The Guilin landscape is like being in a dream in which you’ve arrived in a mythical land from an ancient Chinese tale. It’s lush and beautiful yet peculiar, as landscapes often are in dreams.
Words Brian Johnston
Trees have long, spindly trunks and sudden toppings of leaves, and rivers curl back on themselves in lazy loops. The mountains are absurd outcrops of rock like camels’ humps, looming from shimmering green rice fields like a science-fiction fantasy; indeed, some scenes in Star Wars were actually filmed here.
No surprise that this magical landscape which surrounds the city of Guilin is one of the country’s most famous tourist destinations. This is where Chinese newlyweds hope to come on their honeymoon. Its romance has seduced poets and painters for thousands of years. You see such landscapes in scroll paintings, the mountains squashed up and wreathed in mist, while down below in the valleys are tiny human figures and dragon-roofed pagodas. It’s from such depictions that outsiders have formed their stereotype of the oriental countryside.
Guilin city is the centre for air and river transport and the access point for the region’s scenic wonders. Although it’s a city of more concrete than grace, albeit dotted with lakes, it nevertheless merits a day or two. Walk up Whirlpool Hill – there’s a small teahouse where you can recuperate your energy – and you’re rewarded with a fine view over the town, the Li River and the humped hills that line the horizon like an improbable pantomime backdrop. Whirlpool Hill is riddled with caves, one purportedly the home of an ancient dragon. One cave houses Buddhist stone-carved statues that date from the Tang and Song dynasties.
Other Guilin viewing points offer different angles on the same splendid countryside. (“The views will make you feel intoxicant,” enthuses a local tour brochure.) They all have imaginative names, such as the pagoda-topped Elephant-Trunk Hill, Folded Brocade Hill, Old Man Hill and Solitary Beauty Peak. The latter name comes from an ancient poet who described the hill as “the peak that shines in full glory by itself, high above the surrounding landscape”. Nowadays there’s a slight irony in this description since, despite the 300-step climb to the summit, the hill is crowded with gawping visitors. At its foot is a melancholy gateway, all that remains of a 14th-century palace built here by an emperor’s nephew.
The highlight of Guilin, however, might be Reed Flute Cave, an enormous subterranean labyrinth of interconnecting chambers that range from small grottoes to an enormous cavern used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War, though romantically named the Crystal Palace of the Dragon King. Nowadays the caves are lit with multicoloured lights. Gossipy tour guides will relate mythical stories to explain the cave complex’s wondrous collections of stalactites and stalagmites. One large stalactite is said to represent a scholar who ventured to write a poem worthy of the cave’s beauty. After many weeks, he had only managed a couple of suitable lines, and was eventually turned to stone for his efforts.
No visitor to Guilin should fail to escape the city into the surrounding countryside. Perhaps the best way to do so is to board a sightseeing boat for the 80km trip down the Li River to the village of Yangshuo, surely one of the world’s most scenic journeys. Slow boats take five or six hours, departing from Guilin in the early morning. The river meanders through the surrounding mountains, straight into a dream world. Han Yu, a 19th-century poet, famously described the river as being like a green gauze ribbon between mountains like blue jade hairpins. Huge clumps of bamboo lean over the water, buffalo wallow and puff on the riverbanks, and village children splash in the shallows. Despite the alien-looking landscape, this region has long been thoroughly domesticated, with passing valleys closely cultivated and dotted with mud-brick farms.
On arrival at Yangshuo, tour groups are generally herded through the village and driven back to Guilin in coaches. It would be a big mistake, however, not to budget
a couple of days in which to stay in Yangshuo, where the pace of life is much slower than in Guilin, and whose surrounding landscapes are nothing short of superb. The old town retains much of its character, especially in the evenings when the last of the tour coaches has vanished. It has narrow flag-stoned streets and sturdy stone houses.
Down by the river in the evenings, you can watch cormorant fishermen (admittedly closer to tourist entertainers these days) as they set off in flat-bottomed bamboo rafts, propelled against the current with long poles. The fishermen use a unique local method of fishing using cormorants. The large black birds catch fish lured towards the rafts by lamps; a string around the birds’ necks prevents them from swallowing the catch, though the cormorants do get the occasional reward for their efforts.
“The scenery of Guilin is the finest in the world,” goes an old Chinese saying, “but the scenery of Yangshuo is the best in Guilin.” Here you’re right amid the hills, which indeed mushroom up from inside the village itself. Many roads and dirt paths lead from town into the surrounding countryside, making for ideal walking or, better still, cycling. Bicycles can be rented cheaply by the day from most hotels. Nearby Moon Hill, which has a hole straight through it in the shape of a crescent, is an easy pedal from town that won’t take much more than an hour. Once there, it’s a steep climb to the summit, but you’ll be rewarded by a truly magnificent view of the surrounding karst piles and lush green valleys, marked by meandering rivers and compact village roofs.
Another popular trip is the 45-minute boat ride to the village of Fuli, a short distance further down the Li River. It has an almost medieval air and an interesting Friday market, with farmers coming in from the surrounding valleys to trade pink piglets in wicker baskets, sugarcane and bundles of tobacco leaves. In the fields, oxen loom like prehistoric creatures armoured in dried mud. A very good way of making the round trip is to bring your bicycle with you on the boat and cycle back to Yangshuo in the cool of late afternoon.
More adventurous travellers can pick a path and cycle anywhere they choose. It’s possible to stay overnight in outlying villages, though accommodation is generally basic. North of Yangshuo lies the town of Xingping, around which the scenery just seems to get better and better. When you eventually head back to urban realities, you can’t help feeling you’re leaving somewhere special, and you begin to wonder whether, after all,
you were only dreaming.
Jakarta to Amsterdam
Flight Time 13 hours 40 minutes
Frequency 3 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Sight
IMPRESSION LIGHT SHOW
Running since 2004 and still attracting rave reviews, the sound-and-light show Impressien Liu Sanjie uses the Li River and Yangshou’s surrounding karst mountains as a spectacular natural backdrop for a traditional Chinese love story enacted on an epic scale by a cast of 600 locals. The show was created by acclaimed movie director Zhang Yimou, also responsible for the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. The lighting, dance, music and costuming are all magnificent.