If you’re feeling in a mood to reach a bit, as I clearly am, the week Christine and I spent in Yangshuo (Guanxi Province) was kind of like a spa retreat but it also totally wasn’t. So yeah…humour me.
I haven’t ever been on a lengthy spa retreat, unless of course I convince you to count this particular week. Note that I haven’t at all convinced myself, and so my qualifications to make the following comparisons are negligible. Keep in mind that my alternate angle for recounting this week in February was a bunch of words regaling our exceptional laziness in Yangshuo. And, that just doesn’t have the same zing to it. Anyways I figure spa retreats are laziness wrapped in a comfy white bathrobe of contemplative productivity and sophistication. So same same.
The odds are stacked overwhelmingly against you when you try to push, squeeze a week in China into a spa retreat mold. Start instead in nearby Japan, anywhere in Japan, and your audience’s bias will make things easier for you. Call me idealistic, but I’m having a hard time pushing the image of monkeys in hot springs high up in the serene Japanese mountains out of my head. I’d be in those platform flip flops, I would see cherry blossoms in the distance, and it would be peaceful. My views have also been coloured because of a traumatic Chinese reflexology foot massage I received in Taiwan. Screaming, laughing, both aghast and amused, I figured it likely I would vomit or faint in a puddle of my own sweat.
Southern China is crowded, bathed in neon, a cacophony day or night contributed to and well trodden by chickens on the loose on sidewalks awash in liquid you just decide, or hope, might be water. Parts of Yangshuo are no different. And, Yangshuo in the middle of its damp February experiences Chinese New Year. This we found to be more of the above, sprinkled generously with contemporary caravans of families and friends swarming the city in SUVs, slowly circling and yelling into radios trying desperately to find accommodation. I’ll just say that above all, the fireworks provided an ambiance good for a party, fantastic for a war or siege, but terrible for tranquility.
There were other things about Yangshuo that impeded our not-so-spa-experience. We visited the local market, our first in China. I was keen and ventured deep into the walkways lined with carcasses hanging or being hacked apart, bits flying. Turtles languished in styrofoam bins, and goats screamed at me as they were dragged past on carts pulled by motorcycles, right there inside the market building. My runners, I couldn’t imagine what had stuck to the bottom of them, and it wasn’t until a long trail walk later that I figured they were clean-ish. It’s a good thing I didn’t wear my spa sandals.
The other thing about meat is that Christine doesn’t do so well with most of it. It had been loosely implied to us that we’d have fruit and breads for breakfast at our guesthouse. Not exactly spa retreat organic yogourt and swiss muesli, or pressed juice perhaps. We had tempered expectations. Instead, Christine found herself in a dilemma when we sat down in the morning to steaming noodle soup with plenty of unidentifiable meat bits suspended within. Totally authentic, pretty tasty, definitely not her style. Next time she will declare herself vegetarian on future Chinese fake spa retreats.
But you know, there also was lots about the week that maybe you could find at a spa getaway.
The room, it was our haven. We had a private bathroom with steamy showers. Close your eyes and you could easily convince yourself you were in a private jetted hot tub with exclusive mineralized water and a waterfall splashing over greek tilework onto your shoulders. It was that good. Well…it was that good in retrospect. Remember what I said about reaching? In the room we each had a big comfy bed, and if you gave me an alternative to lounge at a real spa outside on a poolside chair, I’d still choose the bed. I feel napping is an important part of reaping the benefits of any spa retreat, and we did a lot of it. We’d read in bed, listen to Taylor Swift in bed, drink instant coffee in bed, and lament the China firewall in bed. It was great. No incense or essential oils though. In true spa retreat fashion we’d almost always be in plastic sandals in the room, leaving our meat bit and chicken droppings runners right at the door.
Yangshuo is internationally famous for rock climbing and partying in the circles of backpackers and young liberal Chinese, although I’m told the scene isn’t as raucous as it once was. In the words of a local bar manager, within a few months of living here youth from other parts of China are thoroughly corrupted, ‘drinking all the time, smoking pot and f***ing everything that walks.’ In other news, the surrounding countryside is great for pure and wholesome bike rides!
Let me tell you, illicit activities like those noted above would be a big spa retreat no-no. Although I could have happily had a night out, we were far off the bar strip and Christine was sick, so excepting the occasional beer (in bed), we were thoroughly tame that week. How rejuvenating.
If our Yangshuo home was to start marketing itself as a spa, there’s one asset it could use immediately. Amidst the lush karst landscape, Fun Sam’s Bed and Breakfast has an open rooftop that is nearly perfect for sunrise yoga, or perhaps a massage. We didn’t do either of these things because that would have involved getting out of bed, and laziness has a sort of inertia to it. So I suppose this goes in the ‘yes…but sadly for us, no’ category for my little comparison exercise. I don’t even have a photo of it, for shame!
I’m done with the reaching. I’ll end with something that we ate consistently, and that you should, really truly, find in any self-respecting spa retreat environment. Amazing vegetarian food, eaten out on a secluded patio overlooking a creek. A dirty creek that people openly threw their garbage into, but you can’t have it all. We almost always ordered and shared the same dishes, and if those roasted broccoli skewers didn’t reawaken our body and mind, I don’t think anything would have.