Shandelle Battersby romps in an underground mud pool in China's south.

Darkness became a running theme during our three-day stay at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat in southern China.

Halfway through our one-hour taxi ride to the retreat from Guilin Airport, we got a call to let us know the power was out. Would we like to stay somewhere else? Er, not really an option after a late-night two-and-a-half-hour flight from Shanghai to this rural county in the Guangxi Province, so we'd have to take our chances, thanks.

Arriving to a warm welcome by candlelight, sorted out with a fruit basket, mosquito coils and filtered water for the drink bottles in our comfortable twin room, we were glad we did. Not long after we unpacked the lights flickered back on, we fired up the much-needed air conditioning, and were sorted for a restful sleep.

When we emerged the next morning for an al fresco breakfast beside the Yulong River, we were rewarded for our late-night escapade with our first view of the countryside. The breathtaking landscape simply knocks your socks off. Dominated by the area's famed limestone karst hills, which have an otherworldly, Avatar feel about them, the shallow river has a constant procession of tourists riding downstream on bamboo rafts, propelled by cheerful locals wielding long poles to navigate its weeds and gentle rapids. Yet despite being busy, the area's overall feeling is one of peace.


The retreat was opened in 2000 by American Chris Barclay and is among only a handful of Chinese accommodation options running as an eco-hotel and supporting sustainable tourism.

It is staffed by local people who advise you about the many tourist attractions, such as hot air ballooning, the Liu Sanjie light show by movie director Zhang Yimou, or a display by fishermen using cormorants to help catch their dinner. We opted to explore the lush green Yangshuo countryside on a couple of mountain bikes.

There are no helmets here so caution is required, especially when the vehicles carrying the bamboo rafts back upstream noisily thunder past, leaving scant room for vulnerable cyclists.

With temperatures hovering in the mid-30s and humidity close to 100 per cent, we were ready to cool off after our ride before a lunch of the local specialty, beer fish stew (with braised catfish, garlic, capsicum, chilli and plenty of ginger). Finding the riverbed's weeds a bit much to cope with we grabbed a couple of black inner tubes and leapt into the refreshing water. Cameras were turned on us as the mostly Asian rafting tourists couldn't believe these Westerners were doing something so outrageous. We waved and shouted hellos at them, and they bellowed back.

The next day we headed out on our trusty bikes again, this time in a less busy direction.

We stumbled across a beautiful lotus farm and paid a small fee to wander among its bright pink flowers and huge green leaves holding large drops of water, which pool like mercury.

We visited the old part of Fuli township nearby, where many of its poverty-stricken locals survive by making large, decorative paper fans.

Walking through the 800-year-old town, on the banks of the Li River is a trip back in time. Through open doors we saw photos of Chairman Mao and only the most basic amenities - a stark reminder of how much unnecessary "stuff" we have in our comfortable lives.

Our last stop was Gold Water Cave (formerly known as Buddha Water Cave), which promised the double bonus of a hot water spring and a natural mud pool at the end.

We followed our guide, whose English was almost as bad as my Chinese, into the cave. The path was fully lit, but 20 minutes into our tour the cave plunged into darkness - yep, the power was out again. Thank goodness the guide had a torch. All we could do was laugh.

Happily, the mud pool, with its natural water slide, somehow remained lit, and we dived into the surprisingly buoyant liquid, feeling like we were in a chocolate river and hooting with glee at how ridiculous we looked. Hilarious fun, and a highly recommended experience, though my togs may never be the same again.

With mud still leaking from our ears, we returned to the retreat to wait for our taxi to the airport to find the power was still out. The kind staff let us into an empty room to shower and we had a beer and peanuts, again by candlelight.

And so we left as we'd arrived, in darkness, somehow a fitting way to say farewell to this peaceful, lovely place.

Getting there: China Southern Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Guangzhou. Economy fares start at $1540 and business class from $4940. Return economy fares from Auckland to London via Guangzhou on China Southern's new Canton Route start at $2730; business class from $7865.

Shandelle Battersby paid her own way to China