72 hours in Yangshuo: Tourist town by trade, simple village at heart
Epic mountains and rivers snake against the Yangshuo horizon, the same protagonists of the vista that countless Chinese poets and painters have immortalized into prose. It is a scene that most people attribute to the city of Guilin but should actually be credited to the town of Yangshuo. The small hamlet rests at the intersection of the legendary Li and Yulong Rivers and in the 120 minutes it takes to get there from Guilin, buildings grow smaller, mountains taller, grass wilder and air fresher.
Here's how to get the most out of Yangshuo in three days.
While there are regular mini buses in Yangshuo that whisk travelers to 800-year-old Fuli Town in 20 minutes along the main highway, the best way to go is via two wheels along village back roads.
The country roads are tough, winding, bumpy and badly marked. Luckily there’s always a villager willing to point lost travelers the right way.
It takes roughly two hours to get to the town, a parochial little place lined with crumbling houses, narrow alley ways and many stalls hawking identical meter-long paper fans. There is little here to get too excited by however.
The village market, an open-air affair specializing in pickpockets, offers little redemption.
While the destination is forgettable, the journey there is spectacular. Bicycling on nearly deserted roads, we passed by solitary farmers in rice paddies, water buffalo lowing in ponds, sandal-clad provincial bee farmers and tourist couples on tandem bikes, all against a postcard-perfect backdrop.
The next day, we set out again on bikes this time following the river down towards Yulong Bridge. During the arduous three-hour ride along labyrinthine back roads, we saw a whole new countryside -- the land stretching ahead in endlessly beautiful fields framed by mountains on one side and a river on the other, the air becoming tinged with flower scents and breezes that rise easily off the water.
Halfway through our ride, a local villager began following our group. The timing couldn’t have been better as the smooth, wide path soon narrowed and then narrowed again until it all but disappeared. There wasn’t a soul in sight to direct us and the newcomer quickly changed from being an interloper to our new friendly guide. We rode through people’s backyards, drank from local wells and criss-crossed between marshy rice paddies via furrows so perilous that one wrong bump could have sent us tumbling into the mud.
When we made it to our destination, we supped on the water at a lovely home-style restaurant serving up tender, aromatic beer-braised fish (pijiu yu -- a local specialty). With the late afternoon sun on our faces, we booked a bamboo raft to take us back (RMB160 for two people). For the hour-long trip downstream, our books lay idle on our laps as the boatman told us stories of a time when tigers still roamed the mountains.
On the last day we booked a trip to Longjin River Drifting (RMB160 per person including ticket and transport), a place where safety standards indirectly correlate with fun levels. With only a flimsy life jacket and plastic helmet for protection, people are paired together and sent down rocky rapids in rubber rafts for an hour and a half of death-defying adventure.
Within our group, multiple people lost their helmets and one particularly unfortunate rider tumbled out completely, losing his helmet, glasses and left shoe. It was scary as hell but when I wasn’t being submerged by water, I was laughing like a maniac. Bring a change of clothing.
That evening we booked a boat tour (RMB30 per person) to a cormorant night-fishing show. The set up is simple: two fishermen, each with a harem of cormorant birds, sandwich the tour boat on narrow bamboo rafts.
Tourists watch as the birds obediently dive into the inky river emerging periodically to bring up fish for their masters. The show ends with all three boats docking on a rocky bank a mile away from town for a photo op. A bit contrived but quite good fun.
Before heading back, we asked the captain of our tour boat if he could drop us off at a slightly earlier location. He directed us toward the fishermen’s rafts, pulling out two cigarettes. Handing them to the fishermen, he said “You sit there. Boyfriend sit there. No move. Boat flip over.” And that was how China’s cigarette culture got us entry to the legendary rafts profiled on BBC’s Wild China.
Upon safe arrival at our dock, we unfurled two 10 kuai notes, pressing them into our deliverers’ hands. As happy surprise flushed over their faces, it was clear that though a modern tourist town by trade, Yangshuo remains, in all the nicest ways, a small village at heart.