Yangshuo is a tourist location for Westerners and Chinese people alike. There are several heavily advertised tourist attractions—Butterfly Cave, taking a boat to see the mountains printed on the 20 yuan, riding an inner-tube down man-made rapids, riding a bamboo raft down the river, and exploring the Gold Water Caves (also known as the Mud Caves) to name a few. Briant and I tried the bamboo rafting—it’s an iconic Yangshuo thing. It proved to be more stressful than relaxing (it was hard to tell who was trying to help us get a raft, and who was trying to scam us), and the ride wasn’t as long as we had hoped. The Mud Caves were unimpressive, with a brief tour of the cave that lead through two gift shops. Playing in the mud itself was pretty fun for me (Briant didn’t really like it), but our group had to stop what they were doing to pose for photographers that would sell our pictures back to us for 20 yuan a piece. It was also less fun when I realized that the stringy things in the mud were testaments to the countless people who had played there before me…On the whole, the touristy activities proved somewhat disappointing and expensive. So, Briant and I gave up on the advertised sights of Yangshuo and then the fun really began!
Here are some highlights:
The food. Bamboo rice was delicious!
This was the first time I’ve ever seen a market where they were selling live animals. It was interesting to see the chickens and ducks peeking out of their bamboo basket cages, or hanging by their feet on the handlebars of a parked moped, flapping occasionally. To weigh them before selling, the vendor will have a hanging bar—like the arm of a scale—and the bird will by hanging from one end while he or she adds metal weights to the other end. It’s the kind of thing I’ve seen in films or read about, and it was fascinating to see it firsthand.
New West Market Street in Yangshuo has dozens of different shops and vendors, including the only scroll art shops we have seen in China so far. Seeing the opportunity, Briant and I decided to pick up a piece of scroll artwork as a souvenir. Ignoring the little woman who followed us around trying to get us to commit to buy any item we even glanced at, we walked through the shop and carefully considered each piece. When we had decided, an old man told us the price. I’d been told that bartering was part of Chinese market culture, and I was excited to have a chance to do some actual haggling. He typed 180 into his calculator, and handed it to me. I typed 90 into the calculator and handed it back to him. He laughed and shook his head, and we laughed too—it was great moment of shared humor. I’d known it was too low, but it gave us somewhere to work up from. We exchanged a few more prices and Briant and I walked away with a 150 yuan painting and a good story, waving at the smiling old man.
For 1,300 years, cormorants have been used to fish on the Li River of Yangshuo. The fishermen raise and train the goose-sized diving birds to work with them to catch fish. The fishermen tie a string loosely around the neck of each bird, preventing the bird from swallowing larger fish. The birds swim around the bamboo raft of the fisherman, diving for fish and surfacing to swallow their catch. When the fisherman sees that one of the birds can’t swallow its fish, he brings it in with his bamboo pole, pulls the bird from the water, pries open the beak and lets the fish slip into his basket. Training and working with cormorants is a dying art, with younger generations seeking new vocations and more modern methods. While in Yangshuo, I had the opportunity to meet one of the cormorant fishermen and took a very touristy picture with his cormorants—I felt giddy to be meeting these incredible birds and their handler! Briant and I also went out to see cormorant fishing in action. Although it was hardly in the most traditional setting (it was done at night with a bright light to attract fish, with two boats full of tourists accompanying the fisherman’s raft), it was still amazing to see the cormorants skimming through the water, diving and surfacing. Most of the fish they caught were small enough that they swallowed them without trouble, but I was surprised that they caught a fish almost every time they dove beneath the water. We really only watched the cormorants fishing for about thirty minutes, followed by a chance to take a picture with the birds (but I already had mine, so no need). While everyone else was taking their pictures with the cormorants, Briant and I were able to get a close look at the birds still sitting on the fisherman’s raft. Some of them were courting, mimicking one another and making throaty, warbling noises—something I’d never had the chance to see before. So, in spite of the touristy nature of the activity, cormorant fishing proved to be a pretty incredible experience!
On our second day, Briant and I rented a moped and decided to just follow a tiny road into the countryside. The roads were only barely wide enough for a car—they felt more like sidewalks than actual roads. Just ten minutes outside the city of Yangshuo, it felt as though we had been transported into the past. The sloping hills were covered in orchards and rice fields, with fish farms interspersed among the greenery. Velvety brown cows and calves grazed along the roadside, watched over by a farmer with a bamboo hat, while gigantic oxen wallowed in ponds, looking startlingly like hippos. Tiny villages built of crumbling clay bricks clustered around sunken washing troughs, were women scrubbed clothes. This is what I flew 12 hours to see—I wanted to see the Chinese countryside. I wanted to see what China was beneath the Westernization. Our second day with mopeds, we took another couple with us to once again explore the country roads. As we drove we saw a sign for “Panorama View.” Being surrounded by the iconic Yangshuo mountains, we eagerly followed the signs in hopes of getting a good view of the landscape. The twisting roads lead us to the top of an orchard-covered mountain, where we found a Chinese man watering a manicured lawn in front of an immaculate brick building. An air of serenity surrounded the building and the grounds, which appeared deserted except for the Chinese man (who didn’t even give us a passing glance). We wandered around the outside of the building, pausing to pet a fluffy puppy. Upon entering the clean but empty building, we saw a staircase that lead to the roof. We went back outside and asked the Chinese man if we could go on the roof to see the view. He nodded his head and gave us a dismissive wave, returning to his watering. We climbed the wooden stairs and found ourselves in a dojo, where a handful of Westerners were doing Tai Chi. We apologized, but they seemed unsurprised when we asked if we could continue to the roof to see the view. “Of course!” they said, smiling, “The view calls!” A gentle breeze played over the concrete roof, where a screen and climbing passionfruit vines created a cool pocket of shade. The serenity we had felt while exploring the building seemed concentrated in the stillness of the roof—almost like the stillness right before falling asleep. We reverently walked through the dappled shade and made our way to the edge of the roof. Mouths dropped and quiet gasps escaped us. Below us the jade-colored Li River wrapped sinuously around the foot of our mountain. Ahead of us stretched an endless horizon of green, spire-like mountains, dotted with farmland. It was like Italy, China and Heaven had come together in one place. We took pictures and wandered to different vantage points on the roof, enjoying the peaceful feeling of the place. It was half an hour before any of us could stand to leave, and when we did we didn’t turn on our mopeds until we had rolled down the hill, unwilling to break the still “chi” of Panorama View.