HIGH above the rice fields and the concave straw hats of the farmers working them, these strange limestone mountains appear to have just popped up like skyscrapers, surrounding us in all directions.
On the outskirts of the southern Chinese town of Yangshuo, we ride our bikes past the small villages that straddle the Yulong (Dragon) River, as the schoolkids try to keep up, chickens dash past, and the stifling heat makes the water seem very tempting.
As we place our bikes by the stream, a smiling elderly woman washing her clothes motions swimming with her hands, taking her respite in the shade of the tree while we take ours in the water.
The view is like a lush green, dense version of the Glasshouse Mountains as far as the eye can see, and the woman takes joy watching us enjoy her homeland, for she definitely could have chosen a worse place to wash her clothes.
It seems that doing anything in Yangshuo is made all that more special by the backdrop, and as a tourist haven there are so many activities on offer, such as rock climbing, bamboo rafting, hiking, shopping, hot air ballooning, cooking classes, light shows, you name it.
The biggest problem is that the place is so relaxing that any short-term to-do list can be very easily put on hold. For just as you can see shapes and images in the clouds, so too can your imagination run wild with the mountains of Yangshuo, criss-crossing into the distance like strange shadows of themselves.
It is this Karst scenery that was the inspiration for the inscription on Chinese 20 Yuan notes, with the following catchphrase compared to its neighbouring city: “Guilin’s scenery is the most beautiful in the world, but Yangshuo’s scenery is far more superior to Guilin’s.”
With this sort of reputation it is no surprise that 1.5 million visitors come to see at least some of the 20,000 hills in the Yangshuo County each year, and the town itself is littered with shops, restaurants, bars and entertainers, so it really does offer something for everyone.
Accommodation ranges from luxurious five-star hotels to well-furnished hostels costing around $5 a night, and for the best view in town you can’t go past Monkey Jane’s Rooftop Bar for a spectacular view of the Li River at sunset.
Bamboo rafts float past the water buffalo while to the west a light purple sky descends over the stone monoliths that scatter on the horizon. Night falls as tourists flock to the bars and the night market, while some fishermen get ready to take out a cormorant fishing expedition.
Around town people gather to the assorted noodle and dumpling houses where food is not just an art but a show. The cook rolls up dough and with a stretch of the arms he flicks it back and forth to thin out the noodles. He drops the noodles in the pot, you choose your ingredients, and you have a meal in no time. While this practice is normal throughout China, the noodle shop on Pantao Street near the market goes to show that simple meals cooked well are often the best.
But local specialties can be great too, and we soon find out that Yangshuo’s beer fish really serves up a treat. After taking an adrenalin-pumping plunge of the Dragon Bridge, we are asked if we would like to go to a restaurant, so a local woman guides us through some alleyways, a house, and we end up at a small establishment by the river – a quaint raft with a table and roof.
So we order the beer fish, which involves stir frying fish with tomatoes, capsicum, spring onions, as well as various condiments including its namesake.
It is a specialty, along with many others, that can be learned at the Yangshuo Cooking School, run by Australian Pam Dimond who set up the school to encourage the region’s unique cuisine and to provide opportunity for local chefs. The school arranges small group lessons that cost $26 to cook five meals in a session, ranging from steamed stuffed vegetables, to ginger chilli duck, to egg wrapped dumplings, followed by a social meal and chat on the terrace.
But after so much delicious food and meeting so many friendly people while taking in the mountains, it’s only fitting to climb them. There are many agencies around town with experienced guides that assist both beginners and seasoned climbers.
It all comes back to the vantage point – there’s bikes, the water, and to top that all off, from a cliff face of nature’s stone skyscrapers, providing the perfect escape that feels a world away from the rapid development and sprawling cities of the Middle Kingdom.
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