In 2014 I spend a month at the Chinese Language Institute in Guilin in order to improve my Mandarin. During this period I stayed with a Chinese host family which was absolutely fabulous as I got a brilliant introduction to Chinese life ranging from amazing Chinese food to Chinese accupuncture (as a remedy for a slight cough). Although the city itself does not boast to many attractions I found it a pleasant place to live (at least for the month I spent there). There are several parks, such as the Seven Star Park, that are quite nice to explore and wondering around the Sun and Moon Pagodas at night is quite atmospheric. Unfortunately I did not have a tripod with me …
However, Guilin City is surrounded by some absolutely fantastic places such a the Longji Rice Terraces and the karst mountains near Yangshuo. Moreover, there are some old villages and towns dotted around Guangxi which are definitely worth a visit.
Longji Rice Terraces
Although rice terraces wind their way around mountains throughout China, the Longji Rice Terraces are considered to be the most magnificent of them all. They are located in Longsheng County, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) outside of Guilin, and are sometimes referred to as the Longsheng Rice Terraces. The word “longji” means “dragon’s backbone” and these rice terraces earned their unusual name because the terraced fields climbing up the mountain look like dragons’ scales whilst the summit of the mountain range resembles a dragon’s backbone. This gives you an idea as to the sheer scale of these rice terraces.
These terraced fields were all manmade and were first built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), although many of them weren’t completed until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The majority of them were built over 650 years ago by the Zhuang and Yao ethnic minorities, and are still in use today. The rice terraces cover a roughly 66 square kilometres and they cover whole mountainsides, stretching from the riverside right to the summits, in some cases reaching heights of approximately 1,100 metres above sea level.
The rice terraces were initially designed to make use of land that was previously thought too difficult to plough. By flattening small surfaces of the mountain, farmers were able to plough them and, via a particularly ingenious irrigation system, pump water into the ploughed fields so that rice could be grown there. This method is still widely used by farmers to this day and the Longji Rice Terraces are no exception. The rice terraces are farmed by the people of Ping’an Village, Longji Ancient Zhuang Village, and the Jinkeng cluster of Red Yao villages. This means that, no matter what season you travel to the rice terraces, you’ll be met with a unique and beautiful sight.
In spring, the terraced fields are flooded with water in preparation for the planting of rice seedlings. The crystal clear pools glitter and sparkle in the sunlight, reflecting blue skies and wandering clouds. In summer, the rice stalks have begun to grow and the mountains turn green in verdant vegetation, lush jade hues tumbling down the mountainside, while in autumn the mountains seem to haven been covered in imperial golden-brown tiles. In winter, the terraces are left to recover and are covered in a thin blanket of snow. These snowy ribbons running along the mountains resembling white dragons racing each other upstream.
The bucolic village of Jiangtouzhou is tucked away between farmland about 32 kilometers north of Guilin City. Its history dates back a 1000 years although today, most of the traditional Chinese houses in the village, date back , like quite a lot of historical architecture in China, to the Ming ( 1368-1644 CE) and the Qing (1644-1911 CE) Dynasties. Jiangtouzhou seems to have been spared the advances of modern civilisation and with all its exquisite wooden carvings on the windows, old water wells and stone arched bridges is really quite wonderful to stroll around.
All the villagers carry the same family name Zhou, and are the descendants of Zhou Dunyi who was a famous philosopher, scholar of Neo-Confucianism and writer in North Song Dynasty (960 – 1127). In the past many people from the village followed in Zhou Dunyi’s footsteps. Historical records indicate that during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were over 160 candidates from the village who successfully passed the imperial exams to become high ranking officials, writers or poets. The descendants of Zhou Dunyi were renowned for their virtuousness and righteousness. Nowadays, there are about 160 families living in the village and the old Zhou Family Temple is still standing at the entrance to the village
Jiangtouzhou is a two- to three-hour bike ride from Guilin. Alternatively, take an orange minibus on the stretch of Zhongshan Beilu near Guilin North Train Station to Lingchuan. Get off at Tanxia Lukou ,walk across the road and change to bus 309 for Jiuwu. Arriving in Jiuwu, it’s a 15-minute walk to Jiangtouzhou. Buses stop running around 5.30pm. if you miss the last bus a taxi back to Guilin will set you back ¥200. Note that, there are no official restaurants in Jiangtouzhou, but dependening on your level of Chinese you might be able to convince one of the friendly villagers to provide a meal for you.
Daxu Ancient Town
Nestled on the banks of the Li River, the ancient town of Daxu is considered to be one of the Four Great Ancient Towns of Guangxi, although it rarely receives visitors and has yet to be officially made into a tourist attraction. Consequently, unlike many other ancient towns in China, it is free to enter and the majority of people walking along its cobbled streets are locals. The history of the town dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, built the Lingqu Canal and connected the Xiang River from the Yangtze river basin to the Li River. Once these rivers were connected, Daxu fortunes began to rise as one of the leading trade and transportation hubs in the country. Daxu was one of the few ports along the river that connected Central China with South China, so it was a vital stopping point for traders transporting goods across the country. By the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 CE), Daxu was one of the richest and most influential towns in Guangxi province. Thirteen docks, some still in use today, bear witness to Daxu’s prominence as a commercial hub. Daxu’s prosperity peaked during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and this was when many of its landmark buildings, such as the ancient main road and the Longevity Bridge, were built. However, by the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912CE), the development of modern railways lead to its rapid decline and today it is a sleepy town with flagstoned streets and locals still plying their traditional handicrafts.
Many of the buildings in Daxu were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties and have sustained the intricate, architectural touches from that time. These wood and stone buildings are decorated with beautiful carvings and the Hanhuang Temple, Gaozu Temple and Longevity Temple are the finest examples of this architectural style. All of these temples were built during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, when the town was still prospering, and they exquisitely exhibit the artistry of the architecture at that time.
The ancient town of Daxu can eaily be reached by bus (no 306) from Guilin. The 23km journey takes about 40 minutes. As was mentioned before this is one of the few attractions in China which is free!!
Yangshuo and the Li River
After my last Mandarin Lesson at the CLI I wanted to go and explore the karst mountains along the Li and Yulong Rivers. Thus, I took the bus to Yangshuo from where I proceeded by taxi to my accommodation, the Yangshuo Secret Garden, which is located in the small village of Jiuxiancun on the banks of the Yulong River, right between all the karst mountains, which I had come to see. Although the Secret Garden looks like a derelict Chinese farmhouse from the outside it has been beautifully restored inside.
The location of the hotel is pretty awesome, set in a small, bucolic, Chinese village where farmers still ploughed the ride paddys with water buffalos, away from the hustle and bustle of Yangshuo. The only, slight, downside to the location of the Secret Garden is that there are practically no places to eat around but luckily their restaurant is pretty good. Immediately after checking in I rented a bike for a first foray through the karst landscape, which looks pretty spectacular (even if the weather is not brilliant). My first ride, about two hours long, took me through rice paddies, past fruit orchards and through several little villages before returning to the hotel for dinner. The day after I picked up my bike again and this time I was in the saddle for ten hours solid, mainly because I took a few wrong turns. The downside was that I could barely sit down for two days after, while the upside was that I saw more of this fantastic landscape. But having not ridden a bike in several years, 10 hours is definitely not recommended. The good thing about cycling along the Yulong and Li rivers is that there are practically no large gradients, so cycling is actually a quite pleasant way to get around.