Modernity and mass tourism may have slightly changed things, but Guilin remains a mesmerizing spot, with the region home to a host of stunning natural sights.
Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis.
There is an old Chinese saying that says, “The mountains and waters of Guilin are the best under heaven,” coined by the ancient poet, Hanyu, who also remarked that “the rivers look like blue silk ribbons and the mountains resemble emerald hairpins.” While modernity and mass tourism may have slightly changed things, Guilin still remains a mesmerizing spot, with the region home to a host of stunning natural sights.
Guilin, one of China’s greenest and most pleasant cities and the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is set on a series of connecting lakes, and surrounded by phenomenal karst topography, with hundreds of vertical limestone peaks jutting up across the horizon. While the city itself is an easy place to spend a few relaxing days, wandering along the lakes and in the abundant city parks festooned with traditional stone arch bridges and tall pagodas, the real appeal of a visit here lies outside of town.
I started a recent journey here with a visit to the ancient village of Xingping, which lies along the famed Li River. Immortalized in Chinese poetry and song, the Li flows for around 500km, of which the 100km stretch from Guilin to Yangshuo takes in the most stunning scenery. The karst peaks, reminiscent of Halong Bay in Vietnam or around Krabi here in Thailand, are everywhere, poking up into the sky, their jungle clad walls plunging straight down into the whirling currents and eddies of the fast flowing Li below. The Li scenery is considered to be one of China’s most riveting attractions, so much so that even the Chinese 20 yuan note has a section of the river and mountains imprinted on its backside.
Boat trips, ranging from bamboo rafts to more luxurious cruise boats, are the most popular way to enjoy the sights, but for the more intrepid, renting a bicycle or navigating on foot is a far more interesting way to go. The banks of the Li have centuries old walking paths that traverse through orange groves and verdant farms, and paths wind their way up and through the limestone, even giving access to the summits of some of the sharp pinnacles, such as that of Xianggong Mountain, a peak that required bicycling up to for an hour and then walking up a precipitous mountain trail to reach the entrance to the peak. The rewards are plentiful though, with views down to the boat traffic on the Li below, with stone peaks standing like sentinels in the shadow of the sun, with vistas more fit for birds than man.
There is also a stunning view over Xingping and the hundreds of mountains bathed in the setting sun’s orange glow right above the village, accessible via a steep mountain path that requires clambering up several vertical ladders near the summit, and scrambling out on to some rock overlooks more suited for the local goats. Needless to say, some world class rock climbing routes have emerged from this area in the last few years, and one could spend months wandering through the little visited backcountry here, which most of the package boat cruise crowd completely misses.
In addition to the mountains and rivers, the Guilin region is also noted for dazzling rice terraces, which tumble down from exquisitely sculpted fields that have been worked by the minority Yao and Zhuang people since the Yuan Dynasty in the mid 1200’s. Known as the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces, the fields are breathtaking year round, although at their peak in late May, when they are irrigated for planting, or else in October, when they turn completely golden prior to harvest.
While the Chinese have built a ropeway cable car and made inroads into this gorgeous area, the best vantage points are still reserved for those who want to do it the old fashioned way, trekking on foot into the hills, and staying in large old wooden Yao houses, with creaky stairs, cozy rooms, and superlative views over the surroundings. The Yao here are famed for their women’s hair, which they never cut during their lifetime. Not only do they don’t cut their hair, but also they pick up any strands that fall to the ground and save them to weave into their existing coifs.
In their colorful hand-knitted dresses, the Yao add a vibrant cultural aspect to the magnificent scenery, and it is easy to spend several nights in different lodges here, hiking across the mountains to explore the different valleys and viewpoints by day, and chatting with the amiable Yao over local cuisine at night.
Outside of coming here during the autumn moon festival or other public holidays, this is China at its best, far from the maddening crowd.
Getting There: Cathay Pacific and China Southern Airlines are among a selection of carriers that fly from Bangkok to Guilin. All do require a stopover, with the nearest connection being via Nanning. Buses, mini-buses, and private taxis or vehicles are all available for getting from Guilin City to Yangshuo and Xingping (where the heart of the river/mountain scenery is to be found), and the same vehicles make the journey to the rice terraces at Ping’An and Jinkeng. If you are pressed for time and want to see both the rice terraces and river scenery, it’s best to take a tour which will go from one directly to another, without having to return to Guilin, or even better, hire a private driver.
Stay — The Banyan Tree Yangshuo (www.banyantree.com/en/cn-china-yangshuo) has elegant villas set along the Li River with excellent mountain views, and is by far the most luxurious spot to stay at in the region. For trekking in the rice terraces, the atmospheric old wooden Yao lodge Tian Ranju Inn (www.tianranju.info/) offers a fantastic opportunity to experience local hospitality as well as a breathtaking location overlooking some of the most scenic terraces. Do note that it is about a 45-minute trek up to reach the inn, although Yao porters are available to carry your luggage.
Do — Trekking around the rice terraces of Jinkeng and Ping’An are a must-do highlight. Trails start from both Dazhai village and Longsheng village. For the most dramatic terrace views, walk an hour from Longsheng to Ping’An village (which has plenty of overnight accommodation), and then a 45-minute steep climb up to the spectacular viewpoint above it. From Dazhai, there is the choice of a ropeway or else walking up to the Jinkeng rice terraces. Those with time can cross the mountains from Jinkeng to Ping’An in a day.
The most spectacular Li River scenery is found between Yangshuo and Xingping. Most visitors take a boat cruise down the river, and Xingping has far more rural and authentic charm than Yangshuo. Bicycling is a great way to explore the region, and walking alongside the river is also easy.
For the best views, either climb up Xianggong Mountain, best for sunrise, or else Lao Zhai Shan peak, best for sunset, right above Xingping village.