A few weeks a go, after a morning of 5am starts, fog-related delays and hideous turbulence Joe and I were lucky enough to escape Chengdu for a few days to enjoy breathing fresh air and exploring in and around Yangshuo.
Located in Guangxi Province, Yangshuo is a Chinese watercolour brought to life – the romantic version of China you picture before arriving in its concrete jungle, smog-ridden reality. With jutting limestone karsts, towering over lush green plains and waterlogged paddy fields the scenery is absolutely incredible. Having timed our visit to coincide with rainy season – thankfully limited to just drizzle whilst we were there – a fairly persistent mist remained in place for most of our time there. Whilst it meant we didn’t get any sweeping views over miles of karst scenery, it added to the mystical atmosphere and we spent most of our time feeling like we’d wandered into some sort of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon film.
For once, I hadn’t planned a rigid itinerary for our mini-break so we were free to spend our days leisurely pottering around the countryside and fitting in our sight-seeing around the slightly temperamental weather.
Having being full of grand plans to cycle, but with the memories of my (slight) cycling-related temper tantrum in Dali lingering we decided to opt for the far lazier option of hiring our very first e-bike. Despite the fact they are ubiquitous on all roads here (and I regularly fall out with their drivers whilst cycling) I had steadfastly refused to brave riding one before then. As someone who is always slightly convinced of their imminent demise, I was pretty certain that the combination of me and an e-bike would end in disaster. Thankfully the power of my own laziness is enough to overcome my extreme caution and having found a jazzy, Jesus-emblazoned bike for hire we took her out for the day. Despite regular yelps of warning from me, Joe drove it like a boss even as the gridlocked May Day holiday crowds proved to be a baptism of fire.
Thankfully, as is always the way in China, as soon as you get off the main tourist trail you escape the crowds. Even at the famous Moon Hill, where crowds congregated en masse at the bottom, as soon as we set out on the short but steep trail to the summit we shook off the majority of people and enjoyed the beautiful views across the plains below in relative peace. The best part of the day was definitely saved for last though, when we ditched the tourist-map and instead meandered around narrow countryside roads, completely alone save for locals farming their land. Finding such a feeling of peace and space can sometimes feel like searching for the Holy Grail in China so it was with more than a little reluctance that we headed back into the crowds and traffic jams of Yangshuo town.
The following day we hopped back on the tourist bandwagon (literally, a sweaty, cramped bus!) and headed North along the Li River to then ‘sail’ back down on one of the thousands of ‘bamboo’ rafts available for hire. In actual fact made out of PVC tubing and equipped with a rather loud, smelly engine, the rafts are definitely not the peaceful, romantic modes of transport of yesteryear. Lack of authenticity aside, it was still a great trip with the views from the Li River being absolutely incredible.
Once back on dry land we were efficiently bussed round to the famous 20rmb scenic spot – so called because it is this view that is printed on the 20rmb banknote. Obligatory ‘20rmb in the foreground’ photo taken our final stop was the picturesque town of Xingping. Although the main strip has been taken over by the usual tourist tat there were still lots of lovely little alleyways and ramshackle building to admire and photograph.
In the hope of getting some better views, we decided to hike up one of the karst peaks. About 15 minutes into this (thankfully) short hike my aforementioned sense of doom returned as the steps became ever more slippy and steep, with sheer drops and rickety step ladders making me quite convinced that I was about to plummet off the side of a karst to my death. And who says I am overly-pessimistic?! Having unsurprisingly survived the climb the views from the top were beautiful and more than worthy of increased anxiety levels.
As evidenced by the huge number of Western tourists we saw over our time in Yangshuo – more than we’ve seen over the last year combined – Yangshuo and it’s neighbouring city, Guilin are key points on most holidaymakers’ China-itinerary. Whilst this has definitely had a negative effect on the cities themselves – both Yangshuo and Guilin’s centres are dirty, crowded, homogenous-tourist-shop-filled nightmares – I was hugely relieved that the surrounding countryside remains largely untainted. In a country where so many seem blind to preserving natural beauty when a new skyscraper can be thrown up in just 19 days, it is wonderful to visit places that are actually protected under ecological preservation schemes. I would thoroughly recommend it as a must-see destination and whilst I may never want to be part of a lanyard toting tour group, should we make our way back to China in the future I would definitely add Yangshuo to my must-see-again list.