Guilin, China A photo journal

Day 1

Shanghai to Guilin and tours of Guilin’s Elephant Hill and Reed Flute cave

South West China

Today was the start of my adventure to photograph one of China’s areas of natural beauty around Guilin and the Li Valley. After an early night, I set my alarm for 4:30 (actually I set two alarms one at 4:20 and one at 4:30). As it transpired the alarms were not needed as I woke up at 4:00 full of anticipation for the day. After a quick shower, dressing and packing the few items I had out, I checked out of my hotel to walk the short distance to Shanghai PuDong Airport, Terminal 1.

I quickly worked out where the Shanghai Airlines check-in area was and walked optimistically to the counter area. As I rounded the corner I was confronted by what could best be described as mayhem. All the counters were closed but there was a press of people waiting to check baggage. Amongst the Chinese there was an American couple that I started chatting with and they confirmed that they were also heading for Guilin.

Checking in turned out to be a case of waiting for the Shanghai Airline’s staff to start work at 5:30 and then getting to the front of the queue to check-in. No signs and no one that spoke English but once at the check-in desk everything was fine. Once checked in it was a case of navigating my way through security and then to the departure gate via Starbucks.

The flight was a little bumpy but an otherwise uneventful affair and after three hours and 1,300 km the aircraft commenced its decent into Guilin airport and I gained my first sight of the amazing karst hills and mountains.

Once I had collected my bags, I was met by Dave, my guide for the next few days and we headed off by car to Elephant Hill to walk round and up the hill.

Elephant Hill, Guilin

After Elephant Hill, it was time to stop for lunch at a local Chinese restaurant of rice noodles, cauliflower and pork scratching.

A nice simple lunch

Lunch was followed by a trip to the Reed Flute Cave. What a truly amazing experience this was. The cave is in one of the multitude of karst hills and was a vast natural cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites.

A small sample of Reed Flute Cave

The caves were colourfully lit throughout and made for a wonderful photo opportunity. The centrepiece of the cave system was a chamber named the Crystal Palace, need I say more?

Crystal Palace

The next stop after the Reed Flute Caves was a visit to the pearl museum or to be more correct the pearl shop. All I can say is that Lola and Julia have done very well in the souvenir department with both getting a pair of sea peal ear studs.

The pearl museum was the last stop of the day before heading to the Grand Bravo Hotel. A most incongruous 5 star, gaudy, Chinese bling palace.

Luxury = Bling in Guilin
Hotel reception

Day 2

Guilin to Longji Rice Terraces with a stop to see some long haired dancing girls

This morning was a relatively leisurely start, waking at 6:30. After a morning stroll, I enjoyed a relaxed breakfast before checking out of the hotel and being met by Dave for the 90-km drive to Longsheng. The journey lasted approximately 2.5 hours passing through rural areas and small towns and villages. Even in these more remote communities there was an air of prosperity, with many new buildings and homes.

The scenery along the drive was quite beautiful with mountains and tree lined roads and much agriculture. Farming here is mixed arable and I got my first glimpses of rice paddies. As the journey continued we climbed higher in to the hills and the arable farming areas turned into woodlands. The road became a slow twisting climb through increasingly spectacular terrain.

At the end of the first part of the drive we arrived at the “minority” village of Huangluo Yao. This area is populated by the minority Yao people and the women are famed for their long hair. Huangluo Yao is now very much a tourist stop. To access to the village, it is necessary to cross a river via a remarkably rickety rope and bamboo bridge. Not for the first time the thought that “health and safety” wouldn't allow this back home went through my mind. The village contained several old houses that were suitably quaint and for the entertainment of tourists, the village women perform a song and dance show and whilst it is suitably cheesy it was enjoyable and hey, everyone has to make a living.

Long haired girls of Huangluo Yao
Spices on sale at a stall on the path up to Ping'an village

From Huangluo Yao Village we drove up into the mountains for another half hour to the Longji rice terraces. Here we parked up for the walk up to the hotel at Ping'an village, stopping for lunch along the way.

Lunch at Ping'an village - note the garlic, I'm sure that was a whole bulb that went in the dish.

Whilst this was very touristy the views are breathtakingly spectacular and the simple but delicious lunch of chicken and vegetables washed down with local cold beer that hit the spot.

Ping'an village

The hotel for tonight is the Longji Star-Wish Resort, which my itinerary described as a “4-star boutique hotel”. Whilst the hotel was certainly quaint, 4-star boutique was probably pushing it a bit. That said the bed was comfortable and the toilet a clean western style WC, so no complaints. The best thing about the hotel is that it is a small family run establishment complete with cats running around. In reality it is more like a traditional inn and very warm and welcoming. English is spoken by most of the younger members of the staff which made life easy for me.

My bed for the night
Bath room at the Star Wish hotel

Like most of China, Ping'an village is seeing rapid growth with lots of construction of new hotels and restaurants. The village is rapidly turning into a major tourist destination; I had no illusions that it would be anything else and I'm glad that I made this trip before it becomes even more built up. Another five years and the village will probably double in size.

Longji is home to the famous rice terraces. At more than 800m above sea level and on steep mountain side, farming rice here is a major achievement and the evening was an opportunity to shoot the rice terraces. This involved a further climb on foot firstly to Seven Stars and the Moon terraces and then to Nine Dragons and Five Tigers terraces where the main evening shoot took place.

The views were outstanding with some of the terraces full of water giving reflections of the sky. The terrace follow the contours of the hill side making strong graphical shapes. I hopefully I did the subject justice.

Long after the sun had set Dave and I headed back down the mountainside to Ping'an village and to the hotel. Dinner tonight was at the hotel’s very homely and comfortable dining room and consisted of noodles with vegetables and meet dumplings that were well received.

Nine Dragons and Five Tigers rice terraces

Day 3

Longsheng to Xingping via Guilin

Another early start; did I really set the alarm for 5:00? Well it seems I did and after showering and getting dressed it was back up to the Seven Stars and the Moon rice terraces for some dawn photos. This was a most rewarding thing to do as the light was fantastic.

Seven Stars and the Moon rice terraces

It was then back to the hotel for a shower and breakfast. This was another lovely meal and just what was needed after such an early start.

After breakfast, it was time for a more leisurely stroll around the village and rice terraces. This was a great opportunity to take some images of village life. China has modernised at a breath taking rate over the last 20 years and Ping'an has not been left behind. That said it is still possible to get glimpses of the past. The village clings to steep mountainside and is inaccessible to cars and therefore all the goods and supplies that are needed for this community are either hand carried or brought in by ponies.

Heavy items brought in by pony

The drive to Xingping took about four and a half hours, starting with a descent from the Longji Rice Terraces on a twisty single lane mountain road. This particular road is more basic than most of the roads in China and there were many parts where landslides caused by the recent rains had left debris on the road. In our small van this was no problem but for the many tourist coaches making the journey the route was more challenging.

One of the best parts of this trip has been the food and visiting more authentic restaurants off the beaten track. Lunch today was at a roadside restaurant on our way to Xingping and it proved to be no disappointment with dishes of pork and bamboo shoots, green vegetables and scrambled egg and sticky rice all washed down with a local green tea.

As we continued, our journey we descended ever further to the Li valley. The countryside was still mainly mountainous with woodland and occasional areas of farm land. The road widened and was generally of better quality but still followed the contours of the hills. Eventually the mountain pass we were descending widened to a broad valley with small towns and arable farming. After an hour or so we reached the outskirts of Guilin from where we joined the highway to Xingping. By now the journey had become tedious and the day quite grey. Whilst pollution levels in Guilin are nothing like that of Shanghai / Suzhou it was apparent that the still day had allowed a grey smog to descend over the city such that the karst hills were shrouded in a grey blanket. The road too had now become a dreary affair with only the customary adventurous Chinese driving to liven things up.

As we travelled further south out of Guilin the grey smoggy haze gradually lifted and the scenery improved as we drove along a modern highway past verdant karst hills surrounded by farms and more building developments. I swear China is one big construction site.

We finally arrived Xingping much later than the itinerary suggested. After quickly checking in at the hotel it was time for a trip on the river on a “traditional” bamboo raft. The excursion was timed so that we would catch the sunset; unfortunately, the grey cloud that had dogged us since entering the Li Valley made for a very flat sky, low contrast and poor visibility. None the less the scenery is very impressive here and the hotel is on the banks of the river overlooking the spot where the image on the ¥20 is from.

A tourist holding up a ¥20 note

More alarmingly the sole of my left boot decided to lift off. I needed to nurse it through to tomorrow morning at least or risk trashing my work shoes. I also cross fingers that the rain that was forecast for the morning holds off.

Tonight’s dinner was at the hotel (CTN Li River Hotel) and is pork with peppers and fried rice with a bottle of local beer. I hadn’t had the time to check the room out properly earlier but it was very pleasant with a balcony overlooking the river. Quite bizarrely the bath was on the balcony and in addition to the normal mini-bar the bedroom had a selection of condoms for sale. I don’t think I fit the profile of the normal target market for this hotel somehow.

Seven Stars and the Moon rice terraces
Ping'an village life

Day 4

Xingping to Yangshuo

The alarm wakes me up at 4:20 and at 5:00 Dave and I meet outside the hotel for a short bamboo raft ride to this morning's photo location. The best news is that the heavy rain that had been forecast for today has held off other than a few light showers so we are set fair for the centrepiece of the week's photography. Yes, it's time to photograph cormorant fishermen on the Li River.

Cormorant fisherman on the River Li

The conditions turn out to be good with mist rising off the river. As the shoot commences it is dark, iso 6400 dark. But the fisherman soon lights his kerosene lamp and we are away. What follows is a most rewarding hour of photography. As I write this the images are still to be downloaded and I have only peaked at them on the camera LCD screens but the sense of anticipation is palpable.

An idyllic scene

After the shoot, there is a 15-minute walk back to the hotel along the river bank. After a soak in the bath tub and a gentle stroll it is time for breakfast.

My old walking boots made it through the morning shoot but with the sole of the left boot hanging off, I took the decision to put them in the bin. They did good service and I am thankful that they did not give out in Longji and that they held on for the cormorant fisherman shoot.

Xingping is an old market town dating back more than 1,000 years and is a very popular tourist destination. The town centre was a heaving mass of Chinese tourists and in the market the many shops were selling the normal mix of souvenirs for the tourist trade. Lunch today was at a local restaurant and was somewhat disappointing.

Chinese tourist heading for a boat ride on the river Li

After lunch, we set off for the relatively short drive to Yangshuo. The weather continued to be mild with light showers and so much better than the forecast heavy rain. The low cloud drifted through the karst hills and covered the peaks from time to time giving a quite magical look to the scenery.

On the way to Yangshuo we stopped at the Yulong river that is a tributary to the Li river and walked along the banks for about 45 minutes. This was a pleasant surprise as, although a tourist area, it was surprisingly quiet. Dave explained that the river path was newly opened last year which may explain its relative tranquillity.

From the river, we headed to Yangshuo town arriving at about 16:30. The Green Lotus Hotel is a nicely appointed 5-star establishment. What it lacks in charm it makes up for in comfort, so whilst not as enchanting as the last two nights it will certainly do.

The relentless pace of the guided tours keeps up today and at 17:00 I head out with Dave to West Street, the oldest street in Yangshuo. West Street has been despoiled by the incursion of souvenir shops selling pointless tat, gaudy bars and cheap restaurants. So, after a brief look round it was back to the hotel before going back out.

"Crushing" seeds for the tourists

The entertainment for the evening was a visit to the show Impressions which is staged in a purpose-built theatre in Yangshuo. The show is a masterpiece of Chinese Theatre in an epic style set on a man-made lake with karst hills as the backdrop. The show is a musical tribute to the journey of the River Li and its people. A cast of over six hundred performers including cormorant fishermen, water buffalo and school children contributed to this spectacular entertainment. Thankfully the rain held off as the whole affair was out doors including the seating.

After a late supper of fried pork with spicy vegetables (red and green chillies) it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Cormorant fishermen of the Li River

Day 5

Yangshuo to Guilin and on to Shanghai

The last day of this trip and a leisurely 8:00 start. Breakfast was classic large hotel buffet style, good but forgettable and taken in a comfortable large dining room overlooking the banks of the River Li. The rain that had be threatened for the past couple of days had finally arrived and thoughts of a morning stroll were banished as I looked out of the hotel window deciding a second cup of coffee and a second plate of breakfast was a better way to while away the time until it was time to check out.

When it rains in this part of China it does not mess around. The hills are green for a reason. It rained all morning and heavily with it. The local countryside is quite idyllic and we spent the morning touring the area visiting traditional farms and homes that the Chinese government is keen to preserve for history and the tourist trade. One of the highlights of the day was meeting an 82-year-old lady who still lived in a traditional house. The accommodation of her house is incredibly basic by western / modern Chinese standards but the occupant is as fit as a fiddle and looked much younger than her years. Curiously she has bought her coffin already and keeps it in her house and she was happy to pose for her photograph next to it.

Prepared for the long sleep...
but still fit and healthy at 82

Later we went to see an ancient banyan tree at what is modestly described as one of the ten most beautiful spots in China. Well it was nice but I'm not sure about the sobriquet; maybe because it was raining the lustre was somewhat faded or maybe beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Next was a visit to see Moon Hill; so-called because of a cave that goes right through the hill and is in the shape of a crescent. At Moon Hill, it was time for lunch at a farmers’ restaurant; the food consisted of beer cooked fish, chillies and tomatoes with rice; it was rustic but enjoyable and was way too much for one person.

After lunch, it was time to head back to Guilin airport for the flight to Shanghai. There was time for one more stop along the way though to visit the Flying Tiger Heritage Park in Guilin. This is a museum dedicated to the memory of US servicemen who were based in Guilin during WW2. The museum was very informative and tastefully presented this dark period of history. I learned a lot of new things and was reminded of many things that I had forgotten during this visit.

The rain that had greeted the day continued unabated throughout the journey to Guilin airport and the grey weather conditions matched the sombre mood of the drive back.

Finally arriving at Guilin Airport, it was time to say farewell to Dave as this was the end of the guided tour. All that remained of my adventure was the flight back up to Shanghai. Guilin Airport is a typically busy regional airport and the queues for check-in and security were long and boring but no more so than many other airports. With plenty of time in hand I made my way to a coffee shop and bought myself a very overpriced cup of Joe (¥48). It was time for a reality check and return to the real world as the tannoy announcer informed waiting passengers that the flight to Shanghai would be at least an hour delayed. Well I guess that is one way to end a holiday.


All photos (c) Rob Smith

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