As I slowly unbent my frozen limbs, curled up tight all night long under the hotel’s duvet, to slip into a pair of thick wool slippers, put on a comfy coat, and perch my glasses onto what I think was my nose (all feelings had left me), I was ready to be impressed.
We had arrived late the night before at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, an hour’s drive from Guilin, China, and being the dead of a foggy winter with no illuminations to be found in the sky, I had yet to step onto my balcony. With a flourish I pulled open the curtains, took a deep breath and braced myself. And, cold be damned, spent the good part of the next half hour gazing in awe at the incredible sight before me.
Since the childhood days when my mum had me study Chinese ink paintings of bamboos and mountains, China’s karst limestone peaks in Guilin have always been a dream destination. That morning, as moody mist seeped and swirled around jutting mountains in husky shades of green, fading into the distance and seaweeds swayed rhythmically in the crystal clear river below, I forgave the weather.
As it turned out, when my friends and I congregated on the lawn for a delightful breakfast with gallons of freshly juiced oranges, the region’s pride and joy, I was chagrinned to find that everyone else had passed a warm and snuggly night in their respective rooms after discovering the electric blanket. Note to self, listen when given the orientation by hotel staff.
The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat is one of China’s premier eco resorts, the first to open in what was a tiny village outside Yangshuo over 15 years ago, and owned by an American and Thai couple who live in Chiang Mai. After a morning spent wandering around the lush grounds, we finally decided it was time to explore, and a ride down the river was the plan.
I was rather skeptical about sitting on a bamboo raft for three hours with temperatures hovering around three degrees Celsius, but all wrapped up and snug in multiple layers, it turned out to be a magical experience. Comfortable seats, wide open stretches with only the river in front of us and hundreds of mountains looming and jutting majestically around, and occasional moments of sheer terror as we dipped over a dozen or so tiny falls created by the multiple weirs in the Yulong River.
In spite of the occasional fear – thankfully not realised – of plunging into subzero waters, this was a fine way to really take in the beauty that has inspired painters and poets for centuries. As the hours slipped by in a blink, I imagined what it must have been like 200 million years ago, when this area was 200 metres under the sea level and aquatic dinosaurs roamed, before India pushed its way up into what is now China, draining the sea and eventually allowing the weather and time to erode the limestone into what we see today. The sheer drama of the landscape comes from the contrast between the flat planes, much of which is used to grow rice and citrus fruits, and the sheer and unexpectedly sudden rising of the mountains.
Our stunning resort was a mere 15 minutes’ drive from Yangshuo town, set in a rural village, one of many, ancient and modern, that can be found in the shadows of the karst mountains that cover a region as large as Chiang Mai province. Yangshuo itself was China’s first real backpacker’s destination in the 90s, attracting mainly rock climbers, who now enjoy the 300 plus climbing routes in popular use. But recently, and rather funnily, as more foreigners began pouring into Yangshuo, attracted to the laid back vibe, the charming cobbled streets, the ancient architecture, and of course the surrounding beauty, the Chinese have come to Yangshuo to see the foreigners, who have themselves become a tourist attraction.
Yangshuo is utterly charming. Clear streams run through the town of walking streets lined with shops, restaurants and bars (I spotted three oyster bars, a fish and chip shop, a couple of steak houses, beer and wine bars and even a tapas bar within a few minutes of wandering around!). Some guesthouses offer rooftop coffee shops which afford spectacular views of the town’s higgledy-piggledy tiled rooftops and distant mountains. You can walk around for days stopping off at art galleries, sampling chilli sauces (another product the area is famed for – I went a tad crazy and brought home 14 jars, they were that good!), buying antique textiles and collecting gewgaws as souvenirs. There are a few old temples and buildings which have been renovated into chic tea houses or restaurants and the local food itself is better than any I have found elsewhere in China: not greasy, full of flavour and lip-smackingly satisfying my Thai chilli cravings.
A popular pastime for most visitors is to simply rent a bicycle and ride around. It was a tad too cold at silly degrees, so we hopped into a van and wended our way around citrus groves and little villages in the industrious process of throwing away their mud bricks for modern cement. Like elsewhere in China, development is fast and furious in and around Yangshuo. But in spite of expanding highways, burgeoning populations and constant construction, there are pockets of old China still to charm. We visited Langzi, an old village surrounding a 500 year old ancestral hall, walking cobbly paths, poking our faces into nooks and crannies, and finding all sorts of delightful pieces of antiques and architecture which thankfully survived the Cultural Revolution. Another lovely village was Jui Xien, similarly easy to walk around and explore and where a South African architect has spent four years restoring a group of Qing Dynasty houses in a local village community, turning them into an utterly adorable guesthouse, restaurant and tea garden. He is also working with villagers in restoring many other buildings in the historical village, working faithfully to ancient design and engineering.
Yangshuo is a destination to be savoured. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to do. You can visit caves, take a night bamboo raft with a fisherman and his cormorants to see how they fish (I was a tad uncomfortable watching the poor birds, necks tied, who were forced to regurgitate their larger catches, but it is an ancient fishing tradition still in use today, and very fascinating to experience), watch the Impression Liu Sanjie show produced by the director of the Beijing Olympics, a spectacular light and sound show with the mountains acting as a kaleidoscopic backdrop, and in more clement weather, enjoy all sorts of outdoors activities _ the clear clean waterways must surely make for great aqua frolicking fun.
But if you just want to sit on your hotel balcony gazing at the mountains, that is just fine too. I could do that for days.
Though not that far as the crow flies, it is a tad convoluted to get to Yangshuo from Chiang Mai. We flew to Bangkok and took China Southern Airlines to Nanning before hopping onto the short flight to Guilin where the hotel van picked us up. Another option is to fly to Kunming and take a connecting flight to Guilin from there.
Yangshuo Mountain Retreat
Multiple award winning hotel which creates as little environmental impact as possible – solar power, grey water treatment – as well as training, working and profit sharing with local employees, and each room comes with a balcony affording jaw-dropping views. There is a lovely restaurants serving local and international dishes and the fire-side bar selling a solid selection of very reasonably priced wines and spirits. You can take a boat from the resort’s doorstep for some light scenic viewing.
Price: around 3,000 baht per night depending on the season.
Yangshuo Village Inn
Closer to town and with great views from its rooftop bar and restaurant of the dramatic moon hill, a crescent moon shaped rock formation and popular attraction, rooms and family suites are temperature controlled by solar power, under-the-floor water pipes and traditional mud insulation.
Starting at around 1,500 baht per night.
On the rooftop of Yangshuo Village Inn, delicious Italian fare _ try the really, really cheesy pizza _ and panoramic views makes this the perfect place to go for a romantic sunset drink before digging into a feast.
Yangshuo Secret Garden
Home of the Qing Dynasty restored homes, nooks and crannies make up this secret garden where visitors spend hours reading a book and drinking tea. There is also fantastic local cuisine, all served in a charming rustic setting.
The best vegetarian restaurant I have ever been to. Stunning local cuisine served with modern flairs in the heart of the city. The chefs are masters of tofu, and no meat lover would have a thing to complain about.