On the tourist trail from Guiyang to Yangshuo

Posted on 2020-01-03

We left Guiyang as we had arrived - again by bus. We calculated that, by skipping a few more days through the mountains, we would then have just enough days to cycle all the way to the Vietnamese border before our visas expired. Also, the most interesting part of our route would start from Kaili, so this is where we fast forwarded to.

Kaili is the capital of the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, where more than 80% of the population is made up of ethnic minorities - mostly Miao (43%) and Dong (30%), as well as Shui, Buyi, Tujia, She, Zhuang, Yao, and others. We visited the Kaili Ethnic Minorities Museum, which has exhibits on the cultures and traditions of each ethnic minority represented in the prefecture. The most fascinating section of the museum for us was where they had the different ethnic clothing on display. It seems like each village has its own unique style of clothing, a mix of colourful patterns, intricate embroidery, and silver jewellery, and we could barely make out any commonalities by which to identify a member as part of a certain ethnic group - the variety was just too large!

Clothing of the different ethnic groups that live in the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, on display in the Kaili Ethnic Minorities Museum. It almost seems like each village has a different style of clothing, albeit with similar patterns and colours, and we couldn't really find clear commonalities within each ethnic group that differentiated them from the others (though we are sure that there are).

Clothing of the different ethnic groups that live in the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, on display in the Kaili Ethnic Minorities Museum. It almost seems like each village has a different style of clothing, albeit with similar patterns and colours, and we couldn't really find clear commonalities within each ethnic group that differentiated them from the others (though we are sure that there are).

When we left Kaili, strong southerly winds were blowing and we had a few (relatively) warm days cycling through the mountains to Rongjiang. Along the way, we first passed by several Miao villages, always built on a steep slope above the Bala river, clusters of wooden houses built so close to each other that their roofs often overlapped. We stopped to visit Langde, a small Miao village that claims to be the first to be opened up to tourism, but there was nothing special going on during our off-season visit, so we just wandered around the narrow, steep alleys between the wooden houses, observing the villagers go about their lives. As we continued south, we passed by more ethnic minority villages, though, like the clothing, we couldn't tell from the style of the wooden houses which particular ethnic group each village belonged to. We also passed through some beautiful terraced fields near Kaitun, where the terraces have been cut into the impossibly steep mountainsides around the village.

Nanhua Miao village, along the Bala river between Kaili and Leishan

Nanhua Miao village, along the Bala river between Kaili and Leishan

Wooden houses of Upper Langde Miao village, along the Bala river between Kaili and Leishan

Wooden houses of Upper Langde Miao village, along the Bala river between Kaili and Leishan

Terraced fields around Kaitun village, on the way between Leishan and Yongle

Terraced fields around Kaitun village, on the way between Leishan and Yongle

Women in ethnic (Shui?) clothing in Pingyong town, on the way between Yongle and Rongjiang. The owner of the restaurant where we stopped for lunch told us that there at least five different ethnic groups living in this town (Han, Miao, Dong, Yao, Shui).

Women in ethnic (Shui?) clothing in Pingyong town, on the way between Yongle and Rongjiang. The owner of the restaurant where we stopped for lunch told us that there at least five different ethnic groups living in this town (Han, Miao, Dong, Yao, Shui).

Despite the nice weather and interesting sights, the traffic and noise still got the better of us and by the time we arrived in Rongjiang, we were already mentally exhausted again. To be fair, the road was actually not that busy, but after 2.5 months in the country, we have little patience left for impatient drivers and the whole driving culture that relies on hearing for danger rather than looking out for it - so drivers sound their horn when overtaking, turning into/out of a side street, driving straight through a junction/zebra crossing, and in any other situation where someone else who is not looking might get in their way. We've started wearing earplugs when cycling, even on relatively quiet roads, to protect both our hearing (we've noticed some hearing loss in our left ears, after 9 months of horns) and our sanity. It didn't help that our hotel in Rongjiang suddenly kicked us out (for being foreigners) after we had checked in and showered, so we had to pack up and move to a much more expensive "international" hotel.

So we abandoned our plans to cycle all the way to the Vietnamese border, and decided to just follow the tourist trail to its end at Yangshuo, and then take a long break there with the rest of our visa days. We thought it would be better to take the time to mentally recharge, rather than to continue cycling just to clock the kms. Besides, we had read that Yangshuo was surrounded by beautiful landscape, and as a major tourist destination, also had plenty of cheap Airbnbs - one of which we quickly booked.

With renewed motivation from our new plans, we continued east along the Duliu river from Rongjiang to Congjiang, and then to Sanjiang. Along the way, we passed by several Dong villages, identifiable by their drum towers, the centre of village life for every Dong clan. Each of these three cities, too, had a large drum tower (or more) for the significant Dong minority who live there.

Dong village on the opposite side of the Duliu river on the way from Rongjiang to Congjiang, with a drum tower in the middle

Dong village on the opposite side of the Duliu river on the way from Rongjiang to Congjiang, with a drum tower in the middle

Drum tower of the Dong minority in Congjiang

Drum tower of the Dong minority in Congjiang

The weather stayed warm until we were in Congjiang, when the winds suddenly changed direction, this time blowing from the north, bringing with it not just the cold, but also the rain. Our ride from Congjiang to Sanjiang also ran into unexpected delays when we took a new road on the other side of the river. The old road was still accessible via a steep detour through a construction site, but the road sign to Sanjiang clearly led onto a new bridge to the new road on the other side, which, as far as we could tell, was open. We even checked with some workers we passed, who confirmed that the road led to Sanjiang, but we were somehow not too surprised when, after 12km on the new road, we reached a dead end at a bridge that was still under construction. As we started to backtrack, we worried that we would not make it to Sanjiang anymore that day, as the direct route was already more than 100km. Luckily, we spotted a ferry crossing in the village right next to the construction site, which took us back across the river to the old road and saved our day.

Somewhere after Congjiang, we followed the road sign to Sanjiang that led us across a bridge onto a brand new road with very little traffic on the other side of the Duliu river. We followed this road for over 12km (after confirming with some workers that the road did lead to Sanjiang) only to reach a dead end at another bridge (over a tributary) that was still under construction. Thankfully, we found this ferry crossing the Duliu river in the village near where our road ended, taking us back to the old road on the other side and saving us a long detour.

Somewhere after Congjiang, we followed the road sign to Sanjiang that led us across a bridge onto a brand new road with very little traffic on the other side of the Duliu river. We followed this road for over 12km (after confirming with some workers that the road did lead to Sanjiang) only to reach a dead end at another bridge (over a tributary) that was still under construction. Thankfully, we found this ferry crossing the Duliu river in the village near where our road ended, taking us back to the old road on the other side and saving us a long detour.

When we arrived in Sanjiang, Heiko was feeling unwell (possibly due to the sudden drop in temperature) so we took an additional rest day there. This gave us the opportunity to visit the Sanjiang Drum Tower, one of the largest Dong drum towers, where we were able to climb up a few levels and marvel at the architecture of the building. Built without nails, the structure was constructed solely by interlocking wooden pillars and beams, like a giant Chinese puzzle. As our first city in Guangxi province, Sanjiang felt noticeably more prosperous than the previous few cities we were in, that were in Guizhou province.

Sanjiang Wind and Rain Bridge across the Xun river

Sanjiang Wind and Rain Bridge across the Xun river

Looking up from the middle of the Sanjiang Drum Tower. The symmetry of the wooden construction is quite mesmerising!

Looking up from the middle of the Sanjiang Drum Tower. The symmetry of the wooden construction is quite mesmerising!

This was followed by two very wet days from Sanjiang to Guilin. In between, we stayed in the town of Longji, famous for its terraced fields, which we skipped however because of the horrible weather. When we finally arrived at our hostel in Guilin, we were met, for a change, by English speaking staff, and the whole atmosphere in the hostel felt like... well, not China, and a welcome break from the world outside. We made good use of the dry weather the next day to explore this scenic city, which attracts many tourists for good reason: the famous karst landscape in and around it. We climbed a steep (and quite scary, for the last bit) hill near the city centre, from where we got a spectacular 360° view of all the steep hills jutting out of the otherwise flat ground throughout the city. That evening, we joined a party in our hostel celebrating the winter solstice, though ironically we ate dumplings (traditionally eaten in Northern China) instead of glutinous rice balls (traditionally eaten in Southern China), as all the staff were from the north, even though Guilin is in the south.

Karst mountains jutting out of the ground in between the buildings in Guilin

Karst mountains jutting out of the ground in between the buildings in Guilin

360° view of Guilin from the top of Laoren (Old Man) hill, after a precarious climb to the top

360° view of Guilin from the top of Laoren (Old Man) hill, after a precarious climb to the top

Mulong Lake Park in Guilin

Mulong Lake Park in Guilin

The next day, it was raining heavily again as we cycled into the heart of the scenic karst area, Yangshuo, where we had an Airbnb apartment booked for a week over Christmas. Unlike in Athens one year ago, our apartment this time didn't have an oven, but did have a waffle iron, so our Christmas baking was limited to waffles with applesauce. The centre of Yangshuo, West Street, consists mostly of hotels and restaurants catering to the foreign crowd, and didn't impress us too much (though we did find decent wood-fired pizza for Christmas lunch there). The surrounding landscape, however, is truly magical. We waited for a clear, sunny day to cycle along the Yulong river, winding through the fields between the spectacular, steep hills. On another clear day (there were not so many that week), we took a bus to Xingping, a small town upstream on the Li river, where the hills are even denser, steeper, and more impressive.

Pizza! Our Christmas lunch in a restaurant on West Street in Yangshuo (also known as "Foreigners' Street", because of the large number of foreign tourists here). Might not seem like anything special, but we actually can't remember the last time we had pizza (at least, not since we left Europe a year ago).

Pizza! Our Christmas lunch in a restaurant on West Street in Yangshuo (also known as "Foreigners' Street", because of the large number of foreign tourists here). Might not seem like anything special, but we actually can't remember the last time we had pizza (at least, not since we left Europe a year ago).

View of Yangshuo and the surrounding karst landscape from the top of a hill in Yangshuo Park

View of Yangshuo and the surrounding karst landscape from the top of a hill in Yangshuo Park

Karst landscape along the Yulong river in Yangshuo

Karst landscape along the Yulong river in Yangshuo

Karst landscape along the Li river in Xingping

Karst landscape along the Li river in Xingping

After a week in Yangshuo catching up with work (i.e this blog) and rest, it was finally time to head to the border. As the train station in Yangshuo does not have a consignment office, we cycled back to Guilin, where we consigned our bicycles (with surprisingly little hassle this time) ahead of us to Fangchenggang, a coastal city close to Vietnam. The next day, we followed on a high-speed train and stayed with a great Couchsurfing host family for two nights, as we waited for our bicycles to arrive. We spent some time walking along the coast, our first time seeing the sea again after almost a year, enjoying the warm weather - we had defintely left winter behind now! After we picked up our bicycles, it was then just a short ride to Vietnam.

First glimpse of the sea (after almost a year since leaving the Black Sea) in Fangchenggang

First glimpse of the sea (after almost a year since leaving the Black Sea) in Fangchenggang

Finally having ice cream in t-shirt weather in Fangchenggang, after 3 months in the cold

Finally having ice cream in t-shirt weather in Fangchenggang, after 3 months in the cold

With Sunny (our Couchsurfing host in Fangchenggang), her daughter and her mother

With Sunny (our Couchsurfing host in Fangchenggang), her daughter and her mother