Tag Archives: China

Guilin: Mountains and Waters of Eternity

The river forms a green gauze belt; the mountains are like jade hairpins. —HAN Yu, a Tang dynasty poet

Courtesy of Chris McLennan

The name Guilin (pronounced “kway-lin”) may not ring a bell to many; however, almost everyone has seen its signature beauty. Seldom does a book or travel magazine promoting tourism in China miss the chance to include a picture of the sheer limestone pinnacles jutting up along banks of the limpid Li River. Sometimes, it’s a nightfall scene that captures the magic of this city—perhaps a fisherman, dressed in clothing made from palm leaves and a traditional conical straw hat, lighting his lanterns on a narrow bamboo raft with his well-trained cormorants.

Providing backdrops for countless Chinese landscape paintings, Guilin has long been a tourist Mecca among domestics. Today, with more quality Western-style hotels and resorts—ranging from the 27-year-old Sheraton Guilin to the newly constructed Shangri-La Hotel, from the only State Guesthouse Ronghu Lake Hotel to Merryland Resort and its award-winning golf course—this enchanted land starts to gain attention from outside China.

Courtesy of 白雪石 (BAI Xueshi)

Speaking of international recognition, the Li River was recently named number four on National Geographic’s World’s Top 10 Watery Wonders, after Victoria Falls, the canals of Venice, and the Great Barrier Reef. The mother river of Guilin, Li originates from the Mao’er Mountains, winds through the city towards Yangshuo, and continues as the Gui River after merging with two other streams in Pingle. Several stretches make up the flow of about 271 miles, and each has its distinctive beauty. Hardly can a local appreciate every bit of Li due to the length, let alone tourists. Fortunately, a variety of signature sights happen to lie on both banks within the city limits and every step of the way—whether venturing southeast towards Yangshuo, exploring other counties, or choosing to stay near the highest peaks in the region.

Courtesy of 旅遊品質保障網 (Tourism Quality Assurance Network)

However far the Li conducts you along its winding miles, a bit of delicacy will make the day better. Here in Guilin, rice noodles are a civic icon, a tourist draw and a cultural obsession steeped in 2000 years of history. Each bowl consists of either spaghetti-shaped or linguine-shaped noodles, sliced marinated beef, crunch pork belly, minced pickled string beans, roasted soybeans, and fresh minced green onions. Often imitated around the world, the rice noodles are rarely duplicated successfully outside Guilin for lacking the soul—the dressing. Each shop treating its unique sauce as a top trade secret, the recipes, however, look almost identical—water from Li, regionally grown spices, and animal bones and gutting. Two of the leading shops, Fulin and Shiji, are 20-year neighbors—each with its die-hard fans. Both care much more about the satisfaction of each customer than about winning in numbers. Located by a downtown crossroad, both stores open 24/7, working to satisfy every bit of lust for this iconic dish regardless of the time.

Courtesy of Momentary Awe Photography

Not far from the rice noodles shops, on the western bank of Li, is Guilin’s emblem, Elephant Trunk Hill. Shaped as a huge elephant drinking from the river through its trunk, the hill thus earns its name. Thanks to plate movement and erosion, a gigantic pure limestone tower thrust up from the seabed over 300 million years ago, and ever since, running water has been carving the hill to its present-day configuration—a semi-rounded cave, named Water Moon Cave in between the trunk and the legs. A full moon casts two moons upon the water—the second formed by the inverted reflection of the cave. It is said the water never stops flowing away, but the moons stay even when the moon sets—hence the name “Moon over the Water.” On the top of the hill, stands a two-story pagoda built in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), consecrated to Samantabhadra, a Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva, who mounts a white elephant with six pairs of tusks. Interestingly, seen from afar, the hill looks just like the mounted elephant that brings happiness and peace to the man’s world.

Courtesy of Carl Gabrielsson

On the other side of the town sits Seven-star Park, just across the river. The biggest and most comprehensive of many, Seven-star Park features a long history and various attractions: Camel Hill, in front of which Clinton made his 1998 environmental address; Guilin Zoo, where panda Fengyi and Meixin and other animals reside; Crescent Pavilion, a long lasting Buddhist nunnery. Seven-star Cave, an extensive limestone cave complex under the Seven-star Hills that roughly resemble the stars of the Big Dipper constellation, tops all. In the cave, stalagmites, stalactites, stone curtains, stone flowers and stone pillars abound. With colorful illumination bringing dramatic effect, the cave suddenly turns into Willy Wonka’s world of pure imagination—some look like a lion playing with a ball; some look like a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way; some look like a koi traveling to the sea.

Courtesy of Dariusz Jemielniak

If and when ready to leave the city, Li has way more to offer. A cruise down the golden waterway from Guilin to Yangshuo reveals the dreamlike shan shui—the mountains and waters—all along. This 51-mile handscroll unfolds with foliage-covered peaks, crystal water, deep ponds, and shallow shoals. The placid river exquisitely reflect as a mirror, with the magical scenery rising straight out of the water; meanwhile, flowing mists linger around the mountains, concealing them and then exposing them in moments of surprise. Small villages with vistas of an idyllic life in rural China dot the valleys, where wisps of smoke curl up from kitchen chimneys, eventually mixing with the mist halfway; women kneel on the banks, washing clothes; peasants follow behind their water buffalo, plowing the rice fields; kids play, chasing each other on the grass…

The ride to Yangshuo ends without notice. There, a fishing-village blends tradition with modern, Eastern with Western, just as a well-mixed “Yangshuo Slapper” served at the local-famous Buffalo Bar& Cafe. Located on one end of West Street, Buffalo serves all three meals in either Chinese or Western fashion, with a large selection of beer, wine, and spirits. The owner, 46-year-old Australian Alf Exposito, says the otherworldly natural scenery stunned him, and so did the beauty (now his wife), Ming Fang, when he stepped on the territory of Yangshuo. He soon decided to settle down here and open a small bar business to welcome friends visiting from afar. Exposito’s idea never lacks support, or rather, competition—after a few entrepreneurs succeeded with their businesses, one after another Western-style bar and restaurant opened and lined the pedestrian-friendly street, making the name Foreigner’s Street popular among locals. Nowadays, the street attracts more Chinese tourists to come into one of the bars to have chocolate cakes or pizzas, experiencing a slice of Western culture, as Americans in the United States go to Chinatown and Little Italy.

Courtesy of Laitr Keiows

A corner turn from Buffalo is situated the bus station, where coach buses back to Guilin are available every 20 minutes. In no time, the bus arrives in Guilin—just as rich an adventure waiting for the next day of exploration.

Every year, as summer grudgingly gives to a clear, crisp southern China fall, attention turns to osmanthus trees that shadow every corner of the city. As the osmanthus flowers, blossom by blossom, burst into bloom, the whole city is awash with the pervasive sweet-orange scent, reminding local and tourists they are in the Forest of Osmanthus Trees—as Guilin translates—rather than in a fine Chinese ink wash painting.



“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Beijing Capital International Airport,” a female’s voice buzzed in my earbuds. “Local time is 11:45 P.M. December 12th, and the temperature is 36 degrees Fahrenheit and two degrees Celsius.”

I took off my eye mask and earbuds, wrapped them, put them in my pocket, and looked around—some people stood in the aisle, some tiptoed reaching their luggage in the overhead bin, and some queued a line snaking slowly to the exit. I knew I was here, a place I called home.

Sixteen hours in the air exhausted me, also washed away some of my excitement. I decided not to rush, but to take time enjoying the last moment away from home.

When the plane quieted, I dragged myself wearily to the front.

“Thank you for choosing Delta Air Lines, and we are looking forward to seeing you aboard again,” the aircrew said with passion as I passed by. “Have a great night!”

“Thanks,” I replied, mechanically.

As I walked on the jet bridge, one giant poster in Chinese after another jumped into my view. I suddenly realized that “thanks” might have been the only English I would speak the whole time. I turned back, hoping to say something more; however, what I saw was the closing door.

Then I sighed deeply and walked away languidly.

Everything else went smoothly—claiming my checked luggage, going through customs, catching a cab, heading to the hotel, and checking in. Sleepy and sluggish, I did not wait for another second to lie down. And I remembered clearly, it was almost three in the morning when I was setting up the alarm.

The next day, I woke up early. Not sure if that was from jet lag or anxiety, I still felt rested even though I only slept for less than five hours. After washing and changing, I sat down trying to write down tasks for the day. As I started listing, I found myself distracted— ideas such as reunions with friends and family, and enjoying missed delicacies occupied my mind, making me long for the coming weeks.

A long while later, I left the hotel room with my to-­‐dos. And it was half past ten. Walking on the street in Beijing really was an experience more similar to being in New York than Seattle—people seemed to walk in their own worlds. Though it was still different, for almost everyone had a facemask on. I couldn’t stop wondering if there was an influenza pandemic. Soon I was enlightened—while hearing two cleaning ladies talking about the smoggy weather that had been around lately, I noticed that the sky looked brown, and the floating dust blanketed the sun. Suddenly, the term “haze” from high school came into my mind, and I meantime felt the unexpected dizziness, which I knew from the past was a sign for me to puke.

A few deep breaths eventually calmed me down, though I was still gasping heavily. As I continued walking on the street to a crossroads, I lifted up my head only to see that all-­‐ too-­‐familiar green two-­‐tailed mermaid Starbucks logo across the street. At that very moment, I checked the time on my watch—only a quarter to noon—and decided to go get a sweet  treat.

The store was not big. With sets of tables and chairs huddled together, it somewhat seemed even tinier. I walked straight to the counter, and there was a Caucasian who looked like a businessman in front of me ordering. Shortly it was my turn, so I paused my Britney Spears, ready for my late morning caffeine.

“Hmm…. May I have a Grande White Chocolate Mocha with whip on top, please?” I asked, with a flow.

“Uh…,” the lady seemed shocked, with her eyes wide open.

At that moment, I was reminded that I was no longer in Seattle. As I was about to apologize and switch the conversation into Chinese, “Par… par… pardon?” she mumbled.

She spoke in such a low voice that no one could understand. But I read from her lips and I was sure that was what she said. I felt somewhat relieved. “She’s able to speak English, after all,” I said it to myself. In fact, I was worried about being laughed at for not knowing how to order a cup of coffee in Chinese since I hadn’t done so.

So I repeated myself as if how others did to me when I first arrived in the States, “I want a White Cho-­‐co-­‐late Mo-­‐cha, Gran-­‐de sized, with whip cream on top.”

“Yes, yes,” she said with her head nodding and one hand reaching to a pile of cups.

Thinking that she might have gotten what I meant, I reached to my back pocket, took out my wallet, looked down and tried to find cash to pay.

“You want… how… how big?” She raised her voice trying to get my attention. “What?” My mind was off for a second.

She hesitated, and said, “How… how big… [do] you want?” “Oh…, um… Grande, please.”

“The… the big one?”

I was dumbfounded—no one had ever use the word “big” with me. “Okay, I don’t care how you call it. But what I want is the 16-­‐ounce one. Got it?” I got a bit impatient.


“That one!” I pointed at the pile of Grande cups.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” She lowered her head, shyly reached for a cup and started making the drink.

After getting my coffee, I left 40 Yuan in cash on the counter and fled the store, even though the coffee cost only 32 and no one tipped in China.

Panting and sweating from fleeing, I slowed down and started to wonder what was wrong. And my phone rang.

It was one of my best friends from high school, Jimmy, who came to Beijing for college after graduation. Interestingly enough, if I didn’t choose to study abroad back then, we would have become schoolmates for at least another four years. He asked me if I would like to have a reunion dinner that night with a couple other good friends of us who were in town. I said yes, and we reserved a table at a well-­‐known steakhouse at seven.

As the night fell, all four of us—Jimmy and I, together with two other girls, Tracy and Emili—met in front of the restaurant. After short greetings, we went in, sat down, ordered and waited.

From the moment when we walked in, I began to consciously tell myself that I ought to do as Romans do when in Rome, while in this case, as Chinese. Fortunately, everything around kept reminding me that I was no longer in the States but China—even how silverwares were placed made no exception.

It was a bustling place that was crowded with people, and that was noisy with clanking and clatters—one fell as another rose. Rather than calling it a steakhouse, I would think that the name “food court” made a better sense.

Not to be outdone by the others, we began to talk. Or to be exact, they began to talk. “Are you guys watching the new TV series Empresses in the Palace?” Jimmy threw the question out. To be noted, the show later became so phenomenal in China that almost everyone watched it as if it was Friends in the US.

“Yes, I just started it!” Tracy screamed, as if she just met her long-­‐lost relative. Meanwhile, Emili seemed a bit more calmed, but her excitement couldn’t be hidden.

“So did I.” She responded.

“Have you?” Jimmy asked, looking at me. And suddenly, all eyes were on me. “Hmm… uh… no…, I haven’t yet.” I hesitated, although there was really nothing for

me to hesitate about for I simply hadn’t watched it. Though as I was saying the words, I could totally see their surprised looks on their faces. And I surely did know what was coming.

“How dare you!” said Tracy, with her brows knitted. Such reaction was exactly the same as how a friend of mine who was born and raised in the US reacted when knowing that I had never watched any of the Star Wars series.

I blushed, not knowing what else I could say.

Jimmy seemed to see my secret sorrow, and said, “So… let’s change the topic.” e paused, looked around and focused on me. “How was it, Sam?”

“What, how was what?” I was confused by his question from nowhere. “The US,” he explained, “How do you like it?”

“Oh,” I replied. “It is… nice. Oh well, hmm… decent.”

Emili really could hide her excitement no more. “Tell us about it!” she said. “Hmm… uh… ah…,” I was incoherent.

“Thank you for waiting,” said the waitress placing our salads on the table. “Enjoy.” As the waitress left, I felt that I freed myself a little from falter.

“Itadakimasu!” said Tracy, with both her hands together. She then picked up the entrée fork and started working on her salad.

“You ought to start with the fork from the far left!” My heart cried out, though I didn’t say a word. Instead, I comforted myself, “Probably… nobody cares.”

As we were all focusing on our plates, Jimmy, again, ended the silence. “So… did you know that Christine Fan had come to Beijing weeks ago and had a concert?”

Alas!  I  took  a  heavy  sigh  and  I  felt  relieved—I  no  longer  had  to  continue  answering the question that I had no idea how to anyways. However, I didn’t know, Jimmy’s topic-­‐ switching question eventually led to a non-­‐stop talk among us, as a matter of fact, among them.

From day to day life to public affairs, from latest movies to future lectures, from celebrity tidbits to classmate gossip, there was nothing that they left out for the night. I was listening to them, hoping to get a couple of words in, but I simply couldn’t. Maybe I was too afraid of leading the conversation back to how I liked or disliked about the US, though.

As their endless talk was going, I couldn’t help but think about the last year in high school that we spent together—we four were placed in a study group in which we bonded as brothers and sisters who went to classes together, went for meals together, and even

went back to the dorm together. But now, things were not the same—I was excluded as an outsider.

We stayed in that steakhouse until the waitress came and informed us that they were about to close at ten over and over.

When it came to the time of parting, I lied, “The food was great, and you all were amazing!” In fact, I didn’t quite lie. The meal was all right, the company was fine; however, I was just in low spirits.

After that thirty-­‐minute farewell in front of the door, I was on my way back to my hotel, deep in thought.

That night I couldn’t sleep, and I was sure it was not because of jet lag this time. In bed, I thought a lot about home. I had always considered Guilin, in which I was born and raised, as my home. I also considered Beijing my home—not for the amount of time that I spent there, but for the welcoming feeling that the city had given me. Because of that, I had always thought that was part of home, but it was clear that things had changed.

Somehow, I simply felt that there was nowhere I belonged—not China, not any more, nor the States, at least not yet. After a year and half away, setting feet on a place I used to call home made me like a visitor. And that somewhat gave me the insights into how the rest of the trip would be and what the meaning of it was. Suddenly, my excitement had gone away completely; instead, I had fear—fear of seeing family and friends.

I didn’t know what to do, but to fall asleep. It was almost midnight, as the iPod dock said. People say, there is nowhere like home. Though in my dream, I told myself, home might not always be like home.