For many visitors to China, it is the bustling cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, together with man-made treasures like the Great Wall and the famous terra-cotta warriors at Xian, that are the main draw.
But China is also endowed with a wonderful and incredibly varied natural landscape, including the mighty Yangtze and Yellow rivers, rugged mountainous regions and the remote spaces along the Silk Road. One of the most unusual places in China is the remarkable karst formations found in a large area around the southern city of Guilin.
Located in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to the west of Guangzhou, nature has endowed the area with a landscape that belongs in fairy tales. Typical of a karst landform, the limestone formations rise up to about 300 feet like statuesque domes and towers. There are so many of them spread out over a huge area that in total they give the impression of a huge forest. The formations are riddled with caves, some of which can be explored and feature cave paintings dating back hundreds of years. The closest cave to Guilin is Reed Flute Cave.
Karst formations emerge from the mist along the Li River near Hangshuo. Photo Credit: Roger Allnutt
The Li River and a number of tributaries wind through the region, and it is from small cruise vessels on the river that the best impression is obtained. The weather is often rainy or misty, which adds an ethereal and haunting charm to the scenery that has been the inspiration for centuries of Chinese landscape painters and more recently photographers.
Guilin is a bustling, modern city along the banks of the Li River and a good base for exploring the region, which is basically rural with only a few midsize cities and relatively little industrialization. As in many Chinese cities, traffic is dominated by a huge number of mopeds; bicycles have virtually disappeared. Shops and cafes are always busy, but there is still the odd space for small vegetable plots being carefully tended by older women carrying water in buckets on the end of poles.
A man uses trained cormorants to fish in Guilin’s Elephant Hill Park, named for the rock formation behind him. Photo Credit: Roger Allnutt
Elephant Hill Park is the major attraction in Guilin, an area on a lake with a natural feature of a large rock formation in the shape of an elephant dipping its trunk into the water. A couple of fishermen were showing how fish are caught by trained cormorants. The park also features an odd collection of sculptures and tree formations and was packed with locals.
The region is famous for growing tea, and it is an instructive experience to attend one of the excellent tea ceremonies and learn about the different teas and how to prepare it.
The most popular stretch of the Li River for the scenery is between Guilin and Yangshuo about 60 miles away, but if time is short, then there are shorter cruises available from both cities. Along the river are many small villages; water buffalo wallow in the water, and there are plenty of fishermen trying for the day's catch.
Yangshuo is another popular tourist town. West Street is a focal point for tourists, with its many bars and restaurants and souvenir shops. We watched a couple of powerful men pounding nuts and other ingredients to make delicious, nougat-like biscuits.
At night don't miss the outdoor show "Impression of Liu San Jie," with over 600 performers on platforms on a lake blending the culture of the ethnic minorities in an impressive sound-and-light spectacle.
Not far from Yangshuo through Longsheng, a winding road takes you up a mountainside to the amazing Devil's Backbone Rice Terraces near Longji village. The terraces, which date from the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, derive their name from their resemblance to dragon scales, the terraces blending in with the natural curves of the hillside.
Visitors can pay for a ride up to the village on top of the mountain from the bus parking place, but it is worthwhile to walk along the pathway to get the best perspective of this site linking human labor and natural landscape.
A number of ethnic minorities live in the Guangxi province, and a visit to some of their villages is highly recommended. Between Longsheng and Sinjiang are two popular destinations.
The Dong people live in a village set among karst formations. A feature is a long bridge, known as the "Bridge of Wind and Rain," spanning a stream where water wheels still operate. The ornate bridge is typical of the architecture of the region, as are the thatched-roofed drum towers decorated with sculptures and frescoes.
The Miao people are famous for their colorful dress and headgear and traditional customs; our group was greeted by a stirring welcoming song, which we had to reciprocate. During our visit they demonstrated making sticky rice, which we ate while toasting with a very powerful drink.
Although it would be possible to visit the region independently, I would recommend taking an organized tour, as local guides and drivers take away all the stress (particularly if you don't speak Chinese).
For more information, go to www.visitguilin.org.