|Guilin is a very lovely city, and this is so, even apart from the dramatic scenery which surrounds the place. Even if you do not recognise the name, most people know what this place looks like - as it is the images of Guilin that decorate most photos, postcards, and paintings of China. It is also the number one tourist destination for the chinese people themselves. Although thankfully for us, the school holidays are finally over, and everything is now much much quieter!
The city itself is still a big place, with over a million population - yes another one of this size and above! But it seems pretty relaxed, and people are much friendlier. Maybe it is a southern thing as we found Yunnan to be the same, although maybe we are more relaxed now as well. We move onto the backpacker, more rural, haven of Yangshuo next, to see more of this scenery, but for now we are in the city. We were told that things would be expensive here and then much cheaper in Yangshuo, but we actually found a really good deal on a hotel just off the Central Square. It was a very local tourist place, with everything in chinese including the signs. It took us a while to even work out the Pinyin name for the hotel, but the staff were really helpful, despite translation problems.
It is not until you climb some of the limestone karst peaks dotted around town, that you can really take in the scenery of Guilin. The city is completely surrounded in lush green weirdly shaped peaks, that tower above the suburbs and then way off into the distance. The scenery is very similar to Vang Vien/Tam Coc in north Vietnam & Laos - except that the peaks are greener and there appears to be much more of them. Not too surprising regarding the similar scenery, considering how close we are now to SE Asia.
We caught some great views at the top of Fubo Shan (Wave Subduing Hill) and from Xiangbi Shan (Elephant Trunk Hill). The names give you an idea of the weird shapes formed, although for some, we found it a bit difficult to see how they exactly got the given name!
The views from these two peaks were fantastic as written above, but were also situated above the very pretty Li (Jiang) River that flows through the city on the way to Yangshuo. The Autumn Tiger continued while in Guilin which meant it was extremely hot weather. This caused two things. One was that the resulting heat haze made the mountain peaks seem more surreal and even higher than they are, and it also meant a change of shirt at the end of each climb! These hills have been turned into lovely parks which of course you have to pay to get in.
But none of the parks would surpass Qixing Park, on the east side of the river, which is very beautiful, and has lots of places to explore within its boundaries. It has seven peaks to climb for stunning views. The one we climbed was called "Picking Star Pavilion"! And the park has two great caves. The one we went to was called Seven Star Cave it was spectacular and goes for at least a kilometre (we lost track of how far we walked) under the limestone peaks above. It has massive caverns filled with lit up stalactites and stalagmites of very unusual shapes. The Dark Dragon Cave is more in the open running into the Li River, but has loads of ancient stelae (calligraphy) inscribed on the walls. Looked a bit like posh graffiti!
This park is also where Bill Clinton made a famous speech on the environment in 1998. And as usual the Chinese have made a big deal of it. The podium is still in place next to Camel Hill, and there are photos of the event, and even a copy of the speech still taped to the podium! We have been used to seeing Clinton's mug over here already. He and 'the family' are seen at the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. On a side note, Nixon and Carter also loved their trips to the Guilin region, although Carter came here long after he became an ex-president.
Sadly, there is also a small zoo in the park, so we finally got to see the disgrace of an asian zoo. Will not go into much detail of how bad the monkey and bird cages were, as you can probably guess. The combination with the heat was pretty unsavoury,although most of the animals did seem pretty perky for that time of the day. But it was very good to see a Giant Panda again. His name was YueYue, and he most definitely had pride of place at the zoo with a luxurious compound, and he seemed pretty active and happy despite his solitary confinement (Giant Pandas apparently live pretty solitary lives in the wild). Compare this with the poor Tiger who was sleeping in a very small cage. Bizarrely,you can have your photo taken with him, and there were photographic examples outside the cage of people posing next to (and children on top of) a rather unhappy, and angry looking, tiger! Man, how bonkers is that?! Almost hopes he gets one for lunch, so the cruelty would stop, and he would probably be put out of his misery.
Guilin is also a lovely city at night, and is filled with lots of flashing neon lights around Central Square. Best of all is to wander to the two nearby lakes of which Rong Hu is the main one. At night, they light up the islands and bridges on the lake, and there was even an operatic performance on one island for people to watch from the shoreline. We saw this when we went down there on the Friday night.
Finally, after a month or so with just eating chinese food, we searched for more diversity here, and found sushi bars and even NZ steak to enjoy! But the best food experience was when we went to the Good Aunts for brunch. This place occupies a whole floor of a large shopping mall, and basically is a pick and choose from a smorgasbord of local specialities. The dim sums, dumplings and noodles were great!