14 September 2009

3 Days In Yangshuo

Yangshuo - [Almost] Falling Off The Beaten Path
The Perfect Three-Day Escape

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The Area

Landing at Guilin Airport means you’re nearly half-way to Yangshuo in a “two more buses is tough but adventurous and intriguing” kind-of way. The first crawls - air-conditioned - through the wild amount of road works taking place to expand the highway that connects the city to its primary transportation hub. The second - which doesn’t leave from the bus station at which you just arrived - takes just over an hour not for sake of distance, but because it must compete with tractors, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles and other moving contraptions for space on the road. Thankfully, the road weaves through the start of some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, as mystical karsts jut from the earth in every direction. This is a very different China. Distant, remote and reminiscent of everything you’ve seen in every Dynastic period film set in this - the Middle Kingdom. Enjoy the ride, let go and get ready to be inspired.

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The Nuts and Bolts

The Lay of The Land

Yangshuo town is located 60 kilometers south of Guilin - the closest major city. The town itself is kitsch central, emitting every tourist stereotype in the book. Bags, DVDs and jewelry at exorbitant prices (read: this is NOT the place to shop in China). The aptly named “West Street” is lined with restaurants promising “western food,” though even the locals admit it is really “Yangshuo western.” Unfortunately, McDonald’s and KFC found their way into town last year and Chinese people line up for burgers, chicken and the like in droves.

The real draw, however, isn’t the town itself but the breathtaking scenery that extends for miles in every direction. Just a few minutes out of town by bike or scooter (the best way to see the countryside) and you feel like you’ve fallen completely off the map. It seems that nothing has really changed here. Farmers still go about there business and hardly notice the occasional “laowei” (foreigners) as they pass. Oxen are lead into the river as an escape from the pounding heat (over 100 degrees a good portion of the year) and while bamboo rafts have begun to pollute the waters near town, a few more miles out and it’s just you, your boat-master and absolute silence - a rarity in hectic China.

The point: Unless you’re coming to Yangshuo for over-priced cocktails, bad pizza and karaoke, just grab your bike or motorcycle in town and then get out!

The Crash Pad
West Street - Every restaurant and bar doubles as a hostel. Stay here if you want the partying and the noise (which goes until 2am every night, courtesy of live Chinese bands).
Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (+86-(0773)-8777-091, reservations@ yangshuomountainretreat.com, www.yangshuomountainretreat.com) Located 7 miles outside town alongside the river, the foreign-owned and locally staffed eco-lodge sits right along the river against a backdrop of enormous karsks. There is a daily shuttle into town and if you’ve rented a bike or motorcycle, it’s easy to get back and forth. This place is the absolute escape, though the food can be pricey and their are no other eating options within walking distance. They also have a small swimming area. $72 a night for river views, $50 a night to face the karsks.
Yangshuo Culture House (110 Beisan Xiang, Chengzi Road, Yangshuo, 541900, Guilin, China, +86-136-3514-0816, x_xiaogeng@hotmail.com, www.yangshuo-study-travel.com) Nearly 50 countries visited and this is by-far the most impressive place I have ever stayed. While the rooms are standard and price is on par with other places in Yangshuo, the culture house includes ALL your meals, which comprised some of the most delicious Chinese dishes I have ever eaten. You’re actually staying in the family home alongside anywhere from four to ten other guests. Breakfast of toast, toppings and fruit is served every morning 8am to noon, lunch is by request (fried rice) and dinner is a feast of every delectable Chinese dish imaginable. No matter what guests have been doing throughout the day, everyone is certain to back for the 6pm dinner because it is just THAT GOOD. Guests take a seat around the massive dining table, which leads to a short silence while everyone fills their bowl. This is followed by - if you like - hours of interesting conversation with people from around the World. Wei the owner will pick you up from the bus station, rent you a bike, get you tickets to the area’s impressive light show, let you watch them cook and teach you mahjong, calligraphy and survival Chinese if you’re interested. Just a mile outside of town, the neighborhood is quiet and quite “real.” All rooms are air-conditioned, some with private bath. Vegetarians welcome and catered too. I can’t rave about this place enough. It’s brilliant. $20 for a two-person double, roughly $10 for each additional person (including meals and classes).

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The Eats
Wander West Street for an eclectic selection of western and Chinese food.
Stay at Yangshuo Culture House and eat your meals there. It’s divine!

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The Nightlife
Bars and clubs line West Street. Try Lisa’s for chilled Chinese rock and everywhere else if you’re into late 90’s, early 00’s American pop. Who isn’t?

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The Perfect Three Days

With the blistering heat pounding down, the key to Yangshuo is to pace yourself. Allow for recovery time somewhere that is air-conditioned or work in a swim.

Day One

Arrive the evening before just in time for dinner at Yangshuo Culture House. Upon flying in to Guilin airport you can either take a direct taxi to Yangshuo for about $35 or ride the airport bus ($3) to Guilin and catch either the local bus ($1.50) or express bus ($2) to Yangshuo. The whole journey take about 2 hours.

Take a good shower and hit the sack early. Surface by 8am and eat a hearty breakfast
at the hostel. Book tickets for Impressions by Sanjie Liu (who directed the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies). The awe-inspiring river light show starts every night at 8pm and Wei at Yangshuo Culture House sells near-front-row seats with round-trip transportation for $21. Also let Wei know you want to book a river cruise from Xingping for the next morning ($20).

Next, wander into town and rent bikes. Ask to keep them for two days. Bike Asia (2nd Floor, 42 Guihua Rd, Yangshuo, Guangxi, P.R. China, 541900, +86-(0773)-882-6521, vivian@bikeasia.com, www.bikeasia.com) rents high-quality mountain bikes for $7 a day with a $55 deposit (standard). Ask for Vivian. Otherwise, find one of the million bike renters who are stocked with the “Yangshuo Special” which goes for $1.50 a day.

Ask for the “big brown map” (they’ll know what that is) and set off from town for Dragon Bridge (a 2-hour cycle) via the “back roads” that run along the river and through the rice fields. Once you’re into your ride, follow the red arrows that are spray-painted on buildings and poles. They mark the path. Trust me, you’ll know them when you see them. If you’re nervous you can hire an English-speaking guide for $12-$25 a day.

Arrive at the bridge around 11am. Have a sit-down and take a dip. If you’ve got the courage, take a leap from the 30-foot bridge into the 20-foot-deep water. It’s exhilarating and the locals will watch on in wonderment. Opt for a fried rice for lunch ($2) then grab a bamboo raft down the river ($23 per 2-person boat).

While most bamboo raft rides start further downstream, boarding here means nearly two hours of just you, your raft-master, gorgeous scenery, still water and absolute quiet. They’ll load the bikes on the back. Expect to disembark around 3pm. From there, it’s a 45-minute bike ride back to the hostel. Take a shower and a nap pre-dinner, but be sure to surface at 6pm.

Arranged transportation will pick you up at 6:50pm for the show and you’re set for the evening. Be sure to bring mosquito repellant! Back around 10pm, crash and get ready for day two.

Day Two

Hit breakfast again at 8am and transfer to your morning cruise in Xingping. Let Wei know you’ll be back for lunch post-cruise. Make sure to bring a 20 yuan note with you, as the picture on the back is taken from the Xingping area. Be ready for a taxi to a bus to a mini-bus to a short walk to board your boat, as well as about a million other boats trolling the stream. While they no doubt take away from the splendor, this area of the river is still THAT BEAUTIFUL to make it worthwhile. Wander the local market before heading back to the hostel for lunch.

Get ready for a relaxing afternoon! You’ve earned it. Hop on your bicycles and head to the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (Address above, 30 minutes by cycle) for an afternoon swim/sunbathing/soda and french fries experience. Just make sure to leave in time for dinner! Drop off your bikes on the way back and pick up a DVD. Don’t forget to take your bike deposit! Take a motorcycle taxi back to the hostel ($1.50). Grab the handlebars behind you, let your hair down and enjoy the short ride. It’s a truly Chinese experience. If you’re back in time, watch them prepare dinner in the kitchen then dive in to the delectable creations. Get to know your fellow guests! No doubt they’re interesting people. Cap the day off with a movie and hit the sack before midnight.

Day Three

Get up and out early yet again! You’ve got to beat the afternoon heat. Pack your bags and checkout, leaving your stuff at the hostel for the day. Stuff down breakfast then wander back into town and rent a scooter ($13 for the day, $55 deposit plus ID card as collateral). Don’t forget your helmet and your map!

Now, head in whichever direction strikes your fancy. The further afield you get, the more remote and untouched it will look and feel. Turn off into small paved and not-paved roads. Let yourself go. Take a break around 2pm for lunch and an escape from the heat wherever you end up. Some sites to consider on the journey: Moon Hill, The Water and Mud Caves, market days in Fuli and Baishi. Just get lost then find your way back for dinner at 6pm!

Post-dining grab a taxi to the express bus to the airport bus for one of the late-night flights to other China destinations. Pat yourself on the back for three days well done.

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The Tips & Tricks

If you have more days, do more exploring! Another day on the scooter in a totally different direction will no doubt lead to an entirely different adventure.
Bike Asia also organizes day-long cycling trip all over the region. Wander in or send an email for more information.
Rock climbing is also big in the area. Stop into any tourism bureau to arrange. Also ask Wei at Yangshuo Culture House. He can book or recommend anything and everything.
Another fascinating day trip goes the the Longji Terraces - farmland that has literally been carved into the side of a mountain. It’s three and a half hours each way, with lunch and sightseeing in the middle. A fairly gorgeous bus ride as well.
No promises on the hygiene inside the Mud Cave. Enter and cover yourself in mud at your own risk.
Don’t shop for bags, jewelry or DVDS en masse here! The mark-ups are enormous and locals aren’t all that interested in bargaining.
Remember that Yangshuo is also a top destination for Chinese tourists, so don’t be surprised if the only other foreigners you seem to run into are staying at your guesthouse.

Don’t Miss This Place. It’s A Must-See, Must-Do, Must-Must!

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Kyle Taylor

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