Yangshou is 50 miles south of Guilin and features more mountains and less people. Like the Guilin area, small villages are nearby where locals still use water buffalo to plow rice paddies. But in Yangshou these sights are a quick bike ride out of town.
More Pictures of Biking and Rafting
I got off the Li River boat tour in mid afternoon then after checking into the Paradesa Hotel, I did a quick tour of Yangshou. This part of town is the tourist district with a spectacular number of shops and vendors, covering about a half mile square west from the docks. This isn't as bad as it sounds, since they mostly leave you alone and it's really quite colorful and exciting. Tiny storefronts line the streets selling every kind of tourist trinket imaginable - clothes, jewelry, statues, books & travel. Hundreds of open-front shops spill into the noisy street while tourist, locals and retailers churn against each other like oatmeal boiling in a pot.
Gigantic limestone peaks tower over us right in town, making a misty green backdrop to the noisy chaos. A quartermile from the hotel is a 250 foot pillar in a city park with a pagoda on top. A halfmile south is a 700 foot pyramid with antennas on top. and a halfmile east is the Li River with the stonework promenade and long park of shady trees. Filling in the space between peaks is the muggy haze of tropical China. A good rain cooled us off and cleared the streets, giving the town a nice scrubbing and a fresh springtime smell.
After a leisurely hike around town I went looking for a place to eat. After the bowl of bones I got yesterday, I was looking for something American this time. Across the pond from the hotel was an open-front place advertising pizza, so I grabbed a seat on the patio. By now the sun was out and the outdoor seating was a little muggy, but with a steady stream of half-dressed tourists walking the streets I wasn't about to sit inside.
So I ate my pizza, drank my beer and read my guidebook, trying to put together a plan for tomorrow, when one of the local girls came up and asked if I needed a guide for a bicycle tour. I started to tell her no until I realized that that's what I was planning for tomorrow. So we talked it over for about a half hour and decided we'd meet in the hotel lobby a 9 am. But this is a real trick, I didn't bring nearly enough money and I don't have an ATM card. So I had to keep the whole day under 200 Yuan ($25).
The next morning I did the usual tour of the breakfast buffet at the hotel, which was on the deck next to the pond, then headed over to the lobby to meet Lilli. It was shaping up to be another steamy hot day so I dressed light, but Lilli showed up in blue jeans. That's what the locals wear throughout China - it doesn't matter how hot it is, they're wearing long pants. I like to ride pretty fast, but I could tell that wasn't going to happen today.
Anyhow, we walked down the street to a near by vendor who had two dozen bikes to rent, grabbed a pair and headed west. Hiring a bicycle guide in Yangshou is unbelievably simple - for only 100 yuan ($13) you get her for the whole day. That's good money around here, double what the factory workers are getting and probably tax free. And it seems to be big business - as we cruised down the main drag out of town we were in a mix with a huge number of bike tourists. I don't know how many groups had a guide but I was thinking, why bother, just follow the throngs.
Once you get out of downtown, Yangshou is a pretty nice place. Smaller apartments are mixed right in with those big green buttes, and there's barely any traffic out here in the suburbs. It didn't take long before we were out of town, with the apartments eventually replaced by small farm houses. The terrain is surprisingly flat between the buttes, making a leisurely ride through flooded fields, creeks and orchards.
Even out here there was a steady stream of bikers peddling the country roads, and most were passing us by. Lilli was lagging behind talking on her cell phone, and I was wondering what was up. Turns out she was trying to arrange the raft trip, but to keep the cost down she needed to find someone to share the boat with me. Apparently these guides keep in contact with each other and she found a Chinese couple from up north to team up with.
Our new group continued on its way, following the Yu Long River north for several miles, past rows of green buttes towering over paddies of rice and soy where farmers plowed their fields with water buffalo, past small brick houses shaded by fruit trees where locals sell snacks out of their garages, and past a thinning column of bikers until we eventually came to a dock where the rafts were waiting.
Rafting is big business in these parts. Hundreds of these things float the Yu Long River every day, bringing in thousands for the farmers that live along the river. Our two hour float runs about $25 for both of us, which sounds like a good deal but that's ten times the wages of a factory worker. I forked over a few bucks and found my raft beached on the shore. These things are 15 feet of bamboo with a pair of seats under an umbrella, pushed by a guide with a long pole. My fare won't cover Lilli so instead of rafting she'll be biking the few miles to the docks where we'll rejoin her. I'll be sharing the raft with the Chinese couple's ten year old daughter.
We shoved off from the shore and started drifting downstream. The guide wheeled us around and pushed into the current where we joined a couple of other rafts. After the steamy hot bike ride, the cool breeze on the river felt good. We're moving barely faster than the current, but at least someone else is doing the work. This is the same valley where we were just biking but instead of the hot noisy road, the river is warm quiet and peaceful, where the only sound is the sloshing of the raft in the river. The seats are barely out of the water and cool water splashes over our feet.
The Yu Long is a wide slow river surrounded by farms and shaded by huge tufts of bamboo on the shore. The valley is thick with an overgrowth of green. Trees overhang the river, hiding a patchwork of farms behind them, and row after row of huge jungle choked buttes fade into the thick haze. We're flowing through the scenic rural countryside where scattered houses are hidden in the trees and there's no sign of villages or civilization in any direction.
Roads follow the river, connecting small groups of houses to each other and to boat docks about every half mile. Rafts are putting into the river at every one of these docks. We put in near the start of the tour, where we had the quiet river to ourselves, but the farther we went the more crowded it got. Two rafts turned into ten, then twenty, as the river filled with colorful umbrellas as far as we could see, turning the wilderness float trip into somewhat of a circus.
This was actually a lot of fun. Water gun fights erupted between rival groups who were using three-foot water cannons to draw river water and hose down each other. The vendors at the docks sell these things like crazy and the guides play right into the mix by steering their rafts into each other like pirates launching a boarding party. Some of these groups have been through this before, bringing their own salad bowls to toss big scoops of water and some were even decked out in rain jackets.
Crisscrossing the flat river is a series of small waterfalls. Ranging from two to five feet high, they seem to be flat walkways for locals to cross the river, but they also make a slight impediment for the rafts. We could float over the shorter ones, dragging bottom while the guide would jump off and push, but not on the tall ones where we'd come to a stop and I'd have to get off and push from the left while the guide pushed from the right. This was perhaps the most fun of the trip, getting my feet wet and turning a couch potato trip into somewhat of an adventure.
A little farther down was the biggest waterfall of them all - five feet high and wide enough to drive a car across. In fact, a few locals were riding bicycles and motorcycles across. Nearly everyone was getting stuck, since there was only one low spot and far too many rafts to share it. We hit it on the left and got stuck like we had a flat tire. I jumped off and we both pushed, pulled, rocked and lifted, but the damn thing was way heavier than you'd think bamboo could be. Several others were doing the same exercise but ours was sitting on dry land and going no where.
In the midst of this workout appeared some old lady selling post cards, "ten yuan, ten yuan". I was still pushing and telling her no, "boo yau, boo yau". So she showed me an embroidered pocket that holds post cards and said "put cards in pouch, is very pretty, ten yuan". So I said ok. I was still holding up the raft with one hand while thumbing through my wallet with the other, then handed her a ten yuan bill and slung the pouch around my neck. And then she moved along to the next raft that was stuck on the wall.
So after about five minutes the guide slid his pole under the raft and we just rolled it over the falls. By this time the river was getting clogged with a thick vernier of rafts as we made our way down the final half mile. The guide has been pushing for a good two hours now and probably can't wait to sit down to some lunch, and neither can I. We float the final stretch and then beach the raft in the grass at the busiest park I've ever seen.
As soon as we're off the raft, we found Lilli waiting for us under a shady tree. I'm starving but the plan is to visit Big Banyan Tree Park first. As you would expect, this park features a huge banyan tree. Lilli claims the tree is 1500 years old, but a one acre banyan is probably closer to 150 years. Banyans grow by dropping roots from their branches, then when the root takes root it becomes a secondary trunk which supports the branch, allowing the dome of the tree to span a huge area. This one appears smaller than the one in Lahaina Maui, and no where near the size of the record holder in Calcutta India.
Across the river was a traditional Chinese village. We had to push our own raft across a tributary to a giant natural archway where local vendors were selling all kinds of crafts and trinkets. The village was a group of mud and thatch houses, complete with ancient household appliances, and a rickety old water wheel spinning in a small creek.
Anyhow, the highlight of the park was all the people dressed in traditional Chinese outfits. I thought they were part of the venue but they were actually visitors renting the costumes from a big red barn next to the banyan tree. For about a buck you have your pick from a room full of colorful silk costumes, and nearly everyone who put one on looked like a princess. Lilli was dying to see me in one of them, but lucky for me they didn't have anything in my size.
So we finally headed down the road to Moon Hill, a few miles farther out. This hill has a round archway on top that looks a lot like the moon in the sky. A trail leads up the arch, but we're skipping that and going across the road to a covered market where we're having lunch. We went upstairs to some breezy picnic tables where I grabbed a plate full of 4-pepper pork and rice that was the best meal I had in Yangshou and more than I could eat for only four bucks.
This place is actually the gateway for the Buddha Cave, with parking for tour buses near by. We're about five miles from Yangshou, so when we finished up lunch we hopped back on our bikes for the sweltering ride back into town. The temperature was about 95 and thick with humidity. This final leg was a little too much for the Chinese girl so her parents hired a motorcycle taxi to carry her and her bike back while the rest of us peddled along.
Actually, I wasn't that tired. It was steamy hot out but the slight breeze felt good and the ride back to town was wonderful. It was a lot more of the same mountains, rivers and farms that we've been seeing all day, but I could ride through this stuff for days and not get tired of it.
We stopped at the bridge over the Yu Long where they were loading and unloading the bamboo rafts. In case you were wondering how they get hundreds of bamboo rafts back up the river: they use dump trucks. The guides aren't about to push those things uphill, so they load two dozen at a time into a big dump truck then just dump them.
By the time I was back I was beat. So after a shower, a snooze, and a plate of spaghetti, I hiked over to the river and spent the evening watching a storm roll down the river while the locals did their Tai Chi in the park and washed their kids in the river.
The next morning I was ready to do it again, but there were still other adventures to be had in this town. A half mile west of the hotel is a huge city park with a small pagoda on a 250 foot pillar. (This pagoda is visible in the picture of my hotel in the previous chapter.)
So I took a stroll around town to the park, then zig zagged all over the place to find the trail to the top. This was one of the more tree-choked parks I've ever seen. The wide walkways made a big half mile X, but it was completely canopied over in deep shade, so the tall butte was actually hard to find.
The shady walkway was lined with park benches where dozens of locals brought their families for a picnic lunch or to snooze away the morning. I wandered west around two buttes, trying a couple of trails that didn't seem to go anywhere. But eventually I found a steeeep trail going nearly straight up the side of the butte I think I'm looking for. It was quite a work out, slogging up crooked stairs in the tropical sauna, sweat dripping all over the place.
I popped out on the craggy top of the tree choked butte where I found the pagoda sitting between crags with a commanding view of the whole valley. The walls dropped away on all sides and the peak was narrow enough that I couldn't get a good picture of the pagoda. The pagoda was nothing more than a single room with a fancy roof but the location was hard to beat.
While I was exploring the crags at the top, a Chinese couple crested the hill and milled around for a while. Just before I was about to go down, the husband gestured to me, pointing at his camera then to me. I assumed he wanted me to take their picture next to the pagoda, so I said ok. But then he handed the camera to his wife, then stood next to me while she took a picture of us together! I guess they just had to have a picture of the big giant American (I was 8 inches taller than him). I don't know why but even though this town is packed with foreigners, there were nearly none in this park. I can't imagine the $1 entrance fee was keeping them out.
That took all morning and now I had a bus to catch. So about noon, I hopped on the express bus back to Guilin and took yet another tour of the spectacular countryside. The hour and a half trip was a string of small towns, surrounded by these same buttes, rivers, and rice paddies, they just never seem to end.
(1) Yangshou (yang shoo) is in Guangxi provence.
(2) Guilin seems about 400,000 people, Yangshou about 100,000.
(3) Karst is eroded limestone mountains with caves and sinkholes, well known in Kentucky, Thailand & Iran.
(4) The main river is Li Jiang and the smaller one in Yangshou is Yu Long.
(5) I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Guilin and the Paradesa Hotel in Yangshou.
(6) Bamboo is technically a grass, not a tree.
Dongguan China 2007
Huge limestone towers and rivers weaving through rice paddies.