Scenic, tranquil Guilin makes for a delightful break from China’s megacities
The star attraction of Guilin is the enchanting landscape. According to an ancient Chinese legend, Guilin is the most beautiful place on earth, and it’s very easy to understand how someone could come to that conclusion. When it’s sunny everything seems to sparkle, the luscious greenery glistens and birds sing away. Guilin is perhaps even more beautiful when it rains as the seductive mist envelops the dramatic karst limestone cliffs, sprawling rice paddies and ancient villages dotted along the crystal-clear Li River. As you watch the bamboo rafts peacefully float down the limpid Li River, it’s incredibly easy to forget you ever had an urban existence. It’s no wonder that Guilin is the subject of numerous Chinese paintings and is pictured on the 20-yuan bill – after all, heaven on earth may just exist.
Guilin is part of the Yangshou Province in the Guangxi region of China. It’s situated around two rivers and lakes that are interconnected, the most famous being the Li River which zigzags through Guilin from north to south, becoming particularly wide and beautiful near bustling Yangshou. Generations of artists and writers have based themselves in Guilin over thousands of years, seeking inspiration from the majestic surrounding environment, so it’s no surprise that Guilin is an art lovers’ mecca.
Guilin can be likened to Chinese calligraphy – fluid, beautiful and ever changing. The environment is dynamic – it encourages people to imagine, to dream. So it’s no surprise that artists have been daubing their brush strokes in Guilin for thousands of years, trying to capture its beauty.
The pinnacle of Guilin’s art scene is a modern sculpture park, founded by Taiwanese entrepreneur Tsao Rhy-Chang in 1997. It’s a park of impressive proportions, and home to an array of remarkable sculptures by more than 150 internationally recognised artists from 30 countries. The park, originally home to a Relais & Châteaux property, was opened to the public in 2006; Club Med (clubmed.com.au) took over, improved and expanded the park, and officially threw open its doors in September 2013. Staying at Club Med Guilin offers guests the ultimate experience – that is staying within southern China’s crown jewel, a park that cultivates brilliant minds.
“The sculpture garden surrounding the resort is one of the unique highlights of Club Med Guilin,” explains Madeleine Clow, Club Med General Manager, Australia and New Zealand. “Before Club Med opened, artists used to be invited to stay at the property for several months, and as part of the stay they each created a sculpture (or several) for the garden.”
The resort had to be designed in a way to complement the existing surroundings and today there are two complexes for guests to choose from. The arty HOMA Chateau Hotel is a redesign of the former Relais & Châteaux property. It has 46 rooms based on five different design concepts – modern Chinese-themed, rooms based on modern sculptures by artist A Kan, a cave series (with inspiration taken from the surrounding karst rock faces), a lin grass series and contemporary rooms. This is the place to snag a room if you are into design. If not, the modern Courtyard Hotel is ideal too – 284 sleekly appointed rooms – and really, who stays inside anyway?
There are plenty of other arty attractions to check out in the area. The Guilin Art Museum is a highlight. Opened to the public in 1997, it’s the only art museum in the Guangxi region and houses a plethora of beautiful Chinese landscape paintings from different eras. The Guangxi Normal University Art Shop is also home to a variety of art, with many pieces available for purchase. The gallery-shop stocks everything from landscape paintings from different periods to more recent fine art works by the Guangxi Normal University students.
Out & about
A holiday in Guilin can be as relaxing or as active as you like – either way, you’re amongst some of the world’s most scenic surrounds. Those wanting a serene activity can opt for a cruise along the Li River, sunset being a particularly pleasant time. Although there are a few larger boats catering to big groups, the experience is more authentic on a bamboo raft.
Adventure seekers will love the rock climbing and bike riding options on offer.
Australian Scott Spencer, together with two fellow Australians, runs the very successful Bike Asia (bikeasia.com). “After a few months relaxing in Yangshuo’s cafés and swimming in secluded rivers the plot was hatched to start our own company running cycling tours in China,” Spencer says.
“We’re still based in Yangshuo, but we now run tours all over Asia. In Guilin we love taking cyclists through the Yulong River Valley, a loop from Yangshuo to Moon Hill via Fuli and Liugong villages, or a big hilly ride to Xing Ping. The beauty of Guilin is that there are gentle scenic rides, challenging road bike rides and some excellent cross country mountain biking – all with the regions extraordinary karst mountain scenery as a backdrop.”
Eating and shopping go hand-in-hand in any Chinese city, and it’s no different in Guilin. The city’s celebrated rice noodles can be found on almost every street corner, and glutinous rice and stewed duck are two other traditional dishes that are worth a try.
Those wanting to learn about the region’s food first-hand can book in for a cooking class at Yangshuo Cooking School (yangshuocookingschool.com). The four-hour class begins with a glimpse into community life, involves a visit to the local markets, and ends like all cooking lessons should – with a big, tasty meal.
If it’s just eating you’re after, Yangshou’s West Street has a surfeit of restaurants to choose from, and Spencer recommends to simply, “choose a busy eatery, order what the locals are eating, then add chilli and pickled veggies to taste.” West Street is also a shoppers’ paradise, and home to a large collection of water colour paintings, minority handicrafts, souvenirs, knick-knacks, Chinese memorabilia and everything else imaginable.
It doesn’t matter what night, but you must make time for the Impressions Sanjie Liu water theatre show. Over 600 artists perform a unique and majestic performance on the Li River, with the karst mountains acting as the backdrop. There couldn’t be a more ideal setting, and the show itself is nothing short of spectacular – a brilliant and awe-inspiring extravaganza, much like Guilin itself.