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Exploring the Fairy Tale Limestone Scenery of Yang Shuo

Hey guys

I am now in Xing Ping, 50 km south down the Li River from the last place I wrote to you, picturesque Guillin. The last days have been incredible, Dinner feasts in Yang Shuo so important after those two weeks of nauseating urban eastern China. We immersed into some of China’s most beautiful scenery, the local culture, the people and discovered aspects of China that in the east seemed hidden underneath thick layers of China’s aspiration for rapid development.

A horrible bus ride

So, after Guillin the guys and I decided to split up for half a day, as they took the bamboo boat down the river to get to Yang Shuo, passing some very nice scenery on the way and I decided to take the bus. They liked it, but apparently “rafting” has a different definition here in China and the action was relatively modest. For me, it was one of the worst bus rides of my life, and now you would probably expect some Nepal style insane driver who puts everyone’s lives at risk to arrive 5 minutes earlier, however, the reason why this bus ride was so horrible is very different.

So from Guillin to Yang Shuo it takes 2 hours. I went to the bus station, got my ticket somehow, entered the bus and after some confusing “discussions” with the locals on where I should sit we finally took off. After 5 minutes I realised that I had to go to the toilet, apparently I hadn’t Yang Shuo, nestled in the middle of big limestone cliffs digested the massive meat meal of the day before as well as I hoped to (the meal was absolutely delicious by the way, a bbq on the street).

It was bad. After 30 minutes I thought that I couldn’t anymore, after 1 hour I thought I was dying and then I still had 1 more hour to go. My options were rather limited: trying to explain to the bus driver if he could stop and wait for me (impossible), trying to make the bus stop somewhere in the middle of rural China and hope for the best afterwards (hardly possible) or just look ahead, press a fist into my stomach, not move from the one position that seemed most bearable and singing to myself FC Bayern Munich’s “Stern des Suedens” over and over and over Yang Shuo seen from a hill again to get some relief. This is what I went for and I really do not know how I survived that. I did, and it was absolutely horrible.

A picturesque town

But let’s turn to nicer things: Yang Shuo. This town lies in the middle of hundreds of very steep, between 200 and 400 metre high limestone peaks. Once, this area was an ocean, the receding level of the sea created streams which cut very steep valleys into the landscape, which is now covered by green, green, green. It looks quite similar to some limestone formations I have seen in central Laos. In the little flat valley in between these peaks people started living off fishing and rice farming and Yang Shuo was founded. It must have been a magical place 40 years ago, today The bike crew! masses and masses of Chinese middle class tourists (as always) invade this town and take some of its flair with them. It is still very picturesque, as the peaks are everywhere, lit up during the night and the Li River limits the expansion of this city.

Mountainbiking rice fields

We decided to stay a couple of days here, especially because of the activities that you can carry out here. In fact, the next day we decided to rent mountain bikes (we wanted scooters, but here they are so much more expensive than scooters in Southeast Asia, around 11 euros per day).

Without a map we just started cycling, somewhere, out of town, into the rural area, through rice fields, passing water buffalos with old Chinese people working the fields, along the Li River with the hundreds of Chinese tourists who take a boat as it doesn’t involve any form of physical Chilling on the shores of the Li river effort. We just chilled along the river, in beautiful places, with all these Chinese waving at us and taking pictures (as a French traveller we met here put it after having been two months in China: “In China a foreigner is a beautiful flower”).

We had a really good time and went further and further. At some point we even arrived on a small island on the river, which was deserted and Nighttime cormorant fishing in Yang Shuo covered by flowers. We just chilled there immersing into nature, finally, and leaving behind the masses and masses of people. On the way back, instead of cycling, we agreed on a good price with a local boatman, to drive us back all the way on the river to Yang Shuo. Put the bikes on the small boat, sat down and just enjoyed driving back on the river the path that we had made on our bikes.

Fishing with cormorants

Another activity is very peculiar and commercial today: cormorant fishing. This is a fishing technique which the local fisherman of this area used to practice exclusively and which is now more or less performed only for commercial reasons. Nevertheless, I have to admit I enjoyed it a lot, as I have never seen something like this before and the ingenuity of it left me speechless.

Basically what they did is the following: cormorants are birds which like fish. They can dive under water for 15 seconds looking for fish and What an animal! Hunting Cormorant catch it with 100% accuracy. So the fisherman at some point said: hey if they can do it so much better than us, let them do the job for us. They caught them young, put a rubber string around their neck in order that they would not be able to choke anymore. After having trained them, these fishermen would take off on their small boats with 10 cormorants, let them loose and the birds would dive along the boat and catch the fish. Whenever they have one they come to the surface, try to choke it but it gets stuck in their throat. So the fisherman with a bamboo stick and a hook on the tip, gets them out of the water, presses the fish out into a basket and throws the birds back into the water. We witnessed this during the night for one hour and it was impressive how these birds always stay with the boat and catch fish after fish. They must get some reward afterwards and therefore stay with the fisherman. Really impressive.

Beating a Kung Fu Master

In Yang Shuo we also saw how the Chinese tourists enjoy their nightlife, as the various clubs there are meant for Chinese and it is really funny to Chilling on the roof top terrace of our hostel see how they try to imitate western lifestyle in a decadent and artificial way (at least this was my impression). We wanted to go partying once just for the sake of being with these Chinese in a club once, but as we won’t spend any further time in Yang Shuo I doubt it.

Also, I won against a Kung Fu Master, true story. Well in pool…. We went to this nice bar owned by a Chinese who has travelled the world teaching Kung Fu (he has also participated in some Jet Lee films) and who has now settled down in Yang Shuo and opened a bar. At the beginning I thought that his statements were funny (“Yeah, I am pretty strong”. “I can kick anybody’s arse, even drunk”. And playing pool “I will win anyway”), but when I was beating him at pool I realised that this guy is just too cocky and pretentious and feels superior to other people, because of his obvious physical superiority, at least that was my impression. But hey, kicked a Kung Fu master in the arse, TOP!

An incredible hostel

Yang Shuo was very nice, however, I felt as if this was not enough, not exactly what we had been looking for. We found out that not far from this town, 20 km north along the Li River a little town called Xing Ping, was supposed to be like Yang Shuo several years ago. So we took a 30 This is the direct result of too much rain minutes bus (this time I went to the toilet before) and we arrived in this marvellous place, which has made me feel so good ever since I arrived here. It is small, next to the river, with the same scenery as Yang Shuo, even nicer I think because it doesn’t have the plains for cultivating rice but just green peaks everywhere.

We found this incredible youth hostel, one of the best I have been to so far. The staff makes you feel as if you were welcomed into a family. They remember your name, are surprised if they didn’t see you for a couple of hours, ask you if you want to go for hikes or to have food with them. The hostel itself is very small, with an interesting mix of western tourists of all ages (the oldest backpacker is a 65 year old lady) and outgoing Chinese young tourists. It has excellent tea (1€ for a pot), a nice rooftop terrace with view of the river and it is the perfect starting point for nice excursions. But most of all it is in Xing Ping, a village that I needed to see before leaving China.

A short account of religion in China

At this point I would like to illustrate the importance of religion in China. Three main strands have always competed for the pole position: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. I think that looking at these helps a lot to explain why the CPC managed to attain and keep power and why Beautiful scenery during our bike trip Chinese today are like they are.

Confucianism, as is Taoism, is not a religion in the orthodox sense. It does not involve any deities and is more an accurate analysis of the human, a philosophical approach with the aim to create a harmonious society. At the core stand four hierarchical relationships, namely father – son, ruler – subject, husband – wife, older brother – younger brother and one equal one friend – friend. People are expected to obey the superior one and this person will in turn care for the inferior one. Moreover, the scholars of Confucius summarised his philosophy in a set of aphorisms (Confucius says: ….).

Taoism is more complex as it can involve everything, since Tao simply means the unknowable, indescribable force of the universe. It is also more a way of living in a natural way (including some sexist obligations for women to their superior men).

These ways of thought are deeply rooted in Chinese people since the 6th century B.C. As you can imagine, the communist revolution welcomed these ideals, as they include abiding the ruler, without any doubt, as long as the government cares for you. Also it does not involve any gods who may be superior to the state. The only conflicting issue was the role of the women, as the communist party did not only want to set men and So out of place this 7er women equal, they needed them as an independent work force. But a part of this, the CPC has always promoted these strands and included them in their education to further encourage positive conduct and obedience to the system.

Buddhism is more complicated. If I got it right, Buddhism came to China via India many centuries ago. It seems like a strand different from Tibetan Buddhism and very similar to Hinduism, that is to say reincarnation, karma etc. However, it has Buddha as a deity. When the communists took power, they destroyed the vast majority of temples and spiritual sites and Buddhism was oppressed for three decades. Only after the death of Mao the grip on religion was slightly loosened, but until today spiritual religion is not beneficial to the authoritarian regime and therefore limited.

The CPC ´s manipulation of Confucianism

Confucianism on the other hand was embraced by the CPC and manipulated in my eyes. Confucius wrote his philosophy in times of constant civil Vegetarians are NOT welcome at this place war, his aim was peace, which he called harmonious society. The CPC misused this concept. For instance, the slogan of the 2008 Olympic Games was “harmony” and until today the influence of Confucianism in state directed fields such as education seems to have one aim: obedience.

I just read a book by Tiziano Terzani, an incredible Italian author who travelled the most conflict prone areas of Asia for 30 years. He is a an idealist, pacifist, very intelligent and open minded author and in the book I just finished here on the terrace (Lettere contro la Guerra) there was one phrase that got stuck in my head and it puts into a nutshell how the approach of the CPC and its claim to harmony are detached from reality, perverse and wrong. He says: “L’armonia, come la bellezza, sta nell’euqilibrio degli opposti” (“harmony, like beauty, emerges from equilibrium of opposing ideas). The CPC, however, seems to propagate the opposite, namely that uniformity and obedience leads to harmony.

Immersing in the real Chinese society

After this insight into religion in China let’s come back to Xing Ping. Life here is good. We spend the days on the roof top terrace. Before that, we Finally good food! You just point and they mix it up walk to the local market and buy a variety of snacks: some deep fried sweet and savoury pastries, sunflower seeds (we got addicted to them), watermelon, coconut chestnuts (weird stuff, looks like a chestnut, but inside it is white and tastes like fresh coconut) and the local oranges (very small, bitter on the outside and sweet inside, you just eat them whole and spit out the skin). Then we order some of the amazing tea from downstairs (mostly green tea, often with flowers in it) and just chill on the rooftop, reading and talking. Yesterday with Anne I sat up here for hours, in this idyllic spot and discussed China, what it could look like, what it should look like, what it will look like, and what it is like right now.

On the streets we get an insight into real Chinese culture. Here a few examples of what we have experienced on the streets, where we haven’t met Enjoying a proper stir fry a single white person outside of the hostel:

Yesterday, Anne and I walked down the streets and this old couple slowly made its way through the road. They were probably the oldest people I have ever seen. Half my height, a face that seemed as if it has witnessed 3 centuries and a look when they saw us as if we were Martians.

Then there are so many children on the street, and Chinese children are so cute. They always seem to be really attracted by us, but you only see them smiling but they are too shy to approach you and then run away.

Or the other day, Raphie and I bought this local game, a small, round iron plate attached to a bunch of feathers, which you can juggle like a football. We bought one and just walked along the street kicking it to each other. Then we stopped and played in the same spot for a while. People were looking at us, stopped and finally two of them joined us and we played together until it broke. The locals seem to enjoy that these two white Raphie having his lunch at the market in Xing Ping guys played their local game, and to be fair, we nailed it.

The best meal of the trip

Then food: I am going to be honest, so far, up to Yang Shuo I was quite surprised that the food was not as good as I expected it. I missed the abstraction, the variety of flavours and spices that I am used to from Southeast Asia. Here it seemed straight forward, simple, as if the people just needed to eat anything rather than celebrating food (maybe another side effect of the forced “harmony” in the urban east?). In Yang Shuo we already got the best dumplings so far, Baozi, just perfect dough, perfect thickness, juicy, and the perfect proportion of meet, juice and dough in every single bite.

But what we got here, especially yesterday, just made me happy. As always we were looking for a shabby, cheap, local joint were a lot of locals seemed to enjoy their food. We found one and sat down at a miniature table (they are literally 30 cm off the ground and the chairs as if they were Sugar cane which they sell hole to chew on as a sweet snack made for 3 year olds). We pointed to some stuff that others were eating and the 60 year old, smiling chef who I bet has not done anything but cooking for the past 55 years prepared the finest meal I have had so far. I mean I do not like tofu, but this dish was superb, succulent, delicious. A very juicy dish with tofu, some meat, peppers, onions, chillies and some local vegetables that I do not know. This was what I call harmony J just the perfect mix of sweet and sour, spicy, meaty and tofu, perfect.

And the ingredients: on the market you see all these local green unknown vegetables, the aubergines, the chillies, the onions. They look so good and taste 1000 times better than any vegetables you could ever buy in a European supermarket. I just believe that good food makes people happy and healthy, and with these ingredients you cannot but make good food.

Traditional honey from the Li river A magical peak

Ok enough, probably saliva is already dripping from your mouths so I will finish this mail with something we have done yesterday. Right in front of our hostel a peak, 400 m high, reigns over the village. You can climb it via 1157 (I didn’t count them, but someone else did…) very steep stairs. We got up at 5am, got ready, took our head lights and started making our way up the hill in the dark, through the jungle.

Once up there, the view and especially the atmosphere were just incredible. The only thing you could hear was nature awaking: cockerels from the valley who started getting ready for the day, dogs woken up by them barking and that’s it. Well at some point a weird trumpeter somewhere in the valley joined them.

Although it was not the nicest day, you could still see 100s of peaks, jungle everywhere, the Li river right at the bottom of the mountain taking a sharp turn and creating a lush peninsula and Xing Ping on the other side. The guys went down after an hour and I stayed up there for another hour, as I found this place just so inspiring. To quote Terzani again: “Le montagne ricordano una misura di grandezza dal quale l’uomo si sente ispirato, sollevato. Quella stessa grandezza è anche in ognuno di noi, ma li ci e difficile riconoscerla” (“the greatness of mountains inspires people, it makes them rise. The same greatness lies in every single one of us, however, there it is more difficult to find”). Up there I had time to think, to Bamboo on the shores of the Li river reflect, to dream. It was just so peaceful and I think I will go back up there today, even if it keeps on raining as it is now.

The Bestia Negra strikes again

The most important thing at the end. The Bestia Negra struck again. In a most memorable game FC Bayern Munich defeated Real Madrid in the first game of the semi-finals of the Champions League with a 90th minute, classic, Torero goal. We watched it here at 4am, and we were not allowed to be loud, so every time they scored, we would go mental silently, so funny. I can only highly recommend everyone to watch the highlights, amazing game!

Alright, we will enjoy one more day in this chilled place, before heading to Hong Kong tomorrow night, for the last destination of this trip.

Zai Tien


One Response to Exploring the Fairy Tale Limestone Scenery of Yang Shuo

  1. […] let’s catch up where I left you. I wrote last from Xing Ping, the small, idyllic town in the beautiful limestone scenery of southern China. We spend the last two days there chilling on the rooftop terrace, munching on dried sunflower […]

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