Travel China: A different kind of country life

In the first of three stories to celebrate Chinese New Year, Katherine Tanko tours Yangshou's limestone peaks and paddies
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The Independent Culture
Beyond the souvenir stalls and tourist cafes, everyday Yangshuo lives on. Tractors heading for the fields putter noisily down cobbled streets; men huddle outside shops playing mahjong, while kids wielding badminton rackets leap and squeal in the streets. And visitors are welcome.

But things have changed in Yangshuo. This small country town in Guangxi province, south-east China, has created its own special niche in the country's burgeoning tourist trade. Cashing in on the steady stream of tourists from nearby Guilin - described by generations of Chinese poets as the most beautiful place on earth, and better known than Yangshuo - more people are forgoing the safety of Guilin's star-rated hotels to wallow in Yangshuo's authentic country charms.

The town now boasts enough amenities to serve as the ideal base for exploring Guangxi, and travel agents in town can arrange tours, tickets and excursions to the local attractions such as Dong villages and the famous rice terraces of Longsheng. But there is also plenty to do right here. There are bicycles for hire, and the aquatically minded can even rent kayaks for a day on the river. If your stay extends beyond a few days, you can sign up for some Mandarin, t'ai chi or Chinese cookery lessons.

For a first-hand glimpse of country life, though, you can join up with Li Yun Zhao, one of a dozen local farmers who offer tailor-made tours into the countryside. These popular tours give visitors a chance to experience village life at close quarters and to sample authentic rural cuisine, since lunch in the guide's own home is included. A bicycle, some basic English and a notebook to record the glowing comments of satisfied customers are all that's needed to launch a lucrative career as a rural tour guide.

Li first began giving tours in 1992. "I needed to make money," she explained, as we set out from Yangshuo on foot. "My house was very old and I wanted to send my three children to school. A few women were already doing tours and I thought, hey, I can do that."

We cut down a dirt path and were soon lost in the undulating karst rock landscape for which the Guangxi region is famous. Mossy limestone peaks tower above a patchwork of fish farms, citrus groves and paddies, laced with meandering, jade-green streams. A group of women, knee-deep in paddy mud, teased Li as we passed, scolding her for strolling around when there was work to be done. I was invited to roll up my trousers and get down in the mud to try my hand at transplanting the tender rice seedlings.

Collective farming ended here in 1981, when every family was allotted a portion of land. Li spoke with candour about life for the contemporary Chinese peasant. "Before, if you were lazy or worked hard, you got the same. So no one bothered to work hard and there were some bad harvests. Now, if people work hard, they can do well for themselves."

We passed through a small village where the sound of voices reciting lessons echoed from a schoolroom. On one grassy verge a lone toddler sat clutching a rice bowl while his mother worked in the fields nearby. "No mother-in-law," Li commented sadly, and asked how women in the West could manage without the live-in help most Chinese families take for granted. Her relationship with her own mother-in-law had a rocky start, marked by conflicts that had sometimes even led to violence. "But that's all in the past," she said. "We get along very well now."

It's no wonder. Li is the family money tree, sometimes earning in a week what other farmers earn in a year. Thanks to her success, the family now lives in a two-storey house, complete with satellite dish. In the front room, a huge television sits beneath a shrine invoking the ancestors to bless the family with good luck, and the walls are covered in the school certificates of her three children - a triumph for a woman who managed only three years of school before being relegated to the family kitchen.

Li served a lunch of fried lotus flower, spicy chilli salad and soup. We wolfed the food down while watching a Qing Dynasty-era soap opera on her television. "That was a very bad time," she said gravely, as the image of threadbare peasants fighting desperately to catch handfuls of grain filled the screen.

After the tour, you can unwind on a boat trip. The five-hour ride to the village of Yangdi weaves through some of the prettiest sections of the Li River, and craggy peaks with names like White Tiger Hill and Pen Holder Peak hug the river's edge. Fishermen on rafts made of tightly lashed bamboo skim across the water like gondoliers, ignored by the water buffalo grazing by the shore.

Follow the river south for an hour and you reach Fuli, a small village of crumbling stone houses. Its main attraction is the twice-weekly market, which draws thousands of people. Here you can see the machinations of China's free-market ethic in full flight.

Everything from toads to rat poison - and all the more conventional products in between - is flogged in an enormous market square the size of an aircraft hangar. The day I visited, there were giant tubs of catfish and eels, sacks stuffed with tobacco and men barbecuing pork trotters with a blow-torch. After an hour wandering around the market, I climbed on the bicycle I had brought by boat and cycled home to Yangshuo along quiet country roads.

Fact File

Visas: British passport holders need no visa to enter Hong Kong, but beyond that you need a Chinese visa, which is most easily obtained through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9DL (0171-836 3688). Allow a week for processing.

Getting there: Spring or autumn are the best times to visit if you want to avoid the heat of summer, when temperatures can reach 40 degrees centigrade. There are no direct flights to Guilin from Britain. Specialist tours can be arranged through the China Travel Service (0171-836 9911). There are daily flights between Guilin and Peking (around pounds 350 return) or you can take a hovercraft from Hong Kong to Wuzhou and, from there, get an overnight bus to Yangshuo, for under pounds 50.

The easiest way to get to Yangshuo, though, is by boat. River tours from Guilin cost 360Yuan (pounds 25) and take around six hours. You can also get there by local bus for a very reasonable 5Yuan (50p).

Where to stay: The Yangshuo Paradise Resort (00 86 773 882 2109) offers international-standard rooms starting at US$100, but you should be able to save up to 50 per cent by booking through an agent. It's also worth checking out the private guest houses, many of which boast "luxury" rooms, with private bath, for a fraction of the price.