You might have seen the meme going around of the Little Mermaid singing her signature song, with a glass of wine and the words changed to: “I want to go where the people aren’t“. And that’s how we start to feel about China after experiencing its two most iconic cities. Don’t get me wrong, they are fantastic, must-see cities, but, naturally, with China being the most populous nation in the world, it takes the definition of crowded to a whole new level.
You thought elbowing your way onto the London Underground was a traumatic experience? Wait till you try to get yourself past a never ending tidal wave of trendy young things all stopping for selfies while browsing shop windows while queuing for fried squid on a stick while linking arms while waiting for their friend to come out of the toilet while drinking a fresh home made lemonade while texting. You start to develop serious walking road rage.
So it’s time to get out into the countryside and get some fresh air! Guangxi province here we come…
Guilin and the Longji rice terraces
First this entails getting the overnight train from Shanghai, which means going through airport-style security at the airport-sized Shanghai south train station, with yet even more pesky crowds. But come morning, and we’ve magically arrived in Guilin, a city set against a backdrop of dramatic limestone karst peaks that are the signature scenery of this whole region.
Guilin is the gateway to the Longji rice terraces, which, once you hike the short way up, fan out as far as the eye can see, like murky water rainbows etched into geometrically satisfying whirls into the hills – kind of like a big green layer cake. The grey stone steps take you up, down and across until you find you are the only people you can see. They seem to go on forever, with the odd brightly clothed worker standing out like a jewel.
Local villages mark the horizon, a series of dark brown stilted homes piled on top of each other like Jenga, plus the occasional hotel, restaurant and souvenir and drinks stall. As we wander through, we spot large trays of rice drying in the sun, and we run our hands soothingly across the individual grains. Look out for the local women, known for their long hair that they tie round their heads into a neat shiny bun on their forehead like a black nest. Serious hair envy.
The Longji rice terraces are a 2.5 hour drive from Guilin, and the journey is easy to organise via Guilin Central Hostel (which also does a killer super sandwich with home made fries, as well as perfect breakfast waffles. Plus, if you’re lucky, the cheeky staff will ply you with the local spirit, beijo, and teach you Chinese drinking games!)
Standing amidst the fields of purple flowers, looking up at the ubiquitous karst peaks and watching the huge butterflies dance from bloom to bloom is a real pinch me moment – and it’s just minutes way from the Yang Shuo Mountain Retreat, just off the Yu Long River. From the hotel’s spot on the river bank you can wave at the tourists that float past on bamboo rafts, the bright umbrellas making it look like a river carnival. You can even swim, as long as you watch out for the raft traffic!
This country hotel, just a 20 minute drive from the city of Yang Shuo, is the perfect place to enjoy the natural beauty of the area, especially the countless peaks that dominate the skyline, like your own village of friendly giants. The hotel, which is made up of several traditionally styled buildings, is a local attraction in itself. The restaurant serves killer food – the eggplant and pork casserole is a must try, along with the stir fried bamboo shoots. Plus the breakfast banana pancake is delicious and a perfect start for a day of hardcore cycling, which is a fun way to see the area.
I am not the world’s best bike rider and trying to perfect this art in China probably isn’t ideal, but luckily, Yang Shuo Mountain Retreat has tandems for hire, so I’m able to pedal my heart out in the sweltering heat and humidity while Phil takes the lead upfront.
With both of us going for gold and Phil getting his Bradley Wiggins on when we reach hilly parts, we manage to get a good pace going, to take us to….
Gaotian Town market
Held on certain days at this nearby town that is about 8km from the hotel. There are frogs on sale in the meat section, preserved snakes in jars in the medical section, and men getting their hair cut opposite pens of cheeping baby chicks – yet we’re the ones attracting the curious stares. You can perch on a wooden stool and slurp down noodles with the market goers who have stopped for a break in the food lane, and try a local doughnut for dessert.
It’s only a short bike ride from the hotel through meandering village lanes and less than half an hour hiking up, but in the heat and humidity it’s the sweatiest hike we’ve ever done! But spare a thought for the postcard and water vendors that accost you at the top, that make the hike every day. They must have buns of steel. I wonder if they ever tire of the sight of the crescent shaped natural wonder and the sweeping views of the surrounding villages and karst peaks in every direction.
Liu Gong village
This traditional fishing village is quiet except for the occasional chicken sauntering around, plus the old man guarding the dilapidated temple and the one restaurant that happens to overlook the River Li. Not only is the view worth the stop but the fried pumpkin flowers, stuffed with rice, onion and corn, are worth the 20km cycle on their own.
We shuffle the bike onto a short boat ride across the river from Liu Gong, to visit the home of fan painting. Intricately painted with unique designs, the fans range from bitty to behemoth and are piled high on shelves and on the walls for you to admire (although be prepared for a hard sell!). Once we are fanned out, we stroll through the quiet village lanes and see what the locals are up to.
Gold Water caves
There’s only so much 37 degree heat a girl can take, so the only way to escape is to literally go underground. At just 22 degrees inside the caves they offer welcome relief, as well as a fantastic natural display of stalactite, stalagmite and rock formations, named after the animals they supposedly resemble. After the curiously located underground gift shop you are forced to walk through, it’s time to indulge in what we came for, the mud bath. It’s cool and slippery and in no time we are covered in the stuff and resemble mud monsters, rubbing it on our faces and in our hair. There’s even a photographer encouraging groups to make fun formations as you can float in the mud, perfect for practicing your backstroke. Now that we’ve cooled off we can fully appreciate the hot springs that lie in the next cave, great for our tired legs!