Yangshuo started out as a small rock-climbing town for long-haired backpackers, who would have to crash with locals due to the lack of hotels. Thanks to its majestic karst mountains and the stunning scenery of the Li River, it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of China. Despite this huge spike in the number of visitors, it can still be a great place to travel; you just have to put in a little legwork to escape the crowds and enjoy the beautiful landscape. Based on my two trips there, here are some tips on how to have an awesome time in Yangshuo.
An Awesome Hostel
While there are tons of options for accommodation on the West Street – ranging from cheap hostels to luxury hotels – I’d highly recommend staying out at Tripper’s Carpe Diem. Located a few kilometers from the town, this place has a beautiful view from the patio, friendly staff, delicious food, and a variety of Belgian brews. In my humble opinion, it’s better to have to take a 15 minute walk or short cab ride to go into town so as to enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. On our most recent trip, they also had an adorable little puppy named noodle.
Impression Liu Sanjie
Since you’ll most likely arrive in Yangshuo later in the day, the best way to spend your first night is by catching the amazing Impression Liu Sanjie show. Directed by Zhang Yimou (who also had a hand in the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony), this awe-inspiring show features a cast of over 600 wearing traditional minority clothing, moving around on boats as they sing and tell a story. The show goes on every day, except in January and February when it is closed up for maintenance. Even though the show is exactly the same every time, I happily saw it again on my second visit so Rachel and Paul could experience it.
Check out some highlights of the incredible Impression Liu Sanjie show.
Cycling in the Countryside
With a full day in Yangshuo, it’s best to rent some wheels to get a little exercise and take in the beautiful natural landscape of the area. Cruise along the river, through the town, and finally out onto an open road with views of the karst mountains all around. Get lost in the countryside and you’ll find yourself in a small village with no tourists in sight. Chinese travelers tend to be lazy, and would much prefer sitting on a bus to pedaling a bicycle.
Our ride first took us to the Moon Hill, which is named for the moon-shaped hole at the top of the hill. It was a nice hike up to top, where we met a nice old Chinese lady who climbed the hill every day to sell postcards and meet tourists. We bought a few of her cards, signed her little guest book, and snapped a few photos. I figure if I can still climb a mountain every day when I’m 70, I’ll be pretty damn happy. The view from the sanctioned “top” of the hill was nice, but we weren’t satisfied. We went past the “do not enter” signs and walked a little more to the actual peak of the hill. The view from up there was absolutely breathtaking, and easily one of the best sights I’ve seen in my years of living and traveling in China. Unfortunately, we were told on our last visit that it has turned into a big tourist trap with busloads of people shuffling in and out.
From the Moon Hill, we rode further up the road to the Moon Water Cave. Local children were swimming in a little pond, and we got pulled into the cave on a small boat, needing to duck down so as not to whack our heads on the cave entrance. Inside, we walked along the path up to a huge mud bath, which we of course jumped into. There’s also a hot spring in the cave, a good place to both clean off and relax a bit.
As previously mentioned, rock climbing is also huge in Yangshuo. If you’re a beginner, you can sign up for half or full-day sessions where you’ll learn the basics. More advanced climbers can rent gear or bring their own and follow some of the many routes. I have yet to try climbing there, but it sure looks like a good time.
See what it’s like cycling around Yangshuo for a day.
After cycling and climbing all day, you’re sure to have quite the appetite. The local specialty in Yangshuo is beer fish, and it’s incredibly delicious. The folks at Tripper’s also make a tasty beer duck if fish isn’t your thing. Not surprisingly, both go quite well with beer.
Every evening, you can also see the famous cormorant fishing that is practiced here. Fishermen tie the throats of the birds and train them to dive down into the river and catch fish. Of course, the birds are rewarded for their hard work by getting to eat all of the small fish. While it was interesting to see, this nightly fishing “show” is incredibly touristy and can be skipped, if you ask me.
If your legs are sore the next day, you can opt to rent a motorbike. This was new as of our 2014 visit, and we were thrilled to finally be able to do some riding in China. Although we had already done long motorbike trips in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia, there just have never been bikes for rent in the Middle Kingdom. It was a bit steep at 120 RMB for the day, but that included the fuel and we were happy to pay it. We followed the advice of the Tripper’s staff and rode in a big loop around the countryside, stopping frequently to take in the incredible views.
Bamboo Raft on the River
Before leaving Yangshuo, you’ve got to take a bamboo raft trip up the Li River. Of course, these traditional fishing rafts have been motorized, so as to speed up the trip and accommodate more travelers. The scenery along the river is so famous that it was chosen as the background for the 20 RMB note. At first, the mountaintops were shrouded in mist from a light rainstorm. Eventually, the clouds disappeared and the sun came out to shine on the cleverly named mountains. Our raft trip up the river was a great time, and the scenery of the river and the mountains here just can’t be beat.
Enjoy the Li River and Yangshuo’s scenery in this video.
When it comes to nightlife, most of the action is centered around the West Street. It can be a bit chaotic with all the photo-snapping, cowboy hat-wearing Chinese tourists and the awful bars blaring offensively loud music and neon lights, but there are quite a few cool bars tucked down the alleys and up on roofs. We had a great time drinking and socializing at Monkey Jane’s, Bad Panda, and Mojo.
While there are plenty of Yangshuo haters these days thanks to its rapid development as a tourist destination, it’s still one of my favorite places I’ve been in China. If you don’t want to see a ton of tourists, it’s quite simple – don’t stay on the West Street, skip places like the Moon Hill, and spend your time cycling or riding a motorbike far out of town. The people are nice, the scenery is unbeatable, and you’ve got so many options that you’ll never be bored.
For more, watch our “Streets, Beats & Eats” video on this awesome Chinese town: