Rice Terraces at Longji
Where few believe what they see - Guilin, China
It was as though I’d woken up in a fairytale. A mystical, low-lying fog had swooped down in the night and curled its pearlescent fingers over the sleepy fishing village of Yangshuo, where it clung heavily to the surrounding limestone peaks, the lapping waters of the River Li, and the many bicycles parked haphazardly on the boardwalk. The mist was so thick it was viscous. But then, in the early morning light, the village’s trademark karst mountain – ‘Lion Ascending the Five Finger Hill’ – reached out towards heaven like an old man’s knobbly knuckled finger and broke through the haze.
Resembling mounds of sugar dropped haphazardly from the sky amongst a series of bamboo-thicketed rivers, southern China’s limestone mountains are said to number some 400,000 and are best admired from Yangshuo and its larger sister city just upriver, Guilin. The magical combination of mountains and rivers lends the region a high rating on China’s ‘feng-shui’ index and, for centuries, has made it the subject of many Chinese poems and illustrations: the Song dynasty poet Fan Chengda opined back in the 12th century that “I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin, which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw.”
It would seem that little has changed since Chengda’s day, as this is still the China of yore. Conically-hatted farmers potter around their bright green rice terraces while fishermen, always a cigarette playing on their lips, punt their way across the waters in flat-bottomed bamboo boats and use trained cormorants to help them hunt their prey.
Nowhere are the views of this landscape more glorious than from the River Li itself. Having rented a bicycle for 10 Yuan (₤1) from Yangshuo, I cycled through rows of yellow-blooming rapeseed (a favourite photo opp amongst newlywed Chinese) to take a bamboo boat cruise past thousand-year-old banyan trees and over small rapids. In the summer months, tourists – Chinese and foreign – horde these views, but in spring, when the fog rises from the waters and lends an otherworldly aspect to the view, you might find yourself alone on the river with your thoughts, as I did.
The next morning I set off early for Guilin (meaning, literally, “osmanthus forest”), stopping, on the way, at Guilin’s only organic tea plantation. Once the royal tea garden of the Ming Dynasty, the Guilin Tea Science and Research Institute still picks and processes all of its teas by hand, an elaborate, 2,000-year-old method that involves kneading and heating the leaves in one’s hands. After picking a few leaves myself, I learned how to properly smell, taste and drink tea in a tea ceremony involving clay, porcelain and glass pots. The Institute’s oolong – a deliciously smoky but lingeringly sweet black tea – and osmanthus, a highly floral and sweet tea almost a dessert unto itself, were a beautiful introduction to the world of Chinese tea.
Guilin’s peaks stretch nearly as far below the ground as they do above it, making the city as famous for its picturesque landscape as for its stalactite caves. At Reed Flute Cave, a jaw-droppingly psychedelic portal into Guilin’s ‘other world’, pink, purple, blue and green lights illuminate the calcium deposit formations’ shapes of window curtains, crouching tigers, long columns and ‘elders having tea’.
I completed my trip to southern China with a 2.5-hr drive north from Guilin to Longsheng, home of the Yao and Zhuang peoples, two of the region’s six minority groups. Cypress and fern forests dot the hills alongside four-storey, traditional wooden houses here, but the real sight is the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’, a series of 13th-century rice terraces that extend some 1100m above ground. While the town itself is entirely tourist-driven, the crafts are intricate, the bamboo rice divine, and the views truly spectacular. In fact, don’t be surprised if, when you get home, even you don’t believe what you saw.
- Getting to and from Guilin is easy. Hong Kong is an overnight train ride away, whilst flights run daily to the city from mainland China (notably Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an), and from the UK (look for direct British Airways or China Eastern flights).
- Guilin Tea Science and Research Institute: www.guilintea.com
- Impressions Sanjie Liu: Lamely categorized as a “son et lumiere” show, this is a 70-minute piece de resistance by Chinese director Zhang Yimou (House of the Flying Daggers). Set against the backlit mountains of Yangshuo, it is a gorgeous introduction to the music, costumes and culture of the region’s six minority groups, and runs every night.
Kate Hodal is a freelance photographer and writer currently travelling through Asia, with fuller pictures and details of her travels found at www.katehodal.com