The scenic town of Yangshuo may be firmly on the backpacker trail, but the surrounding countryside is still thrillingly quiet…
It was the end of innocence. Emerging on Yangshuo’s West Street at 11.30pm on a Saturday night, I found a mass of bars and hotels, outdoor tables packed with people and the sounds of thumping music echoing in the night air. I walked past girls in bikini tops, tables heaving with drunken Chinese men and cafés promising everything from cappuccinos to free internet.
I’d first visited Yangshuo in 1996. Then, it was a quiet country town on the fringes of China’s fast-developing tourist industry. There were a handful of travellers’ cafés and some tourist shops but it had a genial village air. Tractors puttered down flagstone streets lined with shophouses, men in undershirts slapped down playing cards on sidewalk tables and children played badminton in the street.
Now, tourism has well and truly arrived in this once-obscure town, 70km south of Guilin.
The thing that draws so many visitors here hasn’t changed. Rising above the red-tiled rooftops of Yangshuo are southern China’s karst rock peaks, a classical motif used in Chinese poetry and art for over a millennium. They tower over a wonderland of rural villages and winding rivers just waiting to be explored.
For years, Yangshuo was the only place to stay for those who wanted to get close to this magical landscape. And the town still has its charms. On my first day I ran into Li, the farmer who had taken me on a fantastic tour of the countryside during my last visit nine years ago. I wandered down back alleys, ate steamed dumplings and was greeted like an old friend by a guesthouse owner who brought me up to date on local gossip. That evening, I went out onto the Li River to see the locals fishing with cormorants – a tradition that has been practised for centuries.
Ten years after tourism first hit and you can still walk down a lane and be greeted with a smile from a wizened granny carrying a hoe over her shoulder.
But Yangshuo is no longer such an amiable place to sleep. Instead, I decided to investigate a couple of guesthouses that have opened up outside of town, giving visitors the chance to stay right in the heart of the countryside for the first time. There, the hills, caves and paddy fields are right on your doorstep, far away from the tourist throngs of West Street.
The idea of falling asleep to the sound of lapping water (instead of thumping music) and waking to a cockerel’s crow was one to be savoured. And I wanted to step from my hotel garden into the river for a swim before breakfast or disappear down unmarked trails on foot whenever the whim struck. Best of all, it would be a chance to recapture the magic of Yangshuo, the feeling of beauty and discovery that held sway before the coffee bars arrived.
The next morning I hired a bicycle on West Street. I planned to keep it for a few days, but this didn’t worry the hire man. He didn’t even ask for a deposit.
I was soon on the main road, peddling south. A few big trucks thundered past, dusty tarpaulins pulled tight over unknown loads, but I was otherwise alone on the paved, two-lane highway. At times I heard nothing but the whizz of my wheels and the birds singing in the trees.
At the Yulong River, I turned off onto a wide dirt path and followed the silvery waterway to the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. This guesthouse has been here a few years but is only now becoming known to travellers as an excellent alternative to staying in the town.
My room had a view to die for: green lawns rolling down to the river; beyond that, rice paddies, banana trees and miles of mossy peaks. The only sounds were birdsong, rustling leaves and the occasional snippet of human voice, carried on the wind.
I tore myself away from my balcony to take a dip in the river. The water was cool and clear, if a bit reedy underfoot. Afterwards, I sat in the garden and shared a beer with Mike and Katrina, two Australians on a round-the-world trip with their daughter. “We found Yangshuo too noisy at night, but this place is perfect,” said Mike. They felt they could really connect with the landscape here, too: “We just head off on our mountain bikes every morning,” said Katrina. “We’ve been to Xingping, Yangdi... all over. It’s a wonderful place to return to at the end of the day.”
I slept soundly that night and woke to a breakfast of noodles, served in the garden. Later, crossing the river via a slippery weir, I walked through rice paddies and pomelo orchards. From the ground, the pinnacles induce a kind of vertigo as you look up their sheer faces. But this proved no deterrent – I met a group of climbers lugging ropes through the fields, who insisted, with glowing eyes, that theirs was the only way to experience these peaks.
It was tempting to abandon my plans and just stay here. Moon Hill – one of the most popular sites in the area – was within easy reach. And the climbers had tempted me with tales of Treasure Cave, a 300m-high cavern hidden just around the corner that would make an excellent picnicking spot. Who knows what else a few days exploration might uncover?
But I pushed on, eager to visit the Outside Inn. People I’d met in Yangshuo had raved about the place and I was hoping it would give me a real taste of village China.
I wobbled off on my bicycle, negotiating my way along country paths with the help of a hand-drawn map. After a bit of back-tracking and direction-asking, I eventually found Chao Long village and the Yangshuo Outside Inn.
Set up by Aka, a former Dutch tour guide, it’s housed in three converted, mud-brick farmhouses leased from local farmers who abandoned them for modern homes closer to the main road. There is a vegetable garden in the back and a wooden, open-air dining area where I spent my time sipping drinks, dozing over an open book and talking to Aka.
“It was built by craftsmen from Ping’an,” Aka said proudly of the carved wooden structure. Ping’an, near the famed rice terraces of northern Guangxi province, is where Aka used to live. Then SARS hit, guiding jobs dried up and he moved south to build the guesthouse of his dreams. “I love the countryside here,” Aka continued. “Living in the village, you really learn about the roots of Chinese culture.”
Aka organises tours to minority villages all over Guangxi province, but I was interested in something closer to hand. Outside the front gates lay a footpath that led directly into the hills. I headed off and within seconds was scrambling over boulders and disappearing down hidden paths. The pinnacles are probably the last unexplored frontier in Yangshuo. At the moment, most are wild and uncharted; expeditions across this rugged terrain will no doubt become a future attraction.
I followed a well-trodden path that snaked between green hills, part of the old peasant highway connecting villages before roads made it so much easier. These paths are now rarely used by locals but make brilliant hiking trails, a more rugged way of experiencing the pinnacles than simply gazing at them from the rice paddies. Being able to step out of my hotel and straight onto the footpath was the perk of life in the countryside.
Back in Chao Long village, the sound of hissing woks drew me to another converted farmhouse, this one home to the Yangshuo Cooking School. I stopped in to find four travellers tossing ingredients in giant woks under the watchful eye of a local chef. Having each created their own masterpiece – chicken with cashew nuts, steamed and stuffed vegetables, and the local delicacy, beer fish – they sat down to share in a veritable feast.
Mouth watering, I headed back to the Outside Inn for my own dinner. As it turned out, I was the only guest that night, so I dined with the chef, Xiao Wei. Formally trained in the Guangxi School of Cookery, he served up delicious sautéed aubergine, smoked and dried bean curd with pork belly and crispy green vegetables, all fresh and fantastic. This was real home cooking, the likes of which you’d never find in Yangshuo’s overcrowded restaurants.
That night, belly full to bursting, I laid beneath a drape of white netting, and thought of the people who had slept in this farmhouse before me. All around, rural China slept – there wasn’t a single note of obtrusive music.
I cursed the fact that tomorrow I would have to leave. It’s rare to find a place you love; rarer still for it to become a popular destination yet remain new, fresh and untypical. On this visit I ran out of time but it doesn’t matter – I know I’ll be back.For more information, visit www.yangers.com – hosted by a couple of residents, this site offers up-to-date info on the area