a Chinese painting that comes alive

The most beautiful town, the largest foreigners’ corner

Back in the kitchen, Adam, a Briton and the owner of this top bar on TripAdvisor, was grilling sandwiches. It was Poker Night and in the middle of the bar, a circle of Europeans were playing cards. Holding a bottle of ginger ale, Nick, a Croatian in his late thirties, asked me if I want to play pool in the other room.

From the wooden-framed windows, I could see contours of rolling hills, which reminded me that I was volunteering to teach English in Yangshuo, a small town near Guilin city in China famous for mountains and rivers. It is said that “Guilin’s scenery is the best under heaven, and Yangshuo’s scenery is the best in Guilin”. If anyone wants to dispute, just look at the 20 yuan note. The scene of karst hills along the Li River banks nearby is immortalized at the back. And the movie Star Wars III used Yangshuo as a backdrop for the Battle of Kashyyyk.

The Yangshuo I see from the Moon Hill
In Star Wars III

What might be less known about Yangshuo is that it boasts one of the largest populations of English-speaking Chinese and foreign expats in China. On the first night, I went to the West Street, formerly known as the Foreigners’ Street. In a mere stretch of less than 1 km, tourists, backpackers, and locals of all colors and languages mingled and lingered at stalls selling everything from Tibetan silvery knickknacks to hand-stretched nougats. The street looked ancient and quaint, but Western restaurants, cafes and bars (all with bilingual menus) were everywhere. On open terraces people were eating steak, sandwiches, and fried chicken as they conversed in English, French, Russian and Chinese.

Stretchy nougats made with ginger and osmanthus

If West Street is the largest foreign language corner in China, Yangshuo is the capital of English language schools. Every foreigner I met taught English during the day, be it local schools or private language colleges. At its peak, there were about 30 English language schools in Yangshuo, and most of them are boarding schools.

At the school I volunteered, I met foreigners from Ukraine, Germany, Australia, and Czech. Every night we organized activities like movie night, game night, and cultural night to create opportunities for students to practice English and learn about Western cultures. Students I interacted ranged from beginners who could not carry out simple conversations to advanced students who could express themselves in English.

Leon, a metal dealer from Qinhuangdao, a city near the sea in northern China, had been here for two terms and planned to stay for another term after Chinese New Year. “Shy, shy!” he smiled when I asked him why he didn’t speak much during the English corner. The middle-aged man next to him buried his head memorizing English words on his phone throughout. Students usually pay more than 4000 yuan for a four-week course. Usually in their late twenties or thirties, these students came as they saw the need to master English during work — quickly.

As China integrates its economy with the world, Chinese have become keener in learning the lingua franca. There are as many as 10,000 students who come here to learn English.

And the competition is fierce. “Many English schools here have shut down in recent years. Parents find that they can get kids learn from ‘more serious’ foreigners in places like Shenzhen now,” Williams, a Canadian who has taught English for two years here said. “Some parents joked that they would put up banners when kids go back: ’welcome home, but don’t bring AIDS’.”

Despite the passing fervent for learning English here, the demand for English speakers is still higher than the supply. It is low tourism season in winter because of the continuous rain and the coldness — probably why non-native speakers like Nick and I could be accepted as volunteers.

And the learning goes both ways. There are Chinese learning colleges catered to foreigners, as well as courses on Chinese chess, Chinese cooking, Chinese Kung Fu, and Taichi. Nick, who came to China to learn Taichi from a local master, has been teaching English for more than a year in a middle school during the day and volunteering for an English college at night for free accommodation. “I have to save enough money for learning Taichi and extend my visa,” he said. “I want to stay here as long as I can, for this way of life.”

Now there are more than 20 stores opened by foreigners who settled here, and more than 1000 foreigners living here who married Chinese. It amuses me, for while Chinese are trying to go out and even emigrate, people outside China are trying to come in. Not to mention the choking pollution and the fast-paced life in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, even in this little town, consumerism and blinding developments are diluting the authentic and idyllic flavor passed down through generations. Currently, Yangshuo’s main economic income comes from tourism, with rivers, caves, temples, and peaks developed into tourist spots, along with restaurants, hostels, and bars to attract more tourist dollars. In 2012, Yangshuo welcomed its 10,000,000th tourists.

Stalacite cave that looks like a fairy tale

The tourist business has inevitably changed locals’ lives. Many locals are now more driven by profits than a heartfelt pride or love for this place. I was well warned about how calculating locals could be, but when I was told to pay 5 yuan while the local before me paid 2.5 yuan, I put down the mugwort cake, a local snack made of glutinous rice and an aromatic plant called mugwort, and walked off indignantly.

“I am also a Chinese, and just because I can’t speak the local dialect, I am charged more?” I complained to Nick. And it was of grimace as I discovered that I was not the unluckiest. Some vendors run a tri-price system: for the same noodle, the local sat at the other table paid 15, but when I asked in Putonghua (standard mandarin), the owner asked me for 20, while for Nick, who is distinctly foreign, 25. Without listing the price in black-and-white, there is little room for arguing, or it is just not worth arguing, as Nick felt.

the touristy West Street

Like any other popular ancient town in China, the generic and overpriced stalls give Yangshuo a touristy and commercialized feel. Along the famous 10-Mile Gallery, a road with meandering hills on both sides, dozens of domestic tourists hopped off the tourist bus to scenic spots to take pictures, and girls changed into ethnic costumes to pose for selfies.

Tourists in ethnic costumes

As we had enough buzz and light in the West Street, Nick brought me to a quiet bar called Bad Pandas, hidden in a shady side alley opened by foreigners.

The bar feels like a haven away from the noise in the main street. When we came, there were only a Canadian bartender and a Canadian couple. Such foreigner-run bars are popular spots for the expat community and backpackers to hang out — play foosball and Cards Against Humanity or just have some drinks from home. And most importantly, this is where they get trustable help. As we chatted over cocktails and whiskey, another Canadian, dropped by to lend the couple a pair of gloves.

the funky Bad Pandas

Perhaps such spiritual pollutions and development are not necessarily a bad thing. The international and modern elements in a traditional and oriental setting attract foreigners, and have made it easier for all tourists to soak up the beauty here without giving up too much convenience in modern life. “Everyone says China smells bad, the food is weird, and everywhere dirty. But we find it smells good, the food delicious, and it is clean,” the Canadian girl told me as we cheered with Jack Daniels.

generic and modern stores on the West Street

“It is becoming more commercialized, but China is so big, so I would always be able to find a place where I can lead a simple and peaceful life,” Nick said.

You can easily cycle your way into the nature

Yangshuo is blessed, because comparing to concrete jungles rising up in most parts of China, it has natural endowments that amaze. Cycling my way into the countryside, farmers led water buffalo through the glistening rice paddies. Women washed clothes by slapping them on the river shore. Bamboo rafts dotted the tranquil river, fishermen used cormorants to catch fish. Afar, mountains rose in different shades of violet and grey that looked like a Chinese painting. At this crossroad of traditional Chinese culture and modern civilizations, people can still find tranquility in the rural surroundings and people who come here are drawn to this tranquility. And at least for now, the rhythm in the town is balanced and laid-back. During the day, normal lives go on for locals while at night, the town bustles with different cultures and everyone can get their own fun. I hope that the surrounding pea-green mountains will guard this otherworldly getaway and this unhurried pace — something dearly missed in the world we live.