It was Barney’s last day for us today, so to crown things off for him we had a treat – the most fiendishly difficult challenge in ‘All Over The Place’ history. After a couple of hours on the now familiar empty dual carriageways, punctuated by spells on potholed village roads, we arrived at a high school in Rongjiang County (strangely some of the towns here don’t have names of their own, and are just named after the county that they’re in). It was fascinating from the moment I looked out of the window. A large mural ran the length of the car park depicting brave Communist fighters bayoneting Japanese soldiers, and another wall, painted gold, had sculptures of athletes carved into it to celebrate the Olympic games a few years back. We were led down to a training ground with outdoor gym apparatus where a team of mostly female school kids were waiting for us dressed in vivid red and yellow sports kit. They all looked to be the peak of physical fitness, which you have to be when you’re taking part in today’s main event – bamboo balancing.
Traditional to this region, bamboo balancing used to be a way for people to get down the river easily, standing on a piece of bamboo and using another piece to balance and paddle yourself as you float downstream (not sure what they did about getting back up!). It’s fiendishly difficult, and takes at least a year of training to be able to stand on a floating piece of bamboo in the water. Barney and I had less than half a morning.
First we practiced walking across a fixed pole (I got halfway, Barney made it to the end), then we moved on to one of the custom made bamboo floats, which are basically large pieces of green plastic pipe. My schoolgirl instructor demonstrated how to walk across and promptly rolled off and hurt her foot, so I knew it was going to be hard, and could barely make it two steps. On one occasion Barney very nearly made it to the end, but it was quite clear that we would never be able to stand on one of these bobbing about in the water. I’d have a hard enough time sitting on one.
Once we got down to the river I was also quite certain that I was, on no accounts, getting into it. It was turgid, a creamy brown sort of colour, and had foam and general bits of litter floating down it. Not that this is apparently a problem for the school, as the kids began to arrive on their plastic “bamboo”, floating in from a tributary that runs from their school grounds to the main river. The crew grabbed shots of about 8 kids performing a synchronised display to music (how they manage to float and stay so co-ordinated on those things is beyond me), before ours coaches went head to head in a race and Barney and I cheered them on. Barney’s guy won the day, but my girl gave him a pretty good run for his money.
After an international relations enhancing photo session we boarded our people carriers and went on an impressive drive along the motorway bridges that span the valleys, passing through countless tunnels that they’ve dug through the mountainside. Many of the rice terraces along the way lay derelict, which I guess is a sign of the rapid change that has engulfed this country in the last couple of decades.