Guangxi unfolds south from the cool highlands it shares with Guizhou to a tropical border abutting Vietnam. Up in the northeast, the pick of the province’s peak-and-paddy-field landscape is concentrated along the Li River, down which you can cruise between the city of Guilin and the travellers’ haven of Yangshuo. Easily accessible, this has become a massive tourist draw, but remoter hills just a few hours north around Longji and Sanjiang are home to a mix of ethnic groups, whose architecture and way of life make for a fascinating trip up into Guizhou province, hopping between villages on public buses. Indeed, the further you get from the heavily promoted Guilin-Yangshou tourist corridor, the more places you’ll find which remain under-exploited – and more enjoyable for it.
Diagonally across Guangxi, the provincial capital Nanning provides a base for exploring Guangxi’s southwestern corner along the open border with Vietnam, heartland of China’s thirteen-million-strong Zhuang nationality. They constitute about a third of the regional population and, although largely assimilated into Chinese life today, archeological evidence links them with Bronze Age rock friezes west of Nanning at Ningming. Nearby are a couple other major draws: the Detian Waterfall, which actually pours over the Vietnamese border, and the massive limestone sinkholes at Leye.
Though subject to fiercely hot, humid summers, Guangxi’s weather can be deceptive – it actually snows in Guilin about once every ten years. Another thing of note is that the Zhuang language, instead of using pinyin, follows its own method of rendering Chinese characters into Roman text, so you’ll see some unusual spelling on signs – “Minzu Dadao”, for example, becomes “Minzcuzdadau”.
If you fancy seeing more of the countryside between Nanning and Vietnam, Hua Shan is well worth the slight effort. Set in a beautifully isolated spot where tall karst peaks flank the Zuo River, waterfront cliffs at Hua Shan are daubed with rock art associated with prehistoric local culture. You can only get here by boat, and it’s a placid journey up the Zuo, with buffalo wallowing in the shallows, people fishing from bamboo rafts and tending family plots, and the banks thick with spindly-branched, red-flowering kapok trees. The boat docks by the paintings, where steps lead to viewing platforms to see them close up. Nobody has worked out a definitive interpretation of the 1900 figures, but they include drummers and dancers, dogs and cattle, a dragon-boat race, men with arms bent upwards, a “king” with a sword, and just two women, long-haired and pregnant. Interesting as the paintings are, as with many of the best travels, the journey there is more rewarding than the destination.
Way down in southern Guangxi, fairly close to China’s open border with Vietnam, NANNING was just a medium-sized market town when European traders opened a river route from neighbouring Guangdong in the early twentieth century, starting a period of rapid growth that saw the city supplanting Guilin as the provincial capital. The city has capitalized on recent trade agreements with Vietnam, and today Nanning is a bright, easy-going place with a mild boom-town atmosphere and a mix of leafy boulevards, modern architecture and a handful of narrow, colonial-era streets. There’s good shopping, decent food, a museum strong on regional archeology, and both international and domestic transport connections.
Though there is no direct vehicle road, it’s possible to hike between Ping An and Dazhai in around four hours, via the attractive village of Zhongliu (中六, zhōngliù), where there is very basic food but no accommodation. Yao women along the way will offer their services as guides (around ¥50), though with basic maps from accommodation, they’re not really necessary.
Nestled 70km south of Guilin in the thick of China’s most spectacular karst scenery, YANGSHUO rose to prominence during the mid-1980s, when tourists on Li River cruises realized that the village made a great place to settle down and get on intimate terms with the river and its peaks. Yangshuo has grown considerably since then and, despite retaining an outdated reputation as a mellow haven among Western travellers, has become a rowdy draw for domestic tourists, with the majority of its bars, restaurants and shops catering to their tastes. It remains, however, an easy place to spend a few days: hills surround everything, village lanes swarm with activity, and there are restaurants and accommodation everywhere. You can rent a bike and spend a day zipping between hamlets, hike around or go rock climbing on nearby peaks, or study cooking or martial arts. Just note that during Yangshuo’s peak-season tourism (July–October) accommodation is scarce and many attractions will be overcrowded.
Yangshuo’s accommodation ranges from basic dorm beds to comfy doubles: balconies, folksy furnishings and wooden floors are nice touches, though locations within a couple of hundred metres of West Street’s nightclubs may not be. During peak season (including the first two weeks of October), and even weekends, prices rise astronomically and it’s hard to find anywhere in the centre for under ¥300. Conversely, stiff competition means rates can halve during the winter, when you’ll want to check the availability of heating and hot water, while in summer air conditioning is a must.
Agents at accommodation and all around town can book long-distance bus tickets along with flights, taxis to Guilin airport (¥240, or a shared vehicle at ¥80/person) and train tickets from Guilin.
Several mid-price Chinese restaurants at the southern end of Xie Lu, as well as on the north end of Guihua Lu (the best are up the alley, after it crosses Diecui Lu) serve the spicy local speciality beer fish (啤酒鱼, píjiǔ yú), which costs ¥35–80 per 500g – the most expensive and having the least bones being the maogu fish (毛骨鱼, máogǔ yú).
When you’ve had enough scenery for one day, do something unusual and spend an evening watching cormorant fishing (book through your hotel; ¥50–70 per person for 90min). This involves heading out on a bamboo raft or small boat at dusk, in a small flotilla of other tourist craft, closely following a tiny wooden fishing boat from which a group of cormorants fish for their owner. Despite being turned into a tourist activity at Yangshuo, people still make their living from this age-old practice across the region, raising young birds to dive into the water and swim back to the boat with full beaks. The birds are prevented from swallowing by ties around their necks, but it’s usual practice for the fisherman to slacken these off and let them eat every seventh fish – apparently, the cormorants refuse to work otherwise.
For drinking, almost all the backpacker-style restaurants along Guihua Lu have bars and there are also a load of fairly similar loud bars along Xian Qian Lu, though the best places to hang out are the places listed here, or the rooftop bars at the hostels near the river, such as the Showbiz Inn or the nearby and more raucous Monkey Janes. West Street is strung with almost identical clubs, all of which play similar generic pounding techno for the mainly Chinese crowds. It’s hard to recommend one over the others, and they generally stay open till around 2am during high season.
Yangshuo’s numerous restaurants and cafés are split between those by the canals between Xi Jie and Guihua Lu, which mainly cater to Chinese tourists seeking exotic foreign food (Indian, German, Spanish, and even British pub grub), and those along Chengzhong Lu and Guihua Lu, which serve backpacker staples and Chinese and Western fare to a foreign crowd. Everywhere opens early for Western breakfasts, and keeps going well into the night. For inexpensive Chinese canteens and food stalls, try the area around the bus station.
Be warned that petty crime is on the rise in Yangshou. Be wary of your possessions while swimming, and of your wallet and bags when getting on or off buses. Increasingly, bags are snatched from tourists’ bicycles by motorcycling thieves, so don’t keep your stuff loose in the basket.
Thanks to its spectacular natural location, Yangshuo has well-established guides for any number of organized activities. Freelance guides work Yangshuo’s streets and cafés; all claim to have unique, untouristed places to take you for lunch with a farming family and offer insights into village life. Some have been doing this for years, including the English-speaking, cheery and helpful “Wendy” Li Yunzhao (1319 7638186, email@example.com). Expect to pay about ¥50–75 per person per day depending on the size of the group.
For cookery classes, contact English-speaking Linda at Cloud 9 restaurant (t 135 07838851; a 3hr class costs ¥120). For the more serious, the Yangshuo Cooking School (137 88437286, yangshuocookingschool.com) runs one- to four-day courses, including a vegetarian one.
Accommodation or operators at the western end of Yangshuo’s West Street rent bicycles for ¥20–30 a day, depending on whether you want an ordinary rattletrap or an off-roader with decent springs: ¥300 or your ID may be asked for as a deposit. The excellent Bike Asia (bikeasia.com)is based in town too, at 8 Guihua Lu – they rent out the best bikes for ¥70 a day including maps, helmets and repair kits, with high-end mountain bikes costing more at ¥150. They also run guided bike-tours in English around Yangshuo of around 30–40km which cost ¥150 and leave daily at 9am.
Accommodation can arrange bamboo raft trips between Xingping and Yangdi (2hr; ¥200) and full-day kayak trips (¥200); or in hot weather you can simply buy a rubber tube from shops along Diecui Jie and head down to the water for a splash – but leave it until the last ferries have departed upstream around 4pm. The now badly named Secret Beach, a couple of kilometres upstream, down a small track, is the nicest place for a swim. For those brave (or foolish) enough, another great experience is to jump off the 9m-high Yulong Bridge (玉龙桥, yùlóng qiáo), which is 15km northwest of the town, and a 2km stroll from Baisha Town (白沙镇, báishā zhèn).
Yangshuo has become a martial arts hangout, with the long-established Budi Zhen school founded by the incredible, ancient Mr Gao and now run by his twin sons. Visit their training hall (步地真功夫馆, bùdì zhēngōngfu guǎn) off West Street (1397 7350377, firstname.lastname@example.org), to study a whole range of martial disciplines at around ¥80 a lesson. For tai ji try the Yangshuo Traditional Taichi School (阳朔传统太极学校, yángshuò chuántǒng tàijí xuéxiào), housed in a Qing-dynasty farmhouse at Jima village close to the Yulong River (152 9592 0102, traditionaltaichischool.com). They teach courses up to instructor-level and also offer accommodation and food, with lessons costing ¥70 per hour and up, though for long-term students discounts are available.
Yangshuo is a popular rock-climbing centre with over four hundred mostly short but very tough graded climbs on local peaks ranging from 5.6 to 5.13. New climbs are being pioneered all the time and the Yangshuo Climbing Guide available from climb-shops will show you most of them, along with detailed climbing info too. For experienced climbers, equipment-rental is around ¥180 a day for two, with one-day beginners’ courses starting at ¥450 a day per person. Insight Adventures, at 53 Xianqian Jie (0773 8811033,insight-adventures.com) are the most established operator, and although slightly pricier than most, have foreign guides and a good safety record. The Karst Cafe on Xianqian Jie is the spot to go to socialize with other climbers and get the latest info.
ZHAOXING, around four hours by bus from Sanjiang, is an extremely attractive single-street Dong town set in a small valley, with a generous smattering of old wooden buildings including five square-based drum towers, each differently styled and built by separate clans. Accompanying wind-and-rain bridges and theatre stages are decorated with fragments of mirrors and mouldings of actors and animals. Houses are hung with strings of drying radishes for sour hotpots, and the back lanes resound to the noise of freshly dyed cloth being pounded with wooden mallets to give it a shiny patina.