Adrift Over China: Sights From a Hot Air Balloon

The views from a hot air balloon ride in China are bucket list worthy.
Taking a hot air balloon in China is safer than taking a taxi.

Yangshuo, in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi, is a land captured throughout the centuries by Chinese painters mesmerized by its rugged karsts, serpentine rivers and the lush foliage produced by moderately high temperatures and abundant rainfall. Each year, over one million tourists cruise the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo.

But my daughter Asha, son Aidan and I were experiencing Yangshuo’s wonders from a different vantage point altogether – 4,000 feet (1,213 meters) above it, to be precise.

When introduced to our balloonist, I had made the necessary safety inquiries expected from an insurance professional.“There have been no ballooning accidents here, right?” I asked nervously.

“I must be honest. There have been several,” responded Jason, a tall man in his mid-40s originally from Taiwan. “Once an inexperienced pilot rose too quickly, hitting a mountain and tearing his balloons. Many scrapes and bruises. Another time an inexperienced pilot ran out of fuel and landed on a mountain. The people hiked out.”

“And your experience?” I asked.

“I was licensed in Australia and have flown for 12 years. No accidents so far.”

Ballooning requires a cool head and a feel for the wind. Although a balloon cannot be steered, it can rise or descend, so a balloonist must seek out winds blowing in the desired direction. The sport can be dangerous.

Casualties occurred during a hot-air balloon event in Shanxi Province in 2004 and another accident happened in Beijing in 2006, causing one death and three injuries. That said, I probably faced more danger taking a cab in China, which ranks among the highest worldwide in traffic-related fatalities.

Fortunately, Jason inspires confidence, delaying our flight for 30 minutes due to high winds. When we finally take off, we are rewarded with heart-stopping scenery: endless miles of jagged peaked karsts stretching beyond the horizon.

These peaks are part of the South China Karst region, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where the warm, wet climate sped up the weathering of limestone and produced dramatic landscapes as diverse as the densely packed obelisks of the Stone Forests to the tall graceful protrusions around Yangshuo.

“This is amazing,” screams Asha, 11 and fearless.

From nearly 2,000 feet (607 meters) above, the Yu Long River is a cobalt blue ribbon lying quietly across a patchwork of color: the forest green of gingko trees, the drab olive tones of rice fields awaiting spring planting and the sturdy hunter green of fields cultivating sugar cane, tea and soybeans.

Small villages dot the plateau, sandwiched between the mountains and the river. A single lonely road, inhabited by a farmer and his bullock, meanders beneath us. But at 4,000 feet (1,213 meters), I do not look down. I am white-knuckled, gripping the basket bracing and instructing the children to do the same.

I am secretly relieved when Jason cuts our trip short due to the wind, which has blown us off the preferred route toward a small village where he has never landed before. As he shouts down to a local farmer for advice on the area, a cavalcade of small children begin running between the fields, waving wildly and yelling. A startled cow bellows, nudging her calf away from us. A village dog peers skyward and, bored with our appearance, returns to its nap.

With two small bounces on the ground – “Bend your knees to take the impact” — Jason lands on an unpaved road. A crowd of 100 curious onlookers gathers on the ground marveling at this unexpected event. We feel a bit like the Wizard landing in Oz, but once we disembark, the truth of our celebrity reveals itself.

The balloon is far more interesting than we are, and the villagers squeal with terror and delight as Jason lets off a loud blast of fire.

When Jason cuts the burner, our blue-and-yellow checked balloon droops sadly. Under Jason’s instruction, Aidan, Asha and a mix of farmers, schoolchildren and village elders tip the cane passenger basket, forcing the balloon on its side. Twelve-year-old Aidan crouches beside a quiet Chinese girl, who steals glances at him while Asha works alongside a middle-aged farmer, a man thoroughly committed to the task at hand.

Hot air balloon accidents do happen, but they are rare.
The sharp peaks of the karsts provide a stunning background when viewed from above.

They force the remaining air out of the balloon and begin rolling it up. Aidan and Asha then join the locals who are chasing a second balloon landing farther down the road.

This balloon is farther away than it initially appeared, forcing me to walk several miles to stay with the children. I pass through the heart of the village, by the tiny temple adorned in red and gold figurines and smelling of incense, the dimly lit hut serving as the village 7-Eleven.

Everyone I pass returns my smile, some laughing shyly when I call out “hello.” I temporarily lose sight of Asha and Aidan, and a stooped elderly man points his cane in their direction, giving me the “thumbs up” sign. He speaks softly in Mandarin as we walk together and while I cannot understand him, I know he is telling me that my children are safe here.

When I locate my wards and the balloon company van locates us, we leave with the feeling that we have shared a small place in this community. We know they will tell stories about us. The strangers that floated down from the sky will be village fodder for a few weeks, maybe more.

In turn, we will think of them, the warm enthusiastic people who welcomed us back from the heavens to the good green earth, a reminder of the marvelous places that life can take us when we are blown off course.

If You Go

Yangshuo Mountain Retreat

Yangshuo Travel Guide

Holly Davis is a Minneapolis-based playwright, performer and writer, whose work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, American RadioWorks, and Minnesota Women’s Press and been performed in venues throughout the country. Visit her website at