From its source high in the Mao-er Mountains the Li River sweeps south towards Guilin and into the world’s imagination. The phantasmagoric karst scenery together with cultural riches and superb hiking, biking, climbing and caving has made Guilin a top travel destination.
Eulogised by centuries of poets and artists, the 83km stretch of the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo binds a picturebook of karsk peaks, paddyfields, ancient villages and brushstroke bamboo. Guilin, once a remote outpost of empire, but now the third-largest city in Guangxi province, has long been known for its scenic beauty. After Song dynasty armies finally pacified the area, it became popular with the empire’s literati. One inscription left by the Song poet Wang Zhenggang describes Guilin’s scenery as ‘First Under Heaven’ and the limpid waters and green hills of the Li River have become synonymous with an ideal of Chinese landscape beauty.
Visitors from around the world are drawn by the iconic scenery of the Li River whose waters reflect a fantastic karst landscape. The outer-skin of the limestone has been washed away through millennia of water erosion leaving a fairytale landscape embellished with allusion. Guilin’s karst topography not only extends to the spectacular pinnacles above ground, but also under the surface of the earth. Below ground Guilin also has a vast array of underground streams and rivers, as well as caves. So out-of-this-world is the Guilin scenery, that the Li River was selected as a location for the Wookiee planet in the film Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
Since the 1980s, Guilin’s reputation as the quintessence of Chinese pastoral beauty has made it one of the country’s biggest hits with foreign visitors. The county town of Yangshuo emerged as the laid-back base for a traveller scene bent on adventures in the surrounding countryside. Over time, Yangshuo has become popular with Chinese tourists, particularly following the launch of the spectacular Impressions: Liu Sanjie show. The independent traveller action is now expanding to the idyllic countryside around Yangshuo, where characterful resorts are being wrought from restored farmhouses.
Visitors may come here for the scenery but Guilin’s form as a world-class travel destination goes far beyond this. The region has much to offer outdoor activities enthusiasts, with the idlyllic Yulong River valley near Yangshuo a sublime spot for cycling, hiking and boating. Yangshuo has also emerged as China’s – even Asia’s – top climbing destination, with over 800 routes for all levels of climbers. Meanwhile the karst hills offer intrepid caving adventures.
Another draw are the ethnic minority peoples who inhabit what was long a wild area on the western edges of empire. Guangxi province’s official name is the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on account of the large number of Zhuang people, but ten ethnic groups including Miao, Zhuang, Yao, Hui, Dong and Han people, live in what was once known as ‘the land of ten tribes’. The spectacular Longji Rice Terraces, 100km north of Guilin are a popular place to trek between Yao, Zhuang and Miao villages and encounter diverse cultures which shaped the history of this region.