China Geography

Holiday in Guilin

China Geography

Jacqueline Buksh recounts a journey to Guilin in 1993. Jacqueline has written a number of books on Chinese subjects.

A memorable holiday during my fourteen years of living and working in China was spent in Guilin, situated in the northeast of Guangxi Province. My husband and I flew from Hong Kong direct to Guilin. I had seen paintings, posters and art work depicting the famous peaks and mountains of China, the impossible angles of pine trees growing out of the sides of rocky outcrops, with mountain streams tumbling down thousands of feet to philosophers and artists below. To me these images conjured up a magical land. China is a country of many surprises to visitors, from vast cities, countryside, huge rivers and coastal areas. To deserts and tropical heat, from dust storms to torrential rain or snow! Famous sights such as the Great Wall, the Terracotta army in Xi'an, the Yangtze River trip, and the Great Gezhouba dam. The famous cities, the capital of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Nanjing, Lhasa in Tibet and the many provinces throughout China with its wealth of diverse minorities, languages and different cultures.

As our small plane approached Guilin the plane tilted at crazy angles showing the fantastic landscape below. The patchwork quilt of bright green paddy fields, the River Li winding its long sinuous path between the strange outlandish 'Karsts', improbable mountains of limestone rising sheer out of the ground all over as far as the eye could see. This then was the reality of my mind pictures of the 'real' China. We landed in a field and looked for the driver who was supposed to meet us to take us to our small hotel. All had been arranged in Hong Kong with the CITS (China International Travel Service). No driver arrived! There were no other passengers and no one around. It was very hot, we were tired, it was one of many frustrations we would have to learn to cope with during our many years of working in China, but this was supposed to be a holiday! I eventually tracked down a young Chinese man who offered to run us in his van into the centre of Guilin town. He turned out to the local courier for the 'Holiday Inn'. We did not know one existed! Our own hotel was a much more modest affair but affluent enough for us to hire bicycles to explore around the area. We were situated on the waterfront of the River Li, described by poets 'As a green Pearl amongst a winding river of blue silk', and painted by countless arts throughout the dynasties. It was early spring and young tender green willow trees were bending low over the water's edge casting shadows on the simmering water below.

Li River boatman
River boatman on the Li River © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

After a rest and a meal we cycled around the streets, we passed a market place and had the pleasure of seeing a young piglet making his escape down the main road, to the admiration of his fellow sufferers all trussed up in straw straight jackets destined for the pot! The market was bustling and lively with the usual banter that goes on between customers and buyers. A barber was giving a soapy shave to one customer out of doors which seems like a good idea affording interest to all passing potential trade and up-to-date market affairs for the man having a street shave and haircut. Likewise you can see a dentist at work in the market place as well as the usual fruit and vegetable vendors, tofu and egg stalls, spices, dried fruit and nuts as well as cheap geegaws such as hair ornaments, socks, underwear, ribbons and buttons. Machinists have pattern books and machines to whiz up a quick dress, skirt, shirt or suit. All of life is to be found in China's street markets.

Fishermen at Guilin
Fishermen at Guilin
© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Apart from the fascination of observing daily life was the wonder of the 'Karsts' (small mountains) which appeared all over sticking straight up out of the earth's crust defying everything I had ever seen before with the exception in later years of a visit to Cappadocia in Turkey with their similar strange shapes rising from the ground, soft rock easy to cut out homes in which many people lived year ago. The 'Karsts' had trees and greenery growing on them, my picture of China at home taking shape in reality.

Most visitors to Guilin take a river trip and go down to the beach to watch the fishermen and their big bird helpers the cormorants. These large birds are tethered to their owners but have enough rope length in which to dive from their master's boat and bring up fish. They cannot swallow their catch as a ring device is fitted to their throats to stop them swallowing the fish. They dive and catch many fish and of course are well fed and looked after by their owners. They make an enchanting picture the long boats with their fisherman at one end and his cormorant at the other. They often fish at dusk and take their long poles and lamps to light their way. The lights attract shoals of fish and make it easy for the river fishers, both man and bird.

The beach is a famous place in Guilin with its many unusual rock shapes, these have poetic sounding names according to their resemblance to their names such as 'Elephant Trunk Peak' and 'Single Beauty Peak' etc.… Famous sights include the seven star rocks and the Reed Flute cave in Guangming Peak. This latter is the largest of the Karst caves in Guilin. Its name comes from the many reeds which grown near the entrance and which make excellent pipes. It has been illuminated to enhance the shape and colours of the stalactites and stalagmites, the limestone contains minerals which appear as coral, agate amber or jade.

We went on a river tour down the Lijiang River to Yangsu. It was like being in a Chinese artists brush stroke painting. We passed tall feathery bamboo, calm smooth water and white egret birds. In autumn there are many lovely blossoms around including Sweet Osmanthus (Cassia) with red, yellow, and white fragrant blooms. The name Guilin comes from this flowering shrub as it grows in profusion around the town and its meaning is 'Sweet Osmanthus'.

The river journey was a long full day, we were given a meal of meat and vegetables which you cooked yourself on a small table brazier. The scenery was unforgettable but it was cold on board, it is always advisable to take an extra jacket or sweater in case the weather changes. We found the temperature changed a lot during each day in Guilin.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006, reprinted from China Eye, Issue 12 2006

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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