Guilin, damn. If you only visit one city in China, this is the place. Shanghai is lovely, Beijing and Xi’an have the history, but the natural beauty of Guilin can’t be beat. At the risk of sounding like the crunchiest tree-hugger ever, I think the best of the man-made world will never live up to the best of nature. Having previously seen and been in awe of the Great Wall, I still say Guilin tops it.
As a city of just under five million, Guilin is small by Chinese standards. A short jaunt around town will give you a good idea what life in a modern city in China looks like today, but you don’t have to drive far to find yourself surrounded by rice fields and small farming villages that bear none of the marks of the mass urbanization that has taken place here in the last 25 years. Farmers wearing straw hats, water buffalo sauntering through the fields, endless expanses of greenery, this is the China you’ve seen on a postcard, and it beats the wow-factor of the major cities any day, in my book.
So far, I’ve been masterful at timing my trip to match up exactly with national holidays and/or controversy in every place, so when I arrived at the boat launch point along the Li River, about an hour and a half south of the city, I was greeted by so many tourists that even my guide was stunned. To make matters worse, a popular local trail was closed, so a group of hikers was staging a protest at the main entry point, which quickly turned into a half-assed brawl with local police.
This was a Yosemite on Labor Day weekend moment, which is a kind of catch-all my mom uses to describe any tourist clusterfuck of epic proportions. It was a mess and I was really beginning to worry if we were every going to get out on the river. I met a group of Americans who had arrived at 8 a.m. and by noon, still hadn’t been able to find a boat. So I wasn’t feeling particularly confident.
Since I couldn’t understand what she was saying, I don’t exactly know what my guide, Chelsea, was going on about, but through some very fancy verbal maneuvering, she somehow got us to the front of what looked like about a three-hour line and we were on a boat in no time. Pretty sure she told the fishermen some sob story about how I was living out my final days or something, but I didn’t ask questions. Whatever works.
Once we were underway, the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. The limestone karsts rising out of the river define “sublime” in a way that would make Wordsworth weep. I don’t totally know how to describe this area; it’s far more dramatic than “mountainous” connotes, with its jagged peaks shooting out of the landscape. It’s truly otherworldly and fittingly, was featured in Star Wars III very briefly as the planet where the wookies live. This is the first thing I’ve seen so far on my trip that I would describe as an absolute, must-see once in your life spot.
When we disembarked down river, we drove a short way to Yangshuo, a popular town along the Li River that’s every bit your typical hippie mountain town, with a heavy dose of kitsch. This is one of those places that’s full of gross German beer gardens, sleazy bars with pictures of rainbow drinks on the menus, a cornucopia of t-shirt shops, grungy hostels, and every other kind of crap, but you love it completely anyway. Small offshoots from the river wend through town, so you’ll often come across ornate stone bridges while you’re strolling around. Yangshuo comes right up against the sheer cliffs of the nearby mountains, and though it’s really a total shithole, it’s very lovable and you could easily spend a day or two here just lounging around, drinking a lot, and enjoying the view.
After dinner in Yangshuo, I went to a light show nearby directed by one of the guys who did the Beijing Opening Ceremonies in 2008, so as you would expect, there were a lot of colors and a lot of people (500 performers in total). Impression Liu Sanjie is performed in a small bay along the river, with the mountains lit up on the opposite banks, and it’s a fantastic setting and a very creative performance that revolves around its natural environs. The story is, allegedly, about life in the region, but Chelsea said it doesn’t make sense even if you speak Chinese and you just have to be impressed by the spectacle of the whole thing and not worry about the narrative.
If you’ve never had the chance to attend any kind of theatrical performance in China, you can get a very good idea of what the atmosphere is like by going to a boring college football game. People talk, take pictures, and leave at any time during the show, and only applaud very tepidly at the end.
Obviously, this is pretty different from what we would consider polite, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t drive me crazy, but as I was the one who didn’t know how to act, I just had to roll with it as best I could. Luckily, Zhang Yimou, the director, isn’t known for subtlety, so you won’t miss any of the delicate nuances of the performance while the people in front of you slowly find their seats. You could watch from half a mile away and still enjoy the show.
A trip to Guilin begins and ends on the Li River, and while Reed Flute Cave (see above), a enormous 180-million-year-old limestone cave, is worth a visit, nothing will compare to a day on the bamboo (read; PVC pipe) rafts. There’s honestly nothing like it—except for maybe Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam, so we’ll see how it stacks up when I get there in November. Guilin is in the southern corner of China, so the landscape is very similar to north Vietnam.
How to summarize my time in China. Through all its highs and lows, it was a place that always inspired a lot of emotions, from intense frustration to breathless amazement. There’s never a dull moment here, which can really wear on you, but makes for an undoubtedly exciting trip. As Chelsea and I were literally jumping between rafts trying to smooth talk our way onto a boat, at one point she turned to me with a laugh and said, “Experiences,” which is pretty much a perfect summary of traveling in China. It’s filthy and loud and in-your-face, and there are more people than you ever wanted to see in your entire life, but it’s beautiful, totally unique, and wonderfully chaotic. It’s definitely an experience.
I’m in Hong Kong for the week, and whatever ties it has to China, is a far, far cry from the mainland. I’ll of course be writing about my time here before my next stop, somewhere totally different: India.