GUILIN - Mist-covered limestone mountains rise steeply from both banks of the Li River, framing a panorama of natural beauty and rural life. Lush green trees cover gray and rust-colored rock. Water buffalo graze on one side of the shallow waters, while on the other side, women wash clothes. Narrow bamboo rafts propelled by large oars transport villagers. Undulating farmland reveals crops planted in perfect symmetry across the gaps between peaks.
The mountains appear close enough to touch as I wind down the Li on the top deck of a flat-bottomed boat. Generations of Chinese poets and scroll painters have been seduced by this scenery, and more recently the landscape has attracted Hollywood filmmakers for movies like "The Painted Veil." The Chinese prize these idyl lic vistas and their 20-yuan bill features a lone rafter working his way down the Li. The scene recalls a simpler past still imaginable rounding the many river bends on a four-hour boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo.
Long a popular destination for Chinese tourists, Guilin and the surrounding countryside appear eager to capitalize on growing international interest in the People's Republic. Like most of China, Guilin is in transition, figuring its place in a more open society. While cities like Beijing and Xi'an showcase dynastic treasures and Shanghai provides an evolving view of modern China, Guilin (population 600,000) offers a slower pace and break from history in a city locals consider "a village." Guilin translates to "forest of Osmanthus flowers."
Although Guilin is quickly modernizing, it still feels more authentic than bigger Chinese cities accustomed to catering to foreign tourists. Building ordinances prohibit towering skyscrapers, preserving largely unobstructed views of nearby mountains. The Li and linked lakes essentially create a moat around the city center and explain its compact design. The proximity of the river, hotels, and attractions encourages casual exploring beyond the crowded Zhengyang pedestrian street packed with shops and restaurants.
Walking along Binjiang Road on the west bank of the Li, I pass rows of the city's namesake Osmanthus trees and Fubo Hill with its 325-step climb to sweeping views of the city. Farther down, older men bend over steaming bowls of Guilinese rice noodles at roadside eateries with makeshift tables and squat stools. Behind one of the eateries, a narrow riverside path leads to hidden city life.
On an unseasonably cold spring morning, swimmers circle a narrow section of the river, happily motioning me to join. With more than two dozen riverside factories moved in order to keep the river clean and protect the area's natural assets, all that stops me is the water temperature. In small caves along the river, some retirees perform tai chi, while others sing. On a Saturday morning, farmers pedal and walk baskets full of vegetables to small, seemingly impromptu, riverside market stands.
Lunchtime on the river cruise makes me hunger for the farmer's bounty instead of a less fresh local offering. On the boat, a serious-looking young man brings a bottle of cloudy, honey-colored snake rice wine to my table. A tangle of snake carcasses marinate in the bottom of the bottle. I pass on the offering. Locals believe snake rice wine eases the pain of arthritis. If drinking wine flavored by snake carcasses doesn't sound appealing, there is always snake blood wine where rice wine is mixed with drops of snake blood. Locals believe the blood aids eye health. Not enticed by snakes, but still looking for local flavor? Sweet wine or tea flavored with Osmanthus flowers may be more palatable.
Shortly after lunch, two enterprising villagers pull up next to the boat on a raft stocked with fresh fruit and jade trinkets. They hold up pieces and shout prices. They find no takers, but the salesmen provide a preview of Yangshuo, where aggressive shop owners hawk everything from
A fisherman proudly poses beside the river with a pair of cormorants and charges five yuan, about 72 cents, for a picture of the birds. When not on display, fishermen make the cormorants do their work, tying string around the birds' necks so they cough up what they catch on the river.
Commercially-driven chaos also abounds back in Guilin. Guides warn about pickpockets, counterfeiters changing money outside hotels, and locals luring foreign tourists to massage parlors and private karaoke that, to put it politely, offer much more than advertised. Getting out of trouble can prove especially costly. Even traveling to and touring legitimate attractions, visitors can feel overcharged, or at least nickeled-and-dimed. To avoid some of the hassle and extra cost, tours of different sites can be arranged through hotels or local branches of the China International Travel Service with transportation included.
Outside the caves beneath Fubo Hill, young women wearing the brightly-colored traditional dress of ethnic minorities pose for pictures for a price. It seems cultural pride keeps them from being pushy. Here in this southern province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, almost 40 percent of the population is non-Han minority. While the chance to experience minority life prompts visitors to make excursions around the region, Guilin offers more than limestone mountains and the Li River.
There are the caves. When I learned Reed Flute Cave served as an air-raid shelter during World War II and now hosts black-tie dinners, I wasn't sure what to expect. Before becoming momentarily disoriented on the half-mile path that twists around two- and three-story-high stalactites and stalagmites, I was awed by the vastness of the cave and amused by the English translations of names given different rock formations. "A Bumper Harvest of Melons and Vegetables" and "Listening to Flute Music From a Secluded Place" were two of my favorites.
Multicolored spotlights illuminating clusters of stalactites and stalagmites in bright blue, green, red, and orange give Reed Flute Cave a Disneyesque quality. For a city trying to appeal to the masses, it must have seemed as good a direction to go as any. I wonder, though, if modernization and man-made additions will detract from Guilin's natural appeal.
A decade ago, the city built two floating pagodas in a lake adjacent to the city center and the ornately-lighted structures are featured prominently in the Night Scenery Tour and on postcards. But even the locals enjoy the artificial waterfall at the Li Jiang Waterfall Hotel. With classical music blaring in the background, water slowly falls over the back edge of the hotel's roof. The flow gradually increases until, finally, water cascades forcefully down the back of the building facing the central plaza, sustaining its intensity for 15 minutes.
For a real throwback and a real massage, a guide suggests the Ronghu Hotel. The lobby outside the Ronghu Tianyuan Foot Massage Center looks like it hasn't changed much since its 1970s heyday hosting foreign dignitaries such as President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The no-frills decor inside features laminated reflexology posters. While private rooms are available upon request, most of the massages take place in a group setting, with 15 individuals packed into one of several seating areas partitioned by thin, three-quarter walls.
The massage starts with a soak in medicinal Chinese herbs dissolved in hot water and designed to clean and soothe travel-weary feet. Then, the magic begins as masseurs trained for two years push, pull, and poke at my soles and toes. They earnestly go about business. Not long into the 70-minute massage an American woman in the group asks her masseur, "Can I take you home with me?" He doesn't speak English, but smiles sensing a compliment. Almost as stress-relieving as the massage is the final price of $14.
Leaving the massage center with a bounce in my step, I hope Guilin doesn't change too much as it embraces the future.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.