Adventure capitals – all-star karst

For those that want to do more than sit and gaze at the classically Chinese landscape of Guangxi province, this little town has all the answers

Victor Paul

The fairytale clusters of karst in eastern Guangxi province make it an archetypal Chinese destination and one that attracts tourists by the busload. The city of Guilin is the centre of this tourism, but those looking for a more active experience turn instead to the south, to the much smaller town of Yangshuo, where a burgeoning adventure scene has developed over the last decade.

 

Thousands of tourists pass through Yangshuo daily – mostly Chinese day-trippers who arrive in boats from Guilin 80km upriver – but these are of little consequence to adventurous types as most tourists travel in groups around a limited circuit, making them easy to avoid. Indeed, cycle 15 minutes out of town, and you’ll find empty gravel roads and farmers’ paths meandering beside rice paddies, connecting small quaint villages. These trails are great for hiking and cycling, while the rockfaces looming above will excite even seasoned climbers.

The area’s mass tourism appeal has meant that the infrastructure is good though. West Street, the pedestrian-only heart of the small town, is lined with hotels, shops, restaurants, bars and travel agencies, and thronged all day by tourists. They visitors come from far and wide, typically for a few days only and give the town an eclectic party atmosphere, making it a cheery base to which to retire every evening for good food and perhaps a nightcap at one of the bars.

On the other hand, if you feel put off by the tourist traffic, an alternative would be to stay in Xingping, a small town one hour’s drive up the Li River. Xingping now has a couple of cheap and mid-range accommodation options, as well as a few restaurants, but only a few visitors get this far – and most of them are day-trippers. By nightfall, when the last bus leaves for Yangshuo, Xingping becomes a virtual ghost town. It’s very atmospheric with an old quarter lined with centuries-old buildings that are especially evocative at night, with the karst peaks looming all around silhouetted against the sky.

EVERYMAN
An irresistible pull – Rock climbing

Since climbers started putting up the routes in the nineties, more than 200 have been bolted, with others left as trad climbs where natural protection allows. The climbs represent all grades, with many at the easy end of the spectrum. If you’re a complete beginner, hire a guide who will probably start you off on a crag near the road that leads out of Yanghsuo to the southwest. It’s called the National Cliff-Scaling Training Centre officially, but climbers know it as Golden Cat Cave. Routes here range from US Grade 5.6-5.10c. You can also try routes on Baby Frog Buttress and Wine Bottle mountain which run from 5.7-5.11.

The operators in town offer courses lasting anything from one to 14 days and costing ¥300-2,500. Or you can simply have them take you to the cliffs of your choice for about ¥300 a day. There’s also a little gear for rent in town.

Cycles and loops – Mountain biking

There are many possible loop trails out of Yangshuo. Start by buying the Tourism Map of Yangshuo, available from newsagents and tourist-oriented shops in town, which marks the main cycling tourist biking routes. You could also do something more original, especially in the less-explored part of the county southwest of the town. Most people go upriver, so head down instead. One possibility is to bike south along the Li on the road to Fuli (check out the old quarter here). There you cross the river to follow the gravel track back upriver weaving among the mountains and passing small villages. The trip takes three hours in all. Vehicles are almost nonexistent on the gravel roads and in some sections you have to switch to farmer’s footpaths which get muddy in the wet season – all part of the fun. Don’t worry about getting lost as there are usually villagers around to point you in the right direction. If, on the other hand, you prefer to have a guide, you can arrange for one at one of the bike shops in town. A guide is about ¥50 for a day and bike rental is ¥10-15, with most of the shops to be found in West Street.

Simple steps – Hiking

Start your adventures right from downtown Yangshuo by climbing either Green Lotus Hill, a strenuous 45-minute walk, or the larger hill with the TV transmission tower on top that takes two hours to the summit. In Xingping, there is a steep-sided peak with steps all the way to the top – a 30min trip. The views from any of these summits are spectacular, particularly at Xingping.

Hiking is mostly along farmer’s paths and backroads, with much of them being virtually flat as they skirt the mountains. The most interesting routes are along the rivers, and the most popular trek in the county is a 21km stretch along the Li River between Xingping and Yangdi. This path traces the course of the river, passing a scattering of villages, and it can be done in six hours at a brisk pace, or extended over two days, camping overnight on the riverbank in copses of bamboo. If you’re planning on camping, note that there is nowhere to rent tents or other gear, so bring your own.

Lazing on the Li – Kayaking and rafting

Now that the Li River has been besieged by large tour boats who make the run between Guilin and Yangshuo, rafting or kayaking is only possible in the part of the Li River south of Yangshuo, and in the smaller and more scenic Yulong River. Both are relatively slow-moving though – there’s no raging whitewater here.

X-Climber Climbing offer kayaking tours on the Li River between the villages of Fuli to Puyi for ¥168 for a group of three minimum, while on the Yulong River, you can drift downstream on a traditional bamboo raft. It’s a long stretch, starting from the historic stone Dragon Bridge and taking four hours to reach the Gongnong Bridge at a cost of ¥250 per person (each raft takes two people). You have to organise your own transport: one option would be to cycle to Gongnong Bridge, catch a lift upriver with one of the raft operators, then cycle back to Yangshuo after your rafting trip.

Troglodyte training – Caving

Villagers have barricaded the most challenging cave for the moment which leaves only two others worth exploring: Moon Hill Cave and Water Cave. Both are deep – it takes two hours of walking to reach the ends of the caves – but they are for beginners and tourists: you need to get on your hands and knees only a few times throughout. What’s more, the presence of boisterous groups of tourists wallowing in mud can destroy the atmosphere. X-Climber Climbing can take you to both caves for ¥100 per person.

DIE-HARDS

Harder and higher – Rock climbing

In all there are around 25 crags that have been bolted, mostly situated south of town, and ranging in grade all the way up to 5.13. There are also traditional routes too but not so many as the quality is not great, with only thin protection. The general condition of the limestone is variable – often it is soft and smooth, but occasionally can be sharp.

Moon Hill is often rated the best crag in Yangshuo and has 14 spectacular bolted routes (three of them double pitches), the hardest of which is Route 14, 40m high and rated 5.13b. White Mountain and Big Banyan are other places for advanced climbers, both with many routes graded 5.10-5.13.

An easier, multi-pitch climb is Low Mountain, a non-touristy spot with great views, while The Thumb is an impressive standalone pinnacle 150m high, hence the name (up to 5.11). The hottest new area is Riverside by the River Li where there is an open project expected to be Yangshuo’s first 5.14 route.

Climb with a guide for Y300 per day, or else get a copy of Paul Collis’ Rock Climbing Yangshuo for Y60, rent equipment and climb independently.

Riverside riding – Mountain biking

Although the mostly flat terrain around the karst pinnacles takes much of the strain out of biking, there are some longer routes that could take a whole day. One of these passes through the spectacular and quieter southern part of the county. Starting in Yangshuo, the track leads to the village of Jima on the Yulong River, crosses the river, heads south to the Jinbao River, and then skirts around the cluster of peaks around Moon Hill (you can opt to add on the hour-long roundtrip climb to the top). From here a gravel secondary road stretches east to Puyi, an atmospheric town, and then from there it’s north again along the eastern shore of the Li River, a track that eventually leads back to Yangshuo town. This 50km+ route takes about six hours at least.

Practicalities
Getting there & around

The nearest airport is at Guilin, a one hour bus journey from Yangshuo. Overland, Yangshuo is well connected to surrounding provinces by daily buses. These include night bus connections (13 hours) from Shenzhen and Zhuhai on the southeast coast, which are in turn connected to Hong Kong by hourly high-speed ferries.

Within the county, bicycles are often the most practical mode of transport. Taxis are very expensive (starting at ¥20 for a five-minute ride).

Climate

Yangshuo can have occasional rain and be foggy at pretty much any time of year, especially early in the morning.

In the winter, from November to March, it gets bitingly cold and you will need a jacket. This is an ideal time for biking and hiking as it’s often too hot in the summer, but it’s too cold for the climbers whose season mostly runs from April to November.

Accommodation

Book ahead during national holidays such as Chinese New Year.

The best hotel in Yangshuo is Paradesa tel: (86-773) 882 2109, www.ys-paradesa.com starting at ¥664).

Cheaper but equally comfortable is the riverfront Tribe Bar, tel: (86-773) 881 6278 or (86-1387) 837 8011, jankinluo@163.net (doubles from ¥100).

If you fancy a quiet location about 5km out of town, the new Riverside Retreat, tel: (86-773) 882 6879 or (86-1350) 783 8775, rivershelly@hotmail.com has large, minimally decorated rooms for ¥100-350, although it’s ¥20 for a taxi into town.

In Xingping, the most atmospheric place is the Lao Zhai Shan Hotel, tel: (86-773) 870 2692, hayashi25@hotmail.com , a homely and friendly place with rundown rooms for ¥100.

Newer, but altogether less homely, is the River View Hotel, tel: (86-773) 870 2276, on the same street, where single rooms start at ¥40.

Climbing

Chinaclimb, www.chinaclimb.com China’s first and largest climbing company runs training programs and also trekking and rafting tours.

Karstclimber, www.karstclimber.com This guiding operation is based in a cafe that is very popular with visiting climbers. They also have a few simple rooms.

Spider Man Climbing, www.s-climbing.com This company offer treks in Longsheng county three hours north, plus rent basic climbing equipment – ¥40 for shoes, ¥40 for harness, and ¥100 for rope.

X-climber Climbing, xclimber001@hotmail.com Also offers kayaking, caving, and trekking.

Biking contacts

BikeAsia, www.bikeasia.com. See these guys for information on guided rides out of Yangshuo and elsewhere.

If you come without a bike, you can rent one from many places in town.