Guilin has been famous for longer than the western world has even known about it. Fantasied in ancient Chinese literature, art and poems, it conjures up images of dreamlike mountains soaring into the heavens while wispy clouds dance above a sweeping river. Most recently, Guilin has come to worldwide attention as the visual inspiration for the floating mountain-peak islands in James Cameron’s movie Avatar.
Fabulous karst limestone scenery abounds around Guilin, making for postcard-perfect opportunities, as long as the relentless drab pollution doesn’t hinder the view. Guilin may be the main city in the area, but the best scenery undoubtedly is further south along the Li River. On the way to the smaller and touristic Yangshuo, the wide river weaves its way through the karst landscape past the small village of Xingping.
With its old charm of traditional village houses and alleys, Xingping is the quintessential Chinese village life that western tourists (who venture into the countryside) want to experience. To reach Xingping from Guilin, we took a couple of local buses to Yangdi Pier, a small spot on the river where bamboo rafts depart downstream through a particularly scenic section.
For reference, back in the day they traveled by bamboo rafts. Nowadays, they use plastic PVC pipe rafts. Still, touts were exclaiming, “You want bamboo? Bamboo?” We bartered the best price we could and clambered aboard.
It can get really busy in peak season, but today was quiet. We nearly had the river to ourselves.
The towering karst mountains made for an epic ride. Around each bend, the angles changed and endless photo opportunities presented themselves. Unfortunately it was becoming overcast and hazy, which was a big risk at this time of year.
Most travel guides speak of the features along the route with mythical, legendary names: Nine Horse Mural Hill, Cock-Fighting Hills, Paint Brush Hill etc. We couldn’t see it, but I’m sure they were there.
Perhaps the most famous view is actually an angle just outside Xingping on the riverbank shown on the 20 Yuan note.
In town, the local market is the centre for farmers and fisherman to offload their goods. The narrow streets offer a good chance to meet the village folk.
Sometimes it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. No Chinese industrialisation or modernisation here. For a change.
Nearby Xingping, another sleepy fishing village can be reached by a four hour hike over the hills through the feet of some of the karst formations. It seems Bill Clinton was a fan of the area when he visited once! I hope he witnessed the view of the river’s bend when he was there.
Visited 23rd to 25th January 2014.