Wednesday, February 16, 2011


All the guidebooks report that the area around Guilin has long been spoiled by its popularity with tourists, and it is hard to dispute this contention.  Tourists are everywhere, and there are nearly as many hawkers trying to sell postcards, tours, bicycle rides, and much else.  So there is that--people trying to make a living out of the tourist trade.

But the landscape, seemingly perforated by enormous limestone karsts long ago pushed violently upward by geologic pressures, inspires wonder and explains why so many tourists have been drawn here. The Li Jiang, the principal river in the district, now seems a slight force of nature—a broad but  mostly dry, rocky channel—but at one time the river helped carve out the landscape that confronts today's tourists. And tourists there are in abundance! Some travel the river in small skiffs fashioned from a dozen or so large bamboo poles fastened next to one another and capped at the ends (often with pieces of automobile tires) to keep the river's water out; perhaps four or six chairs sit on the deck with a small covering overhead;  at the rear sits the single boatman operating a very small outboard motor that gently propels the craft forward, the river's water gently washing over the deck. Modern variations of this boat depend not upon bamboo but upon a dozen PCV tubes, often capped not with automobile tires but with PCV caps such as your household plumber might stock. Some larger craft navigate the river, too, but the channel is neither deep nor wide, so all the boats must accommodate themselves to this reality.

No matter how you view the jagged landscape around Guilin, the impression is powerful. Andrew,  Xian Na, Jill and I signed up for an all-day tour that began with a bus ride out of town, visiting several spots along the way where we might sample the different shapes of Guilin's geology. Being so far south, Guilin enjoys a milder climate than northern China, so we noticed that many forms of plant life  prospered here even in February.  For example, Jill had noticed on the plane trees that lined one of the downtown streets that ferns were freely growing along the bark, and we saw palms, cycads, birds' nest ferns, and much else that will not grow outdoors further north. More impressive still was an enormous banyan tree we encountered at one of our stops. According to the posted sign, experts estimated the tree to be about 1100 years old, its various spreading branches held upright by a network of younger stems.

After lunch we all entered a cave that opened up within one of these enormous rocky thrusts.  Riding part of the way in a sort of canoe, then later walking through a network of pathways and stairs, we enjoyed the illumined topography—hollowed out caves, tall stalagmites, dangling, undulated stalactites—generated by the mineral-rich waters that had long made their way through this limestone.  Sadly, the way out of the cave led through an intricately-designed, one-way path that passed absolutely every conceivable salable memoir of the adventure! But the cave trip made it possible to think about the interiors of these monstrous projections that lined the horizon all around us.

Of course, one need not travel far to enjoy Guilin. In an effort to recover a bit from all the excitement of the wedding and travel, the four of us got a late start one morning, and used the day to explore Elephant Trunk Hill (it seems that all the hills have been given names intended to reflect their appearance) situated right in town, but rising sharply above the Li Jiang. We also strolled along the lake by our hotel, decorated with a pagoda now serving as a tea house.
And on our last day we enjoyed a sunny stroll through Quixing Park on the city's east side. The breeze was a bit stiff, but the sun brought out families and it was fun to watch little kids chasing after wind-blown bubbles, or running wildly after one another with parents or grandparents close at hand. In such a scene it was impossible to miss those basic joys and ambitions that unite all persons, no matter where they live.

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