A Week in Yangshuo
After spending my first week and a half in China attempting to navigate through insanely crowded and polluted cities, I was looking forward to spending some time kicking back and relaxing in Yangshuo. Yangshuo is about an hour and a half south of Guilin by bus and is a much smaller town, by Chinese standards. I noticed it was difficult to find on most maps, which added to the appeal. Many travelers and locals I met along the way had said it’s a beautiful place and a great spot to relax by the rivers and unwind, so I bought a bus ticket and was on my way. And they were right; Yangshuo really is stunning. The town is surrounded by these massive hills, sharp cliffs and rock formations, and connects to both the Yulong River and the Li River.
It had been raining nonstop for weeks up until the day I arrived, but the rain held off and I was blessed with beautiful weather during my entire stay (blue skies and deathly humid, just the way I like it). I planned to stay a few days, but ended up staying almost a week. I spent my days drinking fresh mango shakes, cycling through the hills, swimming in both the Yulong and the Li River, getting massages, and snacking on spicy street food. It was my first time playing the risky street food game (Good Meat or Bad Meat?) since I’ve been in China, and Yangshuo seemed like a good place to start. There are street vendors absolutely everywhere and they use lots and lots of spice. Consequently, this was also my first time getting sick in China. Not deathly ill, but enough to feel pretty crappy and start popping Tums for dessert.
When night falls, Yangshuo is like Bangkok on steroids. It’s become a total backpacker haven in the last several years. It’s really touristy and quite over the top. Flashing lights, dance clubs, massive crowds, street vendors everywhere, broken English being screamed in your ear (“Special price for you friend!”). Locals swarm the streets trying to sell useless knick knacks and tour packages to foreigners. It’s fun to wander around the hustle and bustle for a while, but I much preferred spending my evenings sitting on the rooftop terrace of our guesthouse, sipping on some Tsing Tao and watching the chaos unfold below.
The guesthouse I stayed at was a whopping five dollars a night and really clean, except for the showers and toilets of course because, well, this is China. There was a roof terrace with a great view, and although we were right near the ultra happening part of town, we were set back a bit down an alley way. It was nice taking a break from the massive cities of China and calling this place “home” for a week.
Oddly enough, I ended up meeting a really sweet girl from California who was staying in the same room as me. On the second or third day, as we were battling the heat sipping on mango shakes in the shade, I came up with the bright idea that we should rent bikes and find a swimming spot along one of the rivers. Sounds nice, right? Maybe on paper, but in actuality riding a bike through Chinese traffic was one of the more hair-raising activities I’ve taken on. We had a map which proved utterly useless as we weaved our bikes in and out of traffic, coughing through gusts of black engine exhaust, narrowly missing being run down by a truck or chicken cart at every turn. Even once we got out of the heavy traffic area and were on the winding roads which led to the river, trucks would lean on their horns and come bouldering past us. She smiled and said she was having a great time, but I think she was silently cursing me.
We were on the hunt for a dirt path to cycle down that would lead us to a swimming spot, but were having some trouble since we couldn’t successfully follow the map. She entertained the idea of turning around, but I was determined. I told her we came to swim and we will swim, damn it. Finally we came across a little rocky dirt path which I felt looked promising. I saw a chubby Chinese guy in a speedo emerge from the water, which wasn’t exactly a pretty sight, but I took it as a sign that we had found our spot. We asked the local women there if we could swim, and they said go ahead and kindly threw us a couple inner tubes. We hesitantly stripped down to our bikinis and plunged in the murky Yulong River. We floated around and enjoyed ourselves, as locals passed by on bamboo rafts shrieking with excitement and snapping photos. We floated around and talked to each other about our lives back home.
Just as I was settling into my inner tube and happily chatting with my new friend, feeling like this could be any given summer day in California, a family of water buffalo appeared and grazed near the river. Then I saw an old woman emerge from behind a bush holding a live chicken upside down by the neck and disappear behind a small wooden hut. Nope, I’m in China, I reminded myself. I heard the chicken making shrieking noises as a chicken who is about to be murdered does, and then a loud thud and silence. I thought to myself, well, if we want fresh chicken for dinner, maybe this is our place, and had a good laugh. We dried off and rode back to town.
And as it goes, although Yangshuo is a great town, what really made this trip special was the people I met and the place I stayed. We got to know each other during the week, as good as travelers in passing can, particularly the California girl and I. We rode bikes and swam together, indulged in street food together, wandered the alleys together, drank beer on our roof terrace together, tried hopelessly to Speak Chinese together, watched chickens get murdered together, gave each other tips and advice for once we parted ways, and looked out for one another. When I started feeling sick from my street food escapades, she would check on me and see if I need anything. When you’re traveling alone, these little things become invaluable. Home is far away for all of us and at times it’s inevitable to fall under a spell of loneliness. When traveling, “home” becomes where you lay your head, and if you’re lucky enough, the people around you become your family for a short time, giving you just what you need. I was lucky to experience this in the beautiful town of Yangshuo.