Peaks and Valleys
THE EMERALD KARSTS, CASCADING PADDY FIELDS AND MAJESTIC RIVERS OF YANGSHUO, LONGJI AND GUILIN ARE ANCIENT PAINTINGS COME TO LIFE. WHILE THE PACE OF DEVELOPMENT MAY SEEM SWIFT EVEN HERE IN RURAL CHINA, TOURING VIA TWO WHEELS ALLOWS A SLOW TRAVELER TO KEEP
The emerald karsts, cascading rice fields and majestic rivers of Yangshou, Longji and Guilin are best seen on two wheels. Story and photographs by Lillian Chou
My back is drenched with perspiration from hefting my knapsack up a thousand steps through winding paths that lead me to a vista on the edge of magnificence. I’m scaling the Dragon’s Back, known locally as Longji, an undulating landscape of layered rice terraces home to a cluster of minority villages within southwestern Guangxi province. My sore knees berate me for opting out of the sedan ride I was offered at the village gates, but I feel victorious, as if I’ve physically earned this monumental view and decide not to feel guilty for employing an elderly Zhuang minority woman to haul my suitcase in a bamboo panier on her back for a 50-yuan note.
A decade ago, she might have been bent over these fields planting rice in the ribbon of terraces that are filled with water and mirror the bright sky, like silvery dragon scales. Local life is now carved differently from the depths of these paddies: China’s economic rise means rice imports from Southeast Asia are now cheaper than home-grown grain, but the terraces are still a commodity. Tourism is the new harvest and lucrative throughout the year where every season brings a different beauty and constant flow of visitors. Late spring into early summer is when the terrace pools are irrigated to form mesmerizing reflections that glisten, a remarkable man-made facelift that accentuates nature’s beauty.
At just 650 years old, this bendy stratum of terraces is young relative to China’s age. The valleys and villages of Longsheng County, where the terraces are located, are composed of minorities including the Zhuang, along with Miao, Dong and longhaired Yao. I am in Ping’An, a village that is home to 500 Zhuang residents whose homes double up as restaurants or guesthouses. The village is best known for easy hikes through an expanse of terraces that can become a full
day trek over to neighboring Dazhai, where tour buses tend to stop for day trips and the cable-car views, while Jinkeng is even further away. I want to see sunrise and choose the Li-An Lodge poised above a striking vista steps away from my bed. Owner and photographer Keren Su was so inspired by the views that he purchased the land and built the wooden structure as a high-end guesthouse in the traditional architectural style. Rustic guesthouses are plentiful in Ping’An and at times the solace is ruined by construction sounds of future guesthouses as this area continues to expand, but short hikes and a little distance silence even the most incredible panoramas.
This is a form of preservation tourism my old friend Bruce Foreman, who has made his life sharing discoveries along rural parts of China for many years, extols: slow, immersive, hyper-local, exceptionally active. He and a partner, Scott Spencer, founded the Yangshuo Bike Festival, to highlight the romance—some might say fleeting, given the pace of development—of Guangxi, Guilin and Yangshuo, and I’ve come along for its fifth incarnation. This small but growing celebration of cycling through quiet trails under the shadows of karsts, idyllic rice fields, and quiet rivers with upbeat DJ tunes on wireless headphones reveals the region’s iconic wonders and unseen backwaters. Luckily for me, the trip also includes exceptional food—fortification for both my culinary soul and my weary limbs.
While I’m joining the rides and excursions, I prefer to explore some different hotels and eat a few local meals without the group. At dinner I try zhutong fan, a charred tube of bamboo, blackened from roasting over fire. When it’s cracked open, a heady scent rises from la rou, a local bacon that is preserved and smoked, then air-dried in bundles dangled off the eaves like silent wind-chimes. It is chopped and steamed with sticky rice and I dig in. I sip the local rice wine or baijiu, steeped in giant glass urns with varieties of medicinal herbs, preferring the one with the fragrant scent of drunken yangmei, (my new favorite fruit) also called the waxberry or Chinese strawberry. It competes against the passion-fruit infusion, a fruit that is a recent cash-crop growing along the countryside. Bruce and I leave the next morning and I pass sedan chair peddlers, tempted—but instead stop and buy a darkened egg in its shell, fire-cooked by a towel-turbaned Zhuang minority woman. It’s warm, with a deep roasted flavor, unlike any boiled egg I’ve ever tasted.
Down at the village gate, we group together with other bike-festers to don helmets and load our suitcases into a van that will meet us at our next destination. We cycle freely through breezy switchbacks and pedal through farming villages while children chase us shouting, “Hello! Hello!” Bruce and I reminisce of the China that is slowly disappearing, the paths of innocence that are fewer and farther between as we ride through another new economy: passion fruit and a concerted effort at farming luohanguo, monk fruit, a melon-like round fruit that is dried for use in traditional Chinese medicine and known to dispel heat, and clear lung and chest issues. It has long grown in these valleys in smaller fields but is now gaining ground and will soon become a global superfood and zerocalorie sweetener with added health benefits.
THE NEXT MORNING, we ride up a few challenging hills, pausing for breath, surrounded and hypnotized by the swaying trunks of bamboo forests. After a break, we assemble into a van and drive the rest of the way through Guilin city. Huge karsts appear like ancient spirits in the horizon, a scenic mountain scape so revered, it’s engraved on the backside of China’s 20yuan currency note. The arcane peaks are a graceful combination of sediment, limestone, dolomite, acid rain and earthquakes that were once the sea floor leaving fossils and caves within the network of karsts that jut out of the ground like colossal jagged teeth. Often hidden by mists and clouds, they have long inspired poetry, calligraphy and ink paintings.
Yangshuo is both a popular town and county in the southern part of Guilin prefecture. Touring Chinese tend to hover in Guilin city for its scenic karsts and neon-studded parks, and to cruise the Li River on motorboats that resemble the manpowered bamboo rafts that once dominated the waters. Yangshuo town was “discovered” in the 1980s when Western backpackers, mostly cyclists and rock climbers, began to frequent the unspoiled terrain of quiet villages, karsts and rivers. Yangshuo town has, in some parts, been decimated by tourism—too much of a good thing—and at night, restaurants and bars light up with aggressive, boisterous crowds.
By day, though, the town is peaceful and worth a gander, with some places definite priorities. Top of the list: the Rice Noodle Cultural Center. Despite its museum-like name it is actually a tiny simple eatery whose noodle master chef Li makes Guilin’s best contribution to Chinese cuisine: mifen, fresh rice noodles. The ubiquitous noodles are on most menus, but here they are exceptional. Local rice is soaked in water with Chinese medicinal herbs and stone-ground, then fermented for 200 hours before being pummeled into a dough that is pressed through an old vat, using stone counterweights. This traditional labor ceased to exist about 50 years ago according to Jenny Zeng, who runs the Magnolia Hotel next door; the current process omits the fermentation, and the manual methods of hammering dough are now automated. Chef Li’s old-school efforts
result in subtle noodles with a toothsome texture different from what you can get from a machine, and perfected when sprinkled with local pickled long beans, smoked pork strips and a dab of Guilin’s second prized comestible: chili paste. It’s simply delicious.
The Yangshuo Bike Festival is a uniquely spirited way to explore the area’s mysterious limestone structures far away from crowds. While there is plenty for non-bikers in the festival, Bruce and Scott are right that seeing the countryside is best done on two wheels. Bruce, who is based in Hong Kong, and Scott, who lives in Yangshuo, met here in 2000. Each started his own cycling tour company, believing it to be the only way to discover the disappearing China—including Yangshuo—that they loved. Eventually they decided to collaborate in the quirky festival.
We mine through rocky trails past sweet scented osmanthus trees whose canary blossoms are used for tea and cooking. Crossing over the quieter Yulong River, we watch a flotilla of gondoliers hoist poles and navigate two-seater bamboo rafts over gentle shifts and passing beneath the shadows of statuesque rock formations. We finish with a celebration dinner at the Secret Garden, an 18-room guesthouse and restaurant along a single dirt track that comprises Jiuxian Village, five kilometers from Yangshuo town. Secret Garden is the baby of Ian Hamilton, a South African tour guide and architect, who saw the demise of ancient Qing Dynasty buildings and was inspired to reclaim and salvage a building—a feat that seemed so impossible thanks to complicated Communist bureaucracy and the country’s general foreignaverse sentiments that he was nicknamed fengzi, meaning crazy. He partnered with Faye Zhang, a Yangshuo native and tonight they are our hosts.
At the festival culmination party, we feast on panlong qiezi, aptly named dragon eggplant, a village dish of thinly sliced fried eggplant and coiled like a serpent, smothered in a sauce of minced pork, vegetables and Guilin’s famous hot chilies, and other local dishes, while a local band jams in the background. The dynamic mix of Chinese and foreigners from all parts of Asia create a brilliant weekend of kindred travelers and new friends.
IFOREGO THE NEXT DAY’S bike ride, opting for rooftop tai-chi beneath the towering karsts followed by class at the Yangshuo Cooking School. It’s a perfect morning that ends with lunch in a traditional mudbrick house in the countryside. Class begins in Yangshuo’s central market for a quick tour where I pick up a strange leafy vegetable called kumaicai that I’ve cycled past in fields. Stir-fried, it’s bitter and my new favorite vegetable. We make an easy eggplant with minced pork that reminds me of the version at the Secret Garden— slightly different, but equally delicious.
I head over to the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, a place I stayed in 2012, and anticipate another meal at a local farm restaurant in the middle of a bike trail. Back then, my friends and I sat on plastic stools in the open air, feasting on local delights: pomeloskin dumplings, delicious river snails, and pijiu yu, a local dish of river fish braised with beer, tomatoes, peppers and ginger that I find on every menu. Alas, there’s no déjà vu because the path and restaurant are gone and the road has moved. Special permits are now required for cars to enter this new scenic zone. Although the Li River is popular, I’m advised to skip it and instead take the quieter bamboo raft ride along the Yulong River that runs along the retreat. I catch a peaceful sunset cycle on the new, stone riverfront paths before dining on the same beer-braised fish as well as local taro with dried bamboo at the hotel’s restaurant.
Yangshuo is plum with small villages that disperse visiting crowds. Knowing where to go
and how to avoid crowds is crucial here. My friend, Terry Li, is a local guide and takes me to rural Fuli Village for the market that happens every three to five days according to the lunar calendar. Fuli is famous for handpainted calligraphy fans, but for me nothing is more telling of a place than its local market. Everything is sold here including fine tobacco shreds and almost every form of bamboo imaginable. There are vegetables I can’t translate and some I’ve never seen. Baskets regale full of red spikey yangmei, the irresistible tart and sweet fruit that are now in peak season. Naturally we find live fowl including ducks, geese and chickens. There is also dog meat, a specialty meant to ward off chill, and increase virility and body heat—it is extremely controversial but has long been a part of local life, explains Terry, who is also a cook. Everyone is slurping local breakfasts of mifen, or youcha—“oil tea,” a soupy wash of fried bits and condiments including pickles and chili in a bowl doused with bitter tea. I prefer noodles, but the youcha is rendered more palatable with crispy fried baba, a stamped green disk of chewy sticky-rice dough mixed with mugwort that is filled with sweet bean paste and either steamed or deep fried in giant woks.
I elevate my status and head to the nearby Banyan Tree just a short bike ride away and am robbed of sunset by the misty drizzle, but the sky is still beautiful. Everyone is drinking luohanguo tea, and in the spa it is incorporated as a part of their signature treatment. Perhaps the finest restaurant in town is in Bai Yun, the hotel’s Chinese restaurant where I have my best and favorite version of pijiu yu, and feast on another local specialty, river snails that are tender and lovely with ginger and garlic. It reminds me of the farmer’s lunch I once had and is equally delicious if not better, plus this time, I am being served in a formal dining room.
Intellectually, I’m aware that China will keep changing, but that doesn’t prevent me from feeling a bit devastated at the rapid pace I face when coming back to places like Yangshuo. I’m grateful to Bruce, Scott and Terry and of course my local hosts throughout for reminding me that there remain plenty of villages to discover—and provide a new perspective on the magnificent landscape of rivers and karsts.
Huge karsTs aPPear LIke ancIenT sPIrITs In THe HorIzon, a scenIc mounTaIn scaPe
CLOCKWISE FROM TOPLEFT: Sun sets over the karsts; mifen, Guilin's fresh rice noodles; Banyan TreeYangshuo; yangmei, known as the Chinese strawberry; class begins at the Yangshuo Cooking School; a scenic bike trail;zhutong, rice cooked in bamboo tubes.
The rugged layers of Yangshuo's mountainous horizon is reflected into the Yulong River at sunset.