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