One of only a few free days in our whole three week trip, we took the day at a slower pace and tried to relax. And after drinking a bottle of Prosecco between us we cancelled our plans to get up at dawn and take photos. We had breakfast by the river again; pancakes, porridge and muesli. With a flask we’d bought in Chengdu we topped up our Pu-er tea with boiling water and whiled away the morning by the water.
In the absence of planned activities, we planned our own, and at 10am Zeng Song, who runs a traditional culture studio, came to teach us the art of Chinese calligraphy (we found him via the hotel). For an hour we sat with him beneath a parasol, paintbrush in hand, learning the artform.
We started with basic strokes, the components of characters; a point that goes from thick to thin, a thin line to a fat line, the angle to hold a brush for different strokes. The first characters we wrote were numbers 1 to 10, characters I recognised from my mandarin lessons at university. Then we moved onto the foundation characters, upon which other characters are built; up and down, big and small, moon and sun, wood and mountain. We finished by writing our names in their equivalent sounding characters. By the end we’d grown adept at using the brush and the precise order that strokes are made, our lines were confident and the characters showed improvement — though our teachers’ examples hinted at the years and years of practice necessary to perfect this craft, every character looked perfect.
Zeng Song also runs painting lessons, and at the end Sam asked for a bamboo painting session, she’d seen a child doing something similar in a park in Chengdu. Turns out this is harder than it looks. For 45 minutes Sam practiced her bamboo strokes, 1-2-3, down-diagonal-horizontal, 1-2-3, thin-fat-thin to resemble a leaf. These leaves are then overlaid seemingly randomly but ultimately resembling bamboo brilliantly (or not at all). The last step is to paint the bamboo trunk, three thick strokes with a swish between each. And for the finishing touch, to sign your name and stamp with a red seal.
We didn’t do much after that, at the hotel we had the regional specialty ‘beer fish’, or pijiu yu — one big catfish between two, and Sam had a foot and shoulder massage.
Before the evening we headed out into town via taxi; though as soon as we arrived in Yangshuo proper we knew we wanted to be back by the quiet river; it’s another noisy Chinese town with tourist shops and it completely lacked the tranquility I’d expected. After a quick walk, where we spied a fisherman and his cormorants, bought some dresses and looked for picture perfect river views that were clearly elsewhere, we hailed a new taxi and left.
But we didn’t go home, instead we continued on to Yangshuo village inn, our hotel’s sister which has a rooftop restaurant, Luna. Luna is on the roof of the hotel and it looks out on Moon Hill. The views weren’t as picturesque as the guides suggested (partly because of a new build which obscures the view), nor the hotel as plush as ours, but the Italian food was tasty and we enjoyed pizza and pasta with cold local beer LiQing.
After the taxi back to our retreat, we didn’t fancy bed straight away. There was a nice vibe in the bar, so we tried the Great Wall red wine (the only variety of wine we found in China) and hung about. There’s a trend on holiday — Sam finds lots of small interesting things to buy as souvenirs, I find one or two things that I love that are usually massive, expensive or not available for purchase. In the bar there was one such thing; an amazing table constructed from an ornate Chinese panel window with glass fitted over the top.
After putting it off for a day, we did get up before dawn to capture the magnificent mountains of Yangshuo in the early light, on our last day here. But we chose the wrong day, and at 6am it was overcast and dull, when the sun rose it wasn’t much better, there were blue skies but it was too hazy. The quick pictures we snapped on our first morning were the best conditions.
As we were up we had an early breakfast and then waited for our driver who’d be taking us three hours north, to the Longsheng rice terraces and the remote mountaintop village of Ping’an. Our retreat was over, the relaxation was welcomed, but now it was time to return to travelling and activities. We considered cancelling the rice terraces and staying here longer, but that would have been a huge mistake, the rice terraces are incredible.