Yangshuo and Guilin Trip Recap

November 17, 2015
Over the Chinese National Holiday in early October, my friend Scott and I booked a trip to Yangshuo and Guilin, China. We were warned several times to not travel at all during any Chinese National Holiday because, "Everything will be crowded and all of the prices will be hiked up." Most places did charge us twice what we would have usually paid, but since we live and work in China we had the options to either brave the crowds and pay a bit more or just not go at all. We didn't like the second choice, so we decided to take our chances. This trip was fun, but we had our fair share of traveling mishaps! Don't get me wrong--we are not bitter and totally laugh over our bad luck. Below, I'll highlight the events of our trip, but won't sugarcoat anything!

It all started when we booked our flight to Guilin from Shanghai. Scott and I sat next to each other while booking our flight, but we needed to book separately. We agreed on a morning flight to maximize our time there, only Scott messed up and booked a flight at night! He tried to blame me because I was talking to him at the time, but later on he admitted, "I was bad at military time when I first got here." He ended up having to call the company he booked through to cancel and had to pay a big fee on top of it. It took awhile for him to sort that out and because we were traveling during a peak tourist season, the flight I was on ended up getting sold out so he ended up having to get a flight that only left slightly earlier than the one he originally had (and then canceled.) When I booked my flight, I thought everything went seamlessly...that is, until I saw that I had been doubly charged! When I called to get it straightened out, the representative acted like she didn't believe me and then made me forward her a copy of my bank statement. They said it would be refunded within ten business days, but it took over a month! At least I got my money, but it was nerve-wracking waiting for it.

On that same day, we called to book our accommodation at The Giggling Tree. Several teachers from our school stayed there before and recommended it. We were worried that nothing would be available for us, but we felt so lucky because when I called they had one double room left on the days we needed it. I kept asking the receptionist to take my credit card information to be sure it was reserved, but she told me that it was all taken care of and to just pay in cash when we got there. Score! Fast forward a few weeks to when Scott and I wanted to book airport pickup (at two separate times, mind you!) through our guesthouse. They e-mailed Scott back and said they had no record of us ever calling and that there were no rooms left for us to stay in. This made us panic because it was the ninth hour and every decent spot was probably already booked. I was fuming, but then the staff at The Giggling Tree tried to make it right, so I calmed down. Mistakes happen, so the important thing is that at least they were trying to fix the problem instead of not helping at all. We were offered a room in their friend's house which was just a few steps away from The Giggling Tree, and we were allowed to use all of The Giggling Tree's facilities and had the option to switch rooms and stay at the guesthouse later on. We decided not to do that because we didn't feel like moving our stuff. All was resolved!

The Giggling Tree
The day we left to fly out, we left at 4:30 AM to go to the airport. We didn't want to each have to pay the cab fare since it takes about an hour from where we live to get to the airport in Pudong, and Scott was going to try to get onto my flight. When we got to the airport, Scott realized that was impossible because there were about 10 people on stand-by in front of him AND he would still have to pay a fee. He had to spend the day in the airport. While we were still both there, we chatted with another group of teachers from our school going to Guilin and found out that one of the guys typed his name wrong by accident when he was booking his ticket. It was only one letter off and it was just a typo, but because his name on his ticket didn't match the name on his passport, he was not permitted to board the plane. I felt so bad for him!

I got to Guilin and checked into our room, which was just part of a Chinese family's house. The lady that dealt with me was all smiles, super friendly, and insisted on carrying my suitcase up the stairs for me. The rooms were clean, but the only thing I didn't really care for was the Chinese toilet. I can deal with squatting from time to time, but would much rather have had a Western style toilet. The bad part was that it smelled strongly of urine.

When Scott arrived, the two of us had a lovely dinner at The Giggling Tree and both of us were in really good moods because we were on vacation and the weather was so nice. In Shanghai for the past few days, there was a terrible monsoon so it was non-stop rain. Just to see the sun again made me instantly happy! We were both tired, but decided to go to the Yangshuo Impression Sanjie Lu Light Show, anyway. When I heard the words "light show," I wasn't that interested at first, but then Scott told me that hundreds of the local townspeople are involved and it's a big deal. Also, the backdrop for this performance is in a beautiful, natural setting. I guess the lights for it were done by a man named Zhang Yimao who did the lights for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. We were in culture shock a little bit when it came to the audience members. Many people were moving from their assigned seats and there was a group of drunk people to the right of us that were kind of loud, but the show itself was spectacular. It was cool to see the women from the Yao minority group let down their long hair. Some women have hair over 5 feet long!

The next day, we wanted to ride bikes around Yangshuo and go on a bamboo raft down the Yulong River. We found out that The Giggling Tree had these books of pictures showing how to get to the 500 year old Dragon Bridge. Those books were brilliant, and without them we would have gotten lost for sure. On the way to Dragon Bridge, we passed through some local villages and took in exquisite views of the countryside--think rice fields, limestone karst, water buffalo, and mountains. We were worried that it was going to be too crowded because of the national holiday, but there was really only one congested area. In that section, there was a traffic jam and it was hard to maneuver around it. At one point a lady selling souvenirs to passengers in cars suddenly stepped out in front of me  and when I swerved to avoid her, I fell off my bike. I was completely off of the road and on the ground in a pile of weeds. My ankle was a little sore, but I was more embarrassed than anything else, and it did not help that about 20 Chinese people were laughing at me, including the lady that I had to swerve for! At least now I can laugh about how they were laughing at me. Besides my fall, the rest of our bike ride was an enjoyable experience.

Once we got to Dragon Bridge, we kept following the directions in our book in order to find just where to go for the bamboo rafting experience. Most rafts have seats for two people and then a man will stand in the back and use a long piece of bamboo to guide you along. We could put our feet down on the raft most of the time, but sometimes part of the raft was submerged, especially when we went over these little drops. For the first drop, we were a smidge nervous, but once we saw how our guide handled the drop, they became fun for us. We just had to hold onto our belongings and be prepared for getting splashed.

Our cruise down the river was really relaxing and there weren't even that many tourists until the end. The staff members at The Giggling Tree told us that most Chinese tourists don't like to do the full tour, but instead will get on the raft for 5 minutes just to get a picture and then hop off. Besides admiring the scenery of the Yulong River, which is depicted on the 20 yuan note, we also saw many brides getting photographed that day.

The next day, we decided to get up super early to get a taxi to the bus station so that we could go to the Longji Rice Terraces. After riding on the bus for hours in the traffic, we stopped at a bus station to transfer to a local bus. It was packed full of Chinese tour groups, and we were stuck there for another hour. We stopped for lunch, and Scott and I tried rice cooked in a bamboo shoot, which is a local speciality. Scott loves meat, so he also tried chicken cooked that way, but I'm squeamish about which parts of the chicken I eat, so I passed and went for a vegetarian option.

After lunch, we had to get on another bus to get to the rice terraces and we dropped off at Ping'an Village. Members of the Zhuhang and Yao minority groups were selling beautiful souvenirs such as embroidered bags. Then we started ascending the rice terrace. I started to get really, really overheated, and that's sad coming from someone who just spent a year living in the deep South. I started shaking and feeling ill from the heat, and could not keep up with Scott, so I told him to go on ahead of me. I sat down for awhile, cooled off, and drank some water and then started to feel a little better. After what an ordeal it was to get there, I didn't want to quit! At a snail's pace, I started going up the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers rice terrace. The view was stunningly beautiful and the rice terraces in this region are said to be some of the best scenery in all of China, so I'm glad I made myself. Scott ended up going to the Seven Stars Around the Moon rice terraces as well, but I was seriously worried about heat stroke, so I didn't want to play with fire.

We took two different buses back to where we had stopped earlier that day and then instead of going back to Yangshuo, we got on the bus to Guilin. We were told it would be an hour's drive back to Guilin, so at that point I chugged over a liter of water because I was worried that I was severely dehydrated. About a half-hour into the trip, I had to go to the bathroom, but then told myself to hold it for the next half-hour. Well, two hours had passed, and I thought my bladder was going to burst. I found someone who spoke English and asked them how much longer, and they told me that because of traffic, it would be at least an hour more. At that point, I asked the man who spoke English to ask the bus driver if we could stop. Maybe that was selfish of me, but I had to at least ask. The reply was, "This is the night bus. On the night bus, there are no stops." At that point, I must confess that I cried for my first and only time so far here in China. I mean, it was physically painful. I considered peeing my pants or hopping off the bus and calling The Giggling Tree to send me a taxi, but somehow I managed to hold it. I bolted off the bus and didn't even mind the appalling condition of the public restroom at the bus station! I learned my lesson on this one!

Guilin wasn't too eventful for us because it poured for three days straight. We tried to go out and explore as much as we could, but the weather put a damper on things for us. We did make it to Elephant Trunk Hill and to see some pagodas, but we ended up spending a lot of time Guilin Central Hostel's restaurant/cafe. The 5 star hotel we were staying at was kind of gross, to tell you the truth. It was supposed to have a hot spring and instead it had a festering pool. The view from our window was piles of trash--kid you not! To top it all off, we paid for a breakfast for each day we would we staying, and both of us got food poisoning from it! We pretty much tried to get out of our hotel as much as possible and made Guilin Central Hostel our sanctuary! We also did a few other things like get a massage from a reflexologist and walk around town, but that's about it.

On our trip, we did some awesome things, but also had some less than stellar moments. By the end of it, we were ready to be back in Shanghai!


* Like everyone told us, you will likely have a more enjoyable time if don't go during a Chinese National Holiday. There will be less traffic and you won't have to deal with inflated prices or as many crowds. Although we are still both glad we went on this trip, it would have been preferable to go at another time.

* Know that Yangshuo is the Chinese countryside and full of picturesque scenery. Guilin has some attractions, but it's a decent size and has about 800,000 inhabitants. Looking back, we wish we would have stayed in Yangshuo longer. We thought that there was more to do in Guilin, but we could have done with another day of bike riding in Yangshuo!

* Limit what you drink before a bus ride, even if it's supposed to just be a short one...you never know!

* Book at a hostel or guesthouse where the staff is willing to book stuff for you/they speak English. We stayed at an "international hotel" in Guilin and really regretted it.

* When you go on tours, take snacks with you from home if you're a picky eater.

* Carry tissue and hand sanitizer with you because most Chinese public restrooms are not going to have soap or toilet paper.

* Bring layers. Although this is a useful tip for almost any trip, there was a dramatic drop in temperature from one day to the next. I would have been shivering without the fleece I brought and almost didn't bring since I just brought a carry on.

* Bring sunscreen! At first, it was so hot and sunny and all I could find for sale were hats and umbrellas--no sunscreen. Again, I naively thought I could pick up a bottle of sunscreen there because my sunscreen is over the limit of 100 mL that's allowed in a carry on bag.

I usually like almost every place I visit, but I was underwhelmed by Guilin. The weather and our accommodation definitely played into this, but I think Guilin is one of the few places I don't have a desire to go back and visit. Yangshuo, on the other hand, is simply delightful!

Where would you like to go in China? Have you ever been disappointed by somewhere you visited? 
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