There is a famous Chinese saying that “Guilin has the finest landscape under the sky, and the landscape in Yangshuo is the most beautiful in Guilin”. It is in reference to the rare kind of karst scenery here where it is a combination of karst mountains, green hills, rivers, and caves, resembling a beautiful Chinese ink painting. Elsewhere in Asia, the karst landforms are usually just bare limestone peaks like in the Stone Forest of Kunming or karst hills jutting out of the sea like in Halong Bay in Vietnam and rarely is it a combination like in Guilin. About an hour and half southeast of Guilin is Yangshuo famous for this beautiful karst landscape with its windy rivers. Even the new 20-yuan note uses the image of three karst peaks overlooking the Li River where the river turns at Xingping village about 30 minutes outside of Yangshuo. We completely skipped Guilin this time and went directly to Yangshuo from the airport. We based ourselves at the design hotel Alila Yangshuo which was once a working sugar mill and now repurposed to become a modern resort blending the old with the new. The hotel is very beautifully designed but unfortunately the service can be a hit-or-miss and most of the staff don’t really speak any English. Also the building housing most of the hotel rooms is situated right next to a provincial road with constant traffic even in the middle of the night. It was so noisy all through the night that I barely slept a wink until I found some ear plugs in my bag.
The limestone mountains around the Li River in Yangshuo are called karst mountains. Karst formations are made of soluble rocks which can easily be broken down. Due to the warm climate and plentiful rainfall in the area, the limestone became eroded over time forming hills, caves, and rivers. The three best ways to admire this beautiful karst landscape is by heading up to Xianggong Mountain at sunrise, taking a cruise on the Li River, and cycling along the river. We did the first two out of the three. Xianggong Mountain, on the west bank of Li River, is about a 40-minute drive from Alila Yangshuo where we were staying. We left the hotel at around 4:30am in hopes of catching the sunrise at around 6am up on the mountain. It had rained heavily overnight and about 8km away from the mountain, a large tree as well as an electric pole had fallen completely blocking the road. Thanks to google maps, we found a small village dirt road going through several tiny villages and made a loop bypassing the blocked section. When we finally got to the bottom of the mountain, it started pouring rain again. Of course, at this point, we had already missed the blue hour and sunrise. As soon as the rain let up a bit, we hiked around 15 minutes up the 480 steps to a three-storey viewing platform at the top. The views here of the windy Li River, the rolling karst hills on both banks, and the sea of clouds and mist mixed with the faint hues of the sky lighting up are just out of this world. No wonder Guilin was considered the most beautiful place on earth by the ancient poets and painters. My photos cannot fully capture the majestic and stunning beauty of the landscape here.
A different way to admire and take in the karst landscape is by taking a cruise along the Li River. There are many different cruises one can take. While some take about 4-5 hours starting all the way from Guilin in larger cruise boats, other start within the Yangshuo area. There are also PVC rafts imitating bamboo rafts that cruise the Yulong River which is a tributary of the Li River. This section is supposed to be very scenic hence usually crowded with hundreds of other rafts floating around. Your boatman will point out to you all the different limestone hills and what they resemble, some of them you really have to use your imagination. Because of the rainy weather during our visit, the PVC rafts were not operating. We took one of the shorter cruises starting in Xingping Village and returning within an hour or so. Close to Xingping along the Li River is Mural Hill which is cliff face where the surface displays different colors of yellow, white, green, and black. Mural Hill is also called Nine Horses Fresco Hill because the cliff face looks like a mural with nine horses in different poses. Legend has it that these nine horses were from heaven and escaped to this area and didn’t want to return because of the beauty of the place. A god was sent to bring them back to heaven and as they were trying to escape towards the cliff, they were turned into stone images as punishment. Regardless of which cruise you choose, it is a great way to enjoy all the scenery Guilin has to offer like the karst peaks, the river bends, the farmers and water buffalos working the fields, the fishermen catching fish, and the kids playing on the shore. It is such a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the modern city that I have become accustomed to.
We didn’t have enough time but if you are thinking of cycling, it seems that the Ten-Mile Gallery is the place to go. It is a picturesque road from Yangshuo town all the way along the Li River to Moon Hill. There are several viewpoints and stops along the path with Butterfly Spring Park being one of them. There is a giant statue of a monarch butterfly against the side of the mountain with a good lookout here called the Southern Heavenly Gate where you can have a panoramic view of the Ten-Mile Gallery. Not far is a very large Banyan Tree that is more than 1,400 years old. Legend has it that this banyan tree is the witness to the everlasting love between a Zhuang ethnic tribe woman named Sanjie Liu and her lover. The story has been immortalized into a movie as well as used for the Zhang Yi-mou’s Impressions Show here in Yangshuo. We have seen quite a few other Impressions shows in other locales so decided to give this a miss especially since the weather was quite rainy. There is a cave along the Ten-Mile Gallery called Assembling Dragon Cave with many stalacites resembling dragons dancing, swimming, resting, etc. At the end of the path is Moon Hill which has a natural arch forming a semicircular hole through the hill. We were told that the Ten-Mile Gallery is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours soaking in the beautiful karst landscape with the beautiful Li River snaking through.
Our driver-guide suggested that we stop by Fuli Bridge which is a 500-year old single-arched stone bridge over the Yulong river near Baisha Town. It is paved by green moss and looks like it is slowly being swallowed by nature. Single-arched stone bridges were common in ancient China due to their sturdiness and resistance to weathering.
In Yangshuo is West Street which is over 1,400 years old and has become completely commercialized. It is quite a chaotic pedestrian street in the otherwise slow-paced and idyllic Yangshuo. This is where all the foreign tourists congregate and there are countless cafes selling local dishes such as beer fish and Guilin rice noodles, bars, and shops selling from cheap souvenirs to silk duvets. There is also a foreign language center here for westerners to learn Chinese and is supposedly the largest one in China. We chose instead to visit the local market in Fuli Village where we had our breakfast of Guilin rice noodles.
What attracted me to Yangshuo was not just the idyllic scenery, I actually came here mainly to photograph the cormorant fishermen. Next post will be on these few remaining cormorant fishermen still keeping this disappearing skill alive. Stay tuned!
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