Another World Called Yangshuo Adventuriety

I didn’t know a whole lot about China when I was planning our trip.  Heck, I didn’t even want to go to China so I’m not sure how it turned out that I was in charge of planning, but I did know that China had Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the landscape that inspired The Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar.  If I was going to China, that sounded like something to see.  But, the travel agent that I had chosen steered me sharply away from China’s first National Forest Park, saying that as beautiful as the scenery is, it is miserably overcrowded all of the time.  Instead, he suggested Yangshuo for its stunning scenery and dramatic karst (I will explain) mountain landscape.

We flew out of Shangri-La in the late afternoon, delayed by a couple of hours and barely made our connection in Kunming.  I’m talking barely, as in sprinting half of a mile (really) through the airport to the farthest gate.  Because our destination required two different airlines, we had to get our bags and then recheck them.  We ended up throwing all of the prohibited liquids (China is stricter than any country we have flown in so far) into my bag, checking it and carrying the others on the plane.  It was madness trying to get some clothes out of my bag and liquid out of the other bags in two minutes and then sprinting.  We made it, my bag did not.

We took off in the cool mountain rain and emerged from the airport in Guilin to a sub tropical climate.  Talk about a change.  Oh and our guide was nowhere to be found.  He did show up, introduce himself as River (yes, I changed his name but kept the same “name aura”) and announce the 90 minute drive to Yangshuo.  Ahhh, more driving.  We arrived late, around 11:00 pm, in total darkness.  We squinted at the horizon trying to make out the beautiful spires that we were looking forward to seeing in person.  We gave up, climbed between cool sheets and went to bed to the hum of the air conditioner, a world away from where we had been hours before.  That is something China does well.


Scott wanted to photograph the sun rising in between the rock towers and so we drug ourselves out of bed before six o’clock and went in search of a sunrise.  It was still dark and so we wandered up the road and waited for the sun to rise.


This was an other-worldly place.  It was so hot and humid, even before the sun came up.  Mist hung over the river and in between the mountains.


The sun is climbing higher in the sky and the mist is lifting, causing the reflections to become sharper. The mist didn’t lift in time for us to capture the sunrise, but it was still beautiful.


We could have easily spent a couple of days in this area as it is an outdoor recreation mecca of our kind; climbing, hiking and biking.  We just didn’t know that before we arrived.


Honestly though, I could have spent days sitting by the Li River, drinking coffee until the weather got too hot, something with ice and then local beer the rest of the evening, to heck with moving around.  The scenery was mesmerizing (even in one spot).


By the time the sun came up and we had hiked up and down the river taking pictures, it was truly steamy, but I still enjoyed my coffee in this totally new and strange place.  Oh yeah and my luggage had not shown up, which was not surprising since there is only one flight a day from Kunming, where we abandoned my bag, and Guilin and then a ninety minute drive to Yangshuo.  I was fairly certain I would never see my bag again since we basically threw it across a ticketing counter in our sprint to security. I’m wearing Ashley’s pajama top…


Why does this place look so cool, you ask. Two hundred million years ago during the Triassic period, the Guilin Plain was under 650 feet of sea water and then over millions of years the geological plate carrying India crashed into Asia’s plate and the Himalayas were born and the Guilin Plain rose above the water.  The newly borne land began to erode and left only the hard peaks made of limestone, or karst formations, which are the leftover bits of shells and skeletons of marine animals.  And this  geological soap opera my friends, is what has created the stunning landscape that you see and if you’re really interested…


Yangshou has good signs 🙂 !


By the time we had finished our breakfast, the boats were adding to the landscape.


First order of the day was a tour of the local market and then a cooking class. We waited near the market for the chef and watched the world according to Yangshuo go by.


We walked through the market, part tour and part shopping for ingredients.  These bowls are the amphibians and fish…alive, of course.  I started to feel a little sick.  It was so hot and humid by now, about 9:30 in the morning.


The vegetables are in the same giant room as the slimy things and it was so hot.  We were given the option to skip the animal market in the next giant room over.  The fish, frogs and snakes had made me sad so there was no way I was going to see the dogs, chickens, rabbits, cats, etc. and so we left quickly to meet (I couldn’t resist) up with the rest of our cooking class later.  In all seriousness, this year has taught us that just because people do things differently than we do, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or even cruel.  I found that China had me talking about this a lot to the kids and even to myself.


Here we are ready to cook.  In the time it took us to walk from the market to the cooking class (not long), I had become vegetarian and requested tofu instead of chicken for the Chicken Kung Pao that we were about to prepare. It was a great cooking class though and the Australian family that took it with us was so much fun and the chef was funny and a good teacher.  The Australians had a boy and a girl too, except their youngest was Grant’s age.  She asked the kids if American high school was like it is in the movies.  Have I mentioned that it was hot?


Ooh…another fun and interesting sign, in Old Town.


This is the “Old Town” and I’m beginning to think that every town and city in China must have one.  Is that what happens when a country claims 5,000 years of history?


We told our guide River that we wanted to go on a hike.  The kids looked at us like we were crazy and River suggested a compromise.


A short hike with a great view.  We hiked (ten minutes) this spire in the middle of town.


There was a pagoda at the top…


…and a great view.


Scott and I were having a great time.  We were exhausted and so hot but that is just when you have to buckle down and have fun.  The kids were so grumpy that it was kind of funny and made me appreciate that wisdom really is better than youth.


Yangshuo is full of great photo ops.


The area is very well known for rock climbing, although we didn’t know this until we got there.  Ashley still found some rocks to climb.


A quick walk through town where it takes very special skills to cross the street and then we headed for the one thing that everybody does in Yangshuo…you have to get on the river in some fashion.



If you go to Yangshuo, you have to take a river cruise of some sort on the Li River.  The boatmen and companies are heavily regulated and it’s interesting or frustrating watching the boatmen follow the very strict rules to no avail.  Even standing in line for the boats is fun because you will get stared at, people will be yelling at each other and/or you.  It’s total chaos for no apparent reason. There was one family that could not stop staring at us and saying “Hi!” and then looking away…Yangshuo is mostly a very popular domestic tourist destination.  We were scheduled to float down a different section of the river, but that section was closed because there were protests against government regulations.


I found the boat ride on the Li River interesting because it said a lot of the desires of the domestic tourists in China.  You get on a boat and then stop about thirty minutes into the ride to visit the cormorants.  Cormorant fishing was a traditional way of life in the area, but today most of the fishing in the Li River is forbidden due to environmental reasons (the river is full of trash).  The cormorants that we saw were strictly for the tourists and their pictures.  Our guide told us to stay well away from the birds because one had attacked someone he was guiding not long ago.  We paid the woman to take a few pictures, but stayed back.  Poor birds, they had their beaks taped closed.


Back on the boat, we passed Water Buffalo grazing near the banks of the river, spaced at regular intervals.  They are all tethered so they do not stray out of view of the passing cameras.


While water buffalo are on display for the tourists enjoyment, there has been no attempt to remove the trash clogging the banks of the river.


The beauty of this region is astounding, as is the lack of  care for preservation of anything.  It’s like there is a mentality that anything can just be rebuilt, better than before.  In all fairness, there is a building code so the city can’t spread up or out and block out the karst formations.


After our boat ride, we stopped to visit Mr. Pan and tour his home which was constructed in 1702 for a general in the Qing empire.  The landlord, Mr. Wensi Pan, is a 12th generation descendant.  It was so hot (I could say that for every picture) but this old house was incredibly cool and comfortable inside and the family so sweet.  They obviously enjoyed meeting different people and although they spoke no English, their communication skills were certainly fluent.


This woman is either the sister, wife or friend…I never figured it out, but she was showing us the family coffin, a place for the spirits to hang out.


Mr. Pan  showed us his collection of photos and flags and other memorabilia and pictures taken with visitors over the years or things people had sent him.  This sweet little kitten played with us while we looked around.


Mr. Pan’s collage of memorabilia thoroughly reflected the impression that his warm welcome and enthusiasm made you feel.  Mixed in with pictures of guests, people he admires and flags and doo-dads from all over the world, he displays family artifacts.  You can see tablets to the right and left of the red background with Chinese characters high on the wall.  They are the memorial tablets of his ancestors.  There are also some jars of liquid in the photo.  He explained through our guide that his grandfather used to drink the elixir, made of snakes and spiders and a few other witch’s brew type ingredients, daily to live to be over 100.


The cool well water was a treat.


The cooking area along with a good supply of fuel.



Mr. Pan had tamed two birds.  Scott showed the birds their “reflection” in his phone.  They seemed interested.


We drove towards Jiuxian Village and stopped to admire a view of the Yulong River, a tributary of the Li River.


The  drive to Jiuxian Village takes you away from the town, through farmland and rice paddies.


A newly planted rice paddy.


Jiuxian Village was established around the 16th century, before the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and is one of the few villages in the area with both grey brick mansions and mud brick farm houses. We saw one building with a notice left over from Mao’s regime (the faded sign on the wall to the right).


But like everywhere else we toured, old is being quickly replaced with new.


We stopped at Moon Hill, many stunning photos of which you will see if you consult Google in regard to Yangshuo.  One can hike to Moon Hill, and maybe a more flattering perspective can be found.   I was all for the hike, even though with the heat and the mental state of our children on this particular day it was not a good idea, and so that ten minute mid-town hike earlier in the blog was our compromise.  I was still looking forward to seeing Moon Hill from a distance because the pictures were so cool and I was truly surprised and disappointed when we pulled into a dirt lot with other tour buses and parked.  Ashley is holding the moon in her right hand and a fan she haggled for in the village in the other.  So my advice is if you go and if you can, do the hike.  I wish we would have.


After our long day we came back to the hotel and I got my local beer (maybe more than one).  The kids were hot and tired (of their parents) and just wanted to be under the air conditioner so they escaped to the cool peacefulness of their room while Scott and I enjoyed the view.  Have I mentioned how incredibly hot and humid it was?  I ordered food and it was good.  The Beer Fish (the giant bowl on the right in the picture above this one) is a local specialty.


This kitty liked it a lot more than we did.


As the light faded the view still looked amazing.


We enjoyed one last quiet moment and then roused ourselves to find the kids and set off on our last stop of the day.


We finished out our crazy fast tour in Yangshuo with a performance of “Impression Liu San Jie” another incredibly impressive show created by Zhang Yimou, the same guy that designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.


The show was truly beautiful with different ethnic minorities from the areas performing traditional songs and dances.  It was amazing how rude the mostly Chinese crowd was.  They talked over the performers to their friends and on their phones.  Half of the crowd got up and wandered off mid-performance  with fifteen minutes left in the show.  We were sitting next to a family from Spain and they were just as taken aback as we were.  We discussed this with River afterwards and he said that shows like this are relatively new, as is people making enough money to buy a ticket to something like this and so manners are lagging behind.


And off we went bright and early the next morning, all the way back to the airport in Guilin to fly to Shanghai.  And yes, my bag found us just in time to get on another plane and it was such a nice surprise and the clean clothes were much appreciated.

Like each place we have visited in China so far, there was so much more to learn than what was in front of us, even in Yangshuo where the view of the prehistoric landscape was captivating.   First of all, it’s a cool place (not the temperature) but the landscape definitely deserves a couple of days.  You just want to stare.  The food is good and the people are either nice or interesting.  There are a lot of things to do in the area too, things that we like and didn’t have time for; hiking, climbing, and biking.  But it’s so hot (could we even do all those things?), a heat that I have never experienced, the closest I’ve come I think is Houston in July.

We also got a new take on culture through our guide.  Some Chinese  just do not care about the culture of their country, only the progress.  Yes, a brash statement, but our guide was one of them.  Scott started in with his usual, “Let’s talk about culture…” on the late drive to Yangshuo and got shut down. Of all of our guides in China, River seemed to have no interest in culture.  He wouldn’t talk about the Cultural Revolution or minorities in China, in fact he insisted that there was no difference or tension between Han and any other ethnicity.   He was adamant that the only thing that people cared about was the fact that life is easier in China now than it was forty years ago and that simple fact is an equalizer.  River was young, maybe early twenties and admittedly working hard to move up in the world.  He was nice and well spoken, but he was doing his job. Occasionally you could tell he bought in to what he was saying or doing, like when we visited Mr. Pan in his old house, River really liked the man and treated him with genuine interest.

Lastly, the personality of China and what we had seen so far on the trip, was in screaming color in Yangshuo.  A place of other-worldly beauty being done up for domestic tourism with tethered water buffalo and taped cormorants, the stunning landscape littered with trash.  But, as my grandmother once chastised me when I complained about someone looking dirty, “What would you choose, soup or soap?”  I hope that what River believes is true and that the drastic improvements in the quality of life that so many Chinese are experiencing over just one generation will continue and there will be room to appreciate and protect China’s natural wonders.

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