Guilin City of Water
It was a two hour flight from Xian to the southern city of Guilin and the contrast between the former and the latter could not be more different. Before getting in to the interesting bits its perhaps worth remembering that the city’s Jiangbei Airport is a bit archaic so despite how desperate you may be to use the washrooms avoid the first few you come to as these are basic Chinese style and clearly have not been cleaned since Allcock & Brown flew the Atlantic!
The journey in to the city is also less than memorable as the so called ‘airport expressway’ soon ends in a mass of potholes and a road system that vehicle constructers must use to test out suspension systems. However, what one cannot fail to notice are the countless karst peaks – ok, small limestone peaks to you that rise from the lush vegetation of this sub-tropical region. Laying towards the north-eastern edge of Guangxi province the city is one of Chinas top tourist attractions both for the Chinese and folks like us. Its name means ‘Forrest of Sweet Osmanthus’ owing to the numerous Sweet Osmanthus Trees that line many of the cities streets and parks. Much of Guilins natural beauty lays in the fact that it is almost surrounded by lakes plus the Li River, indeed the city has a touch of Venice about it but only from the waterside.
Historically Guilin will not disappoint as first mention of settlement here was way back in the 6th century AD – in fact there are sites like the Ling Canal that date back way beyond this to somewhere around 219 BC which must be one of the Worlds oldest preserved canals. If you still have a thirst for tombs then pay a visit to the resting place of Prince Jingiang which date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In fact there is so much here to explore that if you are planning a trip then I would suggest four days minimum – you’ll love the climate and the abundant beauty of the place. Apart from tourism Guilin has attracted numerous artists and poets and evidence of this can be seen in many places not least at Yuzi Paradise, Chinas largest sculpture park has attracted no less than one hundred and fourteen artists for over forty seven different countries to contribute work.
We located ourselves at the rather splendid four star Park Hotel that is set in its own well manicured and extensive grounds that command a splendid view over one of the cities lakes. Following a traditional dinner we took one of the many river excursions on offer to explore the waterways and to see Cormorant Fishing. These waterways are beautiful by night as multi-coloured lights heighten the effect of the sub-tropical vegetation, stunning buildings, shoreline restaurants, fountains, bridges and temples that one passes. The Cormorant fishing is a ancient Chinese method of catching fish and for any bird lovers this is the point to look away. The birds are claimed to be trained to dive from the fisherman raft and hunt for fish before returning with their catch to the loving keeper. The facts are that they are not fed until the end of any fishing session and cannot swallow what they naturally hunt because they have a tight band around the bottom of their necks. Once back to the raft they are unceremoniously hauled out by their necks and the fisherman’s tight grip on their throats soon induce them to give up their catch. They are of course fed later but do not fly away. I enquired why such a beautiful bird just does not up sticks and fly off – the reply was that their feet are tied to the raft! Need I say more?
Having rested up for the night our second day in Guilin was a cruise on the Li River with lunch in Yangshuo. Following a forty minute drive we arrived at a ramshackle concrete building lovingly called Li River Cruise Terminal – well that’s my somewhat loose translation. This is a state run and licensed operation although the river boats are in private hands. Now do not expect water-jet powered hydro-foils or catamaran hulled cruising gin palaces – these are the basic river boats although to be fair we westerners do not travel with the locals so we get the posher versions. The craft are OK, comfortable and do have that one vital requirement, air-conditioning. Washrooms yes – but hold your breath.
We set off at around 09.40 for the four hour cruise to a town called Yangshou where we were are due for a late lunch. The Li River cruise will take us some 52 miles down river through some of the most spectacular scenery to be seen anywhere in China. Countless chains of Karst limestone peaks that seem to rise from nowhere some devoid of foliage but most are covered in heavy sub-tropical plants and trees – bamboo grows everywhere and riverside folk live in basic housing and most fish from bamboo rafts. Life here is what the old school books told and showed one about China and apart from outboard motors replacing poles, the occasional car or truck and electricity provided to most dwellings life appears to be little unchanged. Kids still swim in the clear waters of the river and every bend, twist and turn of the Li provides yet another vista to feast one eyes upon. The are countless geological features to look at from Elephant Trunk Hill, Pagoda Hill, Crown Cave to name but a mere few and of course quaint ancient towns like Daxu perched upon the northern bank built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) retains its antique style of buildings and probably its way of life as well. Birdlife is abundant, water fowl are everywhere and water buffalo lazily graze from the river bed before chilling out in the deeper waters.
One just needs to sit back and chill out and let all this unbelievable scenery soak in, and apart from the exertion of aiming ones camera and sipping your cool drink nothing else matters. The hours drift by and sadly all too quickly we sight our final destination, the bustling town of Yongshou which comes as a rude awakening to the senses. Disembarkation completed one runs the gauntlet of street traders all selling the same rubbish but at hugely different prices. The slow walk up through ‘Hello’ Market requires super human strength to shake of the vendors who cling to ones arms with trays of fake Rolex watches and leading French Perfumes. At last our lunch venue comes to view, sanctuary at last from both the heat and ‘Hello’ Market.
After an excellent lunch there’s time for those requiring some retail therapy to indulge their bargaining skills and seek the ultimate deal – three Rolex’s for under Y100 (£10) but these will probably only be gifts for those you don’t like because within two months ones wrist would have turned green and the watch internals disintegrated! We return to Guilin by road – oh how I wished it had been by river.