Guilin’s Karst Castles
Guilin’s limestone karst mountains and Yangshuo’s laidback setting have long drawn backpackers and nature enthusiasts. With the Li River serving as a backdrop, the surrounding area is an emerald waiting to be explored.
Guilin’s scenery is the most beautiful under heaven, so goes a Chinese saying describing the immortal beauty of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region’s Guilin. Boats float down the charming Li River as limestone karst mountains jut from the ground like dragon’s teeth. While Guilin is far from the crush of other Chinese cities, it is becoming developed and is a major tourist destination. Like many places in China, its history can be traced further back than many nations in the West. During the Han dynasty, Guilin became the political and economic center of Guangxi and continues to thrive today.
Yangshuo’s Charmed Existence
Just over an hour south of Guilin, Yangshuo, with its natural scenery and laid back air, is a great escape from the gray and pollution of China’s big cities.
The town of Yangshuo is a backpacker’s paradise. Quirky souvenir shops and essential service like internet cafes, telecom services, food guzzling corners and pharmacies abound. Yangshuo town has flourished so swiftly that it is practically unrecognizable from the latest edition of whichever guidebook you own, new streets have sprouted up with shops offering all sorts of comfort foods, the main thoroughfare has been widened to accommodate the growing volume of traffic. Clusters of shops selling herbs, teas and daily provisions line the inner alleyways.
A lively buzz hums throughout the cobbled streets. Young and old gravitate towards the chill-out joints, especially along West Street, a 2km stretch crammed with shops, pubs, cafes and hotels. Here’s where flickering neon lights have replaced red lanterns and the air is rich with band music and banter.
Yangshuo’s subtropical weather, characterized by temperate summers and winters, encouraged the travel-weary to lounge by numerous street-front cafes, enjoy a banana pancake and sip an ice-cold beer or two.
The western face of the remodeled town is juxtaposed with the eastern charm of the postcard-perfect natural scenery. Dotting the horizon are craggy tree-covered mounds ranging from 100m to 300m high.
This little country of some 300,000 inhabitants, comprised of various ethnic groups such as the Zhuang, Yao, Miao, and Han, has blossomed since the Sui dynasty some 1,400 years ago. Glimpses of the rich cultural background can be seen in the many shops selling local products such as talcum, silk, huge wall fans, scrolls and exquisite pottery pieces.
Enriching the land are the pristine waters of the Jinbao and Li rivers, the latter winding some 56kmthrough Yangshuo, connecting it with Guilin. The river is central to Yangshuo’s prosperity; river water is funneled to irrigate the lush fields. Most locals still work the land on the paddy fields and orchards punctuating Yangshuo’s many peaks, though a growing number of locals are involved in the more profitable tourism industry.
Walking, biking, rafting or swimming are several ways to appreciate Yangshuo’s charms. To beat the noonday heat, take a leaf from the village children frolicking in the clear river waters, often seen watching over a herd of buffaloes or wielding homemade fishing rods fashioned from bamboo.
Bamboo groves and willow trees line both banks of the waterfront, and locals use the light but hardy plant to build water-thin rafts to fish, rinse vegetables or ferry tourists from one embankment to the next. When visiting the water caves, these bamboo river taxis will bring you close up to stalactites as they slide effortlessly beneath dipping limestone canopies.