When I told my local hairdresser in Xi’an I was off to Guilin for a few days, he got very excited and made me practice China’s famous saying: Guilin is “Shan shui jia tian xia!” …until I had it right (as you do).
(FYI – I’m starting to realise that Chinese people love their proverbs and there’s a ‘saying’ for just about everything and anything.)
In this case, ‘Shan shui jia tian xia’ means: Guilin’s ‘mountain and water scenery is the best under heaven’.
That’s a pretty big call, right? ……Oh and there’s another one: “East or West: Guilin Scenery is Best!”
Not wanting to be disappointed after all the ‘hype,’ I purposely didn’t look at any pictures of where we were going. (Unlike the hotelier who, I might add, scrutinises the website like a seagull scavenging for food, weeks out from the trip! 😉 ) Me? I like to be surprised. Plus, we had a few good friends who’d trodden the path before us and given us the lowdown. I knew we were in good hands.
So, a two hour flight south from Xi’an to Guilin in China’s Guangxi Province and the adventure was on!
Stepping outside from the airport, it immediately felt different, warmer for a start. Dare I say, there was almost a tropical feel in the air… (or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my frozen parts?) But there were palm trees, I swear!
We were picked up by a recommended driver and had a two and a half hour journey up into the hills to a place called Ping’an Village….it’s the spot where the famous rice terraces reside in all their glistening glory.
Despite the palm trees, once we hit the road, there was no mistaking we were still in China. The ramshackle streets, the ubiquitous beeping, the swarm of motorbikes and three wheeler Tuk Tuks snaking their way in and out of the traffic…all manner of goods being transported on the back, from people to packages, piled high! We saw a couple almost swallowed by a giant bouquet of balloons; live chickens in small baskets, perched on the back of bikes; there was even a lone cow standing on the back of a 3-wheeler!
Gridlocked in the bumper to bumper, mid-morning Spring Festival traffic, we couldn’t miss the sound of a few overexcited kids yelling out “There’s a wai guo ren!” before erupting into fits of laughter. Yep. That’s us. The foreigners are coming!
Once we got through the mayhem, it was a long and rather windy road up, up and up high into the hills. First stop – a gated entryway where we needed to hand over cold hard cash to the “officials” for entry into the village. Another 15 minute drive to the village itself or at least the bottom of the village and despite travelling up… we had definitely travelled back in time. Hello Ping’an!
We thanked our driver and grabbed our bags from the boot, not before being swamped by lots of little old ladies in pink hats, gesturing madly at our belongings.
Don’t be fooled by their small stature and number of years under their belts, these women are tough cookies and will carry your bags in large round baskets on their backs, all the way up steep, rickety walkways to your guest house.
Our room for the night was first cab off the rank, just a 300 metre walk so we politely declined. The mere idea of making these women carry my luggage when I was perfectly capable seemed a little preposterous, but then again, this is how they make their living.
And if you’re really not up to the walk, or just want to take yourself back to China life of old, you can always sit yourself in one of these (for a small fee)!
Ping’an Village is over 600 years old and has been harvesting rice for just as long. The village is made up mainly of the ethnic minority, the Zhuang people, but there are also the Yao people. The Yao women are easily identifiable because of their very long, long hair (which is wound around and around and bunched on top)! It’s believed they only cut their hair once during their lifetime. (Now that’s one way to save on hairdressing costs!)
In recent years productivity in Ping’an has been slow and the rice is mainly harvested for the locals to consume and now the more than 60 guest houses that cater to the 2000 tourists a day. In 1949, Guilin was the first place in China to open up to tourists and this tiny but oh so charming village amongst the rice fields has been a hard treasure to keep hidden. For the last 12 years, intrigued tourists from around the world have been sneaking a look at this quaint, authentic Chinese town where life resembles that of a bygone era.
Today the government even pays local farmers to flood their rice terraces, making for better quality pictures for tourists like us!
Walking up to our guest house it’s clear though, tourism has cast her spell. There are now lots of little stalls selling all sorts of souvenir trinkets and locals are busy cooking up all sorts of traditional concoctions, including jars of extremely spicy looking chilli. The Zhuang ladies in their bright pink hats are squatting around a fire, cooking Tudou Hong zi (sweet potato) and their Chinese is peppered with a few English words like “hello” and “Come and look!”
That aside, it really is another world……
Our guest house ‘Bai Ke’ is four floors on stilts….it’s endearingly rustic and authentically Chinese in style, with a sweeping view right across the mountains. We hear roosters screeching and I spy a lone woman toiling the rice fields. It feels like we are a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of manic China.
We are made to feel incredibly welcome by the owner of the guest house from the minute we arrive until he drives us all the way to Guilin the next day. How’s that for service!
First things first though, it’s time to explore. We get directions to walk (hike) up into the village and to the top of the mountain for the best views. Directions in the loosest sense of the word. We find ourselves in and out of backyards, along rickety stone pathways, up steep stairways and past random chickens, ladies cooking their bamboo rice and locals lunching in the sun. We pass by a grandma, baby on her back, hanging sheets in her yard. Everyone is friendly and it’s just a matter of heading up!
After many pit stops and photographs, we make it to the top. (The Small Person is exceptionally stoic in the face of a promised ice-cream). We’re lucky, we’ve struck amazing weather and it’s nudging 25 degrees….in the middle of winter. I’m told if it’s a foggy day, the view can be disappointing, but today the view is breathtaking.
At the top we’re clearly back on tourist soil and their are a million and one people wanting to take a photo with the small blondie. Luckily though, we spot a stall with ice creams and coke!
We find a private spot in the grass but one of the ‘Yao’ ladies selling postcards and bracelets spies us and seeks us out. As much as I know we’re the ‘wai guo ren’ so there’s a fair chance we are probably being ripped off, before I know it, I’ve purchased two bracelets, one each for Small Person and I!
Back down the hill and that night our B & B serves us a delicious traditional village meal of sticky rice and chicken in bamboo. This is one of only two remaining places in China where they still use this kind of ancient cooking method.
And of course we BYO our bottle of white for a modern day touch!
The next day, country air in our lungs, refreshed and raring to go we hightail it back down to Guilin City for the night. First up, if you don’t need to go to Guilin or are short on time, I probably wouldn’t bother. As a city in China, sightseeing wise, apart from being surrounded by impressive karst mountains as you drive in, there’s not a whole lot going on. In this part of the world, it’s all about the surrounding areas.
The next day we are lined up for a 3.5 hour, 83 km boat cruise up the Li River to Yangshuo. It’s been booked by a local friend so we have no idea what to expect. Picked up by a tour bus we find ourselves the only foreigners on board (which is really nothing new) and next minute we’re in a tight squeeze following one of those flags you see Chinese tourists huddled around, the world over! In true China style, it seems every cruise boat is scheduled to leave the dock at exactly the same time.
You can imagine, this makes for a rather crammed and rushed entry on to the boats. Pushed, squeezed and shoved forward, we try to keep an eye on our flag bearing a Winnie the Pooh mascot, in the hope we make it on board the right boat. (Did I mention we forgot our luggage?….ah yes, such seasoned travellers, we got so excited getting on the tour bus we forgot we were actually going away for the night!) That said, the tour operator kindly arranged for another bus to pick up our luggage and get it to Yangshuo by the afternoon at no cost. A side to China where things like that are always infinitely easier, than being engulfed in red tape.
On deck and every boat motors off up the river in unison…the chefs start cooking lunch on the back of the boats and we’re all seated at tables. It’s no luxury cruise. It’s basic and there is one pretty dirty squat toilet for every female on board. The food is a very basic, Chinese buffet of rice and noodles and at feeding time, it’s one in, all in.
The view though is mighty impressive. They call it a ‘jade ribbon winding among thousands of Karst Hills’ and I can immediately see why it’s beckoned so many poets and artists over the years. Middle Earth springs to mind as we gaze at these hundreds of limestone peaks jutting sharply from flat ground in all manner of shapes and sizes. This is apparently the result of a perfect alchemy of geological conditions tens of thousands of years ago. About half way up we’re told the scene before us is that famous one on China’s 20 yuan note.
Arriving in Yangshuo…this is a village that’s more than a village but not quite a city. It’s quaint and quirky and for Spring Festival it’s draped in pretty red lanterns. Again, the minute you step off the boat, you’re flanked by a plethora of stalls selling everything known to mankind…. if you have kids you may want to put blinkers on them!
Once you get through the merchandise hysteria, turn off the main path and you’ll be confronted with lots of cheap and cheerful bars and restaurants in an enchanting setting, complete with trickling river.
On recommendation, we stayed at the eco-friendly Yangshuo Village Inn which was about six kilometres from the main drag near Moon Hill. Set in a tiny local neighbourhood, it was authentically Chinese and a world away from our five star bubble. I loved it the minute we stepped inside to a roaring fire and tiny cups of ginger tea. Owned by an American who has been in China for over 20 years, he has local villagers running the guesthouse and the service is impeccable. Upstairs the Italian rooftop restaurant serves genuine Italian food to die for. Not a noodle in sight. Our room is simple, cosy and comforting. We sit on our private balcony while fire crackers erupt across the laneway and the karst mountains rise up into the night sky.
With just a day and a half in Yangshuo we decided to hire bikes (which are everywhere). Despite the seemingly towering karst mountains, it’s completely flat and super bike friendly. Let’s be clear though, until this point, I hadn’t been on a bike for 22 years, but who’s counting.
We I wobbled off down the laneway and onto the main road. Yikes! Competing with large tour busses, cars, motorbikes and a host of wobbly bikers like us …we pedalled up to the Yulong river.
Here you can jump on a bamboo raft and glide down the river, appreciating the vivid and beautiful landscape before you. If we thought the view coming up from Guilin was incredible, this is even better. We cycled along the river for about ten kilometres enjoying the serenity….
Along the way, we found Yangshuo Village Inn’s sister hotel set river side at this incredible spot. Lunch!
By the time I was getting the hang of the whole two wheeler thing, it was time to start heading back, but not before an impulsive stop off at a little roadside cafe. We soon found out this was no ordinary cafe….while it looks pretty under a rooftop of passion fruit vines, there was a fair bit of rubbish on the tables and strewn across the floor and I’m not sure how game you would be to eat the food. Bottled beer though, that we could do! US$3 for two giant bottles of beer and a coke and we were set! All that pedalling is thirsty work! (Never mind that the table-top almost wobbled off.)
I think my hairdresser might just be right, with his saying “Shan shui jia tian xia!”
If you live in or are visiting the Middle Kingdom, this is definitely scenery that has to be seen!
This is Guilin.
This is China.
Tips for Your Trip
(*I am not being paid to endorse any of the following, these are just my personal recommendations.)
Car from Guilin Airport to Ping’an Village (around 250rmb). You can also catch a bus!
Gate into Ping’an Village – 100rmb each, kids under 1.2 metres free.
River Cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo – 550 rmb – kids under 1.2 metres free, Kids under 1.5 metres half price. (Note: There are different prices at different travel agents so it pays to negotiate.)
Yangzhou Mountain Retreat (Sister hotel on the river.)