Your first peek of the chimerically primped town of Yangshuo comes from the deck of your antedulivian cruise boat on the Li River. The ride is gentle but loud, giving you the energy boost which, if you are to take advantage over the next few days of all that Yangshuo has to offer, you will desperately need.
The snaky-swirly, four-hour cruise to Yangshuo cleaves China’s Eden. Float through these limestone peaks on the right day, and your only further wish in life will be that your tour guides, who have crashed your empyrean splendor and refuse to shut their magpie mouths until they’ve wheedled a few more kitschy souvenirs out of you, be struck down by thunderbolts.
That’s the price of exploring heart-stopping scenery with somewhat well-intentioned guides—guides who don’t realize that using a loudspeaker does not require sounding like Mt. Everest belching up her last course. If your ears haven’t swollen shut, you may hear the captain direct what remains of your attention to a mountainside whose outcroppings, supposedly, form nine horses. In fact, all I could make out were an avalanche of modern art worthy, freeze-dried boogers crusty from eons spent within sound rage of these mic-slingers. Majestic, though, in its own raw kind of way.
Yangshuo is one of those mythical towns which has, with the help of foreign tourism, ka-chinged its way onto the map. Cobbled stone streets bisect the faux 16th century architecture in patterns that are quaintly unpredictable. A stroll down the fried-snail scented Main Street, and you, too, will be all goo-goo over this cradle of lost, found, and newly renovated civilization.
Yangshuo has a laminated feel to it, as if it were plagiarized from paradise. You’re sauntering through a snow globe of time-warped culture, and there’s a kind of pressure as you wait for the pretty glass to burst and for time to fly back to the present. But in the moment, amid the bells and river side lounges, your world is whirling.
The town is also home to your everyday water cave: you can canoe through subterranean worlds, climb underground peaks, slide down slopes into mud bathing pits, shower under waterfalls, and relax in terraced hot springs that overlook a cliff. And that’s just inside one mountain, which comes complete with neon lighting.
Hades can’t be doing so bad as god of the underworld; the cave is thrilling.
But even the dark corners of the Earth provide no refuge from that most persistent of enemies. There I stood, entranced in a spelunker’s fantasy, as the tour guide began to lecture us on the similarities that certain stalactite formations bore to animals.
“That is a lion. The mane is a dead giveaway,” our guide said. I guess it could pass as a lion. If you were a modern artist.
The Chinese tourists were enthralled. Wow, they said. Or, That’s not a lion, that’s a dragon!
The rainbow theme peddled in the sprawling water cavern, and the bestial narratives supposedly unfolding in its strata, reveal a tourist campaign that fills what is best left empty. Disco balls to juice up the cave experience? Check. Rambunctious rap blasting through Yangshuo’s vast mountain air late into the night? Fo shizzle. All that’s missing are professional photographers paparazzi-ing your gooey behind as you careen down the cave’s manmade mudslide. Yes, they have that, too. The only emptiness the tour managers have missed in creating this wonderland is the one between their ears.