This is Yangshuo.
The pictures above (not mine) were taken of the surrounding countryside, and not Yangshuo city itself, clearly. Like all Chinese cities, the city was particularly uninspiring. Arriving there after twelve hours of travel, we found it to be very busy, bigger than we (naively) imagined, and generally unpleasant. It is however, blessed with a great Indian restaurant – check out the Ganga Impression Indian Restaurant if you go.
Fortunately, we didn’t stay in the city, but on the outskirts next to the river in a lovely little place called the Yangshuo Village Retreat.
Taxi’s are rare and expensive here, as are private drivers and even motorbikes, so as we were staying a little bit out, we decided to pay £3 a day each to hire mountain bikes from our hotel.
Having travelled a fair amount around China, we have realised that pretty much anywhere that features on a tourist map, or that is listed as a “must-see” here, is for us, a no go zone. We can’t bear the crowds, the extortionate entrance fees and the universally tacky commercialisation found at these places.
The beauty of Yangshuo for us at least, was not about ticking off the different designated scenic spots and experiences that the local government have decided are appropriate for domestic tour groups, but about getting away from the mayhem of the beaten path, and being able to enjoy the serene tranquility of the jaw dropping surrounding countryside.
So that is exactly what we did. We cycled everywhere, days of cycling for hours on end, stopping only for fried rice, coca-cola and sometimes chocolate oreos in little rural villages and towns, set against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen on our travels in Asia.
Once we were away from the designated tourist spots (which we did cycle through once or twice, and they did look naff), we were by ourselves for hours at a time. There were no cars, there was no pollution, there were no crowds of people, there weren’t even any other cyclists for the vast majority of the days.
The thing we loved about Yangshuo (apart from the amazing Indian restaurant) was how easy it was to escape the crowds, and get away from it all. We ended up having an absolutely lovely time, just going at our own pace, on our own terms.
Particularly striking, was that for hundreds of millions of Chinese today, their country has changed beyond recognition in the last thirty years. However, for hundreds of millions of others, particularly the older generations, living in these small little villages, not that much has changed. Levels of development were akin to many towns and villages we have seen elsewhere in Burma, Cambodia or the Philippines, which are widely considered much, much poorer than China today.
It was kind of surprising, because although you hear all about the vast gap between rich and poor, and there continues to be of course, a huge wealth divide in the major cities, it isn’t until you get out into the sticks, that you can begin to grasp the full extent of it.
Over the last two years I have seen wealth and opulence on a scale in China that is unimaginable to the British middle classes. But here in the countryside around Yangshuo, despite the newly built expressway nearby, or the bullet train that now stops at Guilin, or the fancy hotels in and around the city, life doesn’t appear to have changed all that much. For all its wealth and swagger, China remains a very poor country in many places.
Also of interest, were the sheer number of abandoned construction projects we saw in every single town and village we went though. On the bullet train back to Nanjing we even went through a city that was half-built and appeared abandoned, who is paying for all of this I wonder?
Somebody, somewhere, is out of pocket.
Is this a sign of things to come? Is the money running out?
Don’t ask me!