The World of Chinese - - Contents - TEXT BY SUN JI­AHUI (孙佳慧), PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAI TAO (蔡涛)

“The land­scape of Guilin is the best un­der heaven,” We're told. “Ev­ery cor­ner of Nan­ning is dot­ted with fruit trees.” The at­trac­tions of China's Guangxi re­gion are not just lush and scenic, they've spawned dozens of say­ings. Sun Ji­ahui goes in search of the earthly par­adise, from bustling Yang­shuo to the re­mote De­tian Falls on the Viet­nam border, and dis­cov­ers how ex­pec­ta­tion is it­self a part of travel

When I left for Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion in spring, friends urged me to fin­ish my tour with the city of Guilin, rather than start there. “Save the best for last,” they said.

There’s a say­ing, “The moun­tains and wa­ters of Guilin are the best un­der heaven.” The phrase con­jures up im­ages of blue skies, clear wa­ters, and rocky cliffs. I won­dered if the city could live up to this vaunted rep­u­ta­tion. Per­son­ally, I am skep­ti­cal of ex­ag­ger­ated tourist di­aries and fil­tered

pho­tos, so I de­cided to em­bark on the road (slightly) less trav­eled. My first des­ti­na­tion was Nan­ning, Guangxi’s cap­i­tal. Nan­ning’s nick­name is the “Green City” be­cause of its abun­dance of sub­trop­i­cal fo­liage; Guo Moruo (郭沫若) once wrote of the city as “half green trees, half build­ings.”

The lo­cals are clearly very proud of their beau­ti­ful eco­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. On the way to the ho­tel, my taxi driver asked, “The air is much better than Beijing, right?” My con­fir­ma­tion prompted a wide smile, and he be­gan to iden­tify all the flow­ers and trees as we drove past: “The blos­som­ing plants are kapok trees…we call our city flower [the Chi­nese rose] ‘big red flower’…the mango and al­mond trees look alike this time of year, be­cause both their fruits are still green.”

The myr­iad plant life re­minded me of the lim­er­ick “Eigh­teen Strange Things of Nan­ning.” The first two things are, “Ev­ery sea­son, there are al­ways flow­ers and grass/ev­ery cor­ner of the city is dot­ted with fruit trees.” Those verses seem as true now as they ever were. “You should buy an apart­ment here. It’s much cheaper than in Beijing,” my driver sug­gested. “The en­vi­ron­ment is much better. Make money there…buy a house here.”

With the thought of re­set­tling in Nan­ning far from my fu­ture plans, I em­barked on my sec­ond des­ti­na­tion: Ming­shi Pas­toral Scenic Zone (明仕田园) in Chongzuo, a border city abut­ting Viet­nam, about 210 kilo­me­ters away from Nan­ning. Its Chi­nese name tianyuan (田园) lit­er­ally means “field and gar­den,” a term in Chi­nese cul­ture im­ply­ing an ideal en­vi­ron­ment for mis­an­thropic, pu­ri­ty­seek­ing her­mits to find soli­tude in the pas­toral life. While a sym­bol of peace­ful reclu­sion in an­cient China, I won­dered if Ming­shi would pro­vide the ideal es­cape from the ev­ery­day hus­tle and bus­tle of mod­ern ur­ban life.

Iron­i­cally, when I re­searched Ming­shi, few sites men­tioned the seclu­sive cul­ture of this tianyuan; in­stead, most fo­cused on the ge­o­graph­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties with the better-known Guilin. One site even of­fered a mytho­log­i­cal story, which sounded more like a PR fab­ri­ca­tion than an ac­tual folk tale: A long time ago, a “devil dragon” from the South Sea trav­eled to Guilin. Ob­sessed with its beau­ti­ful land­scape, the dragon shrunk Guilin with magic and stashed it away in his pocket (the dragon was ap­par­ently quite fash­ion-for­ward). He planned to bring Guilin’s beauty un­der the sea, but was thwarted by the Jade Em­peror, and ex­e­cuted by the God of Thun­der. When the dragon per­ished, the mini-ver­sion of Guilin’s moun­tains and wa­ters fell from his pocket down to earth, be­com­ing the Ming­shi Pas­toral Scenic Zone (it’s not ex­plained how they got the orig­i­nal Guilin back).

Guilin tends to dom­i­nate the Guangxi tourist scene, and one senses that other sites find it hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves. How­ever, in 2014, Ming­shi re­ceived a unique op­por­tu­nity when The Jour­ney of Flower, a TV se­ries about a ro­mance be­tween two at­trac­tive im­mor­tals, was filmed in the scenic area. When the show be­came a hit, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties seized the chance for some easy self-pro­mo­tion, launch­ing the slo­gan, “Ming­shi Pas­toral Scenic Zone, where the im­mor­tals live.”

If one can man­age to ig­nore the huge bill­board of this four-year-old his­tor­i­cal cos­tume drama, it would be easy to mis­take the nat­u­ral land­scape as a true fairy­land.


Wher­ever I turned, there were un­du­lat­ing green moun­tains sur­rounded by clear water. Along­side the river were pic­turesque cot­tages, dec­o­rated with fern-leaf bam­boo hedges; rus­tic bridges arched over the river, as small rafts slowly passed un­der­neath, from one farm­house to an­other. Time seemed to be sus­pended in this place, as were my feet; fear­ful of dis­turb­ing the tran­quil­ity, I sub­con­sciously slowed my pace.

As Guangxi is the home of the Zhuang eth­nic group, there’s a plethora of op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­pe­ri­ence their rich cus­toms and cul­ture within Ming­shi. At the Ming­shi Moun­tain Villa, I was treated to the fa­mous “Zhuang Chief­tain Ban­quet” by wait­ers in tra­di­tional cloth­ing car­ry­ing desk-sized trays with ten elab­o­rate lo­cal dishes, for­merly re­served for no­bil­ity. When tak­ing a raft on the Ming­shi river, the lo­cal guide asked me to call her “A Mei (阿妹),” the fa­vored form of ad­dress for the young Zhuang women; the boat­man like­wise asked to be called “Brother A Niu (阿牛哥).”

Wel­com­ing us was a mid­dle-aged cou­ple, who stood shoul­der-to-shoul­der to de­liver a beau­ti­ful folk song in the Zhuang lan­guage. “A Mei” told us that singing is a way for the Zhuang to ex­press emo­tions; this cou­ple fell in love through singing and have been to­gether ever since. Fairy­tale or folk­lore? Ei­ther way, I was touched.

Half a day is cer­tainly not enough to fully ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of Ming­shi but, as I was not one of the im­mor­tals, I had to con­tinue my jour­ney up the Guichun River. De­tian Wa­ter­fall, lo­cated in Daxin county, is the largest transna­tional wa­ter­fall in Asia, and about 50 me­ters away from the No. 53 bound­ary tablet be­tween China

and Viet­nam. When tak­ing a raft to ap­proach the falls, you lit­er­ally flow from China to Viet­nam (then back to China again), al­low­ing you to briefly dip in a toe in over­seas wa­ters with­out a pass­port.

In flood sea­son, this wa­ter­fall can swell over 200 me­ters wide and more than 70 me­ters tall, as wa­ters gush down its three-tiered cliff with tremen­dous force. Spring and early sum­mer, how­ever, is the dry sea­son, and there are only nar­row bands of water fall­ing down the rocks, form­ing dif­fer­ent streams be­fore con­verg­ing into the Guichun (some­times called the “pa­tri­otic river” be­cause, no mat­ter how far the water winds south, it will even­tu­ally re­turn to China)?

From a view­ing plat­form, I could look over the border at Viet­namese ven­dors sell­ing their prod­ucts: cof­fee, rub­ber shoes, and medic­i­nal oint­ments seemed to be their best­sellers. They spoke Chi­nese and ac­cepted RMB as pay­ment, and, from that van­tage point, seemed al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from peo­ple on the Chi­nese side.

“Though the scenery here has a few things in com­mon with Guilin, there is some­thing re­ally dif­fer­ent,” my tour guide, Zhao, re­minded me. “This is the south­ern border of our coun­try, where we ex­pe­ri­enced con­flict with Viet­nam in 1979. It’s not Guilin—but it has some­thing spe­cial.”

I did not sense a “border at­mos­phere” un­til I started head­ing to the Tongling Grand Canyon, where the bus was stopped by guards. Two young sol­diers en­tered and re­quired ev­ery­one to show their ID; a mat­ter of only a few min­utes, but enough to make me re­al­ize we were in­deed jour­ney­ing along a geopo­lit­i­cal fault line.

Tongling Grand Canyon, lo­cated in the city of Baise, is a com­pletely en­closed crevice. Its stature, though, is mon­u­men­tal: al­most 1,000 me­ters deep and more than 200 me­ters wide. The canyon is com­posed of a group of gorges—ni­anba, Tongling, Gu­lao, Xin­ling, and Xin­qiao–and has been de­scribed as “a beau­ti­ful scar on the Earth.”

The most im­pres­sive scene here is the Tongling Great Fall. At over 188 me­ters, the Tongling Great Fall is the high­est sin­gle wa­ter­fall in Asia. Dur­ing rainy sea­son, vis­i­tors can­not even get close, as water splashes and churns chaot­i­cally in all di­rec­tions. Dur­ing dry sea­son, how­ever, I was pre­sented with a nar­row, smooth white flume hang­ing silk-like from this fis­sure in

the Earth, drop­ping into a deep pool.

Tongling Grand Canyon is full of un­usual trees, none of which I’d ever seen be­fore; many are be­lieved to have unique health benefits in Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine. Nat­u­rally, along the path me­an­der­ing through this ar­bor, hawk­ers were out in full force, all of­fer­ing th­ese “spe­cial­ized medicines.” I over­heard one pro­nounc­ing the canyon as the “King­dom of Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine.”

As my trip neared its end, though, I be­gan to re­gret not plan­ning my itin­er­ary more thought­fully. I’d been greedy, try­ing to visit as many places as pos­si­ble, but not leav­ing enough time to truly en­joy any of them. Guilin, the “For­est of Sweet Os­man­thus,” was my last stop—and I had only a cou­ple of hours left to visit.

With time so tight, I needed to hit the sweet­est spot among all its ac­claimed at­trac­tions. Fi­nally, I de­cided upon the Xing­ping An­cient Town, in Yang­shuo county—there is a say­ing, “Yang­shuo’s moun­tains and wa­ters are the best in Guilin,” and the painter Xu Bei­hong (徐悲鸿) wrote, “The beauty of Yang­shuo is in Xing­ping.” In­deed, it should be em­pha­sized that the beauty of Guilin lies not in the city of this name—a fairly av­er­age pre­fec­ture-level conur­ba­tion—but the sur­round­ings: the karst moun­tains and wind­ing rivers that have in­spired po­ets and pain­ters for cen­turies.

Most tourists take a raft down the Li­jiang River to ap­pre­ci­ate the breath­tak­ing scenery from the water, or board one of the many “plea­sure cruises” that are some­thing of a mis­nomer in terms of ser­vice and stan­dards, but I had no time for such plea­sures, and con­tented my­self with the view from the Xing­ping Dock.

Much of that view was taken up by tourists tak­ing pho­tos. Iconic scenic spots of­ten de­mand iconic poses, and in Guilin al­most ev­ery­one is hold­ing a 20 RMB bill in front of the cam­era, for the sim­ple rea­son that the same view of the Li­jiang River is pic­tured on the back of the bill.

Xing­ping it­self has a 1,700-yearold his­tory go­ing back to the Three King­doms era. Strolling along the one-kilo­me­ter Xing­ping An­cient Street, his­toric mark­ers can be found ev­ery­where: an­cient res­i­dences, old banyan trees, the Qing dy­nasty Guandi Tem­ple, and Chair­man Mao’s por­trait on the walls of small stores. That is not the whole pic­ture, though. Mod­ern­iza­tion is in­evitable in ev­ery “Old Town”: Wire­less net­works cover tea­houses and cafes, and most restau­rants of­fer va­ri­eties of West­ern food. Ven­dors sell tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts in front of the old brick walls, but cus­tomers pay via Ali­pay or Wechat by scan­ning their QR codes.

Wan­der­ing through this town— awk­wardly caught be­tween the an­cient and mod­ern—i fell into a strange melan­choly. It is hard to de­cide if Guilin’s scenery is truly the “best un­der heaven.” The say­ing gives too much space to in­ter­pret Guilin ac­cord­ing to one’s own ex­pec­ta­tions. How can nature com­pete? Maybe to some ex­tent, it re­veals the truth of trav­el­ing: It’s al­ways tinged with re­gret, ei­ther for hav­ing never seen a place—or for be­ing there at all.

The Zhang Chief­tain Ban­quet at the Ming­shi Moun­tain Villa

View of De­tian Wa­ter­fall in the dry sea­son

Viet­namese ven­dors on the Guichun River

The steps lead deep down into Tongling Grand Canyon

This view of Li­jiang River is the same as the back of the 20 RMB bill

Moun­tains, an­cient build­ings, and sales booths make up the three main parts of Xing­ping An­cient Town

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