We arrived on a Friday afternoon, after a long trip from Amsterdam via Beijing, and were warmly greeted by the staff of the Giggling Tree Guest House (and even serenaded with a song by Lucy, one of the employees). The guest house, which was our "base of operations" during the first ten days of our trip, is in Aishanmen Village, about 4 or 5 kilometers from the town of Yangshuo and easily accessible by bike or car -- except when the road is one giant pothole, as it during most of our time there.

This was the view that greeted us from the balcony outside our door at the Giggling Tree the morning after arrival ...

It may have changed from one day to the next, but it remained every bit as gorgeous, day after day ...

Or at day's end ...

Or when all was shrouded in mist ...

Yangshuo draws Chinese and foreign tourists from far and wide. The town center along the Li River is a pedestrian zone. You have the sense that it was once extremely charming -- beneath the signs beckoning to tourists, the two-story buildings along the main streets of the pedestrian zone are pleasant enough, but they're largely concealed under a layer of glitz and schlock.

Still, it is a comfortable enough town, with plenty of hotels, everything to eat from pizza to noodles to snake and rat, and bars and clubs catering to every market from the locals to the karaoke crooners to the hippie backpackers.

Easter weekend and the Chinese festival of Xing Ming -- the grave sweeping festival -- coincided this year, bringing huge crowds to Yangshuo.

Not even the rain, which started on Tuesday and continued intermittently for the remainder of our stay, could keep folks off the street.

The Giggling Tree is just a few hundred meters from the Yu Long River, which is crossed by a number of small dams. Only slightly jet-lagged, we hopped on bikes provided by the Giggling Tree on the day after our arrival and set off to experience rural China, crossing the river by way of the dam.

Pat and Marlinde negotiating the dirt track on the far side of the river.

The destination was the "Dragon Bridge", an old stone bridge about 7 kilometers upriver.

The Dragon Bridge over the Yu Long River

Tourists can hire a boat for a leisurely cruise on the river

It's a popular place for the Chinese to come, dressed up in wedding attire to pose for photos. Whether or not they were really getting married was not altogether clear.

Striking a pose

Village at at the eastern end of the bridge

Everywhere you go, you find people playing cards and board games

The Giggling Tree is in Aishanmen Village, about 4 or 5 kilometers from the town of Yangshuo. You can catch glimpses of a traditional rural Chinese village, but you have to look hard, because they are quickly being overshadowed -- literally -- by three and four story brick and cement houses.

Aishanmen Village is one big construction site, and the villagers work on their homes at all hours of the day -- and night.

Looking over the wall of the Giggling Tree at the closest neighbors

And in the opposite direction, into the courtyard of the Giggling Tree, which is a collection of restored old farm houses and buldings

A few days after we arrived, we took a cruise of a couple of hours down the Li River, from the town of Yang Di to Xing Ping, totally awed by the breathtaking scenery of 'karst' rock formations towering over the river and the countryside.

This is the spectacular view at the end of the trip, near Xing Ping

The scene is famously depicted on the back of the 20 yuan note.

Along the way we stopped at a village up on the banks above the river. Uncharacteristically, most of the houses were made of stone rather than mud brick, and also uncharacteristically, the place was fairly frozen in time -- probably at the insistence of the government. The decorations on the door are the banners that every family affixes to the entrance during Chinese New Year.

A clandestine peek down a private alleyway

The karst mountains are ominpresent in the region

Another doorway, this time with artifacts of a more modern era.

New coat of paint

The village of Xing Ping is the end of the ride down the river -- a small town with a couple of hotels and restaurants to meet the needs of the tourists disembarking from the bamboo boats on the Li River. It is probably what Yangshuo looked like 20 years ago.

Main Street in Xing Ping

We noticed that with the steep-sided peaks, the sun tended to slip sideways behind the mountains long before it reached the horizon.

One of Yangshuo's popular attractions is Moon Rock, a 10 or 15 minute bike ride from the center of town. The rock is climbable via a trail of more than 700 steps to the hole in the rock, and a steep trail to the very top. But we didn't make the climb.

Both the Yu Long and the Li Rivers have more than their fair share of "bamboo boats" catering to the tourists (some of the "bamboo" boats are actually made of PVC pipe!). But bamboo boats are also used for real fishing. This one was clearly not set up for the tourist trade.

Dry weather had delayed planting in southern China, but when we were there, the weather was mostly wet. In fact, less than an hour after encountering this woman and the fantastic scarecrow, we were caught in a strange downpour that blew up from a cloudless sky in less than five minutes. Nowhere in Yangshuo and in the north of Guangxi Province, where we traveled after leaving Yangshuo, did we see any mechanized farming. Everything was done either by hand with a hoe or with water buffalo.

We did see some amazing vehicles, like this truck/tractor that seemed to be held together with spit and rubber bands.

10 or 20 kilometers north of Yangshuo, we wound up the mountains to around 1200 meters and visited a tea plantation

Part of the "tour" was trying our hand at picking tea -- not something easily mastered in a five minute training session

This is how it's really done.

Across the river from Yangshuo and down the road a small piece was the town of Fu Li, a quiet slice of "the real China", with a mix of new and old, and no illusions whatsoever about living off the tourist trade.

A side street in Fu Li, not far from the center of town

We left Yangshuo after ten days and traveled to the northern part of Guangxi Province, to an area known as the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces. The region is inhabited by ethnic minorities who have built amazing terraces on the steep mountains going up to around 1000 meters. Unfortunately, the views were somewhat limited by the thick mist that swirled around the tops of the mountains.

In its own way, the scenery was almost as surrealistic as Yangshuo

If anything, the fog rolling down the mountainside only added an extra element of mystique to the already spectacular vista.

We stayed in Ping An, a place undergoing a building boom no less frenetic than the one in Aishanmen Village. Someone -- probably the government -- was clearly pouring money in to Ping An to develop the tourist trade. I stopped counting when I passed twenty new hotels and guest houses. Most were built to cater to Chinese tourists.

At least in Ping An, a sort of building code had been enforced, so the new buildings were done in a style consistent with the old wooden homes that were scattered amongst the new hotels (and dwarfed by them). If you looked carefully, you could see that most were made of poured concrete frames to which the wooden facades were then attached.

New hotels and guest houses are architecturally consistent with the older homes in the village, but slightly out of scale. We stayed in the Countryside Hotel -- something like $15 or $20 a night.

The view back down to Ping An from above

All over the world, markets are wonderful places to see what local life is really all about, and that certainly was true in China. On our bike ride the day after we arrived in Yangshuo, we stopped at the market in Bai Sha, a dot on the map on the road between Yangshuo and Guilin.

The poultry section at the Bai Sha market

Great looking veggies in Bai Sha

Yangshuo produce

Yes, they do sell dog in the Yangshuo market. No, I didn't try it.

The very freshest eel you will ever find

Cooked chicken and chicken parts in the Yangshuo market

Household goods spilling out of shop in Guilin

It's well known that the Chinese are hard-working people. What is remarkable is that they work all hours of the day and night, and set to the task at hand anywhere that suits their fancy. This barber is shaving his customer on a street in Yangshuo.

Even in Beijing, a streetside barber plies his trade, across the street from the post office

In Fu Li, we came across this smith working on a farming implement -- a sort of shovel or hoe -- outside his home, using a very improvised forge

When worlds collide ... the helmsman on a boat on the Li River takes a call on his mobile

Drying freshly cut tea

A seamstress and a watchmaker work on the street in Yangshuo

In Ping An, porters would carry your goods up the steep hill (we engaged two women who amazed us with their determined strength) -- or if you were either too weak or decadent enough -- they would carry you up the hill. As these two porters passed us, we heard the familiar tinniness of a ringtone -- playing Auld Lang Syne -- and the porter took a call without missing a step.

Taking fresh greens to market along a steep trail above Ping An

A team pulls a load of heavy timbers off the back of a truck

Noodles and grilled treats in Beijing

Action shot in a Yangshuo massage and beauty parlor

Here, the oh-too-cool colleague appears to pass judgement. He was wearing a "Ramones" shirt, but apparently had no clue what it meant (or at least didn't understand my question).

They don't quite know what to make of Mao. His face is on most of their money, and his portrait hangs in almost every home. That he nearly led the country to ruin seems not to be of much interest. Fu Li is famous for its handmade fans, and this is a little fanmaker's workshop.

Three-wheelers of all sorts are a common sight. These shiny electric rickshaws are one way to get around Beijing.

Foot-powered ones are used to move goods

A customer waits while inside, the baker adds the toppings to a delicious, fresh-baked Chinese variant of a pizza

We did not see much abject poverty, but scenes like this, of people bent over from age and poor nutrition were not all that uncommon.

Chinese graves are not at all like graves in the West, and the neatly maintained graveyard is an alien concept. Around Yangshuo, they could be found in fields, or along the side of the road. This one was evidently new, judging from the condition of the decorative paper and the fresh dirt.

This is an older grave, built into an embankment along the road.

Our visit to northern Guangxi Province coincided with Xing Ming, the "grave sweeping" festival. Perhaps the families did sweep the graves, but then they proceeded to cover them with foil, banners, and pieces of fake money, and to place offerings all around them.

After 12 days in the Chinese countryside, we spent a half day in Guilin, a city of 600,000 in northern Guangxi Province. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised that it seemed so "western".

And then it was off for a whirlwind tour of Beijing -- two days to take in the Forbidden City, the Wall, and as much as we could of the rest

China, of course, is a country of contrasts, and Beijing exemplifies it. Here, the meat is hanging from hooks right next door to a glitzy shoe store

Off the main boulevards in Beijing, you see quite a different sort of city. Here, we are at one of the gates of Guozijian Street, in the Dongcheng District

A sort of organized chaos prevails in Beijing that works surprisingly well

Cheniandian Hutong, across the way from Guozijian Street. Here, the glitz and polish gives way to real life.

A stretch of bars along Sanlitun doesn't quite exude the charm of Austin's East Sixth Street or the decadence of Bourbon St. But it did have more than its share of SUVs and Audis. Apparently the place to come to see beautiful people and be seen.

Midtown on a Friday night. If Mao were alive today, he'd be rolling in his grave...

There was little police or military presence anywhere until we got to Tiananmen Square

Just in case there are any stray germs ...

The weather was cool and misty, and the views somewhat obscured, but at Mutianyu, and hour and a half northeast of the center of Beijing, we had the Great Wall practically to ourselves. Pat was certain she wouldn't make it up to the top.

It wasn't easy ...

But look at that. We made it.