If you’re planning on travelling through Southern China, you’ve probably heard of Yangshuo.
It’s a tourist hot spot about 65 km southwest of Guilin.
While Yangshuo is packed with activities and things to do, what most foreign travelers have heard about it tends to be a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.
I’d like to set the record straight.
Yangshuo has transformed
A once sleepy mountain retreat and fishing village (present population 300,000), in the last decade, Yangshuo has been transformed by China’s domestic tourism boom.
In peak holiday season, tourists in the city center appear to regularly outnumber locals. And wherever the convoy of tour buses go, crowds and chaos follow.
So, is Yangshuo still worth visiting?
In my humble opinion? Absolutely! And for one very good reason.
Yangshuo’s landscapes are an overwhelming sight, beautiful almost beyond imagination.
I’ve traveled throughout the Himalayas and the Andes, and I can honestly say the mountain scenery of Yangshuo is among the most breathtaking I have ever laid eyes on.
A Chinese watercolor painting brought to life, Yangshuo County is surrounded by thousands of majestic karst limestone formations.
Shrouded in mist, jagged mountain peaks rise from the flat plains of rural Guangxi Province.
The town, consisting of little more than a few traffic-choked main streets, remains surrounded by astonishingly undeveloped countryside.
To truly experience what makes Yangshuo one of the most spectacular destinations in China, trying out some of these seven activities will prove that the legendary, laidback Yangshuo of old still exists – and it is awesome!
1. Hike among the hills
With heavenly scenery in every direction and mild weather almost all year round, Yangshuo is 100% an active, outdoor destination. To see Yangshuo at its best, all you need is walk.
Yangshuo is perfect for hiking fans. It has numerous trails from short, level strolls in the countryside to heart-rate raising, all-day hill climbs.
If you don’t have time to embark on a multi-day trek, the 6 km Yangshuo to Yulong River hike is a must-do.
The walk takes you through the serene farmlands of the Yulong Valley.
Some of the most dramatic karst scenery in the area forms the backdrop to the Yulong River. The walk passes by the 600-year-old stone Yulong Bridge, a remnant from the Ming Dynasty.
2. Cycle through the countryside
Yangshuo is paradise for cyclists.
While it attracts its fair share of hardcore two-wheeled tourers who bring their own bikes and set off for days through the winding, mountain backroads, Yangshuo has stunning cycling routes to suit every level of ability.
Just outside of town, wide, flat, car-free walking and cycling paths make riding around rural Yangshuo as relaxed as can be.
One of the most popular routes is the 30 km, two-hour Li River Circuit.
It follows a long, languid stretch of the Li before looping through the mountains on the way back into town.
You can easily hire a bike from one of the many rental shops in town. Many guesthouses and hostels offer bikes to their guests free, or for a small fee.
3. Go rock climbing
If you’re rock climbing mad, you only need to glimpse Yangshuo’s craggy, vertical limestone cliffs to know the heights of these majestic mountains were made to be scaled.
After being ‘discovered’ by foreign climbers in the 1990s, today, Yangshuo is the most popular rock climbing destination in China.
With more than 800 climbs mapped out on its mountains, routes range from basic to brutal.
Guides, short lessons, longer courses and equipment hire are available from a few dedicated operators in town.
4. Enjoy bamboo rafting on the Yulong River
When it comes to water-based activities, most tourists opt for a motorised boat ride along the legendary Li River. As splendid as the Li is, it does get pretty crowded at times.
For a much calmer, slower paced river experience, try bamboo rafting along the Yulong, a tributary of the Li.
Like the Li, the banks of the Yulong are lined with karst formations covered in lush, emerald green vegetation.
Along the way, your oarsman will navigate through several small drops, adding a bit of extra excitement along the way.
5. Experience drifting down the Longjing River
About 30 km outside of Yangshuo is a scenic spot along the banks of the Longjing River. It’s where one of Yangshuo’s more white-knuckle activities takes place.
You board a two-person raft, grab hold of the handles on either side… and then wait.
All of a sudden, a tidal wave of whitewater rushes towards you as a torrent of water is released from the nearby Longjing River Dam (usually fixed at three times per day). It propels you at rapid speed down the river.
This is where the ‘drifting’ comes in. It’s not exactly whitewater rafting, since you have no paddles and basically no control!
All you can do is hang on and enjoy what is a wild slip and slide of a ride.
As you’re sent gushing through a series of narrow rocky ravines and miniature cascades, you’ll be surrounded on all sides by lush forest scenery.
Drifting down the Longjing River is one of the best things to do in Yangshuo.
6. Join a landscape painting class
Landscape artists have always been among the most distinguished of Chinese painters. After all, recreating the staggering beauty of China’s forests, mountains and rivers is no simple task.
Yangshuo’s unique geological formations have inspired countless artists.
By taking part in a landscape painting class, you too can channel some of that inspiration and capture it forever in your own artistic interpretation.
You can even learn how to use traditional horse or rabbit hair brushes under the guidance of a master Chinese painter.
To top it off, you’ll be able to take home your painting as a one-of-a-kind souvenir.
7. Be awed by the Impressions of Sanjie Liu show
Essentially, Impressions is an evening variety show, consisting of numerous musical numbers, dancing and colorful costumes.
Although hugely popular with both domestic and international tourists, the one-hour show is completely in Chinese.
If that doesn’t sound like a particularly appealing night out, well, there’s more you need to know.
The show is in part, the brainchild of Zhang Yimou.
Apart from being the mastermind behind the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, Zhang Yimou has directed some of the coolest Chinese martial-arts movies of all time. This includes Hero and House of Flying Dragons.
(Read my blog on the best movies about Chinese culture here.)
Then, there’s the matter of where the show itself is held. The waters of the Li River are the liquid stage on which most of the action takes place.
A dozen karst formations form a stunning backdrop, illuminated by multicolored lights. It is in fact, the largest natural amphitheater in the world.
No, the performers don’t miraculously walk on water.
Instead, they traverse the surface on scores of bamboo rafts, from which they use song and dance to create a contemporary retelling of a Chinese folktale.
All the while laser light beams and elaborate, glow-in-the-dark floats light up the surface of the water.
But perhaps the craziest fact of all is that a staggering 600 performers take part in the show (as well as several water buffaloes and cormorants).
Incredibly, Impressions plays twice a night, every single night of the year.
While non-Chinese speakers won’t grasp much of the story, as a choreographed spectacle, Impressions is a truly mind-boggling, ‘only in China’ experience.
One last quick tip
If you want to use your hotel’s Wi-Fi in Yangshuo, don’t forget you’ll need to get a VPN before you leave your country. Otherwise, foreign websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Google and WhatsApp are banned in China. You can find out some of the best VPNs for China here.
I hope you liked my list of the best activities and things to do in Yangshuo. If you recommend anything else, let me know in the comments. And check out my blog on the best Chinese street food!