Yangshuo I: A Curious Cruise on the Lijiang

Written by Feb 10, 2007 22:02
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Yangshuo I: Delight or disappointment ?

The old darling of the backpacker set, Yangshuo not long ago enjoyed a reputation as the destination antidote for the weary traveller. A place to “get-away from it all” - no mean feat in a country as populous as China. Exploring the rice-farming villages and gasping at the splendour of a gothic landscape of limestone pinnacles was high on every traveller’s wish-list.

Unsurprisingly, time and tourism have taken their toll and now Yangshuo finds itself increasingly out of favour. Often maligned as over-touristy and crammed during the summer months, it has become a destination many love to deride, many who see it as a burgeoning town pedalling an image of escape that no longer applies.

It was, therefore, with conflicting expectations that I added Yangshuo to the itinerary of my first summer holiday in China. Knowing I would be hitting town in peak season didn’t help matters, but I had no choice. I was determined to discover for myself if Yangshuo belonged to the realm of delight or disappointment and on a scorching morning in late July, I was on my way.

[Image: Yangshuo's Legendary Landscape]

Yangshuo I: West Street Inn

Fed up with the intermittent air-conditioning and the incessant studio-audience laughter on the comedy show blaring out, I was happier than usual that this was such a short trip and just over an hour after boarding the bus we (my friend Shane and I) arrived in Yangshuo.

Mid morning temperatures were around 30 very humid degrees and we exited into the tiny and predictably busy bus station. Already sweaty from the bus ride we hoisted on our backpacks and set off to find accommodation. Hawkers hemmed us in from all sides as we were the only non-Chinese on the bus, but we bypassed them with our well-practised “just ignore them” technique and made it to a main street.

When we were feeling almost safe, a stray woman thrust a booklet in front of us and we actually stopped. The room looked spacious and inviting, it was cheap and it was only a couple of minutes walk – we agreed to follow her.

The dark wood-panelled foyer of the West Street Inn was pleasantly cool and the woman who snared us simply disappeared. She left us in the hands of the receptionist who showed us up a maze of steps and levels to the very top of the building. The room was identical to the picture with twin futon-like beds, air-conditioning and an en-suite bathroom: we accepted immediately.

[Image: View From The Balcony, West Street Inn]

Yangshuo I: Downtown Yangshuo

Having broken one rule of the day by following a hawker, we decided to break another and try our luck taking a tour. The staff at our inn were friendly enough and knew a little English, between them and my fledgling Chinese, Shane and I agreed to an afternoon cruise on the Li River (LiJiang). This left us a couple of hours free first to explore the town and eat lunch.

Yangshuo town itself is unimpressive. I was annoyed that it seemed to have sprung up in direct contradiction to the landscape. Somehow I had expected it would be more sympathetic to its surroundings. Its very ordinariness was perhaps its greatest flaw, in every way the archetypal Chinese town: square high rises in grubby pastel shades, cluttered streets and multi-purpose pavements that served as market stalls, restaurants and a safe haven from the traffic.

Despite this, I couldn’t ignore the imposing stone columns that towered great and green and engulfed the town. Lifting my eyes up from the mayhem of downtown Yangshuo, it was possible to discern the promise of something primitive and natural. The stark irregular pillars I would never describe as traditionally beautiful, but they were the myriad keys to Yangshuo’s success and something wild and earthy about them shouted out above the grumble of the streets that there was still peace to be found here.

[Image: Non-Stop Streets Of Yangshuo Town]

Yangshuo I: Taking a tour

At 2pm we were back at the hotel and waiting with the kind of anticipation that comes with having no real idea of what might happen next. A woman appeared (might it have been the same woman who brought us here?) and took us to a minibus across the street. We sat watching, whilst the woman tried unsuccessfully to entice other foreigners to join us. We were beginning to get a bad feeling.

Eventually the minibus left and so began a painfully slow journey to the small town of Xingping, with frequent stops to pick up twice the number of people than could technically be carried. Glad of our seats we admired the gravity-defying limestone columns outside, along with the changing faces of our fellow passengers.

Xingping, when we arrived, was small and understated and I wondered for a moment if this was how Yangshuo had once been: all chickens, narrow streets and motorbikes. The woman took out her mobile, made a call and beckoned us along the streets relaying us to another woman, and promptly disappearing. It all felt rather clandestine.

We were seated in a café belonging to the second woman and waited for 45 minutes until 4 Chinese guys turned up. During this time we fended off several old men selling paintings and cooled off with fresh mango juice from the café – no doubt all part of some greater “plan”.

In our new group of six, we were on the move again and this time we reached the river after a 20-minute walk. A further 10 minutes along the river we came to a wharf. At the wharf a larger group of people were waiting and we joined them to wait some more.

[Image: Streets of Xingping]

Yangshuo I: Meeting the Lijiang

By this time we had relaxed, the adventure of it all had overcome any sense of unease and everyone was spellbound by the LiJiang. We had begun to strike up hesitating conversations with our fellow Chinese companions and one of them took out a 20RMB note, held it up and pointed at us to look at it. Unsure what he was getting at, we soon saw that the picture on the note was the exact scene that we were now looking at.

The karst landscape’s miniature mountains framed the LiJiang with a craggy smile and the intense heat attracted many swimmers to the river. Unlike the tranquil 20RMB note however, the river itself was busy with a never-ending queue of boats whose engines chugged and spluttered against the current and puffed out smoke.

[Image: 20RMB & Picture Perfect Scenery]

Yangshuo I: Boats and rain arrive

I’d assumed we’d be catching the boat from the wharf but it transpired that we had not yet reached our destination. With the four Chinese guys we were bundled into the back of a motorised rickshaw and zoomed along the bumpy road, hanging on for our lives and scattering chickens and pedestrians in our wake.

We stopped again, parted with our money and made our way down to the river through some fields. The woman pointed to a small wooden boat and left us. It was at this moment that the first great splat of rain fell and within seconds a torrential storm broke. Our group (of about 15) ran to the boat whilst the driver pulled over the roof. We all snuggled into the tiny hold, perched on stools and dripping wet – there wasn’t a spare centimetre of space.

[Image: Boats In The Rain]

Yangshuo I: Cruising the Lijiang

The driver was middle-aged and wiry: a masterpiece of muscles that flexed with the strain of pushing us off with his stout bamboo cane. We zigzagged into the file of big cruiser boats rather as a motorbike negotiates heavy traffic.

What a joy to be in this tiny boat, level with the water and listening to the rain hammering down on the wooden roof. The mists descended and removed the pinnacles from our view and it seemed we were floating on a river in the clouds.

The rain stopped and started and we all darted in and out between the showers, along with the landscape that came and went in bands of deep green and mists. Bamboos and pine trees spread over the hills and water buffalo swam silently by.

The driver asked if we would like to stop at an island; his laissez-faire attitude made for an eventful journey that saw us opting out of the rank and file of cruisers and mooring at a small shingle island. A group of old women had been sheltering under umbrellas and rushed over to sell us their wares. Tiny necklaces and trinkets made from the red-patterned stones beneath our feet. I bought a pair of flat stone hearts on a string for just 1RMB.

The rain began again and we rushed back to the boat, the old women at our heels eager for a final sale.

[Image: The Lijiang In The Rain]

Yangshuo I: Evening on the Lijiang

We left the red-stone island and its old women behind and negotiated the line of cruisers once more until it was time to turn around. The driver again weaved us away, the boat turned and - there were some scraping sounds that seemed to tickle the bottom, followed by a final crunch. We were stuck.

The cruisers sailed smugly by, ignoring our plight.

It took a good-humoured 10 minutes for the driver and several passengers to free us from the shallow patch we had hit and we were on our way again.

The weather cleared. The evening approached and the last of the big boats passed noisily by to be replaced with almost silence. At last, our little group was alone and the limestone pillars emerged in force to point their craggy fingers at the late sunlit sky. The driver pointed out shapes and faces in the rocks that had previously been invisible but now came alive in the twilight. We lounged on the deck, feeling small against the great columns of stone, content to soak up what remained of this day and our curious cruise.

[Image: The Lijiang As Evening Falls]

Information Yangshuo I, II & III (July 2005)

Yangshuo (阳朔) is a town in Guangxi Province (广西).

Getting there

From: Guilin 桂林
To: Yangshuo
By: Bus
Time: Buses leave Guilin regularly. It takes approximately 1hour to reach Yangshuo.


We stayed at the West Street Inn located opposite the bus station.
A twin room with air-conditioning & ensuite bathroom was 60RMB per person per night.


We opted for the cruise on the LiJiang (漓江) starting from and returning to Xingping (兴坪). It cost 50RMB per person. The cruise on the river lasted approximately 2 hours, but the round trip getting to and from Yangshuo took 6 hours in total.


I was there at the end of July and beginning of August. Temperature: 30°C - 36°C. Hot and humid. Occasional heavy, thundery showers.

Bicycle Hire: 10RMB per person

Bamboo Raft Hire: 60RMB for the raft (2 people & 2 bicycles can be carried on each raft)

[Image: Our Driver]

 More Yangshuo Travel Reviews
1. The Green Hills of Yangshuo -- Part 2 CHYNAGYRL from CA Dec 2, 2006 22:12
2. The Green Hills of Yangshuo CHYNAGYRL from CA Nov 30, 2006 10:11
3. The wonderland in China ALICEGAO from CN Sep 27, 2006 21:09
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