Watercolours on the Li River

Like generations of poets and artists, Daniel Rath is inspired by Yangshuo's 'natural gallery'.

Around every twist in the road and bend in the river, Yangshuo has picture-perfect photo opportunities. With its towering, mist-shrouded, limestone karst peaks, the stunning landscape is the real drawcard of this southern Chinese town in Guangxi province. But as we discover, there's a lot more to Yangshuo than just the scenery.

The locals are rightfully proud of their natural heritage, which has long been an inspiration for artists and poets and has become a popular backdrop for filmmakers.

A young boatman on our rafting trip down the Li River tells us his brother is a water policeman and beams as he names of the peaks between which the river snakes.

Although we've seen travellers being paddled up the Yulong River on bamboo rafts, the vessels on the Li are motored. We chug along the river in the morning, waving to people on passing rafts. Some of them return the favour by squirting water at us from their water-pump guns, narrowly missing our cameras.

Everyone on the river except us is wearing life jackets, making us wonder whether we're headed for rapids along this otherwise quiet stretch of river. We needn't have worried; as we float around a bend, our boatman passes us life jackets and warns that if we don't wear them, we'll run foul of water police - quite possibly his brother. We don the vests obediently and luckily so; several police boats speed past with sirens blaring.

The Li River meanders from the city of Guilin in far southern China to Yangshuo. The journey is spoken of as "a natural gallery" and we can see why. The remarkable karst formations of the region make the ride a spectacular one.

The Chinese have long appreciated this landscape; indeed, most carry reminders of it every day as the peaks are pictured on the Chinese 20 yuan ($3.20) note. Our boatman points this out and asks me to hold a note towards the mountains to compare.

International tourists have also discovered the tranquillity and beauty of Yangshuo. Cheap hostels are dotted around the town. Backpacker favourites, such as banana pancakes and apple pie, are on many menus, while cheap bars cater to those wanting to drink all night and nurse their hangovers by the banks of the river the next day. Costume-clad spruikers entice us to enter these gaudy bars with nightly drinks specials. A pedestrian-only strip is full of tourist shops selling cushion covers and beaded sandals, fake North Face jackets and jewellery.

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A mysterious man, who follows us for five minutes, makes me suspicious until I realise he's cutting out a silhouette of my face. He gets the nose and chin wrong and I resemble Woody Allen but it's a unique memento nonetheless.

We've chosen to stay about 10 minutes by taxi from the tourist busyness, at the eco-friendly Yangshuo Mountain Retreat on the banks of the Yulong River. Despite our proximity to central Yangshuo, we feel miles away as we relax by the river.

The ultimate indulgence is having a massage in our room overlooking the river, followed by a beer at the bar. We're here for for five days break, fenjoying a respite from the smog of Beijing, where we live.

One morning we wake feeling energetic enough to climb to the top of Moon Hill - a mountain with a natural hole near its peak in the shape of a crescent moon. We're followed up by amazingly athletic elderly women carrying makeshift cool boxes filled with iced water they hope we will buy. At first we resist but, with the stifling humidity, it gets harder with every step up the steep slope.

Thrill seekers are able to climb the mountains here; there are adventures to be had below ground, too, in the area's caves. After the hike on Moon Hill, we soak in mud baths, hot springs and a cold waterfall shower at the Black Buddha Cave.

Outside Yangshuo, small villages dot the countryside, some holding weekly markets. We spend hours at the Fuli market, watching the locals and enjoying the friendly haggling. At meal times, we sample their cuisine, although we try to steer well clear of the dog-meat dishes - a delicacy in these parts. One lively waitress assures us the meat delivered to our table really is pork. "Dog meat is more expensive," she explains.

After several meals like this, we feel inclined to cook for ourselves so we take a beginners' cooking class.

We buy produce at the farmers' market and learn to make simple but tasty dishes with Chinese cooking techniques involving woks and cleavers. The egg-wrapped dumplings and stir-fried eggplant dishes we make are winners; our steamed chicken with mushroom and stir-fried pork with vegetables and oyster sauce less so.

Hiring bikes from our hotel, we cycle through rice paddies, past farmers walking their buffaloes and big farmhouses with vegetables laid out to dry in their yards. We ride past children finishing school for the day who display the telltale signs that foreigners have been here before. "Money? Money?" they ask as we stop to chat with them and take pictures.

Our few Mandarin phrases are enough to distract them so they make fun of our accents instead.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

China Southern Airlines has a fare to Guangzhou from Sydney and Melbourne for about $690 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Guangzhou (about 9hr) then to Guilin Liangjiang Airport (70min); see cs-air.com.au. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days. Yangshuo is about 90 minutes by road from Guilin. Minibuses leave from Guilin station.

Staying there

Yangshuo Mountain Retreat has river-view rooms from $HK366 ($44) in winter; see yangshuomountainretreat.com.

The Rosewood Hotel in Yangshuo has twin rooms from 288 yuan ($42); see yangshuorosewoodinn.cn.

Cooking there

The Yangshuo Cooking School has two locations: at a farmhouse just outside Yangshuo and another on the Li River.

One-day to week-long advanced courses are offered. A four-hour beginner's class costs 170 yuan; see yangshuocookingschool.com.

More information

See cnto.org.au.

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