Serene scenes, ancient means, and adventure extreme
Guilin, less than three hours by plane from Beijing, is the portal to Guangxi’s many pleasures.
Check the weather, but try to stay optimistic about rain. The lush green fields and limestone karsts of this unique landscape are nurtured by consistent rainfall. Remember, mists and a delicate drizzle are poetic and evocative. Such humidity means that the comparative chill of winter (averaging 8-10 degrees Celsius) feels colder, and the summer heat (averages 25-28 degrees Celsius) swelters. Thus, late spring and autumn are the best times to visit.
Guilin is neither shy nor inexperienced when it comes to receiving guests, and the city’s hotels hang up enough stars for a constellation or two.
In Yangshuo, try centrally located Nana (RMB 220-450), with canal views and soak-worthy bathtubs. Another option is Lisa’s Mountain View Hotel (www.lisachina.com), where the Garden Mountain View Suite (RMB 280) comes with a private rooftop garden and views of the surrounding karst hills.
Located between Guilin and Yangshuo, Fool’s Paradise, the world’s largest modern sculpture park, is more than amply prepared to help you and your family bed down in style, featuring a Relais & Chateaux boutique hotel that’s sure to satisfy the demands of even the most finicky little empress.
The historic town of Huangyao may not stretch to international hotel standards, but Jinlan Hotel (金兰居, +774 672 2218; RMB 40-50) will match any criterion for cleanliness. The Gus, an adorable couple that runs the place, share tales of growing up in the ancient village, but if your clan must have a sitting toilet, you’ll have to opt for a less personal experience. Ask for the triples at Huangyao Dajiudian (黄姚大酒店, +774 672 2819; RMB 70), or the two doubles at Guilong Binguan (桂龙宾馆, +774 672 2816; fan rooms RMB 40, A/C rooms RMB 60).
After settling into Guilin, head to Elephant Hill Park (象山公园, +773 280 3000; RMB 33) in the afternoon for a post-aviation romp. The limestone behemoth in a pachydermic shape is a symbol of the city and its scenic peaks have inspired poets for millennia. Take advantage of the flavors wafting through the air by sampling local Zhuang cuisine such as gooey sticky-rice treats and snails.
To avoid the weekend hordes swarming all over Guilin, take a few slow steps back in time. Located four hours south of Guilin by bus (departs 1.10pm), Huangyao Old Town (黄姚古镇; RMB 68, free for children under 1.2 meters tall) is a lovingly preserved Ming dynasty town set amidst western Guangxi’s karst mountains.
This time capsule of a town is sure to infatuate fans of Beijing hutongs, while its rural setting ensures fresh air and healthy country cooking. For centuries, Huangyao enjoyed a prosperous existence as a walled village founded by Cantonese merchants, thanks to its prime location on the Yao River and the success of its local products. In particular, its fermented bean sauce earned renown from as far away as the imperial palace.
Although the town walls are now gone, the hamlet is better conserved, both physically and socially, than hyper-commercial hubs like Yunnan’s Lijiang or Shanxi’s Pingyao. Huangyao’s simplicity and serenity add up to a charming antidote for the frayed nerves of city dwellers. A picture-perfect setting for any story of forgotten times, Huangyao has even earned a role in present-day re-imagining of the past; several Hong Kong miniseries and Hollywood’s The Painted Veil were filmed here.
Huangyao’s 3.6 kilometers of flagstone-paved streets and alleys are redolent with cultural and historical significance. The town is dotted with 800-year-old banyan trees, stone bridges arching over meandering rivers, little pavilions, old gate towers and shapely rocks. Take a tour with a local guide (RMB 30) to understand the town’s layout and history before spending a couple of days exploring, relaxing and wandering on your own.
Kids of all ages will get a kick out of the stepping stone bridge, the Celestial Well (仙人古井), the peaks towering over the village, and delicious peanut waffle cookies invented in the Qing dynasty. There are car-free streets and dramatically shaped rocks for climbing, and even natural “slides” worn into the rock by generations of playing village kids. Nature lovers will enjoy the bucolic setting of green vegetation and waddling chicks. The “agricultural interest garden” in the rear of town contains exhibits on traditional farming techniques and the making of local foods like tofu and fermented bean sauce. The many grandmothers and grandfathers strolling the streets and hanging out on doorsteps adore children and usually have small ones of their own in tow.
Huangyao is a country town, and everything you’ll eat here is fresh and seasonal. From garden-fresh vegetables to bamboo shoots harvested in the mountains, there’s a good chance that what you’ll eat is pesticide-free. Free-range chicken is a specialty, as is doufu niang (豆腐酿), or stuffed tofu cooked in a delicate broth – and anything cooked with bean sauce. Try Gujia Chufang (古家厨房), on Anle Jie, the main street of the old town, for a charming dining room, or Hexing Yizhan (和兴驿站, +774 672 2011, inside the Sanxing Lou Gate) for homey favorites from a real country family.
Catch the 8.10am bus for a two-hour ride north to Yangshuo, the perfect place for your family to get active in karst country. With expanses of lush fields punctuated by the region’s distinctive craggy hills stretching out in every direction, the area is ideal for exploration by foot, boat, stroller, or bicycle (built for two).
Starting an hour’s bus ride (RMB 9) north of Yangshuo, the cruise down what is widely regarded as the Li River’s most scenic stretch, from Yangdi to Xinping (2-3hrs, RMB 120 for a small, stroller-friendly bamboo raft), is a great way to take in the geological splendor. For those with time to spare and energy to burn, the route also makes a great walk (18km, about five hours). Buses (RMB 9 for 1hr) run between Yangshuo and Yangdi regularly, as well as back to Yangshuo (RMB 7 for 30min) from the cruise’s terminus, the ancient, well-kept town of Xinping, lovely for a stroll.
By bicycle (built for two with baby basket, RMB 20/day), the two-hour circuit of the nearby Wulong River is nothing short of stunning.
The Yangshuo area abounds with opportunities for outdoor adventure in the summer. Nana’s helps organize minibus trips to attractions such as the Silver Caves (RMB 60 per person), sure to wow your lil’ ones. Older kids may enjoy rock climbing, river drifting, canoeing, and camping, all of which is organized by local groups such as Chinaclimb (www.chinaclimb.com).
In the evening, catch “Liu San Jie,” the lightshow-play-”spectacular” (originally directed and conceived by Zhang Yimou) that runs every night and tells the story of a young village woman. The famous “West Street” also has bars and cafes aplenty for a drink or two if parents have a free night.
If Yangshuo’s evocative peaks and boundless activities don’t engage your little rapscallion’s imagination, Fool’s Paradise will. A 50-hectare architecture park between Guilin and Yangshuo, this wonderland-come-to-life is a rare example of what can happen when money and resources are “foolishly” devoted to art and imagination. With expanses of artwork roaming against an otherworldly backdrop of warped karsts, including a forest of caricatures by Taiwanese cartoonist Jimmy, Fool’s Paradise (愚自乐园) may make happy fools out of you and your brood (www.guilinhoma.com; RMB 60, children RMB 30). Buses (RMB 5) from Guilin bus station or Yangshuo to Fool’s Paradise run every 20 minutes from 6.40am to 6.40pm and let you off at the main gate. A 25-minute taxi from either Guilin or Yangshuo to Fool’s Paradise is around RMB 90.
Appetite and adventure thrills sated, fly back to Guilin. Catch a flight back to Beijing. Shelley Jiang and Gabriel Monroe