Down the Li River from dreary Guilin is the flourishing tourist hangout of Yangshuo, where diminutive guide Li Yunzhao plies her trade waving a book of commendations. The illiterate ethnic Zhuang speaks fluent English, gleaned entirely from backpackers who tend to spend a few days relaxing in the cafes that have sprung up in the past few years. Fifteen years ago when I first came here, tagging along in the press pool behind then visiting American vice-president George Bush, Yangshuo was just another muddy and ramshackle village. Now you can eat out in a cafe along a paved street and have a candlelit dinner of pizza, burritos, lasagne and the inevitable banana pancakes. There is an Internet cafe, direct express buses to Hong Kong and shops selling a fine collection of carvings despoiled from great landlord houses in Jiangxi and Hunan provinces. Ms Li offers something different, though - she takes guests around the local villages and invites them to stay in her house, where she cooks for them. In a land where all visits are normally so closely shepherded, this opens up a rare window for both sides to glimpse a different world. 'I've lived here all my life and until I met the foreigners, I could never see this as beautiful,' said Ms Li as we drifted past the 'Bowlerhat Hills'. 'Foreigners are so strange. We had two girls from England who met two boys from Holland and they stayed in the same room. How do people trust each other like that? They weren't even from the same village.' Ms Li has never left Yangshuo, even to go to Guilin. As she takes visitors to local villages, it becomes clear even in this prosperous part of the province how slow the pace of change is. In places like Half Moon Village, people still live in the wreckage of the once comfortable houses seized and divided up in 1958 as the Great Leap Forward began. Different families share these homes, now fallen into disrepair, but still showing signs of their former glory with finely carved lintels and window shutters. A few villages still retain their old walls and gates, a sure magnet for tourists. Red, fading Maoist slogans adorn the walls, or announce the location of stores for educated youths or army veterans. Ms Li says life was, and is, hard here. Born in 1960 at the height of the famine, she was lucky to survive and says that is why she is well below average height. As a girl, she never attended school but worked in the collective fields earning work points. Now she has her own fields and grows plenty to eat. But she struggles to earn enough to pay medical bills and education fees for her three children. These days no one can afford to buy medicine or go to a doctor.