On Friday 30 July a few of us hire bikes and take off on the south road through the valley to a small local temple that Matthias had discovered on one of his plant forays the other day.

It’s market day so we stock up on mangoes and other fruits and hang around the square before heading off.

Paris polyphylla for sale 60111

Herding pigs to market 60126

A little saddle-sore just a few Ks out of Shaxi, we pull off the road and stop at a beautiful stone bridge which arches dramatically over the swollen river. Now little used, it has become overgrown with weeds. Before the main road was built through the valley, it was probably busy with people crossing to tend the fields or bring their goods to market.

Back on the main road traffic is increasing – a few vehicles packed with villagers returning from market chug past, belching out black fumes – and I struggle on. I am definitely the least fit of the group: Matthias is a mountain boy, Glen is travelling around China on his bike and thinks nothing of riding up to 100K a day, and both Anna and Sasha are considerably younger and fitter than me.

But the dirt road up to the temple is quite straight forward (if not exactly straight!) and I just take my time, catching up when I can. It’s difficult

when my eyes are constantly scanning the wayside verges and hedgerows for plants – I find a lovely example of Eidelweiss Leontopodium andersonii.

Leontopodium 60148

At the top of the hill is a small village and an empty building used as a small local temple, with a few half-burned incense sticks at the entrance. And a pagoda. Sasha has a theory that there are people in this world who can do cartwheels, and people who can’t. She has tried many times to achieve cartwheel status without success – Anna’s attempts to teach her fail to change this status.

Cartwheel pagoda 60143

We ride on until the dirt track becomes un-navigable by bike and head down through dry, open woodland. Quite suddenly we are in a literal oasis – a small lake, crystal clear; huge magnolia trees, their branches sweeping down to the surface and fish with vibrant blue flashes on their heads. It would have been stunning when the magnolias were in flower.

Temple lake 60176

Magnificent Magnolia 60168

Small frogs hop out our way as we cross the path that bisects the lake. Here is the small local temple – and its keeper; a little, wiry man who regards us rather suspiciously.

Unfortunately he does not have a key to let us into the low white building which houses the temple to see the statues but Sasha, with her knowledge of Chinese and understanding of different religions, is able to gather some information – but perhaps a bit to sketchy to pass on…

Quizzing the Temple-minder 60159

Just above a small seating area by the lake is a small “grotto” with old statue of a rather fierce deity.

I have noticed many playing cards scattered around in China, and there were a number in the lake – but interestingly this fierce little chap had the Ace of Diamonds tucked into his belt.

Fierce deity 60157

An auspicious token?

Matthias had been very keen to swim in the lake, but because of its sacred status – and the presence of its minder – we have to content ourselves with just drinking in the beauty. Even dipping ones toe in the water would have been sacrilege.

Calmed by the beauty of the environment we head quietly back up the steep slope, climb on our bikes and head back along the east side of the valley through small villages – and muddy trails.

Not feeling that competent in riding through mud, both Anna and I end up with very squelchy footwear – but the views are spectacular as we pass through the heavily cultivated rice paddies and other arable fields back to what now feels like “home”.