There are plenty of opportunities to take shorter and significantly less expensive river trips from the Yangshuo area -- check with the travel agencies and backpackers' cafes on Xi Jie for your options. The Li River patrol authorities have a stranglehold on all river traffic, and there are strict laws about the kinds of boats foreigners can ride on (boat licenses can cost up to a million yuan), so stick with the legitimate outfits rather than with the random touts who approach you, no matter how friendly they are.
One of the more popular trips is downriver to the umbrella and fan town of Fuli. Another trip is to the town of Xingping, about 3 hours upstream from Yangshuo. Official boats make the run in summer for about ¥60 to ¥80 per person. Rather than sail upstream, some tourists prefer to cycle or take a bus to Xingping and catch a boat downstream back to Yangshuo. Some tour operators come up with creative combinations of hiking/river-trip tours, which involve traveling to Xingping by bus or bike, then hiking along the river for part of the way before hopping onto a boat for the rest of the journey.
Moon Mountain (Yueliang Shan)
A bike trip out along the main highway with endless trucks and coaches involves riding 8km (5 miles) out to Moon Mountain (Yueliang Shan) in the direction of Gaotian. Follow Pantao Lu in the opposite direction from Guilin until the traffic circle, and bear right onto Kangzhan Lu. Once you leave town, you'll be greeted around each bend with unbelievably scenic vistas of karst pinnacles stretching as far as your eyes can see. (It's just a shame that the authorities have not spent any of their profits on road maintenance!)
Along the road to Moon Mountain are several recently built attractions geared strictly toward Chinese tour groups that can be safely missed. About 6km (4 miles) from Yangshuo, the Gurong Gongyuan (¥18; 6am-sunset) has an intriguing 17m- (56-ft.) tall, over 1,500-year-old banyan tree that looks like a collection of entwined snakes up close and like a giant umbrella from afar. Unlike most alleged antiquities that tourists see, this is the real deal, easily as old as any American redwood. The whole area is now a bit of a circus so it is better to view the tree just as easily from atop Moon Hill, 1km (2/3 mile) away (¥15; 7am-6pm), so named because of the large moon-shaped arch under its peak. A series of steep steps winds through thick bamboo brush all the way to the top, where there are some marvelous views.
If there's an adventurous spelunker in you waiting to break free, there are several interesting caves around here worth exploring. However, some of these are suitable only for the fit, as none have paved paths and all will require you to get down-and-dirty by crawling through holes and climbing rickety ladders. Buddha Cave, where entry now costs a whopping ¥168 (summer 8am-6pm, winter 9am-5pm), and the Water Cave (Shuiyan) both have underground pools and rivers on which you can paddle and get that mud bath you've always wanted.
A more civilized alternative is 90 minutes south at the magnificent Silver Cave (Yinzi Yan; www.glyinzicave.com) situated in spectacular parkland about 20km (13 miles) south of Yangshuo. Any local agency will arrange tickets and transportation for around ¥80 per person, which is perhaps a safer option than public transport. We missed the last bus back to town and had to flag down an archaic vehicle (half-tractor, half-tricycle), whose maximum speed turned out to be about half my normal walking pace. After a painfully slow half-hour, we asked how long it would take to get back to Yangshuo. The young peasant girl at the wheel simply shrugged her shoulders; she had never been that far from her village before!
Surrounded by a jungle of karst pinnacles, the village of Xingping is about 25km (15 miles) upstream of Yangshuo. Regular buses run to Xingping from the Yangshuo bus station, or you can ride your bike here in 3 to 4 hours.
Xingping itself has evolved into yet another charmless Chinese town but an interesting side trip is to Yucun (literally "Fishing Village"), a tiny, picturesque Ming dynasty village (1506-21) 20 minutes downstream along the Li River, whose more famous visitors have included Sun Yat-sen in 1921 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Full of traditional Ming and Qing dynasty houses with white walls and gray-tiled roofs with upturned eaves, as well as the occasional ancestral hall, the village requires a ¥5 entrance fee. River trips up to Jiuma Hua Shan (Nine Horses Fresco Hill) on the other hand, should be avoided at all costs -- ¥80 for a deafening 30-minute ride on a look-alike bamboo raft that is actually made out of sewer pipes with a long tail outboard stuck on the back, up to a dirty beach where grabby vendors are outnumbered only by biting insects.
Da He Bei Island
Just across the water from Xingping, but far enough away from the deafening tour boats and tacky new town, this island in the Li River is quiet and relatively undisturbed. It is an especially good choice for lunch, but could also be a useful base to explore, this being some of the most spectacular karst in the area. There are a couple of ¥1 (¥.5 for locals!) ferries that cross the hundred meters or so of water every few minutes. From there, stroll up the path that cuts through the middle of the island. About half a kilometer inland on the right hand side is the Greenland Inn, Lu Zhou Xiao Yuan (tel. 0773/870-3482), a great spot for lunch, either up on the balcony out of the midday sun, or down on the lawn if it is a little bit cooler. If the peace and calm of the island tempt you to stay a little longer, then check out Sui Mo Ju (tel. 0773/870-2969; www.suimoju.com) just next door, which has rooms with awesome views up on the top floors for only ¥100 per night.
Yulong He (Jade Dragon River)
One of the loveliest trips outside Yangshuo, this river is, if anything, even more beautiful and certainly quieter than the River Li. The river's more famous landmarks may be its bridges, in particular the 59m-long (194-ft.) Ming dynasty Yulong Qiao (Jade Dragon Bridge) found near the town of Baisha, but it's the scenery of small villages nestled at the foot of karst hills surrounded by rice paddies, and a lazy winding river that most visitors remember long after they've left. Many of the travelers' cafes offer full-day tours of the river and surrounding sights, but it's entirely possible to visit on your own. Just pack a picnic, plenty of film or a spare memory card, and rain gear; check your bike's tire pressure; and you're off.
There are several routes by which to explore the river. From Yangshuo, head out toward Moon Hill. Before the bridge crossing the Yulong He, head right, which will eventually take you all the way up to Baisha and the Jade Dragon Bridge. You can return along these back paths, or head back from Baisha on the main Guilin-Yangshuo highway. Or reverse the order and take the highway to Baisha (9km/6 miles of noisy main road from Yangshuo), then cycle back down through the villages. Chances are you'll get lost on some of these paths, which can narrow to the width of your bicycle (so get off and walk carefully or you may end up face first in a rice paddy!), but that's half the fun. Not to worry, the villagers around here are more than happy to set you right, and there are enough paths between the river and the highway that you won't be lost for long.
The full journey to Yulong Qiao may be a bit much for some, especially in the summer when heat stroke and sunburn are serious threats. A less exhausting alternative is to stop off at Mountain Retreat for some lunch and then explore the bridges and side roads from there.
Alternately, some travelers have sailed back down the Yulong He on narrow bamboo rafts. This used to be very pleasant when the boatmen would ask for ¥100 to ¥200. These days the raft operators have learned to squeeze every last yuan from international tourists; one Englishman we met this year was charged more than ¥600 for a brief 450m (1,476 ft.). Some travelers have settled for sailing down a very short, relatively smooth stretch of the river from Baisha, but even this involves having to get off the raft occasionally so it can be poled down the bigger bumps.
Three Secret Spots
While much of Yangshuo is now overcrowded year-round, here are three of my own secret locations, where you can get away from the endless busloads of tourists.
Rent a bike and head out of Yangshuo on the Guilin road until you come to the end of the residential development and the last large electric pylon on the left-hand side. Follow the path down through the village and out past the two disused quarries on either side of the track as you ride farther into the countryside. Just after the large fish farm on the left, cross the stone bridge and follow the path that goes along the left-hand bank of the stream, until you come to another even smaller stone bridge that recrosses the water. On the far side, haul your bikes up over the small stone wall that surrounds the copse on the left, lock them up around a tree, and continue from here on foot. Look for a natural stone staircase that rises up from the woods. It is only a 10-minute climb, but pay attention to the steps themselves as some of them are fragments of an old temple that was torn down here by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
As you emerge into the first of a series of hidden valleys, you will probably hear the bleating of goats. The pint-size Mr. Jiang keeps a herd of around 200 goats up here that sleep in a barn about three times the size of his own shack, which he shares with a couple of scaredy-cat dogs. To the right of the valley are some beautiful stone outcroppings, but if you continue to the left and then skirt around to the right of a sunken forest, it will lead you down through an area of pomelo trees and sinkholes. Continue up the hill until you reach a clump of pine trees that form a natural canopy from which a variety of local birds sing. To the right, the wary can venture into a depression of mold-covered thorn trees, the ideal location for a Japanese slasher movie, but up to the left is a charming boulder-strewn paddock, surrounded on all sides by wonderfully symmetrical karsts. Although the grass is cropped tight like a super-exclusive fairway, this natural pasture has a very urgent sense of growth with nature pushing out in all directions. After a while, despite the beauty, I like to head back to the shade of pine trees for lunch.
Once you are back down with your bicycles, recross the stone bridge and continue along the bank path to the Yangshuo-to-Baisha back road. Take a right onto the tarmac and ride until the road takes a sharp right with a fork off to the left. Follow the fork through two villages and past the Giggling Tree Farm Guest House on the left. By now you should be able to see that you are on the bank of the Yulong River somewhere away to the right. It takes another 15 or 20 minutes to Mountain Retreat where you can stop for a rest and a cold drink, and then continue down the hill and around the bend. The road forks off to the right and fords the river. The recklessly brave can pedal across at any time of year but the more timid might want to remove their shoes and wheel their bikes across. Zigzag quickly through the village on the other side, and then once you are past the large karst on the left, take a sharp right into the grounds of the secondary school. Exit at the left and follow the path, watching out for the cobbles, all the way through the village until you reach the water's edge. This is the Jin Bao River, and the weir at the edge of Feng Huang (Phoenix) Village is my favorite swimming spot in the area. While 20 bamboo rafts a minute now squeeze down the Yulong River, you'll be lucky if you see more than half a dozen all afternoon here. There are a few sharp stones at the bottom of the weir but after that, the water drops to about 3m (9 ft.) and is ideal for cooling off. Directly below the falls, the current is strong enough that it'll feel like you have your own personal swimming trainer. Best of all, the view upstream is fantastic and apart from a few local farmers and their water buffalo crossing the weir, you'll probably remain undisturbed all afternoon.
If you are looking for a quick dip closer to town, then head up past Long Tou Shan Mat Tou to where the boats from Guilin dock in the afternoon. Some choose to take the plunge here, but they do not realize that the city garbage dump is in a valley just to the left of the river and that all kinds of unpleasant chemicals are seeping into the Li Jiang here. My advice is to continue on upstream, and once you pass the first bend after the Buffalo Guest House, make your way back down to the river's edge. Depending on the time of year there is usually a small beach down here, with a gentle slope that makes it ideal for even beginning swimmers. The more confident can go right across to the other side to explore the cave, but be warned that the rocks there are sharp and jagged. The best time of day to come here is about 3pm, when all the boats have passed by and the water is still nice and warm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.