I first visited Yangshuo in 2005 with four tiny kids in tow. My sister and her family lived in Guangzhou at the time, and the hubs had over a million frequent flyer miles from business trips, so we figured why not?
As we prepared and I told friends and family we were headed to china, I got the same response from everyone, “Why?”
After taking off from San Francisco and turning my entertainment over to the map and realizing for the first time that I was stuck on this plane for 16 hours (how had I not realized that prior to leaving?) I, too, asked myself, “Why?” What was I thinking?
Good thing China was worth every minute of that flight, which wasn’t at all awful, by the way. (Singapore airlines totally caters to children and brings them wrapped toys and ice cream intermittently.) In fact, this trip was so amazing and fantastic and educational that I keep recommending it to everyone I know.
Finally, I decided it was high time to share it here on my blog, so I can just refer everyone here.
The photos I’m sharing have not been retouched or doctored in any way. As fantastical as it looks, this is the real Yangshuo!
Picturesque is an understatement. Scenic is to Yangshuo as sandy is to the Sahara. The lush, verdant karst peaks are absolutely, mind bogglingly stunning! Here are the things you have to do when you visit Yangshuo!
7 Things You Must Do in Yangshuo, China:
Yangshuo lies at the confluence of the Li and Yulong rivers, which are a part of the waterway system that connects the Yangtze with the Pearl River Delta. The incredible geography of the area is evidence of hundreds of thousands of years of water erosion. I’ve not seen anything like the karst peaks of Yangshuo anywhere else in the world.
Karst mountains are made of limestone, dolomite, and gypsum, which are all soluble rocks. Over time, acidic water, like rainfall, breaks down the limestone and creates sinkholes, caverns, and underground drainage, which just hasten the erosion, eventually just leaving tall, sharp, limestone peaks.
Those jaw-dropping peaks, usually shrouded in mist, feature on the 20 Y banknote and have inspired Chinese landscape paintings for centuries. In China it’s known as the “finest landscape under heaven” and I can’t disagree.
Over the past five years, Yangshuo has become a tourist hotspot, more even for Chinese tourists than Western backpackers. It’s still not as busy as Guilin, though. Recent modernization has improved transportation through the area, and availability of places to stay. But the landscape is still just as incredible.
Seriously, you would think you were on a movie set if it didn’t smell like China. Those of you who have been there know exactly what I mean.
1. Hike Moon Hill.
Moon hill is about 5 miles south of Yangshuo, along G321, through the scenic Ten Mile Gallery. There is a small admission fee (about $3 USD) to access the trail, but it’s worth it. The trail is paved, with stairs cut into the mountains during the steepest parts. Some parts even had hand rails.
When you get to the viewing platform at the hole in the hill, look to your left and you’ll see a smaller trail. Just ignore the warning sign and that trail will take you to the very top of the mountain, where your reward will be the most incredible 360 degree views you can imagine. You can see for miles in every direction!
Our guide, Nancy, carried my whining 7-year-old son all the way up Moon Hill and barely broke a sweat. A couple of elderly Chinese ladies ran alongside us almost the whole way, carrying a cooler full of ice and beer, trying to sell us a cold beverage.
We stayed in a farmhouse in Moon Hill Village, right at the base of Moon Hill, surrounded by rice paddies worked by water buffalo. The scenery looked like it was straight out of a movie — too incredible to actually be real. It is truly otherworldly.
We took a taxi because we had lots of kids and luggage, but it would be a short, easy bike ride from Yangshuo. The hills in this area are full of interesting hikes besides Moon Hill as well. Just start walking in practically any direction and you’ll find something fascinating!
Keep your eyes open while you hike, because even today the peasant rice farmers around Moon Hill live in extremely primitive conditions. As you disembark the train in Yangshuo, you’ll be swarmed by Chinese men offering tours. Most of these tour guides are primarily farmers, but conduct tours for extra income. Your tour will likely include lunch at the farmers home, which will be an unforgettable experience. Some of them also rent rooms in their tiny brick huts to tourists.
The rice paddies are outlined by berms, so you can keep your feet dry no matter where you walk. The farmers and the water buffalo are friendly (and tame). And the farmers wear the woven, pointy, cone-shaped hats just exactly like in the Story of the Chinaman’s Hat. The vantage point from the hills above the towns is far better than from down low, because the farming methods create such pretty designs.
Green Lotus Peak is another fun hike in the area. Both Moon Hill and Green Lotus Peak are steep, but not very long hikes. They took us under and hour, even with the kids.
2. Cycle the back roads.
The best way to experience the beauty of Yangshuo is on a bicycle with the wind in your hair. It doesn’t really matter which direction you go, because around every corner is more lush, verdant countryside, littered with karst peaks.
Most of the hostels in the area rent bikes for a half day for around 30 Y (~$5USD). They’ll also provide you with a tourist map, outlining popular bicycle routes. The map isn’t completely accurate and isn’t drawn to scale, but it’s still a pretty good rough guide.
Check your bike over thoroughly before paying, because we encountered bikes that weren’t in great condition, and you’d hate to have your pedal fall off or a flat tire miles away from the shop. Most of the roads (aside from the karst peaks) are relatively flat and easy to cycle, and there’s not a ton of traffic, so cycling also works with kids.
Our guide, Nancy, offered to take us to Dragon’s Back River Village, where she grew up. It was about 15 miles round trip from Moon Hill village, along the Yulong River, but other than that I can’t tell you how to get there. I should have paid better attention.
On the way, we passed a brick kiln (very interesting to step inside and watch the workers), several interesting burial sites, elderly villagers (who laughed at the sight of fathers carrying babies) playing cards and talking, farmers plowing their fields with water buffalo, and so many more fascinating things that were a part of daily Chinese life.
Once we arrived in Nancy’s village, she told us about how Mao had killed all of the landowners in the area during his Long March, and how the peasant farmers (including her own family) had moved into the landowners mansion. She offered to takes us through the mansion and we jumped at the chance.
The mansion had probably twenty rooms, each inhabited by a different family. The peasant farmers had just moved their wok and their farm animals right into the mansion, and still lived together in a single room with a wok in the center. It had no plumbing or modern conveniences.
The mansion had obviously once been lavish, but over the last 80 years had suffered tremendously at being so heavily used. And yet it was still occupied to maximum capacity, with no thought for repairs or renovation. The brick huts the peasant farmers had originally occupied had succumbed to the elements, and nobody seemed to be farming the land around the mansion.
We encountered a small group of malnourished children when we stopped to eat the lunch we’d brought along. The bravest girl in the bunch — the one who first dared to approach us — looked to be about the same age as our eight-year-old daughter, and my kids wanted to befriend them. Nancy translated.
The young leader of the group was 13-years-old, just incredibly small for her age. It turns out all of them were incredibly small for their ages, and incredibly hungry. They all wore rags.
The sight of them eliminated our appetites and we gave them all of our food. That day was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever encountered. Though young at the time, my own children have never forgotten those Chinese children. You don’t find those places and see those things when you stay in the areas intended for tourists.
China tries to hide the things it doesn’t want the rest of the world to see, but you can find them by leaving the beaten path. We never would have found that exact village, nor would we have been able to walk through the landowners mansion without Nancy. But those villages are all over the Yangshuo valley, if you’ll just get off the beaten paths and keep your eyes open.
3. Cruise the river.
Yangshuo lies at the confluence of the Li River and the Yulong River. The Li is more easily accessible from Yangshuo, (the Yulong is farther south) wider and also much busier. River tours from Guilin come down the Li to Yangshuo, adding to the general chaos.
That’s why we chose to cruise the Yulong River.
These rivers are the livelihood of many older Chinese fishermen. They take their cormorant birds out to hunt fish in the evening, from about 7:00 pm until 2:00 am. The cormorants are trained to dive into the river and catch fish. Their necks are banded tightly to prevent them from swallowing the fish, however. So after catching each fish, the birds return to the boat with the catch. The owners feed the coromorants bits of cut-up fish once they’ve caught enough.
Besides being the livelihood of the fishermen, the rivers are the lifeblood of the communities that have sprung up around them. You’ll be able to watch Chinese women wash their laundry along the shallow areas, men and women transporting water via buckets hung from a limb across a persons shoulders, water buffalo drinking, and entire families living in longboats along the rivers.
You can hire a motorboat for about 60 Yuan for an hour and a half, or you can hire a bamboo raft with a gondolier-sort-of person steering and pushing behind you. I thought the rafts looked kind of rickety, so we chose the motorboat option. It still left much to be desired, safety-wise (and I’m not a worrier), because they fill each boat until the tops of the sides are level with the surface of the river, and lifejackets are unheard of.
The hubs and one of my boys were feeling ill and stayed back at the farmhouse while I took the other kids on the river cruise. All I could think for the first three minutes of the tour was my plan for saving my children and my camera. Once I had that planned, I was able to enjoy the rest of the tour. And I never needed to rescue anyone!
Our guide arranged our cruise for us, just by walking down to the river and talking with the boat owners. We didn’t arrange anything beforehand.
4. Go caving.
The area around Moon Hill is plumb littered with caves. Just down the road from the entrance of Moon Hill are Black Buddha Caves, New Water Caves and the Dragon Caves. You’ll pay 50 Yuan for a one-and-a-half-hour tour of a portion of the caves or 100 Yuan for a three-hour tour of all the caves. Admission includes a necessary hard hat and head lamp.
You can choose how far you want to go and whether you want to slog through the underground rivers — your tour guide will accommodate your preference. But all of the tours involve climbing up and down rocks and ladders as well as wading through muddy pools of water, so wear your grubbiest jeans and shoes with good tread. Even if you don’t go down the mud slide at the end of the full tour, you’ll come out pretty muddy.
We carried our 18-month-old through the caves just fine, and my other kids, ages 4-8, made it through the full tour just fine on their own. They were a little nervous going in, but exhilarated coming out. Caving was one of our favorite activities in Yangshuo.
5. Climb the karst peaks.
Yangshuo is a rock climbers dream come true. The limestone peaks that vary in difficulty from beginner to advanced levels, so there’s something for every skill level. One of the most technically difficult climbs is actually Moon Hill.
They even host a world famous climbing festival during the fall, which includes competitions, training, and all kinds of outdoor activities (Yangshuo Climbing Festival ). A day of climbing is about 200 Yuan, including a guide, the equipment, and transportation to and from the cliffs. A quick internet search will yield dozens of companies willing to set you up.
6. Explore the town.
Though not as charming as some of the older Chinese cities (like Pingyao) Yangshuo has a charm all it’s own. West Street is the most happening place in Yangshuo. The alleys adjacent to West Street are also fascinating.
You’ll find ample restaurants (both Western and Chinese), hostels, souvenir shops, shops selling local handmade goods and trinkets, nightclubs, and pretty much everything a tourist could hope for. We spent about four hours here, exploring the alleys as well as the main thoroughfare, and still didn’t see everything.
Our favorite souvenirs from Yangshuo are a chop (a chop is like a stamp, used to seal private correspondence), carved from a block of Granite with our name and the characters for double love and happiness, and a paper cut of Yangshuo scenery, personalized with our names. The beautiful craftsmanship of the artisans with shops along West Street makes for some wonderful souvenirs.
Some of the more upscale shops sell name-brand merchandise that looks pretty authentic (but I’m sure isn’t), for decent prices. I wouldn’t shop here for knock-off’s, though. We found better shopping in Hong Kong.
By day, West Street is much less crowded, but by night it turns into a teeming mass of people, shoulder to shoulder across the entire street, with techno music blaring from the nightclubs. I wouldn’t want to try to sleep in the area.
If you want to to try genuine Chinese food, find the open-air market with buckets holding frogs, snakes, monkeys rattling cages, and things I couldn’t even identify. They’ll cook you up whatever you choose in a giant wok.
If you’re sick and tired of Chinese food, you can get McDonald’s or great pizza here. McDonald’s in China is actually a lot more palatable that in the United States.
7. Eat all the yummy stuff.
We enjoyed fresh squeezed orange juice from oranges picked right off the trees in the courtyard every morning. We also ate pummelos right off the trees at the farmer’s house. We’d never eaten pummelos previously — they’re kind of like honeydew-melon-sized grapefruits, but a bit sweeter. And the skin on the sections isn’t bitter, like with grapefruits. We peeled and ate them just like oranges. Mangosteens were another favorite fruit.
We ate a ton of muslim noodles, because they were a favorite with the kids. They make the noodles from scratch and stretch them by hand. In the United States, we debone meat in dishes, while in China they just chop the entire animal as if it were a potato, bones and all, so the kids struggled with having to pick bones out of their meals. Thus the noodles.
But everything was delicious! You’ll find cuisine from all across China, from Shanghai soup dumplings to Peking Duck from Beijing. The night markets sell local fast food, like potato tornados, spicy tofu squares, dumplings, carmeled fruit kebobs, muslim grilled meat kebobs (beef or lamb), street barbecue, and all kinds of exotic fruit juices.
We learned to stay away from the pastries. As delicious as they look, they are often filled with bean curd, which did not suit our palates.
How to get to Yangshuo:
We’d already been in China for a couple of weeks when we boarded a sleeper train to Yangshuo. Now there’s a high-speed train from Guangzhou to Yangshuo, but when we went the sleeper train or the overnight bus were our only options.
The train was an adventure in and of itself. My parents and little brother, my sister and her family, and my family of six, all of us tall and white, created a stir walking through the crowded courtyard, where Chinese groups were camped around fires and seemed to have been there a long while. Many of them got up and followed us.
Having already spent several weeks in China, we were used to being the center of attention — but this was a little unnerving. We had booked hard sleepers (because they were so cheap — I think it was something like $8 per person) for the ~15 hour journey.
We didn’t realize when we booked our tickets that the hard sleeper berths were open to the rest of the train, meaning no door, meaning we had to ignore the incessant parade of every train occupant past our compartment all night. And they all wanted to pet my children’s blonde heads. We felt like a zoo exhibit.
Hard sleepers are the cheapest sleepers, usually half the price of a soft sleeper ticket. There are 6 berths in an open compartment, in 2 rows of beds stacked three high, so you have very little headroom. I hope it’s changed since then, but in 2005 the “toilet” was a hole in the floor of the back of each train car, without even a stall around it for privacy. Nor were there any sinks nor running water for washing hands afterward.
My kids were so appalled, they refused to even contemplate using the toilets.
In 2019 we spent another month in China and used lots of sleeper trains. However, we knew better and booked soft sleepers so we had private compartments. This time, each train car had an enclosed bathroom with a western style toilet, in addition to an enclosed squatty potty. I didn’t check out the hard sleeper cars, so I’m not sure if they’ve been improved or not.
For the return trip, we booked overnight bus tickets.
My sister had previously taken the bus on this route, and she described the nice, wide berths as being larger than the trains and softer, but in a similar configuration, so we just booked enough tickets for the adults in our party and figured the kids would sleep with their parents.
We thought everything would be great. We arrived, stowed our luggage underneath, and boarded the bus. That’s when we learned that the accommodations had been reconfigured. We were now stacked like leaning dominoes, at about a 45 degree angle, in hard cases shaped to keep us upright and barely wide enough for our hips, having been designed for tiny Asians.
There were three rows of stacked humans, with narrow aisles between them, in the standard bus width. The only way to share the bunk was to squish in, front to back, with scarce breathing room.
The kids were just tall enough to see over the front edge, right at the screen playing The Terminator. I think they played two Terminator movies and then turned the movies off for the night, for which we were grateful.
We generally only watched G-rated movies, so Terminator was a shock from which they could not turn their attention. In addition, we were standing/laying at this odd angle, with a child on top of each adult. It was so bad as to be almost unbelievable! I wish I had a photo to share!
Needless to say, we got zero sleep. But we did get some strange and funny memories which we have laughed about ever since!
So if you decide to book bus tickets, make sure you know what you’re getting into! That said, here’s how you can get to Yangshuo. Most people come from either Guangzhou or Guilin.
How to get to Yangshuo from Guangzhou:
1. Plane. There is no direct flight from Guangzhou to Yangshuo. You have to fly to Guilin (3 hours 50 minutes and ~$150USD), then take the bust to Yangshuo. Direct buses from the Guilin airport leave every couple of hours and cost 50RMB ($8US)
2. Bus. The bus is about 7 hours 45 minutes and costs about $25USD. It takes the most direct route, and the bus takes you directly to Yangshuo. You can purchase tickets here.
3. Train. China Railways D-Class operates a train from Guangzhou to Yangshuo once daily. Tickets cost $17 – $24 and the journey takes 2h 26m. Yangshuo Railway Station is in Xingping and NOT in Yangshuo. There are buses around the railway station which can take you to the city center in around one hour for 20Y per ticket. Or you could take a taxi for about 100 Y. You can find train times and buy your tickets on trip.com
How to get to Yangshuo from Guilin:
Guilin is a bigger hub than Yangshuo, so flights are more readily available from China’s bigger cities. Lots of people fly in and out of Guilin in order to get to Yangshuo. Guilin is only about an hour and a half north of Yangshuo.
Getting to Yangshuo from downtown Guilin is easy by getting a cheap bus from the main Guilin Train Station. They leave every ten minutes , cost 16-24 Y (about 3.50 USD) and get there in about 90 minutes.
You could also take a high speed train, but there is no train station in Yangshuo. The closes train station is in Xingping, and then you’d still need to take a bus to Yangshuo, so the bus is really the best option from Guilin.
Where to stay in Yangshuo:
We’ve found excellent accommodations in China by searching airbnb and hostelworld. Some of the most educational and authentic stays are right in people’s homes. We loved staying at the farmhouse in Moon Hill village, because we got out of the touristy realm and were able to see how real, honest-to-goodness Chinese farmers actually lived.
Our farm stay included meals, and the local police chief was a friend of the farmer and dropped in to share our lunch one day, which was interesting. We were able to peek inside the peasant farmers homes and marvel at the simplicity of their lives. We were even able to interact with the local children (though you really see so few children in China).
If you prefer to interact with young adults your own age, you’d probably rather stay at a hostel. The Yangshuo Backpackers hostel is a great option located right across the street from the Yangshuo Transport Terminal. There are also many more options on hostelworld.com.
Just make sure the hostel provides what you need, because standards of living are different in China. Many of the hostels have shared, non-western style bathrooms.
Tips for traveling in Yangshuo:
- Google is pretty much forbidden in China, so google maps won’t work. Even if you download the Google maps and try to use them offline, they often aren’t accurate. Maps.me is how you find your way around in China.
- Showing drivers your map is a great way to get around in taxis. Just enter your destination and hand your driver your phone. He’ll drop you off at the pin and probably even point you in the right direction.
- Didi is China’s version of Uber. It’s a little cheaper than a taxi, but I couldn’t get it to work with my credit card, and the drivers won’t take cash. It will let you pay through the We Chat app, if you can get that to work with your credit card. I couldn’t get it to work in Yangshuo (though I later did in Beijing), so we just took taxis and it was fine.
- I don’t know if it was just us, or all white people, but we had to be pretty aggressive with the taxis. They didn’t want to stop for us. So we’d wait for one to drop somebody off and then just jump in. Our problem was that we needed 4 taxis everywhere.
- If you’re taking taxis, make sure the driver starts the meter. Otherwise you’ll arrive at your destination and he’ll charge you an exorbitant amount. It’s become such a common scam that it’s now required by law. But I still had to remind many taxi drivers to start the meter. I’d just tap the black meter box and raise my eyebrows and the taxi driver would reluctantly start the meter.
- You can’t count on internet. Not only is it not widely available in rural areas like Yangshuo, but it is also heavily censored. It’s not called ‘The Great Firewall’ for nothing!
- You will NEED a translator app if you don’t speak Chinese. We really liked Google translate. But you have to completely download it so as not to require internet.
- Install the WeChat app, because that’s all they use in China. You’ll use it to pay for things, to get ahold of your guide, everything.
- Carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer at all times. I just bought a bunch of small packages of tissue and personal packages of sanitizing wipes at the dollar store before leaving for China. Every morning, I’d stick a package of tissue and wipes in each person’s pockets, plus we’d carry a bunch in a backpack. That way, we never ended up in a restroom without. It’s hard to remember!
- Never go to China during January (Chinese New Year) or the summer holidays, because that’s when the entire Chinese population mobilizes. Trust me when I tell you that you don’t want to travel with hordes of Chinese tourists.
How long should I stay in Yangshuo?
Three days is the bare minimum. That will give you a day to cycle the back roads and explore the area, a day to hike Moon Hill and tour the caves, and a day to discover the town. We stayed four days and I would have liked to have stayed at least a week.
Actually, we would thoroughly have enjoyed a month or more in Yangshuo. There are just so many opportunities for exploration! Don’t miss it if you’ve only got three days, but be sure to spend just as long here as you possibly can.
If you’re planning a trip to China, Yangshuo should definitely be on your list! We all unanimously voted it our very favorite stop on this China trip. In fact, having traveled to China more recently, I still say Yangshuo is my favorite. There is just no other place on the beautiful planet like it! I hope you love it as much as we did!
If you’re trying to put together your Chinese itinerary, check out the following posts:
If you’ve been to Yangshuo, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!