June 10 – 13, 2013
I had never shown much interest in Yangshuo, but after seeing a friend’s gorgeous landscape photos of the countryside near Yangshuo, I decided to put aside my prejudice — maybe I could tolerate the human factor if the scenery was indeed so magnificent.
Often being famous is all that’s mattered. With the dubious moniker “the best scenery under the sky”, Guilin has always been regarded by Chinese as a top-tier destination. Aside the highly subjective nature of defining what’s the best scenery, such fame means Guilin is packed with domestic tourists around the year. Foreign backpackers looking for a slice of Chinese karst landscape have found a refuge 80 km south in Yangshuo since the 1980s, but as the Chinese domestic travel market continues to expand this small town too now mostly caters to package tourism.
Growth in the tourism sector is astonishing. 13 million tourists visited Yangshuo County in 2015, up a whopping 40% compared to 2011. Over the past two decades, the number of annual visitors and revenue have increased by tenfold and hundredfold, respectively. Only the foreign segment sees stagnation.
Seeing there was no way to avoid it, I decided to dive in head first and follow the most popular itinerary on Mafengwo, the Chinese equivalent of Tripadvisor. My subsequent four-day trip to Yangshuo was one of the most unrewarding traveling experiences I ever had. On the somewhat positive note, the scenery is beautiful but not significantly superior to many other places across Southern China. The negatives, for which there are many, can all trace back to the core issue of poor management by the local authority and the tourism industry. Instead of karst landscape, Yangshuo is the place to go if you want an upclose look at the impact of domestic tourism in China.
Yangshuo, even though it welcomes such a high volume of visitors, is surprisingly very limited in terms of the variety of services available. Price is the sole differentiator when the majority is on package tours. Following the same popular itinerary without joining any tour required searching around for alternatives on the ground.
Yangshuo’s karst landscape is not markedly superior to other South China locations such as Shaoguan’s Mount Danxia; its uniqueness ties mainly to a picturesque combination of the karst landscape reflected on an abundance of waterways. Sailing on Li River, the largest in the area, is the best way to see and photograph Yangshuo’s scenery.
I wandered around a small pier at the end of Binjiang Road looking for a fisherman who might want to cash in a few quick bucks. After some haggling I agreed to pay a fisherman 100 RMB for an hour of riding on a raft at 6 am when the river was at its calmest. This was a classic Yangshuo photography location; the only missing element was fishermen with their cormorants in the foreground, which cost ¥150 extra and had to be arranged through travel agency. One hour later when I was back ashore the river was full of boats carrying tourists and cargo.
Decided I should venture out of the main path a little, I took a local bus to the tiny village Xingping, 27 km upstream from Yangshuo and supposedly one of the better sunset photography spots around. Most tourists arrived Xingping on boat, which I found out personally was the better mode of transport because a long section of the road was unpaved. My effort was not rewarded — the dawning sun was blanketed by haze.
The next day I rented a bike and headed to the Shilihualang Scenic Area. Cycling was once the main mode of transport in Communist China, but seeing how a substantial number of my fellow bikers could barely paddle forward this was obviously no longer the case. Some ladies, wearing dresses and high heels, posed direct threat to anyone nearby as they incessantly wobbled left and right.
The lack of a proper bike lane made matters worse. The only way to reach the Shilihualang Scenic Area was by traversing along the 321 National Road, a major throughway across South China. Tankers, trucks, buses, and all kinds of heavy vehicles shared the two-lane road with the bikers, and on many occasions bikers had to fight for the right of way with gigantic machines.
I left behind the chaos and spent most of my time along the quiet but unspectacular 53 Country Road.
Seemed like a must-win activity — riding a bamboo raft downstream on the beautiful Yulong River, a tributary of the Li River where only tourist-serving raft is allowed, what could go wrong?
The moment I stepped on the raft, the raft man was bombarding me with offers — a special meal, a visit to an unknown village, a souvenir stop — all of which I declined. Soon he began to murmur at a tone just loud enough I could hear him how unlucky he was and how he wished he was serving a tour group instead. Did my ¥100 fare not count as anything? The 45 minutes of incessant complaint aside, riding a raft on the Yulong River was not an enjoyable experience — I was surrounded by dozens of other rafts and the scenery was inferior to the Li River.
A visibly traumatized monkey, chained to a pillar next to the pier and dressed like the Monkey King, was available for photo for ¥20.
I found myself in a very unenviable category — someone who wasn’t willing to pay the foreigner price but couldn’t get used to the local norms. I thought I could chill out for a few days, yet I came away filled with frustration. Traveling to Yangshuo requires ample of preparation, especially mentally, because the cultural shock is real and pervasive whenever I set foot inside China, a market which caters almost singularly to its domestic tastes.