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China: Beijing, Chengdu, Guilin, Shanghai, Xian
Guilin, China: One big picture postcard
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
I would rank Guilin amongst the top beautiful destinations of the world. Lakes, rivers, mountains and forests seamlessly mingle into each other making the city an artist's favourite. Mountains surrounding Guilin are quite different than the mountain ranges that we are so used to imagine. These mountains, mostly separate, are less than 300 meters from the sea level. These big little things paint a charming skyline.
Guilin is an hour's flight from Chengdu. Our flight took off on time at 7:20PM but turned back again mid way. Thunderstorms in Guilin made it impossible to land. My heart sank. After going through so much of history in Beijing, Xian & Chengdu, I was eager to spend some time amidst nature away from all those creations of various Dynasties. Good luck prevailed. Weather in Guilin improved and our flight took off again. We landed at midnight.
Thankfully, Judy, my English speaking guide, and her driver were waiting for me at the airport. I was hosted at Guilin Bravo Hotel and was fortunate to get an upgrade on the top floor. The room had a balcony overlooking the picturesque lake. The location of the hotel couldn't get better. This hotel gets my recommendation at least for those rooms that face the lake. The night's prayer included a special request to the weather Gods to show mercy the next two days. Prayers were heard.
The next morning at 8:30 we left to catch our boat from the Zhujiang pier to cruise the Li River. This pier is a 40 minute drive from downtown Guilin and is exclusively used by foreign tourists. The other pier which is nearby is more frequented by domestic tourists. I am told that the boats leaving Zhujiang pier are more comfortable and better equipped. The cost for the cruise is RMB 158 and includes lunch. Drinks are charged extra. My boat offered a glass of snake wine too - poured straight from a jar that had a coiled snake within!
Due to heavy rains in the past few days, Li River was full to the brim and flowing with all its might. Unfortunately, the rains brought in soil with it thus making the waters turbid. Else, I am told, the water of the river is clear so much so that one could see fish swim. Li River The sky was overcast and the low flying clouds and fog on the mountains was mystical. I could only imagine the beauty of a blue skies and patches of clouds above with pristine waters beneath. The cruise lasts for 4 hours and ends at Yangshuo County. Enroute, the cruise takes a serpentine route cutting through mountains. On both sides of the banks are fishing villages.
Yangshuo County is a small village thriving exclusively on tourists. And sure enough with all boats offloading here, on an average over 20,000 visitors walk through the streets of Yangshuo County. Walking on the West Street, reserved exclusively for pedestrians has shops that sell Chinese crafts and imitation stuff. Brands are available at fraction of the original costs. Bargaining is a norm indeed. After walking around for an hour on stone paved streets, we headed back to Guilin. Our driver was waiting for us at Yangshau County's parking lot.
A little rest at the hotel and I was ready to explore Guilin on foot. There's one main street, called Zhongshan Road. Instead of using roads, I decided to cut through the park opposite my hotel. Called Ronghu Lake, I was delighted to walk through this beautiful location that also has a river cutting through. Manicured gardens and various bridges built in stone, marble, rock, steel & crystal add to the beauty of the park. On the other side of the lake are the main street and the famous Central Square that has a shopping arcade beneath it. On my way back from the main street, Ronghu Park was attractively illuminated. What looked pretty during daytime looked prettier at night. Guilin has an excellent water system that connects 4 lakes and two rivers (Li & Peach Blossom). Cruises, that encircle the city is a popular feature. The cruises are limited for tourism and have not yet been converted to commercial transportation.
Guilin is a small city by China's standards. It has a population of 5 million. This 'small' town looked like a highly developed city and it was obvious that the civic authorities were doing all things possible to attract tourists - their main revenue earner. Around 25 years ago heavy and polluting industries were relocated in other parts of the Province. No building could be taller than 23 stories lest it would hamper the view of the mountains around. Guilin enjoys a special zone status with varying tax holidays to its residents.
I had a business meeting the next morning. Since my flight to Shanghai was late in the evening, post the meeting, I had a few hours on hand to explore some of the many sites of Guilin.
Elephant Hill was my first stop. Within city limits, situated on the banks of Li River, a hill has natural hole caused by erosion over thousands of years. From a vantage point it appears that an elephant is drinking water from the river. Fishermen were netting fish and selling them fresh, duly fried. This is quite a popular snack.
A few kms. away stands a hill that just juts out straight up from the ground. This is the Fugo Hill. A cave at the base takes you to Buddha statues that have been carved during Ming & Song Dynasties.
About 10 kms away are the famous Reed Flute Caves. The cave was discovered by local farmers in the 1960s. 200 steps up, within the cave is a fantastic collection of stalagmites and stalactites that have been formed over million of years. The site reminded me of my visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico (you may want to refer to my blog on New Mexico). Of course the one in Guilin was smaller in size, but equally majestic. Some creative folks have imagined shapes that have formed and have aptly named various formations. The entry fee is RMB 80 and is certainly worth it.
It was just about time to head for the airport. Shanghai was calling.
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