Guilin is one of the more beautiful places in all of China, with huge karst mountains and steamy green farmlands cut by several scenic rivers. Small villages dot the region while the locals plow rice paddies with water buffalo. This is one of the more popular tourist areas in China with good transportation, lodging and English speaking locals.

More Pictures of Guilin

I've been wanting to go to Guilin for years and started planning this trip long before I was sent to China. This is one of the most famous mountain regions on earth. Tall limestone peaks stand on end like watermelons in a grassy park, surrounded by rivers, rice fields and farmland. This is the steamy subtropics where the jungle choked hills fade into the thick hazy sky.

Guilin is only about 300 miles from where I'm working so it's a quick trip, but with no airport nearby and no trains that go to the airport it takes some real planning to get there. So with a few days vacation I headed to Guangzhou on the bullet train, then after a quick taxi ride it was a short hop on a plane to Guilin. From there it's a scenic bus ride into Guilin, through hills and farms, surrounded by the tall limestone peaks that blanket this region for hundreds of square miles. Guilin is a big place of a half million people squeezed into the spaces between the pointy peaks, which are fairly far apart around here. Some of the peaks are city parks, some are in people's backyards.

I checked into the Guilin Sheraton, right on the river. The weather was steamy hot, but just as I got there it started raining so I threw my backpack in the room, grabbed my umbrella and went for a walk in the rain through the riverfront park. This shady walkway follows the river for about a mile under a canopy of trees while locals fish from the shore. I walked down to Elephant Hill Park then followed the canal into the tourist district.

I was getting hungry by now so I stopped in at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Even though this town was packed with foreigners, no one there could speak English, but I sat down anyhow to what was possibly the worst meal ever in my life.

Restaurants in China are nothing like Chinese restaurants in the U.S. They don't de-bone anything in China - they just hack up the chicken into bite sized pieces, skin, bones, cartilage and all. I knew this, so I ordered the only thing on the menu that sounded safe - Sechuan Chicken. What I got was utterly unrelated to American Sechuan. My bowl was nothing but spine and neck pieces, some with no meat at all as if someone had already picked through them - not even any veggies, just peppered bones. I took a taste of the tea they brought me and it wasn't tea, it was just hot water. So I asked for tea to put in the pot and all I got was stems, no leaves. I nibbled on the bones for a bit then walked back to the river.

Elephant Hill is a natural arch that looks like an elephant drinking from the river. The whole thing is a city park cut with trails going up the hill and along the river. The only clear view of the arch is from the park, so I sprung the $5 and went on in, and it was a load of fun. The hill has a web of trails and stairs hidden in the trees leading to a snack bar and pagoda near the top, and a cave that drills clear through the hill about half way up. Rafts unload tourists under the elephant trunk while kids swim in the river and climb the elephant statues that dot the park grounds and river.

The views from the top are great, showing the city peppering the flatlands between peaks and the long Li River snaking into the distance. I could have spent all day there, but come nightfall I had to head back to the hotel. I have a long day planned for tomorrow.


The Li River cuts through the heart of the Guilin region, an area of huge karst peaks separated by swampy farms and steamy forest. This jagged topography is a result of an eon of weathering - rainfall slowly dissolving the soft limestone into sharp points like a bed of nails. And like all karst formations, it's pock-marked with caves and sink holes.

One of the more popular attractions in all of China is the boat tour down the Li River to Yangshou. The four hour cruise is 40 miles through some of the most spectacular scenery on earth, and this is my plan for Saturday.

I was up at six, then after a quick tour of the breakfast buffet I jumped on the bus and headed down the highway to the ferry docks. This is big business in this part of China. Though our bus was small, the number of people at the docks was remarkable - no less than 15 tour boats, each with more than a hundred people. We piled into the fourth boat then up the stairs to the upper cabin.

This cruise is a real mix of the world. There seems to be a lot of Chinese from elsewhere, plus plenty of Americans, Australians and Europeans. My table of six included three Chinese from Beijing, a lady from Milwaukee traveling alone for a month, and a college girl from Trieste Italy studying art in Guangzhou. Once we were underway I headed outside to take in the view with the wind in my hair.

The steamy green peaks started long before we got on the boat and they only got taller, greener and steamier as we went. Forested domes stacked up in every direction, overlapping each other like a garden full of watermelons. Some of these have clever names, supposedly handed down over the generations but more likely added for the recent tourist brochures. Farmland filled the flat spaces between peaks where water buffalo is still the tractor of choice.

Hidden under the huge cliffs is a series of tiny villages along the shore surrounded by palm trees and bamboo. Some are farming communities and some are tourist stops along the road that follows the river. None are very big, nothing more than a few houses and a store, but all looked clean and cozy with a new dock and boats at the shore. Nearby, the dads herded their cattle through the swamps, while moms washed clothes in the river and kids splash in the water naked.

I split my time between the breezy upper deck and the sheltered back deck. Inside the cabin was air conditioned, but the view was just too mesmerizing to spend any time there. An hour into the ride a smaller boat pulled up and off loaded buckets of fresh caught fish, then an hour later they chased us all back into the cabin for lunch. I wanted to stay outside and eat, but that just wasn't in the plans. We had the usual chicken, fish and rice, which turned out to be really pretty good, and it gave us all a chance to meet the others at the table.

And that's how it went for the next four hours - hanging over the side of the boat while an endless procession of forested peaks, farmland, villages and swamps all sped by in the steamy haze of the tropics. After a few hours each peak started to look like the last one, but the whole trip was enchanting to the end and I was in no hurry to get off the boat.

We pulled into Yangshou in early afternoon with a temperature in the 90's and a thick haze. The riverfront landing was busy with townspeople swimming, fishing and just cooling off. Behind them was a leafy green park where half the town was looking for some shade. A little farther down the river we pulled up to the dock and slowly unloaded ourselves from the boat. The dock was a chaotic mix of tourists and street vendors selling souvenirs and posing for pictures with cormorants. An old man insisted I buy his picture book before I even touched dry land, poking me with it as the price went lower and lower. In this mix was a guide holding a placard with my name on it. It seems the agency that sold me the ticket sent someone to the dock to escort me to the hotel.

It was a ten minute walk through town to the hotel. This was nothing like Guilin. Walls of open storefronts and street vendors lined the pathway in every direction. Vendors selling every kind of memorabilia you can think of yelled out to the huge mass of walking wallets, just off the boat. I followed Vicki through a zig zag of streets for about a half mile until we reached the quite compound of the Paradise Hotel.

This is considered the best hotel in Yangshou, and for good reason. The pretty grounds sit on the side of a big pond, spread across several buildings including two restaurants, a bar, several gift shops, and a pool. Surrounding the hotel in every direction are the same karst buttes they had in Guilin, but a lot more of them stuck right in town so you had to crane your neck to see them. It was mid-afternoon, so after checking in I went for a walk through town and made some plans for the next day's adventure.

(1) Guilin (gwee lin) is in Guangxi provence, 300 miles west of Guangshou.
(2) Guilin seems about 400,000 people, Yangshou about 100,000.
(3) Karst is eroded limestone mountains with caves and sinkholes, well known in Kentucky, Thailand & Iran.
(4) The main river is Li Jiang and the smaller one in Yangshou is Yu Long.
(5) Comorants are birds that the locals use for fishing.
(6) I signed up for the river boat trip at the airport.
(7) I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Guilin and the Paradise Hotel in Yangshou.
Dongguan China 2007       Huge limestone towers and rivers weaving through rice paddies.
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