To many, China is Beijing, Shanghai, maybe Guangzhou, and the host of negative characteristics that these megacities carry, including overpopulation, pollution, and nonstop development and construction.
Although I had spent four months in Shanghai in 2014, it wasn’t until I settled down in Guangzhou that I realized my desire to explore the rest of China, which, as surprising as it may be, actually is not all about overpopulation and pollution. Development and construction, however, is rampant throughout the country.
This desire didn’t come that quickly, though. Last August, just a few weeks after I first arrived in Guangzhou, my family friends invited me on a trip to Qingdao, an eastern port city and home to the Chinese beer that was actually founded by Germans. During high season—which takes on a whole different meaning in a country of 1.4 billion—and yet right before its annual beer festival, Qingdao felt like the last place I wanted to be, with Chinese crowds suffocating your every experience. Suffice it to say I had no desire to explore other cities in China for a while after that experience.
As months passed, I kept hearing more and more stories from both locals and expats about traveling throughout China, with their favorites always including Guilin.
Located in Guangdong’s neighboring province of Guangxi, Guilin is a southern China city known for its limestone mountains that make up its beautiful landscape, not unlike those found in Vietnam’s Halong Bay. Considering how many trips I had been making to and from Hong Kong over the months, it was a bit odd that I ended up waiting until my last weekend in China to finally make the three-hour trip the other direction inland. And especially after a 10-day trip to Korea, I did think about canceling this trip, but I had already booked this tour with Travelers Society and an extra night’s stay for myself atop Yangshuo’s terraced rice fields.
I guess it was actually the discovery of Travelers Society that made me see how much of China I had yet to explore. The travel agency plans an impressive number of exciting trips throughout China—including camping on the Great Wall and paragliding in Zhejiang—and looking through its nicely designed WeChat account and website, I was enticed. The trips are designed to accommodate the average working expat in Shanghai, with itineraries planned to escape from Shanghai during Chinese holidays or to make a weekend getaway and return before work on Monday possible. Naturally, such participants will include mostly Shanghai expats who don’t have the luxury like I did to go early by train or stay an extra night on the rice fields—but likely have traveled with this agency before. After using this agency, I have quite a bit more to say about my experience but will save that for another post.
Taking the train into Guilin with the luscious green landscapes was a great welcome. Of course, once I stepped off the train and expected to breathe in that fresh air, I saw at least 50 men, about 10 or so outside each train cabin, immediately lighting up their cigarettes and smoking—because of the horror of not being able to while on the train. I actually tried holding in my breath as I walked by these groups of Chinese men who apparently couldn’t even wait to exit the train station to smoke.
Soon, I was in a taxi from the Guilin West Station to my first stop: Reed Flute Cave, a natural limestone cave with multicolored lighting and Guilin’s top attraction for even world leaders, a fact they will make sure you know.
You must go with a tour guide, so I followed a group of Chinese tourists in, listening to the somewhat ridiculous descriptions of each apparently significant limestone creation. “You’ll see over there that they look like vegetables. That’s an eggplant. Those over there look like mushrooms! See that lion?” It was not unlike trying to decipher animals from clouds in the sky.
But without fail, the tourists would laugh.
In the middle the tour, there is a 3D show displayed on the roof of a flat surface of the cave, featuring a decently cool movie highlighting the millions of years of Earth’s history, from the dinosaurs to present day. It ends with some words in Chinese and poorly translated English about how great this cave is. The Chinese tourists frustrated me to no end with their attempts at taking pictures and recording this movie without paying any attention to the actual contents.
But what was even more irritating was the fact that minutes before the show started, our tour guide told us we could connect to the cave’s WiFi if we found ourselves bored waiting just a few minutes for the show to start. I am not fucking kidding.
Near the end of the tour, I overheard a smaller group of just three young Malaysian women with a Chinese tour guide speaking English. Desperately wanting to switch from mine of Chinese tourists who can’t seem to appreciate anything without taking photos and videos in a dark cave and with a few disgustingly pungent ones (seriously), I let them keep walking while I stayed back and slowly inched my way toward this English-speaking group. I introduced myself and asked if I could join them. It wasn’t until I saw them again later at the Elephant Trunk Hill that I realized they were on a private tour, and I had forced my way into joining them just to listen to the last bits. LOL.
Anyway, before exiting the cave, you naturally are forced (oxymoronic #China) to walk through a gift shop. On my way down the mountain, I saw steps leading up to another side. I was anxious to leave so I could finally grab a bite to eat for lunch in the city, but after I asked someone whether there was anything to see up there (there was), I decided to quickly hike up for the view.
And I’m happy I did.
Next up: The rest of my afternoon exploring Guilin and then taking the bus to Yangshuo to meet up with the tour group.