Yangshuo is one of those towns that has a special charm, due to the combination of its natural beauty, its culture, and ironically because of its tourist buzz. Yes it is a spoiled paradise, but nonetheless a unique paradise. Yes there are hordes of tourists, some westerners, but when in China , most of the tourists are Chinese. The climate was hyper humid and very foggy, and mosquitoes roamed everywhere, nonetheless we were captivated by Yangshuo from the beginning. Contrary to the other parts of China we had been in, English was widely spoken there, a big tourism oriented economy depending from it. We found a especially friendly girl from a tour agency, “Jenny”. Tony told her that since most Chinese had also Western names we also wanted Chinese names. So the next day she had come up with names for us and baptized Tony: “Li Cong Wen”, and myself “Li Hua”. Li is her family name (so basically she adopted us), Cong Wen meaning knowledge, and Hua signifying tree with strong life. She said she had tried to change her name officially to Li Hua herself but the Chinese bureaucracy was too much and in the end couldn’t do it.
We stayed in a very pretty and comfortable small hotel in front of a creek, and from our room we had amazing views of the karst formations that would increase or decrease depending on the mist. The whole town of Yangshuo is a tourist market selling all kinds of Chinese souvenirs, and tours of all sorts. There is quite a nightlife scene and abundant restaurants catering to all tastes. We enjoyed our time walking through the markets and appreciating the amazing scenery that encompasses the town. I like peace so I was easily annoyed by the touts that won’t leave you a minute alone, but Tony loved the attention and haggling with them, even though most of the time he would not buy anything.
We went on two tours in the rivers. First we went on a motorized bamboo (nowadays PVC) raft down the mighty Li River. This river was quite brown and the current was strong, but during the ride you appreciate the spectacular karst formations on both sides, and also some of the traditional way of life, such as farmers planting their rice terraces with the aid of their water buffaloes. It is in this part of China where we saw a more traditional way of life. The people wear their cone shaped hats and sell their merchandise from the double basket they carry on their shoulders. We also saw fishermen using cormorant birds to do the fishing for them. The Li river also had its share of touts. I was amazed to see how in a river in rural China, the merchants have set up computers and printers in small isles in the river. They take your picture from a distance and then your boatman without your consent takes you to them and they try to sell you the photo, printed in situ. Many others sell beer and souvenirs. An incredible ride down the Li River we had. We had not realized it, but this activity is illegal according to the Tourism Bureau as this river is quite dangerous. Illegal, legal activities in China – the infrastructure for this tours is very well set, and there are hundreds of rafts with tourists and no sign of the Chinese authorities doing anything about it…
We also took an authentic non motorized bamboo raft through the smaller Yulong river. Very nice shallow river with very clear water. It even has small parts where your raft slides down to lower parts of the river (perfect photo op for the touts to snap your pic). The karst formations there are not so pronounced but it is a very fun and beautiful journey, which I liked even more than the one on the Li river. Again there were many of Chinese tourists on it and they take fun of shooting water at people with some device they sell to you before the ride. It seemed quite a fun activity, but we were not part of it annoyed me when strangers shot water at us, as I have been trying to battle my bronchitis before getting to the altitude of Tibet.
We took advantage of the many massage parlors in town and were delighted to be massaged for 9 hours during the 4 days we were there. We tried all sorts of massage: feet, facial, head neck shoulders, oil body, and traditional Chinese body massage. The latter one is done with your clothes on and it is hard core, at points I felt like a masochist taking it all joyfully, but they were all worth it.
Not only did we indulge ourselves in pleasures but also in cultural Chinese activities. We took a class of Tai Chi in the local park. We really enjoyed it, as it is a balance between stretching, exercising and relaxation. We might even take it up in the future.
We took a course in Chinese cooking, not only did we make delicious food but we had fun while doing it. First we went to the market to see the local ingredients. I did not enjoy that so much as in that part of China they still eat dogs and you can see them being butchered in this market. It was a very raw and crude market making me want to become vegetarian again. I told the teacher I would not make the chicken dish, and asked her to teach me a tofu recipe instead. The Chinese eat all sorts of animals, as the teacher said: anything that moves we eat. She even admitted they eat rats. I did not see them in the market, but saw plenty of other live creatures including different types of live worms and frogs. As well there is an extensive quantity of rare and delicious vegetables in China and I was delighted at trying many recipes. It would be easy to become a veggie in China.
After the market, we went to the rooftop kitchen and were each assigned a cooking station. We prepared 3 dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Beer Fish (the specialty of Yangshuo) and Pork Dumplings. I also made Tofu with mushrooms. We chopped all our ingredients, in different shapes according to Chinese traditions, then our meats and then we cooked, step by step. We (group of 6 students) then our creations. All were pretty tasty, except for the fish which was quite bony, as Chinese love to eat bony dishes.Adding to the fact that I have always been interested in Alternative Medicine, I was still feeling sick and needed to get back in form before hitting the Tibetan plateau so it was the perfect opportunity decided to visit a “reputed” Chinese doctor, Dr. Lily – Li. Well…in 2 minutes she diagnosed that I had problems sleeping and and lack of appetite. She came to that conclusion after looking at my fingernails and taking my pulse and of course after my answers to her 2 questions about how I was sleeping and how was my appetite. Yes I was sleeping badly after so many trains and hard Chinese beds and my appetite was suffering because I was taking antibiotics and I was getting tired of Chinese cuisine… So 40 Yuan (5 Euros) for her 2 minute diagnosis and 450 (55 Euros) Yuan for her secret mix remedy (after I refused to get acupuncture from her)… Needless to say I did not purchase the remedy either, just a few more days and my Western antibiotics would heal me.
Unfortunately we had no time left in Yangshuo, but if we did we would have taken Mandarin lessons, chess lessons and a bike tour through the magical scenery. There is so much to do there that it would be very enjoyable to return. Now we had to get back to Xi’an and see our luck with our Tibet tour.