Just before the start of my semester in Beijing, I enthusiastically bought dozens of China travel guides and made endless lists of things I wanted to see in China. Of course I wouldn’t be able to see it all, but a girl can dream. Guilin and Yangshuo were always at the top of those lists. And in 2014, I finally had the opportunity to visit this beautiful Karst mountain area. Bike rides between buffalo’s and rice fields, boat trips along the Li River; this is by far one of the most beautiful places in China.
Guilin by bike
Guilin is the gateway to all the beautiful sights this environment has to offer. We fly from Beijing to Guilin, and from the air I instantly know this trip is going to be amazing. The view of the Li River, flowing in a beautiful setting between steep karst mountains, is spectacular from the air. We hire a bike at our Hostel upon arrival and explore the city that same day.
Guilin itself is not very special. There are a number of amazing caves and a handful of cultural attractions, but given its very touristy here we decided to just skip those. Our bike ride through the city area did offer a few nice viewpoints of the Li River and I’m satisfied when I’m watching the photos whilst enjoying a Tsingtao beer later that day. In Guilin the Chinese eat almost everything that has four legs, except tables. Menu’s contain the most strange dishes around here. Eating snakes, turtles and rats, is nothing new. I happen to not be on a business trip this time, so I decide to go for something a little less exotic.
Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces
Guanxi province, in which Guilin and Yangshuo are located, is famous for its rice fields. And the Longji rice terraces, or Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, are by far the most famous. We booked a cheap day trip through our hostel, but you can get there by public transport just as easily. The rice terraces cover the endless rolling hills up to a height of 1,000 meters. We’re lucky. It’s summer, so the terraces are full of bright green rice plants.
Buy a map of the area in advance. Without a map you will get lost between all the hiking trails without a doubt. We were short in time and therefore decided to take the cable car up to the highest viewing point and hiked our way down along a maze of narrow paths and paddy fields. It immediately becomes clear where this area got its name from. The views are fantastic and we come across several small villages inhabited by ethnic minorities on our way down. I hate that we have so little time to spend here. If you stay longer, you have the opportunity to spend the night in one of these villages. Seems like a very special experience to me!
Not only the many views make the trek down very special. Life around the rice fields really feels like authentic China. We pass an old Chinese farmer during our descent. He’s wearing a typical Chinese straw hat for protection against the sun and continues his way up undisturbed with his heavily loaded horse and foal right behind him. The horses seem to have no trouble with the narrow winding paths along ridges and ravines. Two little sisters frolic with umbrellas alongside the paddies under the watchful eye of Grandpa. The ethnic population here lives of rice cultivation and is very non-intrusive. For a brief moment, my thoughts come to a complete stop through the serene environment.
Surrounded by hundreds of karst peaks, Yangshuo has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in China since the arrival of the first backpackers thirty years ago. Yangshuo is often described in travel guides as a picturesque village. So I’m a bit surprised by the huge crowds on arrival. Chinese tourism is massive here. Find a cheap hostel in one of the back alleys and avoid the expensive hotels in the main street.
We explore the area by bike the next day. The oppressive summer heat here is extreme, and we eventually pay to take a refreshing dip in the swimming pool of a hostel we come across. Even the buffalos choose to take a dip in one of the numerous ponds around the area. Yangshuo and Guilin can best be visited between April and December. I recommend to avoid the the oppressively hot summer months July and August. Trust me. With these temperatures you’d much rather prefer a day at the beach.
While cycling, I finally see what I had seen in pictures of travel articles about Guilin and Yangshuo; Buffalos grazing peacefully amongst the limestone cliffs that seem to rise from the ground like giant teeth. This landscape is used in many well-known Chinese literature and poetry, and is a source of inspiration for many famous painters. Don’t feel like cycling? Opt for a scooter ride with one of the locals who know the region by heart.
There is no lack of hiking trails in the area around Yangshuo. From trails through the mountains that are only suitable for experienced climbers to simple short treks for beginners. Luckily, the climb up Moon Hill can be done without climbing equipment, because the view is amazing and cannot be missed. Even though the trek up provides walking paths and stairs, it still remains a quite exhausting climb. But I assure you, that you’ll forget all about that once you have a first glance at the surroundings from above. Depart in the late afternoon so you can enjoy the sunset with a cold beer.
A boat trip along the Li river remains the best way to explore the area. Countless small businesses in Yangshuo rent out several kinds of transport for a trip along this beautiful river. We chose a simple automated bamboo raft boat ride. With its breathtaking views bend after bend among the karst rocks, the river doesn’t seize to amaze for a single moment. Halfway, we get to a point from where the view is even printed on a Chinese currency bill.
The local population along the river makes a living selling fish caught with nets or birds. Fishermen go out to fish with bamboo rafts and cormorants late at night and lure the fish with their lamps. The birds cannot swallow their catch due to a string tied around their neck. When it’s gathered enough fish in its beak and neck, the fisherman retrieves the bird with a stick and makes it empty it’s catch in a basket. Not very animal friendly, but it’s a real must to watch in real life during your stay near the li river.
We continue our journey towards Hong Kong by night train later that week. While the various landscapes flash past my window, I’m still reminiscing about all we’ve seen in Guilin and Yangshuo. The scenery here is so beautiful and fairy-like, you just can’t stop making pictures of it.