When we first came to China every place we visited filled us with a sense of romance and adventure. But if you stay anywhere long enough, you become jaded – especially when visiting famed Chinese tourist destinations, which tend to have a somewhat tacky and artificial veneer.
Yangshuo is an exception, which can, at least temporarily, rekindle anyone’s love affair with China. And if it’s your first time visiting China, I can’t think of a better first impression than Yangshuo.
Pinyin: Yángshuò | Chinese: 阳朔
Location: Guangxi Province, China
Getting There: Flew to Guilin, then hired car for 350 RMB 1-way
Where to Stay: Yangshuo Tea Cozy
Attractions: Li River, Karst mountains, biking, tea terraces, kumquats, rock climbing
Yangshuo is covered by karst topography, created by thousands of years of erosion by what today stands as the Li River (漓江). We visited in February, which meant warm days (70s) and relatively cool nights (50s). The weather was rainy and overcast for much of our trip, but that only added to the magic.
What makes Yangshuo so great is the area’s humble and quiet awesomeness. The landscape’s beauty is physically assaulting. Whether your image of China is a classic landscape painting or some documentary you saw on the History channel, Yangshuo authentically embodies the now almost stereotypical image of natural beauty in China.
Yangshuo is the cool younger sister to Guilin. Guilin is of course stunning in its own right. However, poor Guilin is the subject of many years of tour boats and buses battering its rivers and roads. The aftermath is a beautiful landscape scarred by over development of the tourism industry. While Guilin is still a worthwhile place to visit, I’d argue that Yangshuo offers everything Guilin has, and much more. Geographically, Yangshuo is literally just down the Li River from Guilin. You could take a 4-hour boat from Guilin or even hike it in about 6 hours.
There are two sides to Yangshuo. One is calm, idyllic, and peaceful. The other, represented by the West Street (西街) in Yangshuo’s city center, has all the trappings of other popular Chinese tourist spots (think Lijiang Old Town and the Badaling Great Wall). So if you want to experience hoards of Chinese tourists, junky gifts, and over-priced questionable food, then West Street is your ticket. Otherwise, it’s safe to avoid it entirely.
What you really want to do in Yangshuo is to get lost. Anyone who has been to Yangshuo will probably have a story about getting lost. And it’s very likely that the getting lost story is his or her favorite memory of Yangshuo. One reason Yangshuo is so amenable to getting lost in is because it’s small, so you’ll never really be in danger of getting stranded on the side of the road overnight. You can pretty much always know that you’ll find a way back to your hotel eventually, which makes getting lost a much more carefree and enjoyable experience. Moreover, all the trails and paths are unmarked, so you sort of have to just point yourself in a direction and go anyway.
Bike Ride 1 – Dragon Bridge
There are literally almost an infinite number of paths you can take around Yangshuo. From its winding roads to the web of dirt paths across its farmlands, Yangshuo truly is a biker’s paradise. And you don’t have to be hardcore at all. Many areas are flat, so if you want to take it easy you certainly can. On the other hand, getting a mountain bike and going off-road is a blast as well. Get a map from your hotel or one of the tourist offices and then all the route instructions below will make a lot more sense.
On our first afternoon we did a very popular ride to the Dragon Bridge (遇龙桥). We started from the Tea Cozy, our hotel along the Yulong River (遇龙河). From there we headed up the river, keeping the Yulong River on our left side the entire time. Before you hit Xiangui Qiao (仙桂桥), you’ll turn left off the paved road onto a stone/dirt road, which continues north. In addition to all the karst mountains, one highlight of the trip is passing a duck farm, where you might be able to catch a glimpse of dozens of baby ducks.
Eventually you’ll come to the Dragon Bridge, which is surrounded by a couple restaurants and shops. For years now foreigners have enjoyed jumping off the bridge into the river below. Locals get a kick out of this, and sure enough when we were there some good ol’Americans were jumping off. We crossed the bridge and headed back, again keeping the river on our left side. In all this ride only takes a couple hours, including plenty of stops to take pictures and drink in the scenery.
Bike Ride 2 – Moon Hill
Our second ride again started from the Tea Cozy. We then went down river all the way to Gongnong Bridge （工农桥）, which is a busy intersection that crosses over the Yulong River.
From there we went to Moon Hill （月亮山）, which was just down the street. The ride to Moon Hill is completely on paved roads, so it’s very quick and easy, but of course still beautiful.
Once we arrived at Moon Hill we met Mama Moon. Mama Moon is an old lady who will help you save 5 kuai by taking a secret path up Moon Hill. Now when she first approached us we ignored her and thought she was just another scam artist. Then she started whipping out some very good English and even some Korean. We were intrigued so we stopped to talk to her. She then took out a book. Inside were testimonials from other foreigners about how you could trust Mama Moon. The English was clearly written by Americans (with perfect execution of slang and typical English handwriting). So from there, Moon Mama knew she had us.
Here’s her scam. Basically, you pay her 5 kuai instead of the 10 kuai that a normal ticket costs. Moon Mama’s associate then takes you around the street to climb over a stone wall that leads to a path which eventually connects to the main stairs up the hill. The main gate doesn’t check tickets on the way out, so you’re good to go. You save 5 kuai and you get to meet Moon Mama. We even ate lunch at her recommended restaurant across the street, which serves up typical simple, but tasty country food (农家菜).
The hike up Moon Hill is fast, as there are steps the entire way. From the top you get some amazing views of the surrounding landscape. Our day on Moon Hill had overcast skies with scattered showers, so the red hazy distance looked like something out of a kung-fu movie. You can also climb (at your own peril) the moon gate, which I’d imagine would be a pretty challenging overhang.
From Moon Hill we took a right turn and followed a road parallel to the Baomao Expressway (包茂高速). Eventually we hit the village of Longtan (龙潭). We paid an admission fee, only to find out later that the right turn onto the dirt path that would take us back up the Yulong River was before Longtan. In any event, we eventually found the way. Just know that if you cross the Baomao Expressway, you’ve gone too far.
After finding the small road back up the river, we were essentially riding in farm fields and through local villages. We got lost a couple times and had to ask locals which way to go. These locals are super friendly and are very used to being asked directions from lost bikers. What’s great is that we were totally by ourselves the whole day. We saw a couple other tourists on Moon Hill, but for the entire ride home it was just us.
Eventually we made it back, after doing a river crossing no less, where we carried our bikes across a narrow section of the water. The whole round-trip only took 5 hours, and that was at a very leisurely pace.
Scooting Around Town
Another great option is renting a scooter. Yangshuo is very hilly in some areas, and if you want to cover a lot of ground in one day a gas-powered scooter is the way to go. On our third day, we spent the whole day exploring the tea terraces and kumquat fields of Yangshuo.
From the central bus station in downtown Yangshuo, our path first took us to the Seven Star Peaks (七仙峰景区). Here you can see the iconic tea field terraces with karst mountains in the distance.
From the Seven Star Peaks we made our way along the winding hilly roads. The landscape was inundated with kumquat trees. Covered in plastic wrap to protect them from the cold morning dew, the kumquats were juicy and delicious–unlike from any supermarket. While stopped on the side of the road taking pictures, a passing farmer stopped and offered us some cumquats for free. They were the most deliciously sweet kumquats we’d ever tasted. He explained that the farming areas around Baisha town (白沙) were known as some of China’s largest kumquat producers.
Along the road, there are innumerable places to stop and enjoy the scenery. You’ll know when you pass the good spots, because there are stone walkways made for people to walk up to the ledges and enjoy the views.
Finally we ended up in Xianggong Hill (相公山). Xianggong Hill is a tourist destination created by a local man who decided to invest in building stairs up a mountain that overlooked a particularly beautiful section of the Li River. In return for making the investment, the man gets to collect entrance fees. The view from the top of Xianggong Hill is nothing short of amazing.
We ate lunch at the owner’s hostel. While the hostel itself didn’t look like anything special (and nor was the food), we had to hand it to the guy for taking the time to develop a tourist destination all on his own. Plus the view outside the hostel wasn’t too shabby.
The Li River & Xingping Town
On our last day we decided to do the Li River bamboo boat ride. We took the bus to Yangdi Town (杨堤乡) where we picked up our boat. From there we went down the Li River. The ride is super relaxing and you’ll see plenty of other bamboo boats. You can also walk along the side of the river if you’re looking for a more active day.
While the boat is not amazing (lout sputtering engine), you do get some good views, especially of things like Nine Horse Fresco (九马画山). If you need an easy day I think the boat ride is perfect. But know that if you’ve done a lot of biking, scooting, or hiking, the views you see from the river aren’t entirely different.
We got off the boat across from the 20 Kuai Scenery Spot – literally what it’s called. The view here is printed on the 20 RMB bill.
From there we took an electric three-wheeled scooter to Xingping (兴坪). Xingping is a really nice old town. While there are no “must-see” places, Xingping is perfect for ambling through old streets.
Other Things to Do
We only spent 4 days in Yangshuo. There are many things we didn’t do, including cave exploring, rock climbing, mud baths, cooking classes, and other village visits. Rock climbing was definitely high on our list, and we’d absolutely try it out the next time we go. As for the caves, I’d been to similar caves in Guilin, and the thought of tacky fluorescent lights inside a cave wasn’t that appealing. That being said, I still do remember the caves in Guilin to be pretty neat.
The mud baths seem like a tourist trap, but if I were a college kid on a spring break trip who knows, maybe I’d think differently. The point is we only scratched the surface of Yangshuo. We see Yangshuo sort of like Dali in Yunnan. It’s the type of place foreigners love because it’s quiet, natural, and despite being a tourist area there are still places to escape and find authentic experiences.
Where to Stay – The Tea Cozy
I’ll try and resist the urge to gush too much about the Tea Cozy Hotel (+86-773-8816158). But if you go to Yangshuo stay there and you will not be disappointed. Just check out the TripAdvisor reviews and you’ll know what the deal is.
The people at the Tea Cozy are super friendly. The food is good. And the rooms are tastefully done and truly give you a cozy feeling. I can’t say enough good things about this place. It’s local boutique hospitality done right, which I can assure you is a true rarity in China.