Seeking The Real China

Why visit China? If you were to ask that of any given group of travelers, you’d more than likely hear, “to experience the rich culture”, or, “to take a step into history”, or something to that effect.

What is, then, the real China experience? Can it be found in Shanghai’s cosmopolitan streets, a city with one foot in a glorious pre-war past and the other firmly planted in a futuristic architectural vision of a modern Middle Kingdom?

Spectacular Shanghai.

Or, is the real China hiding in the historic glory of Beijing? Surely The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, and all of the countless other famous sites will give us the experience we seek?

The formidable Forbidden City

Of course, all of this is the China we know, but can anyone still see and experience Chinese life as it exists, (and has existed for thousands of years), at the simple, village level? The answer, happily, is yes.

You know this place…..

The iconic karsts of Yangshuo.

Depicted in countless ancient scroll paintings, National Geographic cover features, and modern-day Instagram accounts, Yangshuo’s famous limestone karst formations call to mind the essence of ancient China. Where else, then, would one venture to find the real deal? Our quest begins…

The towering karsts shoot skyward from a landscape dotted alternatively with tiny villages and verdant green fields of rice. Winding through, snakelike and stealthy, the Li River, (and it’s various tributaries), brings prosperity in the way of life giving water and, of late, boatloads of tourists.

Tourist group on bamboo rafting excursion.

The tiny village of JiuXian sits quietly alongside one of these Li tributaries, and is home to the charming Secret Garden Hotel. Comprised of a warren of converted 300- year old Qing Dynasty buildings, The Secret Garden is the effort of (now somewhat famous both locally and internationally), Antwoord van Ian. Originally from South Africa, this architect had a vision to restore these ruins into a working boutique hotel. Check out his YouTube video here,

JiuXian Village.

Staying at The Secret Garden was an excellent choice for us, as it is close enough to the tourist city of Yangshuo and all of the famous local sites and activities found there, yet still removed from all of that hustle and bustle. We actually stayed for five nights, so found ourselves very much immersed in to the local village vibe by week’s end. As well, there are no televisions in the guest rooms, and WiFi is slightly sporadic, so you just really have no other choice than to relax, read, and unwind. The perfect antidote to our busy Hong Kong lifestyle.

Inside The Secret Garden.

Unpaved roads and brick pathways meander through the surrounding rice paddies and fields of the Yu Long river region, beckoning us on little hikes and longer bike rides. All along the way, we marvel at the rustic, everyday life of the villagers, who were very welcoming if not a bit bemused by our presence.

Village life and rural views.

Seeing rice, in it’s various stages of growth from shoots to harvest, was a new experience for us. We came upon the community basketball court, an integral part of the whole rice production process, as it was basically the only large, flat, and clean area in which to dry the recently picked grain.

Back at our little gem of a hotel, we felt both calmed and energized just knowing our whitewashed brick walls had been hugging families and travelers alike, for literal centuries.

Our room, with all of the Western comforts.

The staff of mostly young charming women from Yangshou city, spoke great conversational English. Their knowledge of the region and all of the various points of interest was perfect, and they were very willing and ready to plan an outing on short notice. Caves, river rafting, rock climbing, and the aforementioned hikes and bikes ensure that there is something for any age or ability.

Yangshuo city.

We strolled the paths, marvelling at the old village ruins, next door to brand new builds. We tried to capture the quiet beauty of the fields with our cameras. We chuckled at kids sharing a noodle lunch in their ancient, family-run restaurant. Roosters crowed and ran across our footprints, cows turned to look at us, then snorted and bent away dismissively.

Everyday life in the village of JiuXian.

Above, the ageless time worn limestone karsts watched over our adventure, swirling with mist and long ago tales of those who trod here centuries before us. Yes indeed, we had found The Real China.

You can read more about the Yangshou region here:

Find out more about The Secret Garden Hotel here:

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