Chilling in China

Guilin may draw the crowds, but the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat is the place to escape

Chinese tourists love to visit Guilin, the southwestern Chinese city famous for its karsts—the bizarre, mountain-like limestone formations that shoot up from the region's towns and rice paddies. Favorites of traditional Chinese painters for centuries, the karsts make for breathtaking scenery. When China goes on holiday—as it will in early May, when the whole country shuts down for a weeklong celebration of May Day—Guilin is packed with visitors taking in the sites.

There is a way to get away from the crowds, though. At the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, a charming little hotel in the countryside about 90 minutes from Guilin's airport, it's possible to escape the heat and noise of most Chinese tourist destinations, and enjoy something that is increasingly rare in the world's new economic power—quiet.

The YMR was opened in 2001 by an American entrepreneur from Michigan, Chris Barclay. And it doesn't try to be a luxury hotel. (If five stars is your style, consider the Sheraton in Guilin, take the traditional tourist cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo to get your scenery fix, and then head back to the city in a bus or car.)

But the YMR, with its 22 rooms, each with furniture made from wood sourced locally, is quite comfortable. When my wife and I visited for a long weekend, we had a pleasant, air-conditioned room with a balcony and a view.

And what a view: The YMR sits on the banks of the Yulong River and is surrounded by towering, tree-covered karsts. "It has good feng shui," says Barclay, who has invested about a quarter of a million dollars into the place. "There's a really good energy about it."

If that energy inspires you to get up and do things, there's no shortage of activities nearby. The hotel can help arrange climbing expeditions or bike trips. If you want to take it easy and let others do the work, you can go river rafting, riding on vessels made from bamboo.

Each raft carries two people sitting in lounge chairs under a wide beach umbrella. Chinese gondoliers use bamboo poles to steer—and fend off other rafts. Rafting has become popular, and on a weekend the river can be packed with craft slowly drifting downriver.

Another option is just to get out and walk among the fields and gaze up in wonder at those strange hills. My wife and I did this, strolling through villages before ending up at a downriver park that is famed for its ancient banyan tree. Nearby is another popular tourist site, the natural bridge known as Moon Hill. The hotel can also help arrange tai chi and cooking classes.

The YMR is not just a place to relax. Barclay says it hosts 20 to 30 different corporate clients, mostly multinationals, that use it as a place for off-site meetings and team-building activities. (I ended up there, for instance, as a tagalong spouse when my wife's company had its annual retreat there.) Among the other guests, Barclay says, there are often American families that have come to China to adopt a baby and visit Yangshuo while waiting for the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou to process their paperwork.

How to get there: There are direct flights from Hong Kong to Guilin on Dragonair and China Southern. Check with the hotel to arrange a car to take you from Guilin airport to the retreat.

What to buy: The hotel has just opened a new shop selling local products, ranging from chili paste to honey. A quarter of the store's profits (along with 5% of the hotel's earnings) go to a foundation to help Chinese children with brittle bone disease. The hotel's receptionist has a severe form of the crippling genetic condition but now speaks fluent English after receiving support from Barclay.

Nightlife: If you've had your fill of peace and quiet, consider seeing Impression Liu San Jie, a musical production based on a local story staged in an outdoor theater in the city of Yangshuo and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou. I didn't see the show, but others in our group who went raved about it.