Have you seen the movie Avatar? What about Star Wars Episode 3? If you’ve happened to see both, you’ll notice that they share a common denominator: the scenery was inspired by Yangshuo, China.
Known for its limestone hills, karst peaks and winding rivers that surround the city, Yangshuo is arguably the most beautiful and distinct place in China. If you could teleport to prehistoric days, I can only imagine that this is what it would look like. The landscape breeds thoughts of pterodactyls flying through the peaks and Tyrannosauruses marching through the terrain. Similar to Avatar’s portrayal, it looks and feels like an imaginary world.
The little town in Yangshuo also feels different to most Chinese towns or cities. It’s quaint and manageable with little local restaurants and shops, and it even has a fake subway if you can’t go a week without an Italian BMT. What’s also nice about the town is that non-Mandarin speaking tourists like myself can easily get around without hiring a guide. However, the boom in tourism has also made the area feel less authentic.
That said, once you go deeper into the landscape of Yangshuo, tourists are few and far between. The key is to stay away from the highlighted spots on the maps or guides, which most tourists follow, and instead make your own route. The landscape is so vast and extensive that it’s easy to do. Take a look!
Biking: To fully experience the beautiful aesthetic of Yangshuo, biking through the terrain is the best thing to do. You can either hire a guide or go on your own, renting bikes from the local shops in town.
We opted to go without a guide, as the paths were flat and easy to follow. The bike shops will also provide you with a map of the area and suggest which routes to take.
The biking paths are integrated into the terrain, allowing you to bike along the rivers, peaks and paddies. Along the trails, you pass some of the local villages, seeing the homes, villagers, and farmers tending to their crops. You’ll also see water buffalo throughout the ride, peacefully grazing along the Li River. Any which way you turn, it looks like a scene from a Monet painting with colossal Karst peaks overlooking every scene.
We were very happy with our choice to go guideless…well that is, until we got hungry. We learned the hard way that there are not water stands or lunch options once you get deep into the bike path, as we should have expected. We also couldn’t ask anyone for advice, given the language barrier. This said, if you opt to bike without a guide, keep this in mind – or bring some snacks!
By the stroke of luck, one of Matt’s colleagues bumped into us on the path, which happened to be desolate besides our two groups (what are the chances!). Even better, she was a Mandarin speaker and was on her way to lunch in a local village nearby. Of course, we followed.
We ended up at a popular outdoor cooked food center that Matt and I would not have been able to navigate without speaking Mandarin. We also wouldn’t have been able to tell that the first three menu items consisted of various types of dog and cat, which would have been dangerous if we went with the “point to a random item” strategy.
If you haven’t been to a cooked food center, they’re local and affordable eateries filled with various food stalls, serving massive family-style, local dishes. They’re the most fun to go with big groups, as you can order a feast for about USD$10.00/person, including plenty of Tsingtao. However, if you’re a picky eater or an overly hygienic person, I wouldn’t recommend a cooked food stall for you.
We ordered a variety of meats, vegetables and the local specialty beer fish, which is carp or catfish cooked in a local beer sauce. Portions are huge, so come hungry and prepare to be overly full once you leave. As lunch is the biggest meal in China, a little sandwich or salad for lunch is nonexistent.
After lunch, we biked to the Fuli Bridge along the Yulong River – a site you should not miss if you come to Yangshuo. It’s one of China’s ancient bridges built over 500 years ago and is nearly perfectly intact. While the bridge itself is nothing to rave about, the setting of the bridge paired with the landscape creates a strikingly beautiful image. The photo itself is worth the ride.
Rafting: Another way to see the views of Yangshuo is by bamboo raft. There are two rivers that run through Yangshuo, the Li River and the Yulong River, and both have rafting options depending on what type of experience you’re interested in.
If you’re looking for a more scenic route of the limestone peaks, the Li River is a better choice. Operated by motor, you can spend a few hours cruising down the river or hop on and off as you please. You can also put your bikes on the rafts, if you need a relaxing break mid-way through biking.
On our first trip here in August 2013, a prime time to visit, we went rafting mid-day and were the only tourists in sight.
On the flip side, rafting down the Yulong River provides a more charming experience, as the rafts are steered by a guide, as opposed to motorized. The scenery is equally as beautiful, however, you see more hills and foliage on this tour, as opposed to the limestone peaks. The Yulong River also tends to be a bit more touristy and busy given the authenticity of the man-powered rafts. However, there are many quiet and relaxing stretches during this ride as well.
While we only spent a long weekend here, if you’re there for longer, Yangshuo also offers various rock climbing routes and hikes. However, since the scenery of Yangshuo is the reason to make the trip here, biking and rafting provide the best way to experience the countryside and landscape in just a few short days. And while you’re there – don’t forget to get the beer fish!
More photos of our trip below: