Outdoor China: Away from the cities, breathtaking views & the best beer in theworld
Shoulder through the subways for few days, and China's megacities take on personalities like familiar pets.
Beijing comes off like a rottweiler: massive, proud and terrifying if it weren't hell bent on winning your affection. Shanghai hustles like a taut greyhound sprinting with a million bucks riding on it. Hong Kong is a terrier on stimulants.
Loveable as the cities can be, there's a limit to the time most travelers want to spend in the collective presence of 18 million or 30 million other souls. Fortunately for weary city dwellers and visitors and alike, China’s countryside looms on the same outsized scale as its cities.
Carried away on Huangshan
It's not every day I get to share a trail with two sweaty park workers carrying a fat guy up a hill.
But before the legendary mist burned off the valleys below the Yellow Mountains, I'd watched at least four middle-aged Chinese folks pay top dollar to shuttle between viewpoints in a sedan chair, a la empress dowager Cixi. All around them, tour groups in matching ball caps advanced on the peak like invading legions, each commanded by peppy tour guides whose tinny megaphones overlapped with the beat of Chinese pop music radiating from mountaintop hotels.
Quiet it’s not, but Huangshan’s summit draws throngs of adoring visitors today for the same good reason it’s played muse to centuries of poets and painters. Time-hewn granite spires huddle over a wispy bamboo forest, each rock ledge crowned with elegantly tiered pines. Distant peaks rise from the morning clouds like islands, a phenomenon that ranks among the most treasured natural sights in the country. Many places in China look old. Even among the crowds, the Yellow Mountains look eternal.
While Mao himself couldn't have conjured a more stark metaphor for modern China's disparate wealth, the sedan chairs are also a good example of the scrappy ways the park tames the terrain for visitors.
A series of trails, trams and gondolas carry thousands of people to the 6,000-foot ridge each day. Summit hotels specialize in sunrise viewing. Lodging at the mountains’ base and in the convenient, if unremarkable, town of Tangkou offer early risers a pleasant day trip, provided they get in line at the tram station by 7 a.m. when lines are short.
About an hour bus ride from the park, overnight trains and one-hour flights from Shanghai arrive in the Tunxi district of Huangshan City, a pleasant stopover in its own right. High-end tea shops and decent restaurants share touristy Lao Jie (Old Street) with vendors frying stinky tofu and bagging sesame candy beneath ornately gabled Huizho-style buildings.
In addition to the thousands of Ming and Qing dynasty houses preserved in pockets of Huangshan City, the architecture in nearby Xidi and Hongcun befits their World Heritage status. Travelers wary of crowds need only to stay on the bus awhile longer to discover similar villages often devoid of foreigners.
I realize there are only so many ways to talk up rocks, plants and old buildings, but you could say the same in describing Yosemite or the American Southwest. Some landscapes are simply like nowhere else.
Lie low in Yangshuo
The tastiest beer of my life was a warm, 600 ml bottle of Li Quan. The stain-yellow regional brew usually sits somewhere on the flavor scale between Pabst and Miller Light. But after 25 gritty miles on a rented bicycle, it’s as sublime as the Li River that threaded my tiny raft back to Yangshuo.
Everything that draws people to Guangxi Province glided past: the broad river, clear skies and emerald rice paddies tucked between fingers of soaring limestone. Letting the hypnotic rattle of the outboard motor massage my brain, I absorbed vistas so revered the CCP imprinted the same section of river on the back of the 20 Yuan note. I had a many things worth toasting as I raised the hefty bottle to my lips.
Like when I ordered the local specialty, beer fish, at a small restaurant a couple days before and the waitress appeared five minutes later handing the chef a flopping plastic bag. Or the fact that I now know how to cook pork dumplings and gong bao chicken, courtesy of a superb cooking class. Or the hours I’d spend riding among remote homesteads on a bike rented for $2 a day.
The easygoing backpacker ethos of Southeast Asia seemed to waft over the Vietnamese border like the scent of frying chili paste. Visitors to Yangshuo find themselves surrounded by cheap beer, bad cover bands, climbing guides, cormorant fishing demonstrations, mud cave tours, Mandarin classes and a light show conceived by the same director who orchestrated the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
In true Southeast Asia style, I drank with the mid-20s proprietor of Monkey Jane’s, who built a thriving hostel and rooftop bar one game of beer pong at a time. Care to try baiju, snake or dog? She’s your gal.
Mostly though, after three weeks trying to see as much as I could of a country I realized I’d never fully grasp, I just took it all in. After an hour with just my Li Quan and the guy running the outboard behind me, the other boats thinned out. Fishermen standing on narrow rafts pulled in their catch. Farmers casually washed off the workday in the river as the sun began to set between towering nubs of rock.
Whatever vaguely defined experience I’d sought from the countryside when I left Hong Kong, I’d found it.
Editor's note: This is the last in a three-part series on Peter Barnes' Far East travels. Don't miss his other entries: