Often when people think of China they think of big cities, skyscrapers, smoggy skies and crowds. Yangshuo is none of those things (well, the crowds bit is relative), and I can warmly recommend spending a few days here. The busloads of Chinese tourists prove that this region, virtually unknown outside China, is important national scenery – and for obvious reasons.
Reading up before going, I wasn’t sure whether to expect pure natural beauty or villages-turned-tourist-traps. As can be expected, it was a bit of both. As novice China-goers, we appreciated the solid tourist infrastructure and vast array of activities on offer to keep the kids busy. We seemed to be interested in other things than the bus tours or on different schedule, and mostly managed to avoid them so yes, it was peaceful and beautiful.
We enjoyed hanging out in the garden of our hotel, but managed to do quite a few trips in the vicinity. The highlights for us on this trip were:
1. The views & rivers of Yangshuo
There is something peaceful about the karst mountains that even the noisy tourists can’t take away. The views here are a bit like in Halong Bay. We opted for bamboo rafting on the Yulong river – because it was in front of our hotel and you could do a child-friendly 45-minute trip. The mini-rapids provided enough fun and excitement for all.
This view is something special for the Chinese – the famous scenery from the back of the 20 yuan note. We arrived in the harsh afternoon light but it was nonetheless impressive. More river cruises and bamboo raft rides are available here.
2. Climbing Moon hill with the kids in Yangshuo
Steps after steps, steeper and steeper. But we all made it! And thanks to the effort you need to put into it, there weren’t that many other people on the track. We were rewarded with beautiful views and a great deal of smugness.
Afterwards we treated ourselves with some Italian food with a view at Luna restaurant, located at Yangshuo Village Inn, the sister establishment of Yangshuo Mountain Retreat.
Moon hill village seemed to be crowded with coach tourists, but there are beautiful nooks and corners if you take a step off from the main stretch. If you want to dress up in imperial gear and have your photo taken with the Moon hill as a back drop, that can be done, too.
3. Sanjie Liu
Spectacle is the best, if not only word to describe Sanjie Liu light show, directed by Zhang Yimou, the creative mind behind the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The Li river and the magnificent karst mountains form the stage and the background and a staggering number of performers (human and animal) are involved in the show. The narration is in Chinese but it didn’t bother us, the action on “stage” is captivating in itself. It’s great for kids – they got “wowed” by so many things in the show and only one fell asleep. It doesn’t surprise me that it gets full night after night. Well, it does, but so many things in China do. If you are visiting in the cooler nights, bring all the warm clothes and scarves you have with you.
4. Old towns
The main street in Yangshuo is an epitome of a tourist trap and turns into a carnival at night – the kids were mesmerised by the laser beams, drones and people selling the oddest toys and gadgets. It was starting to look like the town was about to burst in seams by dinner time so we took refuge at the Pure Lotus Vegetarian restaurant. All-veggie menu was very liberating: us non-meat eaters have some serious issues in this pork-loving nation…
The riverside of Yangshuo is pretty and you can see the iconic cormorant birds with their owners – they pose for photos for a fee. They also have a part to play in a Sanjie Liu so you can see them without taking a special tour – I’ve read mixed reviews of those.
We loved wandering around the markets and old villages of Xingping and Fuli. Especially Xingping seems to be getting ready for the opening of the new bullet train station and the masses that come with it. Sadly both places seemed to be geared towards the tour groups and there weren’t many interesting unique shops or restaurants that you would expect in such idyllic and historical places.
A few tips for visiting Yangshuo:
– Guilin airport is within easy reach from Yangshuo, served by AirAsia from KL. We noticed at the airport that Guilin is part of the 72 hour visa free initiative – something to think about when planning your trip since the Chinese visa is a bit pricey.
– The new fast train from Guangzhou is very comfortable and at the moment the nearest station is Gongcheng.
– Pre-book your transportation from the airport or train station through your hotel to avoid confusion.
– We organised all trips trough our hotel – easy and convenient. The drivers don’t generally speak English, so agree on all details beforehand if you are language challenged like us.
– Bicycles are the way to go here, but the roads are busy and driving style a bit, ehem, unpredictable so cycling with little ones is not a great idea.
– Taxis in Yangshuo have a set price for all trips – much higher than in the large cities – and we were surprised to spend a lot of money on getting around. When getting a taxi back from town the set price was sometimes not followed, though.
– Yangshuo insider is a great resource, enjoy planning your trip!