Gotoco Camp China

Franchesca Castro Blog Series

Franchesca Castro recently graduated from New York University, and participated in one of Gotoco’s winter programmes in January 2019. She was placed at an experiential learning camp near Kunming, Yunnan, where she spent two weeks leading activities and classes with kids from all over China. After her programme, Franchesca explored Yunnan independently before taking up Gotoco’s offer to spend five nights in beautiful Yangshuo, Guangxi. She has written about her experience—from applying to the programme, to her time at the camp, to her onward travels.

 

We will be posting the series in three installments:

 

Read “Part 1: Applying for a Program with Gotoco and Preparing for China” below.

 

Scroll down or click here to read “Part 2: Teaching at an Experiential Learning Camp”.

 

Scroll down or click here to read “Part 3: Post-Camp Travels and Yangshuo Trip”.

 


 

Part 1: Applying for a Program with Gotoco and Preparing for China

 

Let me start out by saying that I am not a teacher in any respect. Honestly, I don’t even particularly like children (sorry!). If you had asked me a few months ago if I thought of myself as being especially independent, or brave, or adventurous, I probably would have laughed. Basically, I did not feel like the ideal candidate to send out to a city in China I had never heard of before to teach children for two weeks. But now, having done it and come out the other side, I’ve learned so much more about both myself and the world around me. In many ways, I am a changed person, and I’m grateful to Gotoco for giving me this experience.

 

Group shot from the experiential learning camp

 

During my junior year at New York University, I opted to study at NYU Shanghai for my spring semester. I decided to study there despite never having been to Asia and not knowing a single word in Mandarin, simply because they offered the classes I needed, and I wanted to avoid the cliché European study abroad destinations. I only had the courage to go because my best friend chose to go with me, and because we had the support of our university behind us. I took a giant leap, and it paid off. Don’t get me wrong—China terrified me at first. The first few weeks involved a lot of crying on my part as I struggled to adjust to the cultural differences, the language barrier, the workload, the food—all of it. But, soon I was able to meet more people and explore the city and, after accepting how crazy the whole experience was, I realized how much China has to offer. When I finally returned to New York after my five months in Asia and got accustomed to my old life again, I discovered that I missed the freedom and spontaneity of being out of my comfort zone. I knew that someday I would find my way back to China so I could continue to learn more about this dynamic and challenging country.

 

It was the fall semester of my senior year at New York University that I first heard about Gotoco and their summer programs. At that point, a whole summer had passed between my trip abroad and my return home, and the thrill of being reunited with my Western comforts had worn off. I missed China. The application took only 10 minutes (and it was a perfect way to procrastinate studying for my midterm exams!). I heard back within a couple of days that I was approved for the next stage, and my heart nearly leapt out of my chest at the prospect of doing the program. Unfortunately though, life got in the way and I chickened out; I couldn’t imagine committing to a whole summer right after graduating, even though I really wanted to.

 

Some time passed; every time I received an email from Gotoco I felt a twinge of regret for not just going for it. Like most 20-something young adults who have just graduated from university, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and was feeling lost. My self-confidence was disintegrating more and more every day as I continued to fail at finding my sense of direction. I wasn’t sure what my next step should be. As I sat at my laptop purging emails one day, an opportunity suddenly presented itself: Gotoco was looking for participants for their two-week long winter teaching program in Kunming, Yunnan province. Why not? What did I have to lose? Maybe an escape to China was just what I needed to get out of my slump and feel challenged again.

 

If it wasn’t for Richard, (one of Gotoco’s founders and my main contact during the preparation for the program), I might have chickened out again when the adrenaline of deciding in my head to go for it wore off, and I realized that this opportunity was real, and I could actually be going to China. He answered all of my questions about the experiential learning camp, the visa, the transportation, the travel, the food, and everything else I could possibly think of. He was extremely patient with me and made me really excited about Kunming and Yangshuo—places I didn’t even know existed previously. Once I was accepted into the program, everything happened really fast; I was on a flight to China within one week!

 

Tracking my flight from Detroit to Beijing

The sunrise view of Beijing out of the airplane window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even with some China experience under my belt, landing back in the country was overwhelming. I was alone in a foreign place with still very little language experience (I took a year of Mandarin while studying abroad, but none of it stuck except the very basics). Luckily, I was met at the airport by another staff member from the camp, and she directed me to the car that would take us there. She was fluent in English and around the same age as me, and we hit it off right away. I was the only Gotoco participant at my camp for that program, which I had known ahead of time. Gotoco tries to place three to four participants at minimum at each program so that they can support each other and socialize, but both of my fellow participants unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute due to health emergencies and Gotoco’s support meant I was happy to join alone. I was nervous about being on my own, but I looked at it as an opportunity to really immerse myself in the program and the culture while also learning more about myself (as cheesy as that sounds!).

 

The view of the lake from the front door of the camp building

 

The experiential learning camp I was placed at, called Vanke Fuxian Lake International Campus, was located about an hour drive from Kunming, right on the incredibly scenic Fuxian Lake. I honestly was at a loss for words because I had no idea how beautiful the location was going to be. The air was warm and the bright sunshine reflected off of the massive lake. Even though I was exhausted and nervous and had no idea what to expect, I definitely felt lucky just to be there. Getting to the camp from the United States was only step 1 of my incredible journey, however. Next was going to be the real test of my abilities: meeting the children and beginning my teaching program!

 

 


To join us in China next summer, just go to this link. To become a Campus Ambassador, check out more information here.


 

Part 2: Teaching at an Experiential Learning Camp

 

I was caught off guard within my first minute of arriving at the experiential learning camp, because the site did not match my American knowledge of what “camp” is like at all. Instead of all the campers and staff staying in little cabins around a fire pit and canteen, the whole camp was located in one large modern building set up sort of like a university dorm. The building was three stories tall, and contained: a cafeteria, dorm rooms with bunk beds and balconies, and big common areas filled with arts and crafts tables, foosball and ping pong tables, and squishy chairs for resting in and taking in the view of the lake.

 

A look at the outside of the camp building

 

The staff let me eat lunch (an amazing assortment of vegetable and meat dishes, slightly spicy potatoes, rice, and bok choy soup) and rest for a couple of hours before formally introducing myself to the kids attending the first week of the program. At the welcome ceremony, we talked about the schedule for the week, played some games to break the ice, and went around the room sharing information about ourselves. I would speak in English to the children, and then my translator, Min, would repeat my words in Chinese. I was introduced as “Fei Fei Laoshi,” with Fēi Fēi 菲 菲 being a cute Chinese translation of my English name (Franchesca), while Lăoshī 老师 is the Mandarin word for teacher. I was the only foreign teacher, but four other volunteers—Chinese students from a nearby university—helped me to manage a group of eighteen campers for the week. The campers in our group ranged in age from 4-12, but most of the kids were around 9-years-old. They had come from all over China to attend the camp during their school holiday, and were clearly so excited about being there!

 

Playing games with the campers during the Welcome Ceremony

 

Not all Gotoco programs are the same, and I’m sure that different camps have different schedules than mine, especially since most of them take place in the summer, and many camps are more focused around traditional classroom-teaching. However, my camp followed this general schedule each day: wake up at 7:00 and prepare for the day, song and dance at 8:00 followed by breakfast, morning activity time from 9:00-12:00 followed by lunch, rest time from 12:30-14:00, afternoon activity time from 14:00-17:00 followed by dinner, and evening activity time from 17:30-21:00 followed by bedtime. The days were quite long and tiring, but they went by quickly because of how full and fun they were.

 

On that first night, the campers and staff sat in a circle outside in the setting sun and learned how to use African drums. Everyone got really into it and soon we were all drumming in unison to popular Chinese songs while volunteers danced in the center. At the camp, you are expected to overcome any shyness or stage fright pretty quickly, and are constantly encouraged to make a fool of yourself. My advice? Just embrace it! Even though I was exhausted by my journey and am not much of a performer, it was impossible not to have fun dancing in the center while the kids went crazy beating their drums.

 

Drumming with the campers outside in the light of the setting sun

 

After the drumming ceremony, I was able to go back to my room for the night. As the only Gotoco volunteer, I luckily had a room to myself, as well as my own bathroom. Both were very clean and comfortable, and bigger than the rooms in my New York City apartment. Even though I had a lot of fun doing activities and spending time with the kids over both of the program weeks, it helped having my own space to retreat to during the after-lunch breaks in order to recharge and start fresh.

 

Wake up time was much earlier than I’m accustomed to, but because of my jet lag from the 13-hour time difference, I actually found myself fully awake at 7:00. School children in China love to sing and dance, so my translator Min and I taught the campers the words and dances to the American songs “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and “I Believe I Can Fly” on our first morning, and we repeated these dances every other morning of the camp as well. Watching the kids giggle as they danced was such a great way to start the day.

 

Teaching the campers some dance moves

 

After a yummy breakfast of noodles, red bean paste buns, steamed pork buns, and a new personal favorite: a hot soymilk-like drink that literally translates to “bean juice” called “dòuzhī” (豆汁), we went on our first excursion. Across the street from our building was a beautiful golf club with a driving range that had the most stunning backdrop. A golf instructor taught the campers how to swing a golf club, and we spent the morning helping the campers practice hitting the golf balls, and even got to take a few swings ourselves. The kids were all very keen to learn and to do well. As someone who has only ever mini-golfed, it was such a cool opportunity to try out some real golf at the nicest golf club I have ever seen. 

 

Learning how to golf and having fun with the campers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch and a (much-needed!) break time, we all boarded a bus and drove up a nearby mountain to the experiential learning camp’s outdoor activities area. From here, we had an expansive view of the lake as we learned how to do archery and got to practice on targets. There was also a playground and swings, a giant balance board that the kids stood on and worked together to balance, and an obstacle course.

 

The colorful entrance to the camp’s outdoor activities area

 

In the evening, we learned how to make pottery on a wheel and played with clay. The kids had a laugh over how terrible the bowl I was trying to make turned out, and a couple of the younger boys and and I worked together to build an army of robots out of the clay.

 

Using the pottery wheel

 

There were challenges on my first full day, of course. At times I felt isolated because I was the only foreign volunteer and I couldn’t always understand what was going on since I don’t speak Chinese. The schedule was a bit intense as we were kept constantly busy, and I’m not used to being around energetic children all of the time! However, all of my frustrations and anxieties were outweighed by my interactions with the children. On this first day, I was having trouble bonding with the students because of the language barrier, and was starting to get upset at myself because of it. Then, one brave girl sat next to me during a meal and began practicing her English with me by asking me questions about things that I like. Because of her, some of the more shy students were able to work up the confidence to try and speak English too, even if they only knew a few words. It was so rewarding to watch their faces light up when I was able to understand them and answer their questions, and they were fascinated by all the answers I gave to questions about my home country and what life is like there.

 

I also got the opportunity to learn more about the places that the campers are from and what their daily lives are like, thanks to the help from my translator. If I had been just a tourist visiting China, I probably wouldn’t get to have these interactions with Chinese people, and to participate in cultural exchange. As a tourist, you tend to feel a bit separated from daily life where you are visiting, but with the camp you are thrown into daily life, and are encouraged to communicate and learn as much about each other as possible, which is extremely fulfilling. The staff stressed to me how important it is for the campers to have the opportunity to engage with foreigners and be able to practice their English and begin to feel comfortable with it. The Chinese education system relies heavily on rote learning, which is basically just repeating things over and over again until you memorize them. Many Chinese students learn English this way, but a lot of people think this is an ineffective way to learn the language. The campers seemed to learn a lot just by talking with me and asking questions, and it helped that we weren’t in a classroom setting. We learned together as we bonded through doing activities and having fun, which is a lot more memorable than another day in class!

 

Over the next few days, I had the chance to do several more stimulating activities and continue to learn and bond with the campers. On the third day of camp, we went on a beautiful nature walk and collected leaves and flowers to turn into art. The trail offered breathtaking views, and I returned here many times on my breaks to run.

 

Views from our nature walk

Making art with leaves and flowers

 

We visited the Fuxian Lake Solar Observatory, which is home to the new solar vacuum telescope (basically a gigantic telescope that can look at really close up parts of the sun). The kids learned more about how telescopes work, and we were able to look at the sun through them with special equipment. It was really educational for me as well as for the kids.

 

Standing on top of observatory building, where the new vacuum solar telescope is located

 

 

One of my highlights from the week was sailing on Fuxian Lake. It is a famous freshwater lake in China, and the deepest lake in Yunnan province. Within recent years, archaeologists have discovered that an ancient kingdom lies at the bottom of the lake, and there are even several pyramid-shaped structures submerged below the water’s surface. Getting to go out on the lake and bask in the sunshine and feel the sea breeze on my face was a spectacular experience—I felt like I was on vacation!

 

On one of the afternoons, we returned to the camp’s outdoor activities area for some adventure: rock climbing and zip lining! I was so proud of the kids for facing their fears and going for it. Even the 4-year-old babies put on all the equipment and made it a few feet up the wall. After everyone had gone, they encouraged me to try the rock climbing wall. When I reached the top, all of the kids cheered and congratulated me for the rest of the day.  One of the campers I had bonded with, a clever 9-year-old girl who loved practicing her English with me, also reached the top after I convinced her to try a second time. Not going to lie, I felt kind of like a proud mother as she waved down to me!

 

One of the campers eagerly attempting to make it to the top of the rock climbing wall

 

Another camper soaring through the air on the zip line

 

There were many more opportunities to learn and play throughout the week. The campers were taught how to do the sport of curling, and we had a friendly competition (My team won! Go Team Rainbow!). There were also many intense games of foosball played. On one of the afternoons, we traveled to the Chengjiang Fossil Site and visited the museum there, which was a really cool educational experience for me as well as the kids.

 

Learning how to do curling inside on a rainy day

 

Watching a 4D movie with the campers at the fossil museum

 

On the last night of the camp, we traveled to the top of the mountain to have a bonfire under the stars. The sky was so clear, and I could see for miles in every direction. We all wore glow sticks and watched as the campers performed in a talent show. The kids had been practicing their acts all week during the break times, and it was great to see how confident they had become by the end of the week, as well as the friendships they had formed with the other campers and with the staff. They sang popular Chinese songs, did dance routines, acted in skits, recited poems, and told jokes. At the end of the night, when we all of the staff sang a goodbye song and taught the actions in sign language, almost every one of the kids cried as they hugged us and each other. It was hard not to get emotional—we really did become a family after doing so much together!

 

On the last morning of the camp, we held a closing ceremony. We invited each kid up in front of the group individually, where they received a formal certificate for their achievement of completing the camp. The staff took turns talking about the strengths of each camper and how their skills had improved over the week. The campers kept journals where they had written about the activities they had done and their feelings each day, and we spent some time going around the room and signing all of the journals, similar to how you sign each other’s yearbooks at the end of the school year in the United States. Many kids asked for my WeChat information so they could stay in touch with me, which was so cute! I actually have received some messages and have talked with a couple of the campers already.

 

The staff posing with a camper and her certificate

Reciting the camp pledge with the campers on the last day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the campers left one by one, there were a lot of tears, but also a lot of smiles. I was so proud of all of them after seeing their growth over the week, and also proud of myself for not only surviving the week, but also enjoying it! The program I was doing was split into two weeks with new campers on the second week, so I got the chance to do it all over again, and felt a bit more confident this time. I bonded even more with the second group of kids. I threw myself into all of the activities with vigor, and actually developed skills for some of them! (I might have to do more rock climbing now that I know I’m not completely terrible at it, still don’t see too much golfing in my future, however.)

 

That night, the camp threw a party for all of the volunteers, and I got to see what an actual Chinese night out is like. We were treated to a family-style dinner at a fancy resort at the top of the mountain, and arrived just as the sun was setting. After taking a million photos on the balcony and filling up on many unique dishes, we headed across the street for the next adventure of the night: KTV. KTV is extremely popular in China; it’s like karaoke, but takes place in private rooms rented out by groups for hours at a time. The rooms often are decorated, or feature colorful lights and disco balls. Groups can order drinks to the room, and choose songs from a wide selection of music. It’s super entertaining, and only becomes more fun as the night goes on. We rented a room, and even though all of the songs chosen were Chinese pop songs, I really enjoyed watching the music videos and dancing along as the other volunteers shouted out all of the lyrics.

 

Taking a minute to appreciate the sunset from the restaurant balcony on the last night at the camp

 

Overall, I am extremely grateful for my experience at the camp. I am not a teacher by any means, (and don’t plan on ever becoming one), but now I know that I have the ability to connect with children and learn from them, even with a language barrier. I tried amazing new foods (all provided by the camp!), explored so many new places with the support of the staff, and really did have fun doing it all (despite the occasional emotional and physical exhaustion). If someone I knew was on the fence about whether or not to participate in this program, I would tell them to just go for it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this amazing opportunity. Thank you Gotoco for organizing everything for me and getting me out to China, thank you Fuxian Lake Campus for having me and bringing the kids, and thank you campers for teaching me so much and making it all worthwhile! I know I will never forget this experience.

 

Group shot from the experiential learning camp

 

 


To join us in China next summer, just go to this link. To become a Campus Ambassador, check out more information here.


 

Part 3: Post-Camp Travels and Yangshuo Trip

 

After participating in any one of Gotoco’s programs, you are offered the opportunity to spend five nights in beautiful Yangshuo, a resort town in southern China’s Guangxi region. (If you’ve never heard of Yangshuo before, you should Google image it right now. I mean it. Just looking at the pictures that come up should be enough to convince anyone to go on one of Gotoco’s summer programs, and accept the offer of a free trip there!)

 

 

Posing in front of two karsts overlooking central Yangshuo

 

Yangshuo is where Gotoco first came to fruition, and all of the camps used to be based in this area before the company expanded their reach all over the country. It would be easy to fly to China, complete your program, and flee back home immediately after it ends. However, I would encourage everyone who participates in the program to really take advantage of being in China–definitely accept the offer to go to Yangshuo, but also venture out to at least one other destination in the country if you can. The hardest part about traveling to China is just getting there in the first place, so if you’re lucky enough to already be in the country, you might as well explore it!

 

During my time at an experiential learning camp outside of Kunming, Yunnan, I had communicated with Richard (one of Gotoco’s founders) in order to find out some interesting locations in my area, as I was unfamiliar with this region of China. He was helpful in recommending towns and things to do in each place, as he had personally traveled in this area before. I finally decided to visit two towns, Dali and Lijiang, which were both relatively close to the camp I was at. After these trips I would then head onwards to Yangshuo for my five free nights. Additionally, I decided to end my vacation in Hong Kong since it’s one of my favorite cities and is also really easy to get to from Yangshuo!

 

Map showing the locations of my travels after completing my camp in Kunming (marked with a big star)

 

One amazing thing about China is that the whole country is connected by an elaborate and affordable railway system. Though many routes use conventional “slow trains,” more and more cities are now being connected by high-speed railways, with some trains running at an average speed of over 300 kilometers/hour (186 miles/hour)! I bought tickets for all of my trips using trip.com, which is a really easy-to-use site and is great for China travel. I was traveling during Chinese New Year, which has been called the largest annual human migration in the world, so I made sure to purchase my tickets as soon as I had my trip planned out in order to get seats before they sold out. However, train tickets in China can’t be purchased until 30 days before the departure date, so there is no pressure to figure out your after-program plans until after you have been in the country for at least a few weeks!

 

My camp arranged for a taxi to take me to the train station in Kunming, about an hour away. Not speaking Chinese definitely makes traveling in the country more frustrating, but as long as you allow yourself enough time and have a good translating app then everything should work out just fine. I aimed to get to the train station two hours before my departure to make sure I could pick up my ticket, get through security, and find my gate in time. I used google translate to explain to the ticket window agent that I had purchased my ticket online, and gave him my confirmation number. After going through security, a big board displayed all of the train numbers, departure times, and boarding gates. I just looked at the information on my ticket in order to my verify my departure gate, but some train stations will display the board information in English as well as Chinese, and will also make announcements in English to ensure foreign travelers don’t miss their trains.

 

Example of how to read a Chinese train ticket

 

The train ride was really comfortable; I was able to charge my phone while I read, napped, and snacked during the journey. Upon arriving in Dali, I used apple maps to find the public bus route to my hostel. I’m a big advocate for public transport and use it whenever possible over taxis (mostly because I hate spending more money than necessary!). I booked my hostels for the trip on booking.com, which lets you see reviews and book dates without having to put down a deposit. The hostel experience may not be for everyone, but it is a good way to travel cheaply and easily meet people if you’re willing to sacrifice some comfort and privacy.

 

I spent two nights in a hostel near Dali Ancient City. Dali is known for its proximity to the gorgeous Erhai Lake, and for being home to the Three Pagodas of the Chongsheng Temple. The old town is really cute–there are four elaborate city gates facing in each direction, and a small river runs through one of the middle pedestrian streets, surrounded by small stores and restaurants on either side. The old town is busy during the day, but it really comes alive at night as vendors call out to tourists offering free samples, live music drifts out to the sidewalk from a seemingly endless amount of bars and restaurants, and colorful lanterns and neon lights glow in every window. In Dali, I spent a significant amount of time just wandering the streets, trying all of the free samples, window shopping, and people watching. I also took some time to check out the Three Pagodas. The main pagoda, known as Qian Xun Ta, was reportedly built during 823-840 CE!

 

View of the Three Pagodas in front of Cang Mountain

 

My favorite activity I did in Dali, however, was hiking up Cang Mountain. While there is a chairlift that brings visitors to a point halfway up one of the peaks, and a cable car that will bring visitors to just below the summit, I decided to skip both and make a day of the hike. After researching online, I was able to find the entrance to the hiking trail that leads to the Jade Belt Road (also known as the Cloud Traveller’s Path)–an 18-km (11-mile) paved trail that runs from the south to the north of the mountains. It was a solid hour of continuous stair climbing to reach the Jade Belt Road, but it was peaceful as I was alone on the hiking trail (a rare thing for Chinese tourist destinations). The Jade Belt Road is entirely paved and easy to walk on, and the views were stunning. Of course I could see Erhai Lake and the town spread below me, but the views of the mountain itself were even more spectacular. Along the path I saw cascading waterfalls, enchanting forests, staggering rock formations, and even a temple. I spent five hours on the trail and, according to my trusty Apple watch, walked 14 miles on the mountain trails, with an elevation gain of 2,564 feet! It was empowering doing a hike like that on my own, and having the time to connect with nature. A few Chinese tourists stopped me to ask where I am from and what brought me to the mountain. They all seemed really impressed (and concerned!) that I was there on my own.

 

View of Dali and Erhai Lake from Cang Mountain’s Jade Belt Road

Cang Mountain peaks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zhonghe Temple on the Jade Belt Road

One of the waterfalls that forms the “Seven Dragon Maiden Pools” on the Jade Belt Road

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After saying goodbye to Dali, I took a short train to Lijiang. My plan for Lijiang was to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is said to be one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world. However, I planned terribly and arrived in Lijiang right on the first night of Chinese New Year. The whole city was shut down for the celebration, which meant I wasn’t able to take public transportation the three hours to the start of the trail. Oh well, now I have a reason to return! In Lijiang, I spent most of my time exploring the town and surrounding area. My hostel was really cute and quaint, and the owner invited me to eat New Years dinner with her and her family, and I was grateful for the authentic Chinese celebratory dinner experience.

 

The old town of Lijiang was extremely charming. I spent a day getting lost in the maze of streets. At night, many families shot off fireworks in the street, and I watched from my hostel bed window as dozens of colorful bursts of light exploded in the sky in every direction. Everyone seemed so happy to be celebrating; the streets pulsed with activity all night long.

 

 

Walking down the streets of Lijiang Old Town

 

 

 

 

After spending two nights in Lijiang, it was time for my next adventure: Yangshuo! I was really excited to get to Yangshuo after hearing so much about it from Gotoco. Gotoco provided me with a guidebook chapter on Yangshuo, and helped me with all the preparations for my trip. From Lijiang, I took a train to neighboring city Guilin and then got a taxi to my hostel in Yangshuo. The manager at my hostel was very kind, bending over backwards to make sure I had all the information I needed to enjoy my time there. It was night when I arrived, so all I could see of the famous scenery were the dark outlines of the karsts looming over the neon-lit buildings of the town.

 

On my first day in Yangshuo, I decided just to walk around and get a feel for the place. While there are a million activities to do here, from rock climbing to river rafting, part of the appeal of Yangshuo is that the town is also perfect for just sitting outside with a drink and taking it all in. There are bakeries on every corner to get fresh bread and bubble tea, plenty of both Chinese and Western-style restaurants with outdoor seating and prime people-watching positions, hundreds of shops selling everything you never knew you wanted, and surrounding it all are the epic karsts the town is famous for.

 

The karsts serve as a scenic backdrop to the busy streets of downtown Yangshuo

 

On my first day, I decided to explore downtown Yangshuo. I walked to Yangshuo Park from my hostel, and ate breakfast in the square while watching the elderly Chinese men and women dance in unison to music, a common pastime in the country. I relaxed with a book for a while next to a table of impassioned mahjong players, and walked the outline of the park to appreciate the surrounding karsts. Close to the park is a walking trail that follows the Lijiang River and offers some impressive views. Here you can sometimes watch cormorant fishing, a traditional fishing method in which fishermen use trained birds to fish in the rivers. For a small fee, you can even take a photo posing on a fishing raft with the cormorants!

 

Cormorant fisherman on the Lijiang River

 

In the evening, I made my way to the famous West Street (also known as foreigner’s street). This pedestrianized road is in the heart of downtown Yangshuo, and is a very popular tourist destination because of the variation of shops and restaurants there and how friendly it is to international travelers. As the sun started to go down, the street began to fill with crowds of people eager to weave through the neon lights and look for dinner and bars to visit later in the night. I took my time strolling down the street, on the hunt for other solo travelers to socialize with. I finally settled on eating at a centrally-located Indian restaurant called NAMO NAMO Ganga Impression Restaurant. I stopped there because the owner came outside and started talking to me as I paged through a menu; he was so friendly and welcoming that I wanted to keep talking to him. Aki (the owner) told me this restaurant was a hub for foreigners all over the world and expats in Yangshuo; only later did I look up the restaurant on TripAdvisor and realize how highly reviewed it is. The food was incredible, both of the owners came to Yangshuo from India and are proud to serve authentic Indian food. As I sat and ate, the restaurant started to fill with more and more foreigners: mainly English, American, and Australian. The loveliest Australian couple asked if they could sit with me, and we ended up going for a night out together after our meal.

 

One of the most well-known expat bars in Yangshuo is called “The Rusty Bolt”, I quickly realized that this bar is a hub for all of the rock climbers who flock to Yangshuo for the town’s many unique rock formations. We also checked out “Cheers Bar,” another meetup spot for expats. I watched a rugby game with some very dedicated English rugby fans and played a few competitive games of foosball. “Monkey Jane’s Rooftop Bar” is perhaps the most well-known party spot for foreigners in Yangshuo; come here to play some beer pong, meet adventurous people from all over the world, and drink too much alcohol. There are so many bars to spend your nights at in Yangshuo, but I tended to frequent these same ones in order to meet up with friends I had met the nights before. Many of the foreigners I hung out with on my trip were either teaching English in different cities in China or were working at various outdoor adventure camps in the area. A few of the older expats I met had come to Yangshuo on vacation, immediately fell in love with the landscape and the relaxed vibe of the town, and just never returned home. Everyone I met and talked to was so outgoing and welcoming and we had the best conversations even though we had just met that night. There is something intoxicating about bonding with like-minded strangers in a foreign place.

 

Downtown Yangshuo by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day I borrowed a bicycle from my hostel in order the Yangshuo County’s “Ten-Mile Gallery,” a road from the town area to Moon Hill, named for how picturesque the journey is. On my ride to Moon Hill, I passed vast fields and idyllic villages, rock climbers making their way up the stunning cliffs, parasailers soaring in between jade-green karsts, and seemingly endless scenic spots. Along the path you can visit various caves, swim in mud baths and hot springs, see cultural shows, eat at roadside restaurants, or get up close to Yangshuo’s Big Banyan Tree, which dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581-618). At one point in the road, I passed the Yulong River, where I watched as tourists boarded rafts in order to float down the river. It was a bit cold and cloudy while I was in Yangshuo as it was early February, but if I return in the summer someday then I will most definitely try to get a raft ride in!

 

Tourists can take a raft down the Yulong River from the Ten-Mile Gallery

 

The Ten-Mile Gallery leads visitors to Moon Hill, a hill named for its natural arch which leaves a wide, semi-circular hole in its middle. Visitors can hike up the hill to see the view from the top or can appreciate it from the road before returning to the town from the Ten-Mile Gallery. That evening, I bumped into a friend I had made at Cheers Bar the night before, and she took me to a sauna/vegetarian restaurant near where she lived. One of the best parts of traveling alone is going out and meeting new people who can show you things you might not have found yourself. Yangshuo is a vibrant town that offers a lot more than what the guidebooks can tell you–while hitting the top tourist spots is usually a good idea when visiting a new place, talking with people who have lived in the area and are really familiar with it is another great way to find things to do.

 

Crowds gather at the entrance to West Street

 

One of the Top-10 Yangshuo attractions I definitely wanted to try for myself, however, was climbing up the TV Tower hill to watch the sunrise. Considered by some to be “the best viewpoint in Yangshuo,” the TV Tower hike is about an hour-long hike up to the top of one of the town’s karsts. It is named for the TV Tower that sits at the top, and the trail is made of paved stairs. The start of the trail would have been impossible to find without help, but there are plenty of guides online that give exact directions (with pictures!) to the bottom of the hill’s path. I woke up at 6:00am in order to give myself enough time to get to the trail and climb up before the sun rose at 7:30am. When I left my hostel, it was pitch black outside and pouring with rain, but I was already committed and chose to continue on. Looking back, it probably wasn’t a good idea to climb up a steep and slippery trail in the rain by myself with only my phone flashlight to light the way… but it was incredibly rewarding when I finally reached the top and realized that I had accomplished it all on my own. I waited at the top for the sun to rise in order to see the spectacular views I have seen in pictures, only to realize that the rainy weather and abundance of clouds were going to block my chances of getting the perfect Instagram shot. Oh well. I would definitely do this hike again!

 

Looking down upon Yangshuo from the TV Tower hike

 

During the rest of my time in Yangshuo, I continued to explore the town and surrounding area by bicycle and on foot, and met up with new friends several times for meals and drinks. By the end of my trip, I finally understood why some expats came and never left. It’s hard to feel stressed when you’re spending your days in an actual fairytale-land on Earth. Yangshuo in the summer would be full of endless possibilities for the adventurous spirit, and I’m excited to return and try out the (very basic) rock climbing skills I acquired during my time at the experiential learning camp outside of Kunming. Yangshuo was hard to leave, but the beauty of the town is that it’s so close to so many other great travel destinations! I decided to head onwards to Hong Kong to visit a family friend, but Vietnam is also close by for those looking to explore even more of Asia.

 

Volunteering at an experiential learning camp with Gotoco was an unforgettable experience that I would most certainly recommend, but I also want to stress how important it is for participants to to continue to learn about this dynamic continent even after their program ends and create even more memories that will last forever. Gotoco was founded by young people passionate about traveling and cultural exchange. They created Gotoco so that others could have the opportunity to fall in love with China and engage in cultural exchange, while also gaining personal and professional skills. They encouraged me to get out there and explore, and I’m so happy that I took the time to do just that. This trip has only fueled my curiosity about China, and I can’t wait to come back and visit even more cities. Maybe next time I’ll have to try and join one of Gotoco’s summer programs…

 

The sun sets on my time in Yangshuo

 

 


Thank you for reading this blog series by Gotoco winter 2019 participant Franchesca Castro. If you have any questions about our programmes, or would like to be connected with a campus ambassador to find out more first-hand information about our programmes, email [email protected]