I took a chance and went directly to the train station to buy my ticket from Nanning to Yangshuo rather than ordering it ahead of time. I was curious to know how close to West Street the Yangshuo Station could be. Not very. Yangshuo had mushroomed into an ugly, widespread, mass that undulates through the valleys of the karst hills. As it had never had a train station one was built about an hour from the once popular backpackers delight of West Street, the Li River, and the surrounding hills. The hills are still stunning, shrouded in mist, jutting from the green like toys scattered by young giants.
The positives were that the train trip was uneventful, maybe six hours, and the bus trip from the station did provide views. Unfortunately it was difficult to find the right one and a nightmare of epic proportions to find transport once we were close to my destination. I feared I would be lost in the karst hills – except they were not very close. At the bus station in the centre of Yangshuo I was dismissed with a vague hand flapping towards the exit and a gutteral command to ‘go there’. After a few phone calls, me determinedly stating I would not pay the outlandish cost demanded by some motor cart drivers, and fending off all the others, I started to walk. Although I had no idea where I was going I looked like I did. I probably made it no further than 20 metres when a motorbike pulled up beside me and the driver said he would take me for ten kuai. No more than 2.00CAD. Hey, I had just done 14 days on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam so no problem. I hopped on like a pro, still wearing my backpack and other bags – no helmet, no idea where we were going. Barely five minutes later we were there. I would have never found the place on my own.
Yangshuo is no longer quaint, no longer has silly names for hotels, bars and restaurants. Gone were the rather seedy Fawlty Towers Hotel, Minnie Mao’s Restaurant, and Hard Seat Cafe as well as all the other wonderful, family owned places I had discovered with my children when we lived in China. (I checked for the hotel after, it does still exist although I could not find it) To my absolutely horror and amazement, just down the street from my hostel was a McDonald’s and around the corner a Starbucks! On West Road, the main pedestrian street (1400 years old) was a KFC and a Pizza Hut. Yangshuo had fallen hard to the gods of consumerism. Even the tourist shops had taken on a more polished look. However, there was still a load of bars and restaurants to choose from, and I did find some great, if somewhat more expensive than in less touristy spots, street food. I admit that I did take advantage of being so close to McDonald’s a couple of times to buy coffee when I ran out of milk to make my own. After my first full day, and again on my last night, the hostel staff admitted that the little town had grown so quickly that there was little organization – everyone had fallen to the mighty dollar. (Where had the interests of the collective gone? – tongue firmly in cheek)
I became somewhat disheartened when it seemed nearly impossible to actually get to any of the hills without breaking the bank or endangering life and limb by cycling to various spots. I could have rented a bike and ventured out on my own if I were not deathly afraid of cycling on the road. Especially without a helmet! I never ride on the road at home and I wear a helmet on trails. I had hoped to find find a guide looking for potential riders – they all seem to have disappeared or work for tour companies or rent out bikes. I did not want to spend my time shopping for a tour with guide which meant I also had to accept I was limited to the immediate area. I went on a cruise instead. This time from Yangshuo, past Xingping but not all the way to Guilin. It was a pleasant morning to mid-afternoon to relax, take a lot of photos and enjoy the misty Karst hills that the region is famous for. I am happy to report it is still mainly mist rather than pollution. The main difference from 15 years ago, other than the guide speaking only Chinese – thank goodness she did not talk the whole time like on some tours – was the lunch is no longer freshly caught seafood, cooked at the bow of the boat. There was fresh river crab, and another dish – for a price. Modernization means rubbish and tasteless. We were given microwaved meals served in disposable trays. To add to the sad realization everything would be thrown out was just how chock full the river became with boats wending their way up and downstream. I was part of the problem rather than the solution. Sigh.
Another day I took a walk in Yangshuo Park, a local, nearby area popular with retirees, families and a great gathering place for musicians. The clear air, when I was there, and surrounding sharp hills had great acoustics. Parks are quite popular as autumn slides towards cooler days. As I had made the choice to forego expensive, hurry up tours to the various famous hills I headed for one of a few that have paths from the park. None of these are very difficult to climb if you are fairly steady, in relative good health and are not afraid of heights. Good knees are a bonus. Considering my knees and fear I took and watched each step with care. First climbing attempt I found two used needles. Needless to say, I turned around. Another hill (these ones were not really in the class of mountains) chosen to ascend was more difficult with its twisty, steep steps and paths. There is no way to reach its peak so I rested at a natural platform, where I met up with a young couple, to take in the view. Climbing down was not as easy, I was worried I would slip. (Which I did but we will not tell my children and I did not fall). Another spent needle. Oh China.
I felt so good after that climb and descent I did one more. This time to a reach a pagoda that I discovered had two lower sections to it with little bridges to them. Great for taking a break. It was interesting to see the attempt to make the well polished stone steps safer by covering them with concrete. Concrete that was crumbling and made the way more difficult to traverse. It also mars the the carvings in the steps although some have had enough of the covering chipped off over time to see them now. I have no idea how old the steps or pagoda are as there were not any notices. I also did not make it to the third tier. One fellow, perhaps in his 40s came running up the steps, encouraged me to continue, then came running down while I was picking my careful way back.
To vary my routine of walking along West Road I took a bus to the village of Xingping, a miniature version of Yangshuo, pedestrian street, river access and tourist traps included. At least I did not see any of the western traps there. I even managed to get to the bus without getting lost this time. A great way to waste a day away, take the bus for the views, spend some hours window shopping, eat lunch, then the bus back to take in the view on the other side. I will admit that although I was no longer smitten with Yangshuo I was still in love with the mountains.
On my last night I took in the Impressions Water Show. I am so glad someone on a Facebook post told me about this although I rather doubted it could really be the highlight of a visit. I had no idea I could be so mistaken. Created by Zhang Yi Mou, the director and choreographer of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and the movie Raise the Lantern, the outdoor venue, Shanshui Theatre (Mountain & Water) with the natural backdrop of Karst hills, and the Li River main stage, tastefully lit by lowlights, is magical. As darkness descends the audience din lowers to an attempted murmur – the seating capacity of 2200 anchored, and built up, at one section of the natural bowl of the space, does tend to move in waves, much as the music did. Any amplified instruments and singing was easy to hear whereas natural voices were often overcome by the audience and the whims of the winds. However, the magic that literally unfolded in front of us did not miss a beat. Six hundred local, a good portion of them from the ethnic minority, performers give the audience a fantastic 70+ minutes to be drawn into ancient myths that wrap around the culture. A perfect ending to what was most likely my last visit to Yangshuo.
Little end note. The bus I was to catch to the show forgot about me so I ended up, once again, on the back of a motorbike, this time with one of the hostel staff and the driver, no helmet, in the dark, to the venue. With repeated instructions to meet the bus driver at #99 at the entrance after the show I hopped off and was swept up by the flow of attendees. The magic had me forgetting the worries of getting back until I had left the theatre and entered the mass exodus headed for buses, cans, cars, motorbikes and bicycles – at a completely different gate from the entrance. I was lost in the dark. I felt despair. I felt anger. I felt little. All very well but not very useful. As I gained my equilibrium I took out my phone and hit the language app Baidu, typed in entrance then showed it a few people until someone figured out where I had to go. A little reminder that it was, after all, an adventure.
I left the next day for to spend one night in Guilin before catching a train to Luoyang. Guilin was another surprise after swearing I would never stay there again all those years ago. I could be convinced to give it another try if given the opportunity. Yet another city with a subway system that was not even a suggestion when I lived in China. Like Nanning, also very new and anchored to the train station. Smart engineers.