Last updated: 6th February 2022
After visiting Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu the next stop on our grand tour of China was Yangshuo in Guangxi Province, south west China. After a short flight we arrived at Guilin, our base for the next couple of days. In this post we’ll show you the best things to do in Yangshuo and the sights to see on a Li River cruise.
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Guilin felt like visiting another country – a complete contrast to the huge Chinese cities we’d just visited. The town sits amongst the dramatic mountainous scenery called karsts which it’s famous for in this area.
Pretty much everyone visiting Guilin is here to visit Yangshou, 56 miles away. Most people like us took a river cruise down the picturesque Li River from the Zhejiang Wharf about 40 minutes outside Guilin. We could have stayed in Yangshuo but chose Guilin because we were on a tight self-guided itinerary.
Li River Cruise
Ok, so this is tourist central because it’s one of China’s top attractions which equals lots of domestic and foreign tourists. But don’t let that and the boat trip put you off as you’ll be able to escape the crowds later on. We hired a guide including a driver in Yangshuo costing around £50 each for the day, which turned out to be amazing value and totally worth it.
The Li River boat cruise takes approximately 4 hours to reach Yangshuo and takes you past amazing limestone formations called karsts, formed around 200 million years ago when the region was under the sea. This other-worldly landscape is just spectacular and reminded us of other karst formations we’d seen in Halong Bay, Vietnam and Phang Nga Bay in Thailand. We didn’t get bored as there’s so much to take in along the way, as you are surrounded by all this gorgeous and exotic scenery.
A somewhat mediocre lunch was served on our boat, but we can vouch that they use fresh ingredients! We watched a local fisherwoman pull up alongside one of the kitchens on the back of these boats. She passed the chef a live eel, seconds later we witnessed the chef chop its head off and toss it into the river, it was quite a shock!
Along the river we saw lots of water buffalo, it was so relaxing and tranquil as we just took in these Jurassic Park type views, expecting a Pterodactyl to fly over at any moment! At certain points along the route we got really close to some of the karsts.
Our boat also made a quick stop for more people to board. Look out for some ingenious hawkers who make use of this time and come armed with all sorts to tempt curious passengers. Everything is always $1!
Garth was poised for most of the journey with his camera on the top deck waiting for what was round each corner! So make sure you take lots of memory cards as his soon filled up.
Li River Sights
The sightseeing highlight of the trip was between Xingping and Yucun, it’s the iconic section of the Li River because it features on the back of the 20 Yuan banknote. (Apparently the exact location is best seen from the river bank of Dahebei Village) People were asking us what we were doing and soon everyone was getting their notes out and snapping away trying to get that money shot! – pun intended!
As we disembarked in Yangshuo the bank was lined with a couple of fishermen and their beautiful cormorant birds posing for tourist photos. The cormorants are used for traditional fishing on the river where they dive underwater and catch fish, the fishermen then take out the fish from their throats. The poor things have their throats tied to prevent them from swallowing the fish. Nowadays, thankfully the practice is less common as the fishermen make more money from tourists with fishing trips or posing for photos, but it wasn’t for us.
You’ll soon find yourself with hoards of tourists along West Street, with plenty more hawkers and vendors selling foods and handicrafts. Other people were offering bamboo raft trips down the nearby Yulong River. Yangshuo is lovely but spoilt by the sheer number of tourists in the summer high season. Don’t worry as the surrounding scenery and smell of tea in the air is just wonderful.
Between the tourists there’s plenty of delicious street foods and fresh juices on offer. Plus plenty of interesting sights, like this shop selling pearls!
We asked our guide to take us away from West Street and go somewhere that she liked, her eyes lit up and was immediately more animated as she told us she would be pleased to show us the less touristy side of Yangshuo.
We soon found ourselves heading towards her favourite food market. From our experience this is when a private guide is invaluable if you are short on time and want to see interesting glimpses into local life.
Heading up and into the countryside
We then left the bustle of Yangshuo to see the countryside from high up in the mountains, little did we know we were about to experience some epic views! This was the view from a little viewing platform on the edge of the road – just WOW! Sadly we didn’t make a note of where this was taken from, but it was on the way to Xiang Gong Shan not far from Yangshuo.
Xiang Gong Shan Mountain
The views got even better when we hiked up to the top of the Xiang Gong Shan viewing platform. We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the Li River and could see where our cruise boat went. This location is described by photographers as one of the world’s top scenic spots and one of China’s most beautiful peaks, yep it really is!
It is breathtaking, a real bird’s eye view with incredible panoramic views across the surrounding lush countryside. The River Li winds its way through the karsts like an emerald green ribbon.
To get to the viewing point is an incredibly steep climb, but there are steps for the most part, albeit with a huge drop! vertigo sufferers may want to think twice. There’s no amenities at the top but there is a small shop at the base selling some fruit and water which we took advantage of on the way back.
The agricultural land perched on the surrounding mountains are covered in tons of plastic, not sure what was growing underneath, but it looks very sci-fi like something out of the X-Files.
Back on the ground and the rich green Yangdi Valley is really vast and full of rice fields, just stunning rural scenery! Garth loved how the waves of the karsts fade off into the distance and we both felt like we were looking at one giant painting, just incredible. It was one of our top highlights of visiting China.
We were then delighted when our guide asked if we would like to see one more place on the way back to Guilin – an ancient stone village. Sadly we didn’t make a note of it’s name (there’s a running theme here!) but it’s one of a handful of ancient villages in the area. This one was high up in the hills with superbly preserved homes made of stone, some with no cement at all. We passed vibrant orange groves and more rice fields as we made our way there from the main road.
It was so unexpected and a wonderfully authentic experience. Phil loved wandering around this village, getting to see rural life in China like farmers going about their business and the odd chicken passing by.
Some of the houses looked quite eerie, almost haunting with old posters of Chairman Mao. Everywhere in this small village was incredibly scenic with the stone buildings set against the dramatic karsts.
Our Thoughts on Yangshuo
Yangshuo is quite under rated in our opinion apart from the Li River. We thought the best attraction here is the beautiful countryside dotted with ancient villages and valleys offering plenty of hiking and cycling opportunities. We’d love to have had another day or two in Yangshuo to hire a bikes and leisurely explore more of the rice fields and local life. We’d also recommend staying in Yangshuo instead of Guilin for a few days, rather than try cram it all in a day and a half like we did. Finally one other area Garth was interested in was the Longji Rice Terraces, 2 hours north of Guilin, Google it, you’ll see it looks like an incredible place! again we didn’t have time, but worth considering if you are thinking of visiting Yangshuo.
Yangshuo Practical & Useful Information
Phil & Garth’s Top 5 Yangshuo Tips
- Tip #1: Winter is very wet, spring and autumn are considered the best time to visit.
- Tip #2: Where there’s tourists there’s scams, and sadly lots here – if someone approaches you – don’t engage in conversation.
- Tip #3: Be aware of mosquitos in the countryside especially around paddy fields. Cover yourself in Deet!
- Tip #4: The water is not safe for drinking, but fine for brushing your teeth, buy bottled water, it’s cheap.
- Tip #5: Take toilet paper or wet wipes with you, toilets are not really like the ones in the West…
How We Did It
- We paid for a self-guided tour of China with The China Travel Company.
- We stayed at the Guilin Bravo Hotel for 2 nights.