The journey to our first hotel in China was peppered with absurdities.
1. At the last metro stop in Hong Kong we got off to cross the border and spend our last Hong Kong dollars, but it turned difficult because the shopkeepers all yelled the prices at us in Chinese. In Hong Kong everyone spoke perfect English, making the transition a huge shock.
2. While we munched down on a quick snack, trains came every two minutes with waves of hundreds of people to seamlessly cross the international border.
3. Progressing through immigration, I stopped and could spot more than 100 security cameras at a single point, confirming my belief that the Chinese government can follow my every move in their country.
4. Suddenly we were aboard the metro in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong and has a population of more than 10 million people! The train riders were all primarily young and modern, underscoring the fact that Shenzen is a city on the rise.
5. Except for brief glances up to stare in wonder at the tourists, everyone kept a fierce gaze on their phone. The app of choice here was WeChat, a Chinese powerhouse that is used for texting, news, games and even paying at the metro.
6. Stepping out of the nearest station, we were greeted by one of the largest buildings I’d ever seen. The Shenzhen railway station was a complete monstrosity, spanning the length and width of three city blocks with a cavernous interior that could fit a jumbo jet and an endless number of ticket counters.
7. We grabbed a snack and were pleased to find a bowl of noodles with tofu, but unfortunately the whole dish was cooked in a fish broth, furthering my belief that there’s no such thing as a Chinese vegetarian.
8. We barely encountered anyone who could speak a word of English, so ordering food included a lot of gesturing and asking a security guard where the nearest ATM was earned us an answer of “Where are you from? Where are you going?” Not exactly helpful, but funny nonetheless.
9. We spent ages wandering around the neighborhood looking for our hostel, only to find that we had already walked by it twice because there wasn’t a single sign. Luckily we enlisted the help of a local who used the wonderful augmented reality walking directions feature of Baidu Maps to find the entrance.
10. Once installed in the hotel, we were perturbed to find ourselves firmly behind “The Great Firewall.” Google, Facebook, and many other services were suddenly inaccessible, a far cry from the constant connectivity we enjoyed just a few hours earlier in Hong Kong.
The following morning we were speeding away from the metropolis of Shenzhen before 7:30 AM. As the high speed train accelerated upwards of 300 KM (186 miles) per hour, the sky scraping apartment buildings were replaced by dense forests and expansive farms.
The 3 hour train ride through increasingly beautiful countryside took us to the town of Yangshuo, one of China’s most popular and picturesque tourist destination. We found a nice cafe with good coffee and wifi to search for some accommodation, ending up at a scenic guesthouse with an infinity pool looking out over a slice of the gorgeous karst cliffs that dominate the geology of this region.
Soaring straight out of otherwise flat farmland, the sheer vertical peaks are covered in moss and trees up to their very top,, indicating the fertility of the land. Every available inch is either tourist infrastructure or farmland bursting with fruits, vegetables and rice.
For our first day in town we relaxed poolside and checked out the activities of the surrounding region, thoroughly pleased with the chill atmosphere after 5 days of solid chaos in Hong Kong.
As evening rolled around, we rented bikes and rolled into town to explore the center. Just 10 steps into the main walking street, we were overwhelmed with sights and sounds that felt deeply exotic.
Every single food stall and retail store offered up something new. Porcelain bowls were almost overflowing with pungent fish sauces, astounding in their diversity.
Bottles of baby formula were shrouded in clouds of mist pumped from cooling tubes.
We chowed down on pockets of dough stuffed with vegetables and noodles fried over hot plates of oil. Restaurants offered up the option for their patrons to engage in karaoke, ensuring we were serenaded by far too many amateur singers. An incredibly variety of fruits were available to be purchased by the kilo.
There was a wide spread of shops, ranging from mango juice sold by elderly women for 60 cents to posh cake stores that felt straight out of a hip western city. The one constant that strung through these different places was the presence of WeChat pay. Few of the thousands of domestic tourists used cash, instead opting to scan QR codes that hung from every conceivable location.
As we progressed deeper into the market, we realized that it enveloped the entire city. The crowd swelled and juxtapositions of Chinese society abounded. Atop a gorgeously painted temple was the Starbucks logo. Through glowing red lanterns I could spot a Pizza Hut sign.
Yet I was surprised to find that these were the only brands that we recognized; all the shopping options sported weird English names like “Top Feeling” which barely made sense. The market reached its crescendo of trashiness as we made it to the center, where bars were adorned with female dancers and singing employees pounded chili paste while dressed in clearly fake traditional clothing.
On our second day in Yangshuo a thick layer of clouds and a light mist dampened our initial desire to go on a long bike ride. Instead, we ended up taking a long walk towards the local market; once beyond the center, tourist shops gave way to local scenes like men playing cards beneath umbrellas and children running around in the rain. To fit the weather, most of the motorbikes were covered with plastic sheeting or storm umbrellas.
Gradually we stumbled upon the market, which prominently featured meats of unknown origin. We could recognize pigs legs, chicken feet, and whole rabbits hung on meat hooks, but there were also some mystery snouts that looked suspiciously like dogs.
Finally the transition to fruits and vegetables occurred: shades of green were bountiful in the form of lettuce, chives, and a few zucchinis the size of my leg.
Also prominent were fish kept in tiny plastic tubs and chickens in cages, both ready to be butchered or sold at any moment.
We took the local bus back to town and purchased tickets to the Silver cave, one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions. For the next 3 hours we were the only non-Chinese people in sight while literally thousands of domestic tourists plowed into the cave’s walkways. The path resembled more of a mall than a nature walk, as it was lined with souvenir and snack shops. Soon we had to line up like tourists at Disneyland, where security guards let us through the entrance in packs of a hundred.
Inside, nature was also overwhelmed by humanity. The Chinese had lined every inch of the path with a colorful array of lights. Once we overcame the initial shock of the color, the lighting structures actually created some sublime scenes of beauty.
The cave opened up to create an underground universe, complete with many shapes that we named ourselves: bat wings, a head of broccoli, fangs, a school of jellyfish and a set of teeth were all visible to my imagination.
A trail wove deep into the earth, surrounded on either side by steep rock walls and impressive on a micro level by the presence of awe-inspiring formations.
Further along, macro views abounded as the cave opened up into two gigantic cathedrals of rock. The first was wider than it was tall, providing us with an impressive panorama of organ pipes that stretched far and wide.
The second cavern was ridiculously tall, making us crane our necks upwards to take in the stupendous individual pillars which stretched from floor to ceiling.
My favorite spot was just a little further on: a tiny pool which created dramatic reflections of the stalagmites stretching up from the murky floor.
As much as the attraction served as an awesome sight, it was also an interesting place to observe the Chinese domestic tourism culture, as we were the only 3 foreigners out of thousands of people. Life here seems to be lived behind the phone; each person took dozens of photos and shared them instantly on WeChat. At times, it felt like the only way locals saw the best sights was through the filter of their camera phones.
The cave is also a naturally place, but for our visit it was filled with the shouts of visitors being herded through the narrow passageways like livestock being led to their favorite pastures.
Once exiting the cave I was optimistic that the forced march would end, but we were instead ushered into a gift shop and forced to weave in and out of every aisle. It took 10 minutes of ogling every possible item in the shop to finally escape the madness and regain some semblance of free will.
On Thursday the rain threatened but a dryer forecast compelled us to rent bikes and begin a thorough exploration of the Yangshuo countryside. Our pedaling excursion started by escaping the chaos of the town’s center and turning South towards a long string of the top-billed tourist attractions. The views opened up into wide panoramas of steep mountains that pierced the everlasting cloud cover with foreboding sharp peaks and every inch overrun with greenery.
At eye level, the road was wide and well-paved, with an excellent bike lane fully populated by hordes of tourists. The Chinese opted mostly for electric scooters, plodding along at a glacial pace and offering us plenty of friendly waves between their selfie sprees.
Our first stop was at The Big Banyan Tree, a tremendous organism with a diameter of 17 meters that has existed alongside the banks of the Yulong river for over 1500 years. While the murky waters rolled threateningly close the bank behind us, we admired the roots systems that hung down into the earth, some of them larger than normal tree trunks.
The pitstop was also indicative of how China can turn almost anything into an economy-boosting tourist attraction. The tree and its surrounding gardens were caged in by a high wall, ensuring that all visitors must pay and plenty of jobs are sustained through ticket takers and security guards.
We ended up paying $5 for a joint ticket to the tree and Moon Hill, so our next stop was just a few minutes further on. Here we were faced with a slippery uphill trek through the dense tropical jungle which was absolutely dominated by mosquitos.
They hovered around us threateningly as we sweated and lunged up a staircase, eventually gaining our best vantage point yet of the surrounding countryside. The river snaked through plots of farmland, easily visible due to both the intense brown color and the explosion of vegetation visible along its banks. Settlements of civilization were also prominent, but Mother Nature dominated by swarming every impossibly steep cliff with thick undergrowth.
Behind us we could see the rock formation from which Moon Hill earns its name, a perfect crescent of rock carved out of one of the many craggy limestone towers.
Whereas the way up was a challenge, the way down was downright treacherous. It took just two minutes on the tractionless staircase for me to suffer a rough tumble down the hill, shaking myself up but emerging unscathed.
Soon we were back on the bikes, following the course of the river further away from town. In quiet hamlets and roadside stands, restaurants ranged from cheap noodle stalls to hip gardens serving up cappuccinos and a wide range of food choices. We stopped at one of the latter, digging into a decadent lunch of sour and spicy tofu and delectable braised eggplant while enjoying the peaceful sounds of running water and chirping birds in the courtyard garden.
It took great willpower to hop back on the bikes, but we had no choice but to pedal the afternoon away. Within just a few minutes the restaurants and buildings faded away, leaving us with the quietest and most enjoyable scenes of Yangshuo’s pastoral countryside.
With the limestone mountains popping straight out of the earth, farmers tilled the soil to produce bountiful harvests. Fruit trees, rice fields, and well manicured vegetable gardens spread out before us, offering our first glimpse of what the community may have been like before it became overrun with tourism.
Our tour culminated at Fuli Bridge, a lovely stone archway which seemed especially practical due to the high waters. The river was overflowing its banks, making each car crossing that we observed a spectacular sport, but not deterring plenty of fishermen who waded in up to their calves on the flooded sidewalk.
From the top of the bridge, we could glimpse a broad and expansive view of the waterways and agricultural fields which drive such beauty in this slice of civilization, well complimented by an endless line of peaks stretching far into the misty distance.
The way back became a trial of endurance. While our minds were occupied by the premise of a large meal and a cold beer after more than 20 KMs on the bike, our bodies sagged with fatigue. Just as we were beginning to physically fail, we pushed hard through the final uphill stretch and I rewarded myself with a cool dip in the hostel’s infinity pool.
With just one day left in the Yangshuo region, we decided to take in the last of the area’s unmissable sights along the Li River. Our walking route for the day started in the ancient town of Xingping, which blended a fascinating contrast of history and modernity.
Right next to hip artisan jewelry makers and kitschy tourist shops stocked with bedazzled hats, old women sat in circles drinking tea and men played rowdy games of cards. Despite signs of encroaching development, the architecture of the town retained much of its charm. Stone walls separated wooden houses with broad entrances, each one accompanied by red banners to bless the inhabitants. With plenty of flowers, traditional lanterns, and cozy interiors to take in, we took the slowest possible lap around the compact central to soak in the vibe as best we could.
We then progressed Northwards, walking against the flow of the river to where the scenery instantly morphed into dramatic natural landscapes. Our first stop was at a bend which earns notoriety for its status as the backdrop for the 20 yuan note, meaning we were engulfed by numerous photoshoots while taking in the rocky cliffs, steady flowing river, and wide view of greenery.
However, we were quickly able to escape the crowds and cars by uncovering a path that wove right along the banks of the river. While the expansive waters began dominating our view to the left, gigantic thickets of bamboo overran everything to the right, spilling out into the walkway after growing far too high.
Meanwhile spectacular sheer cliffs rose directly out of the water, with barely a few snippets of grasses able to hold on in the steepest sections.
We thoroughly enjoyed the natural beauty, but in China all quiet things must come to an end. A huge flock of boats started gaining on us from behind, signaling their arrival with distressingly loud outboard motors. Soon enough dozens of Chinese tourists were shouting “Hello!” and snapping photos of us as we walked along the banks in the steamy midday humidity.
A ferry enabled us to cross the river, where we turned away from the water and began an arduous ascension towards Xing Ping mountain. We were immensely pleased that this stretch of trail was almost completely uninhabited; just trees, butterflies and gardens dominated the foreground. In the background we found ourselves encompassed by an amphitheater of tremendous mountains, with just a rare few flat enough to attempt cultivation.
The path was merciless: we forced ourselves up and up some more, sweating profusely before even reaching the steepest part of the climb. Fortunately, our effort was soon handsomely rewarded. From the topmost viewing platform we found ourselves overlooking a bend in the river that we had walked along earlier, providing us with a sense of scale to the other-worldly landscapes.
Scanning from left to right, the view began with an imposing massif of luscious peaks, each one exploding with overgrown trees and dense tropical foliage. Unlike the singular cliffs from the day before which rose as independent sentinels, these were grouped together and surely impassable for even the most intrepid climbers.
In the center of the view was a long stretch of small villages and beautifully cultivated fields, hemmed in by a string of mountains on one side and the river on the other.
To the right, the range which served as our companion all morning was visible from a new angle, this time appearing much thinner but no less gorgeous as it rose dramatically from the murky waters.
Eventually there was nothing to do but stare out in wonder at this glorious expression of nature’s majesty and ponder what geological forces could have caused such violent uprisings of limestone. It served as the perfect capstone to remember the landscapes of Yangshuo, because soon we were off again back down the hill and off to our next destination in China.