The Development of Yangshuo – China’s Most Beautiful Tourist Trap [Fujicolor C200]

tourists at yangshuo river

Images shot on Fujicolor C200 in Yashica Electro 35 GSN

Before I lived in Shanghai, a place I’ve shot more photographs of and written about more than any other on this website, I lived in a small town in southern China called Yangshuo.

As you can see from this picture of Yangshuo nestled between its trademark limestone karsts, it’s a beautiful place, and one that gave me some of the best times of my life so far.

When I was there, I wasn’t into photography anywhere near as much as I am now. The thought of shooting film certainly never crossed my mind back then. So it was nice to return some years later and get through the roll of Fuji C200 you see the results of here.

The place has changed a lot since the days I called it home. Depending on your perspective, this may or may not have been for the better. We can get into the whys and wherefores of that later.

For now, I want to show you some long overdue Yangshuo film photography. First from a couple of trips outside the town and then some shots from Yangshuo itself.

bridge over yulong river

A trip out to the Yulong River’s Dragon Bridge

There are two rivers you’ll likely encounter if you ever go to Yangshuo. The first, called the Li River, runs alongside the town. Large passenger ships come down this one bringing people on sightseeing cruises from Guilin.

The second river, called the Yulong, is a very pleasant bicycle or scooter ride through the countryside away from Yangshuo and free of these vessels.

However, once you get to the Yulong’s scenic Dragon Bridge, which is one of the more popular spots for any kind of Yangshuo photography, you’ll see that it isn’t free of hundreds of bamboo rafts offering rides along the water.

I’ve taken a few of these rides myself back in the day and can tell you it was a nice way to spend an hour or two. I can also tell you the first time I ever went to this bridge, as two old photo photographs I’ve dug out will show you below, there were 10x fewer tourist rafts there.

In fact, the bridge was a spot where people – other people, not me – would jump off into the river. Looking at all that’s going on beneath it now, that would be impossible today.

I’m not bemoaning this change. I’m just pointing it out. If people can make money from the endeavour, the tourists enjoy it, and the environment is looked after – notice the rafts are engineless – more power to them all, I guess.

scooter in yangshuo countryside

yangshuo dragon bridge

yangshuo yulong bamboo boats

A trip out to neighbouring Xing Ping

Another hugely popular trip out of Yangshuo is to the smaller, quieter town of Xing Ping. It’s easily reachable with regular buses making the hour-ish journey throughout the day. While still less developed than Yangshuo, and I imagine it always will be, it has changed since the first few times I went.

I remember a high street of mainly closed-up old buildings in the town. Whether they were unused or not, I don’t know. Perhaps people lived there. But they certainly weren’t doing any sort of business from them. There was also a poorly-maintained road that you had to share with vehicles as you strolled along the river.

This time, years later, I found the high streets to be far more busy with cafes and restaurants, with some houses still there in between too. There’s also now a wooden walkway that keeps you separate from the cars and 20-person golf carts transporting those who can’t or don’t want to enjoy the scenery on foot.

This walkway takes you to the spot of probably the single most common activity in Xing Ping, by the way. The holding up of a 20RMB note in front of the view that features on it and taking a photo.

Again, I’m not knocking any of these developments. I think they make Xing Ping objectively better for visitors and locals alike.

And once again, I’ve delved into my hard drive to find two old photographs that show what it was like before, and also the 20RMB money shot, so to speak.

xing ping high street

xing ping china
xing ping 20rmb view

And now back to Yangshuo itself

If the Dragon Bridge bamboo raft business and Xing Ping town have both developed in the years I left, it should come as no surprise that Yangshuo itself has too.

We are talking around a decade since I first went there to this time when I shot this inexpensive Fujicolor film though, and most places on Earth will have changed in that time. That said, not many will have changed as much as Yangshuo if we look over the last twenty or so years instead

Back before I’d ever heard of it, Yangshuo was a hangout for western backpackers. It remained this way for a long time as most of the local tourists, travelling on package tours, wouldn’t make it past Guilin.

Maybe I just caught the very tail end of that version of Yangshuo. Of course, people who were there years before me will tell me it had already changed, just as I feel it has changed in the years since.

The topography is still the same, but the atmosphere was something else. Just unlike anywhere I’ve been in China. Almost as if a piece of South East Asia had been transplanted in.

The high number of private English schools in town helped sustain a healthy long and medium-term foreign population in the early 2010s, and there were still plenty of foreign travellers passing through too. Both of these meant plenty of cheap and chilled cafes catering to us all.

Kelly’s Cafe, Lucy’s Cafe, Backstreet Cafe, Minority Cafe. Everyone had their favourite. Minority was mine, by a mile.

When I went back this time though, the cobbled street that was once so busy in the daytime with these places was now dead until the evening, having been turned into yet another strip of bars and clubs.

The whole town felt different. Less carefree, and with a lot less character too. They built a shopping mall. They got a Starbucks. Yangshuo, which used to be in its own category of one, began to resemble most other places in China.

In a nutshell, Yangshuo changed from a foreign traveller destination to one more for the local tourists. I guess this is down to economics. Most things are.

The former began to have less money to travel while the latter began to have more. And you can’t blame the local government and businesses for wanting to sell to rich Chinese people rather than broke backpackers.

The majority of the English schools closed too, which decimated the number of those long and medium-term ex-pats in town. Another reason, along with the ever-increasing rents, that the cheap cafes and bars we all used to frequent had to close.

yangshuo west street

Why Yangshuo is still beautiful to me

I need to stress again that this is not me complaining about the development of Yangshuo. It’s not an old man yells at cloud moment. I hope.

For one thing, who am I to tell people how to run a town in their own country? If they want to change things, for better or worse, it’s completely up to them.

For another, the place is still beautiful to me, and I think it always will be. I have my memories, and I found some of them were awakened as I wandered away from the touristy town centre shooting these photographs.

They might look mundane to other people, but going back to the streets you used to live on will do something to anybody, I think.

There’s also the small matter of those limestone karsts everywhere you look too. Whatever happens to Yangshuo, good bad or ugly, they’ll always be there.

yangshuo li river

yangshuo li river

yangshuo li river

And finally, the Li River too. As mentioned, it’s generally less peaceful than the Yulong as it runs right next to Yangshuo. The good thing about it though is that it runs right next to Yangshuo. If you need a place to sit and think, it’s right there.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back in town. When I went this time, I knew it might be the last. So on my final evening, there was only one place I wanted to be for the sunset.

After finishing up the roll of film, which you can learn more about in my full Fujicolor C200 review, I got myself a couple of cans of local Liquan beer, sat looking across the Li River, and did some thinking.

There was nothing about the moment that wasn’t beautiful. The familiar scenery. The memories of the old days in Yangshuo. Even the beer, which was almost as watery as the river in front of me that it was named after.

Yangshuo has changed since I lived there. I hear people say it’s been ruined. I think that’s a matter of opinion and perspective. There’s no doubt it’s different to how it was, but I think I’ve made my feelings clear.

There’s no point complaining about change you can’t stop happening. Not when you can remember the good times and hope to have more instead.

Yes, it is now a massive tourist trap. But, perhaps for the memories even more than the geography, Yangshuo is still beautiful to me.

If you enjoyed that post, why not take a look at these others to stay inspired or learn more about the Fujicolor C200 film I used here:

  1. My complete Fujicolor C200 review
  2. Another photo essay from a small Chinese town
  3. Shooting Fujicolor C200 on the beach

And if you think others will enjoy this account of Yangshuo too, help them find it by sharing or pinning.  😀

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