Exploring Scenic Guilin and Yangshuo, China

Two emerging destinations
By: Mark Edward Harris
Yangshuo’s open-air musical on the Li River features a cast of more than 600. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris
Yangshuo’s open-air musical on the Li River features a cast of more than 600. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris

Getting There

China Southern has flights from Shanghai's Pudong International Airport (PVG) that touch down at Guilin's Liangjiang International Airport (KWL) in just under two hours. Spring Airlines provides connections to local destinations within China. AirAsia services Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Yangshuo is serviced by the Guilin airport.
An overnight train from Shenzhen (on the Hong Kong border) runs to Guilin. Many hotels will arrange transfers from the train station and airport.

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The Details

China National Tourist Office
Located on the west bank of the Li River in southeast China is 2,000-year-old Guilin. The magnificent scenery that surrounds this town has been an inspiration to poets and the subject of many works of art. Due to unique mountain formations that dot its landscape, known as karsts, Guilin is emerging as one of the most popular travel destinations in the country.

Renting a bicycle is one way to explore Guilin and its environs. Those who choose to cycle will take in the scent of fragrant trees that give Guilin its name, which translates to the "forest of Sweet Osmanthus."

Much of the lure of this region can be attributed to the small towns and villages of Guilin county -- such as Fuli, a town that is particularly popular with artists and is surrounded by the Li River and scenic mountains.

Bicycles are also available for rent in the nearby town of Yangshuo which, in recent years, has also become a mecca for travelers. Ironically, amid magnificent natural beauty, Yangshuo's main pedestrian street, West Street, has the feel of the Las Vegas Strip, with hawkers trying to coax tipsy travelers into noisy clubs. Unless they have state-of-the-art earplugs, guests at hotels within a block of West Street will likely have difficulty sleeping before 2 a.m. Seeking out accommodations such as the New Century Hotel near Yangshuo Park on Pantao Road will assure clients have a restful night while keeping them within walking distance or a short taxi ride of all the action. The Yangshuo Li River Retreat offers great views for those who want to escape a bit further into the scenery.

The highlight in Yangshuo for many, though, is an evening performance of "Impression Liu Sanjie," co-directed by Zhang Yimou (known internationally for creating the opening ceremony production at the Beijing Olympics), Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue. The 70-minute, open-air musical on the Li River runs from March to December and features a cast of more than 600 performers wearing traditional Zhuang, Miao and Yao dress. CDs of the music and DVDs of the performance are available, and many spectators choose to bring home the memories.

Daylight activities include river cruises on and hikes along the Li River and its tributaries. The stunning landscape will look familiar to those who saw "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" since much of the movie was filmed there. In fact, the route from Yangdi to Xingping has a view that is so breathtaking that the scene has been engraved on the 20 yuan banknote.

One of the most popular hikes is on Moon Hill, starting approximately five miles south of Yangshuo, on the road to Wuzhou where clients can climb to and through a crescent-shaped hole. Spectacular views of the entire Guilin/Yangshuo area reward intrepid hikers who make it to the top.

For those who are not content to walk along or hike in the mountains but want to hang on their dramatic facades, Yangshuo has more than 300 climbing routes. Well-supplied climbing shops in Yangshuo include Spiderman Climbing, Karst Cafe, Insight Adventure, Xclimber and Blackrock, among others.

After a day of hiking, climbing or floating along the river, a variety of restaurants and regional dishes await. Both Yangshuo and Guilin cuisine are known for their use of spices, especially chili. Beer fish (pijiu yu) is a local specialty cooked with several species of fish. Whichever fish is used is cooked whole, so diners need to be aware of bones. For those who want to delve deeper into the local cuisine, a number of cooking schools in Yangshuo and Guilin offer classes.

In 1981, Guilin was listed by China's State Council as one of the four cities (the others being Beijing, Hangzhou and Suzhou) where the protection of historical and cultural heritage must be of the highest priority. The only thing that is surprising about this designation is that it took so long to state the obvious.
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