This trip was into Guilin and Yangshuo in China, places known for their limestone cliff (karst) scenery. Online and in-person reviews gave starkly different opinions between Chinese and foreign visitors. The Chinese maintained that Guilin was the better spot to visit and worth more time. The foreigners all said to use Guilin as the entry point, but to head straight to Yangshuo from there. Well, I did head to Guilin first.
On 23rd September 2018, the high-speed rail service connecting Hong Kong and China opened. I had initially wished to arrive in Guilin earlier in the day and booked tickets online – first leg to Guangzhou and second to Guilin. After issuing me the tickets, the agent told me that I would need to collect them at the respective stations – and that I would have insufficient time to collect the second leg tickets after arrival at the station. I tried to cancel the tickets and get the direct train to Guilin. The agent told me they were unable to cancel the first leg ticket; I had to go in person to Hong Kong West Kowloon Station to print the ticket; then they could cancel it. They would not be able to issue a new ticket meanwhile on account of the existing ticket being held in my name. The system was new to the agent and they refunded me the entire amount, including any fees charged by the train operator for the cancellation. The week before the station opened for traffic, I visited it to get my tickets fixed. Security and customer service was everywhere checking out everyone, directing and misdirecting people around. I spent one hour at the train station getting my ticket printed, then cancelled, the new one purchased and printed and finally getting a document clarifying the refund situation.
On September 25, two days after the station opened, I arrived at a much more friendly-looking and crowded station. I had bought my return ticket online and had to collect it in person with my passport; security levels were comparable to that of an airport; this is annoying but normal in China. Ticket collection required different queues depending upon what website one had bought their ticket from. This was confusing but the collection was smooth. I found that this big station had minimal food options. I headed out to the nearby mall for lunch. Camera crews roamed about, filming commuters and asking about their experience. Hong Kong Immigration was smooth as always. China Immigration was just slightly further ahead, deep in Hong Kong soil. It was slow, with just one open counter for foreigners. 5 of us passed through in 13 minutes. They opened a second (and third) counter just as it was my turn.
Train boarding is similar to that of airplanes. The boarding gate is closed until a few minutes before the train is due to depart. I found the second class section of the Fu Xing train to be comfortable with plenty of space between seats. The seat neighbours were not necessarily so desirable. The guy to my left drooled so heavily while he dozed off that his t-shirt had a couple of big wet patches. The train left and arrived on time, occasionally early. We reached Shenzhen North Station 18 minutes after departure. At one point, the LEDs at the front and back of the cabin displayed a speed of 279 Kmph. The train reached Guilinxi (Guilin West) Station ahead of schedule. For some reason, the LEDs displayed it as Guilinbei (Guilin North).
I could already see karst scenery from the train as we approached Guilin. I was looking forward to see them up close. Having checked into my hotel, I set out for the attractions. My hotel faced the Lijiang (Li river). Close by was Elephant Rock, a karst that had a round hole toward one end, making it look like the trunk of an elephant and he entire rock an elephant. I’d bought a ticket that included a bunch of other attractions, so I set out to see them the next day.
The Seven Star Cave was the next. I had to wait for the half hour for the guide to let me in an turn on the lights. The guide’s script seemed to be mostly focused on what the rock formations looked like – because the visitors presumably lacked the imagination to liken the stones to lions and dragons. The formations were lit with garishly coloured lights. There was hardly anyone else there so the experience was unique and good.
Reed Flute Cave was different. I joined at the back of a big queue. We were asked to not go ahead of the tour guide as the guide controlled the lights. After a while of standing in the middle of a big group, I got sick of it and realised that the lights were on up ahead of us. I quit the group and moved ahead. Things got temporarily worse then. The guide shut off the lights so that she could project a video about the formation of the caves, starting with the formation of the earth and dinosaurs. As part of the video, a number of politicians who visited the caves were listed, including Xi Jinping and Nixon. After the lights turned on, there was a ballet display projected for some reason. None of this remotely ignited my interest in caves. I also learned that most of the water visible in the caves was artificially pumped in as the natural water quantity was not sufficiently beautiful/impressive. Reed Flute Cave: thumbs down.
I had a very good lunch for only 10 yuan. It was a noodle with mixed dishes that I found at an ordinary man’s restaurant. We sat on desks. There was minimal service. I got a bowl of rice noodles with soup and added bamboo shoots and an assortment of toppings along with the local chilli sauce. It was a simple, cheap and excellent dish that I loved. They didn’t provide us with spoons, so I had to drain the bowl by raising it to my mouth.
The big attraction came on day 3. I left the hotel and caught a bus at the start of a boat tour down the Li. The tour guide talked non-stop, selling stuff. She was good at it and made a bunch of sales, including upper deck boat tickets to me for 50 yuan (I had been advised to take the upper deck and the travel agent said he could not guarantee it). The boat looked good. It was a “three star” boat. There were leather sofas with fancy-looking wooden dining tables. The windows were big and curtains were nice-looking. There was plenty of legroom. A cabin attendant gave a briefing on the use of the life jacket. Legroom and life jackets are nice, but I would prefer to not spend on upholstery if I don’t have to. However it looked as though most boats we saw were three star. The bottom deck looked quite adequate for viewing and I needn’t have wasted my 50 yuan.
The scenery was brilliant. I had seen karsts elsewhere (in Vietnam, Laos, Philippines and maybe more), but this was sustained, close up and in plenty. And they were beautiful. I saw nothing new but that did not make it any less beautiful. I had brought out an 20 yuan note that had a picture of the karsts. People spent some time looking for the exact scene. It finally showed up at the back of the boat when lunch was served.
It rained for quite a bit of the trip, but not badly enough to hinder sight. I sat inside for quite a bit as the windows were massive. Outside there were professional photographers getting their clients to pose at the right spots at the right angles at the right poses for the optimal shots. Aside from the photographers and the expensive upper deck, it was very good.
Yangshuo turned out to be quite atmospheric. I immediately enjoyed the feel of it – until I came close to the hotel and experienced the smell of a drain. I found that the odour was due to some clogged water close by. The hotel was otherwise brilliantly located. A karst arose right behind it as we approached. My window views were of more karsts.
While the rice noodles were my favourite from Guilin, Yangshuo’s main food attraction were their fish dishes and bamboos filled with rice.
I also came across Chinese restaurants that would provide you with an hourglass upon ordering. Once the timer ran out, any food that came afterward would be free.
The next day I rented a bicycle to ride around. I’d somehow run out of money to pay for “attractions”, but the main attractions were all around and needed no payment. The karsts were impressive and cycling the landscape was a delight.
I took a cab to the Yulong river the following day and tried to walk the area. There were no paths to walk, so I opted for a bamboo raft ride instead. These rafts were made of 10 bamboo poles each. The ends of the poles were bent upward so that they wouldn’t touch the water and create resistance. Two passengers would get on each raft. The boatman unfurled a big sun umbrella over us. He had a 4-metre long pole to punt the raft along the river.
The ride was mostly peaceful. There were signs at the start declaring that it was expressly forbidden to carry precious articles including mobile phones on the raft. This was an arse-covering measure. There was no solution as to how we should manage our phones. The river was split into sections of varying levels by using simple damming methods. The raft would go over the dam, have its front exposed in the air, then crash into the water. A good part of the front would be temporarily submerged before it came back up. We were advised to lift our feet from the floor before the raft crossed the dams. Occasionally the drop would be more than a metre. It was a trifle exciting the first time, but things were OK after that.
At the end of the ride, the raft would be returned to the starting point by road by stacking ten of them on a truck.
I returned to Guilin so I could catch the train back to Hong Kong. I did miss one highlight near Guilin: the Longji rice terraces. The manner in which I’d planned my itinerary meant that I could not see it. However, I had no doubts as to which spot I would recommend to visitors. The trip’s highlights were all spent around Yangshuo: the boat ride to Yangshuo, the bicycle ride in Yangshuo and the Yulong River bamboo raft ride. Should you just stay in Guilin and make day-trips to Yangshuo? No. Stay in Yangshuo and take in the atmosphere.