During our trip to Guilin (read about it here), my family and I spent a couple of days exploring the lovely town of Yangshuo. We were on a private tour (I usually engage a tour company when I travel with my parents to make it more convenient for them), and a visit to the town was part of the pre-arranged itinerary. We were in China during the winter season, so mornings were cold and misty; but we were lucky that the sun came out in the afternoons, so there was plenty of sunshine and lovely weather.
Yangshuo is a small town located in the southeast of the more well-known city of Guilin in the province of Guangxi in southern China. Surrounded by mountain karsts and winding rivers, the town is a popular side trip from Guilin, and over the years has been attracting buses of tourists and independent travelers — all eager to revel in its breathtaking scenery.
The center of Yangshuo has been fairly transformed to cater to this influx of visitors, but there is a still a glimmer of the town that once was when you head out of town. I enjoyed immersing myself in the culture of the diverse ethnic groups found in this region, admiring the stunning landscape while floating down the river on a boat and a bamboo raft, and learning a little more about the country that once belonged to my ancestors.
We started our day in the city of Guilin, and made our way to Yangshuo via the private tour’s mini-van. The journey from Guilin to Yangshuo is approximately one and a half hours, but on the way, we dropped by the picturesque Shangri-la Park, an ethnic minority theme park that is situated mid-way between the two cities.
After spending a couple of hours admiring the beauty of the park, we arrived on our first day in Yangshuo a little after noon; and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the famous streets and landmarks in the center of town.
Shangri-la Park 世外桃源
Located about 15km north of Yangshuo, this nature park is a nice scenic spot that features the culture of several minority groups that reside in China’s Guangxi region. Walking into Shangri-la Park, I felt like I was transported back in time into a historical Chinese movie. The park has the entire setting — a peaceful lake, an ancient village, traditional boats with boatmen in triangular hats, and expansive views of the countryside and surrounding karsts. I half expected some ancient grandmaster to come flying through the air!
I enjoyed the slow boat ride that took us across the lake; we passed ancient bridges, mock-up ethnic villages, dark caves and gorgeous views. On land, we were entertained with folk performances from the ethic minority tribes –the Zhuang, Miao, Yao and Dong tribes. They performed song and dance, showed us their arts and crafts, and even did a reenactment of a ‘ritual to find a partner’ by throwing and catching silk embroidery balls (xiuqiu). I didn’t catch one, so I bought one from the many souvenir shops in the park.
West Street 西街
We had lunch upon arriving at Yangshuo, and after that were dropped off at the start of the town’s oldest street, West Street. Pronounced as Xijie in Chinese, the 517-meter long paved street dates back to more than 1,400 years. Though the street was full of tourists during my visit, I was still able to admire the line of old houses that are now home to a myriad of shops, restaurants and guesthouses. The street is a great place to look for souvenirs, snacks (I greedily helped myself to all the street food), arts and crafts — and it’s easy to shop too as many of the signs have been translated to English.
Green Lotus Peak 碧莲峰
We walked the entire stretch of West Street, and arrived at the foot of the Green Lotus Peak (Bilian Feng), a karst formation in the shape of a green lotus bud along the Li River, hence its name. We made our way up the peak to see its many cultural landmarks — like the giant Chinese character “Dai” (meaning area and generation) carved into the cliff that holds a beautiful poem, and Jianshan Temple that was home to seafaring monk Jianzhen in 750AD when he got lost on one of his many attempts to spread Buddhism to Japan. We also saw the old Banyan tree with its aerial roots; and got to marvel at the beauty of Yangshuo from Yingjiang Pavilion and its 8 windows with 8 different views. I enjoyed the scenic, historical and educational walk, which was thankfully, devoid of visitors in the late afternoon.
Back at the foot of the peak, we made our way down to the Li River to take a photo with the huge red inscription of the word “Yangshuo” in Chinese characters.
Impression Liu San Jie 印象刘三姐
After an early dinner, we made our way to watch the Impression Liu San Jie musical night show. Created by popular Chinese director Zhang Yimou, and performed by the local Zhuang minority people, the show is unique as it is performed on the waters of Li River as its stage. I was dazzled by the lighting, the costumes, the effects and the usage of different props against the natural elements — though truth be told, I was lost for most of the show, and could only make out what was happening from the little I know of the legend (mainly because it was all in Chinese). So I decided to just sit back and feast my eyes on the extravagance. The show lasts an hour.
Here’s a little background on Liu Sanjie (Third Daughter of the Liu Family). She was a legendary Zhuang maiden, known as the ‘Song Fairy’ for her unmatched ability to sing beautiful and witty ‘song replies’ (a local culture of singing songs to reply one another), often leaving many speechless in their response. The show is about her love story with a farmer’s boy from the village — on how a powerful lord fell in love with her and tried to kidnap her, how her lover and friends helped free her, and how the couple finally had their happily ever after.
I am not a fan of tourist-skewed performance shows in China (I have watched too many — from cultural dances, to acrobatic acts and light shows); but if there is one show to watch during a visit to this part of China, I would pick this one. My parents were left impressed with the entire show, and well, a performance entirely on water… is kinda cool.
We started the day early to beat the crowds at popular Silver Cave, which was our first stop of the day. The rest of the day was mostly spent in the outskirts of Yangshuo, where we were surrounded by breathtaking views of the karst-dotted landscape of the region. We cruised the river on a boat and glided down on a bamboo raft, and ended the journey in a peaceful little fishing village.
My favorite part of the day was our interaction with a lady from the Zhuang ethnic minority group, who taught us how to sing the local ‘song replies’ that are such a cultural significance to the people here — and the basis of the Impression Liu Sanjie musical we watched the night before.
Silver Cave 银子岩
First stop of the day, the gorgeous Silver Cave, located about 40-minutes out of Yangshuo. The cave is said to be the biggest karst cave in the Guilin vicinity — and honestly, I think that it is much more impressive than the popular Reed Flute Cave in Guilin (more about the cave here).
I was blown away by the diverse formation and height of its stalactites and stalagmites, glittery silver columns from which the cave got its name, and the dramatic towers reflecting in a pool of water so pristine that I felt like I was looking down a bottomless abyss. The cave showcases nature’s artwork over different geologic ages; and is so huge it runs through 12 peaks, ascending to as high as 16 floors. Despite it being winter, the cave was extremely hot and humid — after an hour or so, I just couldn’t wait to get out.
Rafting on Yulong River 遇龙河
After escaping the stuffy (yet impressive) Silver Cave, we made our way towards Yulong River. This 5 meters deep river is a tributary of the famous Li River, and is a popular spot for bamboo rafting for its calm waters and beautiful rugged scenery. There were no other tourists during our visit, so we had a serene and undisturbed cruise on the raft, which looked like a hut floating on water. We were pushed along by the boatman with a long stick (which he later let us try), and a local Zhuang tribeswoman entertained us with folk stories and songs — she even taught us how to sing ‘song replies’. It was so much fun!
Upon arriving back at the platform, we watched fishermen on rafts fishing with the help of cormorants — the birds are starved so that they would hunt for fishes, and their necks are tied with string so that they can’t swallow their catch when they pick them out of the water. It’s an age old fishing method practiced in the region, but I found it just too cruel.
Li River Cruise 漓江
After lunch, our guide drove us all the way to the small fishing village of Xingping, about an hour north of Yangshuo. From there, we took one of the many tourist boats for a cruise along the Li River. We were joined by a group Chinese tourists onboard — and although it was pretty packed, we still managed to find good spots for pictures, and some peace to enjoy the slow 1.5-hour cruise.
Most people take the slow cruise along the Li River from Guilin all the way to Yangshuo; but we did the cruise two times from both cities. The landscape surrounding both parts of the river are completely different — Yangshuo’s feature vast countryside, mist-shrouded mountains in the distance, and towering karts by the riverbanks. It is also much more serene and quiet on this side of the river, if not for the constant chatter from the other tourists.
I soaked in the 360 degrees of picturesque views as I stood on the upper deck of the boat — it is so beautiful that it’s been featured on the Chinese 20 yuan note.
Xingping Fishing Village 兴坪渔村
After the cruise, we spent some time exploring the old town of the Xingping Fishing Village. The history of the old town dates back to the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the 1km stone street is lined with traditional old houses and brick buildings. We dropped in the Wu Sheng Temple — the building is pretty run down, old and abandoned; but interesting artifacts and treasures can be uncovered beneath the thick layer of dust. There are also small specialty cafes and local handicraft shops that can be found along the old street; and as I further explored the smaller lanes and corners, the crowds lessened, and I got a small glimpse of everyday life in this small ancient town.
West Street 西街
Back in the town of Yangshuo, we spent the rest of the night walking along West Street — food hunting, souvenir shopping and people watching. The street is bustling and merry at night, when the colorful lights brighten up the entire street.
After spending two nights in Yangshuo, we headed back to Guilin the next morning. Before I visited, I heard that Yangshuo is no more the charming town it once was from the invasion of local and international tourists; but upon leaving, I actually found the town lovely… and still peaceful (if you know how to ignore the crowds)… with a wonderful mix of the ancient and the new. That being said, do be careful if you visit on your own — we were on a private tour, and managed to avoid the annoying touts and persistent swindlers that can be seen lurking around many tourist spots.
Yangshuo Cuisine & Souvenirs
Some of the local dishes to try on a visit to Yangshuo is the Yangshuo Beer Fish and the Lipu Taro and Pork Roll. The Beer Fish is by far the most popular dish in town, where fish caught from the Li River (usually carp, and hopefully not fished out by the cormorants) is braised on the bone and cooked with beer. The Lipu Taro and Pork Roll is absolutely delicious too, consisting of alternating slices of pork belly and soft mashed taro — it looks like a meatloaf. Taro is a popular snack in Yangshuo; small food shops can be seen selling steamed taro, along with sweet potatoes, dried persimmons and tofu.
While walking along West Street, I noticed many street food stalls selling sweet and savoury Chinese desserts — they are some of the most yummy things to eat, and I really couldn’t help myself. So get your hands on some (if not all) of it, and wash it all down with some Osmanthus Tea.
As for shopping, you can find much better prices for many similar items in bigger cities like Guilin; so don’t go crazy on the shopping in Yangshuo. However, I did buy myself a silk embroidery ball (xiuqiu) during my visit to the Zhuang minority village. I think it makes a great souvenir, and represents love, culture and history.