The Truth About Yangshuo

August 22, 2012 China 25 Comments 26,988 Views

The Truth About Yangshuo, China.

Whoever said that Yangshuo is a typical beautiful little Chinese town must really go see his physician because what you get is probably the touristiest spot you’ve ever been to.

If you’re planning a trip here, be sure to read the following article because we will only give you authentic and honest feedback on our impression of Yangshuo. Forget Loney Planet on this. We built on the writer’s impressions and fell flat on our face! What’s up Lonely Planet? Where are the honest words we got in previous guides?

Anyway, our insight won’t be embellished but only true and straightforward. I wish I had read an article just as honest before planning this trip because my destination would have definitely altered.

First impressions count.

We arrived in Yangshuo at 1am with the sleeper bus from Guangzhou. The bus ride itself was pretty comfy. If you’re not overweight or claustrophobic, it’s a great way to get a good night sleep and travel at the same time. So arriving in Yangshuo with heavy rain and no lights near the bus station was not good for a nice first impression. Luckily we knew where we wanted to go: Explorer Hotel. I read the Lonely Planet travel guide before and it said, that Explorer Hotel it was a cute & quite mid-range hotel. So we beckoned the local tuk tuk driver over and were on our way. During the 10-minute ride there, we started realizing, that this town was not a sleepy little Chinese village as we expected … Turning into the street of Explorer Hotel, it was one bar to the next with bright neon lights and loud techno music – with binge drinking highly appreciated. Seriously?! The tuk tuk driver also pissed us off when he tried to rip us off but we couldn’t be bothered and gave him the 10 Yuan more. After all, it’s been one hell of a long day and it didn’t seem to get any better.

 No fatties allowed in the sleeper bus from Guangzhou to Yangshou.
No fatties allowed in the sleeper bus from Guangzhou to Yangshuo.

After checking in, the reception lady said that our room was on the third floor … and there was no elevator. Great! Two 20kg bags (one in each hand) and up we were … only to realize, that the room was already taken by someone else. Now I started to get a little grumpy. Ulli was a bit calmer since she had been on a four-week trip through Bangladesh and therefore wouldn’t lose her temper easily. “So sorry Missy, please take room in first floor.” So we did. The room was clean with two large beds, A/C and a nice bathroom – at least this worked out, otherwise I would have needed the consultation of a Chinese Psychologist.

It can’t get any worse, can it?

The sky cleared up the next day. It was cloudy but at least the rain stopped. Still a bit edgy from what we saw last night, we wanted to give Yangshuo a second chance. It’s said that everyone deserves a second chance …  yeah … who in the world ever wrote that crap?! It was even worse than the night before. Imagine Rimini in Italy. Phuket in Thailand. Kuta in Indonesia. Or Downtown Siam Reap in Cambodia. Multiply this by 100 and you get Yangshuo in China.

West street in Yangshou has a scary resemblance to Kao San Road in Bangkok …
West street in Yangshuo has a scary resemblance to Kao San Road in Bangkok …

I really started wondering on why I wanted to come here so badly and remembered the most amazing BBC Documentary “Wild China” where Guilin and Yangshuo were described as “the most beautiful spots in China”. Yeah sure, if you have the cash to fly in with a helicopter, shoot scenes from above or land in uninhabited placed. But reality looks very (very !) different: Huge highway roads. Tourist vendors along all the streets. Thousand of bamboo raft boats on the Li River. Bars and fast food places. Gigantic hotel building blocks. And of course, thousands of tourists. No sight of traditional China.

Even the fisherman with their cormorant birds were fake. Sure, they exist but they’re just another tourist attraction. These fishermen don’t make their money by selling the daily catch on the local market anymore. Much rather, they wait along the Li River for tourists to pass, who pay them to display their cormorant birds. By the way, the birds also look a bit pissed since no one lets them catch fish anymore…

A fisherman with his Cormorant waiting for customers.
A fisherman with his Cormorant waiting for customers.

I hope I was able to give you an insight on our impressions. Clearly you need to see a place yourself to fully understand the words but I think we did a good job filling in the blanks. Yangshuo once was a beautiful town worth a UNESCO World Heritage Site but obviously the development of the last 30 years didn’t make the area any better (in our opinion); the view of the karst mountain landscape is interrupted by signs, electric wires, (lots of) plastic rubbish and all sorts of tourist attractions. One thing is for sure … to get the picture perfect shot; you’d have to be a master at Photoshop.

Lijiang-River-Yangshou-Guangxi-China-1
Appearances can be deceiving.

All in all, the first day here had a few down sides but also a very nice up side: Moon Hill was fantastic. This place needs muscle and stamina to access so the crowds up there are thinning. Other than than, we also visited the Silver Cave, which was a nightmare as well before heading up North to the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces – definitely the highlight of our trip!

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“The Truth About Yangshuo, China.”

  1. That’s such a shame to hear, especially since Sally at UnbraveGirl just posted very similar things about Yangshuo. At least you’ve got some great photos though! Also, friendly fyi, it’s YangshUO, not Yangshou :)

  2. Nisa

    Hi Edna!
    Yeah, it was a bit of a bummer but oh well … this happens when you visit places you’ve never been to before ;) It all turned out ok, because we had some amazing days at the Longji Rice Terraces. Really a stunning place! I uploaded a couple of photos to our flickr account and will publish an article as soon as I’m home.
    All the best,
    Nisa
    P.S. Thanks for the hint ;)

  3. I’m actually really glad you posted this article. We are pro photographers and we’ve wanted to see this part of China for a while. But not many people let you see the reality behind the lens. (i admit sometimes we do it too, i raise a guilty hand because i’m a photoshop wizard)

    I think we will still visit Yangshuo but its good to have the heads up. We traveled India as well and you get a lot of disappointment there as well.

    Great Pics, Great Blog.

    J

  4. Hwy Jmayel. Same here, I’m a bit of a Photoshop master too and of course, we try to get the best out of every single shot…
    I’m glad you liked the article. I’m mean, I’m sure that if you have a bit more time to travel around the area around Yanghuo, there are amazing spots as well. But since we only had two weeks total, we decided to hit the road asap. I’m sure you’ll have a great time there but as you said, it’s always good to have a heads up ;)
    What part of India did you travel to? So far we’ve only had amazing experiences there.
    Cheers, Nisa

  5. While your assessment of the town is on the money I do think you have made the classic mistake of judging the book (the greater Yangshuo region) by its cover (West Street and surrounds). I live there for 1,5 years some 10 years ago and indeed the town itself has been wrecked beyond compare but that has not affected the stunning beauty of the region which does and should count as among the most beautiful in China. Unlike Halong Bay in Vietnam where you have minimal escape options since you are mostly stuck on a boat, in Yangshuo all it takes is a 20-30 minute bike ride and you will be alone in the countryside, peddling past tiny settlements and into a visual paradise. Had you made that effort instead of bolting at the first sign of commercial pandemonium, your assessment would likely have been very different. Maybe refrain from putting people off until you have spent a bit more time in a place. The same goes for all those negative reviews of Phuket, Halong, Goa, etc etc. The payoff is as great as the effort you put in. In these times of mass travel what makes you think you can just show up in a stunning and accessible place and find it unspoiled and undeveloped or non-commercial?

  6. Hello Marc!

    First of all, thank a lot for your honest comment, I really appreciate it.

    I agree with you, that the area is absolutely stunning. The karst mountains and the landscape itself is beautiful! That was actually the reason why I wanted to visit in the first place. I wasn’t disappointed with the landscape at all, but with what mass tourism has made out of it…Yes, you might not be stuck on a boat like in Ha Long Bay, but there is no doubt about the fact, that mass tourism doesn’t help the beautiful landscape in the Yangshuo area…

    We did leave the main town of Yanghuo (that was actually the first thing we did after spending some time there) and well, there were still tourist all over the place. Sure, we would have found some unspoiled spots for sure, but we didn’t have enough time to get there. And this what I’m sorry for, because first impressions do count, and this is a fact.
    I don’t want to put anyone off from doing anything, BUT I simply wanted to write an honest review of the experiences we encountered there. And this is what I did. Further more, there were places I really did enjoy around Yangshuo, like Moon Hill for example. But the reason why this place is still free from crowds of people, is because you actually have to move a little bit…
    Also, this doesn’t mean that the entire Guangxi region is like this – and I never mentioned anything closely to this. I’d love to visit other areas, but all I’m saying is, that Yangshuo is definitely not the place for us. Honestly, if I would have known that Yangshuo was a town like the one we came across, we would have NEVER travelled there but instead would have stuck to little villages like we usually do. But the reviews I read didn’t say a lot about this, rather people wrote that Guilin was a town to skip (we wanted to visit this town first). Turn out, we did enjoy Guilin for the short time we were there… So I also learned something: “Stick to your guts and do as you know best.”

    Mass tourism at famous sights (not only in China of course) means lots and lots of people. And this destroys beautiful places. For example: We visited the Longji rice terraces a couple of days after Yangshuo and it was the most beautiful area. Really impressive and I could have wandered around there for days. BUT, the government is building a tram way all the way up the rice terraces, so that there is no need for a three hour walk through the stunning landscape area anymore. This will definitely destroy this part of China too and make Dazhai into another tourist town like thousands of others before. And for me personally, this is a sad thing and makes travelling less fun (at least for the kind of travelling that we enjoy).

    I don’t expect to find unspoiled places easily. Believe me, I’ve been traveling all my life and I know how to get to these kind of spots. Yangshuo simply disappointed me, but that won’t keep me from traveling the region again, because it’s just one of the few cities there…

    Best, Nisa

  7. I think you really need to base yourself in Yangshuo and get a scooter or bike and go into the countryside everyday or stay in a less touristy town

  8. Nisa

    Definitely the right way to do it Alexi & Paul.
    Still, it was a bit weird to visit Yangshuo which turned out to be the most touristy spot ever. We just didn’t expect this in the middle of China, because we’ve read, heard and seen different; we’re not fans of guide books, but when visiting an area for the first time, we always check out what other people write about … and well, Yangshuo was definitely described differently then how it was, that’s why we wanted to write out honest opinions.
    As said though, the area around is beautiful and worth seeing…
    Best, Nisa

  9. Anna

    Stumbled upon your blog and I really agree with Marc! I even think Yangshuo is much better than the Longji Rice Terraces. I visited them both in 2007 (and Yangshuo again in 2009) and like Marc said: I so easy to escape the busy crowds in Yangshuo. Just stay half an hour out of town and no laowai or Chinese tourist to see! The Longji Rice terraces, now that’s something I would call a tourist trap. You jus’t cant escape the crowds.
    I LOVE the design of your website by the way (really!). Did you design it yourself?

  10. Nisa

    Hi Anna!

    Thanks so much for your comment.
    As said before, this is just my/our personal opinion. I’m positive that there are wonderful places around Yangshuo – maybe we missed them when travelling the outskirts… for us, the Longji Rice Terraces were far from a tourist trap. Maybe it depends on the village you stay at – there’s a lot all over the place. Anyway, this is also just our view of our visit there last year. We want to travel to Guangxi again, to see more of the country side. I definitely agree that one can’t see it all in just 2 weeks and that there are places off the beaten path – whether around Yangshuo or the Longji Rice Terraces :)

    Thanks also for your lovely words about the blog. The design was made by Ines Gamler (www.purepleasuredesign.com). We’re actually working on the re-design with her at the moment and we can’t wait to launch the new site :D

    Take care & all the best,
    Nisa

  11. VoicePhotos

    This post simply described what the place is and gives the travelers a head up and stick to your instinct and judgement instead of blindly trust what they said. Well executed.

  12. Nisa

    Thanks. As said before, everyone has to make his/her own picture and this is just what we experienced. And we would have been very grateful for an honest review and then at least we would have known what to expect…

  13. I just came back from Yangshuo. I read your blog before going there, and thought you’re exaggerating – after coming back, I totally agree with you. I went in July, which is one of the main travelling seasons in China – so maybe there were more people than usually. Some colleagues went around May and recommended going to Yangshuo. Personally, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it. We did find some nice areas for cycling, but only after crossing the town full of cars and smog for 1 hour – this wasn’t the enjoyable bike ride we envisaged. The first night at West Street was interesting, then we just got bored with it – it’s no fun trying to squeeze through. I think I was less disappointed that other travellers due to reading your blog, there were a lot of other people who told me that it’s not what they expected, after listening to stories from people who went a few years ago. I think anyone saying that the description isn’t true as they went themselves a few years ago – this is China – things change very quickly, and the numbers of tourists are increasing rapidly. Also on a side note, while our hotel a bit outside was great, this was the only place in China where I was actually screamed at by sales people for apparently thinking too much before handing over our money to them (relating to a raft ride) – those people didn’t show any friendliness to foreign tourists. Saying that, I still enjoyed my time, but it was good to be pre-warned and to not expect a beautiful serene town – I think there are a lot of nicer areas of China that might be more suitable to Western travellers right now.

  14. Nisa

    Hey B!
    Thanks for your comment & sharing your experiences.
    As I said many times before, every person is different and also looks for different things when travelling. I admit that when I wrote the article, just after I left Yangshuo and felt totally disappointing, yet I still feel like I wrote exactly what it was like there. Some people might think I’m over-reacting or exaggerating, but when I think back, I still feel the same way about Yangshuo. And all I want it to give people a heads-up an an honest impression – simply because I would have really appreciated it too. At some point, I will try to give it a second chance … with a back-up plan at hand if course :)
    Mass tourism is a realy problem in my opinion. Not for those who are used to it…but if you expect something completely different (due to recommended articles and photos), one can only feel disappointing. This is not the first time something like this happened to us in China. As you said, there are many people, and a lot happens in a couple of years (or even months).
    Yes, there are a lot of nicer areas in China – right now we came from Kunming and the area and surroundings there are totally stunning!
    Glad you still enjoyed your time.
    Best, Nisa

  15. Quite a storytelling you did right there. I appreciate it. But hey, if you go to a place that is printed on the national money you can expect something like that. I rented a bicycle and went to cycle and follow some of the rivers. The bicycle costed 10 yuan for a day. I came across beautiful local areas and nice remote places. Some places in China have a good reason to be so crowded. But hey, if you put some effort in discovering you will find the ‘not so commercial nice places’ in this touristic areas. At least the hostels are cheap in Yangshuo and they didn’t put a fence around the Li river as they did for every mountain in Guilin and ask at least for 80 yuan entrance. That really brook my heart. Once again, thanks for sharing your experience! Henk

  16. Nisa

    Hey Henk! Thanks for your comment! Definitely true what you say and of course millions of tourists want to see what the real thing looks like. Mass tourism in China is just like this, and of course there are areas outside of Yangshuo that are well worth a trip. But I wanted to show what Yangshuo is like, and these are all facts. Yangshuo is a good stepping off point, but not a city/town that holds up to what many other articles, books and blogs write about… at least that’s our opinion.

  17. Larry

    I had a totally different experience, and I think that you are focusing too much on the negative.

    When I visited Yangshuo, I too came from Guangzhou (where I was living) and I came by train, to Guilin. I spent a lovely, interesting afternoon in that city, spent the night, and went to Yangshuo by bus the next morning. I had booked a room in a budget hotel there. A friendly representative of the hotel met me at the bus station and walked me to my hotel, where my room was ready for me, nice, clean and a bargain for the price.

    Yangshuo itself is only very touristy on West Street. If you wander from the tourist zone, you find many quiet streets with an authentic, Guangxi small town feel to them.

    My hotel was not on West Street, so it was quiet and tranquil. I only walked down West Street once, and I enjoyed it for its lively kitsch value. However, that was my one and only time to go there becaaaauuuuussse……. one does not go to Yangshuo to see Yangshuo! It’s not, any more than one visits Siem Reap to see Siem Reap. The town is not the point. It’s just the place where you sleep, eat in the morning, and eat and have drinksat night. During the day you should be OUT of Yangshuo– on a rented bicycle, or on a riverboat, in the nearby countryside. I can’t imagine how anybody who does this could not have a heavenly stay there.

    I went during China’s Golden Week, when tourism is at a fever pitch. Yet, once I got on my bike and rode out into the country paths, by the rice paddies, on the riverbanks, I hardly ever saw another tourist. What I saw were local farmers, rural villagers and children who lived there and happily posed for my camera. It was the realest China that I have ever seen– and I have traveled extensively throughout China.

    Right now I am living in Shanghai, and I will take the train to Guilin tomorrow for a repeat visit to Yangshuo. I am because it is again Golden Week, and Yangshuo the only place in China that I have visited on Golden Week where I can get on a bike and easily escape the crowds in what is the most beautiful, exotic landscape that I have ever seen— in any of the 30 countries that I have visited.

  18. Nisa

    Hi Larry!
    Thanks for your thorough comment! Different perspectives and experience occur of course and that’s what travelling and re-visiting is all about. You’re right, Yangshuo is the stepping off point for the surrounding areas, but you can trust us, we didn’t spend our time around West Street. We booked a hotel there, because we “listened” to some so called “experiences Lonely Travel writer” (btw this was the last time we travelled with a LP). And no, Yangshuo is not only touristy around West Street.
    We rented bicycles, we checked out the area away from Yangshuo town – by foot, motorbike and as mentioned bicycle: there are hundreds of tourists, roaming the streets. I think I’ll brows through the old photos again and I’ll upload a few so that you understand why we didn’t enjoy this place. On the contrary: we wrote, that Moon Hill for example was amazing – not only because of the beautiful landscape, but especially because of the lack of tourists. I’m sure that we’ll re-visit the Guangxi area again, but still, we won’t have Yangshuo as a stepping off point, simply because what we’ve seen and experienced, there are many nicer and traditional towns around it.
    i’m glad that you enjoyed it much more and I’m sure many others do so as well. For us, there are other places in the world that give us many more goose bumps…

  19. Angela

    Hi Nisa,
    I like this blog very much.
    It’s interesting that you accuse Yangshuo as being westernized and not real China. Everyone has his/her own definition of what real is, and being partly westernized is “real” for most of the developing countries, as they’re developing. West Street surely will be westernized, as its name shows. Why it gets this name is because there were quite a few westerners went to Yangshuo in the earlier times and settled down, opened the hostels/cafes there, making the street graduately “exotic” to Chinese. Later on it became a traveler’s ghetto and more commercialized. So it’s very real from a a dynamic perspective of local development. (That doesn’t mean I personally like it). It was not kept in a museum sense.
    As for the cormorant show, it was real too. It used to be the way of living for the locals but now there was no fish to catch (because of the dams and other projects), so the government thought it would be good to put it into a show to keep this skill from extinction. No young men will stay there and do the fishing that way, so they preserve it in a museum sense. So it is fake anyway? I’m speaking for what they do there. I just feel interesting to discuss the definition of “real” and “authentic” in the traveler’s eyes. How can we judge what is real and what is not, have we done enough investigation for that? Did we ask the local people for their ideas? Did we discuss this with other travelers, western or maybe Chinese? What makes it to become what it is now? Is it for the local’s good? Or our judgement depends only on our own stereotype of being what “should be” there?
    I’m a Chinese traveler traveling quite a lot of places and I always ask myself those kinds of questions. I don’t like mass tourism either, but I do support the development if it is for the good of the locals. I like this blog and also the warm discussions here, that’s why I brought up these questions:)

  20. Angela

    modification: I’m NOT speaking for what they do there. sorry!

  21. Nisa

    Hey Angela!

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a long comment. I really like the fact that this issue is an invitation for discussions :)

    I’m not accusing anyone of anything. As you said, there are different opinions, and this one is ours. We’ve travelled all over China and in fact, most parts the world, therefore, we’re confident enough to say, that this mass tourism in Yangshuo (and many many other places in the world) have nothing to do with traditions. If it’s good for the locals, then sure, one could argue that it all goes into a positive direction. But mass tourism houses many dangers as well: pollution for example. But these issues don’t matter at the time being, because only the positive side is seen. I gut where you’re coming from and I agree with a lot of your points. I’ve spoken to many fellow travellers (international and Chinese as well) and this kind of tourism is the most normal thing in China. People used to these masses and therefore there’s no sort of negative touch. But for individual travellers like us, this is just nothing we want to promote.

    For example, we’ve travelled to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces after we left Yangshuo. These rice terraces and the landscape was spectacular! Really absolutely amazing! But you know what they’re building there (I’m guessing that by now, it’s long been finished)? A gigantic cable car from the parking lot to viewpoint Nr. 3 (which is the most famous one)! So now you have the opportunity to chose between a ride with the cable car, or being carried up by four strong men on a palanquin. That’s can’t be good!?! Especially not in the long run. Not only for nature and the environment, but also for the locals there.

    We accept and respect everyone’s opinion and views. We’re just not up for promoting this sort of tourism, because we believe that it’s not the right thing.

    Take care & all the best!

  22. Sange

    I totally understand and appreciate what Angela says. Nisa your perspective is very typically western. Unable to see beyond the stereo-typical western idea of a thing.
    What’s real to the locals, one must give a thought to that – its after all their country.
    On the cormorant fishing- what should be done– the young aspiring locals should continue in that old slow fishing process and remain poor, while the rich world depletes oceans and rivers of all fish? So that rich international tourists can enjoy the authentic cormorant fishing one touristy day in their life time? Or the old interesting way of fishing should be showcased so that all visitors get a taste of history?
    Why should the rest of the world be like the west – quiet, few people, no crowds, its not even enjoyable that way.
    I am from India and travel a lot. I will be in Yangshuo in mid June. And really hope to enjoy it- crowds, blaring music, et al.
    I dont mean to be harsh just clear.
    Keep traveling Nisa and blogging so that the net becomes more interesting palce to visit with its myriad views and perspectives.

  23. Nisa

    Thanks for your comment Sange!

    You’re not being harsh, just expressing your opinion and I respect that. But I find it interesting that you think that my perspective is typically western. You did brows though this blog, right? Because if you had, then you’d know that we’re far away from your average western traveller. But ok, that’s not up for discussion here. I’m talking about, our experience, our views and our opinion, which is just as allowed as any others.
    Every local can do as they like. But you don’t honestly think, that every local benefits from this kind of mass tourism? Or that the local community is asked by the government whether or not the new bridge, that will allow thousands of buses to access the area easier, should be built? In 99% of the cases, they’re not asked. Whether in China, India, Austria or anywhere else on the planet. The ones who benefit, are only a hand full of people. And they’re not interested in for example improving the poor population’s living standard. Benefit is all that matters. And mass tourism is the best way to benefit. Who cares about nature, or the environment? Who cares if the rivers are polluted or forest are cut down for the next souvenir shop? The powerful and rich don’t, that’s for sure. The people living there do, but have no choice but to accept and adapt. This is what we’ve experienced throughout the last two decades of travelling around the world. We’ve talked to so many people – old, young, rich, poor, educated and uneducated. Many people simply don’t have a choice. And of course they will try to make the best out of it, which is just what they should. I could go on for ages, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I think that you get where we’re coming from :)

    Let me know how your trip to Yangshuo was. Would really love to get your views and perspective on the place.

    Take care!

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