Guilin: Paradise on Earth

Mention that you're planning a trip to Guilin to Chinese friends and their eyes stare nostalgically into the distance. 'I've always wanted to see Guilin' they say, with mystical reverence, a hint of wistfulness in their voices.

What exactly is it about Guilin, in southern China, that enchants so many Chinese people? I'm about to embark on my second trip there, exactly a year after my first, so I feel I have some small inkling of the attraction.

For a start, there's the unsurpassed natural landscape, a jade green panorama of vertiginously steep limestone hills, to which cling deep and dense foliage, and between them a broad ribbon of rice fields, lotus ponds, and emerald rivers. The air hangs heavy and humid, dense with cicadas, frogs and crickets, and the smell of fresh, lush nature is everywhere. The people, short and deeply tanned, seem to be perpetually relaxed and in search of a good time.

In addition to my own observations I've been asking every Chinese person I know why they love Guilin:

'I can feel total freedom there'

'I love to ride my bicycle, and raft down the river, and just have a fun time with my friends.'

'Did you know that in Yangshuo (near Guilin) there are more foreigners than Chinese people? It's so cosmopolitan. That's why I go there for two weeks every year.'

'It's my heart's desire to see Guilin. I heard it is the most beautiful place in all China!'

Everyone has their own reasons, but I've come to accept that Guilin, and its backpacker friendly neighbor, Yangshuo, represent the kind of freedom so many young Chinese crave - freedom from work, freedom from family pressures, freedom from study. Guilin and Yangshuo are completely geared for fun and relaxation with bamboo rafting, bike riding, caving and rock-climbing among the many activities on offer. This, combined with a sub-tropical climate, lush surroundings, and scores of foreigners mean that a Chinese tourist can really come here and let their hair down. It's a potent combination.

I'm spending all of this week in and around Guilin, and I'll (try!) and post every day to show you just what an incredibly lovely place it is.  I'll be visiting the fabled Dragon's Backbone rice terraces (Longji titian) northwest of Guilin, the Yao villages of Dazhai and Tiantou, the hip hangout of Yangshuo, and the tiny market villages along the Li and Yulong Rivers.

Fancy a trip to southern China's most beautiful places? Come along!

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