Count­ing Karsts

Although pop­u­lar in the mass tourism mar­ket, cycling or hik­ing around the smaller vil­lages of Guangxi are re­ward­ing ways to get off the beaten track and see fab­u­lous scenery with­out the crowds

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Hil­ton Yip

For decades, the Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion has been a fa­vorite des­ti­na­tion for in­ter­na­tional and do­mes­tic travelers. The beauty of the re­gion's dis­tinc­tive lime­stone karst peaks is very much ap­pre­ci­ated, and even graces the coun­try's 20 yuan note. Even now, Guangxi has not lost its fla­vor. Since 2014, the re­gion has been con­nected to high-speed rail lines which means that trav­el­ing to Guilin and nearby beauty spots is eas­ier than ever.

While Guilin is the most fa­mous city in Guangxi for tourists, the smaller town of Yang­shuo is a more pic­turesque and im­pres­sive place to view karst peaks. But even Yang­shuo has be­come built up and com­mer­cial­ized, with parts of it re­sem­bling a boom­ing town rather than a ru­ral com­mu­nity. Be­sides Yang­shuo, nearby vil­lages like Xing­ping, where the Yang­shuo high-speed rail sta­tion is ac­tu­ally lo­cated, pro­vide a more laid-back and ru­ral ex­pe­ri­ence.

Guilin is where most visi­tors start their trav­els to the re­gion. You won't need to go far to see karst peaks be­cause the city is sur­rounded by them. There are sev­eral scenic

parks and gar­dens within the city that fea­ture hills, small lakes and pago­das. Just out­side the city, there are fa­mous spots like Ele­phant Trunk Hill, so called be­cause the hol­lowed part where it meets the wa­ter re­sem­bles an ele­phant trunk, and Reed Flute Cave, where col­or­ful lights il­lu­mi­nate strik­ing sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites.

De­spite Guilin's beauty, you can't fully ap­pre­ci­ate the re­gion's nat­u­ral charm with­out pro­ceed­ing along the Li River to Yang­shuo. Cruises are very pop­u­lar, and long flotil­las of boats make the jour­ney ev­ery day from a dock some 45 min­utes out­side Guilin. The river­banks are stud­ded with dozens of karst peaks as well as vil­lages and farms that re­ally make you feel as if you are in a dif­fer­ent world from the megac­i­ties in the rest of China.

When you reach Yang­shuo, you are quickly rein­tro­duced to the real world. While Yang­shuo is also ringed by lovely karst hills, its town cen­ter, es­pe­cially West Street, is dom­i­nated by ho­tels, restau­rants, and shops. In the evenings, West Street is thronged with visi­tors, with loud mu­sic play­ing from store­fronts, and lights soar­ing into the sky from a mall with a small lake in the mid­dle. While this might ap­peal to some peo­ple, it is a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing and not what I came to Guangxi for.

To me, what makes Yang­shuo great to visit are its many hills, caves and the river­side scenery on the out­skirts. A trip along the Ten Mile Gallery – a road from Yang­shuo that ends at Moon Hill – takes you over a river, through nu­mer­ous hills on both sides of the road, as well as farms and some well-known nat­u­ral sites. The only draw­back is you may get ac­costed by touts try­ing to get you to pur­chase tours or tick­ets through them. One such tout, a plucky lady, ac­tu­ally rode her e-bike along­side me as I cy­cled on the road, bad­ger­ing me to buy tick­ets from her. The more in­sis­tent she got, the less in­ter­ested I was in her of­fer, so I even­tu­ally re­fused and she rode off in a huff.

One of the best sites to visit is Moon Hill, so called be­cause the 230-me­ter hill fea­tures a huge cir­cu­lar space near its peak. It's a mild hike to get to the top, where you can en­joy sweep­ing vis­tas of the coun­try­side be­low. An­other “must-see” is the “Big Banyan Tree,”

which as its name says, is in­deed quite large, but it has sup­pos­edly been around for over 1,400 years.

Be­sides vis­it­ing these sites, there are a ton of ac­tiv­i­ties to do. You can do some rock climb­ing on the karst hills, in­clud­ing Moon Hill, cy­cle around the coun­try roads, or take a ride on a bam­boo raft on the river. I even spot­ted a small he­li­copter in a field off the side of the road which I as­sumed was used for sight­see­ing. Yang­shuo is full of small agen­cies that or­ga­nize rock climb­ing and other ac­tiv­i­ties so just check with them or your ho­tel if you are in­ter­ested.

Fur­ther up­stream on the Li River, Xing­ping is a fan­tas­tic lit­tle vil­lage be­tween Yang­shuo and Guilin that of­fers a qui­eter and serene al­ter­na­tive. Like Yang­shuo, you can also hike or go on boats on the river. The first place to hike is in the vil­lage it­self, as Laozhai Hill pro­vides great views of Xing­ping and the sur­round­ing area, as well as the river as it flows along­side the vil­lage. At 300 me­ters, Laozhai Hill is not high, but some of the stone steps along the trail to climb up are a lit­tle steep, so do be care­ful.

The fa­mous view of karst peaks along a river on the 20 yuan note is ac­tu­ally near Xing­ping, reach­able by a 15-20 minute walk up­stream along the river. A lot of peo­ple like to take a photo of the view while hold­ing up a note, which I did as well. You can also hire a boat to take you fur­ther up­stream to view nu­mer­ous pic­turesque hills, of­ten named af­ter their dis­tinc­tive phys­i­cal at­tributes, and visit Yangdi, an­other vil­lage sim­i­lar to Xing­ping. Some peo­ple have even trekked from Xing­ping to Yangdi or vice versa, though you will need to get on a boat to cross the river at sev­eral points.

Near Xing­ping, there are even tinier vil­lages as well. I chose to hike to Yu­cun or Fish­ing Vil­lage, which is only ac­ces­si­ble by trekking through the hills or by river raft. It is in­deed rare nowa­days, es­pe­cially in China, to visit a place that is not con­nected by roads. Af­ter a two-hour hike that passed through orange groves and val­leys, I reached Yu­cun and was given a short tour by a lo­cal woman who kindly showed me around and pointed out dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of older build­ings such as wooden carv­ings of myth­i­cal crea­tures. Built in the 16th cen­tury dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), Yu­cun is very small, but it has had spe­cial visi­tors. It was vis­ited by none other than former US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton as well as first lady Hil­lary and daugh­ter Chelsea in 1998 dur­ing Clin­ton's state visit to China. Go­ing back fur­ther to 1921, former Chi­nese leader Sun Yat-sen also vis­ited Yu­cun.

How­ever, whether you visit Yang­shuo or Xing­ping, make sure to rent a bi­cy­cle and ex­plore the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. Even if you don't visit the sites men­tioned here, there are nu­mer­ous other vil­lages, farms and hills to ex­plore.

Ev­ery vis­i­tor to China who loves na­ture should come to Guangxi if they have the chance. Af­ter all, even Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton did.

A boat on the Li River near Guilin

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