桂林山水甲天下 (Guìlín shānshuǐ jiǎ tiānxià)
– Guilin’s mountain and water scenery is the best under heaven.
Our first travelling adventure this term took us to the wonderful Guilin and Yangshuo, in the south of China. It is honestly the most beautiful place I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit, and I’d urge anyone planning a trip to Asia to put it on their list. It was particularly lovely for us having spent an intense first month back in Beijing as Guilin and Yangshuo are so completely different. It felt more like South-East Asia (for reference, we could have gotten a 10 hour bus to HK – that’s how far south we were) but with the added convenience that we could use our Chinese to get around.
We flew into Guilin late on Thursday night and got a short night’s sleep in our hostel. We decided to go with Wada Hostel for both Guilin and Yangshuo, which was a great decision. They were both so clean and homely, and the staff were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Furthermore, both locations were pretty central and most importantly, the food was delicious. Our first day in Guilin took us to the city centre to get a feel for the area and get some sight-seeing in.
We stumbled across a restaurant area giving out free noodles and books, which was an excellent introduction to the city. The books are Buddhist scriptures and stories, which don’t look too complicated so I’m planning to read them when I have free time as a more relaxed form of revision. We took our noodles and wandered over to the lake with the pagodas (after a little sugar-cane juice pit-stop). Guilin’s centre is filled with leafy boulevards and reminded us somewhat of Shanghai’s French Concession area.
We then made our way towards the ‘Elephant Trunk’, one of Guilin’s most famous natural beauties. After deciding against paying for the viewing platform, we instead peeked through the trees to get a view of the natural wonder. At this time some older women approached us, offering boat rides along the river. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a boat from Guilin to Yangshuo, so after we decided a suitably cheap price we were taken back to the hostel to collect bags and get a bus to the river.
It’s difficult to put in words the magnificence of the river and mountains, so I’ve posted many pictures to do the job for me. Our boat driver was a lovely old man who kept us informed about the significance of various mountains and landscapes (bandit hideouts, mountains that looked like nude women, rock markings of sparrows etc.) and insisted on calling Lib, Lou and me (sorry Alex) ‘美女’ – beautiful lady. The 20 yuan RMB note has a drawing of Guilin on the side not covered by Mao Zedong, and our boat ride also took us past the same cluster of mountains.
We were dropped off an hour’s bus journey from Yangshuo, and upon arrival, took another bus to the hostel. Wada Hostel Yangshuo is located incredibly close to the famous ‘West Street’, filled with restaurants and bars, so we freshened up and spent an evening wandering around. It’s such a fun place, and thanks to our visiting in the off-season, not horribly busy. We decided on Cloud 9 for dinner and after a few cocktails we got an earlier night.
On our second day, we opted to see Yangshuo by cycling. After the most delicious breakfast at “Minority Café”, we rented bikes for £2 each and purchased fabulous ponchos to save us from the imminent rain. Although our route initially took us along main roads with buses and tourists galore, when we made our way off the beaten track it was like stepping into another universe. It seems that some of my favourite moments in China have been on bikes – there is something so free and exhilarating about cycling through majestic landscapes with wonderful company. We had a vague route, but we mainly followed our noses through orange plantations, behind buffalo, and over rivers.
It was bliss until Liberty’s back tyre popped in the middle of nowhere. From this point on, we took shifts on riding the bike (it was hard work) and mused about how perfect it would be to find a place that served food, fixed tyres, and of course had facilities available. A serendipitous encounter with ‘Valleluna Hotel’ seemed to answer all our prayers – we stumbled across a little village (after consulting Google I now know that it’s called Yueluowan) and went into the first place offering food that we could see. The hotel is a collection of renovated traditional houses with stunning Chinese tiles and a view of Yangshuo’s mountain scenery, and has been described as ‘heaven on earth” by Tripadvisor reviewers.
The wonderful manager, Terry, greeted us and pointed us towards the terrace for food. After ordering, Terry proceeded to make all the dishes freshly for us as we relaxed after our 3 hours of cycling. He also pointed us in the direction of a bike fixing shop across the road, so it seemed all our wishes had been granted as we relaxed and casually planned a route for the afternoon. After we inhaled the food – home-made potato cake, special sweet and sour pork, aubergine, and green beans – Liberty and Alex went to check if the tyre had been replaced. A flaw in the seemingly perfect plan emerged when it turned out the shop didn’t have the right inner-tube for the bike, but Terry truly saved the day by offering to ask his wife to go to the nearest market to pick one up for us. While we waited, we got a great insight into life in China and a free tea ceremony as Terry regaled us with stories of learning English from ‘Borat’, and the social impact that a lack of religion in China has caused. We were very sad to leave him and his beautiful guesthouse and I’d love to go back and stay there again in the near future.
When we thought we’d seen the most beautiful, we were wrong. Our route home took us past a river flanked by the mountains and vibrant umbrellas and we arrived home just as the sun went down. A delicious dinner at a Thai-Western fusion restaurant filled our hungry stomachs as we reminisced about the day, and cocktails helped us sleep.
On Day 3 we got up early to transfer back to Guilin to do a trip to the Longsheng Rice Terraces. After pre-ordering breakfast from the hostel (that’s how amazing they are), we transferred from the big bus to a small one for the 3 hour journey to the terraces. It may have been a rash decision to walk instead of getting the gondola, and half way up I decided that I much prefer cycling to hill-walking. It was a little rainy, but the cool air was gratefully received as we made photo-opportunity pit-stops to capture the magnificence of our surroundings and to catch our breath.
While it was obviously a popular tourist spot, it was nice to see the inhabitants of the little huts going about daily life. There were some gorgeous stray puppies and a lot of chickens wandering around (and sometimes being chased by the Yao women). Longsheng is home to four minority nationalities: Miao, Yao, Dong and Zhuang, and the Yao women are famed for having the longest hair in the world. At the top of the hills, there was the occasion to dress in their ethnic clothes for photos, but we declined this opportunity and instead munched on delicious corn on the cob and hid from the rain.
After lunch we had one final sightseeing tour and began to make the descent to the bottom where our car was waiting. My favourite view of this beautiful place was when the clouds started to fall over the distant peaks, shrouding the towns and hills with fog to create a dreamlike vista. Again, words just can’t do these places justice!
That night we got an early one, bellies filled with delicious curry from Wada, and minds filled with memories of a perfect weekend. Even seven months in, China continues to amaze me!