Friday 5 May 2017


Endless jutting rocks reach skyward in ripples of otherworldly scapes, shining glimmers of paddy fields glow green on the vast flat land that enshrines the karsts. Here amidst the toothy spires lies Guilin, a city of over four million living in the shadow of its own ancient natural scenery.
We witnessed these serrated peaks against a hazy sunset as our train rocketed in across the land from Guangzhou to Guilin. The city itself is a tourist magnet. The natural landscape, targeted for protection as a priority project by China's State Council in 1981, attracts a torrent of backpackers along with thickets of domestic tourists who all seem to congregate around the central point of Zhengyang Pedestrian Street. We quickly realised that we would have to spend a sizeable sum to see the city's sight-seeing contrivances, such as Elephant Hill, the Xi Qing Scenic Area, and the brightly lit Reed Flute Caves.

Instead, we decided that we were in China to see and learn what the quickly changing country has to offer, and to take in, organically, the beauty of the natural landscape. The rough and real city of Guilin remains unfamiliar and unexplored. Tenuous turns down intriguing alleyways and chance looks around the next corner meant that this beguiling city would reveal itself in a totally different way. We found where the tourists do not roam as we stumbled through the doors of the Ba Gui Da Sha Mall ε…«ζ‘‚ε€§εŽ¦ on a walk around town. The mall was old, worn and tatty—a vision of an exciting shopping centre once shiny and new, built in some boom 20 or so years ago, now long-forgotten by the investing national chains and exited by shiny youth brands. Local entrepreneurs have been left here to keep watch over their local dreams. Clapped-out escalators connect three floors of outlets. Fashion shops, phone shops, tattoo parlours, jewellery stands. Shop owners perch on small tables slurping at soups for sustenance, puffing on chains of cigarettes, chatting friendly to their fellow shop ladies and giving us intrigued bewildered glances as we ambled by. It was not a dismal atmosphere: this is a place where locals shop for dresses for nights out, where nail appointments for the week are made.

Descending the steps down into the underground shopping street through thick strips of industrial freezer curtains seemed as if we were leading ourselves into a world of smokey doom, but we kept going, pushing aside the PVC and stepping in. It was worth it. One should spend more time than feels comfortable down here, navigating the stuffy, smelly shops of a subterranean Chinese shopping experience. It is dreamily dreary, dystopian, gloriously grimy; adults gambled with cards whilst children made the dingy space their playground, working and living in dim constricted corridors. We felt like intruders. Turns in the length of tunnels took us to tattoo parlours where needles buzzed in the darkness, and where retailers reclined immortally, a Shangri-La of otherworldly observations. The people of this subterranean shopping world are obliviously fantastic, throwing subversive side-eyes as pale western faces bobbed like cartoons into their vision. Demolition Man-esque enclaves of everyday existence, the underground walkways that run the length of the road from Guilin train station towards an unknown end point are where the heart of Guilin beats. Back above ground in the open air, fresh food is sold from market-style shacks down side streets where old ladies sit sleepily and watch from high windows. Bright fruit and vegetable stalls invite browsers to wander further down roads to stalls where live chickens clucking in cages are sold to order, slabs of carcasses and sacks of rice and grains are refreshed and renewed daily, stall owners sit in the same positions as ever, dozing behind newspapers and neatening their goods. The people of Guilin get their food here, probably have done for ages. In stark opposition to our local explorations, where things like public urination and homeless men in ragged clothes aren't an oddity, is the pedestrianised tourist street. It’s eternally busy, gimmicky and jostling with souvenir shops that seem to be on loop. The bars are popular with holidaymakers and there’s a packed street food area where you’ll find meaty food stalls alongside restaurants vying to fill your stomach. In the quieter peripheries of this area we discovered a batch of cute stationary shops, like Biku 笔库 for instance, where we joined schoolgirls in cooing over the kawaii-ness of everything.

Nearby, with perfectly manicured with bridges and a quaint tea house, the Riyue Shuangta Cultural Park ζ—₯ζœˆεŒε‘”ζ–‡εŒ–ε…¬ε›­ is nice for a stroll on a warm afternoon. Nice, pleasant, you know. In the evening the Sun (ζ—₯ε‘”) and Moon (ζœˆε‘”) Twin Pagodas that sit proudly on Shanhu Lake are illuminated and glow in the reflection of the waters. The central area of Guilin, known as ‘Two Rivers and Four Lakes Scenic Spot’, some of which is man-made, includes Li River, Taohua River, Mulong Lake, Guihu Lake, Ronghu Lake and Shanhu Lake. It has undergone years of development and as a result is clean and safe, however such is the number of parks and riverside walks and canals that it's a struggle to see everything on offer. Ultimately the true star of the show is the karst backdrop that stands stunning and stoic on the outskirts. It was sat up three stories high on the laid-back, bare-bones roof terrace of our hostel that the karsts came to life and spoke to us. The sun began to set and colour the sky in its daily ritual, winds of coolness blew across the mountains and over us as we sat and sipped on a cold end-of-the-day Li Quan beer. The mountains stretched out across the mystifying distance and seemed to come so close we could almost feel them and their time and the solitude and this history they had seen and the lives that had lived in this ancient country. The sun streamed through the slats between the curves of the hunks of tall land and rippled off the surface of Guihu Lake, magnifying the mountains and their presence in this city. High above the noise of the loaded tour boats and rambling sightseer market, a peaceful appreciation of the mountains greeted us in the evening, sat up three stories high watching the land change colour over a beer in Guilin.

  • πŸ”” Guilin This Old Place International Youth Hostel, double room £12 (108CNY)
    Far from what you might imagine a youth hostel to be, but with the friendly relaxed vibe of one, this accommodation was clean, with large double and twin rooms designed with modern touches. For instance, a TV loaded with films (most in Chinese, but it was cool to see Disney's Mulan actually in Chinese). Dormitories, of course, and multi-room family suites available too. And – downstairs anyway – the internet connection gives access to Facebook and all your other favourite blocked sites. Upstairs it's Baidu and Xinhua. Great pizza. Especially when you eat it on that rooftop we've been going on about. Dumpling nights on Tuesdays for guests to get together and meet and mingle and whatever it is you do.

See more from VISITS in China:

Train travel

1 comment:

  1. I've been in Guilin for almost 7 years but it seems you know Guilin better than me. It makes me quite sad that I have to move to another country soon. Will miss my life here. Thanks guys, really great words. Hope to see you around. Best regard.
    The manager of This Old Place Hostel in Guilin
    Mandy Wei