Thursday, August 4, 2011

Looking back on our time in Yangshuo

This final set of blog posts is coming extremely late, but I figure better late than never!

We spent most of our second week (6 nights) in Yangshuo and this may have been our favorite location on our trip. Yangshuo has been different from every other city/town we’ve visited in that it is small, not too busy, and a surprising number of people speak English. There are only about 200,000 residents in the town and thus you can get absolutely anywhere you want on foot. After so many taxi rides during the first week, this was a great relief.

Another huge plus of Yangshuo is that the tourism catered to Western tourists instead of Chinese tourists. The domestic tourism industry is ridiculously huge, and a big part of what they do is to make absolutely everything accessible to anyone. This means trams, cable cars, stone pathways, covered boats, AC busses, and refreshment stands everywhere you can look. The idea behind making the best sites accessible enough so people of any age can enjoy them is cool, but the downside is there are often unimaginable hoards of people crowding around these sites. What makes Chinese tourism less attractive to me (and probably other Western tourists) is that there is exactly one way to see each of the tourist sites and the tourism companies dictate what way that is. Exploring on your own, or getting off the beaten path is very difficult and sometimes impossible at tourists sites aimed at domestic tourism.

Yangshuo was geared almost solely towards Western tourists. You could easily arrange your own outdoor activities such as bike riding, tubing, rafting, hiking, or exploring without having your trip being forced into doing exactly what a tourism company tells you to do.

When we got to Yangshuo, it was late at night and we stopped by the English school we planned to volunteer at since we were told we would have a room there. Sadly, they did not have a room prepared for us so they directed us to an area with a number of youth hostels. On our walk there, an awesome Canadian couple started talking with us and then walked us all the way there even though they were staying somewhere else.

We spent our first night at a wonderful hostel called the Showbiz Inn. It had a clean, comfortable room with AC, TV, Wi-Fi and a really nice rooftop bar with an English speaking staff. It cost less than $20/night for the room and we were all ready to book that room for the remainder of our stay, but we found out the next morning that they had already booked our room for the next night and there were none left, so we moved over to a place 30 meters away called Monkey Jane’s and booked our stay for 5 nights there (just $10/night for the same amenities but dirtier).

Monkey Jane’s was a really unique place with the most lively and fun rooftop bar I’ve ever seen. They had a beer pong table that was always in use, extremely cheap beer, tons of couches, and a gorgeous view of the surrounding Karst pinnacles. It was always full of European tourists, and it felt weird being English speakers for the first time on our trip.

On our first night in Yangshuo, we spent some of the evening in the Monkey Jane rooftop bar playing beer pong and some friends we made that night suggested we go tubing down the river with them the following day. So on our second day, we spent a good 3-4 hours sitting in giant inner tubes floating down the beautiful river. It was a ton of fun, and there were no rapids or anything dangerous. It was just a good relaxing time. A bunch of Chinese tourists on motorized bamboo rafts were passing us, waving, and taking photographs of us which was very entertaining. On the downside, our phone got wet and mostly ruined, and everyone on the rafting trip got terribly sunburned. My skin is still peeling from that trip which was about 4 weeks ago.

That night, we participated in something called the English Corner at an English language school in Yangshuo. This turned out to be incredibly fun and was a great learning experience for both me and Rachael. All we were asked to do was sit in a small classroom of 8-10 students and talk with them for 2 hours in English. Of the 6 days we spent in Yangshuo, only two of those days had English corner scheduled, and we happily attended both of them. Most of our discussions were us learning about the Chinese culture and talking about life in America. We hung out with one of the students named Gunnar and some of his friends after class and we had a great conversation. Turns out he is a computer science guy like me, we’re the same age, and we have the same last name. Unfortunately, we only met him on our last day, because he offered to teach us Chinese which we would have gladly accepted.

The highlight of the second full day was the bike trip I talked about in a previous blog post. The day after, we went exploring on foot because Rachael’s butt hurt from a terrible bike seat and a super long bike ride the day before. We decided we’d hike up to the top of a Karst pinnacle. We didn’t want to do a tour or anything, so we picked a fairly nearby pinnacle that was higher than the rest of them and had a TV tower sitting at the top. It’s safe to assume there is some pathway up to a peak where there is a TV tower. Thus, we started walking toward it and found our path blocked by solid rows of apartments. We kept taking small alleys between these apartments, and backtracked to find new alleys whenever our path ran into a dead end. Some residents also helped point us in the right direction because it was pretty clear where we were trying to go. After a lot of meandering, we found the entry to a very nice stone paved trail that let all the way to the top. The entire trek both up and down we didn’t see a single person, which was incredible. It was even more solitude than a hike in a national/state park in the U.S. The view from the top was a lot of fun, and the day was almost identical to a really fun day in 2008 when Tom and I managed to find our way to the peak of the “mountain” on the Island of Hydra in Greece.

The rest of our stay in Yangshuo was spent relaxing and rejuvenating after an overly hectic and rushed first 10 days or so of our vacation. We bought a couple books at a bookstore, watched a movie, hung out with our Canadian friends Jonathan and Kristen, participated in English corner again, strolled around town, bought some cheap stuff, planned the rest of our trip, drank some beers at night, and ate a lot of fruit. Oh and we went to a cave where we took a mud bath that I talked about in a different blog post!

Being able to relax for a few days was an amazing luxury, and we didn’t feel bad doing it because our vacation was so long. If our vacation were only for a week, we would feel guilty spending any of our time doing things that we could also do in the U.S., but since this was a full 5 week trip, we could really slow down and enjoy ourselves now and then.