Yangshuo: Nature in China

July 15, 2018
by Dan

After we successfully waded through the visa application process in Hong Kong we headed straight across the border. This involved taking the metro to the last station and then walking across the river separating Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The process was pretty painless, and shortly found ourselves in Mainland China!

We had then went to find a train to Guangzhou. We knew we needed to leave from Futian, but it turns out that the Futian Checkpoint (where we exited customs and immigration) and Futian Station was where we needed to catch the train, and they are in different part of the city. With the help of a Chinese officer we managed to navigate the metro to Futian Station and picked up the high speed rail tickets that I had bought in advance online using Ctrip, which became our go to for bookings in China. Booking.com worked okay but, this is the first country where there was a clearly superior platform. China is interesting like that.

We had some time to kill before our train so I made a quick trip to the famous electronics markets of Shenzhen at Huaqiangbei, and I’m so glad I did. It was the most amazing array of electronic whatevers that I had ever seen. There were surface mounted devices, 3-D printers, phones, crazy security cameras, folding electric bikes, folding drums/pianos, smart home devices, and phone cases as far as the eye could see. It was dizzying and I wanted so many things. But I exercised an amazing amount of restraint and I walked out with just a new portable battery and a cable for Christina’s new phone. But I want to go back there with a full wallet and empty suitcase someday.

Our ride to Guangzhou was uneventful, and we went to find our hostel for the night. We were staying in a small village built around the south station of Guangzhou on our route to Yangshuo. In trying to locate our hostel Google Maps was worthless (though was more useful that I would have expected in China), and the local Baidu maps was not much better and all in Chinese.

When we arrived where Google Maps pointed us, we did not find our hostel and asking for directions got us blank stares, emphatic head shakes or lead us back and forth in conflicting directions. We wandered around aimlessly long enough that finally a stranger took pity on us and called the hostel number. Dan had tried, but poor connection and lack of Chinese had made it futile. Our guardian angel got directions and lead us to the hostel which had no sign at all so we never would have found this place. Thank you to that guy! He disappeared without us getting his name. For what it’s worth it was the Molinge Youth Hostel, located here.

We got a good rest and were able to make our way to Guangzhou South Station in the morning to await our next high speed train to Yangshuo.

I wanted to visit Yangshuo because it seemed both beautiful and out of the way. I was worried that China would be a lot like India with the crowding. In India I basically spent most of my trip searching out something away from a big city. So that’s the first kind of place I searched for in China. I first read about and saw pictures of Guilin and the beautiful karst mountains surrounding it. Karst mountains are notably featured on the 20 yuan banknote. Upon some further reading I found that Yangshou is an even more scenic area and a smaller town, and so that was our destination for the first few days in China.

The high speed rail from Guangzhou was nice and fast, really quite reasonably priced. It wasn’t as slick as the Japanese high speed rail we’ve experience, but still way better than most of the transit options we’ve used so far.

We arrived in Yangshou and the scenery was gorgeous and everything I was hoping for. First we took a shuttle bus from the station to town. But nope it went to some area out side of town that was labeled as a different city on Google maps, Baidu, and the local map at the tourism office. So we got some strange responses when we showed concern that we weren’t yet in Yangshuo. All we got was, this is Yangshuo. It was, but kind of the outskirts and several kilometers away from our hostel. Luckily it’s a small town and we were able to catch a local bus for very cheap. We saw another pair of tourists just decide to hoof it.

We didn’t have any trouble finding 131 Youth Hostel, and it turned out to be one of the odder hostels we’ve seen. It appeared that once upon a time it was a lively hip hostel, but that went into decay for years and was falling apart. Then I imagine someone buying it and just renting without making upgrades or fixed. So there were areas that were largely abandoned or full of broken items and old posters, piles of miscellaneous items in many places. But our dorm was nice and the roof deck an amazing view of the surrounding mountains that was especially nice at night.

Anyway our first day in Yangshuo we spent wandering around and basically buying any and every food item we came across. We were pretty indiscriminate because everything was new, but we got lucky finding some local specialties like Mugwort cakes and Guilin rice noodles.

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We also walked up and down West Street (Xijie). It’s a bit of an overdeveloped tourist trap. At first impression, it seemed like it would be pretty annoying but, it was all so new that I actually loved it. And they had free samples for many of the local specialties. Like some excellent hot sauces and sweets that we did end up buying.

We also took a stroll around Yangshuo Park and saw some ladies dancing and some really cool card and board games. The park was beautiful with excellent views all around of the mountains, including two mountains within the park. One had pagodas on top which you can climb easily and the other was taller with a flag on the top of it. It’s a very epic looking and I made several loops around it asking folks if it’s possible to climb it, but I was mostly laughed at and told no. Well I’m pretty certain there is no official path, but on my last attempt I found a small set of stairs behind a fancy hotel that led up to a water drainage system down the mountain. I’m sure with some dedication and a willingness to do some rock climbing you could get to the top, but I just didn’t have the time unfortunately.

We also took a recommendation for a noodle place that wasn’t local, it served cuisine from another region, but was totally delicious. We ordered the biang biang and a spicy sour soup that was the greatest concentration of sichuan pepper that I ever experienced (at the time, but more on this in later posts). It’s roughly located here, the LED sign out front has the words “biang biang” in roman characters.

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On our second day we rent bikes and did some touring. We got some excellent quality bikes from the RiverView Inn near the end of West Street. They were comparatively well priced to other vendors, but mostly they were in excellent condition. They weren’t flashy, but there were no issues shifting or braking or with anything mechanical.

We took off on the Yong Village loop that I read about here. The first bit is a really pleasant ride in an area mostly closed off to cars. It’s smooth riding with nice views and lots of places to pull off for organized fun. Of these various attractions we only partook in the Moon Hill hike which was surprisingly empty except for some rather persistent ladies at the top selling water.

From there we took off following a bit less traveled route. It was still a nice smooth road, but it took us through some small local villages. We stopped at one for some hydration in the form of beer and water and a few snacks. While we were there one of our dorm-mates from the hostel, Boris, rode past and we waved him down to sit with us for a bit.

I was in search of a local specialty called oil tea and got it in my head that the shop owner might know something about it. I showed him the Chinese characters and he nodded and took me off to a garden to show me a plant. I tried clarifying that I wanted the oil tea and was looking where to get some. He nodded in understanding and bid me sit down. We spent the next few minutes in general confusion as the man came back with a bunch of the plants and starts cooking something up in the kitchen, and ultimately presented us with a plate of the  plants fried up with spicy garlic. Definitely not what I was looking for and pure confusion was the order of the day.

We finished off the ride through a few villages/suburbs that were topsy turvy with beautiful old decaying hotels next to brand new construction sites. I don’t really know what was going on there. It was an tiring day and we stopped at a supermarket and went nuts on all sorts of delicious mystery snacks, including a sea salt and lemon water that became our go to hydration beverage. We then went back to collapse at hostel just in time for a huge rain storm to blow through. We got really lucky there. Boris got trapped on Moon Hill and didn’t make it back until late, but he was okay!

That night, once the rain had tapered off we ventured out to find the local dish: Yangshuo Beer Fish. It’s a river fish cooked in beer and tomatoes with a really rich spicy sauce. It was super expensive and sold by weight (per kg), which we didn’t realize so that was a surprise when we got the bill. In general it was quite good. I loved the sauce. But we got the carp and it’s super bony fish and it took us ages to eat. I just really am not a fan of the experience of eating bony fish, no matter how tasty it is. The restaurant was approximately here, but we didn’t get the name.

We also got our first dose of a weird cultural phenomenon of plastic wrapped table settings. I had heard about this and still don’t full understand it. Basically the restaurant sends out all? some? of it’s plateware to get washed and then shrink wrapped into single-setting packages. I guess to show that it’s super clean. But you get charged for it and we really couldn’t care less.

The next day we set of to, once and for all, find my oil tea. No accidentally fried veggies this time. I found a website that said there is a place that across from the fire station. That was good enough for us and after enough inquiring we found our spot, roughly here.

When we sat down we were baffled by the menu which extensive and had zero pictures. The waitress kept pointing at sections and having us order. We used the AR function of Google translate and in the first section we understood that we were choosing the meat to go in the oil tea. After the night before and the accidentally ordering 2 kilos of fish (are you seeing a theme here?), we stuck with the one that said one piece chicken instead of buying something by weight. We made another selection of noodles, presumably a filler for the soup, but it was getting super expensive at this point and so we called it off by the third section of the menu.

Shortly thereafter a big pan of soup was brought out and put on an induction burner with some topping like puffed rice and peanuts and greens. We started to dig in and put together our soups. Then some noodles came out, but it was just a side dish of noodles. Okay, that seemed like a lot of food and we hadn’t really wanted a random noodle dish, but whatever.

Then just as we are starting to eat, a whole tray of a chicken gets brought out. Christina claims that it wasn’t a whole chicken, which is true, it was just all of the bony bits that we don’t usually eat in the States, including the head. Whoa, no wonder it was so expensive but it was way too much food for two people. The meat got quickly overcooked by the heat of the burner that the staff kept turning up on us and I just didn’t have it in me to eat so much bone-y meat. I did successfully eat a chicken foot though, not even coated and fried, just a straight boiled chicken foot. I’m still away off from eating a chicken head though.

Apparently we could have just ordered the soup without the meat to cook in it, but we had no clue. We also didn’t finish the noodles, but had a food container that we were able to take them with us for dinner. This was truly an adventure in (mis)communication, but I’m really glad we did it. I liked the soup, which was basically like a bitter savory-tea ginger-soup combo, and the crunchy toppings, greens, spicy paste made a great addition. It’s totally a worthwhile dish to seek out. I have seen something similar discussed as chǎo mǐ which might yield better results in your own search.

After this we were totally stuffed, but it was soup-full and it quickly subsided and we were able to complete our plan for the day which was to climb one of these karst mountains. Based on a recommendation we wandered through some back alleys behind the wet market to find a trail up TV mountain (because there’s a TV antenna on top of it). It was a beautiful climb with stone steps. We quickly climbed to a height much higher than any of the mountains in town.

The hike ended unceremoniously at a locked gate of the TV tower. We sat down and sampled some local plum wine we had picked up while enjoying with a view of the surrounding peaks and the sounds of the city below.

Since we were already sweaty messes, Christina insisted we go get in a work out at the park. Christina brought her gymnastic rings and Boris joined us. We found a pull up bar in the park next to some folks blasting their personal karaoke system to a crowd of no one. We did draw some curious onlookers and one family that joined in the fun. And one of the karaoke singers challenged both Boris and I to arm wrestling, matches which we both quickly lost.

The next morning was our last morning in Yangshuo and I completed the surprisingly difficult task of buying bus tickets to the international airport in Guilin, the nearest big city, for our flight to Nanjing. Surprisingly no one at the tourist center knew where the north bus station was. Turns out, it’s just a few blocks north of the bus station where we arrived, which is still considerably south of the actual town of Yangshuo on the map. Great. It was a sweaty hunt and really solidified how big the communication and cultural gap is here.

We waited for a while for a city bus to take us to the station, but when it didn’t appear in time we did some hoofing out to the station and caught our bus just in time. So we finally made it to the airport to await our flight to Nanjing, where we will meet up with a friend of mine from the job I quit before starting our trip. The idea was actually a great relief to me after all the confusion communicating because we will be able to get our bearings with the help of a local who can speak both Mandarin and English.

Also on a final note. KFC is ridiculously popular in China. So much so that China has unofficially honored it the best way it knows how, with a knock off.

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