“I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw.” – Fan Chengda (Chinese Song Dynasty scholar)
桂林山水甲天下 – “Guilin’s scenery is the best among all under heaven.” – popular Chinese saying
The bucket list of China is long and I am fortunate to have ticked some of them. The picturesque Guilin was certainly on top of the list and I was looking for an opportunity. CET had a trip planned for the Tomb sweeping (Qingming) festival long weekend, but it couldn’t take off due to poor response. I contacted Echo, one of the CET leaders, and she suggested a private trip and helped with the logistics. The cost was going to be 2200 RMB for three nights stay and local transport, excluding the travel to Guilin and back. This looked reasonable and I pulled Hari who was equally enthusiastic. Considering the time and money, Echo suggested going by train and return by flight.
For those who don’t know, Guilin (桂林, known as Kweilin earlier) is a city in Guangxi province in the south of China. Along with Yangshuo and Xingping, it is very well known for its beautiful scenery. Guilin city is as old as 314BC, established on the banks of Li river.
We took the train Z285 from Beijing west railway station at 21:10 on 4th April 2018. As Echo had managed to book tickets at the last moment, our coaches were different. The soft sleeper was comfortable and spacious. As usual, I had to let go my lower berth to a family and take the upper one. But they left the next morning and I could come down to enjoy the view through the window. The train went through very scenic places: large fields, rivers, bridges and long tunnels. We had lunch at the cafeteria. After 19 hours journey, we reached Guilin Railway station at 16:20. We met Paul, our guide. He looked for a taxi and we proceeded to the hotel. The hotel’s name was “Memory inn” and it was at a central convenient place.
In a short time, we went around Guilin and saw the elephant trunk hill from a distance, walked along the Li river. The famous scenic area is called as “two rivers, four lakes” spot. We saw the two impressive Pagodas (Sun-Moon double towers, Riyue Shuangta) in the middle of Fir lake. Paul said they look better in the night. We walked around the Fulong lane, which was a commercial street and went to a restaurant that had more of western clients. The local beer, Liquan 1998, was impressive. Post dinner, we went around the city and came back to the Pagodas. Indeed, they looked magnificent with the lights. The whole atmosphere there was electrifying. We walked back to the hotel and rested.
Next morning, we had breakfast of noodles in the nearby restaurant. At 8:00, the car picked us up and we proceeded to Ping’an rice terrace in Longji county. The first stop was at Xiao Zhai Yao village. The village was very unique with wooden houses, streams and waterfalls. We met the local long-haired Yao women who were getting ready for a performance. Paul, being a local and a regular visitor seemed to have great rapport with them. The car then continued to Ping’an village where we had lunch. The route was winding and beautiful. It reminded me of the Western Ghat roads. Lunch in a small place run by a family, was braised fresh country chicken and rice cooked in bamboo. We were at the Ping’an rice terraces around 13:20. The view was incredible.
The Longsheng or Lonji (dragon’s backbone) rice terraces were built more than 600 years ago around the slopes of riverside mountains to facilitate growing rice. Two major highlights are: Seven Stars with the Moon (七星伴月) – seven small piles of rocks in the middle of a moon-like field, Nine Dragons and Five Tigers (九龙五虎) – nine ridges, branching off from the main ridge, which look like nine dragons bending over to drink from the Jinsha River, with five tiger-like rocks.
We left the rice terraces around 15:00 and climbed down the hill to reach Zhuang village from where we travelled to Yangshuo city by car. The dinner that evening was rice noodles with eggs and tomatoes. Paul offered to take us to the famous Impressions Sanjie Liu show which we readily agreed. The premise was about half an hour’s walk from the hotel and the show was at 20:50. Paul left after buying the tickets for us. The show is very popular and this was the second of the tree shows in the day with over three thousand tickets sold per show. Sanjie Liu is a legend of the Zhuang people. Her story became famous with a movie by the same name released in 1961. This is about a folk singer who takes on a tyrant named Mo Huairen and his hired singers. She loves a brave young man by name Li Xiaoniu. (for more details about Sanjie Liu, read: http://people.wku.edu/haiwang.yuan/China/tales/liusanjie_b.htm).
The show was like we had never seen before. Li river was the stage and the mountains were backdrops. Six hundred performers, mostly fishermen from the villages along the river, amazing use of props and lights and extremely well-coordinated dances made the show a rare spectacle. Zhang Yimou, the chief director, was also the chief director of the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic 2008. He had creatively blended the classical Liu Sanjie’s folk songs and ethnic group culture together to present a large-scale realistic performance, well matched with the natural landscape. The show is for 70 minutes and had 7 episodes: The Prelude, Red Impression, Green Impression, Golden Impression, Blue Impression, Silvery Impression and the Epilogue. Each episode showed different images and sceneries with the ever-changing natural background and lighting.
We walked back to the hotel and rested. The hotel (WY, Wei yi zhu ti jiudian), was comfortable. Next morning, we had noodle soup breakfast and left around 8:15. It was going to be a cycling day on the countryside of Yangshuo. Paul said his daughter had holiday and his family would like to join us in the cycling trip. His wife Ruby was also a tour guide before. With one bicycle and a scooter, they took turns to ride the bicycle, while we were on our bicycles that Paul hired from the city. The trail was beautiful, going through the countryside of Jiuxian village, mostly alongside the Yulong river. The first to pass was the Jiuxian village. As it was the tomb sweeping day, we could see many people gathered at hundreds of different tombs, clearing the bushes around, cleaning the tombs, decorating, offering food and liquor to their ancestors. They burned look-alike currency notes (practice believed to be representing sending money to the ancestors), lighted candles, incense sticks and burst fire crackers. While I didn’t like such a large use of fire crackers in the serene nature, I appreciated the enthusiasm of the families to respect the ones who passed away. The trail in some places was muddy, but the advantage was that we could stop at will to enjoy the scenery.
We stopped at a small stone bridge called Xi’angui bridge and took pictures. The route had many fruit orchards, mainly with oranges. We also rested at the river side for some time and saw the bamboo rafters along the river. The next major stop was the Fuli (富里桥) bridge. This is a 500-year-old stone bridge. The spot is famous for photography, mainly among the newly-wed couples for wedding photos. The ancient bridge looks good with the hanging creepers. There are also flower gardens developed nearby, mainly to lure the wedding photo seekers. We had lunch at a river side place, once gain fresh braised chicken and vegetables with rice. We continued back cycling and came to Jinshui cave around 15:45. Paul bought the tickets and they waited outside while we went into the caves.
This was like the karst caves I had seen before with lighting effects, but had a large mud bath and hot water springs in it. We didn’t try those. We witnessed a show in the hall where different kind of performances were held. Notable one was the local performer girls choosing guys from the crowd to act like marrying them. We came out at 16:30 and started cycling towards the city, when we noticed that paragliding was happening there. We asked Ruby and Paul to help us with tickets for paragliding. We had to cycle again for 30 minutes to reach the place. The tickets costed 355 RMB per head and we spent another 199 RMB for the video that they sold us later. Though the paragliding was only about 5 minutes, it was a thrilling experience allowing us to fly above the amazing mountains of Yangshuo. It was very nice of Paul and family to have helped us and also took pictures.
When we returned the bicycles at 18:30, I feel we must have cycled more than 50 kms that day. We had not cycled so much in a day for many years. Our backs were a bit sore, but we walked to the West street after that. The west street is a happening place with many different activities. With more than 1400 years history, it is a place where one finds many different cuisines and artifacts. “Beer fish” seems to be the most famous local delicacy, but we didn’t try it. We had mango milk shake and came back to the hotel. Later we found a place for dinner where we ate rice and vegetables.
Next morning, we left for Fuli market around 9:00 by car. The market is very old, and is not only a farmer’s market, but has several things like hair cut places, traditional treatments etc. It was quite a fascinating experience to walk through the market streets. There were many places that were making and selling hand painted fans. The streets in Fuli town look ancient and the population is mostly elderly. There was a very old woman selling her own made craft balls (xiu qiu, 绣球) that are used by brides to garland their grooms. I bought one for 15RMB just out of respect for the grit of the old lady. We walked to the Li river side where I tried a steamed cake stuffed with bean paste (ci ba, 糍粑). We then walked alongside the river in the ancient village of Xingping and arrived at a point where the famous scene depicted on a 20RMB note is seen. We crossed the river on a ferry and continued walking towards the next destination. As it was already 12:30, we decided to take an electric vehicle to the place of lunch. It was an interesting journey, and we realized that the distance was long. Once again, the lunch was fresh chicken braised (third day in a row!). Eating at the riverside, while sipping Liquan 1998, was really refreshing.
After a sumptuous lunch, we started walking through the country road towards the Xianggong mountain. I was completely lost in the beautiful nature when I saw a truck carrying people stopping by, in which Hari and Paul were there and called me. I preferred walking and let them go. After about 45 minutes’ walk, I reached a fork where it was difficult to decide which way to go. I called Paul and he came in a local’s scooter to pick me. Later I realized that I was close to the entrance of Xianggong shan.
Initially, Xianggong shan was just like any other hill on the west bank of Li River in Yangshuo County of Guilin. A few years ago, a local photographer took some pictures from the top of this mountain and won a prize in an international photography contest, making it famous overnight. Since then, Xianggong shan became a popular tourist destination beloved by enthusiastic photographers. There are steps to climb, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. There are view pints at different levels, but the best view is from the top. Even here there were wedding groups doing photography.
The view from top of the moutain, of Li river winding around the hills and towns, is breathtaking. We spent some time there and came down. We walked to a nearby spot to take some pictures, from where the car picked us up. Paul got down at Yangshuo. It was about an hour’s drive to the airport and we reached at 18:00. The flight that was supposed to be at 21:40 got delayed due to air traffic congestion left an hour late. We reached home at 3:30 in the morning.
Guilin trip left an everlasting image of nature’s beauty in my mind. It was nice not only to enjoy the stunning locations, but also to see from close the Chinese tradition of tomb sweeping festival. Thanks to Echo for arranging the trip, Hari for his company and for enduring me, and Paul for his excellent guidance and for correcting the content of the blog.