Guilin’ s limestone karst mountains and Yangshuo’ s laid-back setting have long drawn backpackers and nature enthusiasts. Whit the Li River serving as a backdrop, the surrounding area is emerald waiting to be explored.
“Guilin’ s scenery is the most beautiful under heaven,” goes a Chinese saying describing the immortal beauty of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region’ s Guilin. Boats float down the charming Li River as limestone karst mountains jut from the ground like dragon’ s teeth. This immortal scenery can be seen on the back of the RMB 20 notes.
While Guilin is far from the crush of other Chinese cities, it is becoming developed and is a major tourist destination. Like many places in China, its history can be traced further back than many nations in the West. During the Han dynasty, Guilin became the political and economic center of Guangxi and continues to thrive today.
Although Guilin is a city, many sights are located within the town or a short distance away. The Solitary Beauty Peak, located on the campus of the Guangxi Normal University, projects out from the ground like giant spike. The climb to the peak is steep, but the view from the top is worth the effort as you’ ll be able to take in the surrounding countryside and the Li River. At the bottom of the peak is the Wang Cheng, which was a Ming dynasty palace where the regional imperial exams were held.
With half its base sticking out into the Li River, Wave-Subduing Hill is located in the northeast of Guilin, near Solitary Beauty Peak. The hill is dotted with many interesting caves; one called Returned Pearl Cave has a thousand-year-old image of Buddha etched into the wall along with many others from the Tang and Song dynasties. Among the best carving is a self-portrait by painter Mi Fu, and a poem by Fan Chengda, both from the Song dynasty.
Folded Brocade Hill, another well-known peak, offers cool relief with the aptly named Wind Cave. Reed Flute Cave has some of the best scenery in Guilin with stalactites and stalagmites casting distorted shadows that contort to the shifting multi-colored lights. Seven Star Park is a large park with many attractive trails that wind around seven peaks in the shape of the Big Dipper. To the south of town is Elephant Trunk Hill, Guilin’ s best known sight.
Finally, there is the Ling Canal, in Xing’ an Country 43 miles (70m) north of Guilin. Built from 219 to 214 BC, it’ s considered one of China’ s three engineering marvels beside the Great Wall and the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Sichuan, The canal can be seen in the market town of Xing’ an.
TRAVELING ALONG THE LI RIVER
The charming Li River, one of the major attractions of the Guilin/Yangshuo region, has been described as ” a green silk ribbon with hills like jade hairpins” and is ideal for exploration on a boat. The meandering 40 mile (65km) cruise lasts 5 hours and takes you past a panorama of bamboo groves, sleepy villages, karst peak and fisherman on rickety bamboo rafts fishing with cormorants. Most cruises go down river to Yangshuo and then bus it back to Guilin, though some cruises begin from Yangshuo and go upriver to Guilin. The best times are spring and autumn; the summers can be overwhelmingly hot and muggy while the winters have low water levels.
A river cruise, which includes lunch, can be expensive. If you’ re willing to forgo an English-speaking tour guide, going with a Chinese group is cheaper at RMB160. A cheaper, though just as stunning way of experiencing the serenity of Yangshuo is by taking the bus and exploring the surrounding area by bike. Due to seasonal fluctuations in the river’ s water level., all cruises now begin at Millstone Hill, just outside of Guilin.
Along the cruise, you’ ll pass by whimsically named formations given by tourists of old, though a strong imagination may be needed to fully visualize their namesake. South of Millstone Hill and the gray-bricked riverside village of Daxu is Bat Peak with cliffs resembling bats. Unlike in the west, bats are symbols of good fortune in China as the word for bat and good fortune are homonyms. Further along is Dragons Play in the Water, the rocky outcroppings dive into the water, inspiring a legend that dragons were sent here by the Jade Emperor to retrieve the fragrant flowers that grow in abundance during spring. The riverbank should make any gardener green with envy as the plant life is lush and varied with thick bamboo forests and rice paddies inhabited by water buffaloes.
Looking Out for Husband Rock resembles a woman with a young child on her back gazing longingly down the river for the return of her husband. Following is Caoping Village and on the eastern bank is Crown Cave, which has a deep underground river. Continuing on is the village of Yangdi, the small villages along the river are typical of the architecture found in this region. Next is the village of Daxu, which features gray brick buildings covered with gray tiles and upturned eaves.
Before reaching the village of Xingpin, you’ ll meet the Boy Worshipping Guanyin which resembles a toddler kneeling in prayer, giving his respects to the Buddhist goddess of mercy. After that is the Nine Horse Painting Hill, a jagged outcropping with the imprint of a wild herd of houses, though these horses can be elusive-most people can only see seven.
As you reach the area surrounding Xingping, some of the most striking scenery along the river comes into view. If you decide to stay in Yangshuo, you can readily return to the area for a second close-up visit. Local travel agents can arrange personalized tours that include visits to the various picturesque villages in the area.