Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Destination number 3: the beautiful Yangshuo in southeast China. Bus dropped me off at silly-o'clock in the morning, so I jumped on the back of a scooter, precariously balancing my huge rucksack on the back, and headed out to the Giggling Tree Hostel as so many people had recommended it to me.

Was weaving through the stunning karst peaks for sunrise, listening to the first morning cockerels and the odd frog croaking in the surrounding paddy fields as the first farmers began to emerge. Couldn't have been further from the beeping horns and madness of Shanghai and HK!
I had a wander around the fields to the river close by waiting for the hostel to wake up, and everyone I passed gave me a cheery 'ni hao' (hello) and a smile. I passed a leathery old lady carrying twice her body weight in some sort of crop, which I realised when I was closer were raw monkey nuts - I had no idea how these grew and so took a couple of photos; she thought this was hilarious so pulled out a handful of roots with the nuts and handed them to me to munch on. However, the perfect idyll was not to last as 3 massive coaches laden full with Chinese tourists pulled up seemingly from nowhere.

The colourful troop made a beeline for the river where hundreds of bamboo-rafts were waiting to take them on a leisurely river cruise. Although I enjoyed a great breakfast at the hostel, it was fully booked so I headed back into town and checked into the renowned Monkey Jane's hostel, a great place to meet lots of other travellers, take in the scenery from the rooftop bar, and enjoy one of Jane's 'family dinners' cooked with fresh food she buys from the market.

Met some really interesting people here and got the impression that this is a town travellers definitely get stuck in: many of them had been there for weeks! After a couple of days of lazing around, playing beer pong and recovering from hangovers, I decided to head back out the the countryside to explore it properly by bicycle.

With a couple I met from the hostel (Kim and Nathaniel, a pair of veteran Couch Surfers and Burning Man Festival-goers!), we climbed to the top of Moon Hill through humidity you could practically see, but well worth it for breathtaking panoramic views of the limestone mountains as far as you could see. Thoroughly enjoyed getting lost on the way back as we cycled through the rice fields and tiny villages, past water buffalo and the odd equally lost camera-wielding tourist.

The best way to appreciate the landscape is undoubtedly with a hot air balloon ride so we booked one for the next morning but I had the worst night's sleep worrying that I would sleep straight through my alarm that, of course, I did and almost missed it! The dutch hostel owner had to come and wake me up as the guys in the minibus were waiting outside! So glad that he did though as this was the highlight of my trip so far. We were 800ft up as the sun peaked out from behind the mountains, and it was so quiet we could hear the cockerels on the ground below. Really hard to describe without sounding so cliche but it really was incredible and the views of the endless karst landscape were just magical, especially at 5.30am (photos just can't capture it!)! Our skilled 'balloon driver' (?!) took us so low we skimmed along the river and then got near enough to the peaks we could grab a tree branch! His piece de resistance was landing the balloon: with less than 2ft either side of the basket, he set us down on a narrow track with paddy fields and a shed either side, in between 4 crossing overhead wires.

I'm glad I didn't realise this until we got out and stood back!! I finished my time in the beautiful Yangshuo by cycling down to the river with a couple of friends for sunset and some cool beers - pure bliss!

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