Sans soucis in the land of Shan Shui

Culture | by David Perry
Posted: September 9th, 2009 | Updated: October 24th, 2012 | Comments
Karst spires in the Yangshuo countryside Not a worry, not a care. Rivers and mountains everywhere. Though only a two-hour flight from Shanghai, Yangshuo is worlds away from the urban jungle. >>> I've been away from Shanghai for 14 hours, and I wake in a fuzzy near-dream state convinced for a moment that I haven't left at all, but rather that the city has miraculously transformed around me. Outside my window, shadowy towers jut into misty skies, creating a sense of endlessness familiar to anyone who knows Shanghai's relentlessly vertical cityscape and persistent atmospheric haze: It goes on forever. But these towers bend and buckle in staggered, irregular shapes that evoke primal animal forms rather than angular machine-driven Shanghai. And the mist moves like real fog, as if alive, unlike the city's static dead-air smoggy pall. And the sounds! Birdsong, and not that of my neighbor's caged magpie. Birds singing on the wing. The steady wash of distant river rapids in place of traffic and jackhammer din. The last remnants of sleep slip away, and the day snaps into focus. I'm in Yangshuo. It's only a Guilin, but worlds away from my adopted megacity. The Yulong River (Dragon River) flows some dozen meters from my balcony and Shanghai's muddy Huangpu is a distant memory. A barefoot and shirtless local man poles a bamboo raft out into the gentle current, cigarette artfully dangling from his mouth. A white crane erupts from the underbrush on the opposite bank and labors skyward against a backdrop of high-rise forest that clings to jutting limestone peaks. Here, cranes are waterfowl, towers are green-mantled karst wonders, and the fog carries a light scent of summer grass instead of diesel fumes. Looking out my Yangshuo Mountain Retreat balcony window, it's suddenly easy to believe that it all goes on forever. I watch the scene unfold from my balcony, sipping green tea. A Western man saunters to a small floating river dock and slips in for a morning swim. My first reaction is pure Shanghai: Is he insane? That's river water! In China! But he returns 15 minutes later free of chemical burns or mutations, and I begin to wonder if the water might be as clean as it looks. I'm beginning to unwind. View from the balcony of the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat A bamboo raft floats past with a Chinese couple aboard, the woman in impractical heels and he wielding a Super Soaker knockoff, chatting and laughing and snapping photos from beneath a rainbow sunshade. Another lean local man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth casually guides the craft with a long pole, shaded by a dǒu lì (斗笠), the traditional Southeast Asian conical straw hat. The sun breaks above the peaks and the last wisps of mist disperse. Soon, dozens of rafts, then scores, drift by, filling the river. Traffic. Yes, this is indeed modern China. But still, no squealing brakes, grinding gears and blaring horns; only idle talk, relaxed laughter, playful splashes and water gun exchanges. I really begin to decompress. After five straight months in Shanghai, I have four days to sweat out the accumulated stress of rubbing elbows with 18 million amped-up big-city go-getters. I'll clamber up karst peaks, hike back-country trails, kayak the Yulong and take my first tai chi lesson, fueled by Guilin's Li Quan Beer, rice noodles, river fish and some surprisingly spot-on Western food. I'll also sample the first drinkable bai jiu I've ever known—lemon bai jiu, of all things—at a goodbye party for friends in Guilin, but that's another story. As for Yangshuo, I make a point of limiting time spent in the town itself and keeping to the countryside. I steer clear of backpacker-happy West Street. I opt out of the Olympian theatrics of Zhang Yimou's Impression Liu Sanjie, a "must-see" high-tech dance extravaganza created by the director of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. And I don't do the "must-do" cruise on the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo. Instead, I'm seeking one of the few things that I'd been unable to find much of in my time in China: Peace, quiet and a little bit of nature. An advertisement for tourist attractions in Yangshuo, China

Guilin to Yangshuo by bus: Will the "Real China" please stand up?

Right after landing in Guilin, I'm not sure I'll find any of it. I'm immediately set upon by touts shilling Li River cruises harder than an old Xiangyang Market watch-bag-DVD pusher ever did back in Shanghai. I've been advised to skip the cruise and hop on a bus by a friend, an Australian who taken it easy teaching English and playing music in Guilin for five chill years before hitting Shanghai to make some real money. He is, of course, right. It's faster and, though it lacks the astronomical "must-see" quotient of one of China's most famous stretches of water, it's also free of tour groups and the RMB 400+ ticket price. After taking the airport shuttle into the heart of town (RMB 20) and overpaying by a few kuai for a cab (RMB 10 on what should be an RMB 7 fare; be sure the meter works and is running) I hit the bus station and duck a wave of tenacious middle-aged local ladies looking to shepherd wandering laowai onto one of the scores of buses idling in a gargantuan lot. I learn just a little later that they skim off inflated fares (pay no more than RMB 15 and pay the driver, not anyone who leads—or even follows—you to a bus). Young water buffalo, Yangshuo, China The local bus turns out to be more than worth it. I chat with a trio of French backpackers—two college-aged women and a guy—destined for one the many Hong Kong gangster movie showing on the bus's battered TV. As the on-screen hero methodically wreaks bloody vengeance upon the murderous pimps who burned his brother alive and kidnapped his girl, I can't help think that in the "real China" sweepstakes, we're handily beating the Li River cruisers. China in all of its wild variety streams past outside the bus window—water buffalo and farmers slog through rice paddies, a brand-new Mercedes convertible flies by, chain-smoking mechanics crouch under trees fixing homemade motorized tricycles and battered mopeds, kids play in doorways, brightly colored fruits and vegetables spill from ramshackle shops, bright gold & red propaganda banners sag between signs for Coca-Cola and an English school, couples demurely stroll the dusty roadside hand-in-hand, a goat tethered to a tractor chews on a white plastic bottle while a second goat watches from the balcony of a half-finished concrete "mansion"… all unfolding like an animated postmodern Chinese scroll painting against a sunset mountain backdrop.

Yangshuo Mountain Retreat: China Eco-Tourism 101

Outdoor seating and tables at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat It's dark by the time I wrangle a cab from the Pantao Lu & West Street bus drop-off point to the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (RMB 30). 20 minutes later, I'm dropped off at the side of a gravel road. I make my way down a lantern-lit path and enter a garden that right off feels like a huge (and hugely comfy) outdoor living room featuring an unimpeded view of the Yulong River and an impressive array of karst formations on far bank. A nearly full moon casts light on the scene through scudding clouds as a handful of guests drink, dine and talk in small scattered groups. Within minutes of a friendly and efficient check-in, I'm introduced by Ronald, the Retreat manager, to Tom and Ellen, an American couple having dinner outside, who quickly offer cold beer and ample helpings of a house specialty, Yangshuo Beer Fish (píjiǔ yú, 啤酒鱼). "No way we can finish this thing ourselves…." "It's delicious, but we're getting full!" After a round of introductions and another round of beer, the three of us agree to meet early for a tai chi lesson before we kayak the Yulong. Ronald sets it all up and says he'll join us if he can to play tour guide. He promises that, aside from locals and water buffalo, we'll have the river to ourselves. I head to my room, eager for a good night's sleep. Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, the creation of American entrepreneur and training guru Chris Barclay, prides itself on its eco-friendly ways and on its smart design, and rightly so. My room's furniture is framed with local bamboo, the textured finished concrete floor is cool and comfortable underfoot, the bathroom is stocked with soaps and shampoos made locally with all-natural products and the entire Retreat is built with sustainability in mind, including solar hot water, a veggie and herb garden for the restaurant, an extensive water conservation project and more. Though old hat in the West, eco-tourism is just now catching on in China, as foreign tourists and a trickle of environmentally conscious Chinese travelers look to both enjoy and protect China's beleaguered natural heritage. Sustainability aside, all that's really important is the soft bed, the blissfully air-conditioned air that carries a pleasant scent of tea tree oil, and the quiet. Falling asleep is a breeze.


Bamboo punts on a river in Yangshuo, China After my moment of brief confusion in which I wonder how Shanghai's armies of blue-clad construction workers managed to paint the town green overnight, I leave my tea and mosey to 7am tai chi. Though I know my way around a yoga mat, tai chi is a first for me and it takes a while before the challenge gives way to a measure of relaxation. At least Tom and Ellen are having a similarly tricky time of it. Our patient instructor runs us through our paces on a lawn still damp from dew, just meters from the river. By the end of it, we're all moving less like robots and a bit more like water and trees in the wind, though I remain a long way from graceful. Awkwardness aside, the experience is soothing and convinces me to try again another time. But for now, my stomach is more convincing: I head off to the Retreat's excellent restaurant for a bowl of Guilin rice noodles (Guìlín mǐfěn, 桂林米粉), the region's famous breakfast (and lunch, dinner and snack time) fare. A nest of thin semi-transparent noodles steeps in a succulent broth topped with fresh, lightly sautéed vegetables, spices, chopped pickled veggies and peanuts. It's delicious, even without the traditional shavings of horse meat. I down my coffee (good, reasonably strong, European-style) and prep for kayaking....
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