Having inspired artists for generations, Yangshuo sublime karst scenery is now turning on climbers and other adventure-seekers
The Chinese say, “Although Guilin has the most beautiful landscape under heaven, Yangshuo is even more beautiful than Guilin”. The wording may be confusing but its meaning is clear and travellers have been visiting Yangshuo for inspiration from its majestic limestone karst towers and serpentine jade-green rivers for millennia.
This surreal-looking environment was carved out by unceasing flows of water over the past 360 million years and is at its most seductive and otherworldly when the mist descends among the thousands of karst spires. This creates scenes that have inspired countless paintings over the ages, with one such scene today gracing the back of China’s RMB20 banknote. More pertinently for the adventure traveller, this wonderland of peaks and outcrops provides an awe-inspiring playground for outdoor action.
Most visitors to Yangshuo simply walk its cobblestoned old town after a cruise down the Li River from Guilin. In the early 1990s though, backpackers and rock climbers from around the world started showing up and staying longer and they have brought a young, outdoorsy feel to the town, turning Yangshuo into one of China’s most accessible adventure destinations.
Surrounded by karst towers, the town is still mostly low-rise and quaint, with the majority of larger developments on its outskirts. This has preserved its laid-back feel and easy-paced rhythm. Many shops and hotels still cater to the backpacker crowd making it very affordable and restaurants have menus featuring dishes familiar to both Western and Asian travellers.
There is no shortage of outdoor activities and many of them can start directly from your hotel lobby. Prepare to spend the majority of your days outside as you hike or bike around to explore the local area, take a boat or raft ride down a beautiful river or, if you decide to be a bit more adventurous, try rock climbing, abseiling or caving in this fast-growing rockhoppers’ mecca.
At the end of the day, you can return to town for a very affordable rejuvenating massage, a great meal of local delicacies or comfort food from home and the friendly nightlife that comes with a young crowd.
The best way to enjoy Yangshuo’s evocative landscape is to wander among the karst towers, watching their shapes change from each new angle. The land between the towers and rivers is often relatively flat and, because it is intensely farmed, paths suitable for both biking and hiking crisscross the area. Depending on your conditioning and interests, rides can range from those lasting under an hour up to multi-day excursions and many of the same routes work for hikers and runners.
The moderate 12km hike from Yangti to Xinping along the Li River ranks as one of the most beautiful in China and should be the centrepiece for hikers visiting the area.
A two-hour bike ride from the centre of town on a loop through nearby farming valleys puts you in the heart of rural communities where many of the buildings still bear slogans from Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
On hot days you may want to conclude your tour with a swim in the beautiful Yulong (Dragon) River.
Alf Esposito at www.yangers.com can help arrange transportation and daily excursions.
The area’s nearly 400 established climbing routes are spread out over 35 crags, offering everything from desperately difficult test pieces at French Grade 8 to moderate and scenic routes right down to Grade 5 scrambles. Most climbs are bolted for sport climbing although there are several routes that rely on traditional protection.
If you are just starting out or want instruction to improve your skills, there is a selection of fun crags that are not too strenuous, even if you spend most of your other life behind a desk or on a couch. Baby Frog and Wine Bottle crags are even child-friendly.
It is always best to go with guides if you are not confident using climbing gear and two of the best outfits to use are Spiderman Climbing, www.yangshuoholiday.net and ChinaClimb, www.chinaclimb.com. Both have experienced international staff on hand to run courses or merely guide you on suitable crags.
If you do not want to spend an entire day climbing, you can also consider abseiling. The above companies can also arrange this for you and depending on your level of experience and taste for heights, you can traverse across a chasm at Treasure Cave or descend the 90m free-hanging abseil from the top of the famous Moon Hill arch.
Ballooning and more
The easiest way to enjoy views of Yangshuo is while drifting serenely overhead during late afternoon in a hot air balloon.
Other favourite activities in the area include caving (in often muddy but not especially technical caves), kung fu, tai chi and even cooking classes.
Get more information and make bookings from these activities at www.yangers.com
Despite all of the activity in the area, just a small fraction of the local crags have been developed and experienced bolters are encouraged to join in and put up new climbs. Check with Eben Farsnsworth at Karst Café, www.karstclimber.com for climbing standards and ethics, and to record your new route information.
If you are content with climbs on existing routes then pick up Paul Collis’ guidebook ‘Yangshuo Rock Climbing’ to plan suitable days either pushing your limits or chilling at a beautiful secluded crag.
Climbers at the top of their game will want to try Single Life (8a with an 8b+ extension) and One Love (7c+) at Lei Pi Shan; other favourites there include Power of One (7a+) and Singularity (7a+). At White Mountain try American Gangster (8b+), Tsingdao Beer (7c+) and Yangshuo Hotel (7b) along with the easier Stone Dog (6a+) and The Comedian (6a+).
For more moderate climbing in stunningly beautiful settings, few crags can compare with The Egg and The Space Buttress. Both are set in the middle of farmland so you can soak up the views and the slow pace of rural life between your exertions.
For multi-pitch climbs try Thumb Peak or the traditional line on Brave New World or, for a more mountainous environment, The Great Wall. Located 40 minutes north of town, it offers a wonderful day away from it all.
Refer to Eben at Karst Cafe or Si Dilks at ChinaClimb for help with any climbing-related questions.
Among the longer running and biking options are those that start at Putao Village, crossing over passes to descend again to the Li River. These require an entire day. Ask Scott at www.bikeasia.com or Tan Xi at ChinaClimb to help make arrangements and rent bikes.
Gao Qing at ChinaClimb is probably the area’s most active trail runner and is always looking for people to run with.
How to get there
Guilin airport is 50km from Yangshuo and handles both international and domestic flights. There are flights there from several regional hubs, especially from Hong Kong.
There is no direct bus from the airport to Yangshuo so you have to take either a city bus to Guilin bus station and then another from there, or else take a cab or mini-van direct to Yangshuo. The cab ride takes about 90 minutes; travel time by bus can be much longer, usually several hours. To arrange a car or mini-bus try Xiao Yong at email@example.com or tel: (86-139) 7735 0088.
Guilin has a direct overnight train service to Guangzhou and Shenzhen while Shanghai is less straightforward, being a full 22-hr ride away. From southern China and Hong Kong, there are also highway buses with sleeper compartments making the trip in around 12 hours.
When to go
There are adventure possibilities year-round but January and February can be cold and wet, and summers can be hot and humid. The best times to come for all outdoor activities are April to June and September to mid-December.
Where to stay
For under RMB100, try Bamboo House (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sweet Hotel (www.hiyangshuo.com/guihaxi). For a little more you can stay at Rock and Grill (www.yangshuoholiday.net), or Tulip Holiday Hotel (tel: (86-773) 888 2999), while the nicest place in the town itself is probably Magnolia Hotel (RMB200,www.yangshuoren.com).
Where to eat
For western food, especially steaks and salmon, try Rock ‘n Grill, or The Buffalo Bar for its homemade meat pies. Kelly’s and the Karst Café have good mixed western and Chinese menus, the Noodle Bar has fantastic Sichuan food and go to Dynasty Dumplings for the best dumplings in town.