120. Finding Authenticity without Trying

Finding Authenticity Without Really Trying: It’s been said here before, but on this trip there will be a precious few guesthouses and hotels that are themselves an attraction. Places worth crossing an ocean for. We found one in India, one in Malaysia, The Philippines, Laos, Ireland, and now China. This one, called the Yangshuo Culture House, is tucked at the end of a rough dirt lane at the edge of the southern China city of Yangshuo. The city itself is tucked into some of the most dreamlike scenery we’ve encountered this year, an infinite array of jagged limestone karsts, peaks shrouded in mist and jutting in and out of view with every corner turned. Lazy rivers, bamboo forests, ancient villages tending to ancient rice paddies, bent-back farmers driving water buffalo on country roads. In this kind of panoply, I’m reaching for my camera every ten seconds. How many pictures can one person take of mountains reflected in rice paddies? One hundred and sixty four, apparently.

None of the amazing countryside around Yangshuo is completely untouched by the unstoppable machine of Chinese tourism, which leads to a lot of typical Western traveler talk about whether or not you’re having an “authentic” experience. If you haven’t gathered yet, authenticity is the prize of independent travel and no one really agrees on how to define it. I long ago abandoned the notion that you have to be ox-carted into a remote jungle village to sleep on hard-pack earth and eat a variety of hallucinogenic insects for sustenance in order to have an authentic travel experience. That’s not just because I know, know, that in that village there will be at least one native kid wearing a New York Yankees hat who wants to know what I think of the latest Linkin Park album – it’s because we’ve learned how to find authenticity and exoticism in even the most bustling of commercial tourist destinations.

It turns out to be exceptionally easy.

Walk for fifteen minutes beyond the ticky tacky, knick knack shopping district of a city like Yangshuo and the authentic blend of modern and ancient China envelops you. Streetscapes teem and bustle with open-air noodle and won ton shops, traditional eel-in-a-jar pharmacies, all manner of local laborers mixing concrete with their hands and welding with home-made safety masks, old men playing cards, new mothers doting on tuft-headed babies and if you’re really lucky, a shovel-wielding man in his underpants chasing a wayward flock of geese down the street. In even fewer instances, there may be a guesthouse like the Yangshuo Culture House, where you can live with a Chinese family, comprised of the sweetest people and headed by Renaissance man Mr. Wei who will send you on a biking/rafting trip in the morning (above), feed you a mountain of fried rice for lunch, teach you tai chi and calligraphy in the afternoon and then serve you the most delectable family-style Chinese dinner in the evening. All of this for an unbelieveable $18 US a night. We were in fantastic company in this place and openly happy when our onward travel plans were delayed by a couple of days – delayed only because we’d asked our host to track down sleeper train tickets on a relatively obscure route to a hard-to-reach next destination. Not only did he perform a miracle with these tickets, he inadvertently gave Amy, Kirk and I the most authentic and memorable experience we’re likely to have in China. An easy Reason No. 121, coming soon.

Before that, there were so many tremendous vistas in this part of China – mountains, rice terraces, atmospheric villages and ethnic-minority populations – that it deserves a few more photos.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Very cool. THis is my new favorite place that you’ve written about so far. Whittlesey & I will have to go there for sure!

  2. furey says:

    those photos are amazing…

  3. Oishii Eats says:

    Seriously loving your blog! It’s Jeni from the Culture House btw! I want to continue reading, but it’s 6:55am and I haven’t gotten one ounce of sleep. Stupid jet-lag! Anyways, love the blog guys! We had a great time with everyone in our beloved Yangshuo!

  4. e d b m says:

    Sloan/Amy/Kirk, just wanted to say that we had a great time hanging out with Team Portland. All of a sudden, a 1-hour massage for $40 is sounding mighty expensive! For a while I was wondering how you guys found my blog but realized that in the next post, someone had left a comment about my blog. Small world! Love the writing and photography on your site. Jeni and I will for sure be following your adventures. We do have plans to come up to Portland sometime, and a quaint meal over dogmeat sounds like a great idea haha. Anyway, be safe with your future travels and good luck. Regards, dylan

  5. Sloan says:

    We had a great time with you two also – one of the unexpected treats of this year has been randomly finding and enjoying the company of other Americans in unlikely places. So yes let’s get together in Portland someday, over a meal in one of Amy’s favorite vegetarian restaurants, and talk about that one time we ate dog in China. That’ll be a hoot.

    (By the way, I don’t think the Chinese government likes your blog, because we haven’t been able to connect to it unless Kirk works some runaround techie magic. All that subversive food talk, you’re on the list.)

  6. Oishii Eats says:

    It was some good times guys! It was a real treat to have some happy massage time with Portland. We’ll try and make it up to the NW for some good eats.

    Wish we had Kirk to help us get to our blogs while in Yangshuo. I couldn’t do any writing on blogspot. Freegin’ China! JK Mao!

  7. Brenda says:

    Thanks so much for your blog. My family and I just spent 6 weeks in China. One of the places that we went was Yangshuo. My girls had a great time bargaining or at least watching their dad. I will continue to watch your site. Thanks again