Chinese poets and artists have been lured by the scenery of Guilin for centuries. Guilin is known for its unusual topography. Mist-covered limestone mountains are steep and pointed making 45 degree angled mountains on both sides of the Li River framing a panorama of natural beauty and rural life. With lush green trees for cover water buffalo graze on one side of the shallow waters, while on the other side, men prepare for their daily fishing trip. Narrow bamboo rafts driven by large oars are used for transport of goods and local passengers. Green farmland reveals crops planted in perfect symmetry across the gaps between the pointed peaks. The 3 hour trip down the Li River is surreal and as you float on the boat you feel as though you are touching the mountains. The 83-km-long waterway from Guilin to Yangshuo is truly an artist’s masterpiece and there is even a point in the journey where the particular scene is used in the 20Yuan Chinese currency. VIPs who come to China all visit the Li River and there is a room on the dock with photographs of all the dignitaries that who made the tour. Former US President Richard Nixon has been quoted as saying “I have visited more than 80 countries and over a hundred cities. I have found that no city can surpass the beauty of Guilin. Guilin is really a bright pearl in China.” The buffet on the cruise can be skipped as there are a variety of places to eat in the Yangshuo. But some brave ones can try the local delicacies on board such as tiny river shrimps and snake rice wine, a jar with a heap of snake carcasses marinating at the bottom was brought to our table. This wine is believed to help with arthritis pain. There is also snake blood wine where rice wine is mixed with drops of snake blood. It is supposed to aid in eyesight improvement. Some brave Spaniards on board did try it. Sweet osmanthus flower flavoured wine is a more appetizing option if you want to try something with a local flavor. Yangshuo is a quaint town with shops and eateries catering to tourists. Rent a bike and a guide to take you to the unspoiled countryside, the scenery is beautiful and the exercise feels good as the biking paths are many times through hills. The town is known for rock climbing and is busy with adventure enthusiasts but there are peaks for every level of climber. The shopping in Guilin and Yangshuo is excellent for souvenirs and at much better rates than the bigger cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Coffee shops, Italian eateries, and bakeries all offer a wide variety of food which is rare in Guilin. So if you need a break from Chinese food have your lunch here. Guilin has its own local food fare. However finding something to eat on the menu is a challenge and it is better to stick to seafood and vegetables. I wanted to try the beer fish which is known in the region and the waitress took me to the front of the restaurant to pick which fish I wanted. She weighed the fish and promptly took it away. I took out my guide book and explained that I was vegetarian, which is the safest way to eat when in doubt of the food. The staff was a bit confused since I had already ordered fish but I desperately wanted vegetables with the fish. I then pointed to the next table which had some green veggies served on a plate. I got a variety of stir-fried Chinese cabbage cooked in Chinese spices. The Guilin rice noodle soaked the sauce in the fish dish and was delicious; overall it was a great meal. A few other specialties of the region are Zongzi, a dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Zongzi can be filled with a variety of fillings, beans, chestnuts, pork, and lotus seed paste, just to name a few. Guilin translates to “forest of Osmanthus flowers.” While Shanghai and Beijing show a modern China and cities like Xi’an showcase dynastic history Guilin offers a slower pace with pure and simple living and natural beauty. The government is safeguarding this beauty by enforcing building ordinances prohibiting skyscrapers, preserving the views of nearby mountains. We stayed at Guilin Park Hotel, a four star resort with its best asset being its location. Located in front of Gui Lake adjacent to the city center, the place had a picturesque view and easy accessibility to the center square. The morning was fresh, there was no reason to use the hotel gym as a brisk walk around the river was an exhilarating workout. The paths around the lake were large and surrounded by gardens. There was China’s older generation all around the side paths, some were practicing martial arts, others were walking but most found their own spot to practice tai chi. Every night in Guilin the large well paved streets are lined with shopping stalls and the famous Night Market sets in motion. Small trinkets and souvenirs are better priced than even Yangshuo. The large permanent shopping district a block further has attractive shops selling branded goods, fakes and real. Bargaining like anywhere else in China is necessary to get a fair price or what you think is a fair price. On the must see list is The Reed Flute Cave which got its name from the kind of reed growing immediately outside the cave entrance, which is used to make fine flutes. Our guide explained to us that the Reed Flute Cave served as an air-raid shelter during World War II and now hosts black-tie dinners for special occasions. Quite a contrast, so I did not know what to expect, usually caves, caverns and claustrophobic like places are not too appealing but this cave was remarkable. Another of Guilin’s natural gifts, the cave has a unique charm. Inside there are stalagmites, stone curtains, stone flowers and stone pillars making it known as a palace of natural art. In one section with multi coloured spotlights illuminating the various rock formations it gave the feeling of being at a Disney theme park attraction. My friend who has just been to China recommended that I stay in Guilin for at least 4-5 days. I wish I had listened to her because Guilin is a place that charms you; it was not easy to leave. There are many small towns with beautiful countryside along both Guilin and Yangshuo. And many one day trips and overnighters are available. It is easy to see why in the next trip more time will be given to this peaceful place.
Published in Marie Claire, January 2010