Perfect 10

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 March, 2004, 12:00am

1 West Street

Yangshuo, in north Guangxi province, is one of the most beautiful places in the Middle Kingdom, a fairy-tale town of low-slung classical buildings surrounded by karst limestone peaks resembling dragon's fangs. First-time visitors often say they feel as if they've stepped into a Chinese painting. The heart of Yangshuo is West Street, a funky, cobblestoned slacker's paradise. Spend the day wandering around, checking out the traditional architecture, soaking in the atmosphere and shopping for antiques, wooden masks, scrolls and paintings. When you need a break from your meandering, check out Cafe China, whose rooftop garden provides diners with 360-degree views (34 West Street, tel: [86] 773 882 7744). Or head for French-run The Balcony, which offers a well-stocked bar and a touch of Paris on the picturesque banks of the River Li (28 Xian Qian Street, tel: [86] 773 881 2331).

2 Tai chi

A number of masters operate on the city's riverbanks, and their courses last from about three hours to a week. One of the more popular, the graceful Luo Meijuan (tel: [86] 138 7837 6597), has been teaching the art for more than a decade. 'While tai chi is a life-long practice, I can teach students the basic moves of Chen- [hard] or Yang- [soft] style tai chi in a short time,' says Luo.

3 Moon Hill

Moon Hill has a perfectly spherical hole in its centre. Geologists say it was formed by erosion, when much of the area was submerged, but locals say the opening is the result of an errant thunderbolt shot from the bow of an ancient hero battling a mythical dragon. You can get there by bike, bus or motorcycle taxi, but once you're there, be prepared for a workout. The hike from the road to the bottom of the hill entails a few thousand steep steps through bamboo forests. From there, the climb to the top of the hill gets steeper, and is without steps, but the view from the summit is well worth the effort. Decent footwear is a must.

4 ChinaClimb

Yangshuo is a world-class proving ground for serious rock climbers. The local karst limestone peaks aren't merely scenic, they're also an irresistible challenge. But you don't need to be an expert to get vertical. ChinaClimb (tel: [86] 733 881 1033) provides equipment, guides and lessons for climbers of all levels. For those who prefer to climb with a roof over their heads, the club's official headquarters, Lizard Lounge, offers cheap, strong drinks and a small but surprisingly challenging indoor climbing wall. Competitions are held on Saturday nights, and the best climbers win free shots of centipede liquor, complete with floating insects (45 Xian Qian Street).

5 Yangshuo Flying Balloon Club

For a bird's-eye view of the spectacular surrounding peaks, contact the Yangshuo Flying Balloon Club (tel: [86] 135 9703 9399). Balloons are launched in fair weather from a field between Butterfly Cave and Moon Hill. A 15-minute trip will take you to about 1,000 metres, for 120 yuan.

6 Water Cave

Yangshuo is an excellent place for spelunking (potholing). Butterfly, Buddha and Silver caves are well-lit, and visitors will usually emerge with clean shirts. Those looking for more adventure should contact the Water Cave Cafe (48 West Street, tel: [86] 773 882 0252). Water Cave, which was opened to the public last year, is vast and its entrance is an underground river. Once inside, you can spend between three and 12 hours exploring kilometres of slippery paths, ducking low-hanging ceilings, taking mudbaths and rinsing off beneath waterfalls. The cafe proprietors can arrange guides, torches, transport and provisions for lengthier treks.

7 River Li

When the river's waters are high enough, large boats sail from Guilin to Yangshuo in about eight hours. At the moment, drought precludes the passage of larger boats, but smaller, wooden rafts navigate between Yangdi and Xinping (just north of Yangshuo). By all accounts, this is the most beautiful part of the river, but be warned: the raft operators tend to jack up their prices for tourists, so your best bet is to go to the dock with a group of at least six and negotiate a per-trip rate.

8 Local fare

Western fare is available on West Street, and many visitors eat nothing but pizza and shepherd's pie. Don't make the same mistake - dishes such as beer fish (River Li catfish cooked in a broth of spice and beer), drunken duck (same as above, but with duck) and river snails stuffed with pork and herbs are not only delicious, but unavailable elsewhere in China. Head for Diecui Road, which runs from the bus station to the river, where several fine places specialise in local cuisine. One of the best is Xie Dajie, or 'Big Sister Xie's'. You can't miss it - look for the life-size photo of Xie holding up a catfish nearly as plump as herself. The best restaurant in Yangshuo is A Chou Zheng Zheng, away from the centre of town. Walk down Pan Tao Road, the main street, heading away from West Street, and continue for four blocks past the bus station. Turn right when you spot a large blue and white statue of a meditating Quanyin, goddess of mercy. The restaurant is opposite (Bi Lian Alley 43, off Pan Tao Road, tel: [86] 773 882 4876).

9 Longsheng rice terraces

Renowned as a miracle of ancient farming and irrigation technology, the Longsheng (dragon's back) rice paddies are carved into the sides of lush, rolling hills, and are quite magical in their beauty. It's about a three-hour trek to get there. Be warned: the colourfully dressed Miao and Zhuang tribeswomen who sell overpriced trinkets to tourists are doggedly persistent.

10 Old Fuli

You can reach Fuli for a few yuan in a minivan, or ride a rental bike along either the main road or next to the river. Avoid the small town's newly built-up areas and you'll arrive at Old Fuli, a 400-year-old settlement whose stone gates and homes were visited by Sun Yat-sen. Many of the painted scrolls and intricate bamboo fans sold in Yangshuo are crafted here.