The Yangshuo Farmhouse: From Mud and Brick to Comfort and Sustainability
Yangshuo Mountain Retreat – View from the Retreat
By Chris Barclay
I first came to Yangshuo, China in 1996 on a rock climbing trip with some expat friends from Guangzhou, where I was living at the time. Back then, Yangshuo was a sleepy western backpacker’s hangout, with only a few local guesthouses, and cafes serving strong coffee and banana pancakes. What drew my friends and I to Yangshuo were the dramatic limestone karst towers, perfect for climbing, and the unspoiled countryside, with its fresh air and river water so clean you could swim in it.
My friends and I made Yangshuo a regular long weekend escape; organizing away hashes, climbing, and enjoying the cheap beer. We always stayed in the town during our trips, even though we spent most of the day climbing in the Yulong River Valley, about 15km away. This ultimately led me to come up with an idea to renovate an old farmhouse for friends, closer to the pristine rivers and mountains.
After months of searching and talking with local people, I realized that it was not going to be easy to have a quiet place to ourselves in the middle of a local village. Thus, I approached local government about the idea of setting up an outdoor education center, as my business was in corporate training, and I thought the valley was a perfect place to bring clients for experiential leadership and team-building events.
Mountain Getaways in Rural China
I began construction of the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat just after Chinese New Year in 2001 and opened it in September of that year. In addition to a large meeting room, we had a restaurant, 18 guestrooms, a bar, and best of all, half acre of terraced rice fields on the banks of the Yulong River. The retreat quickly became a hit with corporate clients.
Yangshuo Mountain Retreat – A countryside hotel on the Dragon River
What I didn’t foresee was that these clients would return with their families and spread the word among expat groups in China and Asia. Before long, the Mountain Retreat was too busy for us to even get rooms for ourselves.
Even with the success of the Mountain Retreat, my dream of renovating an old farmhouse remained. So when the Mountain Retreat’s local manager, Little Fish, asked me to help convert her family’s new home into a guesthouse, I gladly accepted the challenge. The job required a great deal of construction, and ultimately resulted in an 8 bedroom boutique hotel which we called the Yangshuo Village Inn.
A Dilapidated Barn Reveals Unique Opportunity
Shortly after opening the Yangshuo Village Inn, I noticed that a neighboring farmer was planning to to demolish his old barn so that he could build a new 3-story concrete and unfinished brick home in its place. Seeing an opportunity to restore this large farmhouse, I arranged to purchase the barn from the farmer on the basis that I paid him in advance so that he could build a new home for his family elsewhere in the village. With this, I could finally begin work on my dream restoration project.
This restoration project certainly brought with it new challenges. One side of the building was in a state of collapse, and the mud bricks needed for the repairs were a very old type that people don’t make anymore. The inside of the barn was perpetually damp and dark, as there were no windows for natural light to shine through. The interior walls were crooked, supporting loft rooms that had only been used for rice storage. Inside there were three light bulbs, no toilets, and spider webs so old that they had probably predated the revolution. The place was certainly looking like it would be a ‘rustic chic’ type of lodging experience.
Yangshuo Village Inn – Original East Hall kitchen, cleared
Yangshuo Village Inn – Main hall complete
Building an Eco-friendly Farmhouse
A main concern for us as we began rebuilding the farmhouse was that it be eco-friendly. The farmhouse was already equipped with double walled mud brick (providing natural insulation), but we still had some work to do to make it comfortable for western guests.
Some of the steps we took to ensure the sustainability of the Farmhouse include the following:
- For warmth, the goal was to build a new floor (the existing one was made of dirt) atop a heating system which would warm the house as well as dispel the dampness. For this we acquired PEX tubing from Shanghai. The installation of this heating system included zoning controls for individual rooms.
- We wanted to maintain the original clay tiles on the roof, so we carefully removed some of the tiles in order to install several skylights, r-12 insulation, and a vapor barrier, and then put the tiles back in place.
- In order to repair the dilapidated walls of the farmhouse, we had to search for the original mud bricks, which aren’t made anymore in most of China. Once we laboriously acquired the necessary materials, we sought out some local builders in the village who were skilled at working with this unique building material and employed them to complete the repairs.
- For the floors of the farmhouse, we used a resourceful combination of locally farmed pine, a compressed foam core for insulation, and woven bamboo matting. The lightweight flooring was comfortable, practical, and great for muffling footsteps in the rooms above.
- In order to dissuade guests from using air conditioning, we placed antique fans in every room. To further conserve electricity usage, we enlarged all the windows and used homemade bamboo lambs for lighting. The beds were also homemade from bamboo materials.
- For hot water at the Farmhouse we use small, individual, on-demand tank-less water heaters. This supplements the passive solar shared with Yangshuo Village Inn.
Yangshuo Farmhouse – Putting original tiles back on the roof
Yangshuo Farmhouse – Enlarged window for natural lighting
The Yangshuo Farmhouse: Tradition, Comfort and Sustainability
Since it opened in October 2009, the Farmhouse has received accolades from guests, who love the warmth of the natural mud walls and the traditional, Chinese countryside ambiance of the simple rooms. The building is furnished with antique items, and walls are decorated with posters from the 19 70’s – all things that you can still find still hanging tattered on the walls of old houses in Yangshuo. This authentic décor allows visitors to feel like they are really stepping back in time.
From the Farmhouse, guests can explore the nearby Li Village, hike up the dramatic arch of Moon Hill, bike along the Yulong River, or enjoy a traditional meal in one of many locally owned restaurants. All employees are from nearby villages. This allows us to create employment locally, as well as to provide guests with great local advice on things to do in the area and unique cultural perspectives.
This authentic charm is what we love to emphasize during every guest’s stay at the Farmhouse. Our aim is always to retain this charm in a way that balances tradition, comfort and sustainability. For the Farmhouse, this has turned out to be a winning combination.