Our Lonely Planet guidebook described the town of Yangshuo as a “once-peaceful settlement” which is now home to “pole-dancing bars” and it was at that point I was beginning to question why I’d thought it was a good idea to visit Yangshuo. That description alone conjured up something seedy with images of Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District flashing up in my mind.
Fortunately, the Yangshuo we discovered was nothing like this. Sure, there may be a few strip clubs in the town but that’s completely not what Yangshuo is about.
Whilst it’s not exactly the peaceful town it once was, Yangshuo still remains one of China’s most prized destinations. Spend 30 minutes on a bicycle and head out of the town and you’ll discover exactly why Yangshuo became so popular in the first place.
Some of you will probably hate Yangshuo. There’s a big focus on “Western” food with pizza restaurants, a Mcdonalds, a KFC soon to open and cafés promoting “American breakfasts”. And usually I’d probably join you in not being a fan of a small town full of places like that. But despite this I felt that the town of Yangshuo still managed to retain its charm.
The fact that the town is home to some of the most impressive scenery I’ve ever seen definitely helped make it one of my favourite places on our China trip. Then there’s the lively street-food scene, the helpful locals, good, cheap Chinese food and it didn’t go unnoticed by me that it’s a bit of an adventurer’s paradise.
Getting to Yangshuo
Having successfully navigated the Chinese public buses from our hotel in Huangyao, by heading towards Guilin and then getting off when directed to do so by the driver for another bus to Yangshuo, our next task was to find out hostel.
We’d booked Yangshuo Travelling With… which seems to be a fairly new hostel chain. Our private room was bright, spacious and clean – everything you need and I’d highly recommend it. The downside was that it’s not easy to find. It’s hidden away up some stairs in a mini shopping centre, just above the 99p store (confusingly, nothing seemed to be that cheap…or paid for in pennies).
Our afternoon was spent exploring the town.There’s plenty of climbing shops, bars, sweet shots and places to stock up on chilli sauce; one of the region’s specialities. The highlight, however, was the fantastic sunset as we sat on the bank of river watching the men paddle on their bamboo boats with their trusty cormorant birds.
What to do in Yangshuo
As I mentioned, Yangshuo is a little bit of a paradise for adventurers and there’s plenty to do whatever your preferred level of adrenaline.
The karst mountain landscape means climbers flock to the area and there and numerous climbing guides who will take you out. If you’re not experienced but fancy giving it a go there’s a climbing wall set up for a beginners on the main road into the town.
If climbing isn’t for you hire a bicycle. There’s probably hundreds of places to do this and the majority of hostels will recommend somewhere or have their own bicycles for you to use.
We hired bikes from our hostel for Y20 a day for an old mountain bike. They didn’t have helmets or maps (you have to pay Y5 for a map from hostels) so just be aware of this. We’d always prefer to wear a helmet so if you know somewhere in Yangshuo that does them let us know!
Besides cycling and climbing you can also go trekking, take a boat ride on the bamboo rafts, watch the cormorants fish, take a Tai Chi lesson, a cooking class and much more.
For budget adventure travellers like us, cycling was the ideal option. Just Y20 a day and the chance to explore the surrounding countryside at our own pace and add extra adventures such as trekking if we wished.
Cycling in Yangshuo
The next morning we awoke to the sound of rain. Not deterred by the weather we headed to the hostel reception to book a bike for the day – just Y20 each for an old mountain bike. Some bike shops will charge considerably more although for the extra price you may get a more well kept bike and, if you’re lucky, a helmet. We had no helmet and the bikes were very old – to the point that if you put a bit of pressure on the pedals the chain slipped – but they did the job!
The area surrounding Yangshuo is the reason you come. The karst landscapes become ever more surreal and otherworldly. They just out of the ground and they’re unlike any other mountains I’ve ever seen before.
We headed north-west out of Yangshuo in the rain and along the busy G321 up to Baisha and the famous Yulong bridge – a 400 year old stone bridge. The road started off busy but then we took a diversion along a road that was still being built. There was no one working on it but there were also no cars or lorries which was just what we were hoping for.
As you approach the bridge you’ll be approached by touts trying to sell you a bamboo ride. We preferred to keep on cycling but if you fancy cutting the route short here you can strap your bikes to the raft. Each raft takes two people and two bikes and you can float down the Yulong River all the way to the Big Banyan tree (3 hours). From here it’s roughly a 20-30 minute cycle ride to Yangshuo.
Our cycle after the Yulong bridge took us along the south side of the river where we got lost a few times and discovered some tiny village communities, farms and did some accidental off-roading. Getting lost in these villages and working our way out was one of the best parts of the ride. You don’t always need to follow a map when travelling (although having one as a backup is always a good idea!).
After a while there we made it onto a cycle path running along the banks of the river at Chaoyang Wharf all the way down to the Big Banyan tree. This part of the route was more popular with tourists but had some spectacular scenery so don’t be put off!
The second day we headed out to the south-east following the road past the Butterfly Spring and out towards the villages of Aishan and Yong. This route was much more road based but beautiful nonetheless.
Where to eat in Yangshuo
Yangshuo is full of places to eat and drink. You can either opt to eat traditional fare or, if you fancy something more Western, there’s pizza, KFC and McDonalds to keep you happy.
For breakfasts we ate at the same place three times – something I never really do. We have our reasons; it was yummy, the owner was nice, it was close to our hostel (good when it’s raining out) and the breakfast deal was the cheapest we found in Yangshuo. At least for western food!
Our place of choice was ‘Lucy’s Café’. For Y20 we had a coffee, two slices of toast and two eggs plus there was a very friendly dog that brightened up our day.
Lunch was always a bit of a strange one and mainly ended up consisting of fruit. Despite claiming that every country has some sort of cheese and ham in my how to save money whilst travelling post we were out of luck when it came to China. We made do with some weird, very sweet cheese toastie from a bakery, strangely flavoured crisps and lots of satsumas – the nicest I’ve ever had. We took these lunches out with us on our bike rides with plenty of water which was just as well as there aren’t many places to grab food when you’re out of the town.
On our first evening we headed out onto West Street, the town’s main street, and sniffed out some street food. There were plenty of stalls with a lot that looked tasty and a lot that didn’t – here’s looking at you weird snails and unidentified meat. There’s tofu, roasted chestnuts, Chinese hamburgers and something delicious that we’ve not been able to identify (above). It was a doughy, sorta spicy veg and meat filled roll. It was yummy – if you know what it was I’d love to know!
The other two evenings were at a restaurant right next to our hostel where we filled up on noodles, broth and chicken for just Y16. It was delicious, cheap and filling – what more could you want? It went even better with a little bar of chocolate from the supermarket for dessert!
Most visitors to Yangshuo will go back to Guilin, the airport or make the journey to the train station before heading off on a high-speed train out of the town. Check with your hostel staff as to which bus station you need as there are a couple at completely different ends of the town.
For Guilin you want the one in the north about a 20 minute walk from the centre of Yangshuo or a 5 minute taxi ride. Buses go regularly throughout the day and if you’re tight on time pay extra for the direct bus which means you won’t stop off in random villages and wait around for passengers to fill up the empty seats!