After more than 5 years in Hong Kong, I have only ever visited one part of mainland China: Beijing. It's time to explore one of China's prettiest and most famous rural areas: the Guilin region. The fantastic limestone scenery has inspired some of China's best calligraphy and poetry over the centuries. This map shows how close Guilin is to Hong Kong (New Kowloon) - just 55 minutes by plane.
We only had a long weekend in this area - we landed on Friday night and spent Friday and Saturday nights in the Guilin Sheraton - not really up to global Sheraton standards but not uncomfortable, of course. Then on Sunday we headed south down the Li River to Yangshuo. The highlight of our stay was not the river trip but our 24 hours in Yangshuo - much smaller and nicer than Guilin and much closer to the mountains.
From Guilin you can see many limestone peaks in the distance but only a few peaks jut up through the otherwise sprawling town.
With so much limestone in this area, there are of course thousands of caves. This is one of the best known - it's called the Reed Flute cave because the local reeds are often used to make simple flutes. A lot of westerners find the multicolored lighting of Chinese caves to be garish but we liked it - in fact this was the most impressive cave we've ever seen - quite large and with very varied formations everywhere you look. These particular rocks are called Hong Kong Harbor because they resemble the skyline of our fair city.
In Europe or America, would you expect to see these signs on the doors of the Art Department of the local university?
On Saturday night we went to show that demonstrated the costumes and talents of various minorities in China. These acrobats were impressive but this little four-year old boy stole the show.
A classic tourist activity is to be taken on the river at night and shown how cormorants were once commonly used by fishermen. A loop of string is tied around the base of their throats so that they cannot swallow the fish that they catch - they are trained to return to the bamboo boat so that the fisherman can coax the fish out into a basket. The bright lights attract the fish towards the boat... and the cormorants...
In Elephant Rock park, by the river, we saw some girls wearing the traditional costumes of their minority group. All minority groups seem to have spectacular costumes but the Han group that the vast majority of Chinese belong to seem to have less interest in traditional clothing?
On the second day we took a four-hour boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo, down the Lijiang (Li River). Actually, because the river is so shallow as it flows through Guilin, we had to drive for about an hour to get to the wharf where the boat leaves from. Most people spent only 30 minutes in Yangshuo and then head back to Guilin by bus but we stayed in Yangshuo overnight - a good choice.
This is the kind of scenery that has made the Guilin area famous - these spectacular limestone mountains extend over hundreds of square kilometers and this stretch of the river is surprisingly undeveloped. Better yet, this area has some of cleanest (least polluted!) air and water in the whole of China.
We passed dozens of boys like this as we drifted down the river - they would all shout "Hello" in the hope that we would throw coins to them, but the boat operators strongly discourage this as the boys are drawn very close to the boat's propellers...
This simple raft/boat made of a few branches of bamboo seems to be very typical of the region.
The Guilin scenery is almost unique in the world and has attracted many famous visitors. This photo shows Hillary Clinton. The fat guy in the front must be her bodyguard?
Another famous visitor was Mr. Ho Chi Min. One of the most successful warriors in Asia, he led the communist VietCong in their war against South Vietnam and the US - about the only war that America has ever failed to win.
Yangshuo is a much more attractive town than Guilin for it is much smaller and it is really buried in the dramatic limestone mountain scenery.
We stayed in the Paradise Resort, 5 minutes walk from the river. This little lake acts like a moat and keeps the hawkers at bay.
This is Yangshuo's main tourist street - lots of shops selling paintings and T shirts. Surprisingly, I counted 5 Internet cafes in this little town. If you are a dog lover, you can also find plenty of restaurants here serving this delicious kind of meat...
Catherine's companion in this picture is a guy from Namur, Belgium, who has made it his goal to run every marathon in the world. He had just tried to run the Beijing marathon, but had choked on the polluted air there.
What is the thing that you would LEAST expect to find in a small rural town in the middle of China? See below!
The absolute highlight of our tour was a 3 hour bicycle ride through the farmland around YangShuo.
In the afternoon, our DragonAir guide, ABC*, took us to Moon Hill. After a half hour climb, we were treated to views like this one.
After Moon Hill, ABC* took us to see a 2000 year old banyan tree by the river. This was the only real 'tourist trap' that we got caught in during our stay, but at least I got this nice shot of a child punting a bamboo raft.
We had a great time in the Guilin area - if you're thinking of going then make sure you spend enough time in Yangshuo and that you take a cycling tour though the countryside there. Bon Voyage!
* Her real name is Wei, not ABC, but she says some foreigners have trouble pronouncing 'Wei' correctly.