The perfect trip: China
Yet as in much of rural China, the old ways are disappearing fast. ‘All of my grandchildren have left for the city now,’ admits Mr Liao, ‘and I don’t know what will happen to the terraces when there’s no-one left to work them. The future is uncertain, but we have always found a way to survive.’
Where to eat
The village of Pinyan is packed with restaurants – but for authentic regional food, such as sticky pork and sticky rice cooked in lengths of bamboo cane, head for the Meiyou Café (00 86 40 7583 0461; mains from £3).
Where to stay
Perched at the top of Pinyan and reached via a leg-shredding climb, the Longji Star-Wish Resort has lots of traditional character, from the futon beds and carved wooden furniture to the tea sets laid out in every room. The valley views are inspirational, especially from its balcony rooms (00 86 40 0810 6868; from £40).
Yangshuo: Best for river scenery
A spiky patchwork of peaks, plains, creeks and canyons, Yangshuo is where China’s city dwellers go when they want to experience the great outdoors. Stretching along the banks of the Yulong and Li rivers, this rural county is home to some of the country’s most famous landscapes – they even feature on the back of the 20 yuan note. Strewn with karst pillars, rural villages and riverside trails, it offers a glimpse of an agrarian past that feels a world away from the clamour of China’s traffic-choked cities.
For centuries, life here has been dictated by the river. During seasonal monsoons, the floodplains and rice fields all but disappear under water; in high summer, many of the creeks and tributaries dry up to a trickle. Before the advent of motorways and high-speed trains, the rivers were often the only means of transportation in rural China and, even now, traditional bamboo rafts are still a common sight along the riverbanks – although these days, they’re more likely to be transporting tourists than trade goods.
Tourism may be Yangshuo’s most lucrative industry today, but some of the old river ways endure. Cormorant fishing is one such custom – fishermen train the cormorants using loops of throat twine, which allow the birds to guzzle smaller fish but prevent them from eating the larger ones.
As recently as the 1950s, there were as many as 500 cormorant fishermen working on the Li River, but now only a handful remain, mainly to stage shows for visitors. Grandfather Huang is one of the last; aged 86, he’s been fishing here since learning the secrets from his father almost 80 years ago.
‘Cormorants are very clever birds,’ he explains, dressed in his traditional garb of loose pyjamas, matted cloak and bamboo hat. ‘Each has their own character – some are hard workers, but others are very lazy. They understand many commands. Some of them even know swear words,’ he laughs.
Later, fleets of bamboo rafts float out along the Yulong river. Steering between stone weirs and hidden eddies, the boatman points out wildlife along the riverbanks: shelducks in the shallows, water buffalo in the grass, a grey heron hidden among the reeds. In the distance, limestone pillars spiral skywards, their pinnacles cloaked in cloud, and white mist drifts off the fields.
Where to eat
Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant is a rarity in China: a 100% vegetarian restaurant, serving dishes such as snow peas with wild garlic, and tofu-stuffed tomatoes (00 86 77 6592 3627; 7 Die Cui Rd, Yangshuo County; mains from £2).
Where to stay
Acres of space and a riverside location make the Yangshuo Resort one of Yangshuo’s top options. This huge five-star hotel is the size of a small town, so there’s no shortage of rooms: all are enormous, with modern décor and organic bath goodies. More expensive rooms have balconies and bathrooms overlooking the river (from £100).