Top things to do in Yangshuo: hills, thrills and chilling
A high-speed train from Shenzhen has made newly neon Yangshuo more accessible. Yet, beyond the town, the karst peaks of Guangxi remain among the most unspoiled scenery in China.
Over the past five years, as any local cab driver will tell you, Yangshuo has been transformed. Once a hippie haven nestled between the jade-coloured karst peaks of Guangxi, it's now a neon hotspot, jammed with more Chinese tourists than Western backpackers. With great popularity has come great transport links: last year a high-speed train to Guilin launched from Shenzhen North, cutting a 13-hour overnight journey to a 3½-hour ride. Just beyond the town, the surreal scenery remains some of the most serene and unspoiled in China, but Yangshuo's river rapids, mountains and nightlife also make this an action-packed spot. Here's the best of adrenaline and zen in Yangshuo.
Since American free climber Todd Skinner came to Yangshuo in the 1990s and developed the area, the rock climbing scene has exploded: today there are more than 800 climbs mapped out on its mountains, for all difficulty levels. Check in to the Climbers Inn at 21 Guihua Road to meet other enthusiasts, and head to 21 Chengbei Road to hire your equipment and join a tour with Ginger at Karst Climber, which was founded in 2000; beginners can start on the Swiss Cheese Crag, or try the brilliantly named Tortoise Climbing up the Hill, while more advanced climbers should scale White Mountain or The Great Arch Area.
Zip-lining + abseiling
Slightly less taxing, but no less thrilling, ways to explore the mountains are abseiling and zip-lining. North Face-sponsored climber Anui, who left a career in the military to help build the adventure scene in Yangshuo, takes hikers up Treasure Cave mountain, where they can fly over a canyon created by two limestone karsts (400 yuan, HK$485). Alternatively, climb the 800 steps up Moon Hill (400 yuan), famed locally for the semi-circular hole in the middle of the mountain, and abseil 100 metres down from its peak. blackrockclimbing.net
If you embark on this 45-minute adventure, which is also known as the Longjing Washing Machine, prepare to lose control and get very wet. A creek off the Li River has been dammed into segments and, from April to October, visitors can ride two-person rafts down the white water for between four and six kilometres. There are lots of rocks and bumps, and no paddles, although attendants are on hand to assist in the event of a wipeout. Happy China Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) charges 200 yuan per person, and can provide a transfer for the one-hour ride from Yangshuo; a bumpy 20-minute ride away is Xingping, the location of the scene on the back of the 20 yuan note.
Fuli to Page Boy Hill bike ride
Skip the crowded bike routes from West Street towards the Yulong River and Moon Hill and begin your cycle at Fuli, the birthplace of the traditional painted Chinese fan, about 8km out of Yangshuo. From the ancient village’s jetty, catch a bamboo raft over the Li River (with your bikes; available for hire in Yangshuo) to Dutou Village. Once you’re over the water, make a detour up the mountain path on your right to reach an amazing viewing point that overlooks the Li River. Once you’ve descended back onto the cycling track, turn left and head past tri-coloured ponds, karst caves and Guangxi farmers to the 500-year-old Mushan Village, and Page Boy Hill from where you can catch a bamboo raft back over the river, and watch the cows bathing in the water. The 14km route should take about three hours, and we didn’t pass another tourist.
Swim in the Li River
Summer in Yangshuo is hot, and taking a dip in the beautiful Li River is the perfect way to cool off. At sunset take Binjiang Road out of Yangshuo – just after the covered walkway, you’ll see a series of stone steps leading down to the water. Those on bikes, however, can press on past the Li River Retreat (which will be the perfect spot for a sundowner when it reopens after renovations next year) and take the first major road on their right – this becomes a dirt track which eventually crosses a stone creek: around the bend from there, on the left, is a “secret” swimming spot with a pebble beach, where you’ll share the water with few others.
Get a massage near Cat Mountain
After all the cycling and swimming, you’ll need some pampering. Banyan Tree Spa, in Fuli village, offers the only five-star treatment in Yangshuo, and is the sole international brand in the area; we recommend the Pu-er tea Swedish massage, in which your body is scrubbed with tea powder and coarse sugar. Afterwards, head to the onsite bar, located on a raised viewing platform, for a cocktail as the sun sets over Cat Mountain – not the famous Cat Mountain in Guilin, which is the highest peak in South China and home to a nature reserve; this mountain has been so named by locals because it looks like a cat. If you crave more pampering, head back into Yangshuo and join the locals for a ticklish fish foot massage at the Kissing Fish Spa (80 yuan).
Where to refuel ...
Just off Yangshuo’s pulsating vein of nightlife, West Street, is the infamous DMZ bar. Established on Guihua Road by Briton Gareth Johnson, who runs tourist trips into the hermit state, here you can drink North Korean beer Taedonggang and enjoy “other rogue state goods”; after you’ve dedicated a shot to one of the Kims, head to any of the local restaurants for the famously intoxicating Guilin delicacy: beer fish (a carp boiled in pi jiu and tomatoes), and order another local delicacy, river snails stuffed with minced pork and mint; round off your evening on the roof of Monkey Jane’s, a hostel that epitomises the hedonistic backpacker beginnings of Yangshuo. Sign up for the never-ending beer pong competition and watch gap year students make out on the pool table.