A Peak Experience in China
Set on the banks of the winding Li River in the Guangxi region of southern China, the little town of Yangshuo might be posing for a classical Chinese painting. It nestles amid tall limestone formations; high above, on the rocky cliffs, windswept trees and ancient shrines cast their silhouettes against the sky. This is the Monument Valley of China, except that what spreads out below the rocky spires is not desert but fertile rice paddies and lush green groves of bamboo.
Beauty is only one of Yangshuo's charms. For the visitor worn down by the sterile sameness of the nation's big cities, it's a friendly, laid-back place that harks back to an older, less homogenized China. It's also easily accessible: about an hour's flight from Hong Kong to Guilin, the former provincial capital, then another hour's inexpensive cab ride south. Once you've settled in, you can bicycle to neighboring villages or take slow boats up and down the Li. At night, cormorant fishermen work quietly by lantern light, their slender black birds poised to dive from the edges of their boats. (While on duty, the trained birds wear special collars that permit them to swallow only small fish; they have to surrender the larger ones). Best of all, perhaps, the home-cooked food you dine on in Yangshuo is some of the best in China. Fresh from local gardens and hot from the wok, it's an elegantly simple, chile-inflected cuisine--a refreshing alternative to the elaborate banquet food of the big-city hotels.
When we first set foot in Yangshuo, in 1984, China was just nudging open its doors to foreign tourism. We stayed in the state-owned Hotel Number One (then the only hotel in town) and took our meals at the state-owned People's Restaurant (the only restaurant in town). Eating at People's was a little like eating in jail: you'd buy coupons at the door and relinquish them at an iron-barred window, and someone would slap a tin bowl of rice and a tin plate of food down on the counter. The food--an oily stir-fry of greens with tree ear mushrooms and the odd sliver of meat, or a scramble of eggs, tomatoes and green onions--wasn't distinguished, but it wasn't bad. We felt lucky to be there at all.
Yangshuo is still a low-rise rural town, without neon or flash, but it's become more affluent and more personable. Children go off to school wearing bright colors, and their parents dress with a hint of Hong Kong fashion. There are fax machines, travel agents, a video-rental store and--best of all--a new, bustling outdoor market, where you can haggle over everything from winter melons to persimmons to piles of tiny red Guangxi chiles, both fresh and dried. Twice a week the market explodes in size as people travel in from all over the district to buy, barter, sell or just to have fun--to eat noodles or baozi (BOW-tzuh, meat dumplings) prepared by street vendors and to catch up on local gossip.
There are now half a dozen privately run hotels to choose from--small, clean, friendly places costing $2 to $5 a night (as compared to the $25-to-$50-a-night Soviet-style tourist hotels in the major cities). People's Restaurant still exists, but it's much smaller (and friendlier), and the food no longer tastes institutional. We still go to People's for breakfast. It shuts down about midday, but that's all right, because the last time we counted Yangshuo had more than 20 other restaurants. They're all little, family-run places, with a few well-seasoned woks, a stock pot and a rice pot in the kitchen. Find a place you like and it becomes yours.
Our place is Susannah's. When we saw the sign proclaiming, "In October 87 the former US President Mr. Jimmy Carter dined here with local VIPs," we figured we should give it a try. We liked the food and we liked the family, and so we kept going back. Our last evening there was typical. As we walked in, Lilly (one of three waitresses) called over, "Where have you been all day?" and directed us to a table outdoors. Lilly is used to tourists, both Chinese and foreign; they arrive every day on the cruise boats that travel down the Li on day trips from Guilin. A 19-year-old Yangshuo native, she learned English from an Australian woman and as a result speaks with a decidedly Australian accent.
Like Lilly, the women in the kitchen are from Yangshuo, and, except for the occasional Szechwan specialty (or lasagna), they cook the same Guangxi dishes at the restaurant that they cook at home. Their food, prepared quickly in a hot wok, tastes of the locale and of the season. That night we started our meal with a plate of stir-fried baby Shanghai bok choy, the bright-green leaves lightly dressed with chicken broth. Then we ordered our favorites: a spicy tofu stir-fry with ground pork; a soupy, slow-simmered chicken with black mushrooms; a Guangxi-style dish of dried tofu sheets and local herbs; a Szechwanese braised eggplant, with heaps of garlic and ginger; and, finally--our absolute favorite--stir-fried cucumbers spiced with lajiao jiang, or chile paste.
Lilly also brought rice, local beer and the same light, piping-hot soy-based soup that she always insisted we have ("It's good for you")--all for a total of less than $2. After dinner we ordered wu jia pi, a medicinal Chinese liqueur made from millet. It arrived in tiny glasses, and as we sat sipping it and listening to a tape of John Coltrane over crackly speakers, with the mountains all around us silhouetted against the starry sky, we couldn't have been more content.
For a full meal, serve at least three of the following dishes together with the rice. If you want to make a meal of only one or two dishes, figure that each dish will yield half the number of servings stated.
Toronto-based Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid are the authors of Flatbreads & Flavors (Morrow) and the forthcoming Seductions of Rice (Artisan).