The famous Chinese saying goes ‘Guilin shanshui jia tianxia 桂林山水甲天下,’ the scenery of Guilin is unmatched beneath the heavens.
Perhaps, that is, except for Yangshuo, an hour’s drive further south.
Tomorrow, we shall embark on a 5 hour bullet train journey direct to Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, a distance of around 780 kilometres. There, we will experience an outdoors activity camp, explore the karst landscape on foot and bicycle, see the best sights Guilin has to offer, all based from our guesthouse near the Li river on West Street, the lively and picturesque tourist centre.
We shall stay for one week, and my plan is to share the highlights of our experience day by day, through additions to this post.
I hope you will enjoy the ride, and let it serve as an exciting example of convenient travel options when you live in Chongqing.
While everything should be straight forward, there is one potential stumbling block, and that is, of course, running the gauntlets of Chongqing train stations.
In fact, we successfully jumped the first hurdle a few weeks back. Tickets are scarce in the summer holiday, so we plugged our names into the Qunar Travel App for three return tickets and kept our fingers crossed.
The notification informing us that the ticket costs had been deducted meant our prayers went answered, but there was still one obstacle separating us from holding the tickets, and that was the fact two of us had to reserve using our passport numbers.
What’s the big deal? Well, Chinese ID card holders can just scan them at the automatic ticket dispensers and be done with. Otherwise, we have to queue in the main hall at Chongqing North and ask the attendant to print them out.
Even though it was a normal midweek day, we needed an hour to reach the front of the queue, present our reservation code and passport numbers, in a hall full of noise, commotion and summer humidty.
At least fortune favours the brave. We finally took away all the tickets for our return journey, and may that be the last of the ordeals!
August 1st 2019 – Day one
As I expected, entering the majestic Chongqing West was a colourful mess. Cars inched past each other in all directions as they vied for spaces, traffic police looking on with helpless resignation.
Once the ID inspectors scoured our passports carefully, we had made it through in one piece, and with relatively little fuss, to boot.
Now the excitement of taking the bullet train could start.
The second class section of the train has rows of three seats and two more either side if the aisle. While the atmosphere is quite lively, it doesn’t suffer from the overcrowding of the slower K trains. The seats are very firm, but they do recline reasonably far, there’s plenty of leg space, and it’s great watching mountainous terrain outside fly past.
On many an occasion, we’d emerged out of a tunnel and behold idyllic Swiss like valleys adorned with traditional wooden villages and white water streams. By the time my phone camera was poised, our train had already shot into another long dark tunnel.
Our five hour journey took us past Zunyi遵义, Guiyang贵阳, Longli龙里, Rongjiang榕江, Sanjiang三江, Guilin桂林, and finally into Yangshuo阳朔. Our speed topped around 250 kilometres an hour.
As we approached Guilin, the otherworldly karst backdrop came into view, and by the time we left the train at Yangshuo, we were surrounded by them. It was great to be back after over ten years away.
Two friendly representatives from the camping operator were there to pick us up in a people carrier, and they dropped the two of us just outside West Street, before the kids and minders continued on to the campsite.
During the daytime and early evening, the streets are relatively quiet, as everybody goes out to explore the countless attractions, but once the sun sets, the whole of West Street teems with locals and tourists alike, bars with resident singers blare out, and even Phuket style nightclubs pulsate into the night.
Our guesthouse was at the foot of Bilian Peak 碧莲峰 by the Li River, accessible through a narrow but unthreatening alleyway. Once inside, the noise of the clubs and general commotion disappeared from earshot.
It had been a long day, so the evening consisted of trying the local specialty that is fish cooked in beer 啤酒鱼pi jiu yu. The taste of beer is by no means strong, and the mix of tomatoes makes for a very appetising dish. You’ll have to take my word and try for yourself.
The local beer I tried was a little drab and watery.
Later, we were amused to see a shop selling local minority taffy sweets, with two traditionally dressed men beating the mixture at the bottom of a tub with a heavy cross like wooden beam. A portable speaker blared out some bland Chinese dance music as they beat the mixture to the rhythm.
Tomorrow, we will visit the campsite, and offer you a review of the facilities and itinerary, a very appealing alternative to dealing with the touts on a daily basis.
Also, I promise to arrange the photos better when I have access to my computer.
August 2nd – Day two
We stepped out after 8am, and found the thronging masses from the previous night were either in slumber, or already out on their travels for the day. The streets were almost deserted, and the few people we saw were mostly delivery men on their morning rounds. Nevertheless, we found a place dishing tasty Guilin rice noodles before the rendez-vous.
Our aim this day was to experience a campsite and outdoor activities organisation deep in the Yangshuo countryside.
A locative and friendly young lady from Hunan Province picked us up by the Shuangyue Bridge双月桥. The first stop was a countryhouse where we met the guides, watched the youngsters play games, and explored the small but homely building.
July was a torrential month for southwest China this year, and coupled with a dam release upriver, the word from locals here was that the Li River swelled high enough to submerge the lower reaches of West Street, and the countryhouse by around 1.5 metres. The result was July was a washout for the businesses here, but more people cramming the streets in August once the vestige of summer returned.
The countryhouse had two private bedrooms side by side, a living room that opened directly onto a patio looking directly over the Li River, and a large kitchen for catering. We sat in on the covered terrace for lunch, also walking down to the riverbank in the time between.
Trek to Liugong Village 留公村
You have undoubtedly gathered from my posts that old towns are a craze in China. While most are heavily commercialised, this is a rare opportunity to truly explore a truly authentic old village where its original families continue to live, and without any commercial development. The only other tourists apart from the small delegation was a French family who arrived on rented scooters.
The kids’ task was to guide us through country roads and dirt tracks to the old village of Liugong, with the mere aid of a sketchy map and portable compass.
After about an hour pushing through some thick vegetation, but mercifully free of blood sucking insects and nettles, we made it to Liugong, a well preserved Qing Dynasty village, complete with a former river port, and famous for a personal visit from Sun Yatsen 孙中山(Sun zhongshan), who climbed the port entrance gate to admire the view back in 1921.
We explored the small village to answer a questionnaire the guide had prepared for us, then were further rewarded by a local government delegation passing through and opening up the small padlocked museum. Inside, there was information about Sun Yatsen and his visit, along with old machines and contraptions its former glory days as a Qing Dynasty river port.
A large people carrier drove us across paved roads barely narrow enough to pass, as we crossed between paddy fields to the karst mountain scenery.
The campsite had an open field for tents, a long covered activities area with kitchen and pizza oven at one end. At the other were the segregated washrooms with untiled cubicles, each with squat toilet and hot shower. Outside was a long wash basin for doing the washing up and personal hygiene.
Our fun activity this evening was homemade pizzas, from mixing the dough, shaping, topping and baking in the charcoal fired oven.
In the end, our Hunanese friend returned us to Yangshuo, and except a few stops in the endless shops and stalls, we walked past the pulsating nightclubs and retreated to the guesthouse.
August 3rd – Cycling through Yangshuo County
For me, the greatest attraction of Yangshuo is the opportunity to hire a bicycle and explore the country for yourself.
This way, there’s no need to follow anybody else’s schedule, or feel pressured into visiting overpriced tourist traps when stuck in a travel agent’s van in the middle of nowhere.
Yangshuo is almost perfect for cycling. The main roads have wide cycle lanes, and even tracks cutting through quiet villages and paddy fields are mostly level and well maintained.
Compared to over a decade ago, the number of construction vehicles bombing along the public roads kicking up storms of dust, with ear drum shattering horns blazing all the time have completely disappeared. The only large vehicles we encountered today were the occasional tourist coaches that drove by slowly, and small trucks carrying stacks of rafts back up the river for the next hoard of tourists wanting to raft down the river.
We followed the route miss Dai, the young Hunanese woman who kindly picked us up the day previously, suggested to us. A popular cycling route is from West Street in Yangshuo to Jima Port 骥马码头 at the Yulong River, where tourists love to start a rafting trip downriver. Our route took us along near the riverside down to a hotel called the Shengdi Hotel胜地酒店 for lunch. This hotel has parking that’s in desperately short supply in Yangshuo proper, has gardens with seating that overlook directly over the river as tourists float serenely by. The location and stop-off point is so idyllic that I have resolved to stay here in the future should we ever drive this way again in the future.
Coasting on a few more easy kilometres, we reached the main road and cycled towards moon hill月亮山 (Yue liang shan), the triangular peak with a crescent shaped hollow. I climbed this peak over decade ago, something worth doing for the views if you have time. This day, however, we stopped roadside for some coconuts before cycling back to Yangshuo. It had been a good five hours since we hired the bicycles.
I consider hiring a mountain bike for 30 Yuan a day without any deposit, and covering all of the cycle routes the must-do activity in Yangshuo. En route, you can take your pick of the tourist sites to visit, but I consider most of them as overpriced for quite an average experience.
Also, the terrain, road conditions and distances should present no real challenge to even the most unfit of travellers. We covered the entire distance in two hours of cycling time at a very leisurely pace, and were rewarded by the spectacular views at every step of the way.
You needn’t stock up on water or snacks. There are amenities to be found at almost every stage of the journey, and shaded seating for restbites out of the sun.
In the evening, we finished a stroll through West Street with a visit to a Chengdu ear picking clinic. You sit relaxed on a bamboo chair as a friendly practitioner uses a variety of tools to clear out wax from your ears.
The sensation is one of slight nervousness, born out of concern the worker will pierce your ear drums with the sharp utensils, but also a touch of pleasant ticklishness as they make use of the feather tipped stick, enhanced by a vibration fork they hold against the thin metal picks.
With squeaky clean ear canals, I picked up a bottle of local Liquan Beer漓泉啤酒 to drink on the guesthouse balcony before calling it a night. Another fantastic day!
August 4th and 5th
The skies cleared, allowing the sun to beat down harder on the lands of Yangshuo. Wth our skin suitably reddened from the previous day’s excursion, the past two days have been somewhat more low key, but by no means less pleasant.
On the morning’s list was the Huixian pagoda 会仙亭(Hui xian ting) that stands upon one of the few crags possible to climb. A walk into Yangshuo Park and a short climb up some uneven stone steps leads to a small pagoda, where there’s a decent view over the town, and sleepy locals nap along the stone slabs.
Near Shuangyue Bridge is the former residence of Beihong 徐悲鸿, a famous twentieth century Chinese artist. The small building and courtyard are well maintained and open to the public free of charge. I have downloaded a few of his works to share in the photographs below.
Later in the day, we walked down to the riverside in hope of finding a place to swim in the Li River. Once the midday heat subsides, adults and children alike dip in the cool, shallow but fast flowing waters. In the middle of the river, a few fishermen stood only waist deep in water, nonchalantly holding out a fishing rod each.
Over on the far bank, youngsters frolicked in quieter bays with lesser risk of being washed away by the strong current. In the end, we took our place among younger couples who sat on the edge whilst dipping their feet.
An English friend returned that night from the campsite, and relived the luxuries of a proper shower, cosy bed, an evening litre bottle of chilled local beer called Liqian Pijiu漓泉啤酒 sat on the rooftop veranda, and a quiet night with air conditioning.
Apart from gashing his leg on a steel cable whilst crossing a mid-air wooden plank bridge, it’s been a good experience so far, and great to see the kids willingly ditch their mobile phones and iPads for once.
Advice on Beer Fish
Over a decade ago, beer fish was truly a rural speciality sold to tourists in out of town farmhouses. At the time, it wasn’t the industrial scale phenomenon it is today.
One brand in particular has gobbled the lion’s share of the market, the Beer Fish Master大师傅啤酒鱼(Da shi fu pi jiu yu), obvious when you turn any corner and behold the gargantuan signage and bustling atmosphere.
Biggest, however, doesn’t necessarily equate to best.
Miss. Dai told us about an age old individual restaurant called Sister Li Beer Fish李姐啤酒鱼(Li jie pi jiu yu), and she arranged that everybody meet there on Monday night to mark leaving the campsite in favour of the hotel comforts.
Indeed, our generous hosts treated us to a feast of great beer fish, and a medley of delectible local dishes. There were also two unusual dishes I had never seen before. One was fried pumpkin buds, and the other sugar coated taros we had to first dip in water.
In terms of price and quality, this was by far the best culinary experience we had in Yangshuo.
You can find the inconspicuous Sister Li restaurant after fifty metres on the left as you walk up Furong Road芙蓉街(Fu rong jie). It has a black frontage with the Chinese name in big white characters.
August 6th – Back in Action
It may have been au revior to the campsite, but one more activity remains on the summer camp itinerary, cave exploration!
A brief word of caution is in order.
The cave operators provide tourists with a safety hemlet with built in torch, but it’s vital to procure a set of quick-dry shoes that cover your feet and toes, even a tacky 20 yuan pair in the Yangshuo market will do the trick.
Cave tours here involve wading through shallow but rocky underground rivers, and you don’t want to suffer the misfortune of stubbing toes at any point.
Our guide’s choice was Moon Water Cave 月亮水岩.
Interestingly, nobody charges an entrance ticket, unlike the other commercialised options. As long as you have a helmet with mounted torch, you climb into the rusty barge and the hut manager will take you in by pulling on the ropes.
A climb through the system takes about an hour, and while it is adventurous, there’s nothing a group of children can’t handle, as demonstrated by our visit today.
The highlights include sizeable caverns, wading through knee deep underground streams, waterfalls, the mud pool, bat spotting and a little fun rock climbing. Inside, the addition of concrete steps, rails, and even a firm wooden ladder at the end eliminates the need for any prior expertise in cave exploration.
Once outside, a picturesque twenty minute walk a long the wild mountain path takes you back tothe starting point. A morning or afternoon very well spent!
We said our goodbyes to the excellent guides over an Indian lunch. Lewis, the Chinese team leader, and his Ecuadorian assistant, Christian, prompted the kids to recall what they had experienced the past week, and the skills they had learnt. We parted ways, and spent the rest of the day relaxing in Yangshuo. I hope we meet again soon, perhaps one day in Quito, even!
Tomorrow evening, we take a late train back to Chongqing, but before we head to Yangshuo Station, we have booked ourselves on a guided tour of Xingping兴坪, where you can see the scene depicted on the back of the 20 Yuan note.
August 7th – The Final Installment
The friendly receptionists at the Yi-ou Teahouse Hotel 壹瓯茶居酒店, our base for the past week, booked us in for the boat tour of Xingping. August is peak season, so the coach would pick us up just after 7am at the top of West Street, in hope of missing the crowds.
Our host for the 40 minute journey was a young and chirpy Miao ethnic minority woman, who gave us a rundown of the morning’s itinerary. Learning that I understood her talk, she asked me to pass on the instructions to a family of three other foreigners sat a few rows in front.
Once parked up in the noisy Xingping bus station, I gave the elder man a friendly tap on the shoulder, in response to which he passed communication responsibilities to his son, a young man in his early twenties.
I explained that there would be a 25 fee surcharge for boating without a fourth passenger, and my party of five were immediately keen to boot me off and take the powered raft with the family instead.
In all, we were a coachload of strangers numbering over forty passengers. We left the coach and headed down a street towards the scenic area entrance. Our guide, who told us to call her the affectionate name of Xiao Mao (小猫 Little cat), dived into the ticket office and re-emerged with a wad of tickets. Once she saw us inside, she retired back to the coach.
The ticket includes entrance, a return buggy ride to the port and back, plus the river tour.
I arrived at the port with a feeling of slight reticence. Little Cat warned us that we might have to queue around an hour for a boat, not much fun in the heat among thronging crowds.
However, my reservations turned to delight as we got off the buggy, walked down the corridoor and met our tillerman without any delay at all! He tore away our ticket stubs and stashed them in his pocket. We put on the life jackets he dished out, took our seats, and off we went a kilometres upriver before returning to the same point.
As we chatted on the front seat, I learnt the young man I guessed was Swedish turned out to be from Lithuania. He spoke English reasonably well, and his parents almost none at all. He had compatriot based in Holland, but was in China this month to hold a wedding with his Chinese bride. For the whole month of their permitted stay, the family I accompanied on the raft were cramming in as much of the country as they could.
All the rafts were made of large bamboo pipes bound together, with a seating for four people in rows of two, a canopy and room for a tillerman who operated the mounted engine at the back.
The river trip was very pleasant and worthwhile.
Back on the shore, there is ample time to look across the river and take in the scene depicted on the 20 Yuan note. The scenery is gorgeous wherever you look, and the view looks almost exactly the same as on the banknote, even the drooping bamboo trees on the right bank!
Our instructions were to reassemble on the coach by 10:30. The fact we didn’t need to queue meant we had nearly an hour to explore Xingping Old Town 兴坪古城. Visitors have to walk through the entrance to the town and take the first left to reach the coach station, but we had time to take a look around.
There was nothing that really distinguished it from many other old towns we have visited, except that it truly is old, and not a modern construction in disguise. We tried some snacks, and the ladies spent half the time available studying cheap jewellery as the rest of us sat by and waited.
You may remember that all of Yangshuo flooded the month before, and I found a red mark on a whitewashed facade showing the height the waters rose to. It is about the same height as myself, and considering we were already well above the river, it’s astonishing how even heavy rains and a dam release could reach such levels.
In any case, the locals must have refurbished the shop fronts, restaurants and hotels in next to no time, as I wouldn’t have even noticed such an event took place a matter of weeks ago, seeing how the extent to which everything was business as usual.
We paid 130 Yuan each for our all inclusive return trip. Do shop around though, as different agencies have their own mark-ups.
The rest of the day was pleasant, but nothing of great interest to the reader. After refreshing ourselves from the morning’s excertion, we checked out, visited Sister Li again, watched a film at the Yitian Shopping Centre, and took our lift back to Yangshuo Station, we watched the sun set between two peaks and on our adventure trip.
Five hours later, our bullet train pulled into Chongqing West. The holiday was over!