selfie at Fuli Bridge:
Travel is a bridge between the Here and Now and the There and Then.