Yangshuo China: Water Buffalo and Electric Scooters
Water Buffalo and Electric Scooters
The Li River is arguably one of the most picturesque vistas throughout all of China. Over a week of traveling brought us from Beijing to Xi’an, south to Shanghai and finally to the Li River.
Arriving around 2 in the afternoon at the Guilin Airport and only having a little under 2 days in the region, our cruise options were a bit limited. After some deliberation and then haggling we opted for a shorter cruise on a bamboo raft that would traverse half the distance that the larger more popular and commercial boats went but would only be occupied by our party of three and the driver.
Nodding heads from sleepless nights in Shanghai and a 30 minute drive put us about half way between Guilin and Yangshuo (the two main tourist stops along the Li). Yangshuo is the less hectic, more rustic alternative to busy Guilin.
As we descended onto the winding river course we were beset by diminutive women hawking overpriced trinkets. They shouted “hello, hello” rapidly, over and over, the inflection transforming its meaning from greeting to query.
Boarding a ten foot bamboo raft we set off on calm waters. The driver controlled the motorized craft from the rear of the boat, watching the river with disinterested eyes. Karst peaks rose straight up on either side of the river’s edge at impossibly steep heights. The scabrous limestone facades could have been over sized stalagmites, transported from beneath the earth and speckled with subtropical dense foliage. The peaks disappeared into a distant haze as far as the eye could see in all directions.
A handful of other boats navigated the river, a random assortment comprised of bamboo rafts, commercial two story tour boats, derelict tramps and makeshift fishing platforms. Spaced between this motley armada were groups of Water Buffalo making their way into the river. They created ripples with their kicking legs while chewing on palm stalks. The rest of their kind rested lazily on the bank, mud encrusted sides baked hard by the setting sun.
All of the smaller craft made a brief stop at a bend in the river where dense forests run in all directions with a wall of peaks hemming in the area. We disembarked to new crowds of ancient small women who were once again hawking goods, this time the necklaces and “rare/ancient” coins replaced by cheap beer and citrus fruit. Making our way through the shouts of “hello! Hello?” we found a set of shanties and makeshift huts with more rural-Chinese-neo-capitalists. Everything was up for bargain, even the bathroom as one of my traveling companions finagled a price of 1 Yuan ($0.15 USD) instead of twice that price. Our goods for the return trip were a skewer of spiced and grilled soft shell crab and shrimp along with few beers and indigenous fruit (all for about $3 USD). Heading back to where we had started, the sun splayed its rays between the karst peaks.
The van ride from our point of origin along the river to Yangshuo was a little over forty minutes. Arriving in the town we found it somehow charming even with the crowds of tourists. The streets were lined by three to four story buildings with Chinese tile roofs, their store fronts occupied by bars, an array of international restaurants and dance clubs made visually dizzying by flashing lights illuminating a haze of cigarette smoke.
The crowds were almost split equally among foreigners and locals, the Chinese mostly sticking to the clubs, the amero-eropeans to the restaurants, street food stalls and tourists shops. Beyond the atmosphere of yelling store owners and thumping music were the karst peaks hemming in the town on all sides, illuminated at night. Crisscrossing the streets at all times were a plethora of scooters and bicycles, the electric scooters eerily silent compared with their noise polluting gas cousins.
After filling ourselves with berry flavored Tsingtao beer and unexpectedly good pizza, we made our way through the shops, bargaining for t-shirts and tourist goods. After about an hour we hailed a taxi for our hotel.
The Yanghuo Village Inn is located a short drive away from the city center. A welcoming cluster of lights illuminated the blackness as we broke left from the path into what our driver told us is called “Ancient Yangshuo” (we found out later that “Ancient Yangshuo” is simply a local moniker). It’s a cluster of small buildings that seemed to belong to a time somewhere between the Ming Dynasty and the Communist Revolution.
Even though it was eleven at night, children chased each other as adults shared bottles of Baijiu (the Chinese liquor equivalent of jet fuel). Occasional chickens ran through narrow streets coexisting with mongrel canines. The Village Inn was set at the edge of the suburb, an escarpment of dense trees to one side and the town on the other. The hotel is owned and operated by a married couple (one half American, the other Thai) with clean rooms and an eco-friendly ethic. The quality of the establishment compared to the price ($50 US a night) seemed an incredible bargain.
Scooters and Rice Paddies
The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast of noodles in the hotels’ courtyard with fresh squeezed orange juice (the oranges grown on the premises). Afterwards hotel staff called a taxi for us and we hitched a ride into town. The crowds were just as thick as the night before, albeit with a different make up; families with children rather than rowdy partiers, fighting the mid morning heat. Our time was limited so we opted for a tour through the countryside on electric scooters.
Our trio of cycles (my wife rode behind our guide) traversed through busy lanes and honking horns. The traffic narrowed out as we made our way to the outskirts of the town. Suddenly tiled roofs gave way to terraced rice paddies sandwiched between karst peaks. Palm fronds and bamboo shoots formed a semi-canopy overhead. The only others sharing the road were the occasional bicyclist towing massive bundles of wood or trucks made up of only an exposed engine and flat bed.
After about an hour of riding we took a break at a small restaurant located off the road. A few other locals sat nearby chatting in Mandarin waiting for their lunch. An old man near us sat in silence smoking a cigarette. We ate chicken, rice and a local beer as we listened to our guide’s stories of growing up as a little girl in poverty. She’s now a mother in her forties and works several jobs to put her children through school. She taught herself English on the streets by interacting with tourists and like most of the working class in China is determined to make a better life for herself by the means of her own ability.
After lunch we made one more visit to the center of Yangshuo to grab a drink in the shade near one of several streams bisecting the town. I made my way through a labyrinth of narrow alleys to find what the street sign had advertised as a roof top bar situated atop an eight story hostel.
I made my way to the top to find it deserted with a sign “will return soon”, but was happy to snap a few panoramic shots of the town, river and mystic peaks. Starring at that place feeling so distant from home, I wished we had allocated more time to this sleepy rural section of Southern China. Alas, that is one of the things you figure out after visiting an area. Maybe one day we will return.
Loren Klure is a novice writer and avid traveler. When not traveling he spends his time working as a Mortgage Underwriter in Southern California.
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