Crowns of Nature: The Majestic Landscape of Guilin

A landscape of harmony and peace, with scenery made for poetry and romance: the majestic karst landscape of the north-east Guangxi Zhuang Region in south-west China is one of nature’s true masterpieces.
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 1 - 2012


The Dragon Pagoda, or the Palace of the Dragon King, houses a small lake which mirrors the karst formations in the colourful light. Source: Morten Smelror Large areas in south-west China comprise spectacular landscapes as a result of karst limestone. In the centre of this scenic tropical world is Guilin, one of China’s leading tourist cities. In the yellow light of the setting sun, the peaks rising sharply from the green plains of the Guilin district appear to be competing for the beauty crown. No wonder the region attracts millions of tourists every year.

Capital of Karst

In Chinese, the name Guilin literally means “the forest of sweet osmanthus trees”. If you visit Guilin in early October, you will experience a city covered in flowering trees. There are many historical sites in Guilin, but the most renowned feature is its dramatic karst terrain, and the city is often referred to as the ‘capital of karst’. Guilin City was first established during the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 B.C.) by Emperor Qin Shi Huang and thus has a 2,000-year history. Emperor Qin Shi Huang is well known for creating the army of terracotta warriors, which was found in Xian (over 1,000 km to the north of Guilin) during the 1970s. He also started the building of the Ling Canal, linking the Yangtze and Pearl River systems, which is a significant factor in cultural and economic exchange between central and southern China.

The taste of snake-wine is definitely something special! Image: Morten Smelror
The bedrock around Guilin consists of Devonian limestone. As a consequence of the collision of India with Asia which formed the Himalayas, the limestone was uplifted and exposed. Over the past 40 million years these rocks have been weathered, dissolved and eroded by rain and flowing water. The product is a landscape with thousands of majestic peaks, with numerous sharp, narrow valleys, and with many caverns and sinkholes beneath. Some of the underground caves stretch for many kilometres.

Generally, two types of karst landscapes predominate in Guilin: fenglin or peak forest (isolated towers) and fengcong or peak cluster (linked-base towers). The monsoon climate with high moisture during the warmest season has been a driving force for the sculpturing of the landscape, which comprises some of the most spectacular karst topography in the world.

The Reed Flute Cave

A landscape made for poetry. Han Yu, a Tang Dynasty poet, wrote: “The Li River forms a green gauze belt, the mountains are like jade hairpins”. Image: Morten Smelror The Reed Flute Cave is located on the southern shoulder of the Guangming Hill, five kilometres north-west of Guilin City centre, and is one of the most extraordinary sights in Guilin. Reeds for making flutes and pipes have been grown in this region since ancient times, and according to legend, Reed Flute Cave got its name because people believed that the reed by the cave’s mouth could be made into flutes.

The cave, which also is known as “the Palace of Natural Arts”, is 240m deep and 500m long and offers a majestic display of underground karst features such as stalactites, stalagmites, stone pillars, stone curtains and more. In the glittering colourful light, the formations take the form of birds, plants and animals in fantastic shapes and hues. Some of them are given imaginative names like Pines in the Snow, Mushroom Hill, Dragon Pagoda, Sky-Scraping Twin, Virgin Forests and Red Curtain.

Tourists had already begun visiting this cave in the Tang Dynasty, which existed between the years 618 and 907, and the more than 70 wall inscriptions from the Tang Period inside the cave bear eloquent witness to its long history. In modern times the cave was opened for tourists in 1959. The walk through the cave normally takes about an hour. Among the many visitors that have been captivated and inspired by the fascinating underground theatre in the Reed Flute Cave are the script writers and set designers for the Star Trek movie, and the former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Floating on the River Li

The unique performance “Impressions Liu Sanjie” involves up to 1,000 singers and dancers and is the largest of its kind in the world. The performance builds on a local love story, and includes elements of the Minority people folklore as well as fishermen on rafts, and cormorants. Image: Morten Smelror No trip to Guilin would be considered complete without a boat ride on the Lijiang River to Yangshuo, regarded by many visitors as the centrepiece of a trip to the north-eastern Guangxi Province. The Li River cruise offers one of the best opportunities to experience the varieties of the scenic karst landscape.

As you float downstream, gorgeous peaks offer you surprises at each bend of the limpid river. Along the way you will see water buffalo eating plants in the shallow water, peasants working on the rice paddies, school kids waving from the villages and fishermen floating by on bamboo rafts. Many Chinese paintings and poems present this charming scene and tourists never tire of photographing it.

Following Chinese tradition the peaks along the river are given imaginative names, such as Snail Hill, Green Lotus Peak (Bilian Peak), and Schoolboy Hill (Shutong Hill). Although many take some imagination to visualise, listening to your tour guide’s legendary stories behind them is a delightful experience as you appreciate the landscapes. Most are mystical fairy and love stories – and the scenery is equally beautiful.

On the way you may be treated to many local delicacies, including a taste of the local Sanhua wine, which is very famous in China. Sanhuajiu is a typical Chinese savoury rice wine, known as “the King of Wine”, and can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960–1127). It is made using the pure water from the Li River, and is of very high quality. The taste of local snake-wine is, however, a matter for discussion!

A Day in Shangri-La

The Dong people’s costumes have a long history, being colorful and varied. They generally value simple and unsophisticated designs, but extra fine costumes used at the most important occasions include beautiful silver jewelry. Photo: Morten Smelror Ever since the English writer, James Hilton, published his legendary novel “Lost Horizon” in 1931, the paradise of Shangri-La, characterised by snowcapped mountains, vast grasslands, lush vegetation, gorgeous gorges and idyllic lakes, has been a distant dream for many. However, not far from Guilin you can visit what some claim is the real Shangri-La.

You can make your own reflections about lost paradises and the art of modern day tourism, but at the present day Shangri-La you get a good sense of Hilton’s original ideas of a paradise on earth. More importantly, at the visitor centre at Shangri-La you gain an excellent insight into the rich and colourful cultural heritage of the various Chinese Minority folk groups in the area. Here you will find traditional building complexes showing the symbolic architecture of the Dong Minority people placed around the idyllic Swallow Lake and surrounded by impressive natural scenery. It is best to board a boat and sail on the gentle water and enjoy the breathtaking natural beauty.

Folk art lovers should not miss the Folk Customs in the Grand-view Garden. Here you will find a variety of art, crafts and local souvenirs displayed. During your visit you can also enjoy various performances featuring ethnic dances and songs.

Spectacular Outdoor Theatre

Green fields surrounded by majestic karst peaks at Shangri-La. Image: Morten Smelror After a day filled with scenic delights on the River Lijiang, you might be ready for even more. Spend at least one night in Yangshou so you can be highly impressed by the unique performance “Impressions Liu Sanjie”. This utilises the landscape for its actual setting, creating a spectacular outdoor theatre, where the Li River itself is the stage and twelve mountains serve as the backdrop. The water stage is two kilometres long and 600m in width. The show involves as many as 1,000 singers and dancers and is the largest of its kind in the world.

The performance builds on a local love story, and involves elements of the Minority people folklore. Fishermen on rafts, and cormorants, are of course included. It took more than three years to develop the show, and it was directed by Zhang Yimou, who also directed the famous 2002 movie ‘Hero’ and the opening ceremony of the recent Beijing Olympics. The audience sits on specially designed terraces with capacity for up to 3,000 visitors. The theatre is designed to blend, merge and work with the natural environment. The changing weather and seasons bring something different to each performance and the fantastic lighting effects highlight the beauty of the setting. The performance is a landmark of Lu Sanjie culture, and is a unique experience indeed, not to be missed.


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