The majority of our day was spent on the train from Shanghai to Guilin. The 9 hour trip passed surprisingly quickly as we read, played card games, watched BBC iPlayer, napped (of course) and stared out the window as we sped through 794 miles of China. Initially it was not much to look at as it was endless rows of high rise buildings… we know where those 2 billion (officially 1.3 billion and counting but many people are unregistered so the unofficial guestimates put the population somewhere around 2 billion). However, as we got closer to Guilin we encountered some beautiful Chinese countryside, aided by a gorgeous sunset.
We arrived at Guilin in the early evening and decided to walk around and grab some dinner. We were only stopping at Guilin for one night as the starting point for the Li River cruise but wow what a beautiful city! It really took us by surprise. Guilin was China’s first city to develop tourism after 1949, and you can definitely understand why tourists have flocked here over the years. The series of lakes, along with the Li River that snakes past the outskirts of the main part of the city, are beautifully lit and have a fantastic, laid back atmosphere. There were boats trips and music and people everywhere, which all contributed to an excellent evening stroll. The highlight was coming across the Sun and Moon Twin Pagodas, which are situated on the Shan Lake are are stunningly illuminated at night.
In the main part of the city, there was plenty to see with market stalls, restaurants (most with live fish and seafood outside), shops, music, and massage places. We had a really yummy dinner down one of the backstreets (minus the little girls who’s dad brought her to pee right in front of our table!). It was a great evening and we enjoyed our walk back to our hostel on the footpaths next to the lakes.
The next day we woke early to get the bus to the port for our cruise down the River Li to Yangshuo. The cruise took around 4 hours as the boat meandered through the dramatic and extremely picturesque countryside with epic karst hills reflected in the blue waters of the river. We were really lucky with the weather and had lovely blue skies interspersed with clouds (the forecast had predicted heavy rain). After lunch – where a kind Chinese man sitting opposite us insisted that we share his deep fried soft shell crab and prawns (they were crunchy!) – everyone rushed to the top of the boat to get a glimpse of the landscape that is depicted on the 20 Chinese yuan note.
After we’d dropped our stuff off at the hostel in Yangshuo, we had a walk around the town – which was much bigger than we expected and was essentially one big construction site! It’s clearly an up and coming place and is being heavily expanded with more and more fancy hotels. We decided to spend most of the afternoon at the park: the Chinese love parks, which are the social hub of the community, and this one was filled with people playing croquet, dancing, exercising, playing games, sitting, chatting, walking… as well as some random karaoke! Simon and I joined in by playing cards at one of the permanent tables. That evening we had some beers on the hostel roof terrace overlooking the Li River and then went for a lovely dinner at the Pure Lotus vegetarian restaurant on the main street. The main street is a mish mash of stalls, street sellers, restaurants, and bars/ nightclubs with music blaring and was bustling with locals and tourists (Chinese and a few Westerners). Instead we took ourselves away from the madness and had a fantastic (and well deserved after all the walking we’d done!) foot massage for an hour.
The next day we woke to patchy weather so instead of walking we decided to get out a motorbike and explore the countryside by ourselves. Our first stop was Moon Hill, a famous hill with a natural arch through it a few kilometers outside Yangshuo (so named for a wide, semicircular hole through the middle). We then didn’t have a destination to aim for so we just rode around super rural China. It was stunning: lush, green, and untouched. We barely saw another soul on the road.
We decided to go through Yangshuo and stop for lunch at a cafe type place where nearby workers were also having their lunch break. They had pretty much finished by the time we got there but they all waited around to see what we had ordered and if we could use chopsticks and when they found out we could they then left! Next we headed out to Xingping as we’d read it was meant to be the Yangshuo of twenty years ago. It took us quite a while to get there and our impression was that it was pretty overrated as it was super rammed with tour buses and people… we thought Yangshuo was much nicer! In total we drove about 60 miles across 6 hours and while we had sore butts it was a fun day. In the evening we went to a one hour meditation class at a nearby vegan cafe called the Mood Food Energy Cafe followed by a smoothie. We ended the evening with dinner and a wander around West Street.
Unfortunately our final day in Yangshuo was filled with torrential rain! So we had a late breakfast at the Mood Food cafe and then spent the rest of our day eating food, playing cards, and napping. When it finally stopped raining in late afternoon, we went for a short walk around the market and then headed back to the Mood Food cafe to use their sauna and have dinner there before our sleeper bus. It was a real shame that our final day was a washout as Yangshuo is all about outdoor activities and our plan had been to hike up Billian Peak, the main peak that rises up next to the Li River… but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be..
There’s no airport or train station in Yangshuo so we’d booked the sleeper bus to Shenzhen, which is the nearest city you can get to to cross over the border into Hong Kong. It was a pretty miserable experience to be honest: it was cramped, dirty, and noisy and some people decided that smoking would be a good idea (they were quickly told not to). Simon woke up to a random man’s foot in his face and I barely slept on the uncomfortable ‘beds’ (and I can normally sleep anywhere!). We thought it would be able 11 hours but we ended up spending 15 hours on the bus. Lesson learnt: no more sleeper buses in the future…