Imagine a town where sidewalk cafes and handicraft shops spill into centuries-old cobblestone streets. Not a car is in sight--just couples strolling and small groups chatting. Now add a distinctive Chinese flair to the architecture and surround the burg with cone-shaped limestone hills and lush, subtropical vegetation. Fantasy? No, Yangshuo.
Located in the Guangxi region of south China, Yangshuo sits along the winding Li River--site of what generations of Chinese writers and artists have called "the finest scenery under heaven." It's a long haul from the U.S., but an easy getaway for those already in Hong Kong or its environs. It's less than 90 minutes by air from Hong Kong to the airport in nearby Guilin. Flights from Shanghai and Beijing are less than three hours.
Guilin offers luxury hotels, golf courses, and a few scenic treats of its own. There's Solitary Beauty, a limestone crag that juts 500 feet into the air from the center of town; Seven-Star Park, where numerous walking paths take you to scenic vistas and quaint pavilions; and Brocade Hill, the region's tallest peak, which features caves with Ming and Song Dynasty poems on their walls. Still, Guilin is a bustling big city of 560,000, and if time is short you can skip it. A far better way to enjoy this region's breathtaking beauty is to stay in Yangshuo and explore the area by boat or bicycle.
From the Li River, the landscape appears as a kaleidoscope of crags and peaks. Along the shore are water buffalo wading, ducks being nudged along the riverbank by farmers, and fisherman recuperating from a night of fishing with their cormorants. My five-person party paid $13 each to join a Taiwanese couple on a five-hour excursion piloted by a local and his wife, who served us a scrumptious lunch of egg-and-vegetable fried rice. Along the way, we saw huge, Guilin-based touring ferries crammed with passengers who paid five times as much as we had--and those boats often manage to relieve tourists of even more cash by making unscheduled stops at nearby caverns and trinket shops.
Cycling from Yangshuo is perhaps even more enjoyable than boating. You can rent an 18-speed mountain bike for $1 a day. A few minutes of pedaling and you'll be on paths that weave among the rice paddies, bamboo fronds, emerald pinnacles, and orchards of pomelos, which is a mild-flavored grapefruit. If you're a little leery of venturing off on your own, the cycle shops and most Yangshuo merchants can find you a guide from the nearby hamlets. Guides charge about $6 a day, which usually includes lunch at their home--a great way to meet local residents and catch a glimpse of rural life.
Once a backpacker's haven, Yangshuo now has several small, recently opened hotels, and the many budget-priced hostels have added rooms and suites to accommodate a more upscale clientele. A few establishments charge Guilin prices, but some perfectly acceptable rooms go for less than $15 a night.
BIG CHALLENGE. Hotel managers can help arrange tours and adventures of all sorts--from evening cruises to kayaking and spelunking in the nearby limestone caves. (Even with a guide, the caves are challenging and should only be tried by the fittest.) Those who prefer to tour the countryside with less physical exertion can hire drivers of three-wheeled motorbikes with surprisingly comfortable bench seats and canopies. These bikes were a big hit with my parents and my 9-year-old daughter.
After a day of exploring rock formations that protrude from the land for as far as the eye can see, Xi Jie ("West Street") is the place to eat, drink, and shop. It's also the place to swap stories with other visitors--and with locals such as Ray, a retired U.S. foreign service officer whose amiable disposition earned him the informal title of "mayor" of Yangshuo.
Ray's favorite hangout is Drifters, one of many cafes serving the regional Chinese cuisine. Local specialties include Li River fresh-water crabs, served fried. There's also Guilin lajiaojiang, a spicy pepper sauce that's served over fish, pork, and vegetables. Drifters and other eateries offer some Western favorites, too, such as pizza and milkshakes, which are unusual in China. Before turning in for the night, head for a balcony table at Under the Moon Cafe: the perfect place to plan the next day--or plot your next escape to Yangshuo.