Guilin: No, It Is Not a Chinese Painting
Some parts of China are on the beaten track and some are not. Guilin and the LI River has been on from the start. My first backpacking adventure in China in 1988 included a stop in Guilin, as has every escorted tour I have ever taken to China (Something over 20). Some places in the world live up to the hype, and Guilin is one of them.
It is all about the scenery. Guilin is one of the few places in the world where karst formations exist. Karsts are formed where limestone laid down in an ancient seabed rises up and then erodes in a wet environment. It is essentially a melting landscape; the softer spots in the limestone erode faster, leaving pillars and towers. Add in a very picturesque little river, lots of bamboo and the occasional herd of water buffalo and you have something pretty special.
Interestingly enough, the Chinese have not always appreciated the scenery.The soil is poor, the area is isolated and with the heat and humidity, the area was once rife with malaria and other nasty tropical diseases. It was a place of exile; those who ticked off the Emperor got a one way ticket to Guilin. Of course many of these were officials whose rigorous training had included painting and poetry. So they recorded their misery in exile in fantastic painting and melancholy verse.
Fast forward to the 20th century, China is opening for tourism and people want to see the place where all of those paintings came from. Guilin is a short plane ride form Hong Kong, which was once the only gateway to China, and in a few short years, you had one of China’s first mega tourist destinations. Which had some not great side effects. In the 90s, Guilin was the worst place in China for pickpockets, beggars and hookers. The city itself was ugly. And lets just say that the Chinese had not yet figured out customer service.
Why bother? Well the cruise down the Li River remains perhaps the most picturesque three hours in China. The middle stretch where you are going through the center of the karsts is just phenomenal. And the local government realized a few years ago that they had a really good thing and decided to do their best to preserve it. There is no heavy industry around; the Li River is one of the cleanest in China. Downtown Guilin has been cleaned up; there is a beautiful central square with a very interesting display in which a man- made waterfall runs down the side of a hotel.&nbsp; The riverfront is now a lovely promenade with rather spectacular lighting in the evening. I assume the hookers are still there, but they don’t bug you when you walk out the hotel, and the beggars have for the most part disappeared.
But one does not got to Guilin just for Guilin. The amazing thing here is the river cruise. A couple of tips: It is a good idea to book your river cruise in advance. There is a bit of a monopoly here, all of the boats, and there are dozens of them, are ticketed through the same office. It is somewhat like a lottery and some of the boats are nicer than others and a few are pretty funky. Very few have western style restrooms and I have yet to see one where the restroom, western or otherwise, was not, well, I think funky is the best word. However, if you book early and through a reputable source, the chance of being on one of these funkier boats is less.
Lunch is served on the boats. Don’t eat it. Actually the food can be pretty good, but there is at least some question about sanitation. Do they wash the dishes off the back of the boat in the river? They say no…but they inevitably serve lunch right when you are at the best of the best scenery. You can either have your hotel pack a box lunch or just wait until you get to the end of the trip to eat, about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Take a few snacks and tough it out…
OK, the traditional way to do this was to take the boat, get off in the town of Yangshuo, spend an hour fighting through the swarm of vendors (it is actually one of the more interesting markets for tourist items, even if the vendors can be a tad aggressive), and then jump on the bus back to Guilin. I have been changing this up of late. I spent time in Yangshuo back when it was a sleepy back packer town with no place to stay that had heat. There are now some surprisingly nice hotels. As mentioned, the market is interesting, but there is one really good reason to spend the night here…
If you watched the Beijing Olympics, you may have noticed the opening and closing ceremonies. Pretty spectacular. They were produced by China’s most famous director, Zhang Yimou. So Mr. Zhang has designed a show called Liu San Jie which is staged at night in Yangshuo. The stage is actually a quiet corner of the river with karsts in the background. The cast is over 600 people, many of whom perform while floating around on bamboo rafts. There is no real plot or story, it is a series of scenes of life in the countryside of south China. I did not mention earlier: the area around Guilin is home to many ethnic minorities; the Miao, the Yao, the Zhuang. This show features a great deal of folk singing, dancing, etc. It sounds a bit hokey, but it really is spectacular. Again there is a trick, there are three shows per night and the latest one does not start until almost 10. Try to get one of the earlier shows. Oh, and the traffic getting in and out of the show is almost as epic as the show itself. Patience, grasshopper….
So yes, Guilin and Yangshuo are crowded and are fully commercialized. And there are other places in China and Asia that have some very cool scenery; Halong Bay in Vietnam comes to mind. But I still can’t imagine doing China and not going to Guilin, and if you do venture to Guilin, by all means spend the night and see the show in Yangshuo. Yep. Must do. Put it on the list.
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