After an extremely bad nights sleep on the train due to a snorer in our carriage, we were woken at 5am when the ticket collector knocked on the door. We had 40 minutes of our journey left before arrival at Guilin station. It didn’t take long to find a bus waiting outside heading to Yangshuo and although we had to pay white person inflated prices we were happy to be on the final leg of our journey. An hour later and we pulled into Yanshuo.
We were at the hostel before 8am and they kindly let us check in to our room where we took a quick shower and climbed into bed for a well needed nap. We were only woken by the cleaner knocking on the door and took that as our cue to head out to explore. First we needed to do laundry which our hostel offered free. We bundled our clothes into a machine before realising we had no idea how to work it, over an hour and a half of flicking switches and turning taps on and off with help from a kind lady, and it was finally ready to hang out. Luckily, we had the view from the roof top terrace to entertain us while we waited, and what a view it was. Yangshuo is an extremely touristy town located on a bend in the Li River and famous for the towering limestone karsts that fill the horizon in every direction, and we had 360 degree views from the hostel.
When we finally left, we walked over to West Street, the main pedestrianised road with lots of alleys and smaller lanes leading off of it. The street is filled to bursting with shops selling all kinds of cheap and cheerful souvenirs, calligraphy sets, carved jade seals, polished rocks shaped like pigs trotters, sausages and cuts of bacon, and weird and wonderful sweets and jars of chopped chili, all intermingled with hundreds of bars and restaurants.
After a lap of the town we grabbed a mango shake in one of the 50 different shops selling just mango drinks, all next door to each other, and walked down to the Li River. It was like a motorway with big boats bringing hundreds of tourists down from Guilin. We walked to the ferry port and back to town, stopping for Rhys to have his photo taken with a cormorant fishing bird. We had hopped to see the fisherman using their birds to catch fish but when we found out they didn’t do it anymore and it’s purely a show for tourists we decided against paying to see it.
|Rhys with fishing cormorants, Li River, Yangshuo.|
We sat on the roof terrace at our hostel to watch the sunset before wandering out again for dinner and found a cheap option on a side street with English menus where we could sit at a table on the roadside and watch the world bustling passed.
The next day we’d decided to attempt the walk from Yangdi to Xingping, drawn on every tourist map of the Yangshuo area we’d seen and detailed in the Lonely Planet. We were out of the hostel early for a bus to Yangdi where we found the pier and tried desperately to get someone to take us across the river to start the hike. The pier is mainly for bamboo rafts taking people down the Li River to Xingping and on to Yangshuo and they weren’t keen to take us the short trip across the river, offering us the trip for £9.40, to go literally 20 metres, the same price it would cost to go halfway to Xingping. After spending an hour trying to find a boat for a reasonable price and meeting a lovely Chinese guy and a Swiss woman, also trying to do the trip, we ended up agreeing on £8 each to take us a quarter of the way, missing out the first stage of the walk and combining the first and second river crossings that were part of the hike.
Once we’d agreed on a price we still had to wait for 45 minutes as there’s a designated time when the rafts have to be off the river for the big ferries from Guilin to pass. We were desperate to start walking by the time we actually set off. The bamboo raft was a bit of a disappointment, it was made of plastic pipes with motors on the back and although the views of the Li River were spectacular, the noise took away from it.
|View of the Li River from our raft, Yangshuo.|
Finally we were off the raft and on the path, along with Jesse, our new Chinese friend. We followed the trail for a couple of hours, along the riverside and through villages and orchards growing thousands of oranges and huge fruit that look like giant pears but are more like grapefruits. Although the karsts were impressive and seeing rural life was really interesting, there was the sound of boat engines and electric lines strung across every view.
|Rhys walking through the orchards, Yangdi to Xingping.|
We had one final river crossing, this time at an official ferry that cost about 90p before the final walk to Xingping. Having missed the turnoff to the footpath we walked along the road and although it was empty apart from the electric carts running people from the boat to the village, it wasn’t the most interesting part of the hike. All up, it was a very expensive walk for what it was but the scenery and company made up for it.
Just before we reached Xingping we came across groups of people holding up 20 yuan notes and taking photos. It took us a moment to realise we’d found the view that’s engraved on the back of the note and we joined the throngs to take our own photos. Continuing to the village, we were a little disappointed to find so much building work on the Old Street, detracting from the peaceful beauty of the place and didn’t stay long before saying goodbye to Jesse and boarding a bus back to Yangshuo.
|View of the Li River from Xingping.|
Having walked around 20km we were pretty tired and after a quick shower and turn around we rushed out to meet Barbara, the Swiss lady who’d joined us on the raft at the start of the day. She’d traveled the transmongolian the other way to us and had Mongolian money to change. We sat in a restaurant on our favourite pedestrianised side street and swapped travel stories before we had to leave her to try to buy train tickets.
Internet research had informed us there was an official train ticketing office in town despite there not being a train station and we knew one of the trains we were after only had a handful of seats left. Unfortunately the office was closed so we were left hoping the train didn’t sell out before we could get there in the morning. After dinner we walked back through the hordes of Chinese tourists who had appeared blocking the streets, although the town was relatively quiet in the day, at night it was heaving.
The next day our first stop was at the train ticket office where we managed to book most of our remaining China trains. Happy, we walked over the bridge and were offered a scooter for a cheap enough price that we agreed without a second thought. We consulted the map and headed south to Moon Hill, one of the karsts with a hole straight through. When we arrived, we were shocked to hear it cost £4 each entry and turned around, it was only looking at a guidebook later I realised they’d said £1.20.
Checking the map we decided we’d try to follow one of the suggested cycle routes that seemed to be marked as a lane on the map. It certainly started out that way but after we stopped at ancient Longtan Village, strewn with electric wires, and after a wrong turn and a nice local lady pointing us in the right direction, we squeezed between some sheds and, following spray painted red arrows, we found ourselves on a rock strewn footpath. We persevered for about a kilometre, Rhys doing a superb job balancing us on foot wide paths between flooded paddy fields until we decided we were being stupid and turned around. It was a shame because the Yulang River valley is undoubtedly one of the nicest, quietest places in the area but on a motorbike it just wasn’t feasible.
|Orchards on the cycle route in the Yulang River Valley, Yangshuo.|
We then decided to drive to the north of Yangshuo to the Yulang Bridge, bad choice. The roads were horrific and we spent the next hour and a half being rattled and shaken within an inch of our lives. By the time we got to the bridge we were pretty much done and if we were closer to home I think we’d have just taken the bike back. Instead, we found a riverside cafe and sat down to wipe off some of the dust coating every inch of skin. We watched a wedding dress photo shoot in amongst the throngs of tourists on much more relaxed bamboo rafts than we’d seen the previous day (actually being made of bamboo and not having motors), before climbing back on the bike to head back to town.
|View of the Yulang River from the Yulang Bridge, Yangshuo.|
Unluckly, but unsurprisingly, all the rocks we’d hit on the cycle path had cracked the faring and we lost £8 of our deposit. Tired and frustrated from a long ride with very little karst scenery, we walked back to the room.
|Sunset from the hostel roof terrace, Yangshuo.|
We had a train booked for 7pm from Guilin the next day so even allowing a couple of hours for a bus and finding the right waiting room at the station, we still had most of the day for sightseeing in Yangshuo. We’d initially thought to go to Guilin early as there are things to do there but were too caught up in the thought of a lay in.
We ended up renting bicycles and heading south to Fuli, a nearby village, before deciding we didn’t want to follow a main road all the way and trying to find a cycle path instead. We couldn’t find the path and after a few wrong turnings and a random trail that didn’t really bring us out anywhere, we turned around and headed back. Rhys picked up some fast food for lunch and we stopped by the river before heading back to the ferry and further along the Li River bank. Deciding we were just riding for the sake of riding and not actually getting anywhere we turned back and returned the bikes.
We had a couple of hours of the day left to waste before it was time to catch the bus back to Guilin. All up, I was impressed with Yangshuo, it was incredibly touristy but incredibly beautiful and the views from our roof terrace where among the best in town. We probably would have got more from the place if we’d planned it a little better and we didn’t even do the big draws that lured us in the first place, rock climbing and the cormorant fishing.
Once we reached Guilin we headed in to the train station, passed the very lax security checks and found the right waiting room with no issues. Our bullet train was spot on time and at a speed of 200kph we rocketed to Liuzhou from where we had an overnight train to ZhangJiaJie booked. Although not the most direct route from Yangshuo it was the best option to allow us a nights sleep.
We dived in to a small local restaurant and ordered pointing at photos on the wall, fingers crossed we wouldn’t be presented with plates of unidentifiable animal parts (we saw braised dog on the menu in Yangshuo along with all manner of innards). Dinner sorted, we found the waiting room and with a few points and laughs at the whiteys in the train station, boarded the train. We shared our cabin with a Chinese couple who seemed really sweet until the lights went out and the guy started snoring like a rhinocerous. Bring on another night with no sleep.
We were grateful to get off the train at ZhangJiaJie City and using detailed directions from a blog i’d found, we headed outside, passed the signs telling the ‘6 foot tall people to please go forward’, to the bus station where we then followed the signs for the ‘Pit Mouth’ and found a bus leaving straight away for Wulingyuan. One of the highlights of China so far, even more so than the stunning scenery, is the English translations.
After checking with the other passengers by pointing to the map that we were on the right bus, we pulled in to Wulingyuan Village 40 minutes later. It only took 5 minutes to find our hotel and again, they kindly let us check in early. Despite the lack of sleep we were too excited to get to the national park to nap and we headed out to find the ticket booth. It wasn’t far away and before long we’d scanned our thumbs and were on a bus headed for Tianzi Mountain. As we’d had a hard night we didn’t want to do anything too challenging so started with a cable car ride to the top of the mountain. Straight away we were could see some of the sandstone pinnacles covered in subtropical rainforest that gave the creators of Avatar a basis for the planet Pandora.
We spent the next hour wandering around the peak taking photos at the various viewing platforms before climbing to the top of a pagoda and choosing a path to head back down towards the village.
|Mystical Avatar karsts through the haze, Wuilingyuan.|
|Sandstone karsts in Wulingyuan National Park.|
|Rhys in Wulingyuan National Park.|
We ended up taking the popular 10 Mile Gallery route that’s also serviced by a monorail, a bit misleading as it was more like 3 miles but it took us passed some spectacular scenery and passed lots of screaming Chinese tourists - they must be the loudest nationality we’ve met so far, everything is said at a volume at least 4 times louder than it needs to be. 4 hours after we entered the park we were back at the entrance gate near our hotel.
|The sun disappearing behind the mountains, Wuilingyuan National Park.|
The next morning we woke early to the alarm having intended to spend a full day in the park. A quick look out of the sky light and we changed our minds, we could barely see across the road it was so hazy. Although we knew the park was often clouded in fog and obscured views were the norm, the weather had cleared in the afternoon the previous day we decided to spend the morning at the hotel.
Just before lunch we realised we couldn’t wait any longer and a walk in the park would be nice even if we couldn’t see as much as we’d hoped. We headed to the bus station in the village and took a shuttle to the main entrance in ZhangJiaJie Village. Once in the park we were lured in to a food stall where Rhys bought cured ham on a stick and I got a bowl of roast potatoes. Satiated and ready to walk, we found the start of the Golden Whip Stream path and joined the masses. The trail was incredibly well maintained, a paved track that followed a stream, winding at the base of the tall pillars that towered overhead. As it was flat, it was one of the most popular for tour groups and there were hordes of them, all screeching and yelling.
|Walking the Golden Whip Stream, Wulingyuan.|
We were glad when we came to a junction that gave us the opportunity to leave the Golden Whip, just before the Zicao Pool. Crossing a bridge, we joined the Shadao Gully Trail and all of a sudden, the crowds disappeared. It was beautifully serene as we wandered along the moss covered pathway, listening to the sound of the birds and craning our necks to look up at the towers, until we reached the stairway to the upper level of the park. It took about 30 minutes to climb to the top where we found some deserted view points of the First Bridge of the World and a road leading to the Bailong Elevator, a major attraction of the park but a bit of an eyesore, a giant elevator fixed to the side of one of the towers.
|Freestanding karst with First Bridge of the World int he background, Wulingyuan.|
After walking along the road, we found where all the tour groups had been hiding, a collection of walkways hugging the edge of the cliff with views out into the valley, billed as one of the shooting spots for Avatar. Not wanting to miss out, we bundled out on to the platforms amid the shouting and screaming to peer through the haze at one of the most spectacular natural wonders we’ve seen in the two years we’ve been traveling.
By this time it was 4:30pm. We had no idea what time the last buses ran within the park and had two options to get back to the entrance closest to our hotel. The first was to queue with the masses to use the elevator at a cost of £5 each, the second was to walk back down to the lower valley and rejoin the Golden Whip Stream at a point a little further than where we left it. We chose the latter option and estimated we had about 8km left to walk, hoping we’d cover the ground before we lost the light.
Although we’d lost the views in the dusky light, the monkeys had come out to play in their hundreds and when we reached the Golden Whip Stream we were treated with magical images of the towers silhouetted against the sky. At the bus stop, most of the people had already left and it wasn’t long before we were on board, as darkness fell, and out of the park.
|Leaving the park at dusk, Wulingyuan.|
As we reached our hotel the rain started. We ducked out for dinner, where Rhys mistakenly ordered inedible intestines, before heading to bed, legs sore from a decent 7 hour walk.
We had to check out of the hotel the next day and had planned to catch an early bus back in to ZhangJiaJie to ride the longest cable car in the world and spend the day at Mount Tiamen. Peering out of the skylight we could see that the rain hadn’t stopped all night and was showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. Grateful we’d been able to walk in the park with only haze to deal with, we decided that spending £23 each to go up a cable car in the rain was a waste of time and money and instead hung around at the hotel until the early afternoon.
Still raining, we walked to the bus station and caught a bus into the city. Disappointed that MacDonalds was closed (atleast we can understand the menu there and don’t get charged tourist rip off prices), we headed through security and found a space on the floor, in the cold, for the 2.5 hour wait for our train. Then the train was delayed by over an hour and a half. Having wasted the entire day and getting cold from sitting on the floor, we jumped at the chance of paying £1.20 each to sit in the soft seating area when space became available. There were a lot of train delays and the station was heaving.
When we finally boarded the train, we found our carriage and settled in. Luckily, we had the room to ourselves for the first couple of hours and for a change it was chilly so we could wrap ourselves in our duvets and get a decent nights sleep. Other than a visitor who decided to come and stay on one of the spare beds at 2am, and who got moved at 5am, we were alone and didn’t have to suffer with a snorer keeping us awake. Checking our progress as midnight we realised we were already 4 hours behind schedule.