Jennifer Fairhurst goes in search of a China beyond The Great Wall and discovers Guilin, where the scenery has been immortalised in iconic brush paintings.
If I had been plucked from London and dropped in Guilin, I would have instantly known I was in China.
The short connecting flight from Shanghai felt like a journey into a magical land. Sunset and mist floated around Guilin’s numerous limestone karsts - the straight-up-and-down cartoon-like hills familiar from Chinese brush paintings - with the Li River meandering through them, encased by rice paddy fields.
Guilin is in the southern Guangxi province. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of China and has inspired innumerable paintings and literary works. That said, it has become a popular tourist destination and attracts visitors in their thousands. But don’t let that put you off, it is well worth putting up with the crowds.
The best way to experience the awe-inspiring scenery is on the water. A boat ride on the River Li from Guilin to Yangshuo is touristy, but to be on board a modern motorboat weaving its way through the ancient karsts, each with their unique shapes and their different legends, is a must.
As you glide along the still water you pass fishing villages where fishermen still use cormorants to catch their harvest. Bamboo trees line the water and black butterflies, the size of your hand, flutter by with prehistoric-looking dragonflies dancing along the water.
Next the boat pulls into Yangshou. The city is best experienced on a bike, which can be hired on most streets. Be careful though, it is both hairy and exhilarating negotiating your way through the traffic. Most residents have abandoned their pushbikes in favour of mopeds and the Highway Code doesn’t seem to exist.
It is easy, though, to escape the wacky races and drift into the countryside. It is also a great opportunity to interact with the locals and get an idea of how rural Chinese live. Carry a light waterproof though as the humid conditions mean the area is prone to heavy rainfall and cycling when you’re drenched isn’t so much fun.
To sample some local culture, a visit to Impression of Liu San is a must. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the mastermind behind the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the production is an outdoor performance set on the River Li, with twelve mist-shrouded mountains as the backdrop.
The reflections, moonlight, cloud and rain serve as the stage dressing, made all the more dramatic with lighting. A love story, it has a cast of 500 - who are mostly local fishermen, and uses amazing lighting tricks, ghostly fishing boats and even giant red ribbons to tell the story with folk songs. The hour-long performance will have you open-mouthed all the way through.
In search of more of China’s beautiful scenery, Hangzhou is a two-hour flight from Guilin. The grim suburban approach into the city doesn’t prepare you for the beauty of its main attraction, the beautiful West Lake. Carpeted with floating lotus flowers, surrounded by lush mountains and ancient pagodas, a boat trip on its still waters is an oriental delight.
Hangzhou is also the place to sample green tea. The area is famous for the quality of its tea leaves, which can be swallowed whole and apparently have health-giving qualities. Take an excursion to a plantation and take part in a tea ceremony. Just a warning though, good quality tea is more expensive than alcohol and can cost more than £15 for a small tin.
A six-hour drive past paddy fields, tea plantations and farms is Huang Shan, or the Yellow Mountain. The 72-peak range is a must for anyone in search of China’s unique scenery. The granite, jagged peaks formed the inspiration for the scenery in the Oscar-winning movie Avatar.
We ascended the mountain by cable car and as you go up you start to understand why it is regarded as one of China’s most beautiful destinations. Mist hangs in folds around the trees and the peaks form peculiar shapes with fanciful names such as ‘Nine Dragons’ and ‘Hunchback’.
From the cable car there was quite a walk to the Beihai hotel, which is in a prime location for accessing the best views. Hundreds of granite steps wind you around the mountains vistas, which will be familiar to any fans of Chinese art - they have been the subject of many an ink painting.
We arrived at sunset as the orange light shone through the clouds and created shadows in the dark crevices. In the distance indigenous monkeys were climbing up the peaks - you felt like you had entered a Tolkeinesque dream world.
It is well worth dragging yourself out of bed to see sunrise. The best place to view it is right in front of the Beihai, but you’ll have to fight the crowds. If you scramble off the beaten track you can find a private place to lose yourself in the heavenly beauty.
A couple of hours drive from Huang Shan is a must for film fans. The villages of Hongcun and Xidi were used as film locations for cult film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It was in Xidi where I enjoyed the best meal of the trip, at the Pig’s Inn, an authentic guest house with views over village’s higgledy piggledy rooftops. The delicious menu included edamame beans with fresh chilli, steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, spiced chicken that fell off the bone and melt-in-your-mouth duck.
Chinese food was a complete surprise. There was none of the deep fried sweet and sour or egg-fried rice takeaway favourites. Each region has distinct specialities and rice is eaten at the end of a meal, if you are not full from the endless courses.
If you want to see another side of China, enjoy authentic cuisine and discover the stunning natural beauty that has inspired centuries of Chinese artists, this trip is the one for you. Not only will you feel you have really seen the country, you will leave feeling you have lived it too.
Jennifer travelled to China with Far East specialist’s Cox & Kings (0845 1548941/www.coxandkings.co.uk) who organise group tours and tailor-made private travel throughout the region. An 11 day/9 night private tour of China, including 3 nights at the Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai, 2 nights at the Shangri-La Guilin, 2 nights at the Shangri-La Hangzhou, a night on Huang Shan Mountain and a night in Tunxi is from £3,495 pp. This price includes all flights from London Heathrow with British Airways, internal flights, transfers, excursions with a private guide and accommodation with breakfast daily.