Our guide pushed her bicycle a little farther along the trail, and gradually a clear, zigzagging river came into view. Down the sunlit water, a local man poled a flat boat carrying a small group of passengers. They were singing a local folk melody and gazing hungrily at the fantasy-like landscape.
Our guide, a middle-aged woman named Ying from the nearby countryside, grinned when she saw our mouths agape at the scenery.
"All the people say Guilin is the most beautiful place in China, but then they say Yangshuo is more beautiful than Guilin," she said, chuckling.
Yangshuo, a town of 300,000 residents about an hour south of the southeast tourist mecca of Guilin, has a singular reputation among foreigners who have spent time in China. It has all the special elements that make a place irresistible to backpackers: spectacular, largely undeveloped scenery ripe for exploring by bike or boat or with a rack of climbing gear; cheap accommodations; interesting trinkets; tasty food; and locals who manage to maintain their cultural roots while reaching out to those from other countries.
My husband, Michael, and I arrived in Yangshuo at the end of a monthlong, travel-heavy winter holiday. After spending six months in China, I felt strangely at home on the pedestrians-only Xi Jie, or West Street, at the town's center.
Why I felt that way wasn't apparent at first. Then I began to notice small, comforting things. The tall, narrow wooden buildings graciously leaning over the stone street. Cafe walls lined with books in Chinese, English and a multitude of other languages, an invitation to loiter. And, as evening set in, laughing people spilled onto the sidewalk, around tables set with candles, as though it were Paris.
But this clearly wasn't Paris. The price of our hotel room alone (less than $10 a night) could testify to that. And so could the wild, mystical landscape outside.
Much of Guangxi province, where Yangshuo is, is made up of limestone, likely formed of shells and sediment from a prehistoric sea. Fissures in the limestone helped rainwater and rivers erode weaker bits of earth over the centuries, leaving a forest of hauntingly lovely vertical crags protruding from a flat stretch of farmland and rivers.
Hotels and paved roads
Backpackers discovered Yangshuo about 20 years ago, said our guide, Ying, but the surrounding area remained largely undeveloped until the last two or three years. Now Chinese tour groups are beginning to visit Yangshuo, and local entrepreneurs have answered demand with a building frenzy, raising big hotels on the outskirts of town, paving roads and building docks for tour boats along the picturesque Yulong and Li rivers. Many lament the impending development and fear rising prices on accommodations and activities.
In town, visitors can spend their time shopping, watching Hollywood movies at cafes, feasting on Chinese, Western or fusion cuisine, or studying Chinese medicine, language or martial arts. The more adventurous can head to the surrounding countryside to climb karst peaks, take a mud bath in a local cave, watch villagers fishing at night with cormorants and little lights, or float along the rivers in bamboo rafts.
Michael and I christened the first night of our five-day stay in Yangshuo with oversized mugs of hot chocolate and brandy at a bar called MC Blues. The small, eclectically decorated room seemed stuffed to its rafters with adventurers, most of them kicking back after a hard day of bicycling, rock climbing or souvenir shopping. As many backpackers know, nearly every other backpacker in the world is automatically a friend, and as we snuggled with a new litter of kittens burrowing in a warm corner of our booth, we traded traveling tales with English, Welsh and German patrons at a neighboring table, shouting to be heard over the music.
The next morning we rented mountain bikes from our hotel for little more than $1 for the day. Ying, who had sold us on her services as soon as we disembarked at the town's bus stop, would guide us to a nearby peak called Moon Hill so I could scratch the itch I'd been having to climb one of these tantalizing towers.
Leaving West Street, we followed Ying into the more Chinese part of town, crowded with little stalls. We cycled a short distance down a paved road, then cut onto a dirt path.
"I will take you the small way," she said.
"Small," we discovered, did not refer to the length of the trip but to the size of the road — in places only a dirt path a few feet wide balanced between rice paddies and gardens or groves of small orange trees.
We crossed the narrow, pristine Yulong River and passed farmers accompanied by their families or by water buffalo. Ying called out greetings to some of them, and chattered half in Chinese and half in English with me about her two children.
Finally, we turned our bikes around a corner, and Moon Hill came into view. Its strange limestone formation left no one guessing how it got its name. The molar-like cone rises nearly 755 feet into the sky and is shot straight through with a gibbous hole. From the bottom, other rocks obscured parts of the "moon," and it seemed to wax or wane depending on the angle from which we viewed it.