Imagine the panoramic view of a winding River carving its way through limestone karst hills circled by forests, and peppered with rice paddies and mountain villages… Now see a green City emerging from that place…This is Guilin, a place of Purity and Photographic Perfection.
There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘Guilin’s scenery is best among all under Heaven’ (桂林山水甲天下) directly referring to this city, that took its name from its fragrant Osmanthus trees. Guilin actually means ‘the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus’.
Li River, China
Situated in the northeast of China’s Guangxi Zhuang Region, Guilin has existed since the Qin Dynasty, dating back to the 3rd century BC, and was widely known even then for its’ scenery and topography. The natural landscapes have obviously made it. Nowadays, this place is one of Chinas’ most popular travel destinations while also a Pearl of Chinese tourist industry. With a 2,000 years old history, it remains today one of the most impressive and important cultural cities in China.
Rice paddies, Guilin, China
And it’s impressive, both inside and out. Outside it, there is a vast terrain of scenic natural beauty, with numerous landmarks: The Li River, Yangshuo region, the Reed Flute Cave and the Elephant Trunk Hill, naming just a few. Aside these, paddy fields like the Longji Rice Terraces ‘Dragon’s Backbone Terraces’, the Yao Tribe ‘Long Hair Tribe’ or the Dong, Miao and Zhuang. All the People that dwell here, and make this Region what it is.
On the Inside, the highest living standards possible to aid a booming tourism Industry… traffic and pollution have been very well managed in Guilin, through the increased use of electric scooters in the City. At all times on Guilin streets, you can see these battery-powered scooters with their accompanying silence… Silence you will appreciate immediately. In terms of Infrastructure, Standards and ease of Living, Guilin is easily comparable to Singapore and cities in Europe and beyond.
Guilin also has convenient transportation facilities. You can fly there from anywhere in Southeast Asia, with its strongest connections in Hong Kong and Beijing, and once there, you can discover City’s jewels by bus, blue taxi or even bicycle.
In terms of Cuisine, it has been influenced by Canton and Sichuan flavours. As a result, expect spice in your dishes. Staples are local rice noodles (mifen), chestnut glutinous rice dumplings (banli zong) and stewed duck, which must be tried, as it is famous, and for good reason!
Guilin is also one of the largest wholesale markets for tourist souvenirs in China: Gorge yourself on its local Art and Paintings, Wood & Stone carvings, clay pottery, embroidery and Jade.
Probably the most overwhelming feeling of a Shopping Paradise is Zhengyang Pedestrian Street, right in the heart of the City. It is the main commercial area in Guilin bursting with bubbly people, affordable prices and the widest variety of bargains. It has a reputation as ‘the first street in western China’, and also has entertainment and dining options, beauty parlours and street level shops, making it a 360 experience, for any and all visitors.
Nightlife is provided by Bars and Clubs and romantic night cruises on the Li River or Ethnic Shows like Impression – Liu Sanjie, in Yangshuo region.
If you’re planning a trip To Guilin, here are my Top 10 things you should NOT miss in and around Guilin.
1. The Sun and Moon Pagodas
Standing in the water of central Shān Lake, these are as beautiful during the day as they are fascinating at night, when the surrounding water reflects, painting them Gold and Silver. Connected by an underwater glass tunnel, this is a place of Culture, Art, Religion, Architecture and Natural Landscape. Walking through this glass tunnel, you can view the Lake…and everything within it, from…within it.
2. The Elephant Trunk Hill
The Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiang Bi Shan) is the symbol of Guilin. The hill is found at the meeting of The Li River and the Peach Blossom River. There is the Water Moon Cave, hidden between the elephant’s trunk and legs, and above the hill lies a Buddhist Pagoda from the Tang Dynasty, dating back to 657AD.
3. The Reed Flute Cave
The Reed Flute Cave (Lu Di Yan) is 7 km north-west of Guilin. Its name comes from a rare reed that grows outside the cave which is used for making flutes. It is a 240-meter deep cave, with an underground palace filled with precious stones, coral and jade. It, itself, is Guilin city’s largest and most impressive gem.
4. Li River
The Li River flows for 83km through a landscape of karst hills that soar into the Sky. The views from The Li River are some of the most spectacular, I have ever witnessed. Some compare it to the magnificence of Halong Bay, in Vietnam or to the limestone hills of Krabi, Thailand. Yet the impressions I left Guilin with, after my cruise, was it was far better than both of these… The picturesque landscape has inspired generations of Chinese painters to the point of National pride. And so through that honour, the image of the river was imprinted on the Chinese 20 yuan banknote.
Tourist boats coming from Guilin float downstream towards the countryside of Yangshuo, along with this famous waterway. These boats vary from bamboo rafts to multi-level air-conditioned Cruise Ships. There are many packages available from the hotels of Guilin or outside the main commercial areas of the City, and most of them can be tailored to suit your own needs. The cruise I opted for lasted for around 4 hours and came with lunch on board and a tour guide.
A fine way of experiencing all of The Li River is the photo tour offered by Guilin Photography Tour, China Highlights or Mercier Zeng. These tours can stretch up to a week and are great for aerial snapshots of the Li River and its surrounding villages.
My Trip to Guilin was 5 days, and in honesty, it wasn’t enough to cover it all! But if you are seriously considering a longer trip here, check out the hiking trails or the biking tours along the river bank, and take it all in, at your own pace.
5. Bamboo Rafting
Yangshuo, which is about 65 km south-east of Guilin is another very pretty place. A charming natural countryside landscape, complete with ancient bridges and limestone peaks, best to be explored by car, raft or bike.
One memory that can only be created here, is bamboo rafting…. drifting down the Yùlóng River, a smaller tributary of the Li River…. Immerse yourself in a soothing and relaxing atmosphere, with glimpses of riverside villages, farm fields, bamboo forests and ancient settlements.
This floating ride carries you for around 8 miles and usually takes just over an hour. The number of ancient bridges and mountains along this waterway has made it one of the favourite choices of photographers and artists coming to the area. Your boatman will show you the way, and visit the fairytale Dragon Bridge.
6. Countryside Cycling Tours
In Guilin and Yangshuo there are different biking trails you can go for, stretching from one day to an entire week. They will show some of the most stunning countryside views of Yangshuo, and give you an insight into the idyllic village landscapes that are found only in South China. Wallowing water buffalos and farmers tending their crops, stillness, peace and tranquillity will all be found on your route.
Travel Tip: Looking for a hiking tour? Start at Baisha’s Yulong Bridge and stay on the path down the river to Gao Tian. You’ll pass by six unforgettable ancient bridges on the way.
7. Cormorant Fishing
Cormorant fishing is an age-old tradition associated with the Lijiang area and now a popular tourist drawcard in this part of the world. The fishermen have kept a 1,000-year old tradition alive – Bird fishing. It’s something to see….and if you want to see them in action, a good time to visit is either early morning or at dusk when they light up gas lamps on their bamboo rafts.
8. Longsheng/Longji Rice Terraces ‘Dragon’s Backbone Terraces’
Longji means ‘Dragon’s backbone’ in Chinese. The Dragon’s Backbone Terraces are some of the most famous terraced rice paddies in the World. The terraces were first built in the Yuan dynasty and completed in the Qing dynasty as the fruits of the hard work of the Zhuang people. The terraced fields are built along the slope, winding from the riverside up to the mountaintop, with the highest elevation 885m, and the lowest 380m. The terraced Fields are found in Longji village and Ping An village.
9. Visit the Red Yao Tribe also known as ‘the Long Hair Tribe’
The Yao people live in the alpine belts. The Long Hairs’ Combing of the Yaos, is a distinctive characteristic of theirs. They also have a habit of bathing in a huge bucket with herbal medicines for curing rheumatic pains and other diseases. Women use rice water to give strength and maintain their hair’s natural glow, an important characteristic of the Yao tribe.
What I appreciated even more about their culture are the brightly coloured traditional dresses and personal adornments, and costumes. All perfectly preserved and passed through Generations to this day. Once you are in their village, you really feel as if you are walking in a village a thousand years ago.
10. Visit the ancient town of Daxu
If you can visit the ancient town of Daxu. …’Daxu‘, means ‘Big market’ in Chinese, while the little town itself is located about 20 km south-east of Guilin. Centuries ago, it used to be a busy trading centre and was one of the four famous big markets in Guangxi. The town was founded around 200 B.C. and became a place and a port for gathering and distributing goods. Ever since the 1930s, it became a bit quieter, mainly due to railways and highroads, taking some of the load of river shipping. But that didn’t stop many local residents still keeping their traditional handcrafts and businesses alive. Visiting this town, like the Red Yao, is a step back in time…
In short, Guilin and its nearby Longsheng region are absolutely stunning locations for photography and Nature exploration. Learning about local ethnic Chinese groups with their fascinating rituals and rich history is part of its charming beauty.
I must confess, at the beginning of my journey to Guilin I was a bit anxious and afraid of the unexpected…. Would I like the food? …Could I break through the language barrier? But I soon found myself and immersed in this region, one that offers so much – a cultural richness complemented by majestic unparalleled natural sites.
With such a naturally inspiring place ideal for either groups or solo travellers. I recommend anyone to start discovering China, not from the Big Cities we all know so well…but from somewhere else……start from Guilin and you will never forget it!