Fancy shooting pictures in one of China’s most beautiful landscapes? The last Li River fisherman living near Yangshuo can satisfy your desire. He is making a living from the increasing number of photographers instead of the decreasing quantity of fishes. The fishing is more for show than for real. Don’t be surprised if he advises you correctly about the lens or ISO to use. China keeps changing and developing. So does the old fisherman. However, westerners still prefer to admire the nostalgic scenes of China that might be a far cry from reality. Ten years ago, I nominated Yangshuo, as the top destination for independent travellers who wanted to discover authentic peaceful Chinese countryside. When my friends asked me to organize a trip to a peaceful place in China this spring, I chose Yangshuo without hesitation.
Arriving there one Saturday night before the Qingming festival in early April, we were shocked! Explosive music was coming from bars, restaurants and shops were competing noisily with each other to show their ‘hospitality’. Xijie was stuffed with boisterous crowds, and simply unapproachable. Our hostel was located in the centre of this hustle and bustle, only 100-meter away from Xijie. Climbing the gloomy, dirty stairs to the entrance of our hostel on the 2nd floor, my friends were looking increasingly downcast, and I was on the brink of collapse.
Yangshuo, this peaceful little town that I used to know from my earlier trips, has been developed to an up-and-coming city. Constructions of commercial buildings and tourist facilities are rocketing. I had nearly forgotten about this age-old problem happening to all the scenic places in China. Once they become known to tourists, frenetic and unchecked development will follow eventually, and urban sprawl is inevitable.
Fortunately, the hostel I had booked turned out to be quiet and clean. But I couldn’t find any accommodation that I had stayed in during my early trips on the same street. One was the Pingan Hostel whose entrance had beautifully carved traditional wooden doors and windows. Instead at the same location, I now found a bland shop in an ugly concrete block. I learned later that hotels hardly survive here for more than five years. Their facilities deteriorate quickly due to the use of cheap materials and the lack of regular maintenance. The increasing demand of tourism has often pushed hotel owners to sell their businesses and realise an immediate profit rather than spend additional money on renovation.
The next morning the sunrise, beaming on the nearby familiar graceful hills, lifted my drooping spirits. I was determined to guide my friends to explore the serene countryside during one of Yangshuo’s most crowded weekends of the year. Could we still find tranquil, natural retreats in the area inundated by tourists? After our four-day exciting exploration around Yangshuo, the answer was yes. Several strategic approaches are recommended.
First of all, choose to stay in a village outside Yangshuo. The huge amount of accommodation has appeared in the countryside since my last visit in 2007. Some villages are tidy and quiet, better developed than others. Hotels are not often as good as they are shown in the pictures posted on the Internet. Read carefully online comments made by other travellers. The drawback of staying in a village instead of Yanghsuo is the lack of public transport. Some thoughtful hotels offer bikes for rent.
Second, if you want to visit famous parks and attractions such as Moon Hill, Xingping, and the Yulong River, go there either early in the morning before 10am or late in the afternoon after 5pm. Don’t miss the markets held by various towns where you can observe vibrant local life.
Third, cycling is the best way to escape mass tourism. Buy a local map, and then venture in any direction heading for the countryside, enjoy the liberty of exploring, and let amazing discoveries of enchanting landscapes fill your journey with constant surprises. Bicycle rentals have remained reasonable: 10 yuan per day for a city bike, and 30 yuan for a mountain bike. Avoid main motorways linked to Guilin and Gaotian.
Finally, remember that no place in China could possibly beat Yangshuo in terms of varieties of outdoor activities such as climbing, hiking, rafting, canoeing, cave exploring, in addition to cycling.
Yangshuo is famous for rock climbing. I booked a half-day climbing course with a local club which was able to let us climb on the dry rock under a huge overhanging hill while it rained cats and dogs several meters away.
Hiring a bamboo raft to descend the Yulong River is a pleasant journey, best in late afternoon when the river is deserted. The rafting business is run by the local government on the Yulong and Li River. Prices are fixed for various distances and are fairly transparent. Such a centralised organisation seems necessary to cope with the increasing number of tourists in the region. Sadly, the rafts on the Li River near Xingping are equipped with motors now. It is rather like flying instead of drifting, causing tremendous noise, and transforming this fisherman’s paradise into a chaotic bazaar. A less frequented itinerary is from Liugong to Yangshuo.
Yangshuo is still the serene Yangshuo that I had known and liked even though it has gone through enormous changes, as have other places in China. Poverty used to confine Chinese to their native lands, whereas the booming economy and rapidly gained fortunes are increasing their mobility. Given the fact that China is the most populated country, obviously tourist attractions are bombarded, especially during weekends and public holidays. Constant changes and development have made it impossible to write China travel guides for transport and accommodation. Learning to manage disappointment, and having unexpected events enrich your experience enhance the charm of travelling in the search of secluded China.
Written by Amy Li in June 2015.
Pictures taken by Lao Pan in 2015.
Compare with Yangshuo 2003: Yangshuo is a place where I would like to go back again and again.