According to the official travel website of Guilin, the region “has long been one of the world’s most famous travel destinations.” Those who have trodden on its soil and traversed its waterways only have beautiful words about the place. It’s hard not to fall in love with Longsheng and Yangshuo’s picturesque countryside scenery. But what of its city proper? What is there to see and do? Not much, but enough to keep you informed and inspired at the end of a visit. Here is my top 5 list which I think offers the best of the city’s natural, historical and cultural beauty.
1) Reed Flute Cave
This features a gallery of stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations colorfully illuminated to create a visually fascinating tour experience. Somewhere along the viewing route, a video presentation of Guilin’s natural history is projected against the cave ceiling. It cannot be missed as everything around turns dark and the sound stuns you to a standstill as light slowly rolls in above. Immediately after that is a ballet performance set on a stage across a water pool. It’s magical.
2) Elephant Trunk Hill
This attraction which has become the symbol of Guilin is located on the west bank of Li river and is named as such because its image from a distance looks like an elephant drinking water. It features caves (the Water Moon cave and the Elephant’s Eye Stone), a pagoda and a temple. The top of the hill also offers a view of the city.
I came in just an hour before closure and I was surprised by the attraction’s scale. It was unexpectedly larger than life. I initially thought I could simply view the hill from the opposite riverbank. But the area is closed off to pedestrians so that visitors wanting a glimpse of the hill will really have to enter the premises. Such a clever tourism marketing strategy! Anyway, I wanted to cover as much as I could with the little time I had so I gave up the climb to the top, which meant missing the Pagoda and the viewpoint. Looking back, I’m not sure if I made the right choice.
3) Two Rivers and Four Lakes
This scenic area spreads right in the middle of downtown Guilin. It can be enjoyed either by taking a stroll around the lakes or taking a day/night time cruise. The map that I got from the tourist center showed a walking route that covers the whole area. I always prefer walking like a local and avoid the touristy activities. Besides, I like to take control of my time, stopping whenever and wherever I want. But I didn’t realize it would take more than two hours. I was dead on my feet halfway through having just come from the hike in Longji. So I wasn’t able to make a complete round. Had I taken the cruise instead, I would have seen all 19 bridges that connected the two rivers (Li and Taohua) and four lakes (Rong, Gui, Shan and Mulong). I would have also enjoyed the performances such as dancing fountains and local opera on the riverbanks because they are viewable only by those on the cruise. So, take note of that.
4) Jingjiang Prince City and Solitary Beauty Peak
Jingjiang Prince City is the best preserved Prince’s City of the Ming Dynasty with a history longer than that of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was converted into an examination house during the Qing dynasty. This “city in a city” is renowned for its beautifully combines historical sites and natural landscape, and is thus listed as a national cultural relic.
It is said that a visitor will know all about Guilin when touring the Prince City. True perhaps for those who understand Chinese characters and speak the language but understandably disappointing for me. What I considered as the highlight was the steep climb on Solitary Beauty Peak. This limestone hill (karst) stands 216meters tall with 306 steps to reach the top. A great reward awaits whoever braves the climb, that is, a 360degree view of Guilin’s skyline. Its panorama is described on the stone inscription found at the viewing platform that says, “Guilin’s scenery is the best under heaven.” Hmmm… sounds a bit exaggerated, don’t you think? I do admit though that I didn’t want to go back down so soon. I wanted to take it all in. So I waited til the shadows fell and stretched long before starting my descent.
5) Watch a cultural show
There are a number of shows in the city. But the most popular is probably “Dreamers Between Landscape” at Lijiang Theater. Plan your itinerary if you want a discounted ticket and book online at least a day before (note: a China-registered mobile number is required to do this). You will have to shell out the exact ticket price if you get it at the theater.
There is always joy in the novelty of an experience, be it from a serendipitous discovery or a mundane stroll in tourist infested attractions. Whatever your travels in China present, embrace it for what it is for you may never experience it elsewhere.