Drooping willow tree leaning over noisy stream: check. Cobbled street lined with swaying red lanterns: check. Cyclist wearing conical hat wobbling down said street: check. Everything I had come to expect of a tiny Southern Chinese town; Yangshuo is a popular backpacker hangout stuffed with character and teeming with small cafes. But the most striking characteristic of Yangshuo is its natural environs, settled as it is amongst atmospheric karst mountains. These tall, thin, rounded, limestone peaks are the epitome of the romantic images people tend to have of China, formed from patterned plates in their grandmother’s house.
I had caught an excellent sleeper bus there from Shenzhen. Upon arrival in Yangshuo, my friends and I were instantly struck by the sight of the ethereal, mossy-green peaks. We were also immediately inundated by hotel touts – in particular, one persistent chap called Larry who was dressed in a rather snappy suit. He corralled us into going to his hotel which was brand new and obscenely cheap. We explained however, that we wanted to look at other hotels to compare. Within minutes hotel touts approached us, but as they got near they would look worried and back off. We soon realized that there was shouting coming from just behind us, accompanied by a buzzing noise; looking over our shoulders, we saw Larry following us on his moped, aggressively warning off the other touts. When he noticed us looking at him, he stopped mid-rant and his face broke into a huge beam. His persistence won us over, and back to Larry’s hotel we tramped.
Yangshuo is quite westernized; its town center caters purely to tourists as its profile has risen in backpacker circles. However, it still retains its sleepy charm. We spent the first day strolling around town, stopping at one of the cafes for the obligatory banana pancakes. We sat by the serene Li Jiang River admiring the mighty banyan trees along the bank. We found a restaurant with a scruffy rooftop terrace, where we ate noodles whilst looking out over the higgledy-piggledy rooftops.
One of the favored activities of visitors here is to hire a bike; it is the best way to see the magnificent scenery. After maneuvering the busy roads out of the town, you find yourself cycling along dreamy, tree-lined avenues. Rivers run alongside the neat green paddy fields and the mountains beckon you through the hazy air.
That evening while we were sitting outside a bar, looking at some photos of London, a man offered me a shoe-shine even though I was wearing flip-flops. He ignored my reply as he gazed in awe at the photographs in my hand. I gave him a picture and he was as delighted as if I had given him money. In the same night we met a boy from Tibet who warned us that if we ever go to Tibet we must take vitamins, eat vegetables, not go out after dark and buy a knife. This little town seemed to be full of unusual characters – and that is the crux of its charm; it is a melting pot of people, tucked away amongst weird mountains in the middle of nowhere.
It was time to move on. From Guilin we were to catch our bus to the village of Ping’an – a Zhuang community – in the Dragon Backbone Terraces. The bus ride to the rice terraces that have been cultivated 800 meters high in the mountains was hair-raising to say the least. The bus snaked around the agonizingly bumpy road, tantalizingly close to a dramatic drop on one side, groaning at each turn.
At Ping’an we were instantly bowled over by the views of the neatly stepped terraces snaking around the mountains – the ridges of which resemble the spine of a sleeping dragon wreathed in mist. There is an alpine feel about the village; wooden cabins on stilts climb up the hillside. Intensely steep stone paths wind around the houses like a rabbit warren. Despite the evident influx of tourism, it is pure magic – like a village out of a fairy tale. The only blight on the place is the continuous sound of construction. We chose a guest house with spine-tingling views. However, although the stilted cabins look impressive at first, you soon notice the haste with which they have been built; most have no glass in the windows, and there are gaps between floors and walls. This may seem quaint but at night the temperatures drop drastically. None of the houses has heating, and the locals rarely even light fires.
For the more active visitors there are numerous trails you can follow amongst the terraces, with wonderful, birds-eye views – mist permitting. We climbed the terraces and found ourselves followed by a gaggle of women in multi-colored traditional dress, one of whom persuaded us to pay her to unwind her exceptionally long hair. This mane of black glossy hair reached to her feet; we made appropriate cooing noises, took a photo – and then she unclipped big chunks of it. We realized we had found the reason for the only pony in Ping’an.
Ping’an is delightful but I would recommend visiting in the summer as the winter cold is extreme. The terraces are also brown in winter whilst in the summer months they are green and lush. Whatever the weather, for an other-worldly experience, you really couldn’t find much to top this.
Back in Guilin, we caught a seedy-looking sleeper bus whose other occupants were spitting or chain-smoking. During the horrendous journey the maniac driver careened around corners and beeped continuously as we hurtled along.
That’s the thing about China; you discover the most delightful corners of the world, only to find yourself freezing to death; you find yourself on luxurious public transport one day only to find yourself on the bus from hell the next. You never know what to expect other than the unforgettable.