I’ve written previously about the process of becoming a student in Yangshuo, Guilin and after getting settled, it was time to explore a bit. Luckily my school offers a volunteer program, wherein you can be the token Johnny Foreigner on a university group’s outing. The idea is simple: accompany the students on a tour of famous sights just outside Yangshuo, act as a ‘tour guide’, and pose for pictures with the students.
Two of these would not prove a problem, but I wasn’t sure how I could be a tour guide for places that I’d not actually visited myself. Luckily the school was on hand to provide me with a typed description of each place. Before we set off I got to memorising facts and stats about our three destinations: Moon Hill Cave, Yulong River and Butterfly Spring Cave. The other foreigner on the tour, a laidback Mexican bloke called José, also introduced himself.
We hopped on push bikes and started making our way to the first destination, Yulong River. I’d visited before, but the group leader, Mr. Wonderful (I shit you not) took us to a stretch of the river I hadn’t seen before. It was appropriately stunning, with the ubiquitous karst hills sitting behind the peaceful stretch of water. Mr. Wonderful gave a wonderful nod; it was time for we foreigners to do our English thang.
It was here that something of a breakdown in communication occurred. Both José and I were to address the students, but we hadn’t exactly figured out who would say what. José stepped up and proceeded to steal basically all my material. He finished speaking, and the students looked expectantly at me.
I didn’t have a goddamn clue what to say, so Mr. Wonderful stepped in and marvellously suggested that I explain about the area in Chinese. This seemed self-defeating; I was there, after all, for my expertise in foreign-hua. After some cajoling I agreed, and muddled through an explanation of how a dragon totally visited Yangshuo, became captivated with its beauty, and decided to live at the bottom of the river.
The students looked at me as if I was an alien that had just disembarked from my UFO and made first contact. For the rest of the day the majority of them would no longer speak to me in English but in Chinese. This is a common hazard of revealing that you speak Chinese, though not nearly as bad as getting cornered in a restaurant by a bunch of drunk locals.
Moon Hill Cave
We hopped back on the bikes and continued to our next destination, Moon Hill Cave. Moon Hill Cave wasn’t a cave so much as it was, well, a hill. It takes its name from the spectacular crescent arch at the summit of the hill. In order to get to the summit, we had to hike up 800 extremely slippery stone steps. There was more than one occasion where I almost went crashing back down.
At the summit we met a bunch of adorable old ladies selling postcards and iced water. I initially resisted their overtures, but one there was one lady whom I couldn’t help but admire. She was 78 and still slogging up those steps daily with a box of water, so I relented and bought a set of postcards. This was to prove a mistake, as the other ladies became incensed that I hadn’t bought from them. Damned if you do and all that.
Butterfly Spring Cave
After that it was lunch, and then onto our final destination – Butterfly Spring Cave. As with Moon Hill Cave, the name was misleading. There was a distinct lack of springs, a single fiberglass butterfly, and a whole lot of overpriced tourist tat. The creative use of fiberglass extended beyond the butterfly – there were a fair few rock formations in the colourful cave that looked less than natural – and there were plenty of opportunities for the fool and his money to be parted.
After leaving the cave (get your photo in front of the rocks for only 20 kuai!) we had the option of crossing the narrow gorge below by standard bridge (free) or glass-bottomed bridge (10 kuai). Being the intrepid adventurer I am, I coughed up my ten kuai and fearlessly trekked across the glass bridge.
We wound through a tent populated with loudspeaker-toting merchants and I resolutely avoided making eye contact with any of the vendors. Another tourist trap avoided, we sat down for the last event of the day: a purportedly ‘ethnic’ dance performance. A bunch of people dressed like Stargate aliens came out and threw some shapes. After this they got everyone up and had us participate in a conga line. This accomplished, they posed for pictures. I foolishly posed for a picture without checking if it was gonna cost me, and sure enough it did – 10 kuai per ‘ethnic’ person in the photo. Being the high-roller I am I’d posed with two, and so forked over 20 kuai.
We returned to Yangshuo, some of us having learned valuable lessons about cavalier photography. All in all it had been a good day, though my milk-pale skin didn’t fare so well after a good 6-7 hours of constant sun exposure.
The Yangshuo countryside is quite simply spectacular, and well worth a trip whether you opt for a push bike or hire a scooter. But, as a local later told me, you can cheerfully write off all the local ‘caves’ as tacky tourist traps.