His quiety whispery voice is like an overly polite Hobbit.
“Thank you so much,” he whispers each time I snap him in a photo.
On the Yangshuo Bike Festival ride Farmer Tang was sweep, guiding from behind and rocking out to the tunes that we were streaming through silent disco headphones.
After twenty five years of being a cycle guide through Yanghsuo’s misty mountain and rice paddy scapes, it was a completely unique for him to experience the landscape with The Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s Bicycle Song, Kermit and Miss Piggy singing Side by Side from the Great Muppet Caper, and Concerning Hobbits from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.
His reaction to the festival – a big smile and an even breathier voice – was the most gratifying moment in the festival for me. “There are bike clubs all over China who would love to join this,” Tang tells me. “Guilin and Liuzhou… we can get a hundred people easily”. I am gratified mostly that he is a local and a farmer and that after all the years of cycling he can still be inspired. He loved too that we were opening up new biking routes, ones he’d never been on, away from the roads now being widened to bring more tour buses to Xing Ping – the riverside town where we started the ride.
A metre and a half tall, Tang is a bundle of muscle sustained by three bowls of rice at each meal. He cycles 14 km to and from his home in Moon Hill to Yangshuo town each day, then guides tourists through the rice paddies on bike for another forty or fifty km’s. 1988 was his Debut as a cycle guide. At our festival dinner I asked him to tell how he started out.
“It’s a very long story he said with a cautious laugh, and I could see him line up specific dates in his head that would include major national and historical events going on in China that backgrounded the event which changed his life. From a prior conversation these included things like the opening of the free market economy by Deng Xiao Ping, the first tourists to arrive in Yangshuo, the crops growing in the fields at the time, the difference between the farmers lunar calendar and the western calendar.
He does frustrate some with his attention to precise dates and details and tendency to sidetrack.
The crux of Tang’s tale however revolves around Mary, his water buffalo, with whom he was ploughing the pig shit enriched slurry of his rice paddy. And two tall Swedish backpacker who were cycling by. Being the tiny man that he is, it was common for Mary to pull him of balance into the mud. The painful experience of being dragged across hidden limestone spurs was one thing, the humiliation of having an audience another. But the two handsome Norse gods on bicycle came to his rescue, lifting him from the mud, and then asking him for directions to Moonhill.
How tall were they, I asked Tang – trying to include him back into the telling of his own story. “2.18978 cm and 2.94567 cm,” he replied. “Together they were sixty six percent taller than me, and the second and third tallest people I have ever met.” All in his quiet breathy nervously excited accent. He also knew their birthdays and the names and heights of their brothers and sisters and what was going on in Sino-Sweedish relations at that time.
Clearly that moment of being rescued from the field was a changing point in his life. Tang sold Mary that same afternoon, bought a bike, and became a bicycle tour guide.
Being a guide in Yangshuo is not automatically a ticket to an easy life however. You need to hustle and there is a lot of competition from other farmers who have left the fields believing in the golden cobble stones of Yangshuo’s famous West Street. Every guide on the block has a laminated map that shows off Moon Hill and the famed Dragon Bridge bike rides. Their maps are creased and scratched from being unfolded, refolded and stuck back in pockets after constant rejection of their sales pitches.
“Horseflies. That’s what the locals call us…buzzing around, irritating people.” says Tang.
But Tang has done better than many most. He ventures beyond the old routes which are now traffic filled national highways. He is a favourite of adventure tour companies, and a Yangshuo legend.
His new name FT – abbreviated from Farmer Tang distances him from struggling with a buffalo in the slurry of pig-shit, yet he remains a farmer at heart. He does not aspire to swapping his bike for a car – but adds that he did once try out an electric bike. The festival reinforced that bikes are cool. Whilst Yangshuo farmers see bikes as labour and a symbol of poverty, Tang touched that moment of cycling joy that is winning middle class Chinese back to bikes.Cycling as a lifestyle choice and biking for pleasure.
“Thank you for the music,” he tells me at the end of the ride. “I will practise some songs so I can sing along too. There wasn’t a lot of music in the village when I grew up”
Tang with Scott Spencer of Bike Asia is a favourite guide for many adventure travel companies.