Even rainy weather can't detract from the stunningly beautiful landscape that's made this part of southern China a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Renowned Chinese poet Wong Zheng Gong once described the landscape around Guilin as 'the best under heaven'. He was one of countless artists to be inspired by the dramatic karst peaks and the Li (or Lijiang) River that runs through the area. Unfortunately, the day I visited this famous river, it was overcast, with a fine mist of rain. But, my tour guide assured me, all was not lost: this was exactly the type of scenery depicted in famous Chinese paintings.
Come rain or shine, each day hundreds of boats crammed with tourists meander down the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Lijiang River from Guilin to Yangshuo. They flock here to see the layered limestone hills – stunning karst topography that's so iconic it's on the Chinese 20 yuan bill. It’s an 85-kilometre journey, gliding past formations with names like Yearning For Husband Rock (Wangfu Shi), which resembles a woman with a child on her back looking into the distance.
Further downriver, we pass Mural Hill or Nine Horses Fresco Hill (otherwise known as Jiuma Hua Shan), a huge stone cliff that resembles a painting of nine horses. Legend has it that if you can distinguish all nine you are considered to be a smart and lucky person.
The river tour ends at the town of Yangshuo where hundreds of tourists from scores of boats are disgorged - into the hands of waiting touts and souvenir vendors. Yangshuo's main thoroughfare is the aptly named West Street, lined with hotels, bars, shops and tourist businesses. It’s a bustling tourist city that’s often been described as more of an international backpacking colony than a Chinese village. Most tourists will use Yangshuo as a base for rock climbing adventures on the nearby hilltops or cycling tours along the river banks.
Off the beaten track
But how do you avoid the tourist trail? I tried by enlisting the help of a tour company specialising in unique, specially tailored adventures to take me to a remote minority village. I journeyed with my guides, Dave Stamboulis from Remote Lands and local guide Stewart Shen, for almost three hours by car into the surrounding hills, northwest of Guilin. It’s an area called Ping’an, known as the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’. I soon spot other tour buses and begin to wonder if this experience has also become a victim of its own success. But as the road becomes more challenging, with hairpin turns and rocky patches, my guides assure me we will be visiting a village that’s not been affected by tourism. The scenery is breathtaking. There are barely any cars or people and there are rice terraces as far as the eye can see.
We arrive at a Red Yao village, and are greeted by a group of women in intricately embroidered red dresses and tunics. The older women perform the ‘long hair ceremony’ for us – the unravelling and re-bundling of their long locks is truly a spectacle. They rarely cut their hair; only once when they are teenagers and again after marriage. The cut hair piece is then woven back into their original hair and bundled on top of their heads - known as 'flower hair'.
Tales of the village
The oldest man - 81 years old but looking more like 108 - tells us the story of his village. "At the beginning when we moved here, we were fighting off the wildlife," he begins. "There were tigers and wolves eating the domestic animals like ducks and chicken, so it was difficult to make rice terraces. Life was very hard here in the past, but after the liberation, the government gave us more assistance and our lives have improved," he explains in Mandarin.
The women usher us into another part of the village where the families make their own clothing - the iconic pink and red vests with hand woven sleeves and geometrical designs.
There are other minority villages on the tourist trail but, according to Shen, this one remains unaffected by the lure of the tourist dollar. "In the other villages, there are many people who follow the tourists to sell souvenirs, but here you cannot find these things. This village is extremely relaxed and they let people chose things by themselves," Shen tells me. Stamboulis explains that the key lies in finding a balance: to find villagers who are willing to embrace tourism while at the same time learning about the outside world.
Many savvy tourists might shun the idea of using a tour operator. But in places like China, where language is a barrier, a specialist tour operator or local guide is essential for cultural exchange and communication. "I think there is a niche now for the discerning traveller. We find most of our clients now want to give something back to the communities and environments they visit,” Stamboulis says, as we enter a family home in the village for lunch.
We were treated to a traditional shared meal of pork, chicken, vegetables and rice, as well as some customary shots of homemade wine. It’s apparently tradition for guests to have a shot of wine with every daughter of the family. And after six daughters lined up to welcome me to their table, I left feeling well fed, warm and loved, not to mention a little light-headed.
Where to eat
Cuisine is a combination of Cantonese and Hunanese dishes, usually with a hint of sourness and spiciness. In pre-SARS days, Guilin was a hotspot for exotica like gem-faced civet, pangolin and other rare animals that would horrify most environmentalists. But most of that scene has been driven even further underground now. Guilin is, however, famous for the cane or bamboo rat - larger than the average rat and very fluffy, almost the size of a small dog. Many restaurants here will serve rat, so be sure to learn the Chinese word for it: laoshu.
Yi Yuan Restaurant serves authentic Sichuan cuisine (17 Nan Huan Road, Guilin).
Zheng Yang Soup Restaurant serves inexpensive Cantonese roast meats and hotpots. There are English menus, too, and it is situated right beside the Lijiang Waterfall Hotel (Zheng Yang Road, Guilin).
7th Heaven: cafe (and hostel) serving Western and Chinese food (corner of Chengzhong Rd and West Street, Yangshuo).
The most popular Li River cruise covers the entire journey from Guilin to Yangshou – and this can take up to six hours. Tours can be organised through local agents like CITS or through your hotel.
The minority village tour can be organised through Remote Land, luxury travel designers exclusively focused on Asia.