With 18 national public holidays in Hong Kong each year, it’s high on everyone’s agenda to book long weekends away to explore the region. For me, that meant heading to China, on a mission to see what lay beyond the crowded Tier 1 cities of the east coast. I didn’t know much about Yangshuo before I booked the high-speed train to get there, but I certainly learned some valuable lessons during my short stay.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
You exit the station, slightly delirious from your journey, before getting swarmed by persistent locals shouting at you to get into their vehicle. If you’ve travelled to China before, you know what I’m talking about. In this situation, it’s rare to not get ripped off in some way, you just have to strike a balance between paying the local driver enough money to make them happy and for you to comfortably arrive at your destination in one piece. For our group of 8, we got tricked and had to cram into a 4-person van with no air-conditioning (but plenty of durians) for a very uncomfortable 1hr ride on a dirt road, with a detour to a slaughterhouse for lunch, apparently ‘highly-recommended‘ by our driver’s second cousin. Rather than letting this get to you, just take the chaos and confusion in your stride and see the comical side of it as you quietly repeat the mantra ‘only in China‘.
BIKE ON THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Yangshuo’s stunning countryside is best seen while cycling and there are many popular, well-trodden trails you can tackle, depending on how hard you want to work off your bowl of rice noodles. No matter which path you take, you’re guaranteed an almost-ethereal scenic experience with the karst rock formations as the backdrop everywhere you look!
However, my favourite moments during the 2 full days of cycling was when we turned off the concrete road and followed a winding (and bumpy) dirt path that (almost) always led us to a sleepy farm village. We visited at least 5, and each time we were greeted with the warmest welcome, especially with the children who would repeatedly shout ‘Hello!!‘ until we cycled out of sight. Not only does this offer a glimpse into the local way of life, you also get to see many historic buildings, flourishing rice terraces and cobbled alleyways that tour groups may leave off their itinerary because they’re not easily accessible by bus or car.
DON’T PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD
When we ordered ‘fresh chicken‘ off the menu, we weren’t expecting to see it slaughtered, plucked, gutted and washed in the questionably murky river before our eyes, which probably something to do with us having just peed in it through an above-water squat toilet. This brought a whole new meaning to ‘farm-to-table’, or should I say ‘farm-to-toilet-to-table’. The friendly local who took our order reminded us that this happened with each dish we ordered (even the veggies were rinsed in the river!) so they told us to order less or just enough so that no part of the animal goes to waste. Needless to say, we were torn between finishing the food to honour the animals’ deaths (which we did) and giving ourselves gastroenteritis (which we somehow avoided). But this was also a reminder of how precious these resources are to local villages to survive. Leave no grain of rice behind!
GET YOUR SQUAT ON POINT
Be it over a shaky river shack or a dingy roadside shelter, when nature calls in rural China there’s no escape. This could spark a myriad of questions about squat toilet etiquette (Do you face inwards or outwards in your crammed cubicle? Do you make eye contact?) but one question you can definitely leave at the door is if you’ll find a Western-style toilet in the countryside. Make sure you warm up your quads so you don’t have the awkward break(s) when you stop mid-pee to stretch out your legs. My average is 2-3 of these intermissions each time, which doesn’t help when the stall has been embellished with someone else’s business.
Travelling to regional China doesn’t have to be a daunting experience, but you do have to be open minded. After all, it’s these unexpected experiences that make China the fascinating destination it is, where amazing natural scenery and friendly guesthouse staff are juxtaposed with a range of interesting surprises that will always remind you of where you are. After all, this is China.
Writer: Stephanie Lau
Photographer: Dean Vowles