Yangshuo is dusty, hot and humid this time of year. It's also teeming with tourists. But this stunningly beautiful region is truly one of China's must-see destinations - like a massive bonsai miniature come-to-life.

Situated in northeastern Guangxi just an hour's drive from the provincial capital of Guilin, Yangshuo's lush, semi-tropical countryside is blanketed by a quilt of rolling tea and rice terraces interspersed with emerald pools, winding waterways and twisting karst peaks as far as the eye can see.

I took my wife, my daughter Diablo and son (2) as well as my sister and her son (7) down to Yangshuo last week for a five-day, four-night trip (our tickets for China Southern Airlines, booked via CTrip, cost around RMB 2,000 round-trip per adult, and half-price for the kids). We stayed at a small European-style hotel called Michael's Inn & Suites, which is about a 25-minute walk from West Street in the town center. 

Yangshuo is an adventure traveler's paradise - biking, rock climbing and white water rafting abound - but we were obliged to choose a more kid-friendly itinerary.  

Our first excursion was a short river boat cruise on the Li River, one of the area's main waterways that flows into the Pearl River (Zhujiang). We booked the cruise via the hotel's guest services (there are several routes/itineraries, including a longer one taking you from Guilin to Yangshuo) and were picked up at our hotel and taken to one of the many piers lining the river banks.

There we were taken aboard a standard-issue motorized bamboo raft steered by one of the many local boatmen. Although the waterway was already congested (and noisy due to the incessant clatter of sputtering boat motors) when we set off around 10:30am, taking in the karst hills and lush, tree-lined banks on board was an exhilarating experience.

The four-hour cruise includes numerous stops where visitors can disembark and take photos, go swimming and buy local snacks (i.e. fried fish, cucumbers and corn-on-the-cob) - all pretty standard-issue for a Chinese tourist destination. Be prepared to sweat and bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

That evening we took in the 7:30 show of Zhang Yimou's "Impression of Liu Sanjie" - a meticulously choreographed outdoor song and dance performance featuring a dazzling light show and the karst hills of the Li River itself serving as the natural backdrop.

Getting into the performance is a bit of a nightmare - the traffic-snarled road leading up to the front gate is still half under construction and you have to stand outside for a long time in a chaotic, sweaty mob outside the mosquito-infested entrance before making the long trek to the actual venue.

But the sheer spectacle of show, which is based on the story of a famous local singer and incorporates a cast made up of performers from the local Zhuang and Yao minorities, is worth it. If you were dazzled by the director's opening ceremony production for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, you'll have a good idea of the aesthetics and production values - suffice it to say, they pumped some big bucks into it.

The next morning we reserved a van (RMB 450 a day) and set out into the countryside to check out the tea fields around "Seven Fairy" scenic area (七仙风景区, tel. 0773-8771888, ). Located about an hour's drive from Yangshuo, this charming spot has a tea house and restaurant and a short hilltop hike where you can take in the surrounding countryside - gazing down at the fertile countryside below (in near solitude) was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

After lunch we drove to a nearby vista called Xianggong Shan (相公山), which overlooks the Li River Valley. It was 40 degrees Celsius when we made our early afternoon ascent. To get to the top we slowly made our way up a set of steep stone stairs. The climb took about 20 minutes and we were sweating buckets and nearly incapacitated from the heat by the time we reached the top.

The view was astounding. Karst mountains jutted out of the landscape for as far as the eye could see and the Li River wound through the landscape like a flowing emerald brush stroke. Even our driver was impressed. Best of all, there were hardly any other visitors that day, so we had virtually the whole hilltop to ourselves.

Our final stop of the day was at a spot called Yangshuo Taohuayuan (阳朔桃花源, "Yangshuo Paradise") - a well-funded "ethno-tourism" spot consisting of a "Jungle Cruise" type boat ride that takes large local tour groups past reconstructed Zhuang and Yao Minority houses replete with "happy dancing tribesmen" and a massive arts and crafts souvenir complex. As cheesy as it is sprawling, this utterly contrived Potempkin Village was definitely my least favorite part of the trip. The only saving graces were the beautiful surrounding countryside and the fantastic late-afternoon weather. Skip this place.

We were originally slated to take a second river cruise on another portion of the Li River, but given the extreme heat we experienced the previous two days (and the fact we had a two-year-old in tow) we opted to skip it and go to the Silver Cave (银子岩) instead.

Lying about 18km from Yangshuo, this 2,000-meter long cave runs beneath 12 mountains and is the largest in Guilin. I've never been big on caves (due to a deep-rooted fear that somewhere, down there, lurks a whole biosystem of unspeakable H.R. Geiger creatures), but I enjoyed the experience nevertheless.

Aside from a few claustrophobia-inducing catacombs, some of the caverns here look like they are straight out of a Tolkien novel. Everywhere you look, stalactites and stalagmites sparkle and shine in the cave's extensive lighting system. The entire effect borders on being cheesy, but the sheer size and variety of Silver Cave's rock formations are truly impressive and (despite the requisite crowds and vendors) it really does feel like you've stepped into another world.

The full tour took around two hours and even though the subterranean temperatures were considerably cooler than the scorching weather above-ground, the humidity in the caverns was slightly uncomfortable - people with heart conditions should take note.

We had lunch at one of the many nongjiacai (农家菜, "Farmer's Cuisine") dives in the area. The food was typically unappealing (every restaurant in Yangshuo seems to serve some variation of "Beer Fish," 啤酒鱼, which is about as bland as it sounds - but the view of the nearby Moon Hill, Yangshuo's most iconic natural landmark, was outstanding.

After lunch we were supposed to go check out the ancient town of Fuli (福 利镇), an 800-year-old river community filled with cobbled alleyways (and tourists), but with the sun blaring down and three fussy kids (and one exhausted wife) to contend with, we opted out.

Instead we decided to take stroll down West Street, a commercial pedestrian street in the heart of Yangshuo. I instantly regretted it. The place is like a poorly done Nanluoguixang-cum-Wangfujing, only with more sewage and cheesier shops. Blech. It was a rather underwhelming end to our trip.

Lowlights aside, I found Yangshuo to be a lovely and enjoyable destination. Yes, certain attractions can be tough for families with kids - and I wouldn't recommend going to visit in late July. But it is fantastically beautiful place with a lot to offer travelers of all types. Someday, when the kids are older, I would definitely love to go back and do all the things (i.e. white water rafting, renting scooters, hiking, climbing and mountain biking) we didn't get to do this time around.

Photo: Jerry Chan/the Beijinger


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