In a little unknown town named Yangshuo, a curious traveller finds serenity and beauty in the heart of China.
By Ellyse Ng
The boatman rowed his bamboo raft soundlessly on the Yulong River. The silence was so loud, it was deafening. It was a scene from a period drama, where the majestic river curves around the landscape – rimmed by towering mountains, simple folks atop timeless bamboo rafts rowing about their daily business. I half expected my wrinkled boatman to belt out in ancient melodies not out of place during the times of his forefathers. Such serenity calls for some shut eye, but I could not avert my eyes from the breathtaking surroundings. So, this is what they call ‘heaven on earth’.
I arrived in this quaint unassuming township a day earlier, a heart full of joy and a mind filled with excitement. The rustic streets of Yangshuo were fiercely preserved, along with its traditional traders of silk, lanterns, souvenirs and some odd-looking wooden music instruments. With a dramatic flair, I threw open the French-panelled windows of my lodgings, only to gasp in wonderment at the view of Li River in front of my eyes. Across the river were green pastures and even more towering mountains, and a couple of riders on their horses pacing away in the crisp spring air.
Spread out like a ladder, the town’s pulse lies in the ever-vibrant West Street. The pedestrian street is a tourist’s delightful respite from the surrounding beauty to come and rub shoulders with the locals, haggle firmly with the traders and get a taste of the many colours West Street has to offer. Shops after shops display their fares to fight for your attention, and don’t just expect the local traders to do the winning. Italian tratorrias, American diners and good ol’ Belgian coffee joints join the crowd of gelato stalls, jazz/blues bars and souvenir shops.
Yangshuo is an easy two-hour ride away from Guilin. I could’ve easily hopped on a ferry and cruise down Li River to reach my destination, but I opted for an easier (and less queasy) van charter. Many hotels and lodgings provide transportation service for direct access and convenience. Like its neighbour, Guilin’s claim to fame is the very delectable Guilin Rice Noodle. Sightseeing apparently can induce immense hunger, and so I promptly ordered enough food to feed an army of four. The dumplings were filled with generous portions of meat, and do try the fried dumplings that were first steamed and then stir fried – delicious! Still, the star of table is the humble bowl of Guilin Rice Noodle. So smooth that even my toothless grandfather will be able to consume, and the soup opened up a black hole of an appetite that I never knew I had. Yangshuo’s local specialty is also its Beer Fish – tasty even though I tasted no hint of beer in the savoury dish. Meals were easy to find in the many restaurants and eateries about West Street, at extremely affordable prices.
Walk the streets of Yangshuo as a single traveller, and you’ll notice the many couples enjoying the fine weather and each other’s company (luckily, PDA in an Asian country is almost non-existent!). As the chartered car travelled steadily through the flower fields and mountainous landscapes, I was relieved to know that there won’t be the sore sight of lovey-dovey couples when I sit on top of the bamboo raft, surrounded by the tranquil waters of Yulong River. I was wrong.
The atmosphere beats a candlelight dinner in a Robuchon restaurant any day. The love seat was meant for two, and the boatman was taught to be a silent observer. Beauty was all around – above and below. Who could possibly resist falling in love right here? An elderly couple sat hand-in-hand, staring into each other’s eyes (they took a breather from each other’s magnetic stare to give me a friendly wave). Farther up ahead, an immaculately dressed gentleman (think suit and tie) silently manoeuvred his raft as he made his way to work. I let out a short gasp when the raft entered an enclave of willowy bamboos, bringing each raft into a world of its own. Caught in the heat of the moment, I flashed my boatman my version of a dazzling smile, only to be returned with an odd frown on his parched face. Bummer.
Back at my charming little inn, a stroll along the banks of the Li River was an idyllic evening well spent. More boatmen were waiting by the riverside to transport eager visitors over to the other side for a meagre fare, and the place was vibrantly alive with tourists snapping away on their iPhones and cameras. With the mountains set above the river, what better backdrop can there be?
The night was spent watching one of the most dramatic shows I’ve ever seen. Impression Liu Sanjie was an award-winning must-watch, and for good reason. The water was the stage, the extravagant props and lighting were all man-handled, and the cast was certainly impressive. The light and water show was so popular that there were literally busses of tourists from the nearby towns pouring into the huge vicinity. How can the quaint little town of Yangshuo contain so many people at one time sure beats me.
My second day in Yangshuo was the best ever! I splurged out a couple of bucks for a bike rental. My “Giant” brand blue bike may not look like much, but it gave me the best experience in Yangshuo ever. I grabbed a map, followed (and got lost a couple of times) the biking path shown, and enjoyed the wind in my hair and sun in my face. My useful iPad with its OPT Cover was kept in my basket, but I found no need for it with the beautiful surroundings. Beautiful flower fields, cotton farms, bubbling brooks – views I enjoyed whilst being surrounded by towering mountains. A friendly villager or two gave me an enthusiastic wave. A lady farmer asked me to give her vegetables a try when I enquired what they were. A brown and white puppy scampered over and distracted me for a few minutes as I stopped by the road to give him a loving pat. The weather was awesome of the cooling kind, and by the end of the day, I was a tired but happy camper.
I boarded the morning van charter back to Guilin to catch my flight. My heart was heavy and so were my eyelids. A wonderful hidden gem, Yangshuo was surely the underdog compared to the many tourist hotspots in China, but it was certainly not the least. In this quaint town that I truly found my great, big China adventure –I made new friends, got lost in villages that I couldn’t even understand the local dialect, tried their eccentric local cuisines, and discovered my love for cycling! It’s been two months since, but every day, I stared at the bamboo raft photo on my desktop and yearned to return to my next great adventure.
Fly with the world’s best low-cost airline. Book your holidays, hotels and vacation packages today to get great deals and earn BIG Points!
Download your FREE copy of Discover China travel guide today!