It took you a while—a really long while, if you’re being honest—to fall in love with China. Like most people, you started in the cities. Beijing. Shanghai. Shenzhen. You added smaller cities. Suzhou. Dongguan. You detoured to an island. Hainan. Then you started exploring the countryside. You immediately felt more at home in the national parks, on the mountains, and along the rivers. Yangshuo might be your favorite spot of all.
Yangshuo is part of Guangxi, an autonomous region that borders Vietnam in South Central China. Guilin, a city along the Li River in the region’s northeast corner, is surprisingly one of the most popular destinations in the whole country. It’s easier to understand once you see its karst topography. The limestone mountains, the green hills, and the winding rivers become even more dramatic as you head southeast of Guilin. Yangshuo County ranks up there as one of the most beautiful spots in the world.
Though the area has been inhabited for more than 1,400 years, tourism—in the form of foreign backpackers—didn’t arrive until the 1980s. Organized tours followed a decade later. But it wasn’t until 2005 that Chinese tourists finally outnumbered those from other countries. The lag created an interesting—and, for China, a unique—atmosphere in which most the signs are bilingual and most of the locals speak English in addition to Chinese.
So you arrive in Yangshuo to see natural arches, limestone caves, and steep cliffs. You want to visit an ancient market, where local merchants sell honeysuckle, fried rice noodles, and tea seed oil from bamboo rafts. You hope to hike, rock climb, and float down the river on your own bamboo raft. Plus you’re prepared to stop at every stunning spot to take in the panoramic view.
When you’re surrounded by so much natural beauty, a normal hotel just won’t do. Enter Alila Yangshuo. The new hotel—it just opened last year—sits in a col, which is the lowest point between two karst mountains. The main building, made of stone and bamboo, used to be a sugar mill. Its historic sugar house now houses minimal, serene rooms. The sugar pressing room, with a high ceiling and wooden beams, is now a farm-to-table restaurant. It has its own rum distillery and sunken bar, as well. While the water pump building along the river is now a private dining spot.
There’s also Spa Alila. The cavernous sanctuary, in the former sugar stock rotunda, was inspired by the nearby caves. You descend into the spa on a stone-like spiral staircase. Any tension accumulated from your travels dissipates before you reach the bottom step. The solitude seems to restore your balance. As you’ll soon see, local black sugar has even been integrated into its treatments. You feel like you’ve stepped into a gorgeous Chinese painting.