It's hazy and overcast on my second day in Yangshuo County, but that's OK. I've done the bike tour through rustic farming villages, cruised down the Li River admiring the magnificent mountains, been doused in water by over-zealous rafters and witnessed a spectacular light show on a lake in the town park. Now it's time to get down and dirty at the Longmen Water Cave and its natural mud pool. A 90-minute drive south from Guilin, in China's Guangxi province, takes you to Yangshuo. Nestled among the limestone peaks, or karsts, at the confluence of the Li and Yulong rivers, the bustling town is surrounded by lush farmland. Tourism Yangshuo style is slower and more laid-back than the Guilin version, which probably accounts for its popularity among independent travellers. At its heart is West Street, a lively mixture of cafes, cheap hotels, souvenir stalls and boutique shops catering to the visitors - Chinese and western, and of all ages - meandering along the wide, traffic-free thoroughfare. For many, the perfect end to a day's sightseeing is a cold beer and some spicy, deep-fried freshwater prawns at one of the many alfresco restaurants that stay open late. Yangshuo is a destination for tourists wanting to interact with their surroundings rather than gaze at them through the window of an air-conditioned coach. With that in mind, I hire a bicycle and head off for a day's adventure. I'm staying at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, a homely villa-style hotel on the banks of the Yulong River and a 10-minute taxi ride from West Street. From here, many attractions are less than an hour's leisurely cycle away. Avoiding main roads and heading along farm trails or the banks of the river, I'm quickly immersed in some of the mainland's most breathtaking scenery: the inspiration for artists and writers for almost 2,000 years. Passing through ancient villages, it is easy to imagine life as it was in the pre-mechanised age; farmers and water buffalo still toil sedately in paddyfields and orchards. After about half an hour, I come to the 400-year-old Yulong Bridge. Below it, bamboo-raft owners compete for the opportunity to take me and the bicycle back down the river - for a small fee. I've chosen a weekday for my excursion, thus avoiding the nose-to-tail weekend water traffic. Each raft is equipped with a gaily coloured beach umbrella and for a few extra yuan, a young woman in ethnic costume will serenade me with traditional folk songs sung through a bullhorn. I decline the onboard entertainment but thanks to a culture vulture on a nearby raft, static-laced screeches accompany me for part of the short, scenic cruise back down the river. In another flash of questionable marketing inspiration, someone has concluded that rafting is much more fun if it includes a water pistol. Foreign tourists, like me, are the most likely recipients of a jet of brackish Yulong water. Disembarking at Gongnong Bridge and the main road, I watch as rafts are dragged from the water and, accompanied by their owners, piled up to a dozen high on small trucks to begin the precarious journey back up the trail to their starting point. From the bridge it's an easy ride to the Big Banyan Tree, a collection of gnarled roots and twisted branches said to have started life during the Jin dynasty, in about 1115. A short ride farther on are the steps for the climb to Moon Hill, so called because of a huge crescent worn through the soft rock. I'm 100 metres away when an old oman crouching by the side of the road leaps up in hot pursuit. She maintains a good pace despite the fact her hat keeps slipping down over her eyes. I carry on a little way before pulling over. It's hot, it's humid and no thank you, I don't need a guide for the one-hour climb to the top. I leave her muttering among some fellow short-distance runners. Once over the Moon, an essential Li River cruise is next. For most, this amounts to six hours confined to a floating restaurant with 40 or more other day-trippers as the boat wends its way the 83km from Guilin to Yangshuo. Instead, I begin my journey at the preserved Ming-dynasty fishing village of Xing Ping, an hour's drive north of Yangshuo. From here, small boats and motorised bamboo rafts ferry passengers on a 90-minute round trip, taking in what many locals believe is the best part of the river, a stretch known as the Golden Waterway. It's easy to see why the magnificent backdrop was chosen for the reverse side of the 20-yuan note. Along the way I witness farmers cooling their buffalo, children frolicking in the shallows and a foolhardy snake weaving its way through the heavy river traffic. At a brief stop along the bank where women are grinding pebbles on sharpening stones to make jewellery, a woman offers me a bamboo pole with a large bird lashed to each end. For two yuan she'll lend me her hat and I can strike a pose as one of the river's fabled cormorant fishermen. It's local-culture evening for me, so I head to Yangshuo Park, where the Li River Mountain Water Theatre tells a popular folk tale in a contemporary performance called Impression Sanjie Liu. The daily event is not only a big draw for tourists, but also for the thousands of insects attracted by the bright lights. I spend much of the first half of the show in a frenzy of body slapping before settling down and making good use of the binoculars rented for five yuan from a vendor outside the park. The show, with a cast of 600, uses its natural mountain backdrop and 'water stage' to great effect and the result is a choreographed extravaganza of light, song, costume and floating scenery. The finale is a glittering event as 200 local girls 'walk' across the water in sparkling costumes that dance and wink in the night. Rain is in the air on my last day in Yangshuo, so I head underground to the area's famed limestone caves. First stop is the recently opened Lotus Cave, near Xing Ping. I'm the only visitor and have to wait 20 minutes for my guide to arrive and power up the lights. As she flicks the switch, a kaleidoscope of multicoloured sedimentary rock formations appears before me. The stalactites and stalagmites are impressive, but try as I might, I'm unable to recognise any of the numerous leaping tigers, meditating Buddhas, banyan trees and weeping lovers indicated by my enthusiastic companion. The same applies at the museum next door, whose 'curators' have chipped away at thousand-year-old rock formations to bring them all together under one roof. The Longmen Water Cave, one of the area's biggest, features a mud pool. Entry to the cave is by boat and my fellow passengers and I are obliged to lie down to avoid bashing our helmets on the roof. After an hour of twists and turns the guide brings us to a man-made reservoir of dark brown, mineral-laced mud. An element of surrealism is added by the presence of a photographer, computers and banks of printers for that laminated mud bath Kodak moment. Floating in gritty, knee-deep mud is not an unpleasant experience, an opinion shared by my laughing, splashing fellow bathers. There is a shout from the photographer, followed by a flash, and there on a computer screen is a row of smiling, mud-smeared faces. Getting there: Dragonair ( www.dragonair.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Guilin daily. A taxi to Yangshuo costs about 250 yuan, although most hotels will arrange airport collection. Double rooms with balconies at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat ( www.yangshuomountainretreat.com ) cost from 350 yuan a night.