The landscape that surrounds Yangshuo is as extraordinary as its reputation suggests. It would be completely flat, except for the hundreds of limestone karsts scattered across the area: huge mounds of white and orange rock protruding from the ground. There are no gentle rolling hills here nor mountain ridge lines. Instead the hills are small, separate and steep; sheer rock faces erupting from the ground creating nature’s own towers.
Yangshuo is known as a paradise for rock climbers, and it was this that initially drew me here. The town itself is advertised as a small town, and I suppose by Chinese standards, it is. But that first day when I turned up and walked down one of the main roads, with traffic roaring past, construction everywhere and music blaring from all the shops selling clothes, shoes, electricals and everything else you can imagine, it didn’t feel like a small town to me.
On top of that, this area tends to get a lot of rain, and often feels colder than the actual temperature because it is so damp. I had just come from Xiamen, a beautiful city on the sea that had been drenched in sunshine for my entire visit. In those first moments in Yangshuo, I was left wondering what on earth I was doing in such a place.
A year later, and it was the same, “small” Chinese town with its horrible neon lights and garish colours that I chose to return to for Christmas. Though the town itself might not be that special, the surrounding countryside, and the local ex-pat community somehow transform the town into a magical place.
My favourite places here are usually beside one of the rivers, either the Yulong or the Li, where the karsts are reflected in stunning beauty in the water below. In the summer, swimming in these rivers is almost a necessity because it gets so hot, but even in the winter the water, freezing though it is, calls me in and I swim.
As well as the rivers that meander through the wide open valleys, there are huge caves carved out of some of the karsts. These huge caverns sometimes hollow entire hills, and it was in one of these that we decided to spend Christmas.
In fact, Treasure Cave, our destination for Christmas, is in fact two caves, side by side in the hillside. Both are enormous, huge caverns adorned with stalactites that feel more like entering a king’s castle than a cave when you walk inside.
We set up a highline across the entrance to the first cave. Though short, it was a stunning location for a highline, surrounded by the grandeur of the cave and looking out on the rural valley below, it felt surreal to be perched on the a tiny piece of webbing between my legs. It was not my first attempt on a highline, but it was the most successful, and for the first time I managed to stand and even to take a step. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in the world would experience standing in that space in the air, with that unique perspective on the world. So far, only a few, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.
Christmas Eve celebrations continued with a campfire in entrance to the second cave. We sat around, a dozen or so of us, from all over the world, Chinese, British, Spanish, Ecuadorian, American, Mexican and Polish, and passed around food and drinks to share together. The evening continued with presents, drinking and lots of laughter until, at about 1am, everyone else had either left or gone to bed, and I was left, sitting beside the fire, staring into the valley below. The shadows of the Karst Mountains were still visible in the darkness and the only sound came from the rustle of sleeping bags behind me in the cave, or the gentle crackle of the fire. I was overwhelmed by how lucky I was to spend the night, bivouacking in a random cave in the middle of China, with beautiful people and a beautiful view.