There is an old saying in China "Guìlín's hills and water best under heaven".
Guilin is an easy 1 hour 25 minutes flight away from Hong Kong or seven hours by bullet train from Shanghai making it convenient to visit when touring China ... and it will be worth it!
We visited Guilin & Yangshuo for three days as part of an 18 day tour of China. It was part of our tour programme and we didn't know what to expect, but those three days ended up being a highlight.
What was it about Guilin and Yangshuo that made our trip to China so memorable?
Guilin and Yangshou are situated on the west of the Li River. Shanghai is 1,500km to the east of Guilin and for lovers of train travel, the high speed train will take you between the two cities in just over 9 hours. Hong Kong is only 4.5 hours by bullet train from Yangshou.
Guilin means Forest of Sweet Osmanthus after the copious amounts of Osmanthus trees in the city.
We had the same tour guide for the entire three days and when we parted company, if felt as though we were saying goodbye to a friend as Qin (pronounced Chin) had taught us so much about Chinese culture. We loved his sense of humour and he would call us DINK = Double Income No Kids – thank you Qin.
Our hotel was situated at the foot of a mountain and on Lake Guihu. At night, it’s illuminated with pretty lights so is beautiful to walk around and very easy to spot. For our first evening we ventured into town and what an adventure that was!
We negotiated cobble pavements, kids pushing past on roller blades, confusing underground subways to get to the other side of the road and the usual plethora of bikes, cars and people crossing above ground.
The streets were now empty and we were able to stumble slowly back to our hotel and enjoy the masses of bats flying over our heads. The bats come from the surrounding mountains at dusk and are a feature of this area.
Fubo Hill was named after General Fubo who came to Guilin 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty to stop the Vietnam rebellion (back then it was part of China). We saw Buddhist carvings in Returned Pearl Cave then walked the 300+ steps to the top of Fubo Hill for some lovely views of the area.
We enjoyed the cool breeze at the top as the humidity here was stifling and it wasn’t helped by the fact there was a typhoon a few days prior. The Li River also wasn’t as clean as it usually is as grass and mud had been washed downstream down due to the weather.
Reed Flute Cave is a 200m underground cavern of exotic rock formations, and what an unexpected trip – it was fascinating! The huge stalagmites and stalactites were illuminated in different colours and Qin was pointing out all the different “shape” formations which you could just about see if you used your imagination! There was as an owl, a snowman, a lion or a pointing finger.
Our Cormorant Fishing cruise was a huge disappointment! We believed that we would be taken on a trip to see real Cormorant fisherman out doing their business, however this was staged for tourists and the fishing was an after-thought lasting around 3 minutes, the main focus was on the cruise down the river which, admittedly was lovely as we passed beautifully lit bridges and tea houses, but we didn’t pay for that, we wanted cormorant fishing.
We couldn’t hide our disappointment when Qin asked if we enjoyed our evening. Qin was an excellent guide and, not wanting to disappoint us in any way, informed us that there was the chance of another 30 minute Cormorant fishing option for another evening.
This one was just what Sy and I wanted! Now I’m not going to lie, this was something Sy wanted to experience because it was an old, ancient Chinese tradition and one that happens to have been used on HSBC adverts in the UK (incidentally, did you know that HSBC means Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation? We had to come all the way to China to find this out!). I, on the other hand, am a little torn about this practice.
Fisherman need to build up a relationship when training the birds to fish for them and this can take some time. How they fish is by tying a chord around the bird’s neck loose enough for them to catch small fish to eat, but tight enough so they cannot swallow the big fish, which the fisherman keep for themselves.
There is something very romantic and lovely watching the bamboo rafts punt down the river, the fishermen and birds softly lit by oil lanterns on the front.
Cormorants aren’t naturally oily birds like ducks, they obtain their oil from their back and rear feathers which they rub into the rest of their bodies. They can only be in the water for about an hour otherwise they start to lose their buoyancy, and we witnessed them standing on the raft with wings spread as they were drying.
The whole experience felt natural and gave us a sense that we were witnessing part of a Chinese tradition and skill replaced by modern methods.
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The leisurely cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo took around four hours and we passed farmers working the land, rural communities living along the river banks, boats used as a form of transport and water buffalo cooling themselves in the river.
A buffet style lunch was provided on the boat but it was mama hu-hu (so-so or mediocre in Chinese – check me out sounding like a local).
It’s difficult to bear in mind that 3 million years ago these peaks were at the bottom of the sea because they look as though they have risen up.
When we disembarked we walked through the town towards our hotel. We passed quaint traditional shops selling a myriad of tourist souvenirs but the difference here is when you look around, karst peak mountains surround this charming, picturesque town. It has a slow and calm pace and we felt at ease strolling around the cobbled streets. We stayed at the relaxing Jasper International Hotel just around the corner from the main area and we found a great place to stop, sip a cocktail and beer then simply people watch.
On the Li River cruise we became friendly with an American couple who told us they were doing a kung-fu lesson. They didn’t mind us hijacking, so we all went to the park to be taught by Sifu Yang aka Master Yang who had been doing Kung-Fu for 40+ years.
We had a fabulous hour and were taught 10 moves that we carried out twice and included the buffalo, chicken, snake and dragon stances to name a few. We loved it all – we were learning Kung Fu ... in the park ... in China ... by Sifu Yang– it doesn’t get better than that – AWESOME!
We were on an absolute high when we finished and found a fantastic restaurant which served the best lemon chicken, sticky satay chicken and special fried rice we had ever tasted! In fact, it was that good we had to take the rest away – oh yes, we had a real Chinese takeaway – get in!
Livsanjian Impression Show
This is an outdoor performance set to the scenic backdrop of the karst mountains with the Li River forming the stage. The show was directed by Zhang Yimou who was in charge of the Beijing 2008 Olympics opening ceremony so that may give you an indication of how breathtakingly jaw dropping and spectacular the show was.
The cast of the show is made up of 600 performers comprised of local fisherman, children and farmers. I really feel that if there is one show you must watch during your time in China, then it has to be this one.
There is something very special and magical about this show, Guilin, Yangshuo and China in general! It was hard not to be swept away by our experiences.
Bike ride through the Countryside
Qin arranged for us to hire bikes and we all went for a gorgeous three hour bike ride through the Countryside. After we had negotiated the hectic roads and joined the hundreds of cyclists, we were in the heart of the countryside and pootled past farmers working the land, collecting hay, buffalo grazing, bamboo rafts punting down the river and villagers going about their business.
However it was the mountains that provided the breath-taking scenery for the majority of the ride. Wherever we looked our eyes were met with stunning mountainous views.
Many people fall in love with the area of Guilin for its mountainous beauty, picturesque river and countryside feel. This includes us, we completely fell in love with Guilin and Yangshuo.
If you are travelling around China and Asia, we recommend you check bus, boat and train schedules ahead of time with 12Go Asia. You can also book your tickets in advance online (as we did) to save time and hassle.
Have you been to Guilin, the Li River cruise or Yangshuo, what were your thoughts? Share them with us in the comments below, we would love to hear of your experience!.
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