Whilst Yangshuo is certainly a backpackers’ haunt, it seems to have become more (or less?) than that too over the years.
There appears to be four different types of visitor to Yangshuo:
- Independent travellers like me and Orlando, looking for a bit of R&R and a few days off the road – the original backpackers;
- Young tour groups passing through with their “fun” tour guides – often their first stop in China outside Hong Kong – lots of drinking and activities like rock-climbing, cycling etc.;
- Well-heeled over-50s tour groups in expensive rambling gear roughing it in “the real China” for a few nights, and enjoying the shopping;
- Legions of Chinese tourists who come for the justifiably famous spectacular scenery, and spend their evenings on Xi Jie (West Street or Foreigners Street) watching the westerners watching them.
In a way the town has become a caricature of a genuine backpackers’ haunt, which are usually devoid of tourists and tour groups, and very inward-looking. Orlando may be right – this is a bit of a theme park, but it is not “Disney China”: this is Disney Lonely Planet Town.
For myself, I can happily disregard what I don’t need here and focus on the nice things like places to sit and watch the world go by with a coffee; shopping for cheap trinkets; maybe a cocktail or two; and yes, banana pancakes for breakfast.
Places like this can be a bit of a double-edged sword too. Many of the West
erners here have come up from the warm south and have outfits to suit. I am experiencing a bit of wardrobe envy – or, in these particular circumstances, backpack envy would be the correct term. Here I am with two nice serviceable and warm pairs of trousers; ditto sweaters; ditto footwear (one pair of lightweight waterproof hiking boots and an ancient pair of Dunlop trainers to hang out in). Two thermal vests, a rain jacket and a handful of plain tee-shirts complete my choices. Apart from by bindis and three (ONLY THREE!) pairs of earrings, I have no other adornment.
Then I walk down West Street and see spangly flip flops and knee length floaty dresses on women who have clearly deep-conditioned and coloured their hair far more recently than I. I see younger women doing cool artlessly-tied things with pretty scarves on their heads. I see casual but elegant black ankle-length trousers worn with colourful wrap-around tops.
Now, none of the above would have served me at all in freezing Datong or rainy Xi’an. My fleecy black tea-cosy hat may have made me look like a madwoman but by God I was glad of its thermal rain-proof properties up north. My cheap black corduroy trousers kept me nice and warm especially with an alluring old pair of opaque black tights underneath (thermal vest tucked in of course). I packed well. I hope these women checked the forecast for Beijing before they zipped up their backpacks.
But oh, how I long for something pretty to wear. A skirt, for god’s sake. A pair of flip-flops or sandals to wear instead of clumpy boots. More jewellery. A nice colourful lungi or wrap. Nail polish on my toes. I can get fisherman’s trousers here (naturally: this is a backpackers’ place!). but they are only for the slim-thighed. People with normal (read: generous) proportions such as myself look fine standing up in these wrap-around trousers, but when we sit down they split each side to the hip, giving all and sundry an eyeful of beautifully dimpled pale-blue cellulite on each leg. Perhaps not then.
The evening sellers are setting up opposite our little hotel. I have been watching them avidly like it was Eastenders every night. I sit, literally, on the edge of my seat watching young women unfurl the long coloured scarves of the woman directly opposite our balcony. I agonise over which colour they should choose and silently urge them on to give the lady some early-evening business.
Tonight I may be her first customer. I have my eye on a lovely blue scarf that I saw yesterday. I won’t wrap it casually around my head or use it as a sarong. Indeed I may not wear it at all. I may just sit here and dream of my lovely white linen trousers and dark red-and-gold jewelled kaftan and spangly sandals waiting for me in Melbourne, stroke my new purchase lovingly, and chant gently to myself: “ten more days… ten more days…”