Just before my great railway adventure, I taught English to a group of Chinese students in Sydney. When they found out I would be visiting their homeland, an explosion of advice landed before me.
“Yangshuo is beautiful, teacher. You must go,” I was told. The Lí River and its unravelling scenery of karsts have long been eulogised in Chinese art and poetry, and even feature on the back of the ¥20 note. As it so happened, I also knew someone that lives there.
I met Becky at an Asian Women’s Empowerment conference in Indonesia back in 2015 (I was attending the conference with the Women’s Resource Center). Her smile, charm and traditional bright pink dress wooed me in and we instantly connected. So, I arranged to meet her during our short side-trip.
After cruising down the Lí River from Guilin, we arrived in the small yet bustling town of Yangshuo. The port was within easy walking distance of West Street, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our bags and waited for Becky to arrive.
She was just as I remembered, only this time she was wearing Western clothing. Cecily, her friend, was also with her. They took up positions on the lounge opposite us in the hotel’s authentically decorated reception area.
“So, what do you want to do in Yangshuo?” she asked. Admittedly, we had been lazy and were hoping she would tell us what to do.
“Well, that depends on what you like to do,” she said in her deep voice. She listed the options, from cultural to adventurous to culinary, and together we sorted out an itinerary. Before long, we were up and ready to start.
We walked through the pedestrian zone and into the streets, chatting along the way. Becky, as it turned out, is actually from nearby Longji (where the women grow their hair amazingly long) and had moved to Yangshuo for work. She teaches Mandarin, Chinese calligraphy and ink wash painting.
Amongst the smaller karsts appeared Yangshuo Park – our first destination. A canopy of trees shaded the gardens where people were practising Tai Chi. Time slowed as we wandered along the stone path and over the mini bridges crossing the canals. We admired the elderly along the way, as they played cards at little stone tables and stools. Other people were dancing, playing music or just generally socialising. Everyone seemed to be calm and enjoying their peaceful surroundings.
Outside the park, we traversed the traffic both on the footpaths and streets, until we reached the far end of the town. A concrete path began, taking us into a sort of valley with canals and rice fields. We ventured further into the surrounding countryside until the threatening clouds forced us to turn back.
West Street was humming when we returned. Becky and Cecily went to work while we sampled the beer at the restaurant next to our hotel. Afterwards, we headed back into the pedestrian zone in search of food, and then had Chinese massages on the beds in our rooms – the strong hands of the Chinese women sending us off to sleep.
Becky had organised a taxi to take us around for the day. We ate a Western breakfast at Lucy’s Place and then stood watching the morning traffic on the main road pass by, trying to spot the license plate of the driver.
Chen Shifu pulled over at exactly 8:30am and we set off for Seven Star Tea Plantation. The photo opportunities along the way were just too good to miss and when we stopped to admire the view, Chen insisted on having our phones so she could take pictures of us before the rolling karsts. My camera memory was almost full by the time we reached the tea plantation. Chen used her smartphone to translate and teach us Chinese, as well as to note down important English words.
Chen’s VW Santana taxi pulled into the car park of the Seven Star Tea Plantation and we hopped out. She spoke with the guard and then signalled for us to take some straw hats and baskets for collecting tea (the latter of which were purely decorative – I assume for photos). Up the hill we went, leaving her behind to wait for us.
At the top of the terrace, we marvelled at the peaceful hills, which grew and fell one after the other. There were no other tourists and around us, men and women picked tea leaves from the sea of greenery. We walked up and down every path we could find, building up a sweat in the process, before returning to the car park.
We found Chen in the teahouse and settled down for a tea ceremony. A serene woman with delicate hands showed us how to drink green, black, oolong and white tea. The leaves brewed in the see-through glass cups as she explained the benefits of drinking tea. If I had had any room in my backpack, I would have bought lots of tea and its paraphernalia.
Outside, the sun was ascending but the colour of the sky remained opaque. We drove onto Xianggong Mountain. A little, fluffy, white dog guarded the entrance to the steps and a moderate climb up brought us to a spectacular view of the Lí River. Each karst took on a different form and height, and each layer of karst faded in colour until they extended beyond our view, just like the Chinese ink wash paintings depict. Distant fireworks went off from several locations – Chen told us that they were most likely from local wedding celebrations.
Our next stop was the beautiful Fuli Bridge. We walked over its 500-year-old stones, which apparently form the tallest arch in the province. Down a little path through the grass, we happened upon a local painter, sitting front on to the bridge. We watched as his art took shape before retracing our steps.
We ate lunch with Chen at a local kiosk by the waterside. Without the picture-menus they use in town, we struggled to order. Somehow, we received hand-cut noodles and dumplings, most likely thanks to sign language communication with Chen. We hardly saw a tourist – only the friendly yet curious faces of the locals.
After six hours, we returned to Yangshuo and said goodbye to Chen. We drank an afternoon coffee at Yunnan Arabica Coffee and quickly checked our emails using their VPN wifi – Becky had confirmed she would take us to breakfast the following morning.
Afternoon showers forced us to relax and drink more beer. We eventually braved the drizzle using umbrellas from the hotel and enjoyed vegetarian dumplings at Gan’s Noodle House. When the rain stopped, we explored West Street and the surrounding pedestrian zone – ultimately being enticed into a shop to purchase an overpriced ink wash painting of orchids.
Becky was waiting for us at reception at 7:30am. The first thing we did was hire bicycles from the alleyway behind our hotel. We weaved through the street traffic until we reached the outskirts of town. Breakfast took place outside on a wide, round table on the footpath. The manager of the restaurant spent the first few minutes fussing with electrical cables, trying to connect the hot plate.
A typical Chinese breakfast could last hours and is intend more like brunch. Becky said she usually ate Guilin noddles or porridge in the mornings. Today, however, she wanted us to try local tea oil. Its light green colour from the smashed tea leaves didn’t look particularly appetising. It came flavoured with garlic, salt, ginger and chilli, and then we added spring onions, puffed rice, peanuts and more salt. I needed a few sips before I got used to the taste, and was happy to accompany the tea with fried noddles, tofu and dumplings.
Afterwards, we came to the same concrete path from the other day. It was difficult to lift the bicycles up the steps and onto the path but we managed. On, we cycled as it began to drizzle on our rain ponchos. We were pretty wet and sweaty by the time we arrived for our Tai Chi lesson at Yangshuo Traditional Tai Chi School in Jimi village.
Inspired by those in the park, we had decided to attempt Tai Chi. We quickly found out that it’s a lot harder than it looks and requires both strength and coordination. After stretching and hearing a little about the philosophy behind Tai Chi, we barely had time to learn the moves. One hour was too short! Despite this, the school enchanted me and I envisaged a time when I could return and soak in more. There were other foreigners there, some of whom were staying for up to six months.
It had stopped raining by the time we climbed back on our bicycles. We cycled from village to village through the picturesque rice fields. Farmers were out picking the rice in the ankle deep water. We crossed over the Yulong River and saw men collecting bamboo boats and bringing them up onto the bank. It was at about this point when my dad punctured a tyre. We walked back over the Yulong River, until we reached a small village and the house of an elderly man. Becky had asked along the way and had found out that this man could fix the tyre. He came out of his front door in a singlet – his hair grey and his shoulders rounded with age. He must have lost half his height over the years, although his stoop didn’t stop him before repairing the tyre.
We made it to Jiuxian village. The stone buildings were being restored, but we could still see some faded slogans on the wall from Mao’s Red Guards. After parking our bicycles and wandering around, we stopped at Secret Garden – a tranquil boutique hotel hidden away in the small lanes of the village. It was the perfect oasis for a refreshing drink and a quick snack.
Back in Yangshuo, it was hard to say goodbye to Becky. I wanted her to guide us through all of China, but of course she had her life to return to and we had our travels to continue. We were so lucky to have had her to show us around and give us access to local life in action. As a result, Yangshuo was a real highlight for the three of us, and is definitely somewhere we would like to return to.
MarcoPolo Mandarin: my friend Becky teaches Mandarin to foreigners in Yangshuo. She has also started teaching Chinese calligraphy and ink wash painting. You can like her Facebook page here or visit her website: http://marcopolomandarin.com/.
Accommodation: we stayed at Yangshuo West Street Residence aka C Source Hotel (I don’t know why it has two names). The location was ideal for us as we could easily get to places by foot. The rooms were nice, although we struggled a bit with the dehumidifier. There is a grand restaurant next door which, according to the photos on the walls, has entertained many famous people. It was practically empty while we were visiting, but we enjoyed sitting at their patio – drinking beer, watching the passersby on West Street and playing with the litter of kittens at our feet.
Guilin to Yangshuo: we took a cruise down the Lí River. It took about 4 hours and cost ¥395. Once at Yangshuo, it was very easy to walk from the port to West Street.
Yangshuo to Guilin: we took a local bus for about ¥20. The bus station is located on the outskirts of Yangshuo, close to the highway leading out of town. It can be a little difficult to find, so try and get good directions from your hotel or hostel.
The local bus stops many times along the way (at one point, it even filled up with school children). If you’re in a rush, there is a slightly more expensive, express bus available – but if you’re not, then this is a good way to see local life outside of the big city of Guilin.
In and around Yangshuo: we hired bicycles from one of the many bicycle hire shops. Another day, we negotiated a price with a local taxi driver to take us around. All up, she must have driven us for about 6 hours, stopped numerous times for photo opportunities, and taken us to some amazing locations outside of Yangshuo town. Other than that, it was ideal to explore the town’s streets by foot.
Travel advice: remember to carry a raincoat or umbrella around with you. Yangshuo is a great place just to wander around and discover, but you don’t want to get caught out in the rain.
China has restricted internet. We used the Express VPN app to access our emails and Facebook. It’s better to download it onto your phone before you arrive. In case you don’t, Yunnan Arabica Coffee not only makes great coffee, but they also have good VPN wifi.
Photo: The always smiling Becky from MarcoPolo Mandarin at Yangshuo Park