Yangshuo County and Guilin, China
September 3 – 8, 2017
The next best thing to living abroad was staying at local people’s homes. I never wanted to crash on anyone’s couch, though. I put a premium on comfort and privacy – both mine and my host’s. Houses that doubled as B&Bs and hotels owned by local families were as good as it got, and both were a dime a dozen in Yangshuo and Guilin. Language barrier considered, I could stay at such accommodations only with the help of my Chinese friend Quinn. He took charge of searching and booking homestays and hotels, many of which had non-English websites. It gave me an up-close-and-personal experience, not only of the place, but of its people and culture.
It was cultural immersion from the get-go. Fresh off the high-speed train at Yangshuo Railway Station, a van whisked the Guilin Gang (Quinn, Koller, Binu, and yours truly) along a dusty dirt road to quaint Xingping, an ancient fishing village. A promenade along the riverbank led to a paved wharf where we boarded a small wooden barge. Only then it dawned on me that our homestay was in an island in the middle of Li River.
The novelty did not end there. Upon island touchdown, a red cargo tricycle whizzed toward the dock. It turned out to be our hotel shuttle! We tossed our backpacks onto the roofless cab and climbed on. We were off to a rollicking ride on a narrow road winding through the island village. With the wind on our faces, we hooted our way to our digs, Xingping Lijiang Yuan Kezhan.
The house was a concrete three-story affair, rather unlikely in a rural village, owned by a farmer named Feng Yun Fei. Across it stood a one-level house of red brick and shingles where, I surmised, the family still lived. The spanking new house was built to get a slice of the tourism pie. Similar houses were in various stages of construction in the neighborhood of farmhouses. I could foresee the future of this tiny river island.
For the time being, though, we could enjoy a bit of the old and the new. The amenities may have been updated, but the hospitality was still old school. Mr. Feng and his sister spoke almost zero English, but they conveyed the graciousness of Guangxi people so eloquently.
The lap pool in the backyard was like an oasis, irresistibly inviting after our long trip, and like a mirror, reflecting mountain and sky on its blue waters. Floating face up to looming limestone peaks gave an awesome ant-eye perspective. It was a zen moment. Never mind that Quinn, assuming I could swim well, nearly killed me by pushing me into the pool. For a split second, I thought it was the end of me – until the tip of my toe touched the bottom. The even depth, enough to get my nose above water, saved me.
Up from the balcony of our third-floor rooms, we beheld the same view at eye level. The imposing peaks seemed to have risen out of the remnant of a bamboo forest in the foreground. Nothing could get more idyllic than that. There was a sense of, not merely looking at the view, but being in it.
Despite the farmhouse’s modern amenities (air-conditioning, headboard bed, flat-screen TV, WiFi connection, heavy drapes), there was not much departure from tradition in the toilet. It was squat! I hemmed and hawed before using it. It was my first, but I was converted straight away. The deed was effortless in that position.
A large window let the air in and kept out any feeling of claustrophobia. I brushed my teeth looking out to the hazy outline of teeth-like peaks. Was I looking at a magnifying mirror? Construction of neighboring multi-level B&Bs was jostling for the view. A few years down the road, the mountains would be eclipsed by a skyline of low-rise hotels.
Meals could single-handedly beat any restaurant in quality and quantity. Our host family served home-cooked food by request. For breakfast, we brewed our own coffee using their manual coffee grinder and vacuum pot. We had our meals on a poolside table under a patio umbrella. We were carbo-loading for both brekkie and dinner consisting of a mound of rice and a bottomless bowl of noodle soup. Viands were organic harvested from and fished out of the surrounding farm and river. The sumptuous spread overwhelmed me every time, as did the local flavor.
There was no night life in this village. Darkness reduced the formerly formidable mountains into a shadowy outline against the moonlit sky. The night was young and so were we. We decided to explore beyond the property line all the way to the pebbly riverbank, guided by moonlight and, at times, our handy phone flashlight. Nothing stirred, which was a good thing, and nothing to see in the dark other than a moored wooden raft.
The next morning we bade our hosts goodbye. The cargo tricycle had been waiting out front. A tiny hitchhiker beat us to the roofless cab. After I snapped a photo, it promptly leapt up to my face to give me a memorable farewell.
Locating our next accommodations posed a bit of a challenge. Our Didi (Chinese version of Uber) ride’s GPS did not seem to work in Dong Ling Village, a farming community tucked away from the main road. Riverside Retreat Hotel was off the beaten track, isolated from the tourist belt of Yangshuo. Retreat was not a misnomer. The hotel, including its signage, was barely visible from the road, concealed by lush foliage and a flight of broad stone steps.
The moment Quinn and I entered our third-floor room, we were compelled to head out of the glass door into a wide balcony that looked out to a traditional courtyard of natural stone tiles and Chinese-style guardrails. And that iconic view. Proximity to the peaks was the draw of our Xingping homestay; in Dong Ling, it was the panorama of the wall of jagged peaks circling the basin-shaped valley of Yangshuo. Riverside Retreat served up the most spectacular sight right outside our bedroom.
As luck would have it, my trip coincided with the Ghost Month, a time when the Chinese generally put off travelling. It seemed we had the hotel to ourselves. If there were other guests, we never saw them, save for a lone middle-aged white guy who parked his motorbike out front. In keeping with tradition, Quinn cut up a watermelon. We ate half as our alfresco night cap, the other half he left in the balcony to appease hungry and mischievous spirits.
Our days were full; we never had the chance to dine in the hotel other than for a quickie brekkie. On our last morning though, a thunderstorm detained us. To kill time, Quinn found a can of ink and writing brushes at a corner. A calligraphy crash course ensued with me and Binu as his students. The unexpected rain turned out to be a stroke of serendipity.
As soon as the clouds cleared, we were off to our next homestay in Yangshuo. This time, our Didi ride found the address deep in a residential area without trouble. By then, the sun was beating down, drying up puddles on the pockmarked road into cakes of mud. Other than that, the neighborhood was gentrified yet stubbornly rustic.
Our homestay exuded the stately charm of an English manor, albeit a miniature one, rightfully called The Right View. Given our previous digs, I was convinced there was truth in advertising in Yangshuo. Parallel to the road flowed a river that was heavily silted from the recent downpour. A short distance beyond the river was the eponymous view – yet another perspective of the range of sharp peaks.
The Right View’s not-so-manicured front lawn belied the upkeep of the interior. Old World effects adorned the living room-turned-reception area: ceramic vases and figurines, wooden furniture and bookshelves, a vintage rotary telephone, a laminated globe, an ornate desk clock, even a Panama hat strategically hanging at an angle on a chair backrest. I had walked into colonial China, if not for that anachronistic flat-screen TV. Manning the grand porch was a guard dog named Xiao Hu, or Little Tiger.
The house was rented by a group of friends – three guys and a girl – who set it up as Airbnb-style accommodations. I imagined they bantered like the characters of Friends, but Chinese millennials were not as feisty. We only had glimpses of the dynamics of their friendship: the girl was in a relationship with one of the guys. The other two had man buns and were too cool to say a word.
Once again, our rooms were on the third floor. At this level, any room in Yangshuo would have “the right view.” We took adjacent rooms connected by a common balcony. Glass walls gave a sense of communion with treetops and the ubiquitous mountains. I could live here, wishful thinking.
The sunny afternoon after a rainy morning lent itself to a biking exploration of the countryside. Our lady host offered the use of rent-free bikes. I had the rugged bike path winding through forest and rice paddies all to myself. For a city biker, the struggle was real. The southern China humidity drenched me under my shirt and arm sleeves in no time. Ascending required tremendous pedal power. I went back sweaty and muddy and defeated.
One of our long-haired hosts was a chef. He whipped up dinner for us on our first night. Hosts and guests gathered around the round table. I was the sole non-Chinese speaker amidst the unintelligible chatter. The only other guest aside from my group was a middle-aged Taiwanese man. After dinner I asked Quinn what he went on about. The man had been badmouthing my country – a dangerous place teeming with robbers – right to my clueless face. I wanted to poke his bulging eyes out with my chopsticks.
Post-dinner, my friends and I repaired to the front lawn. What better place to have a philosophical discussion than under the moon and stars? Koller posed existential questions between puffs of cigarette. By ten, loverboy host announced he would be locking the front door for the night. We carried on with our discussion at the roof top well beyond midnight.
The following morning, the chef had to go to his day job. There was no in-house breakfast. Instead, our hosts lent us motorbikes to get us to a restaurant outside the village. It was a hole-in-the-wall across from a grade school. This early, schoolchildren with backpacks on – some alone, others with one of their parents – were slurping noodles. Binu was crestfallen and exclaimed, “Noodles for breakfast, seriously?” Indeed, it was too heavy for brekkie, but I said, “I’ll have what the kids are having.” The noodle soup was tasty and slurp-worthy. And filling.
Guilin was the end of the road. We spent our last night of our trip in a hotel, for a change. Weary to the bones by then, we did not mind having a room without a view. Moon Flower Hotel was an elegant boutique hotel that offered creature comforts and comfort food. The room was clean and cozy; the dining hall was sleek and chic. Mood lighting and wooden embellishments – drop ceiling, bookshelf, bar tables and stools – imbued it with a homey ambiance.
The hotel’s full-on charm was, in large part, because of its location: Lu Jia Village, a gated enclave of souvenir shops and kiosks on bikes, traditional tea houses and alfresco restaurants. Tourists and locals spilled out to the cobblestone alleys, but even vendors were uncharacteristically unhurried and subdued. There was none of the pushy salesmanship common in tourist belts. This laid-back and low-key atmosphere inspired me to do most of my souvenir shopping in the village.
Curiously, there was a maze of low concrete walls just outside the hotel. Quinn, my resource person for everything Chinese, had no explanation for it. Somehow the mysterious design fit in the maze of karst mountains that surrounded us.
Evenings in the village were brightly lit, yet daytime crowds had dissipated by sundown. We deliberated whether to have a cup of tea or one for the road. Despite the inviting neon signs, sheer exhaustion got the better of us and we called it a night.
In my travels, accommodations had merely been incidental, never a highlight. They were just places to rest my head at the end of the day. In Yangshuo and Guilin, they held their own. All shared the same view; all offered different perspectives. The farmhouse in Xingping Town and the isolated retreat in Dong Ling Village, the colonial manor in Yangshuo and the quaint-modern fusion in Lu Jia Village – all made clichéd adjectives come to life.
Kudos to my “Host with the Most” – my friend Quinn – for putting together this holistic combination of homestays and hotels. My profound gratitude.