You’re playing Pictionary. You’ve just chosen China. You frantically scribble cities crowded with boxy buildings, factories with puffs of smoke above them, clothes with single figures scrawled on the price tags, and maybe a dim sum or two. But you lose the game, because what you should be drawing are scenes of natural beauty so stunning they could make you choke on said dim sum. Scenes involving sparkling rivers, craggy green mountains, and even craggier underground caves.
This might surprise you as much as the first time you saw Pharrell Williams’ big hat, but it’s exactly what awaits you in Guilin, a city that sits snugly in the Guangxi province of south-eastern China, just a two-and-a-half hour flight from Shanghai.
It’s a city that’s home to vistas more beautiful than a kebab store at 3am – vistas that combine soaring forest-clad mountains, strips of glassy rivers, distant hills so blurred and blue you might actually think they’re clouds, and air you can breathe without a mask. This is the stuff that has inspired Chinese artists and poets for centuries and, as any local guide will tell you within the first two minutes of conversation, the stuff that stirred an astute Chinese governor 800 years ago to famously announce that “Guilin’s scenery is the best under heaven.” And it just might be.
Arriving in Guilin, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Hulking limestone mountains rise sharply at odd angles around the city like crooked teeth, teeth that are constantly being flossed by the two rivers and four lakes that flow between them. Sit by these waters, said to be some of the cleanest in China, for long enough and you’ll see the whole of Guilin life pass you by: kids flapping about in the shallows as they learn to swim, bamboo rafts ferrying lazy tourists around, fishermen casting out their nets and the odd tai chi session.
The best way to get the lay of Guilin’s mad mountains, and to work off last night’s Tsingtao’s, is to haul arse up one of them. Solitary Beauty Peak, the original centre of Guilin, is the best place to start. The burn you’ll feel as you climb the 300 stone steps to the top will be worth it – not only for the laughs you’ll get watching local women totter up the stairs in their wedge heels and miniskirts, but also for the insane views.
The jelly-legged descent isn’t fun, but you can avoid it by instead climbing nearby Diecai Hill. It’s another tough slog to the top but the views are just as good and there’s a marble slide carved into the side to get you back down. Just beware of thigh chafage. Also worth a visit is Elephant Trunk Hill, the symbol of Guilin that looks like an elephant dipping its trunk in the water (the Chinese don’t seem to be very inventive with their naming).
You wouldn’t miss a visit to a Chinese tea plantation for, well, all the tea in China. You’re in the world’s largest tea producing country, so you kind of have to do it. The seriously named Guilin Tea Science and Research Institute has been around since 1965, and was the royal tea garden during the Ming Dynasty, 400 years ago. You’ll start your visit in their organic tea plantation, where you’ll be shown how they grow, process and dry green, osmanthus, jasmine, black, and high mountain yellow teas by hand. Once you’ve listened politely, make sure you grab one of the conical bamboo coolie hats available for visitors and get amongst the plants for what just might be the Instagram shot of your life.
Next up is the tea ceremony. None of this shoving a bag in a mug and grabbing a fistful of Scotch Fingers; here you’ll be shown how it’s really done. Especially if you’re being shown by Nico, a young Chinese guy who studied tea at uni for four years and now runs the show tighter than Iggy Pop’s leather pants. Be ready for lots of musts. Porous clay pots must be used to soak up the tea’s flavour. Mini cups must be used so the tea can be drunk in three slurps. You must say xie xie (that’s Mandarin for thanks) for your tea by tapping the table three times with two fingers. Use one and you could be telling your server you’re single and ready to mingle.
Because Guilin is founded on more porous limestone rock than you can poke a chopstick at, over 3000 underground caves lie beneath the city. Reed Flute Cave, also known as the Palace of Natural Arts, has existed for over 180 million years, and wall inscriptions near the mouth of the cave show that tourists began visiting way back in the seventh century.
Inside is possibly the world’s best location for a rave. Weirdly-shaped stalactites and stalagmites lit by psychedelic neon lights reach from the floor and ceiling, creating lumpy columns and natural sculptures that look a bit like soft serves. Some are signposted with descriptions like “mushroom hill” and “centipede scared by the magic mirror” that will leave you wondering if the writers were actually raving when they penned them. To keep the hallucinogenic vibe going, take the Two Rivers and Four Lakes night cruise. As your small boat bobs past mountains, pagodas and bridges lit by more neon lights, a handful of bizarre music and dance acts are performed along the shore. In one, a half-naked woman sings opera from a steaming hot tub; in another, a punkish girl band plays transparent mandolins and flutes while simultaneously performing a traditional dance. It’ll make you wonder what exactly was in that rice wine you just drank.
This is also where you’ll see Guilin’s famous cormorant fishing show, a traditional method of Chinese fishing where men on bamboo rafts use specially trained cormorant birds to catch fish. Also performed under neon lights, of course.
TALK OF THE TERRACE
A day trip to the Longji rice terraces, a four-hour coach trip away in the heart of the great rice bowl of China, is a must-do. Carved into the steep hillsides over seven centuries, the narrow ribbons of rice terraces twist and curl around the slopes that lead to your hiking destination, the remote village of Ping’an. Along the way you’ll meet women from the Zhuang and Yao minority groups; the Yao women dress in fuchsia-trimmed jackets and twist their floor-length hair, which they cut only once in their lives between the ages of 16 and 18, on top of their heads, leaving them looking a little like Elvis impersonators.
Once you reach Ping’an, you can dine on the local speciality of smoky bamboo rice, bargain with stallholders to buy your own Yao handloom jacket, stay overnight in a traditional stilted wooden guesthouse, and rise early to watch the morning sun spill over this real-life Shangri-La.
Wendy Wu Tours offers a Guilin, Yangshuo and Longji package from $650 per person.